Can a nun manage a temple?

I’ve reposted the following article here, originally submitted by Visakha, for more prominence.

From Buddhist Channel —

When Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun, vice-rector for public relations at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), said, “During the Buddha’s era, there weren’t any nuns. Now things have changed, and now they can stay on temple compounds.” — he was referring to mae chis, of course.

Gender and religion: Where nuns fear to tread
The Bangkok Post, March 6, 2011

A mae chi’s takeover of a Thai Buddhist temple in India has brought the management of the facilities overseas and the role of female clergy to the fore

Bangkok, Thailand — The controversy over a Thai Buddhist nun successfully petitioning an Indian court to gain control of a temple has raised broader questions surrounding the administration of temples overseas. It has also highlighted the ambiguous role nuns, or mae chi, face within the structure of Buddhism in Thailand.

A court in India’s Bihar state recently ruled in favour of Mae Chi Ahree Pongsai, a nun in her seventies, who lodged a complaint requesting that she be allowed to replace Phra Khru Pariyat Thammawithet as head of the Thai Nalanda temple, 90km from the state capital of Patna. Mai Chi Ahree reportedly claimed that the former abbot, Phra Maha Tharntong, who died in 2007, had written in his will that if she came into conflict with his successor, she should seek assistance from India’s courts to take over.

The news of Mae Chi Ahree’s court success, made public following a visit to India by Culture Minister Nipit Intrasombat late last month, caused an uproar in Thai Buddhist circles.

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun, vice-rector for public relations at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), said that as the temple was in India, the court’s ruling would have to stand, but the decision flew in the face of Thai-Buddhist tradition.

Essential Buddhism scripts and principles clearly outline the power structure within a temple and the separation of roles between mai chi and monks, he said. ”Mae chi are barred from managing temples. Only monks, rising to the position of abbot, can manage them,” he said. ”During the Buddha’s era, there weren’t any nuns. Now things have changed, and now they can stay on temple compounds.

”But we have never had a nun run a temple before. What will society think about this?”

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun said that when monks go to foreign countries, they might request that nuns from their temple in Thailand accompany them, but their role is facilitative _ assisting in religious studies and helping to manage food and accommodation for visitors.

The administration of the temple is the sole domain of monks, he said.

NUNS IN THAILAND: BETWEEN TWO REALMS

Mae chi occupy an ambiguous place in Thai society. The official council of ordained clergy in Thailand, the Sangha Supreme Council, does not recognise mae chi as full members. They are not officially allowed to interpret or teach the dhamma (the teachings of the Buddha), or perform religious rituals.

The Interior Ministry, however, does regard them as clergy, meaning they are unable to vote, while the Transport Ministry treats them as lay people, denying them rights accorded to monks, such as free transport services.

In the past, efforts have been made to clarify the status of mae chi, such as in 1991, when the Institute for Thai Nuns pushed parliament to consider a ”Nun Act”, which would outline basic regulations for nuns.

According to a September, 2002, article from Inter Press Service, the Religious Affairs Department’s response was unambiguous: ”It is impossible. A nun has never existed in a Thai Buddhist decree.”

Sri Lanka, like Thailand, follows Theravada Buddhism, however it permits women to be ordained as monks. A controversy also challenging traditional power structures within Thai Buddhism erupted in 2001 when a Thai female Buddhist scholar, Dr Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, was ordained in Sri Lanka, and shortly thereafter, another Thai woman, Samaneri Dhammarakhita was ordained by a Sri Lankan preceptor on Thai soil, marking the first time a woman had been ordained in the country.

But Mae Chi Ananta Nakboon of the Mae Chi foundation [Institute of Thai Mae Chi???Thai Nun’s Institute???Buddhasavika Foundation???]strongly disagreed with Mae Chi Ahree’s actions.

”What was she thinking when she went to court to get the rights to manage the temple?” she said. ”Mae chi are under the support and teaching of the monks. We have no right to challenge their authority in any case,” said Mae Chi Ananta. ”In the temple, the teaching of the monks receives the highest respect from the people. The mae chi do not earn the same respect. How can they then manage temples successfully?”

She said mae chi can establish meditation centres and foundations and administrate them, ”but definitely not temples”.

THAI TEMPLES IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES

Further complicating matters in Mae Chi Ahree’s case is the way in which Thai temples abroad are administered. Temples here are established as juristic entities under the Ecclesiastical Law (1962, and 1992). The temple is considered religious property that cannot be transferred to any person and comes under the authority of the Sangha Supreme Council. Overseas temples, such as the Thai Nalanda temple, are not beholden to the Ecclesiastical Law or the Sangha Supreme Council.

There are currently over 300 Thai Buddhist temples around the world, with some 1,200 monks. Thai communities abroad establish the temple, putting administrative power in the hands of laypeople.

”Most overseas temples are established as non-profit organisations or under a foundation with or without Thai Buddhist monks at the beginning,” said Amnaj Buasiri, director of the secretariat of the Sangha Supreme Council.

