The Last Post (for a while…)

And what a ride it’s been!

I started this blog less than 9 months ago, soon after the WA bhikkhuni ordination. It filled a need that I had felt, for a way of communicating that was more direct and contemporary. And it seems to have filled a need for others, too: 226 000 views, and nearly 6000 comments.

Through this, I’ve been able to connect and share in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I’m a writer: I guess I always have been one at heart. The blog format offers what is, for me, a great combo of directness and substance. I can say things of meaning, and include serious analysis, but there’s always room for some lightness of heart, too.

But the truly astonishing thing has been you lot. My goodness, what a lot of words! True to its origins, the most vital and stimulating topics have consistently been those on bhikkhuni ordination. This, for me, is a sign; a sign that we have tapped into a deep shared need. So much has been deeply heart-felt. I’ve been surprised, moved, delighted – and yes, more than occasionally annoyed – to find what is in your hearts expressed here so well.

I have this feeling, this image in my mind, like Odysseus on his journey home. After ten years at war, it took another ten years to cross the few hundred miles of ocean back to Ithaca and his beloved. He lost everything: his ships, his men, his treasure; and was adrift on the wide ocean, clinging to a bit of driftwood in a mighty storm. He is cast upon the beach, and makes his way, finally, to his home. Only to find that his halls are overrun with usurpers. That moment, which he had yearned for for so long, turned out to be his greatest challenge.

This is how I feel about my life with the WPP tradition. I was lost, and they gave me a home, gave me a direction. In the world so messed up and confusing, they recognized my pain, and offered a way out. My life owes so much to them that I can never express it. And yet – and yet! – there is still this. It is as if I have been gradually waking up these past ten years or so, coming out of a self-induced dream.

I cannot blame anyone else for my own dreams. But the reality is so much colder, so much harder, that I do not wonder why so many of us prefer not to wake up.

We dream of a truth, of something untouched and pure. In our hearts we long for a safe harbor, for certainty and protection. And we yearn for this so deeply that we give up our all. We hand our hearts over in trust. It is so rare, so precious! So few of us even have the chance to dream, still fewer to realize our dreams. We give up all and move on; and we imagine that our chosen ones feel for us what we feel for them. That our dreaming and their dreaming is one and the same. And we forget, we pass over, the many little details that should be teaching us that the ocean is not just soft breezes and caressing waves, but also has treacherous reefs and sharp teeth.

Nothing can be undone; the choices we have made, we must live with. We are in that most human of dilemmas, hearts undone and confused, just wanting something so simple: the truth that frees.

That truth is not outside. It does not lie with any tradition. Those in whom we seek a refuge, the ‘masters’ of the spirit; they too are human, all too human. Can we be brave enough to admit this to ourselves? To acknowledge that the sacred Dhamma is under the custodianship of a Sangha made of human beings, like ourselves, full of pain and heartbreak?

Then is another choice. To give up, submit to the waves; let the waters close over our heads.

Or to learn to swim. To kick. To struggle. And most important of all: to hold out a helping hand. To forgive, and to love, with a love that knows the folly and the blindness. To recognize that we are the masters; that we hold the Dhamma pure and pristine in our own hearts; that, if we stay true that little guiding star, we need not seek refuge, but can offer it.

I give my great thanks to all my friends on this blog, especially those with the courage to disagree with me. You are all my teachers. I’m going away for a while now. We’re entering our three month vassa retreat, and I won’t be attending to this blog in this time. The comments will stay open, and I hope the discussion continues. The vassa ends October 23 – almost exactly a year after the bhikkhuni ordination. I’ll be back then.

Until then, don’t forget. Stay true.


A Further Note on Monastery Constitutions

In continuing my occasional series on Monastery constitutions and the legal/Vinaya issues involved, I’d like to take a short look at one recently revised constitution, that of Vimutti Monastery in New Zealand.

Vimutti is governed under the legal framework of the Auckland Theravada Buddhist Association. The ATBA has been an active presence for many years, and has had a long association with the WPP Sangha, originally through Bodhinyanarama monastery in Wellington, and later with the establishment of Vimutti under Ajahn Chandako. Since Vimutti has started, the ATBA has flourished, and the monastery, while still small, has been successful in bringing a forest tradition presence into the local region.

What I’d like to look at here is very narrowly some of the legal implications of the recently revised constitution. I don’t have access to the previous constitution, so I can’t say how the new one has been changed. But it certainly embodies some of the basic principles that are fundamental to the ideology of the new WPP direction.

The ATBA constitution starts with a typical set of aims, to propagate the Dhamma as taught in the Theravada tradition. It also lists as basic aims to ‘carry on the teachings and training of Ajahn Chah’ (2.e) and ‘to sponsor Theravada Buddhist monks who have taken dependence [nissaya] upon venerable Ajahn Sumedho or his successors as Teacher. (2.f)

It seems to me these clauses are deeply problematic, if not inherently contradictory.

To start with, notice that nowhere in these aims is there any mention of the Buddha’s teachings apart from the traditions. Of course it is obvious to any student of Buddhism that what is taught as ‘Theravada’ has a complex relationship with the teachings actually taught by the Buddha. It is also obvious that many of the teachings found within the Thai forest tradition are not the same as those found in traditional ‘Theravada’, and in some cases, is not found in the suttas either. I am not going to argue this here, but will simply take it for granted; certainly it is widely accepted within the Thai forest tradition itself that this is the case. Just as one example, Luang Ta Bua claims on the basis of his meditation experience that some of the things found in the suttas cannot be correct.

So we have a number of complex strands here, and no obvious way to sort through them. They are simply placed side by side, as if there is no issue.

But of course there are very many issues. One of the basic ones is, ‘Who gets to stay in the monastery?’ For monastics this is a crucial problem – we have to live somewhere.

The Vinaya as I understand it is that any monk has a right to reside in any monastery, unless there is a good reason not to; for example if there is not enough accommodation, or if the monk’s behaviour is inappropriate. (I will leave the question of bhikkhunis until later).

The ‘Theravada’ position, on the other hand, is that only Theravadin monks can fully participate in monastic life, especially sanghakamma. If ‘Mahayana’ monks arrive, they might be allowed to stay, but would remain on the periphery. This is the normal case in Wat Nanachat and other WPP monasteries, so far as I am aware.

The Thai tradition is then complicated by the division into Dhammayut and Mahanikay, a division that cuts right across the forest/city monk divide. Typically, if Mahanikay monk, such as a WPP monk, arrives at a Dhammayut monastery, they may stay for a short or long time, depending on the policy of the monastery, and they will normally be excluded from sanghakamma and other central Sangha processes.

