Comfort or Challenge

Richard Gombrich, one of the most senior academics in Buddhist studies, recently gave a keynote address for the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010. It’s a terrific, passionate, and all-too-true article. He had the following to say about the role of women in Theravada Buddhism.

Surely it is plain that if a religion today is to increase it popularity, it will have to appeal to women as least as much as to men. So how does Theravada Buddhism stand?

If one goes by the scriptures and ancient traditions it should be in a very strong position indeed to appeal to women. But it has thrown away its advantages, and this to such an extent that I think it cannot possibly advance in countries where women have achieved social equality.

Let me make three points, all of which I regard as of vast importance both practically and morally.

First: menstruation. While they are fertile, adult women bleed for a couple or a few days every month. In some pre-modern societies this has been regarded as dirty or impure; some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse. In brahminical tradition strict orthodoxy demands that at that time of the month women be secluded and kept away from sacred objects and observances. This is of course a ritual, not a moral, prohibition. In accordance with his principle, already discussed, that attachment to ritual is a great obstacle to spiritual progress, the Buddha ignored menstruation as irrelevant to his teaching. In Sri Lanka, where the most archaic form of Buddhism is preserved, the concept of menstrual impurity is well known (the Sinhala word for it is killa), but it is equally well known that it has no application in a Buddhist context. A woman who is of an age when she might be menstruating is not debarred from any Buddhist activity, from contact with any Buddhist person or object. In a word, for Buddhism, female impurity does not exist – as it did not for the Buddha.

I don’t know how Thai and Burmese Buddhism came to import the notion of female impurity, but in following it they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women. Of course, most women born into those societies have been brought up to take female impurity for granted and so do not feel insulted; but women who come from abroad, and have for example learnt their Buddhism in Sri Lanka, do feel insulted and repelled.

But secondly, things are even worse than this. In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman’s hand. This innovation applies not only to menstruating women, or to women who are of an age when they might be menstruating, but to all females from babies to centenarians. We are therefore dealing not just with a misguided ritual obsession but with true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust. When this is applied even to babies and young children, the necessary implication is so disgusting that I cannot even name it. Those who created such a rule and those who follow them need to be re-educated and to learn that women and girls are people, not objects.

My third point is much more often talked about. Can Theravāda restart the Bhikkhunī Sangha, the Order of Nuns, after the break in the ordination tradition? There are six extant textual traditions of the Vinaya; the fact that no two of them wholly agree about how nuns are to be ordained, and that we thus cannot be sure that the Theravādin version goes back to the Buddha, or is even the oldest, gives historians a lot to argue about. But when it comes to preserving Theravāda Buddhism, let alone allowing it to flourish, all that is entirely beside the point. If there are women who want to restart a Sangha, why should they be stopped? Should we not thank and congratulate them? What does it matter that the continuity of the ordination ritual has been interrupted? What is that but a ritual? Must we all live in a world of obsessive neurotics? Let people who only care about ritual fuss away to their hearts’ content, and let those who care for the spirit, not the letter, and for living according to the Buddha’s teaching and principles, welcome the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravāda Buddhism for many future generations.

How, then, can Theravāda Buddhism be disseminated? How can it even be saved? I find the answer obvious. We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!

43 thoughts on “Comfort or Challenge

  1. Very interesting, Bhante, thanks for sharing.

    Though, “…some have myths that it is the result of an ancient curse.”

    Certainly feels that way sometimes!

  2. Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention, Bhante. The whole talk is excellent (not only this excerpt).

    And thanks to Prof Gombrich, who, as usual, does not mince his words; I hope they are taken to heart. Should be required reading for everyone interested in/practicing the teachings of the Buddha (and perhaps even more particularly, essential reading for the ordained sangha).

  3. His argument is so passionate! I wonder if I should believe his claim that he does not consider himself to be a Buddhist?

    Perhaps he is a “closet” Buddhist and that disclaimer was to endow his academic credentials with a patina of impartiality. Now that he’s retired from his Chair, perhaps it’s OK for him to be seen as being socially-engaged with modern Theravada.

    I hope to hear more from Gombrich. Imagine what a coup it would be if we could get him interested in this Blog!

  4. Kudos to Richard Gombrich for speaking out. I wonder how the audience received his keynote address? Polite applause and do nothing after?

    The entire article should be read because he makes such relevant observations. I’m sure many thinking Buddhists have thought about the points he made but felt unable to articulate out of deferral to authority.

    Perhaps a populist title for his talk would be: Theravada Buddhism Asleep At The Wheel (pun intended). Thank you Bhante for posting.