That difference has led to conflicts arising between monks and foundations’ administrative teams, he said.

In some instances, committees overseeing temple affairs have fired monks, who have then complained to Thailand’s Office of National Buddhism.

”The office has suggested that Thai monks should be named to chair foundations overseeing temple affairs, so that they can better deal with conflicts when they occur,” said Mr Amnaj.

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun said that Thai monks going abroad must be familiar with the laws and regulations in their destination countries to avoid conflict. He said a better balance needs to be struck in the way overseas temples are administered _ a shift from the current situation that sees the foundation in charge, and the monks mere residents on temple grounds.

”It is very important for the abbot, the monks and the foundation committee to have set rules and an agreement on how to manage the temple and the duties of different parties.”

Phra Khru Suwatthanachariyakhun proposed that religious attaches be dispatched abroad to deal with conflicts such as those in Mai Chi Ahree’s case, which he said will only increase as overseas Thai communities expand.

These attaches would cooperate with temples in providing Buddhist teachings and also help resolve disputes between monks and temple committees or wider disagreements between the temples and surrounding communities.

Mr Amnaj argued that the Thai government should take over Thai Buddhist temples abroad.

Mr Amnaj strongly believed that a concrete way to solve the management problem of Thai Buddhist temples in foreign countries is to transfer the temples to the Thai government. He cited Wat Buddhapadipa in London and Wat Sanghapadipa in Wales as examples of where this model has been effective.

”The temples transferred the land and property rights of the temple compound to the Thai government, and the Thai embassy in the UK works with them to help look after the property as a national asset interest in a foreign country,” he said.

This would prevent disputes over the transfer of management rights, such as what happened at the Nalanda Temple and give Thai embassies the authority to step in should problems arise.

He said the proposal has been discussed among relevant authorities but without any resolution. ”Many factors, including different countries’ laws and regulations, must be studied in detail,” he said.

Mr Amnaj said the main point is that Buddhist temples are religious property and are meant to be a source of Buddhist teachings. They do not belong to any individual or group, even those who have established and supported them.

In the case of Mae Chi Ahree, Mr Amnaj, who returned from India said this week, said there had been no progress made in talks with her.

She refused to meet with government representatives, he said, choosing instead to speak through a loudspeaker and insisting she still had the right to manage the temple.

Mr Amnaj said that Phra Khru Pariyat and eight other monks continued their duties at the temple, and that the facility had thrived since Phra Khru Pariyat took over in 2007.

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Monks in Suits

‘When ordinary people praise the Buddha, they do so only on the trivial and petty grounds of mere behavior.’
The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya 1

In recent days there’s been considerable discussion among Buddhists, especially in Singapore and Malaysia, over the conferring of the respected title ‘Datuk’ to the senior monk Venerable Dhammaratana, abbot of the Brickfields Temple in KL. The controversy is not over the honor, but over the fact that the Venerable received it wearing a suit!

A bit strange, I think. I’ve lived in Malaysia for over a year, and i can’t imagine anyone, including the Malaysian royalty, expecting a monk to wear anything other than his traditional robes. After all, the officials at the ceremony were wearing traditional Malaysian garb, not suits. I’ve met three Prime Ministers and the Queen of England, and it never occurred to me to wear anything other than the same robe I wear every day.

But what’s stranger to me is the emotional reaction of some Malaysian Buddhists. The Young Buddhists Association of Malaysia (YBAM), one of the most important central organizations, said, ‘We were deeply saddened by the failure of Ven. Dhammaratana to set a good example in upholding the dignity of Buddhism.’ The Buddhist Channel published an article where the author Siriminda said: ‘I am disturbed and horrified to know that the venerable donned a complete lay suit to in the investiture ceremony.’

These articles, and others, were careful to acknowledge their pride as Buddhists and respect for the fact that the Venerable had received such an award. But there is no mistaking their very serious concern for the idea of such a senior monk not wearing robes. This is seen as an affront to one of the core symbols of Buddhism.

According to Vinaya, wearing lay clothes is a minor offence, although what this exactly means is not entirely clear. After all, the robes that monastics wore in those days wear, in point of fact, the same as lay clothes, except for the distinctive color and the patchwork pattern.

As with so many other things, the Vinaya issue is a distraction here. Monks break far more rules than this every day and no-one bats an eyelid. The real issue is the robe as a symbols of the Sangha, part of the Triple Gem.

The Venerable is by no means the first bhikkhu to don lay clothes. The respected German monk Ven. Nyanaponika would, so I am told, wear a brown suit when he returned to Germany, as the robs were unknown in his country. It is quite common in the west for Tibetan monastics to wear lay clothes to go to work, then put the robes on when they return to the temple. This is an unfortunate consequence of the lack of support for Tibetan monastics in the west.