What of the Ajahn Chah tradition? I remember long ago hearing, I believe it was Ajahn Jayasaro, recounting a story on this very point – someone please correct me if my memory is faulty. But it was when some of the senior WPP Ajahns had suffered the indignity of being treated as less than full monks at a Dhammayut monastery. Typically, we would have to have food offered separately, and so on. I have seen this myself, and seen the antagonism this arouses in the WPP Ajahns – as one Ajahn said to me, ‘We’re just novices to him!’ So, Ajahn Chah asks the monks, ‘What should we do?’ One of the Ajahns said, ‘Well, if they’re going to lock us out, we should do the same to them when they visit us!’ But Ajahn Chah said, ‘Well, how about we treat them according to Vinaya, instead? If they are good monks keeping good Vinaya, we should treat them as such.’

It was hearing such teachings that gave me faith in Ajahn Chah’s teachings. I had always been given to understand that the cornerstone of Ajahn Chah’s practice was to ignore the dross, and to focus on the core teachings of the Buddha – the four noble truths.

So it seems to me that the thrust of Ajahn Chah’s teachings was to bypass such notions as ‘Theravada’ and isolated, sectarian groupings, and to draw people into a closer, more real engagement with the essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

Now, the orientation of WPP has shifted so that reliance on the Dhamma-vinaya is effectively ignored (Remember that when Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP, he repeatedly asked for the Ajahns to tell him what he was doing wrong according to Vinaya, only for them to refuse to give any reply.)

One critical difference here is that, when we say we will rely on the Dhamma-vinaya, there is an objective standard. We can all reference the texts and discuss what is in them. But the tradition of Ajahn Chah is largely an oral one, and only the monks can be experts. And of course, hardly any of the Western monks have actually lived with Ajahn Chah for any length of time, so what the Ajahn Chah tradition really is, is a wide open field.

For example, Ajahn Chah always refused to have a monastery car. Now, of course, most monasteries do have cars, and in some cases, like Wat Nanachat, this is an extremely luxurious van. Now, should such changes be made? Well, in some cases, obviously yes. Times change, and we adapt. The critical questions are: What changes? Why? And who decides? Ajahn Chah was dead against such rituals as making holy water and messing with amulets and so on. But these things are common in WPP monasteries, even though they are against the rules. When Ajahn Chah was alive, he heard that people had gone to dig up the toilet of Ajahn Mun searching for relics: he ridiculed such a notion. But after he died, what did they do? … You guessed it…

The notion of those monks who ‘have taken dependence on Ajahn Sumedho and his successors’ is equally obscure. This is a crucial clause, as it allows for the ‘sponsorship’ of such monks, presumably by supporting them in their visa applications. If monks cannot get such sponsorship, it will be practically impossible for them to stay long term.

But what does this really mean? Ajahn Chandako has never been a student of Ajahn Sumedho. He was, for a time, a student of Ajahn Pasanno – is he a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho? What does this notion really mean? I know very well that Ajahn Chandako disagrees with some of Ajahn Sumedho’s central teachings, and has a very different orientation in his practice. For example, Ajahn Sumedho downplays the importance of samatha, while Ajahn Chandako is very dedicated to samatha. In fact, Ajahn Chandako’s main teachers in his early years were the Dhammayut forest masters, and a few of the Thai WPP Ajahns, not Ajahn Sumedho at all. This is not a criticism; in fact I think it is one of the strengths of the WPP tradition that it is not dogmatic – or at least, it has not been so in the past. The problem here is, what does it mean to be a ‘successor’ to Ajahn Sumedho?

If being a student of Ajahn Sumedho or his successors does not refer to actual studentship, or to following in the teachings and practices, it seems to me it can only refer to one thing: institutional maintenance. the ‘successors’ to Ajahn Sumedho are the self-appointed monks in positions of power within the overseas WPP branches.

This is all, of course, quite different from the teachings of the Suttas. Here is an abbreviated version of an example from the Gopakamoggallāna Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 108). This is a discussion between the layman Vassakara, a minister of Rajagaha, and Ānanda, shortly after the Buddha’s passing away.

‘Ānanda, is there any single bhikkhu who was chosen by the Buddha, or by the Sangha or Elder bhikkhus, to be your refuge after the Buddha is gone?

‘No, brahmin, there is not.’

‘But then, Ānanda, how do you live in harmony? What is your refuge’

‘We are not without refuge – the Dhamma is our refuge. The Buddha has laid down the training and prescribed the patimokkha. On Uposatha day, all the bhikkhus who live near a certain town meet in unison, and one recites the patimokkha. If a bhikkhu has a transgression, he confesses it, and we deal with that in accordance with the Dhamma. It is not the monks who make us act, it is the Dhamma that makes us act.’

This is in line with the statement by the Buddha that after he passes away, the Dhamma-vinaya that he has taught should be the teacher.

It is quite clear, then, that the Buddha did not set up any teacher’s lineages. This was reaffirmed at the Second Council, which was one of the defining events in the formation of Theravada. The Second Council ruled that following the practice of the teachers was allowable only if it was in accord with Dhamma-Vinaya. This principle became the cornerstone of modern Thai Buddhism, as King Mongkut criticized those who merely practised according to the teacher’s traditions, and always insisted on going back to the original teachings.

But sectarianism is a many-headed hydra. In every generation there are some who think they have the right to overturn the Buddha’s instructions. Invariably, this attitude comes from a sense of entitlement: that I, and my friends, have a unique place of privilege in Buddhism. Following that sense of entitlement, the next step is to guarantee continued ownership of land and resources. Remember, the very first thing that was said after Ajahn Brahm was expelled from WPP was, ‘Lets get his monastery!’ This wasn’t just a random statement by a loose monk, but was followed up with a formal delegation by a WPP committee that tried the pressure the central authorities to take Bodhinyana away from Ajahn Brahm.

This is the overall tenor of the ATBA constitution: to lock resources up inside the WPP tradition. This is further emphasised in the crucial role of the abbot. The abbot, of course, is not mentioned in the Vinaya; the very word for abbot is of later coinage (āvāsadhipati). So there are no Vinaya procedures for appointing an abbot. The closest would be in the appointment of Sangha officers. These are officials who have responsibility for looking after various duties in the monastery, such as the stores or accommodation. In these cases, the officer is appointed by sanghakamma, which requires, as with all sanghakamma, the unanimous consent of the bhikkhus within the sima.

The ATBA constitution states that the abbot is to be selected by unanimous agreement of the resident monks (that is, all those who are approved ‘Theravada’ monks, not all bhikkhus as in the Vinaya) in consultation with the abbots of WPP, Bodhinyanarama and other abbots in the lineage of Ajahn Chah. Since it is a consultative process, this is still within the general guidelines of Vinaya that one should respect and listen to Elders. Notice, however, that the requirement for consultation is not, as stated in the Gopakamoggallana Sutta and elsewhere, that the bhikkhus should be of a high spiritual level, but that they have been appointed to certain institutional positions.

The abbot is then confirmed by the Committee by a majority vote. It is not clear to me what would happen if the Committee disagrees. In any case, contrast this with the procedure as stated in the earliest of the Thai Sangha Acts, which is still the custom in Thailand, that the abbot is chosen at a meeting of the local devotees with the Sangha and the local regional Sangha head.