  5. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The entire talk is refreshingly challenging and accessible. Professor Gombrich sheds light on several elephants in the room – aspects that I have opened my eyes to in the last year or so as I consider a deeper commitment to Sangha. Sangha support is key to practice but there are risks and limitations to this. How does my individual practice align with that of my Sangha family? What then, when it doesn’t align? What is my moral responsibility as a committed layperson to protect the Sangha? What is our duty collectively to protect the true Sasana – which at times will mean experiencing rejection and challenging the Sangha in a religion that is conflict-averse. To be faithful to the Buddha’s teaching and legacy to me means participating in conscious and courageous Sangha building. Yet we seem ironically ill prepared for dealing with transformation…

    Apart from the gender issue, Gombrich mentions the mass violence that crushed monastics in Burma, Tibet and elsewhere – a horror I share – how is it that the Buddhist world stayed so quiet on this? Related but minor point he didn’t mention – the incredible archaeological sites being discovered around the world such as the recently discovered monastic sites in Afghanistan – how is it that we are over 1 billion strong yet not a single group or rich philanthropist has stepped forward to speak for the protection of these holy sites? The tit for tat between sects, and the superiority cultures seem to bestow on themselves as paragons of Buddhist excellence – these may manifest more benignly than in other religions but these are aspects of collective practice which remain in stark contrast to the Buddha’s teachings. Sangha influences I hope will not affect my personal practice and understanding of the Dhamma.
    Gombrich inspires us to look more deeply – but we need to go more deeply then Prof Gombrich goes.

    On the gender front, we need to become more skillful in engaging around irrational fears, understanding the psychology of fundamentalist responses to change and to conflict – we need to be more clever in bringing cause and effect related to discrimination into people’s awareness in a way that promotes mutual learning – creating spaces for dialogue and interaction that will seed transformation – spaces and conversations that transform irrational fears and institutional rigidity.

    There is a sound basis in Buddhism to embrace the feminine and I may not have explained it well – but I have met many monastics who “get” elements of it – vastly more so than the male dominated religious communities I sat with before I came to the Buddha’s Sangha. There is much more of a basis here (relative to other faiths and faith leaders as I have experienced them) there are elements we can work with – the teachings, the texts, the non-violent language, a good portion of the narratives, a rich legacy of nun’s communities and the ways in which renunciate life challenges constructs of masculinity; an arguably less rigid and hierarchical institutional structure and network (again, relative to other religions).

    But we need to get to the nub of these problems. While it does have to do with attachment to culture, custom and ritual it is more complex than that, as Bhante has so diligently explored in your blog. I propose that it has to do with a deep misunderstanding of the teachings and a lack of exposure to situations that offer insight and realization regarding discrimination.

    As for attachment to culture, custom and ritual -how far can you go with what Gombrich refers to as unpleasant truths with people on whom you depend for the four requisites? To what extent is the skillful dispensation of revolution – teachings radically challenging culture and custom – mitigated by the vow of poverty? It takes time and the right conditions to build a healthy, conscious community, time to win people’s trust and confidence – especially in new Dhamma lands where resources may be scarce or in old lands where communities are so entrenched in custom.

    We have seen modern communities grow into courageous, conscious communities, like Bhante Brahm’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s. This took decades and flourished under certain conditions within certain approaches to leadership, teaching and community building. What are the conditions that came together successfully in those communities allowing them to practice consciously and courageously?

    Good on Gombrich. But as with Bhikkhu Bodhi’s critique about Western Buddhists’ lack of social engagement, my hope is that thought leaders will look realistically not just at the problems themselves but at the practical considerations and the solutions-and what other communities have learned that may be applicable to the Western Theravada communities.


    • Thanks so much, Lisa, a beautiful post. To just take up one point:

      As for attachment to culture, custom and ritual -how far can you go with what Gombrich refers to as unpleasant truths with people on whom you depend for the four requisites? To what extent is the skillful dispensation of revolution – teachings radically challenging culture and custom – mitigated by the vow of poverty?

      This is a very practical issue for us. I have always simply taken the attitude that we do what we do with the best integrity we can, and let others make their minds up. Maybe some traditional Buddhists don’t like Santi, especially because we not only have nuns, but treat them equally. Frankly, if people have these kinds of attitudes, I’d rather not be around them. Stay away, please, there are plenty of sexist monasteries you can support! We just try to offer Dhamma and support to everyone who comes, and the end result is we get supported by our Buddhist community. It’s never been an issue for us.

    • Furthermore, the Buddha had some very strong words to say about living the holy life for the sake of gains, obsessed by gains.

      There is a series of suttas in the samyutta, and each starts with:

      “Monks, gains, offerings, & fame are a cruel thing, a harsh, bitter obstacle to the attainment of the unexcelled rest from bondage.”