In the Brahmajala Sutta I quoted from above, the Buddha makes a strong point about how people will tend to blame or criticize based on trivial details of external behaviour, ignoring that which is of true value. The Buddha was very clear on this, and always kept a sense of ethical perspective. Sadly, we Buddhists have become so attached to the externals of our religion that we tend to judge and condemn someone who has spent a life in service to the Dhamma based on such a trivial thing.

We forget: there is nothing immoral about wearing a suit. It doesn’t harm anyone. There are real, genuine moral issues facing us every day, and we as Buddhists get used to simply living as if they passed us by. But a suit! Now, that’s something to get ‘horrified’ by.

When I see Ven. Dhammaratana wearing a suit I don’t get horrified or saddened. I think, well that’s unusual. I wonder what the circumstances were that caused him to make that choice? And that’s about all it deserves.

The real take-home message of this little kerfluffle is something quite different. What we are seeing is a Muslim raja presenting an award for public service to a Buddhist monk. Just think: in how many countries in the world could something like this happen? The Malaysian people have built a society where interfaith relations are so good that this can happen, and no-one even bothers to notice.

We hear a constant narrative about Muslim ‘extremists’, about Islamic intolerance for other faiths. This honoring of a Buddhist by a Muslim should be an occasion to celebrate. Malaysians should be proudly saying to the world, ‘Look, this can happen!’ Instead, we show the world that all we care about is a suit.

And why has it happened? It is because of decades of work by leaders such as Ven Dhammaratana and his mentor K Sri Dhammananda, who have built a solid foundation for faith relations in Malaysia. I myself witnessed Ven K Sri Dhammananda’s efforts in this regard, and it was one of the things that inspired me to take an interest in interfaith in Australia.

One of the most salient aspects of the late K Sri Dhammananda’s approach to Buddhism was that he kept it real. He told a story once of how a woman in an airport dropped her handbag off a balcony. He was below, he picked it up and brought it to her. She said, ‘I didn’t think monks could touch a woman’s possessions!’ And he said, ‘I didn’t do it as a monk, I did it as a human being.’ When the Chief Rev told that story in KL, there was a spontaneous applause.

Another story. When the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed, he commented on the fact that Buddhists around the world had responded very calmly, without getting upset at the destruction of such a magnificent symbol of Buddhism. And he said, again to applause, ‘And that’s real Buddhism.’

Another time he spoke of when he was a young monk in KL, how he would get just so hungry sometimes in the afternoon – but the Buddhists wouldn’t give him anything to eat, because monks shouldn’t eat in the afternoon. Only the Muslims, responding to him as a human being, not as a symbol, would give him a snack.

It is this attitude, this insistence on humanity as the core of Buddhism, not external behaviors and symbols, that inspired K Sri Dhammananda’s mission, which as all Malaysians know, is the foundation of modern Malaysian Buddhism.

His approach is not the strictest. But it has a flexibility and a sincerity that has allowed Buddhist to flourish in a majority Muslim country, during a time when so many other countries have been overtaken by the spectre of fundamentalism. Perhaps it is this very flexibility, this concern for the other, that lay behind Ven Dhammaratana’s decision.

I can only imagine that wearing lay clothes would feel very strange and uncomfortable. Stepping out, knowing the judgments that others will make. I can’t imagine that he did this for himself. I can only assume he was thinking of what was best for the occasion, to be as gracious and considerate as possible for his host.

As a monk, and even more so, as a human being, Ven. Dhammaratana deserves the benefit of the doubt, not harsh judgments. Let us not forget his role in making Malaysian Buddhism what it is: a diverse, vibrant, relevant community that has helped build and sustain Malaysia as a successful multi-faith nation.

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!

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (6)

Medicine and Recreation

To feel better, take a pill.

That’s the logic behind use of drugs for recreation; and it’s exactly the same logic behind too much modern medicine.

The difference is this. If a person decides of their own volition to take a pill – or smoke a joint or inject something or whatever – to make themselves feel good, then they are a depraved criminal fit for punishment. If they take a pill to make themselves feel good because an authority figure in a white coat tells them to, they are a good and responsible citizen; in fact they are bad if they fail to “comply” and don’t take the pill.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between medicinal and recreational use of drugs. Obviously there is, and obviously there is a role for health professionals.

The problem is that these different things lie along a spectrum of use, and frequently involve the same substances; and yet our current legal structures creates an artificial divorce between them.

Historically, most recreational drugs have had a medical application: opium, marijuana, LSD, and so on. Similarly, many medical prescription drugs are commonly used for “recreational” purposes, whether licitly or illicitly.

The structure of current medical use of drugs is intended to manage their use so as to limit their harmful effects. This is never more than partially successful, as very few patients actually follow their doctor’s orders in taking medicine. Doctors are well aware of this fact. There are countless people who are addicted to prescription medicines, and who take them in ways that are just as harmful as any illicit drugs; the death of Michael Jackson is proof enough of this.

