Monthly Archives: October 2013

Bringing the Sangha to the West

The Buddha lived in a time and a place characterized by a long-established and profound spiritual tradition, deep spiritual yearning, cultural diversity and eclecticism fostered by developing urbanism and mercantilism, and an established culture of wandering ascetics or samanas that were already organizing themselves into bands of spiritual seekers and identifiable philosophical movements. The Buddha himself began his spiritual career as a samana. Brahmanism had not yet established itself as the dominant religious culture in northeast India as it had elsewhere in India. In the Buddha’s home country of the Sakya clan, the caste system had still not taken root. The Sakyans practised a form of proto-democratic cooperative or constitutional aristocracy similar to the Greeks and the Vajjian sangha. There was a fair degree of tolerance for alternative lifestyles and points of view. Northeast India was a rich agricultural and trading area with extensive rainforest and a system of roads that, while dangerous, enabled people to travel and experience different peoples and regions. The samanas wandered across the countryside, often in groups, living on the fringes of society, teaching and gathering followers. In general, society tolerated them and they were able to sustain themselves by begging for food and sleeping in parks and forests or seeking seclusion in remote places. It was certainly not an easy life, but it offered its rewards and contributed in a meaningful way to the overall richness of society.

The Buddha appeared between roughly 480 and 400 BCE in this society. Because of the samana culture that preceded him, he was able to renounce the world at the age of 29. He spent his entire life as a wanderer and a teacher, sustained by the generosity of others. He became widely respected as a sincere, accomplished, and erudite teacher. He left behind him an extensive organization (the sangha). Thanks to the generosity of wealthy patrons, the sangha even acquired a fair amount of wealth, in the form of parks that were donated to the sangha for the habitation of the monks and nuns, especially during the rainy season. After his death, the sangha spread to other countries and cultures. Over time, the relatively innovative and decentralized sangha was consolidated in great monasteries and universities, such as Nalanda, often with the support and patronage of wealthy aristocrats and nascent governments that saw in Buddhism a stabilizing, civilizing, and unifying ideology, much like the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome. In this way Buddhism spread throughout all of Asia, penetrating as far west as present-day Afghanistan and even Iran, and as far east as Japan. However, with consolidation also came degeneration. Speculation and innovation hardened into fundamentalism, formalism, and religion.

Today, Buddhism is penetrating the West as well, but the West provides a very different social and cultural matrix to that in which the sangha originally flourished. Western spirituality is nearly non-existent since Christianity has been replaced by an ideology of secular materialism that regards spirituality with increasingly militant hostility. Spirituality has been replaced by the cult of industrialization, in which the acquisition of private or social wealth is regarded as the supreme good. In the absence of the vertical axis, the body has replaced the divinity as the supreme object of adoration. Pleasure, power, and privilege are now the driving forces of human life. Financial totalitarianism subordinates everything to economics. Money and its acquisition is now the central unifying force of modern life. Education is increasingly subordinated to employment. Academics have become a sterile, nitpicking academicism. The media speak of nothing but entertainment. This culture permeates the social consciousness. It is nearly impossible to avoid. The only goal of such a system is ever-increasing consumption, resulting in corruption, usury, egotism, competition, poverty, the wastage of natural resources, pollution, scarcity, obesity, mental illness, criminality, perversion, addiction, and war. In response to these threats the rulers of society, in a desperate effort to sustain themselves, are creating a society that is ever more collectivized and technologized. Our humanity itself may be subsumed by the fusion of biology and technology, a result that was prophesied long ago by Krishnamurti. Technocrats enthusiastically anticipate the day when the brain itself is replaced by a synthetic organ as the basis of artificial intelligence (AI) and computers and artificial technologies assimilate consciousness and the body. The prevailing view is that consciousness is an illusion, no more than an essentially mechanical by-product of biological processes that can be simulated or synthesized.

The Buddha insisted that the sangha be entirely dependent on the householders who support it. Monks and nuns were not permitted to work, engage in business or trade, or handle money. Separate from the world, they were nonetheless completely dependent on it. Thus, the sangha is entirely dependent on a faithful and generous laity. In the West, barely 1% of the population is Buddhist, so the sangha must find other means to survive. The model that is increasingly being taken up is that of the non-profit organization or charity (the “dharma centre”), at a time when social tolerance for such “aberrant” economic structures is in decline. This turns the dhamma into an economic commodity, forced to compete for dollars in the universal war of all against all. The commodification of dhamma and the need for donors leads to the reduction of dhamma instruction to the lowest common denominator. The demand for easy, popular teachings has led to personality cults, financed by credulous and naïve enthusiasts. The low level of spirituality and the general dysfunction of society have led to hyper-competitiveness amongst followers and gurus as well as numerous abuses. The centrality of the need for money, fund raising, and marketing has led to greed, arrogance, and corruption. The hypersexualization of society has led to other abuses. The lack of an innate spiritual culture in the West has led to extreme imitativeness, superficiality, and sectarianism. Academicism is so sterile that it is widely ignored, reinforcing popular credulity.