      Bhikkhu Bodhis translation of that sentence is:

      “Bhikkhus, dreadful are gain, honour and praise, bitter, vile, obstructive to achieving the unsurpassed security from bondage.

      So the Buddha indeed had some strong words to say about (seeking) gains, honour and praise.

      In fact anything motivated with the though “this way people will give us stuff” (or “this way people will not not give us stuff”) is probably almost automatically wrong intention (greed). It’s more important to do what is right, and if people respect that and want to give, then that is good. Really, it’s the tail wagging the dog. Offerings should follow along, not lead the way.

      In any case, a monk (or nun) doesn’t actually need much. It’s hard to imagine ever being so hard up for support that you can’t even scrape together a few rags to sew into a robe, and it seems whether a Monk goes with his almsbowl, he can get enough food to live on.

    • I may have misread Lisa, but I took her point a bit differently from you, Bhante and Blake. I thought she was pointing to the fact that the practice of renunciation and dependency on a community of lay supporters operates to soften the potentially violently disruptive effects of revolutionary calls for change, since such supporters must be persuaded, or replaced (and as Lisa says, this takes time – I took it you didn’t necessarily see this as a bad thing, Lisa). This means that the kind of violence and disregard of individual interests which has often accompanied secular revolutions could not occur in a (sincerely) Buddhist context. Bold ideas must also be practical; they cannot lose contact with the lived experience of suffering and release from suffering.

      Gombrich writes: “one of the main things that attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice. Where are the Theravādin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh? True religious leaders are not frightened to be controversial.” What strikes me about these leaders is that their appeal is not only that of controversial speech-makers. What is really impressive about them is that they practice what they preach – their own behaviour, including their way of communicating, is skillfully and inspiringly consistent with the revolutionary values of kindness and justice that they promote.

      Maybe this is why Santi has never been short of supporters – because at the core of practice there is the skillful energy of loving-kindness.

    • Dear Blake,
      If you are a man in this world, perhaps, but there are many communities of nuns from Bhutan to India to Nepal to Tibet for whom the most basic material conditions do not materialize, due to societal prejudices agains the girl child, women generally and quite specifically, nuns. I have seen the “trust the Dhamma” pprinciple work beautifully- however, generally speaking your position while it may hold some truth, is a position of privelege and not “as true” for female aspirants, unfortunately.
      Female ordination, remains for many communities, a revolutionary act that pushes custom culture and ritual too far, rendering the vow of poverty near impossible.

    • Dear Bhante,
      This courageous and trusting approach may work for you, however, if it worked for everybody, wouldn’t we have more Bhikkhunis in the world?

    • Nice one Juzzeau. I loved the ending particularly.

      Possibly the greatest enemy we face is our own anger, hatred, aversion, ill will and irritation.

      May we go to sleep each night with metta in our hearts. If not this, may we go to sleep cultivating it. If not this, may we go to sleep reflecting on metta or hoping to cultivate it soon.

      How else can we have the courage to face the dangers of the moments?

      I’m so acutely aware of the dangers I face from anger etc. I hope I don’t stop, at least thinking about, how important metta is.

      As regards false views… I loved your bringing together of the two translations in this skillful manner. Can i suggest though that any view which doesn’t include a cultivation of the basics (4 noble truths, kamma, rebirth…etc..) may well be considered false in that it is not leading to the ultimate Truth; this Truth that as Buddhists we cultivate faith in (the cultivation of faith may be seen as part of the act of bringing attention/focus/effort/importance to this Right View) and investigate and hope to eventually see for ourselves?


    • Thanks, Kanchana. That’s a beautiful wish about bringing up metta at the moment of going to sleep. It is such a relief to feel that opening, as metta dissolves or transforms any anger and the fixed views generated or sustained by it.

      Your last point about the relation between truth and faith is very interesting, too.

    • Hi Juzzeau.

      Just a quick note to say that I really enjoyed this insightful piece you wrote! Thanks for posting it.

    • Thanks, Juzzeau, a lovely post. Too often ‘ethics’ has become a word for ‘what this group of people finds inoffensive’, rather than what is genuinely the most beneficial course of action. And also the lightness of HH’s response; keeping a playfulness about things preserves flexibility and openness – something to bear in mind!

    • Lisa said: ‘We have seen modern communities grow into courageous, conscious communities, like Bhante Brahm’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s. This took decades and flourished under certain conditions within certain approaches to leadership, teaching and community building. What are the conditions that came together successfully in those communities allowing them to practice consciously and courageously?’

      Lisa in my very very humble opinion…

      The number one condition in WA (i can’t speak for others as i don’t know anything first hand about them) is Bhante Brahm himself. I think he sorted himself out to the extent that he’s able to inspire others to sort themselves out and in the process help even more people.