The more fundamental problem, I believe, is that by creating a very effective aura of authority, the medical establishment contributes to a culture that fervently believes that taking pills is a solution to problems, and leads to happiness. I believe there is a flow-on effect from this pill-positive tendency in modern medicine to cultural attitudes around drugs at large. In this way, I believe that modern medicine contributes to the drug problem both directly – by making massive amounts of drugs available to addicts – and indirectly, by conditioning society to seek solutions in pills.

Any effective approach to addressing the drugs issue has to start with the understanding that there are three areas of concern: medical drugs, legal recreational drugs (alcohol, tobacco), and illegal recreational drugs. These are currently treated as virtually independent issues, with clear-cut divisions in law and social attitudes. But in reality they are part of the same issue, the same fundamental principle that by putting some mind-altering chemical in our body we can be happy.

As long as we insist on separating them into watertight, radically opposed categories, we are going to avoid noticing the harm that is caused by the legal substances, and will exaggerate the harm caused by the illegal ones, and our policies will be unbalanced, hypocritical, and ineffective.

The rational response to this, in the fields of both mental and physical health, is to move away from a pill-centric approach to a holistic one. Treat the whole person, not the disease. Pills have their uses, but doctors should be more cautious in prescribing them, and should whenever possible seek alternatives. This approach is especially relevant in mental health, where mindfulness-based therapies have proven to be more effective than drugs in dealing with a range of problems, including depression.

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (5)

The Experience of Pleasure

Drugs feel good, there’s no denying. Human beings are primed and polished pleasure-seeking devices, and if we can get a hit, we will. In all the discussion on the legality of drugs, their role and harm they cause in society, there is a resonant, echoing, and very revealing avoidance of this fundamental fact.

A recent article in Crikey drew attention to this, saying, ‘Telling people that all illegal drugs are totally bad is not only patronising and paternalistic, but implausible in terms of those users’ own lived experience.’

So, full disclosure: I’ve used drugs. I smoked pot on a fairly regular basis, maybe a few times a week on average, for 7 or 8 years. During this time I was also drinking, occasionally in excess. In addition I used other drugs, although I never used any of them more than two or three times at most, and never in large doses: ecstacy, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, heroin, opium, mushrooms.

I never had any problem getting drugs that I wanted. In fact, I hardly never went out of my way to get any, they were just around. I never had much money, but there always seemed to be enough to buy some pot. Except for the odd occasion, I never felt like I wanted more. Nor did I feel like smoking was an problem. I never had any run-ins with the law, even though we commonly smoked in public, in pubs, or coffee shops. Once I was at a party and some police arrived. Some guys threw a bag of pot on the BBQ, and the cops said, ‘You didn’t have to do that. We just wanted you to turn the music down.’ When I went to Thailand, drugs stopped being around and I stopped smoking and drinking, without missing it or craving at all. But of course, my life was soon filled with something much better: meditation.

I never smoked tobacco: hated the stuff, even a bit in a joint would give me headaches. I learnt early on at school about the irrationality of rules against drugs. My friends were having a ciggie and I was sitting chatting with them – everyone knew I never smoked. We got busted, and despite our protests the teachers refused to believe that I was not smoking and I was punished along with the rest.

So my main experience with drugs is pot and drink, often together. I’d like to give a few reflections about what, in retrospect, these experiences meant.

When you smoke pot, there’s an instant hit, a gentle glow of pleasure in the body. Your head gets lifted out of itself, and the concerns of life recede. At the same time there is a feeling of connection, of harmlessness and friendliness. Smoking is usually a communal activity. But even though it brings friends together, in the experience each one gets further out on their own trip. You can be laughing hilariously at something silly, but then just withdraw into watching a crack in the wall.

As a muso, I would normally find a guitar and start improvising. You get right into it, focused on every note, which sounds amazing – at least to stoned people. To others it sounds like aimless doodles. Actually, there’s a shift in relation to time: questions of form and structure become meaningless, and all that matters is the flow of notes happening in the present moment, the sheer sensual sound of it.

In all my years smoking, I never had any significant negative side effects, even after smoking a lot: a little groggy in the morning, perhaps, sometimes a mild paranoia (this can be strong in some people). In my experience, this contrasts strongly with alcohol, with its hangovers and vomiting; and in my case, tobacco, which gave me instant nausea and headaches.

This is my actual embodied experience, and I suspect many people have similar stories. It is one thing for scientific studies to lay out statistics and predictions, such-and-such a percentage of people will get lung cancer if they smoke x quantity of pot for a period of y years. But this is only one realm of discourse, an academic, disembodied, abstract notion of truth. The whole point of drugs is to get you here, into this body and experiencing this truth. And here, these things do not exist. In my own body, pot has no noticeable side effects, but alcohol and tobacco are clearly toxic. My body doesn’t like them and tells me so by becoming sick.

