Copy this

Copyright is a big deal. There’s hardly a single computer user who hasn’t faced the possibility of using or creating content that infringes copyright. And it is a huge deal in the area of Buddhist texts, where many texts are protected under some form of copyright law. I’m going to make a somewhat complex argument here, so let me state my conclusions up front.

I think copyright is a bad idea. I think we would be better off without it. But regardless of whether it has certain applications in some areas, it contradicts fundamental Buddhist principles and should never be applied to Buddhist scriptures.

Why is copyright a bad idea?

The basic premise of copyright is this: that we can ensure creative incomes by legal means. The purpose of copyright is to provide a legal avenue to ensure the rights of original creators are respected. That is to say, a copyright notice is nothing if it is not an implicit legal threat. It says, if you don’t comply, you are a criminal and we will take you to court. The problem is not just that these threats don’t work, it is that they prevent us from even considering more humane and socially-based measures.

When copyright laws evolved over the past few centuries, we lived in a completely different world. Copying took effort, and it could be reasonably contained. But for the past 20 years or so, the combined effort of human ingenuity and industrial output has created billions of machines that can copy incredibly fast, and has put those machines in the hands of most of the people on this planet.

Then you say to everyone, “Please don’t use these machines for copying!” Have you heard what happened in the Garden of Eden? Let me make a huge leap and guess: people copy stuff anyway.

Have a look at how many copyright takedown notices Google gets:

google_takedown

Yep, that’s over a million requests every day. For one company. And see how it’s soared over the past few years, at the same time as the protectors of copyright have pushed hard for creating ever more draconian laws.

There aren’t that many bad people in the world. If the law says that millions of people are criminals, it’s the law that is wrong, not the people. Any law that is broken this often is ill-conceived.

It seems to me that successful laws are of two kinds. You either have laws that govern things that are very exceptional, only a few people do them, and they fall well outside what are considered acceptable; such as murder, theft, and the like. In such cases, you ban the thing and impose substantial penalties. But other kinds of laws govern things that most people do, or might do. It’s not so much a matter of prohibiting things because they are wrong, but managing them in the interests of the public good. I’m thinking of things like speeding tickets, or building regulations, or non-smoking zones. In such cases we try to nudge people towards a better behavior. You tweak them, making them more stringent, together with an education component, and gradually build a social expectation of acceptable behavior.

The problem with copyright law is that it tries to apply the absolutism which is appropriate for the first kind of law to something that should be managed by the second kind of law. You can’t just make people stop copying things they like. It’s never going to happen. Maybe you could make them modify their behavior, but until you give them a way of doing that it is a losing battle.

Copyright law, it is often believed, may be justified by reference to the economic reality. But if that’s the case, why do the proponents of copyright resort to falsified data to justify their positions? There are, on the other hand, multiple accounts by authors and formal studies that show that publishing books freely on the internet dramatically increases usage and has little effect on book sales.

The intended purpose of copyright is not to protect corporations, but to protect the work of creators. But here’s the thing. Before I was a monk, I was an original creator. I was a songwriter; and I lived among creative artists. For 6 or 7 years pretty much all my friends were writers, poets, actors, musicians, painters, or dancers. And I can’t recall a single time when copyright law was actually relevant to anyone. True, I made a small amount from song royalties, but it never affected our lives all that much.

And anyway, even if you, as a struggling artist, became aware of a copyright violation, what could you do about it? Take a publisher or record company to court? Good luck with that. What you’d do, if anything, is contact the alleged violator, and if they didn’t do as you asked, you’d grumble about it. You don’t need a legal system for that.

Copyright becomes relevant when you step up into the realm of corporate sponsored art. You sign a contract, giving the copyright ownership to a company. For us it was a record company, otherwise it might be a book publisher, a movie studio or whatever. Then they own the copyright, and you get a small percentage (in our case, about 10%—so much for protecting the rights of creative artists.) If there is a copyright violation, the company goes to court, because they can afford to.

Now, in some cases this can be justified. For example, it’s really expensive to make a movie. You need companies to provide the financing and bear the risk. But this is a purely contingent fact, and it changes depending on technology. In the past, for example, a publishing company was needed to produce books. Gradually, technology has eaten away at the specialist services that publishers can offer. Typesetting, proofreading, design, marketing, printing, distribution: all these can now be done easily by individual authors, who can then keep full copyright control over their works. On Amazon, nearly 50% of creator revenue for genre titles is now from self-published books. So the fact that producing some kinds of creative work requires large companies and legal protection does not mean that such protection is necessary everywhere.