      Buddhism grew from an individual’s Awakening. I think it continues to do so. Especially when those individuals are also gifted in teaching and administering and when they have so much metta that they can talk to pretty much anybody – from convicted criminal to prime minister.

      I just read Prof G’s full speech and also had a look at Bhikku Bodhi’s recent article. I’m not sure how this is going to relate to the opinion/observation I’ve made above. I really don’t know… Perhaps just having such powerful words out there, by such influential people as B Bodhi and P Gombrich will make some difference… Perhaps someone will hear and it will be the right someone at the right time…

      In the mean time, those of us who aren’t leaders in positions of power can perhaps keep plugging away at our own laziness, complaceny and general lack of self-lessness. Maybe one day we’ll make a difference in a big way.


  6. An interesting read. It made me think of Bhante Dhammika.

    I guess in the end Buddhism is no different to everything else.

  7. It’s interesting you bring this up because I remember visiting a Buddhist monastery for the first time and I remember getting this feeling that monks are afraid of women, that we’re some sort of horrible creature. I don’t know if they were taught to regard us as an enemy, but I noticed i did get that feeling. Ill will and fear is quite an unskillful state of mind for their practice. I think it would be helpful if they are taught to regard females as just another being in samsara, looking for a way out as they are. A fellow traveler in the path, part of the fourfold assembly just as they are and not an enemy that they have to stay away from, fear or even hate.
    Kindness and understanding is always better than fear and ill-will.

  8. It’s a bit of a fine line I think…

    Walking between sense restraint and simple kindness. Or you could even say, walking between sense restraint and profound wisdom.

    In the end i think we have to find our own peace with these things. How comfortable ‘am i in my own skin as a woman or even just as a human being? Do i need huge amounts of acknowledgement all the time.

    Well no… But sometimes I have done (and no doubt will do again). In my memory I’ve gone to three monks with various problems in the past. One, i think, was more interested in his restraint and I think may have been using me simply as a reflection on the existence of suffering. The other two monks treated me with both simple kindness and profound wisdom. These weren’t the times for them to practise sense restraint and they knew that.

    But sense restraint is hugely important and I think massively underestimated. I don’t really think the path can work without it.

    I think the fine line is also a balancing act between needing – and creating – a safe, kind, welcoming environment and acknowledging our own insecurities in the face of someone choosing not to look at us or speak to us.

    I have to admit that when I’m in a more meditative space, I much prefer to avoid eye contact and speech. I prefer not to even be in the vicinity of speech or noise.

    If it’s there, I practise metta and letting be. And that’s fine. But it’s mighty fine when it’s so silent and so empty of distracting sights/smells etc. that I don’t even have to put forth the effort into formulating speech in my mind, let alone speech in my speech!!!

    I think it’s extremely important that we acknowledge the importance of sense restraint.

    I think it’s equally important that we do not underestimate the hidden misogyny that can lurk behind the mask of that restraint. Let’s not give it the power to hide by binding to rules, rituals and traditions that we don’t need to bind to. Let’s give it the chance to acknowledge and heal itself by accepting that while we – as women – may feel uncomfortable at times because of our own insecurities and gendered issues (not just because of the way the external environment is structured) but that men/monks may have very relevant and painful issues about women that they need the space and time to work out and heal.

    It’s all rather delicate but if we can all remember metta – not just as an ideal concept but as a regular practise – then perhaps we can walk these fine lines with little pain and much happiness. Metta is the other thing that is hugely underestimated and i don’t think the Path works without it either.

  9. When Gombrich said: “one of the main things that attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice. Where are the Theravādin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh?”

    I strongly recommend a viewing of the documentary “Burma VJ” about the so-called Saffron Revolution in Burma a couple of years ago. Many of the monks who took part in that uprising are in prison or disappeared. Others are in exile.

    I don’t know what Western Buddhists want or expect, since I don’t seem to fall in that category, but the Burmese Sangha has, time and time again, stood with the people of the country and marched with them, at great risk to themselves, and gone to prison as political prisoners with other Burmese, where they have been treated even more brutally because they were members of the Sangha.

    Where are the Western Buddhists when this has happened? Perhaps I missed their expressions of solidarity and support?

    • The western media, including Buddhist media, was full of support for the Burmese monks. Everyone knows and respects how those Burmese monks – a small fraction of the total, by the way – acted with such bravery. But this is an exception – and yes, there are others: Mahaghosananda of Cambodia to name just one. What Gombrich was criticizing was the craven attitudes of other Buddhist countries like Thailand, which has for years never done anything about the situation in Burma.