So you can come along with all your statistics and studies and try to prove to me that somehow your straight world has got it right: ciggies and drink are fine, but pot is of the devil. My own body – and the bodies of my friends – tells me otherwise. There is a culture of knowledge among drug users – not scientifically validated, but informed by countless occasions of actually using the stuff. Who is to say that a limited, randomized study of a few people in an abstract, artificial setting is inherently a better source of knowledge than the accumulated wisdom of an entire culture? For us, it is not a matter of establishing a valid experiment so that we can get our paper published in a journal, but a matter of life and death. We’re actually putting the stuff in our veins. It’s part of our life, who we are and how we define ourselves.

This is not to say that users will ignore science. Not true: we were very interested in it. It’s just that in the living of it, science is just another set of opinions, which does not displace our own lived experience. It’s apparent from the science, as I have shown in previous posts, that drugs cause harm, but also that there is no particular justification for asserting that illicit drugs cause more harm than licit ones. The science is ambivalent, and will be read accordingly.

In my years of using drugs, associating with musos, artists, and the like, almost everyone used drugs. I’d have to think hard to find anyone who never used drugs at all. Of course people would vary, some just didn’t like them, some used them a lot. None of these were evil or depraved. They were kind, harmless, creative, and intelligent people, who thought deeply about their lives, and who genuinely wanted to do good in this world.

I would have to say that, contrary to the straight world’s fantasy of wastrel addicts, most of us used drugs fairly responsibly most of the time. This is like when people drink, they will usually know when they must restrict themselves to one or two drinks, and when it’s okay to let go and get really drunk. Not all the time, obviously, but by and large. When you’re smoking pot, the hit comes on instantly, so it’s pretty easy to judge how much you want to have.

In all that time I never knew any addicts, or anyone whose life was ‘destroyed’ by drugs. I knew of some addicts indirectly, friends of friends, but no-one I normally hung out with. For sure, using drugs has a lot of negative effects, it saps energy and you just end up wasting a lot of time. But this is a long way from the stereotype of the wasted addict lying in a gutter. It happens, of course: I’ve seen a lot of people lying in the gutter on drugs, some of them drinking meths. I’m just saying it is not the norm, and it had no connection with my own experience of drug use.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I did know a few people whose lives were pretty devastated by drugs. But for them, while they did use other substances, the real killer was alcohol.

Why did we do it? We were young. We wanted to be different, independent. We thought we knew it all. We did it because it was outlawed, taboo. While this might sound strange, I think it is true to say that for us taking drugs was a moral choice. Not a wise moral choice, but a choice nevertheless. By taking our stand against the straight society, by actually ‘incorporating’ taboo, illicit substances in our own blood, we defined ourselves against ‘them’. We affirmed our own right to take control of our bodies, to make our own choices, to seek pleasure in our own way. Even to make our own mistakes.

And making mistakes is one way of finding your path. If you don’t have a map, you can either follow what everyone else is doing – even if you know it’s not going where you want – or you can strike out on your own. Sure, you’ll get lost, take wrong turns, end up in blind alleys. And some will die along the way. But sooner or later you’ll hit it.

And this is what happened to me, and several of my friends. We discovered Buddhism. Slowly, messily, dangerously, but we got there. This is not an isolated phenomenon. As is well known, the modern Western interest in Buddhism grew out of the hippy counterculture of the 60s, with its fascination with ‘Eastern’ mysticism. The experimenting with drugs, while it left a lot of wreckage, had some positive outcomes, namely, the modern flourishing of meditation in the West.

It is essential to understand this, as it underpins our attitudes to drug policy. The prohibitionists would have us return to an imagined 50s, when drugs were even more marginalized (whether or not this was actually the case is another matter). The problem is that this ignores the social forces that led to the widespread experimentation with drugs in the first place. There was a genuine movement towards a Higher Consciousness – we all heard it in the Beatles’ music; and their trip to India to do TM was a defining moment. This was not just a hedonistic indulgence: some of the people from that era, notably George Harrison, became genuinely interested in meditation and mystic spirituality, and continued to promote that in a positive way for many years.

The problem with the hippys was, I think, clearly analyzed by Ken Wilber, based on his pre/trans fallacy. He argued that within the hippy movement there was both a genuine yearning for a Higher Consciousness, a disenchantment with the means and methods of rational science whose ultimate gift was the atomic bomb; and a base hedonistic indulgence. These tendencies would be differently present in each person. However they were all united in their rejection of rational thought, and so were unable to distinguish between what was genuinely transformative and what was mere indulgence. This fracture line continued into American Buddhism, where it resulted in the well-known drugs-and-sex scandals that rocked several of the formative communities.

This historical process is not just my own experience, not just the experience of Western Buddhism as a whole, but is the experience that lies at the very roots of meditation in history. Meditation is a specifically Indian invention which evolved from the pre-existing religious and shamanic practices. One of these was the ritual consumption of a drug called soma. The identity and effects of soma are debated, but there is little doubt that it was a mind-altering substance of some sort, which would have contributed to the ecstatic trances of the ancient rishis. Together with the rituals, it stimulated the rishis to ‘envision’ inspired verses, just as artistic creativity today is often fueled by drugs. Today we call these verses the Ṛg Veda, one of the earliest and most magnificent cultural products of humanity.