The notion that copyright exists to protect creators withers when you consider the devastating impact that the radical expansion of copyright has had on works whose creators have died. Here’s some background on this, from Professor James Boyle of Duke Law School:

Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn’t want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you “fixed” the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture — from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials — was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic. Copyright went from covering very little culture, and only covering it for a 28 year period during which it was commercially available, to covering all of culture, regardless of whether it was available — often for over a century. Unlike Fahrenheit 451, the vast majority of the culture swept into this 20th century black hole was not commercially available and, in most cases, the authors are unknown. The works are locked up — with no benefit to anyone — and no one has the key that would unlock them. We have cut ourselves off from our own culture, left it to molder — and in the case of nitrate film, literally disintegrate — with no benefit to anyone. The works may not be physically destroyed — although many of them are; disappearing, disintegrating, or simply getting lost in the vastly long period of copyright to which we have relegated them. But for the vast majority of works and the vast majority of citizens who do not have access to one of our great libraries, they are gone as thoroughly as if we had piled up the culture of the 20th century and simply set fire to it; and all this right at the moment when we could have used the Internet vastly to expand the scope of cultural access.

That this extension of copyright is useless and harmful is not just the opinion of a few radicals. In 2002 a team of 19 economists, including 4 Nobel laureates, submitted an analysis to the US Congress on the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, where they concluded that, “Taken as a whole, the authors believe that it is highly unlikely that the economic benefits from copyright extension under the CTEA outweigh the additional costs.” And yet, it is still with us.

Here’s a stunning graphic that shows just how deep a hole in our culture copyright law has dug. It’s from a paper titled “How Copyright Keeps Works Disappeared”, by Paul J. Heald of the University of Illinois College of Law. This graphic shows how books published before the magic public-domain date of 1923 are far more available than those published after. Essentially, publishers make texts available for a decade or two, and then they languish unread until they enter public domain.

The proof is in the pudding. Empirical studies show that creative workers earn an average of around half the median wage, and what income there is is extremely unequal and uncertain. In a survey of 25,000 authors in the UK and Germany, authors Martin Kretschmer and Philip Hardwick of the Bournemouth University Business School wrote that, if the aim of copyright law is to provide reasonable renumeration for writers, “This study shows quite conclusively that current copyright law has empirically failed to meet these aims.” They added, “After this study, copyright policy cannot remain the same.” And yet not only has there been no reform, things continue to get worse, as in the top secret deals being forged in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

If the law doesn’t really protect creative artists, then who does it protect? Copyright law is an instrument of capitalism, and like all instruments of capitalism, it aims to make the rich richer. Who is making all the fuss about copyright? Farmers in Kenya? Street cleaners in Manila? Bus drivers in Brazil? No, it’s the owners of massive, wealthy corporations.

The practical result of copyright, I allege, is to take money out of the hands of creative artists and their fans, and concentrate it in the hands of the rich, who control the means of production. Think about it: why was copyright law created in the past 300 years or so? Isn’t that the time when the printing press became used? A printing press allows mass copying of writing, but it does so at considerable expense, in terms of the physical machinery and space, but also in terms of time and experience, and carefully learned craftsmanship. When the laws were created, this served a purpose, as the capital—printing presses, distribution networks, and the like—was necessary to propagate work. So a class of company, known as “publishers”, was created to deal with these things and enable the printing and distribution of books. But now, the measurable effect of copyright law is to prevent people from accessing content. And the reason for this is straightforward: the whole idea is based on a state of technology that simply doesn’t exist any more.

Profit arises from the demand for a good whose supply is limited. In the 20th century, the supply of intellectual content was limited, and so it was a valuable commodity. Now it’s not, despite the efforts of content providers to keep it so. Information is the cheapest thing in the world; much cheaper than water. The economic thinking that underlies copyright law is deeply disconnected from the real world.

I have looked for demographic data on the economic effects of copyright law and haven’t been able to find anything, so allow me to make an unsubstantiated hypothesis. If anyone knows of some information, please let me know. But here is my thesis: the flow of money from copyright is, on the whole, from the poor to the rich; from the colored to the white; from the female to the male; from the underdeveloped countries to the developed; and from the young to the old. Prove me wrong!

If we are to retain any form of copyright law, we should develop it like the second kind of law I mentioned above, in a gradual and pragmatic way, together with an education process.