    • Dear Bhante and Visakha,
      I know a highly respected monk in Sagaigh Hill, Burma who is very brave & dare to speak in disapproval with Burmese militant regime. His name is Ven. Nanissara, people lovingly call him “Sitagu Sayadaw”. He advocate Buddhist education in every parts of the country, mostly in remote areas in upper Burma. He built hospital for monks & nuns and poor people. He built water provider systems for more then 20,000 residences in Sagaigh Hill.He built colleges and university for monastic education.
      Though he used to talk disparaging of Government but they dare not touch him for the fear that it will evoke a large population to go against them.

    • I remember Sitagu Sayadaw not only for his fearless challenges the military junta, but for his cheerful smiling face and his powerful but warm and deep compassionate voice when he preach the true Dhamma and chant Buddhist Suttas. His chanting tapes were used to put babies and mental disturbed patients to sleep! This is his feminine side that make him a very special person.
      His tireless effort in spread the Buddha Dhamma to people from all walks of life, his humane projects to support monastics & underprivileged people in health-care, education and basic material needs is a true Bodhisattva heart.
      He used to joke that when he meditate to rest sometimes, he say to himself: “Oh Arahanta magga & phala do not come near to me yet. I still have many things to do in this world!”
      When he visited his teacher in a far away mountain (in Shan state), his teacher asked him: “Nanissara, what are you doing in cities, towns, and villages?” He briefly reported to his teacher what he is doing. His teacher said: “Oh, you are pouring water into broken jars!”
      He told us (his students): though I understand what my teacher meant, but i continue my humane and missionary works.

    • Thanks for sharing. “pouring water into broken jars!” sums up the human condition very nicely (to my mind).

    • Many thanks for these inspiring recollections! We were fortunate to visit Sagaing a number of times (the last in ’88) and to see the Water Project and observe the progress of the hospital.

      Always our experience with Burmese monks has been that they have made us feel a part of their community. Perhaps that is why the best of them have been great missionaries. For example, U Silananda Sayadaw had many Vietnamese and Hispanic students

      Sitagu Sayadaw has great vision and true compassion. He also has the stature to be able to do humanitarian work in Burma openly despite the junta’s indifference or outright hostility.

      As Human Rights Watch reported after Nargis: “Prominent abbots such as the Sitagu Sayadaw from Sagaing Division in northern Burma travelled to the delta with an ad hoc team of aid workers and doctors, and distributed aid throughout the region for months after the storm..

      “He was critical of the government for its slow response and delays, saying:
      About 80 percent of survivors from the cyclone are staying in the monasteries that have no roof. The government’s response is not effective and efficient as they are taking the political point of view and lacking social point of view. I want to urge the government to act effectively in saving lives. There is no international aid, not even from our own government in where I am now. There are only private donations.”

      Others were punished for their good deeds of bringing relief and arranging for cremations for Nargis victims and landed them in prison.

      Again, from the Human Rights Watch report: “The most prominent activist arrested was Zargana (whose real name is Maung Thura), one of Burma’s best known comedians, who has long used his caustic and playful wit to poke fun at military rule….. He has an extensive network of volunteers and donors in Rangoon who rapidly mobilized to send relief supplies to the cyclone-affected areas around Rangoon. Zargana’s group of 420 aid workers visited 42 villages in the Irrawaddy Delta between May 7 and June 4, 2008. In some cases, his group was reaching isolated villages that had yet to be visited by either the Burmese government or international relief experts. Despite Zargana’s life-saving relief efforts, his outspoken criticism of the military government’s ineffectual response landed him in jail.”

      What can we make of the West’s commitment and humanitarian concern? If Western governments were honestly concerned, wouldn’t they have done their duty to protect the victims of Nargis who were being criminally neglected by their rulers who actively prevented assistance from reaching them to the extent that thousands perished needlessly. There was much talk of international responsibility to protect, but nothing actually came of it in the end.

      As for the Bodhisatta heart, our Burmese teacher in Japan used to say that few of us could know what determination we might have made in a past life, if not to become a Buddha then to be one of a future Buddha’s supports. If we had indeed resolved to have such a career, then we wouldn’t make attainments in this life. We would instead be busy in world after world perfecting ourselves for our future role.

  10. Hi Bhante,

    thanks for bringing attention to this speech – definitely an excellent and thought-provoking piece by Gombrich, who I’ve found, as far as I’m qualified to judge, a scholar whose work is deeply admirable and innovative.