The Vedas frequently lament the ‘death of soma’, which is often interpreted as a cultural memory of the time the ancient Āryans moved into India, where their former drug of choice was no longer available. This may be so, but it may also record a more subtle memory: the disillusionment and disenchantment with the drug experience, as with repeated use the drugs just don’t get you there any more. In any case, with the decline of the soma, the ascetics turned to other forms of spiritual stimulus – physical mortification, ecstatic ritual incantation, and ultimately meditation. This progress is recorded in the history of our meditation words: the Pali word jhāna is from the Vedic root dhī, which was the drug-inspired ‘envisioning’ of the sacred texts.

I am not making the argument that drug experience is an essential ‘gateway’ to meditation. That would be as ridiculous as the argument that pot is a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs. Remember the simile of the journey: if you don’t have a good map, you take a lot of byways first. if you do have a good map – the eightfold path – then you just walk it.

I am, however, making the argument that drug use is not solely an expression and cause of humanity’s lower instincts, but is also an expression, albeit confused, of a yearning for a higher, less constricted form of consciousness. I agree with Jung that the desire to become more conscious is humanity’s strongest motivation. If we want to formulate an effective drug policy we must stop misrepresenting drug users and drug usage as an entirely negative force. Nothing is. It has its good and bad sides. The more we try to repress it, the more we create divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the more we confirm the belief of young people that the straight world just doesn’t get it.

In the discourse on drug use, the reality that the drug culture has had positive results, though it is plain to see, is systematically ignored, as it might ‘send the wrong message’. But the ‘wrong message’, which young people see with brutal clarity, is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the straight world’s take on drugs. We knew very well that these things were not the demons they were painted as, and laughed outright at the absurd propoganda.

An effective policy must start by sending the ‘right message’: people who choose to take drugs are human beings with inherent wisdom and the capacity to make moral choices. As a society we should act with them, in respectful consultation and dialogue with users, who have the greatest investment in the issue. We should recognize that drug use has serious negative consequences, and out of compassion we should regulate its use in order to minimize harm, as we do with alcohol and tobacco.

At the same time we should go beyond mere management, and recognize that drug use is, in part, an expression of a genuine spiritual yearning. History has shown, time and time again, that this yearning will not be fulfilled through drugs, and the result will be either a downward spiral or stopping usage. The actual means to this transcendence is meditation, or comparable contemplative practices in different religious or secular contexts. Meditation is not, by itself, the solution to our drug problems. Nor are all drug users seriously interested in higher consciousness. Nevertheless, a significant number of them are. And rather than treat them like criminals, why not show them the real path to find what they’re seeking?

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (3)

The English Experience

It is widely agreed that consumption of mind-altering substances creates harm in society. This is by no means the whole picture, as it is also widely agreed that taking such substances causes pleasure. In order to fully understand a thing, the Buddha insisted we must know the origin, ending, advantage, disadvantage, and escape. In future posts I will take up the question of the pleasure that drugs offer.

However for now I will look at a few indices of harm. The previous post considered the harm outside the drug-consuming country. I looked in particular in the ongoing Mexican drug wars, where hardly a day goes by without some fresh blood-soaked atrocity: another drug lord dies in a hail of bullets, a 14 year old boy admits to beheading 4 victims, women are pressed into ‘killing taxi drivers, police officers, innocent people and children’. The wikileaks cables have revealed that even the US government thinks the Mexican army has no hope of dealing with the crisis. These astonishing photos show the vast, mad wealth that flows through the criminal drug trade.

The problem is by no means limited to Mexico. In Afghanistan, wikileaks shows that efforts to eradicate the poppy trade will ‘increase the security threat’, that prosecution of high-level dealers does nothing to stem the flow, that farmers whose crops were eradicated will turn into insurgent fighters, that Government response is ‘extremely disorganized’, and that use of police for drug eradication increases police corruption and takes them away from their genuine security role. In west Africa, the key transit point for drugs for the European market, Mr. Corinne Dufka, a West African expert at Human Rights Watch observed that, “What we’re seeing is the criminalisation of the state as a result of drug trafficking.” The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, warned that “West Africa is at risk of becoming an epicentre for drug trafficking and the crime and corruption associated with it”, and said that “This is more than a drugs problem – it is a threat to public health and security in West Africa”. Guinea-Bissau has been described as the world’s first ‘narco-state’ following its rapid and destructive takeover by the Colombian drug cartels. The corrupting effects of the drug trade, formerly in opium, now mainly in methamphetamines, has been one of the major factors in the ongoing calamity experienced by the Burmese people.