One model would be to make copyright law more like patent law. It would be opt-in, so a creator would have to make an application for copyright, which spelled out the reasons for applying copyright in this instance. If the application was successful, a percentage of earnings, say 10%, would go to the regulatory body, thus providing funding for it. This would ensure that copyright is only applied for substantive works, and works where the creator genuinely expects that they will lose more than 10% of their earnings by copying. The copyright would apply for a reasonable period, say 20 years, as is the case with patents.

As long as humans have existed, they have created. The first signs of human creative activity are nearly 100,000 years old. Creativity is an expression of the human spirit: it doesn’t belong to capitalism. No matter what you do, people will create. People all over the world are creating, writing, painting, playing music, and they couldn’t care less about copyright. Copyright law is not about fostering creativity. It is about keeping alive an economic order based on 20th century technology, which ensures that a small circle of the rich get the bulk of the economic gain from creative activity.

What about Buddhism?

You’d think that it wouldn’t need stating, but evidently it does: Buddhism is about letting go, copyright is about holding on.

Even if we can accept a case for certain forms of copyright in certain spheres of life, how should that apply to Buddhism? After all, Buddhism not merely survived, but flourished for thousands of years before copyright came on the picture. Perhaps some historical perspective is in order.

The first question, which can be dealt with swiftly, is whether copying is stealing under the Buddhist precepts. The answer is no. Stealing in Buddhism requires that the owner be deprived of something. Copying is not taking. You could argue that the creator is indirectly deprived of income, but that is irrelevant. There are plenty of ways to indirectly deprive someone of income; I could set up a rival business, for example. I might even do that out of malice, to deliberately harm you. That may not be a nice thing to do, it might even be illegal, but it has nothing to do with stealing. Of course, breaking copyright is against the law, which is a separate matter; but it is not breaking precepts.

Incidentally, many monastics, like most people in developing countries, use pirated software all the time. If copying was stealing, they’d risk falling into an expulsion offence. However, even though there is no expulsion offence for using the software, it is still often illegal. This is one of the many reasons why monastics should use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), such as Linux. This also highlights one of the often-overlooked details of copyright history. Software is an unusual industry in that extensive copying has existed as long as the industry has. People have been using millions of pirated copies of Windows and other software as long as they have been around. Yet software companies are thriving, and making record profits.

For the Buddhist tradition, as indeed for most ancient traditions, there is no notion of intellectual property. People borrowed and copied all the time. Buddhist texts are full of cases where monks or nuns are quoting verbatim passages from the Buddha or others, and there is never an issue of ownership. That’s because the Dhamma is not about ownership. It’s about helping people let go of suffering.

The Dhamma was felt to be, if anyone’s, the Buddha’s. The Buddha encouraged his students to teach the Dhamma in their own language; so that, from the earliest days, the Dhamma existed in multiple translated forms, all of which were considered to be the words of the Buddha. When the texts were later translated into Chinese and Tibetan, they continued this tradition, regarding these texts as “the word of the Buddha” in exactly the same sense as the “original” scriptures (which were themselves translations from one Indic dialect to another).

However, in modern times agreements such as the Berne convention ruled that translations should be considered to be original creations. I think this is a mistake. I’ve done original writing, and I’ve done translations, and they are very different kinds of things. You can, for example, get a computer to do translation, albeit poorly, but no computer can write a meaningful original article.

Be that as it may, it is clearly contrary to the entire Buddhist tradition. And needless to say, no-one thought to consult Buddhists about this. It was a law made in Europe by some rich white men, who were not even thinking that their acts might affect an ancient spiritual tradition from the East. Yet this law has been adopted by many Buddhists who use it to control how translations are made. No longer are Buddhist scriptures regarded as the “word of the Buddha”, but as the property of individuals, or more likely, of corporations. This tendency is found mostly among western translators; Asian translators mostly stick closer to the original spirit, although they sometimes use restrictive licences of various forms.

Not only are translations regarded as owned by individuals, even the original texts are frequently subject to copyright claims. You’d think that a millenia old text would be pretty firmly in the Public Domain, but apparently many publishers of original texts don’t think so. Going beyond the extremely broad scope of copyright law, they publish licences with their texts, sometimes “releasing” them under various Creative Commons licences. But you can only licence something that you own, and you can’t just go around claiming to own something that you don’t. To make such a claim is, or it should be, illegal. (Since copyright law is written almost entirely to protect the interests of content providers, it is not clear to what extent such a claim is fact illegal. But the principle is clear enough.)