But the critical problem here is that the abbot retains the position until he dies, resigns, or the abbots of WPP and Bodhinyana issue written statements saying he must resign. (For some reason the usual clause ‘or if he disrobes’ is missing here.)

This is a very serious problem. The abbot of the monastery cannot be expelled by the Committee, but can be expelled at any time by two monks living in distant monasteries. The local community has no say in who those monks are, what decision that make, or why they make it. If such a clause had been present in the BSWA constitution, without doubt Ajahn Brahm would have been expelled following the bhikkhuni ordination. More likely, of course, he would never have supported it – which, it would seem, is why this clause has been inserted.

The effect of these clauses is to lock the ATBA up within the WPP tradition, as an institution, not as a spiritual movement. It seems to me that the lay community, having agreed to adopt this position, has effectively given up all power to change it, since the abbot can veto any decisions (4k).

It would seem that this veto power is balanced by the notion of an overriding resolution that may be adopted at a Special General Meeting. (8) Such a resolution may be put forward at a SGM proposed by the abbot or the committee or at least 10 members of the ATBA, and must be supported by at least 75% of the members present at the meeting. While this is not easy to achieve, it does give some measure of possibility for change.

However, it seems to me that this is undermined by section 17a and 17b. These deal with actually changing the rules for the constitution, and allow that the rules may be changed only with the consent of the Spiritual Director.

In other words, in all decisions apart from changing the constitution, it is possible, although difficult, to go against the will of the abbot. But in changing the constitution itself, this is not possible. It is locked in place without any checks and balances. The abbot, once appointed, cannot be removed by the lay community; and the constitutional changes that would allow this to happen cannot be made without his consent.

This comes back to the question of the nuns, which I earlier put aside. The ATBA constitution does not mention bhikkhunis, no doubt deliberately. It does allow that nuns follow ‘at least’ the ten samaneri precepts, so presumably this is worded to allow bhikkhunis to stay. However, the resident Sangha is defined as bhikkhus and siladhara. Once again, this is locking the thing up in the WPP tradition, or more narrowly, the Amaravati circle, since the siladhara are not really accepted as part of WPP. (The formal definition of ‘monastics’ issued by WPP includes anagarikas and mae chi, but excludes siladharas). So, only the dwindling few siladharas, who by their very position have been forced to formally sign an acceptance of their subservience to the bhikkhus, may be part of the resident Sangha. Bhikkhunis might, perhaps, be allowed to visit, but can never be a meaningful part of the community. Once again, the sectarian position, as invented by a few monks in England in the eighties, triumphs, and the Dhamma-vinaya of the Buddha is ignored.

The new constitution of the ATBA is based on an absolutist power structure. Such structures are always wrong for a monastery. When I arrived at Santi, our constitution had a similarly absolutist structure, and we changed it to create a balance of power.

My reading of the situation is that the western leaders of WPP know very well that they can no longer rely on their spiritual leadership to attract and maintain students. They have created an ideology that is sexist and discriminatory, and which goes against the values of the society in which they live. With the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, and the aging and fragile health of LP Liem, the future of the order is very much in doubt. Now is the time to take formal legal control of resources, especially land and property, to ensure that their own sectarian movement can continue indefinitely.

For a student of history, this is fascinating stuff: we are seeing the forces that have shaped religious institutionalization happening before our very eyes. For a practitioner of Dhamma, however, it is sad to see. The monasteries that should be for the ‘Sangha of the four quarters’ are being locked away for the use of one narrowly-defined group.

An Even Swifter Pair

Dear and beloved bloggists,

There’s been some discussion here on samatha/vipassana, sparked in part by my post on A Swift Pair of Messengers a few days ago. This is, of course, one of the old Theravadin family arguments. I’d like to congratulate the posters so far on their civil and engaging responses.

The spark behind writing SPM was simply this: that I had grown bored and frustrated with partial and inadequate ways of approaching this problem, which really is central to how we practice the Dhamma. Everything I had read, every conversation i had been involved in, had relied on one or two isolated passages, or on the discredited commentarial system of interpretation.

In writing SPM I thought that there was a better way. No, we cannot hope to solve every problem; but we can at least improve the quality of dialogue.

Since that time, every criticism of my findings that I have seen has been based on two things.

1. Completely ignore every argument and piece of evidence that I have so painstakingly assembled.
2. Invoke some obscure, irrelevant, or dubious passage from the suttas, a half-remembered quote, or an opinion from some teacher or other.

As we can all see from the response on this blog, this is still exactly what is happening.

This is not good enough. It is simply not adequate to lay out the spiritual path for Nibbana on such half-baked premises. This stuff matters, folks. Get real.

So, in the interests of getting realer, let me suggest some guidelines for debate.

1. Read A Swift Pair of Messengers.
2. Engage with and debate the contents and arguments that I have put forth there.

Disagree by all means. But do your homework – I did. When I say something like, ‘There is no path of dry insight in the suttas’, this is not because I am relying on some vague memory of something i might have heard sometime. It’s because, ten years ago, when I was researching this book, i systematically searched through every page of the Pali canon for passages dealing with samatha and vipassana. I believe I have identified every significant passage. Of course, I may well have missed something, and may well have misinterpreted some things. Fine, if that is so, point it out. But don’t just ignore the work that has been done.

Let’s have a debate – an informed, reasonable debate. Perhaps, then, we might get somewhere, rather than just rehashing the same old same old.

A Swift Pair of Messengers

I’ve just finished revising and publishing my first book, A Swift Pair of Messengers. You can find it online here. At the moment it’s just in html format; in the next few days I’ll be supplying print-on-demand, pdf, and scribd versions.

I originally wrote this while staying at Sukhavana in Ipoh, Malaysia. At that time, there was a lot of questioning going on in the community about these issues, since the Mahasi school had been the predominant force in early Malaysian meditation centers. In the early 90’s, only Ven Dhammavuddho had stood up for a more sutta-based samatha practice. Later, Ajahn Brahm, and then Pa Auk Sayadaw appeared on the scene, so there is more balance these days.

I myself started meditation in Mahasi-style school, at Wat Ram Poeng in Chieng Mai. I had an amazing, transformative experience there, and just wanted to continue with the practice.

I remember when I finished my first retreat, I asked what books I should read – up until that time I had only read one Dhamma book, Buddhadasa’s Handbook for Mankind. They suggested a few books – What the Buddha Taught, Seeing the Way, some books on Mahasi technique – but I was not really satisfied, so I asked what were these ‘suttas’ that I had heard about. I noticed a little reluctance, but anyway they showed me the majjhima Nikaya, and i was hooked.

I remember my confusion, as in the Majjhima Nikaya I could find no mention of the noting technique, the vipassana ñāṇas, and all the other aspects of the technique I had been taught. Instead, there was constant talk of these things called ‘jhanas’. When I asked about them, i was told that this was how the Buddha had practiced, but not what he recommended for followers. I was a bit skeptical of this, but didn’t know enough to say anything.