    But though most of the major arguments are vital and well-taken, I think there are also some issues here, and important points which haven’t been raised (though this may well be for reasons of the ‘speech’ format):

    I would argue that one of the reasons for the problematic nationalism of the Theravada countries is their status as Eastern countries in the (post)colonial context (though of course this would also be true of the Mahayana countries) – ie from the mid-20th century the need to assert independence from Western colonising powers led to the adoption of Western nationalist narratives which were in this sense reactionary – we can think for example of the fascistic race-nationalism of Thailand in the first part of the Twentieth century. Also, at least some of these nations, much more so than Western nations which had been changed by earlier periods of ethnic cleansing and ultimately by WWII, remain conglomerations of very different ethno-cultural groups with deep historical roots – so this poses a problem for the nationalist project in terms of fellowship with neighbouring nations.

    So I think the outcome has been these problematic ‘strong’ nationalisms which have a deep ethno-geographical flavour to them. This doesn’t make them OK or mean we shouldn’t challenge them! But we might think about where they come from and why, in asking who is responsible & how to go about addressing these problems.

    As far as monks – and more generally, Gombrich’s point about the Vinaya and the prohibition on eating after noon – I think there is a distinction to be made here between how we should behave to others, and how we should exercise our critical faculties. If we accept Gombrich’s conclusions, then we would be accepting that anyone who proclaims themselves a monk should be accepted as such, no matter how they behave. As I understand it, this wasn’t what the Buddha intended when he proclaimed attachment to ritualism as a problem – rather, he was addressing (at least as a large part of the issue) the question of the efficacy of ritualism alone, and of attachment to it as a path in itself (correct me if I’m wrong). This is not, of course, to say that pedantic attachment to ritualism isn’t problematic! But how to define ‘pedantic’?

    If we think, say, of the Potaliya Sutta the Buddha was quite definite on the fact that despite Potaliya considering himself to be a monk by virtue of ‘giving up all his works & cutting off all his affairs’ (by his own, ie Potaliya’s, definition) this was not to be considered monkhood. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Mahayana monks should not be considered monks by Theravada monks and laypeople, or that they shouldn’t be treated respectfully, politely, and as wo/men devoted to the Holy Life who likely have much to teach!

    But surely there should remain a place to say, the Buddha taught critical thinking and critical judgement, rather than universal unqualified acceptance (this, I think, is sometimes problematic for Westerners because of the way that the Dhamma came to the West through ‘self-help’ paths); and that he taught the Vinaya for a purpose, not arbitrarily, and that from a text-historical perspective certain Vinayas are closer to the time of the historical Buddha, or more accurately translated, than others. After all, when Gombrich writes that ‘Theravāda Buddhism is the guardian of the oldest and purest tradition of the Buddha’s message,’ I doubt many Mahayana Buddhists would agree!

    And this leads to a bigger problem, which is that on the one hand Gombrich seems to be arguing that we return to the original teachings of the Buddha, but on the other he seems to be saying that those who would make the effort to stick closely to those teachings are missing the essential message (putting aside the issue of non-Canonical cultural Buddhist practices, which are clearly much more difficult to defend).
    He seems to be putting an argument similar to Karen Armstrong (another fine scholar and sharp intellect who is also problematic in a similar way) – that there is a central and true message to all of the ‘universalist’ religions, which is one of love and compassion, and that everything else, particularly anything involving judgement, should be cast aside. I’m not sure it’s so simple, or that the core of those religions is indeed so similar. Again, that doesn’t mean they can’t be mutually respectful or learn from each other! But one of the things about teachers as iconoclasts is that they clearly and openly reject other teachings that they consider misguided or worse, whereas it seems Gombrich would have us refrain from doing so.

    To take an example where this is problematic here, in arguing that Buddhism should not be nationalistically or ethnically exclusive, Gombrich also seems to be arguing that it should be evangelical. When he talks of the relationship between Sri Lankan Buddhists & non-Buddhist Tamils, he criticises Buddhists for failing to evangelise the Tamils – whereas, from his own perspective, one might say that the Buddhists would do better to respect and not criticise their present customs! Surely one of the things that attracts many Westerners, at least, to Buddhism, is that it does not aggressively evangelise in the manner (much of) historical Christianity.

    Just a few thoughts…

    With metta – Rowan (Chromatics)

  11. Bhante, can I take it you have not seen the movie, Burma VJ, (which was actually limited to Rangoon anyway.)? Your disparaging comment that the monks who stood up to the junta were only “a small fraction of the total” sounded remarkably like the Burmese generals in 1988 quoted in “A Skyful of Lies” that not all of Rangoon supported democracy because only a million people were in the streets and the whole population was 3 million!

