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.

Monastery Constitutions

Now that’s something I’ll bet you’re all fascinated in. You snuggle in at night, guiltily hugging your latest monastery constitution, staying up till the wee hours to get to the bit where it talks about procedures for the AGM. Admit it, you’re busted!

Or not.

Actually, we all want to avoid such things, don’t we? Just get on with the practice, and let someone else worry about the legalities. Then, bit by bit, you get more involved, maybe end up on a committee or as an abbot, and there it is, waiting to be read: the Constitution!

I’ve had a reasonable amount to do with constitutions, having been involved in reforming the Santi constitution, as well as formulating one for the ASA.

When I arrived at Santi, the original constitution had been set up so that Ajahn Brahm would be the Spiritual Director, more or less in absentia. The framers had apparently thought that, with the future uncertain, it was necessary to give Ajahn Brahm quite strong powers. Effectively, as Spiritual Director, he could veto any major expenditures and other decisions, and, essentially, could not be expelled from his position.

Of course, the reality was that Ajahn Brahm took a very hands off approach, and only responded when we asked for his help. But the legal structure was there.

After I was here for three years, Ajahn Brahm and the committee invited me to take over as Spiritual Director. I took the opportunity to work with the committee to revise the constitution. One of the crucial reforms was to make the Spiritual Director accountable. Now, he – and she if there is a bhikkhuni Sangha – must be nominated by the Sangha, then further accepted by the Committee. If the committee rejects the Spritual Director, the matter goes back to the Sangha. If there is a deadlock, the matter is referred to an external body for mediation.

The basic point is that there is no absolute power. All power is provisional and balanced.

The committee at Santi FM is elected at the AGM, from the members of the incorporated association, which anyone may apply to join. So there is a balance between the powers of the lay and ordained community, and no-one is the absolute ruler.

This, of course, is Dhamma: the Buddha refused to appoint a monk as his successor, said that the Sangha should operate according to Dhamma-Vinaya, not according to any individual. The Dhamma-Vinaya sets up principles and procedures – openness, democracy, accountability, transparency – that are pretty much the same as those required of normal incorporated associations today, although of course the details are somewhat different.

However, this isnot the case in growing numbers of monasteries. Many monasteries, particularly of the Western Wat Pa Pong tradition, are set up like a corporation. The monastery is a company, whose assets are owned by the shareholders. And the shareholders are a couple of lifetime appointed monks. Full stop.

Many of these documents are available online. If you’re interested, you can find them on most of the relevant monastery websites.

What a peculiar arrangement! A charity where the sole owners are also the sole beneficiaries. I wonder how this can even be legal.

This kind of model is becoming the standard among the western Wat Pa Pong branches. Monks are re-writing constitutions, advising the lay committees to abandon the balanced, democratic models, such as used at Santi and the BSWA, and to bring the constitutions of various monasteries in line with the ‘standard’: the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’, as they put it.

Which means, among other things,no equality for women, ever.

There seems to be some implication that this is the ‘right way’. But whatever it is, it is certainly not what the Vinaya requires. Vinaya is always balanced and open.

It’s most interesting that the preferred model seems to be the ‘company with shareholders’. Why is that, I wonder? What is a company? – Well, I guess it’s an organization that is created specifically for the benefit of its member. We expect a commercial company to be selfish and to attempt to monopolize power to itself.

That is why there are other forms of organization for other kinds of activities. Charities, NGOs and so on – these are not created for the benefit of a few individuals, but to serve the community.

As monastics, we are living entirely on the donations offered freely by the kindness of lay donors – should they not have some say in how those resources are used? Should a monastery be something that is rather more like a company, or more like a charity?

When governments arrogate power to themselves and exclude the people, we call that totalitarianism, and think of it as the worst kind of evil. A good government shares with the people, listens to them, and responds to their needs. This is the kind of government I want to live under.

And while Australia is by no means perfect, it does try. In a couple of weeks, I’m in Canberra, where I’ve been invited to represent the Australian Buddhist community in a community consultation on human rights in Australia. We can be as cynical as we like about the motives of governments, but at least its happening. And since the invitation is there, we should take it up. If we don’t use our voice, we forget how to use it. If we don’t stand up to defend others, who will be there when we need help?

If this is the standard that we expect of governments, should not we expect even more from religions? Shouldn’t religions be setting the pace, showing an example of how things can be done? Do we really want to participate in a monastery whose legal structure resembles that of a money-grabbing company, or a totalitarian state?

We come to Buddhism to learn and grow spiritually. That means becoming wiser, more responsible, more free – able to choose our own destiny. Sadly enough, monastics in some circles seems to regard acquiescence as the highest virtue. If we are not careful, we will end up becoming exactly the opposite of our original vision.

It seems that, with the bhikkhuni ordination, and the retirement of Ajahn Sumedho, the Ajahns of Wat Pa Pong fear that monasteries will drift off and do their own thing. With no charismatic leader to inspire unity, the only recourse is legal. Bringing monasteries tighter into the fold will discourage the development of local, independent communities, and make monasteries increasingly subject to decisions and policies made elsewhere, into which the local communities will have no input.