Later on, when I went to Wat Nanachat, I kept on doing the Mahasi technique. I took a serious interest in the approach, and read all i could from Mahasi, U Pandita, Nyanaponika, U Silananda, and other exponents of that approach. On my first monastic retreat, as an anagaraka with the monks in the jungles of Dao Dum, I memorized the Mahasatipatthana Sutta in English, taking as my study guide U Silananda’s commentary. In fact, it was in this reading that I really learned about Mahasi technique, as at Wat Ram Poeng they didn’t really teach very much about the meditation, just gave instructions on how to meditate.

In my naiveté, at the time I couldn’t understand how anyone would actually practice samatha – didn’t they know that it was unnecessary and dangerous because you could get attached to the bliss? There is, of course, a wonderful conceit that comes from practicing the ‘One Way’…

Nevertheless, I gradually started experimenting with various samatha practices. This was under the influence of both the Suttas and also the meditation as taught in the forest tradition. of course, the forest tradition is very non-dogmatic about meditation, and will encourage any technique. But Ajahn Pasanno, who was my teacher at the time, while rejecting the samatha/vipassana divide, in fact mainly taught anapanasati. Then i discovered the metta practice of Ajahn Mahachatchai, which became my main practice from then until today.

After doing samatha, studying the suttas, and being exposed to a variety of views, my own idea were evolving. I now accepted that samatha was a good and useful practice. I was still not convinced of one of the basic problems, though: was jhana actually necessary for stream entry?

Then I went to stay with Ajahn Brahm for three years. Obviously there was a strong samatha emphasis, and my own practice progressed well there. There was discussion in the community about these points, and there was no agreement about this basic problem. i was still unsure, especially since when I arrived at Bodhinyana i had a strong attachment to the traditional Theravadin commentarial viewpoint. Only after it became obvious that in important areas the commentaries had clearly got it wrong did I let go of this attachment.

The critical question was the description of the path, whether that could be considered as a ‘mind moment’ as claimed in the commentaries. The sutta passages that contradict this are simply too numerous and too explicit to be discounted. If the commentaries could get something so important so badly wrong, what else was at stake?

Then I left Bodhinyana and ended up at Ipoh, still undecided as to whether jhanas were really necessary. The question came up, and I did more research, especially studying in detail the classic Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies. Around that time, there were articles published by contemporary Malaysian monks, such as this one by Visuddhacara, arguing that there was a near-consensus that jhanas were not necessary.

I considered all these things very carefully: I really wanted to know. For me the issue was not about getting embroiled in a controversy, but because these different teachers, all of who i respected, were saying quite different things. I wanted to really understand the issues so that i could be clear in my own practice, and also give accurate advice to others.

I went through the arguments against samatha practice one by one, taking what was said by the vipassana masters and comparing it closely with the suttas. Time after time, I saw that what they were saying was not supported by the sutta passages they were quoting; and that the further i went into the suttas, the more essential samatha seemed to become.

The essential insight that decided the issue for me was a simple one: when I was reading the passages quoted by the Mahasi school in support of their ‘dry-insight’ approach, I found myself trying to interpret all these obscure, one-off little passages here and there in the suttas, while the central passages on practice always seemed to be ignored. I reflected on a piece of advice that wa given by Ven Nyanaponika to Ajahn Brahm: that central teachings should never be explained away by minor and secondary passages, especially ones of doubtful interpretation. It became more and more clear to me that in order tio sustain their argument, the vipassana school had to systematically explain away all the major teachings on practice, using the complicated Abhidhamma framework, which I had earlier come to realize was not at all in accord with the Suttas.

This is, of course, not obvious on the surface, as when the vipassana technique is taught the underlying theory is usually left aside. But it becomes very apparenet when you get down to the nitty-gritty, as in Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies.

Eventually, I decided to note down a few of these observations in the essay that was to become A Swift Pair. The book was written by hand, and typed up by some supporters in Ipoh.

The original draft had a chapter where I went through the claims by the Mahasi writers and refuted them point by point by comparison with the Suttas. I later took that chapter out, as i felt it was too confrontational. Much of the material found its way elsewhere in the book. I regret that, as it would make it clearer to know exactly what someone is arguing against. But I’ve lost the references now.

The final book, after much polishing, was published by Inward Path in Penang. 2000 books were printed; and it has been available on the web also.

I wanted to revise the book, mainly for stylistic reasons: the original was far too formal and uptight. I was so immersed in the world of the suttas that I had kinda forgotten that for most of the people who might be interested to read it this would be their first excursion in the suttas. In revising it, i have tried to make it a little more accessible. Much more could be done, but this is all I can manage at the moment. Due to my pressure for time, I decided when beginning my revision that I would not update the research, only the prose. So the new edition contains essentially the same content as the first edition, leaving out a few complications, and adding some more explanations.

In the time since the original publication, samatha has enjoyed somewhat of a comeback, and is apparently quite trendy now. This brings a new generation of problems, of course, which lie beyond the scope of this book.

Who Owns a Monastery in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya?

Schopen’s discussion on ownership in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya is much more detailed, and I cannot hope to do it justice here. Here is Schopen’s own summary of his findings. As he emphasizes, it is difficult to draw definite conclusions without much more study, yet the findings in this summary are all securely attested in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya passages that he quotes. The Mulasarvastivada Vinaya typically represents a segment of northern Indian Buddhism, from say 200CE-500CE. It is today the canonical Vinaya in central Asian Buddhism, including Tibet, and Schopen relies on the Tibetan and Sanskrit sources.

Our texts fairly consistently use forms of the verb dadati, ‘to give’, or niryatayati, ‘to present’, to describe what laymen do with property in regard to monastic communities. But these same texts just as consistently continue to refer to the property that was ‘given’ to the monastic community as still belonging to the ‘donor’: it is ‘his’ or ‘mine’, depending on whether the donor is speaking or being spoken about. That this is not simply a necessary linguistic or narrative convention seems fairly certain from the kinds of obligations, interests,, and control that the donor continues to have in regard to the property even after it has been given. A donor, for example, not only provides ‘his’ vihara with its initial requisites or benefits, but he – or even his relatives in his absence – continues to do so. He also continues to be concerned about its physical maintenance: he personally rewards a monk who keeps it up, or he provides endowments for that purpose. Moreover, the monastic seal of the vihara bears his name, and its movable property is to be labeled as belonging to ‘his’ vihara. More specifically still, building sites on property donated by him cannot be sold, except for the specific purpose of benefiting the Community as a whole, without his permission; nor can a vihara or any moveable property donated by him be abandoned or disposed of at will by the monks. Even after being absent for more than ten years, he may claim as his own even property that has been removed from his vihara and stored in another. In light of all this, it is hard to know what to call that which the donor did with his property: if he gave it, that act of giving did not annul or even necessarily diminish the donor’s obligations, interests, or rights in regard to the property given.