The basic justification for copyright is that if we don’t copyright things, creators won’t get compensation, and the work will not be done. This is a dubious argument in the creative industries generally, since not only, as we have seen, is there no real evidence that copyright ensures a decent living for artists, but because artists are not motivated primarily by money.

This is even more applicable to Buddhism. No-one translates Buddhist texts for money; which is a very good thing, because if you did, you’ll be pretty disappointed. We—the monastics, academics, institutions, or private individuals—who do the work of translation do it out of love. There are vast quantities of translations that have been done and simply put out there, with no attempt at getting recompense. And even in the minority of cases where works are published commercially, the translators, and the many assistants who made these works possible, typically don’t get any income from them. Given this, it seems to me that the best way to produce high quality translations is to make our work freely available, so it can be copied, adapted, and improved. If funding is needed, for example, if someone wants to take time off work to complete a translation, we should rely on the Buddhist culture of dana, which has supported the maintaining and spreading of the texts for so long.

When I suggest that we shouldn’t use copyright on our texts, people say, but how do you stop them being misused? I just don’t get what the problem is. Does anyone really think that there are hordes of malicious people waiting out there to do awful things with Buddhist texts?

If, by some remote chance, someone does do something malicious with my work, such as, say, passing it off as their own, I’ll contact them and ask them to stop. If they don’t, I’ll rely on the power of peer pressure. I’ll write about it, and let people know that there’s a scam afoot. The perps will fade away soon enough. I’d never take someone to court for anything like that, so why issue an empty threat?

To me, it seems that this concern betrays a deeper misunderstanding of what copyright law is all about.

Copyright is not something that you can claim or not claim. It exists by law because you made a creative work. By operating under copyright law you are saying that anyone who violates this law is a criminal, and is potentially subject to very large punishments.

What I am suggesting is that this should not be a legal matter. We should dedicate our works to the Public Domain, via Creative Commons Zero or similar. That doesn’t mean that you necessarily support and encourage anyone to do anything they like with your work. It means that whatever someone does, you will not treat them as a criminal. If you don’t like what they do, contact them and ask them politely to stop. If you would like to issue some guidelines for use, do so. You can ask people to give proper attribution, or to not change anything, or to not use for commercial purposes. But you don’t have to make a legal issue out of these things.

I used to go along with the norm, thinking that it was the right thing to do. So I published my works under restrictive Creative Commons licences. But as I’ve learned more and my understanding of copyright has improved, now I don’t claim anything. I think if someone wants to do something with my work, great. Alexander Duncan of Chroniker Press took my Theragatha translation and made a nice printed edition: it’s terrific, buy one if you like! Markus Echterhoff of DhammaTime just made some modifications to my Open Sanskrit font, itself derived from Open Sans. Cool, download and use it.

Which brings me back around to something I alluded to earlier. Rather than relying on copyright, we should adapt the millenia-old means of negotiating usage of materials based on social interactions. And this is, once again, an area where technology has completely changed the situation. Creators can stay in touch with their audience to a degree that has not been possible since publishing was invented.

Copyright law is just bad psychology. The people who want your things are your fans. When you invoke copyright law, you are treating your fans like criminals. How do you think that’s going to work out?

The relationship between the creator and their audience is the single, irreducible fact of all public creative activity. You need a creator, and you need an audience. What you don’t need is a middle man. By making a faceless company the middle man, you distance the creator from their audience. When a fan copies a work, they don’t think they are harming the creator. They think of it as avoiding paying “the man”. If the natural creative relationship between artist and audience is restored, there will be a greater degree of respect and mutual support. This is proven by such innovations as Kickstarter, which shows that people are quite happy to pay for creative works, especially if they feel a sense of connection with the creator.

What I am suggesting is that innovative models like Kickstarter, or its Buddhist version dana.io, give us an example of how a new relationship between creator and audience can be forged. Lulu.com, the print on demand service, is another example. Rather than signing over the ownership of your work to Lulu, you retain ownership, and use whatever licence you like. Lulu is more like a contractor. You pay them for various services, basic ones like printing and distribution, and optionally for things like design and marketing. But they never own your work: you do.

Most people don’t realize it, but the internet runs on dana. Most of the servers that power the internet run on Linux, which is Free and Open Source Software. It was created, developed, and is still maintained by people who donate their work to the public good. Linux doesn’t just power the internet, it also underlies Android, and a whole range of other applications, from computers embedded in various devices, to the world’s fastest supercomputers. Why do you think the very best computer scientists in the world use Linux for their most performance-critical work? Because it’s better, obviously. Generosity is not just a nice idea, it creates better outcomes. Why? Because people do better work when you engage their positive nature than if you assume they are selfish.