If you’d like to, say, treat bhikkhunis as equal, bad luck. That’s not the ‘Dhamma-Vinaya of Wat Pa Pong’.

All this is very far from the original Vinaya vision ofmonasteries as independent, run by the local villageor community for the benefit, not of the Sangha of Wat Pa Pong, but for the Buddha’s Sangha of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis.

I wonder which way you’d prefer your local monastery to be? If you don’t know, educate yourself. Ask questions, read the constitution, and make an informed choice.

Ajahn Brahm’s response to ‘The Time Has Come’

A little while ago i posted the new article called ‘The Time Has Come’, by several former siladharas. As always, articles on bhikkhuni ordination evoke the most comments and response on this blog. We were delighted to have a post by Ajahn Brahm, which, as one of our commenters mentioned, was in danger of being buried beneath the weight of the comment thread. So i’ve lifted that comment and re-posted it here.

The discussion on these matters can get a little intense, so if I could ask you to read the ‘About‘ page, which has guidelines for posting, before making comments.

“What would it look like to relocate the ‘problem’ of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? … with those who fear women’s full participation”

Having read the comments in this thread with interest, as I am inextricably involved, I think they have drifted away from the main thrust of the Buddhadharma magazine article as expressed in the quote above. That is, for too long Ajahn Sujato, myself and the participating Bhikkhunis, have been asked to justify our actions in facilitating the Perth Bhikkhuni ordinations.

Now it is the time for those Western monks, and Thai monks who either live in the West or regularly travel there, to either show their support for Bhikkhuni ordination in the West,or justify their opposition to it.

Ajahn Sumedho is leaving Amaravati at the end of this year, so is the Thai monk Ven Pannyasaro who, I was told, drafted the notorious Five Points. Ajahn Amaro, currently at Abhayagiri Monastery in California, is to take over leadership of the Amaravati group. It seems appropriate that he makes his position on Bhikkhuni ordination clear, in plain English not in Amaravati-speak, to the supporters of his future monastery. Other influential monks such as Ajahn Vajiro of Amaravati, Ajahn Nyanadhammo in Thailand, Ajahn Pasanno of Abhayagiri, the Thai monk Ajahn Preecha in Italy, Ajahn Tiradhammo in New Zealand, the Thai monk Ajahn Anan who visits the West regularly, they should also be pressed by their lay supporters to publicly explain their position, not as a group but as individuals. If they have nothing to be ashamed of, they should have no fear in articulating their position in public clearly and independently. I ask this because I understand that straightforward honesty, not deafening silence, is necessary for moving forward on this painful issue.

Unfortunately, I do not have the power to compel these good monks to explain whatever position they hold on Bhikkhuni ordination, or to question them on why they refused my genuine offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you, the lay people who feed these monks and provide the funds that support their other needs, do have that power. Maybe it is the time to exercise that power.

It is now the time, as a result of The Buddhadharma magazine’s article, for them to personally explain themselves to the Buddhist world.

With Mega Metta, Ajahn Brahm.

The Time Has Come

Here’s a very important new article on bhikkhuni ordination, called The Time Has Come. To which I cannot help but add: a fact’s a fact.

It’s by three ex-nuns, Thanissara, Jitindriya, and Elizabeth Day (Cintamani), and will be appearing in The Buddhadharma in a few days. The article spells out clearly and straightforwardly the issues that have arisen since the Perth ordinations. It deals with the ordinations, Ajahn Brahm’s expulsion, the responses of the siladharas, the five points, and the nature of institutionalized sexism. As well as the main article, there are substantial contributions by Janet Gyatso, on the historical heritage of the garudhammas, and Llundup Damcho (Diana Finnegan) on the situation in the Tibetan Sangha.

The authors ask:

What would it look like to relocate the ‘problem’ of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? … with those who fear women’s full participation.

The time really is here. How long must we be ‘patient’? It takes an hour, tops, to perform a bhikkhuni ordination that would satisfy every Vinaya requirement. But we’ll be waiting for Maitreya Buddha if we want to satisfy the requirements of the ‘Walters’, the hyper-conservative monks who oppose bhikkhuni ordination on principle.

The opposition has gone back underground now, where it has festered for the past decades. Senior Ajahns in England opine that the gender issue cloud will simply pass in time. Keep the conversation under wraps and gender equity will be just like a bad dream. (I have previously mentioned that in Amaravati, this and other websites that support bhikkhunis were blocked; apparently this is no longer the case.)

But the opposition is no less active for being hidden. In Thailand, the Western monk Ajahn Nyanadhammo has done his best to persuade Bhante Gunaratana to reverse his long standing support for bhikkhunis.

Ajahn Brahm has been excluded from this year’s UN Vesak because of the ordinations, after having had a presentation already accepted. A group of bhikkhunis, on the other hand, will attend the occasion, being encouraged to do so by a number of senior Thai monks.