All this is the direct result of drug-consuming societies not taking responsibility for their own consumption. Rather than managing drug use in a reasonable manner, within a society that has a fairly clean and well-structured legal system, use is swept under the carpet, where it inevitably thrives in countries with the most inept, corrupt governments, creating even more chaos and destruction. As the Colombian economist Francisco Thoumi has noted in regard to the drug trade, “illegality generates competitive advantages in the countries or regions that have the weakest rule of law.”

For this post, however, I will focus on the internal harm that drug consumption causes, especially the recent developments in England.

A previous commenter has already noted the findings of David Nutt. As a regular Guardian reader, I had followed these events, and in fact this was one of the motivations for writing these series of articles. In brief, Nutt was a scientific adviser to the UK government on drugs policy. He argued that alcohol was significantly more dangerous than many illicit drugs. His list of harmful drugs at the time placed alcohol at number 5 (since revised – see below). He criticized the UK government’s current policy, arguing that it is ‘incapable of thinking logically’ on the topic.

For his troubles he was sacked, the government saying that his comments damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs: “We remain determined to crack down on all illegal substances and minimise their harm to health and society as a whole.” This statement reveals the very irrationality that Nutt was highlighting: the government wants to minimize harm done by illegal substances – which obviously Nutt would agree with – but says nothing about Nutt’s actual point, which is that far more harm is done by legal substances, especially alcohol, and this harm needs to be minimized too.

The minister Alan Johnson said that it is not possible to be an adviser and critic of government policy at the same time – which, to a naive outsider, sounds like a complete denial of the very purpose of getting advice in the first place. Other scientists were shocked and some resigned in protest. Nutt went on to form his own independent committee, which came up with an even more comprehensive study, which now places alcohol at the very top of the list of dangerous drugs. The government responded by removing any legal requirement to have scientific advice in formulating drug classification policy.

Nutt’s study is apparently the most detailed of its kind, and evaluates harm to drugs from a multitude of perspectives. While acknowledging the inadequacy of any ‘objective’ attempt to assess such harm, he nevertheless came up with the following current list of harmful drugs, ranked out of 100 as follows.

Alcohol (72), heroin (55), crack (54), crystal meth (33), cocaine (27), tobacco (26), amphetamine/speed (23), cannabis (20), GHB (18), benzodiazepines (15), ketamine (15), methadone (13), butane (10), qat (9), ecstasy (9), anabolic steroids (9), LSD (7), buprenorphine (6) and magic mushrooms (5).

There are a range of effects to consider, and it is notoriously difficult to isolate the effects of one substance. Drug consumption, in any case, is not a uniform thing, and harm results from a combination of factors: the individual’s own body, the amount consumed, the motivations for taking it, what you do on the drug, what it is combined with, and so on. Typically drug use is associated with different forms of physical and mental harm, both long and short term. One statistic of obvious concern is the deaths that result from usage. In 2008 in England and Wales, there were, according to the Office of National Statistics, 897 recorded deaths from heroin, 235 from cocaine, 378 from methadone, 19 from cannabis, ‘very few’ from LSD, 44 from ecstacy; and by comparison, 8764 from alcohol. Tobacco puts all of these in the shade, with UK deaths at well over 100 000.

Nutt commented on this:

“Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm. They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harm is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”

Nutt told the Lancet a new classification system “would depend on what set of harms ‘to self or others’ you are trying to reduce”. He added: “But if you take overall harm, then alcohol, heroin and crack are clearly more harmful than all others, so perhaps drugs with a score of 40 or more could be class A; 39 to 20 class B; 19-10 class C and 10 or under class D.” This would result in tobacco being labelled a class B drug alongside cocaine. Cannabis would also just make class B, rather than class C. Ecstasy and LSD would end up in the lowest drug category, D.

He was not suggesting classification was unnecessary: “We do need a classification system – we do need to regulate the ones that are very harmful to individuals like heroin and crack cocaine.” But he thought the UK could learn from the Portuguese and Dutch: “They have innovative policies which could reduce criminalisation.”

Nutt does not believe in legalizing all drugs, but he has consistently argued that our policy towards drugs should be related with the actual harm they cause. There are serious complexities here, for example, Nutt’s study focuses on the overall harm to society rather than the harm per user. This difference obviously needs to be taken into consideration. Should we spend more efforts on reducing the harm done by an intrinsically dangerous substance that is used by a small number of people, or a less dangerous substance used by many people? There’s no real ‘right’ answer. But surely, for a government that is concerned to put in place a policy that will benefit its people as a whole, it needs to focus on those issues that actually cause the greatest harm. This doesn’t mean, in and of itself, that it should legalize or change policy regarding other drugs, but it does suggest a emphasis when making decisions about how to allocate resources.

Another relevant factor is effectiveness. Something may be a major problem, but if there’s nothing that can be done about it, then there’s no point wasting resources trying. Fortunately, WHO experience shows that appropriate information, education, and enforced regulation can significantly lower alcohol use.