    When the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Ven. Mahagosananda are mentioned together, don’t we need to remember that they were all exiled from their homelands and sought refuge in the West? In the latter two cases, in fact, in part because of the actions of Western actors. Rowan (Chromatics) made some good points about recent history. I do have to wonder how Gombrich can be so poorly informed about Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. With causal relations so important in Buddhism, his vague “while poor Kampuchea under Pol Pot suffered something close to auto-genocide.” makes it sound like it just sort of happened on its own? In fact, the Khmer Rouge cannot be understood without extreme Communist ideology, Vietnamese and Chinese patronage, and the U.S.’s secret bombing campaign (1965–1973)? One historian, Kiernan, argues that foreign intervention was the most significant factor in Pol Pot’s rise to power.

    Mightn’t Gombrich be somewhat confused about the role of Vinaya? Vinaya isn’t optional for monks and nuns, nor should it be considered mere rites and rituals; didn’t the Buddha himself describe his dispensation as Dhamma/Vinaya?

    As usual, we Westerners are going to scold, aren’t we! Doesn’t it ever bother us that we always seem to put ourselves in the judgment seat or the bully pulpit about human rights? Doesn’t it become tiresome that everything should be judged by Westerners according to Western standards? Couldn’t we be accused of being arrogant? Oh, right. We really are the experts and Buddhism, like every other institution or situation, must satisfy us. Never mind that our colonizing made a pretty mess of the world and that our more recently meddling shows us to be real hypocrites (e.g. Wikileaks).

    Ayya Dharma is quite right to point to Ven. Nanissara (Sitagu Sayadaw) as a towering and tireless Theravada monk. We’ve known him for 25 years and visited some of his projects. We also have it on excellent authority that he is an awesome and fearless preacher, to the extent that people have been forbidden to have copies of some of his Dhamma talks. Just because he isn’t as famous in the West as the Dalai Lama shouldn’t detract from his greatness.

    Although Gombrich might not know them, there are also some very compassionate Sri Lankan monks in the US who devote themselves to ordinary Americans and do not have a single Sinhalese in their community.

    Shouldn’t we also look to the Buddhist revival in India as a useful area of Theravadan missionary efforts? Perhaps the great Arakanese monk, Ven. U Chandamani, (1875-1972) isn’t very widely known, but he worked with considerable fortitude to establish viharas and rest houses in Sarnath, Varnasi, and Kushinagara which are still in use today and to restore Buddhism in the land of its origin. He built schools for the poor and established Kushinagar College with donations from wealthy donors. Sayadaw didn’t hesitate to become a naturalized Indian citizen in order to establish the “Majjhimadesa Maha Sangha Organization.” He converted thousands of ‘untouchables’ or Dalits to Buddhism; it was he who gave the refuges and precepts to Dr. Ambedkar along with half a million followers in Nagpur in 1956. How much more challenge is required to become a great missionary?

    As far as Gombrich’s question, “Why do so few people in the wider world find Theravada Buddhism worthy of their serious consideration?” Could we possibly answer poor marketing? Laziness? Or does it really matter?

  12. Dear Visakha

    I hope you won’t mind my comments here…

    Your statements have certainly widened the view from the window of this topic and personally i’m most grateful for this…there’s so much here i didn’t know…

    May i most humbly and respectfully suggest that Gombrich’s main point was that if Theravada Buddhism was to do it’s very best at reaching (and therefore helping) people in the ‘west’, that it ought to do what the Buddha suggested…

    Specifically, I might say that my humble understanding of the Buddha and his teachings have led me to the following conclusions about what might be useful:

    1. to teach the dhamma in the language/dialect of those who are locals.
    2. to take into account the truths and lives of the locals. (e.g: i have a memory of reading a sutta where the Buddha suggested that if the locals refer to a ‘cup’ as a ‘bowl’…then that’s what one should do also…this sort of principle has rather wide and potentially skillful applications).
    3. that we should approach others with kindness, accepting them as they are. that such kindness should be cultivated regularly, frequently and should be made much of.
    4. that we should not be afraid of not having support, instead trusting in our Refuges and our practise.
    5. that we evolve into communities that include strong and thriving nuns, monks, laymen and women.
    6. that we are encouraged not just to cultivate faith, but also investigation
    7. that this path and goal are by their very nature, things that are grounded in autonomy and indeed grow the ultimate autonomy. and thus we should evolve into communities that are autonomous and democratic.
    8. that monastic communities should be democratic
    9. that Buddhism never had a ‘pope’ but that the Dhamma and the Training were to lead the way
    10. that this Dhamma/Training which includes the 8 fold path is something that can produce ariyans and that the fact that such beings exist is and that they cultivated the path and it worked (!!) is something we can take refuge in.
    11. that even an arahant…so perfect in wisdom and conduct…can – about matters that are even slightly worldly and not inherently to do with Dhamma – make mistakes and that’s all the more reason that we should be like the proverbial lamp unto ourselves. yet still cultivating love and service towards ourselves and others. perhaps this is why the Lord Buddha suggested that we question even his teachings. perhaps this is why Ven Sariputta, when asked (before he was Enlightened) if he believed the Buddha, replied that he did not cos he hadn’t experienced it himself. If it was good enough for Ven Sariputta (who was the foremost in wisdom after the Buddha, according to the Buddha), then surely, this is a model the rest of us should follow? Can i just add that i have another memory of a sutta where, apparently, Ven Sariputta gets it wrong about another monks attainment!! The other monk was an Ariyan and said so as he was close to passing away and Ven Sariputta didn’t believe him until the Buddha verified the matter. (If anyone knows i’ve got this all wrong please, please correct me!! i do not want to misrepresent anyone!!)