The opposition will not appear in public, and will at all costs avoid a debate. Those who oppose bhikkhunis, with a few refreshing exceptions, will not even admit the plain fact that they are in opposition. Silence is their friend.

On the other hand, we supporters of bhikkhunis are happy to say what we say in public, to participate in an open dialogue. Today I’m on my way to the ABC studios in Sydney, where we’ll do an interview for John Cleary’s Sunday night radio program; the interview is on the upcoming Buddhist Film Festival, where bhikkhuni ordination is a major theme.

We’ve got to keep talking, to keep the dialogue alive, keep the issue in people’s minds.

Change is with us already.

Bhante or Ajahn?

You may have noticed that i usually call myself Bhante, whereas most of the monks who come from the Thai tradition call themselves Ajahn. Why one or the other?

Here’s a little history of the word ‘Ajahn’.

It’s a Thai word, derived from the Sanskrit ācārya, which is equivalent to the Pali ācariya. The root is car, which means conduct, so ācariya is literally ‘conductor’, although obvioulsy not used in the same sense. In Pali, ācariya is used of a person in a specific teaching capacity. For example, an ācariya has a student, antevāsī. An ācariya need not be a monastic. Ācariya is never used as a general title or term of address for monks. The nuns, of course, have their own version, ācarinī, which is used in a similar way.

In Thailand, Ajahn is used as a general title for a ‘teacher’, especially one with some seniority, such as a college professor. It is not commonly used by itself as a title for monks. The normal title for monks is ‘phra’ or ‘tahn’. When Ajahn is used of a monk, it is usually prefixed to become ‘Phra Ajahn’ or ‘Tahn Ajahn’. These titles are usually used for senior monks. In all of these cases, however, there is considerable variation in different regions, so that it’s not really possible to point to a ‘correct’ Thai usage.

Just as a little point of detail, the Thai spelling, which is derived from the Sanskrit rather than Pali, uses two identical long ‘a’s. So, depending how you want to depict a long ‘a’ in Roman transliteration, it should be spelled ‘Aajaan’ or ‘Ahjahn’ or ‘Arjarn’. These look pretty weird, though, so mostly we use something like Ajahn.

It is sometimes said that a monk becomes an Ajahn after ten vassa. This stems from a misunderstanding of the Vinaya contexts. In some of the places where a monk acts as an ācariya, he must be ten vassa. But in other cases this does not apply. In any case, the restriction as to vassa refers to the role that he plays, not to the use of a title.

This misunderstanding, while being neither Vinaya nor ‘Thai culture’, has become normalized in Western monasteries. The convention has become to use the title ‘Ajahn’ of a monk or nun when they reach ten vassa, as if it’s a privilege or promotion.

In the original texts, bhikkhus are referred to as āyasmā and bhikkhunis as ayyā. These are from the root āyu (life, long life), and so we translate them as ‘venerable’. The terms are not entirely consistent in the early texts. Sometimes bhikkhus are referred to as ayya, and sometimes the bhikkhus refer to lay people as āyasmā.

But nowhere do we find any system of titles or promotion. The most senior bhikkhus, such as Sāriputta and Moggallāna, are called āyasmā, and the most respected bhikkhunis, such as Uppalavaṇṇā and Khemā, are called ayyā.

These days, we often refer to the bhikkhunis as ayyā. Logically, we should call the bhikkhus āyasmā, but it sounds a little weird and hasn’t taken off. Instead, it has become a common convention to use bhante as a title for bhikkhus.

Bhante is used very widely in the early texts as a form of address for monks. The monks and laypeople use it referring to the monks, and the monks use it speaking to the Buddha. It is a vocative, and so is not normally used as a title. Mostly it is used by itself as a vocative, but in the Milindapañha it is used together with the vocative form of the monk’s name: ‘Bhante Nāgasena’.

So the use ‘Bhante Sujato’ is a bit of a stretch of the original usage, but not too much. (If we’re going to get picky about grammar, then it would be better to use ‘Sujata’ rather than ‘Sujato’, but that’s a lost battle…)

Bhante is not used as a title for monks in contemporary Buddhist cultures, all of which have evolved their own complex system of titles and forms of address. It has, however, been adopted in new Buddhist contexts, such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia – and Australia.

When I arrived in Sydney, most of the well-known Theravadin monks were being referred to as ‘Bhante’. I like it because it’s simple, authentic, and cross-cultures.

If someone wants to call me Ajahn, that’s fine. But I really don’t like this thing of promoting monastics just because they get to a certain seniority. The Pali texts are remarkably free from the sense of hierarchy and status that stains so much modern monasticism. Away with it all! Monastics are just monastics. If someone is respectful enough to call me ‘Bhante’, this is already a huge thing, and a great responsibility for me to live up to. There’s no need for anything else.

And, this being Australia, if someone wants to call me ‘dude’ or ‘mate’ – which happens! – then I’m cool with that.