Another problem, noted briefly above, is that the benefits of drug use need to be considered in conjunction with their harms. But whereas drinkers of alcohol will readily claim its benefits – it’s a social lubricant, helps make and bond friendship, make you happy, gives relaxation, and so – and we demand a cost/benefit analysis in the case of medicinal drugs, there is no legitimate dialogue or acknowledgement of the benefits of illicit drug use. To do so is to to ‘send the wrong message’. Which once more assumes that those who control the message have a paternalistic right to deny others the capacity to make an informed ethical decision.

Curiously enough, Nutt’s conclusion, for all that he has been accused of trivializing the dangers of drugs, supports the UK government’s recent raising of  the classification of cannabis from class C to class B. Cannabis was downgraded to class C in 2004. This change had been recommended since 1979; so it took a quarter of a century to act on this advice, but only one year later Blair proposed returning it to its class B status, which happened in 2009. This was prompted by the increasing dominance of very strong ‘skunk’ in the market.

Making cannabis class C effectively meant you can’t be charged for possession. This change freed up an estimated 199 000 police hours in the following year. The reduced burden on the public purse and the improvement in the police’s capacity to deal with other forms of crime – those with actual victims – are significant benefits of a more rational approach to drug policy.

Recent UN data shows that for the period cannabis was downgraded to class C, its use in the UK among people aged 16-24 in Britain actually fell from 28% in 1998 to 18% in 2007-08. Between 2003-2007 there was also a significant decrease in use among schoolchildren aged 15-16. Clearly, then, the decriminalization of cannabis use in the UK did not lead to an increase among young people.

It seems to me that Nutt has been scapegoated for stating the plain fact that alcohol is a far bigger scourge in society than any of the illicit drugs. This perfectly obvious truth is inadmissable. It threatens the values and lifestyles of the lawmakers, who quite like to have a pint or two after a hard day’s work. If alcohol is the real problem, they can no longer dismiss the drug problem as ‘other’.

In his justification for sacking Nutt, Alan Johnson evoked the timeless spectre: ‘There are thousands [of kids] at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.’ Just like there are thousands of kids ‘at risk’ of being run over by a truck. Or, more to the point, millions ‘at risk’ of becoming alcoholics, of whom there are far, far more than the number of illicit drug addicts. The WHO estimates that there are 140 million alcoholics globally, only  slightly less than the total number of drug users at 185 million, of whom of course only a small percentage are addicts.

The statement that ‘kids’ are ‘at risk’ of becoming addicts is revealing on many levels. It is an emotional ploy, as we expect from politicians. But it suggests that ‘kids’ are incapable of making their own decisions and are mere helpless subjects. This is of course very far from the truth: the ‘kids’ have created and are creating an active, diverse culture in which drugs play a big role, and among themselves have a critique and understanding of drugs and their role. This is not to say that there is no problem, but it is to say that ‘kids’ are not something innocent and impotent, but are active participants and creators of the situation. As long as we think of them as children needing protection we will never understand why they take drugs in the first place – and so they’ll keep on doing it whether we make it illegal or not.

The other hypocrisy in Johnson’s statement is in the very suggestion that drug use is outside us – it is ‘the kids’ we have to worry about: whereas, of course, there are plenty of drug users in Government, in the police, in the businesses, just as there are everywhere else. The types of drugs and patterns of use will vary, but the facts can’t be denied. In every walk of life, in every government building, business center, or mall, there are people right now walking around, talking, making decisions with illicit drugs circulating in their veins. It is the embodied reality of the world we live in.

Look around you now: are you reading this in an office? (Sidebar: the stats for this site typically show increase in hits on weekdays… Just sayin’…) Some of the people you see are users, some of them probably have drugs inside them right now. Look at the people walking down the street, those on television, yes, the kids in the schoolyard – but also their teachers – or the politicians in Question Time. These are the people who we are supposed to be at war with? These are the degraded helpless victims slumped in despair in an alley? Sorry, no. These are ordinary people. For the most part, good people. People who do not deserve to be treated like criminals. Not people like you and me, but people who actually are you and me.

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.

Charter for Compassion (4)

You may remember some previous posts on the Charter for Compassion initiative. I’m delighted that it is proceeding well, and has been adopted by many bodies internationally.

On Thursday June 24 at 12.30 pm, Australia became the first nation to formally adopt the Charter for Compassion. It was presented at Parliament House, with the chair of the meeting being Senator Ursula Stevens, a terrific welcome to country by Aunty Agnes. I had the honor of leading the group, including several MPs and senators, in a meditation on compassion.

The emotion of the event was palpable, and was heightened by the fact that, as the meeting was progressing, we were losing a prime Minister in extraordinary circumstances and gaining Australia’s first female prime Minister. The atmosphere at parliament was electric, with hundreds of visitors pouring in. We could see first hand the pain and struggle of the politicians as they kept about their civic duty under tremendous stress. Be as cynical as you like, but all i saw on that day was good human beings trying to do the right thing.

I hope that the everyday reminder of the Charter for Compassion will bring a little more kindness and gratitude into those halls of power.