Another innovative example is the TeX typesetting program developed by Donald Knuth. He released the software for free, as quality typesetting is a public good, everyone should be able to do it. And he made money by putting the detailed instructions in a book, the TeXbook, which was of course typeset in TeX. But he went further, by offering a reward for anyone who found a bug in his program. In this way he not only improved his work, he engaged a community of clever people who wanted to work with him.

There’s lots of other examples to be found. In all these cases, people found effective ways to use a fundamental principle of Buddhist psychology: that people work best when they are encouraged to do good. If you penalize them for doing something harmless, they just get annoyed.

I’ll finish this off with a quote from the author Neil Gaiman, which is a summary of his keynote for the London Book Fair 2013.

Mammals spend an awful lot of energy on infants, on children, they spend nine months of our lives gestating, and then they get two decades of attention from us, because we’re putting all of our attention into this one thing we want to grow. Dandelions on the other hand will have thousands of seeds and they let them go where they like, they don’t really care. They will let go of 1,000 seeds, and 100 of them will sprout.

… the whole point of a digital frontier right now is that it’s a frontier, all the old rules are falling apart. Anyone who tells you they know what’s coming, what things will be like in 10 years’ time, is simply lying to you. None of the experts know—nobody knows, which is great.

When the rules are gone you can make up your own rules. You can fail, you can fail more interestingly, you can try things, and you can succeed in ways nobody would have thought of, because you’re pushing through a door marked no entrance, you’re walking in through it. You can do all of that stuff but you just have to become a dandelion, be willing for things to fail, throw things out there, try things, and see what sticks.

And, by the way, I fixed a spelling mistake in that quote. One dandelion just became a little more beautiful.

Definition of Charity

The Australian Federal Government is revising its statutory definition of a charity. Given that most Bddhist organizations operate as charities, this is of concern for the Buddhist community, and the Govt has asked the FABC to offer advice. The webpage is here for anyone who’s interested. It is essential that any new definition should include Buddhism as a charity, as it provides abundant public benefits. In the past there has been some discussion as to whether Buddhism qualifies as a “religion” under Australian law. This is another matter that should be clarified.

Turns of events

It’s now a year and a half since Ajahn Brahm and Bodhinyana monastery were excommunicated from their monastic circle, Wat Pa Pong, for disobeying orders by ordaining women in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings.

Has anything got better?

Short answer: not so you’d notice.

Long answer:

Ajahn Brahm has been in discussions with some of the WPP Ajahns overseas, trying to arrange a forgiveness ceremony, to let go and move ahead. He is clear that neither he nor his Sangha are interested to rejoin Wat Pa Pong. They do, however, want WPP to stop the active campaign of cutting Ajahn Brahm and his monks out of communion, requiring that Ajahn Brahm’s monks effectively disown him as a teacher if they stay in a WPP monastery, and so on. After several discussions where such a move seemed hopeful, suddenly the word came from the WPP Ajahns: ‘It’s not time yet’.

I wasn’t aware there was a right time for forgiveness.

Having just spent a few weeks in Bodhinyana, when these issues were discussed regularly, I can confirm that there is a lot of pain and disappointment at WPP’s actions among both the lay and ordained communities. In speaking with Ajahn Brahm, however, I never heard him do anything other than seek for a way to resolve the conflict. There was no criticism, no sign of ill-will, only the question: ‘How do we get over this?’

Meanwhile, a serious situation of conflict at the branch monastery in Wellington, New Zealand has arisen. A little background is in order. The monastery was established around the same time as Bodhinyana in Perth, and by coincidence they chose a similar name, Bodhinyanarama (after Ajahn Chah’s Pali name). Bodhinyana was established by inviting monks from Thailand. However, Bodhinyanarama was established with monks from England, and hence they have always been part of the ‘Amaravati circle’. Like Bodhinyana, however, Bodhinyanarama was set up by a pre-existing Buddhist society operating as a charitable association, the Wellington Theravada Buddhist Association (WTBA), which purchased the land, developed the monastery, and holds the title.

Bodhiyanarama enjoyed its glory days early on, under the leadership of Ajahn Viradhammo, when it expanded to become a sizable and thriving monastery. Since he left it has dwindled, and for many years now has rarely housed more than one or two monks. Bhikkhunis are not welcome.