Many of the passages Schopen cites concern the question of ensuring that the lay donors acquire merit. (A concern also found in the Thai Sangha Act, which stipulates as one of the duties of the abbot that he must make provision for lay people to make merit.) This merit is felt to continue and accrue, even after the death of the donor, but only, it seems, if the thing offered is actually used. (This was a point of contention among the schools; the Theravada position, at least in theory, opposes this idea.)

So when lay people offered plates to the monastery, the monks accepted them. When the donors next visited the monastery, they noticed the monks were not using the plates. They asked the monks, who said, ‘We have our bowls’. The lay people complained, and the Buddha instructed that the monks must use the plates. In another example, if there are monasteries offered that remain vacant, the Buddha instructed that they be used every day, even if this means that the monk must stay in one in the morning, take his meal in a second, go to a third for the afternoon, another for the evening, and sleep in still another. In each place, he has to make sure the place is swept and cleaned. Schopen comments:

Monasteries … are presented here primarily not as residences for monks to live but rather as potential and permanent sources of merit for their donors. [Monks are] under heavy obligations, and those obligations are not determined by the religious life or needs of the monks, but by the spiritual needs of donors.

The overall effect of the evidence Schopen presents is to make the notion of ownership much less absolute than we normally think. It is not a clear-cut legal right, such that a property of values departs, at one defined moment, from the hands of one party into the hands of another. It seems that ‘giving’ involved entering into a long-term relationship. The gratitude for the gift and the spiritual needs of both parties are a part of that relationship.

Some of the requirements found in the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya sound extreme, and, as always with the Vinaya, it is unsure to what extent these rules where actually practiced, and to what extent they represent the views of the Vinaya redactors about what ‘should’ happen. Obviously we are witnessing a developed form of monasticism that has moved on considerably from the ideal found in the early texts. Nevertheless, the central notion is quite in accordance with the early texts, and indeed with Buddhist culture today, where the intentions of the donor are always considered in how the donation is used. In modern charity law, similarly, funds or property that are donated must only be used as per the intentions of the original donor.

Who Owns a Monastery in Ancient Indian Inscriptions?

Next up in the series on Monastery ownership, two posts based on Gregory Schopen’s essay, ‘The Lay Ownership of Monasteries and the Role of the Monk in Mulasarvastivadin Monasticism’ (Originally published in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 19.1 (1996) 81-126. I am using the reprinted version, Chapter 8 of Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.) This first essay deals with the inscriptions quoted by Schopen; the next, with the passages from the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. Schopen emphasizes that this study is purely preliminary and is by no means complete or systematic. Here we present only a brief summary of the evidence he presents; the essay, as always with Schopen’s writings, is nuanced and provocative and well worth the read.

Schopen quotes a number of inscriptions from ancient India, which are seal or inscriptions that record the donation or ownership of a monastery. Most of these suggest that in some sense a lay person is the owner of the monastery. In most of the texts that follow, for the sake of clarity we will keep the Indic term vihara, which we have previously translated as ‘dwelling’. One inscription, a late second or early third century sealing from Intwa, near Jugadh, reads:

Maharaja-rudrasena-vihare bhiksu-sanghasya

‘Of (or for) the community of bhikkhus in the vihara of the Great King Rudrasena

In the Wardak Vase Inscription we find ‘in Vagramarega’s vihara’, where Vagramarega is a layman.

Potsherds from Tor Dherai contain an inscription that reads:

This hall for providing water is the religious gift of the Shahi Yola-Mira, the owner of the vihara, to the Sangha of the Four Quarters, for the acceptance of the teachers of the Sarvastivada in his own – Yola-Mira the Shahi’s – monastery.

This passage emphasizes the ownership by repeating the name, stating that the monastery is ‘his own’ (svakiya) and calling the lay donor the ‘monastery owner’ (viharasvami). Notice also the use of two distinct ideas for the recipients. On the one hand the hall is for the Sangha of the Four Quarters, as in the early texts; on the other hand, a specific sect, the Sarvastivadins, are mentioned as recipients. Here we are seeing the emergence of sectarianism in ancient India, and one of the critical issues for the sects, the ownership of property. The passage as stands it quite ambiguous: it could be that the monks of the Sarvastivada merely accept the property on behalf of the ‘Sangha of the Four Quarters’, and that it was in fact intended and used for all Sangha. But the tendency is clear enough, that offerings came to be conceived in sectarian terms, and that for practical purposes, property came to be owned not by the Sangha as a whole, but by one or other sect. In another inscription referenced below, the reference to the Sangha of the Four Quarters disappears, and the donation is simply for ‘the teachers of the Dharmaguptakas’.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the term acarya here has no connection to the modern Thai usage of ‘ajahn’ to refer to senior monks, but simply refers to the monks of the school.

Schopen quotes a number of other examples of inscriptions:

We find it said, for example, that a ‘Bodhisattva image was set up by Amohaasi, the mother of Budharakhita, together with her mother and father, in her own monastery’ (sake vihare); or that… a group of merchants made a gift ‘in their own monastery’ (svake vihare); or that Pusyadata, the daughter of Gunda, an owner of a vihara (viharasvamin) also set up an image in ‘her own monastery’ (svake vihare).

In other inscriptions the lay donor does not seem to own the entire monastery, but one part of it, for example a shrine. For example a lay sister (upasika) named Nagapiya set up a Bodhisattva ‘in her own shrine for the acceptance of the teachers (acarya) of the Dharmaguptaka’.

Schopen gives a number of further examples. Clearly this evidence is sufficient to show that in ancient India it was normal for a monastery to be regarded as, in some sense, the property of a lay donor. The terms used, for example, calling the lay donor the ‘sami‘ or ‘svami‘ are the same as those found in the early Pali sources. What is not clear from these brief examples, or from the Pali passages which we have cited earlier (some of which Schopen discusses), is what exactly this notion of ‘ownership’ entails. Is it a purely symbolic notion, or does the lay donor exert practical influence over the monasteries? If this is the case, then what does it actually mean to say someone ‘owns’ a monastery? It is to these questions we will turn in the next post.

Who owns a monastery in Thai law?

It is generally understood that monasteries in Thailand are owned by the Sangha as a whole, and administered by the local Sangha, especially the abbot. The Sangha as a whole here is not the ‘Sangha of the Four Quarters’, but the Sangha as legally recognized under the jurisdiction of Thai law, that is, the ‘Thai Sangha’.

In fact the situation is complex. While in Thailand I stayed in formally recognized monasteries, in hermitages in national parks occupied under an agreement  with the national Parks authorities, and in little places that were in fact likely to be just squats. In some cases the land is originally made over to the monastery from the ‘commons’ owned by the local villagers; in other cases it is purchased from a single owner. The actual title owner of the land may not be clear in every case.

The Thai Sangha Act is not particularly helpful in this regard, and seems to take the question as a matter of course. Probably it is handled largely through custom and the decisions of the central authorities.