    respectful metta to you Visakha

    • I’m sure you are very right in what you’ve written here.

      My concern was only that we not be overly critical of other communities of Buddhists. My experiences with Western Buddhists has been that they can be as insular and intolerant as any Asians. I recall talking with an American layman who wanted to sponsor a monk to the States but wanted it very clear that that monk had better be ready to shake hands with all and sundry because that was the American way. Ayo! He didn’t say anything about business suits, but ….

      American society, at least, seems to me to be terribly conformist. We expect everybody to speak English and we don’t much care that they retain anything from their original culture. I have found Americans to be very intolerant and harsh towards refugees, with very little empathy for the loss they have suffered.

      I felt, perhaps quite wrongly, that Gombrich was saying both that Asian Buddhists had made a muck of their own countries and they didn’t try hard enough to convert us westerners either. My own experience has always been that I’ve been welcomed into Buddhist communities and that when I asked questions, I got honest answers.

    • Thanks for the clarification Visakha.

      I think such intolerance is a common problem within us and is probably to be found everywhere. Hopefully the man who wanted to shake hands perserved with the Dhamma and he softened and became kinder… Or perhaps the monk shook his hand with metta and perhaps that changed things too?

      I think Visakha you must have some lovely kamma operating for you… How beautiful that you have been so welcomed in Buddhist communities, how wonderful to have been able to ask questions and then to get answers. These are not small things.

      I do think that the current situation with Theravada Buddhism in the West shows it at some of it’s very best and also (I think one needs to dig a little deeper to see this side) at it’s worst. I think truths are being hidden and harmful views fostered that are strengthening ties with ill will and delusion and greed as well as fear.

      What to do? Well, there’s a lot to be said for fostering those places that nurture truth, investigation, kindness. There’s a lot to be said for encouraging those places that are actively seeking out what the Buddha actually did say as opposed to what traditions – both ancient and contemporary – say he said. And there’s alot to be said for cultivating kindness with those who are doing the harm and for seeing that which is good and beautiful and wise amongst them…as hard as this seems sometimes. This is what my teacher does…he gets slapped in the face and still holds out his hand in friendship…even as he stands his ground in truth and honesty.

      I also think that we need to see the world of Buddhism as being larger than Theravada. The Buddha said that where ever the 8 fold path is practised…you find Enlightenment/it’s possibility…or something along these lines… I must say I find what Bhante Sujato has written/said about the common ground that all Buddhist share, to be fascinating and a huge relief too.

      Wishing you all the very best. And also at this time thinking of everyone who’s frightened and worried in Northern Queensland and anywhere else for that matter. May they be alright.

      With Metta and Mudita

  13. Dear Bhante,

    Perhaps a topic for another thread? The decline of the spiritual male (and the feminization of some religions?)

    “To the endangered species of our world, let us add another: the vanishing American religious male. His disappearance isn’t just within Judaism — his lack of participation extends to every religion in the American landscape. And rabbis, priests, pastors, imams, demographers and sociologists are trying to understand why.

    “Rahmana liba bai,” teaches the Talmud: God wants the heart. But American culture has, until recently, asked women to carry our collective emotionality. This was not the case with our ancestors in Europe and North Africa. A European Jewish man would often cry when seeing a friend absent for a long time. They held their emotionality easily; American men held it less gracefully, and therefore may have been distant from the delving into emotion that is at the heart of prayer.

    But this explanation is also not enough. Our culture is changing, feminism and gender theory have had an impact, and the men of my generation were raised with much greater emotional consciousness than those who came before us. Yet these cultural changes have not changed the pattern of men’s disengagement from religion.”

  14. juzzeau :
    Hi Kanchana, Linda and anyone else who liked my little piece on integrity. I just put up a related posting that might interest you, also:

    Hi Juzzeau,

    Thanks for the great blog posting. I particularly like your analysis: “at the same time possibly poking fun at the Western practice of deciding ethical questions by resorting to opinion polls. No one present showed any sign of seeing the joke, though.”

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