Now, Ajahn Tiradhammo, the current abbot, wishes to change the legal basis of the organization. He wishes to change the constitution of the charitable association, with its open membership and democratically elected committee, and replace it with a model under which the stewards are appointed by the sangha and the abbot is appointed from Wat Pa Pong and Amaravati, and the WPP monks who make up the ‘resident Sangha’ will appoint a committee of lay trustees to handle the financials. All control is taken away from the locals, and the WPP Sangha can effectively insulate itself.

As I have shown at length in previous posts, such an arrangement is neither Vinaya nor Thai custom.

There are no abbots in the Vinaya – there is not even a word for ‘abbot’. The Sangha is, not a self-defined organization that excludes others, but the universal Sangha of the ‘Four Quarters’. Short of schism, there are no grounds in Vinaya for a group of monks to set themselves up in this sort of exclusive way.

In Thailand, the abbot is traditionally chosen through consultation between the resident Sangha, the local lay community, and a representative of the Sangha administration. (The Sangha administration is involved because under Thai law the monastery law belongs to the Sangha as constituted under the Sangha Act, and so the authorities have a legal duty of care. This, of course, does not apply in the case of monasteries overseas.)

What is the argument for this change? As best as I can make out, the argument is that the current WTBA constitution does not give any guaranteed ‘rights’ to the monastic community, including things such as decisions regarding what to build, or what monastics can stay. Things have been merely workable under a tacit agreement between the Sangha and the lay committee. Of course it is reasonable for the monastic Sangha to have a say in what happens in the monastery, and for this to be reflected in a constitution. It is quite possible to do this in a way that still gives the local lay community a say. It’s just a matter of balance. Certainly this is no justification for handing the entire monastery over to people overseas, especially when there is no guarantee that monks will actually be sent.

Having failed to persuade the committee, Ajahn Tiradhammo resorted to branch stacking at the AGM held on June 12. He secretly organized for a number of new people to come expressly to support him, and coached them before the meeting, hoping to make them members of a new committee. However, on a technicality they were not able to become voting members for the AGM and the previous committee was largely re-elected.

(Curiously enough, a similar manouver was attempted by the notorious New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) at an AGM of the Australian Sangha Association a few years ago. On the eve of the AGM we got a flood of membership applications from every NKT member in Australia. Under the ASA constitution, however, the NKT members do not have a recognized ordination, so are legally unable to become members.)

Accounts of the meeting are highly emotional. Many people present were very upset by the way this was done, and what they saw as the open manipulation of democratic processes happening in their Dhamma hall.

A strong letter of complaint has been sent to Ajahn Tiradhammo and several of the western WPP Ajahns. There have been allegations that the proposed revision is illegal under New Zealand trust law. It remains to be seen what the outcome will be.

What exactly is going on here? The rules of Wat Pa Pong remain: discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns. Since the majority of devotees reject these principles, they have been kept secret as far as possible; however this is no longer possible. The only way to ensure survival is to gain absolute power over the considerable wealth and property invested in the monasteries.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The Ajahns have been telling us these things for years. Equality, democracy, rights: according to the clear, often repeated, and explicit teachings of senior Wat Pa Pong Ajahns, these things are alien, ‘Western’ values irrelevant to the Dhamma and of no value for liberation. What we are now seeing is simply these principles put into practice.

WPP faces a choice. Will they continue to endorse these principles? Or will they begin the difficult process of reflection and change?

There is a storm coming, make no mistake. Maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will come. The senior teachers are passing away, and so the spiritual center of gravity that has held the Wat Pa Pong tradition together is dissipating. There are those within WPP who believe that discrimination against women and submission to the authority of the Ajahns are the heart of the Buddhist monastic tradition. And there are those within WPP who believe that these are corruptions that defile the true Buddhist tradition.

Can these very different viewpoints be reconciled? Of course! There’s no great secret: recognize the problem, accept that it needs to be overcome, and work with commitment to overcome it. Since even the first of these is a long way off, however, I’m not holding my breath.

One by one, each of the Wat Pa Pong branch monasteries will have to decide where it stands. Whether it is to be an instrument of Thai Buddhist colonialism, or a source of spiritual vitality in its own land. The moral question is a no-brainer. The hard part is how to make it work.

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.

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.

Terminology

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

1.39

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.

2.164

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.

1.139-142

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.

1.303-4

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.

1.305

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.

3.90

Garubhaṇḍa includes ārāma, ārāmavatthu, vihāra, vihāravatthu.

2.170

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

Miscellaneous

3.66

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.

3.102

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.

3.201

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.

4.40

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.

Discussion

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.