Here are some of the relevant statements from the first and the current Thai Sangha Acts. I include some passages from the outdated Act of 1902 as it clarifies some points omitted in the later versions. In particular, it clarifies that the ownership of a monastery is transferred from the (presumably lay) donor to the Sangha. And in the critical question of the election of the abbot, it stipulates that the villagers, local Sangha, a local administrative head should meet together to decide. This is still followed in Thailand. No doubt practice varies, but this is what happened in one Wat Pa Pong branch monastery that I was staying near in Nan, northern Thailand.

For your interest, here is the official text of all three Thai Sangha Acts.

Thai Sangha Act 1902

Article 8.

The authorities of the State are empowered to look after an abandoned monastery, that is to say, one in which there is no Bhikkhu, – together with its estate.

Article 9.

Anybody who wishes to build a new monastery is first to apply for Royal permissiom through the following manners:

(5 legal criteria)

In case of the unanimous approval on the part of the State District officer and the eccesiastical District Chief with reference to the five points mentioned above, the latter is authorized by Royal Permission to present the documents in order to be sealed by the former. The owner of the land is to transfer its ownership to the order of Sangha before any building process can be started.

Article 10.

There is to be an abbot for a monastery. (the King is to choose the abbot of royal monasteries, and may if he wishes appoint other abbots as well.)

Article 11.

(Otherwise, if in Bangkok) it shall be the duty of the Rājāgaṇa District Governor where the monastery is situated to summon a meeting of the Bhikkhus together with the lay devotees of that monastery for the sake of selecting the abbot. If the Rājāgaṇa District Governor has decided in favor of any bhikkhu, he (the former) is empowered to issue a certificate appointing the latter to be the abbot. The certificate of appointment shall also be counter-sealed by the Minister of Religious Affairs.

Article 12

(Slightly different procedure for monasteries outside of Bangkok)

Now all abbots, unless they have been already bestowed a higher Ecclesiastical title, shall bear the title of Adhikāra.

Article 18.

An appeal against the abbot’s order, in case it is a monastery in Bangkok, can be filed to the Rājāgaṇa District Chief; in case it is one on the province, can be filed to the Ecclesiastical District Chief.

Thai Sangha Act 2505

Article 32

Construction, establishment, combination, removal (from one place to another), abrogation, and applying for official recognition of consecrated boundaries (sīmā) shall conform to the ministerial regulations.

In case of abrogation, the property of the abrogated monastery shall be annexed to the Central Ecclesiastical property.

Article 33.

Land both belonging to a monastery and under control of a monastery is of the following categories:

  1. Monastery Compound. This means the area wherein various structures of a monastery are situated.
  2. Monastery Estate. This refers to a piece of land belonging to a monastery.
  3. Monastery revenue estate. This is a piece of land, the rent or other benefits of which is dedicated to the upkeep of a monastery or of the Buddhist order of Saṅgha as a whole.

Article 34.

Transference of ownership of the area wherin various structures of a monastery is situated or of a piece of land belonging to a monastery can be accomplished only through an Act. Nobody shall be allowed to file a case against a monastery by right of prescription concerning the property which is either a monastery compound or a monastery estate.

Article 35.

Monastery Compund and Monastery Estate are properties that are not subject to any enforcement by the Court of Law.

Article 36.

There shall be one abbot for a monastery. However, when it is deemed proper, there can be a vice-abbot or an abbot’s assistant.

Article 39.

In case of the absence of an abbot or his disability an acting abbot is to be appointed, with the same governing power and responsibilities as the abbot himself.

Appointment of an acting abbot is to conform to the principle and procedure determined in the rules of the Council of Elders.

Who owns a monastery in the Pali Vinaya?

Here we go, part two of an occasional series on monastery ownership and relevant legal issues. This installment I’ll have a look at some of the relevant passages from the Pali Vinaya. Since this is an ongoing work, I’ll not do too much analysis here, mainly just present and explain the references.

I’ve skimmed the Pali Vinaya to find these passages. I think they are reasonably complete, but I may well have missed some things, so help me out!

All references are to volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. I have not looked into other Vinayas on this point, or the commentaries.


It’s not always entirely clear what the Pali terms refer to, and they may have different meanings in context. Generally, though, this is my understanding of the terms.

Ārāma: originally ‘park’, then ‘monastery’, since parks (like the Jetavana or Veḷuvana) were frequently offered as monasteries.

Āvāsa: ‘residence’. The most common and general term for a place where monastics stay.

Vihāra: ‘dwelling’. A building, usually in an ārāma/āvāsa where monastics dwell.

Vatthu: ‘site’. The piece of land on which a monastery or dwelling is built.

Kuṭi: ‘hut’. A small dwelling. There are a large range of other kinds of dwelling specified.

The Great Paradigm


Shortly after teaching the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta the Buddha returned to Rajagaha, where King Bimbisāra became a supporter. He offered the first monastery, the Veḷuvana, or ‘Bamboo Grove’.

‘May I give this Bamboo grove pleasure park to the Sangha of bhikkhus with the Buddha at its head?’

etāhaṃ, bhante, veḷuvanaṃ uyyānaṃ buddhappamukhassa bhikkhusaṃghassa dammī’ti. Paṭiggahesi bhagavā ārāmaṃ.

This passage is an essential part of the ‘grand story’ of the Buddha’s life, and is clearly intended by the redactors to be the main paradign for offering a monastery. The king ‘gives’ (dadati) the monastery to the Sangha of bhikkhus, with the Buddha as head. The same procedure is found at 1.233, where Ambapālī offers her grove in same words as Bimisāra.


Anathapindika offers Jetavana, using a different formula.

Anāthapiṇḍiko gahapati bhagavato paṭissutvā Jetavanaṁ āgatānāgatacātuddissa saṅghassa patiṭṭhāpesi…

Note that the idea of the ‘sangha of the four quarters, past and future’ has appeared. This is a very significant notion, showing an awareness of the Sangha as spread out in space and lasting in time, rather than simply ‘the group of monks with the Buddha’.

The offering itself uses the word patiṭṭhāpeti (‘establish’) rather than dadati (‘give’); however the verse immediately following refers to ‘giving’ (dadati) a monastery, so the two phrases probably mean the same thing.

A monastery ‘specially for the Sangha’

Another phrasing is used in a passage that discussing the gift of a monastery at length. This deals with the situation where someone wants to offer a place for the Sangha during the vassa, and the Buddha allows that they break their vassa for up to seven days to received the offering.


A dwelling is built by a lay follower specially for the Sangha… [he said:] ‘I wish to give…’

upāsakena saṅghaṁ uddissa viharo kārāpito…. icchāmi dātuṁ…’

The passage is repeated for every possible type of building, monastery (ārāma and ārāmavatthu). It may be offered to a sangha of bhikkhus, a Sangha of bhikkhunis, a group of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis, or a single bhikkhu or bhikkhuni (or indeed, sāmaṇera, sāmaṇerī, or sikkhamānā). The person offering may be a lay man, lay woman, or a monastic.

The phrasing saṅghaṁ uddissa (specially for the Sangha) might be ambiguous – perhaps it could mean simply ‘for the use of the Sangha’; but the passage also says that the donor ‘wishes to give’, icchāmi dātuṁ, so this is clear enough.

Ownership of requisites of departed monastics.


The bowl and robes of departed monastics revert to the Sangha as the owner (sāmī) after the death. But from gratitude, the Sangha should offer them to those monastics who were nursing the sick person.


If there are other requisites left by a departed monk, those that are light requisites (lahubhaṇḍa) should be offered to the present (sammukhībhūta) Sangha; however heavy requisites (garubhaṇḍā) must be for the Sangha of the four quarters, past and future, and are not to be disposed of or divided up.


Garubhaṇḍa includes ārāma, ārāmavatthu, vihāra, vihāravatthu.


Repeats the above principle, saying that a monastery or site or dwelling cannot be given away



This rule is sometimes interpreted to refer to a monastery offered by a lay follower. However it seems to me this is not quite right. It’s not entirely clear to me how it should be rendered, but I would go with something like like this.

bhikkhū aññatarassa upāsakassa vihāraparibhogaṁ senāsanaṁ aññatra paribhunjanti.

A bed & chair that belonged to a certain lay follower was [meant] for use in one dwelling, but the monks used them in another [dwelling].

In other words, a layman brings along a bed or chair, invites the monks in a certain dwelling to make use of them, while not actally giving them to the Sangha; later, the monks take them away from that dwelling and use them elsewhere. If this interpretation is correct, this passage does not refer to a monastery owned by a lay person.


This passage explicitly refers to a dwelling owned by a lay person. A monk says to a layman, ‘Whoever lives in your dwelling (tuyhaṁ vihāre vasati) is an arahant’; of course, it was that monk himself who lived in the dwelling.

3.149, 3.156

Two saṅghādisesa rules discuss the case where a hut or dwelling is built, which may either have an owner (sāmika) or not. The owner may be a woman or man or layman (gahaṭṭho) or one gone forth (pabbajita).

In this context, sāmī mainly means one responsible for the costs of building.


Refers to a variety of places that may be of ‘one family’ (ekakula) or ‘many families’, including a monastery. Does not clarify whether this is a family or clan of lay people only, or could include a monastic family, Sangha.


Talks of a ‘Sangha dwelling’, presumably implying that there might be non-Sangha dwellings. Sangha dwelling is defined as one that has been gifted to the Sangha.

saṅghika nāma saṅghassa dinnaṁ hoti paricattaṁ

Sanghika’ means, it is given and relinquished to the Sangha.

The rule analysis contrasts saṅghika with puggalika, ‘individual’. But it does not clarify whether this individual is a lay person or monastic.


The main paradigm is that of a monastery given to the Sangha of the Four Quarters. This means all Buddhist monastics, past and future.

However, it would seem that there are a variety of options and the Vinaya does not legislate on what is possible. A monastery might be owned by the Sangha as a whole, a group of monastics, a single monastic, or by a lay follower.

In the Cūḷasīla section of the Dīgha Nikāya and elsewhere, which constitutes an early description of monastic ethics, a monastic is said to refrain from accepting ‘fields and land’ (Khettavatthupaṭiggahaṇā paṭivirato…). However at 3.50 khetta is defined as a place where grains are produced; in other words, monastics may not accept farmland.

It should be noted that the Vinaya refers to a ‘Sangha’ as either the Sangha as a whole, or the monastics actually within a sīmā (monastic boundary). There is no concept of a ‘Sangha’ consisting of a partial organization within the greater Sangha. When monastics start to think of their group as different from, separate from, and (inevitably) better than, other Sangha members, then sects start to form. When those sects claim exclusive usage over monastery property originally intended for the Sangha of the Four Quarters we are a long way from the Vinaya.

On “Sex and the Sangha” and the displacement of pain

I’ve just had a read of the excellent blog post on “Sex and the Sangha:Forgiveness, Retribution or Justice” by NellaLou. If you haven’t seen it yet, go and have a read; I’ll have a cuppa and see you in a minute.

Welcome back!

It’s fascinating how she is dealing with very different issues than we have faced directly in the forest tradition. If there’s one thing the Ajahn Chah tradition is renowned for its sexual propriety, and there is no hint of a scandal around these issues. And yet when i read the description of the very many avoidance methods that are used in discussion, I was struck by how many of them are identical. I won’t go over these, as many of them have been mentioned earlier in this blog, but would simply reiterate that such means of dialogue are painfully transparent attempts to avoid the issue.

Which, right now, is discrimination. The Five Points, authored by Ven Pannasaro at the request of Ajahn Sumedho and adopted by the male Ajahns of the Wat Pa Pong tradition in order to suppress its few remaining nuns, remain in force. The Five Points make explicit the power-based discrimination that has characterized that community for many years, and are a public expression of contempt for notions of equality and democracy, which are fundamental to the Buddha’s ethics and his principles for constructing community.

A part of the American Zen community has been struggling with its own problem, the sexual involvement of students with teachers. I don’t want to go too much into that in detail here, but simply to notice that this issue is closely connected with patriarchy. Most of the teachers are male, and the sex is invariably a part of the very unequal power relations of the (usually male) teacher and the (usually female) student.

Astonishingly, some of the women quoted in “Sex and the Sangha” appear to be saying that it’s okay to sleep your way to the top of the spiritual hierarchy – a hierarchy whose “top” and “bottom” have been defined by men, for men. Not something that happens in Wat Pa Pong circles; but it is not hard to find women who through gifts of money, food, and other requisites, seek a special relationship with monks; and to preserve that special status they will side with the monks against equality for women. As Carol Gilligan said, patriarchy divides men against women, and women against each other.

When I was thinking about the similarities and differences between the situations in discussed in “Sex and the Sangha” and WPP, i wondered what the implications might be. It is simplistic to argue that ‘going celibate’ will remove the sex problem, as we all know from the rampant sex scandals among priests. Nor is it enough to say that abolishing celibacy will solve the problems of sexism.

At the end of the day, the issue is not celibacy, but patriarchy: the assumption of power by men, solely by virtue of their gender. As long as patriarchy persists in Buddhism, women will be disempowered and de-voiced, and will survive and flourish solely at the whim of the men. Power corrupts; and it is perhaps not so important that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that even tiny power corrupts tinyly, as shown so terribly in the Stanford Cookie Experiment. (More properly: ‘Power, approach, and inhibition.‘ Keltner, Dacher; Gruenfeld, Deborah H.; Anderson, Cameron. Psychological Review, Vol 110(2), Apr 2003, 265-284.) Here’s a summary of the experiment from the Harvard Business Review:

To appreciate the first half of the dynamic—that bosses tend to be oblivious to their followers’ perspectives—consider the “cookie experiment” reported by the psychologists Dacher Keltner, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson in 2003. In this study, teams of three students each were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper. The third member evaluated it and determined how much the other two would be paid, in effect making them subordinates. About 30 minutes into the meeting, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies—a welcome break that was in fact the focus of the experiment. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did. Basic manners dictate such restraint. But what of the fourth cookie—the extra one that could be taken without negotiation or an awkward moment? It turns out that a little taste of power has a substantial effect. The “bosses” not only tended to take the fourth cookie but also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely.

It’s a cute little experiment, but it beautifully illustrates a finding consistent across many studies. When people—independent of personality—wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules that others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. To make matters worse, many bosses suffer a related form of power poisoning: They believe that they are aware of every important development in the organization (even when they are remarkably ignorant of key facts). This affliction is called “the fallacy of centrality”—the assumption that because one holds a central position, one automatically knows everything necessary to exercise effective leadership.

In the examples given in “Sex and the Sangha” from the American Zen sphere, the dark side of this power corruption is expressed as sexual predation. I wonder how this same energy is displaced in the WPP tradition, where sex is ruled out? Obviously, there are many details here in terms of the day-to-day relations between monks and nuns. We have heard the voices of some of the women concerned, so I will not repeat that here.

What does strike me is how the pain that this discrimination causes is displaced outside the narrowly defined community so that it may be safely ignored.

A small example: many years ago, i was hitch-hiking my way north from Sydney to Townsville. A truckie kindly stopped to pick me up and take me the next stage of my journey. While i was sitting there, I had a carton of juice. I asked the truckie, ‘Where’s your rubbish bin?’; he took the carton, wound down the window and threw it out, saying, ‘That’s my rubbish bin.’

Stop right there: see what’s happening. There’s a boundary, between the inside of the cab (‘mine’) and the outside (‘not-mine’). The driver’s sphere of moral concern stops right there, at the boundary. Rubbish inside the cab is a problem; rubbish outside the cab is no problem at all.

So why then did he stop to pick me up? If he is purely selfishly motivated, then why take the trouble to help another person? Who knows? It could have been boredom; perhaps he thought I might share some pot or something with him. But more to the point, no-one is completely selfish. We make constructs in our minds, and those constructs (‘views’) guide where our sphere of concern lies. Perhaps, in those many hours of driving the endless Australian roads, he had ruminated over and over on the chaos of the streets, the selfishness of other drivers, and had become disconnected from that space. Offering someone a lift might, in fact, be a subconscious attempt to reconnect, to find some humanity worth caring for.

But speculation on motives is not really my point here; it’s about how we displace suffering, shifting the cost of our actions outside our cognizance so we can ignore consequences.

It seems to me that the same phenomenon is even more evident on a larger scale, where it is easier to disconnect from lived humanity. Developed countries like Australia maintain their extravagant lifestyles by using the resources and labor of the poor in other countries, a legacy of colonialism. We can afford good consumer goods, huge houses, and crucially, education by virtue of our high incomes, while those in less developed countries struggle to get even the basics. While we think of ourselves as generous benefactors who donate freely to charities, the reality is that the world economy acts as a giant the net ‘hoover‘, sucking wealth out of poorer countries into the rich.

The disastrous side-effects of our untrammeled economic growth are exported as ‘externalities‘: pollution, resource depletion, labor exploitation and the like are (largely) created in the developed world and (largely) experienced in the undeveloped world. The western world only becomes concerned in cases such as the Global Financial Crisis or the oil spill when the developed world experiences, for a short time and a lesser degree, the suffering that much of the rest of the world takes for granted every day.

Why do they put up with it? Because, obviously, they are disempowered and de-voiced. The rich control the instruments of ideology and education. We create the problem, but do not have to deal with it. We define ourselves as ‘free’, ‘democratic’, ‘advanced’, and throw the problem away somewhere ‘other’.

It seems to me a similar thing is happening in the discriminatory policies of the Sangha. The male Sangha do not have to deal with the problems of women. The Sangha defines itself as ‘virtuous’, authentic’, ‘tradition’. Women are shut outside; they are other. They can be generically dismissed by waving that magic wand wielded by the Masters of Doctrine: “It’s their kamma”.

But the suffering of women does not arise in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that Thailand has perhaps the worlds biggest and most voracious sex trade, including the slavery of young girls, and that the Sangha is so adamantly male only. The massive, extremely destructive effects of Thailand’s sex trade – the lives destroyed, the AIDS, the flourishing of organized crime, and so on – are outside the sphere of moral concern of monks. In six years living in Thailand, I never once heard a monk referring to it in a teaching.

The Sangha patriarchy has been an instrument for depriving women of power, control, voice. The inevitable result of that powerlessness is the sexual exploitation of women by men. Due to its vows of celibacy, that exploitation is not carried out by the Sangha itself (at least for those sections of the Sangha that still respect the vows), but by other men, emboldened by the moral authority of masculinity. And yet, even though it is externalized, it is no less real; in fact, I would say it is worse.

In the sexual problems described in some Zen communities, at the least the people meet face to face. The problem can be denied and shunted away, but it is still there. Similarly for poverty and pollution that happens in our own backyard: it’s still wrong and maybe we can’t change it, but at least we know it’s there.

But when we create structures of dominance and submission, insisting that gender be the moral arbiter of relationships, and then export that outside our communities, using our control of ideology (the dismissal of human rights and equality) to deny its existence; then we can live our lives in truly blissful ignorance of the suffering we have contributed to.

Shoppers in a Mosman mall, bedazzled by the surfaces, rarely pause to think of where all this stuff comes from, and how it impacts the lives of others. Monks in a patriarchal Sangha, idolized and idealized, worshiped by women for their power of renunciation, rarely pause to think of how their insistence on women’s submission might affect the very real suffering of women in developing countries.

When senior monastic teachers such as Ajahn Sumedho in the West say things like, ‘Human rights are outside of the Dhamma’, do not think such sayings disappear in a vacuum. Ajahn Sumedho is a powerful, respected public figure in Thailand, and any sayings like this will be taken very seriously and literally: ‘Ajahn Sumedho says that human rights are outside the Dhamma…’. This is how the thinking flows, among the influential circles who regard Ajahn Sumedho and the WPP tradition as the prime exemplars for introducing a successful Sangha into the west. ‘Even the monks in the west don’t believe in bhikkhuni ordination. They know it’s necessary to keep nuns subservient. And not just the monks: the lay people still look up to them as teachers. See, they’re still inviting the Ajahns who support the five Points to teach at their centers; they still support them. It must be the right thing to do…’

And so it goes. The words, the teachings issued from the pulpit, and even more important, the principles embodied in daily monastic life, have always been the moral standard for Buddhist countries. The reality is that most people don’t think very clearly or independently on moral issues. They follow the leader. A strong and clear anti-equality message from on high contributes to a moral climate where meaningful change in areas of major concern for women such as sex slavery and domestic violence remains impossible.

We drink the juice, and then toss the rubbish outside the cab.