Perhaps the slow dissemination of the dharma in the West may lead to a strong and enthusiastic laity that can in turn support the monastics, but in the absence of such monastics, how can such a laity be cultivated? It is a catch-22. Moreover, this process will take a long time, but we do not have time. It is widely agreed that if the “world war” between Americanism (combining capitalism, corporatism, and consumerism), communism, Catholicism, Zionism, and Islamism – the five most pernicious cults in contemporary global society – continues much longer, in the context of the wholesale depletion of natural resources; pollution of air, water, and earth; and climate change, the planet will become uninhabitable within this century. It took Buddhism 2,500 years to develop to this point. The Dharma Transmission to the West has less than a hundred years.

What can we expect from the “long dark age of the West,” in the phrase of Evans-Wentz, characterized as it has been by the virtual extinction of ancient learning, the Inquisition, capitalism, industrialization, slavery, imperialism, genocide, and war? The law of karma tells us that every cause must have its effect. The violence and terror that the West has wreaked upon the world is returning to the West in the form of terrorism, as prophesied by the Kalachakra. Only the dharma has the power to save us by the power of truth, but how is the power of truth to be established?

Clearly, a social, political, and cultural revolution is needed, but how is such a revolution to be fomented, when all the institutions of social power, education, and the media have been coopted? Terrorism presents itself as the solution, but the karmic consequences of terrorism cannot possibly lead to the desired end.

Capitalism, however, has its Achilles heel. To function, markets require consumers. Every seller needs a buyer. The crowd, fascinated by the glamour of money, follow each other like lemmings to the cliff, even as the economic system hurtles towards its demise. Herein lies the solution. To establish the sangha of the West, we must create an alternative cooperative economic system based on dharma. It is a truism that every empire has failed from within. Thus, the emphasis of the New Buddhism should not be on the creation of artificial sanghas, but rather on the creation of a dynamic, vibrant, popular Western non-monastic tradition of enlightened householders, mahasiddhas, and bodhisattvas, less in the cities than in the remote rural places that are being abandoned today. By creating such creative, dynamic, and self-sufficient centres, utilizing the best from the dying society, the Dharma Transmission to the West has the potential to become a beacon of light to the world, and a place to which the outcaste, the oppressed, the stricken, and the despised can repair, for the salvation of the whole world, as it was in the beginning.

How to Locate a Buddhist Intentional Community

I recommend the Fellowship of Intentional Communities.

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The Origin, History and Claim of the Theravada

cAccording to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha passed on (attained parinibbana) near the small town of Kushinagar, near the Hiranyavati River, on the border of present-day India and Nepal. Modern scholars place this event about 400 BCE. Here the Buddha laid down how the Buddhist community (sangha) should be organized after his death. In accordance with the democratic model of the Vajjian confederacy, on which he modelled his sangha, that included women’s rights, the Buddha set out rules that, he predicted, would lead to the sangha’s success:

1. that it should meet frequently and in large numbers;

2. that it should meet and disperse peacefully and make its decisions cooperatively based on consensus;

3. that no new rules should be made;

4. that no existing rules should be abolished, with the exception of the lesser and minor rules, which the Buddha specifically allowed may be abolished;[1]

5. that they should respect the elder bhikkhus;

6. that they should live in seclusion in the forest;

7. that they should share their possessions; and

8. that each individual should seek out their own salvation in and for themselves.[2]

Elsewhere, the Buddha says that the sangha should not be under the direction of a single successor, but rather that the monks and nuns (for the Buddha freely ordained both men and women) should take the dhamma itself as their head.

Almost immediately after his death, however, the sangha departed from the Buddha’s declared desire and intention by appointing Mahakassapa, and subsequently Ananda, as their leader; instituting a Vinaya that discriminated against the Buddhist nuns and eventually led to the virtual disappearance of the bhikkhunisanga in most Buddhist countries; deciding not to abolish the lesser and minor rules, but rather clinging to a rigid codification (the Vinaya); and establishing a vertical ecclesiastical dictatorship that continues, virtually unchanged, to this day.

Subsequently, the sangha continued in their attachment to views, which the Buddha also warned against, and entered into ongoing disputes that led to the Second Buddhist Council in Pataliputra about 300 BCE. The result of the council was a schism between the Sthaviravada and the Mahasamghika that effectively ended the unity of the sangha, and therefore the sangha itself. Today, many Buddhist organizations call themselves a “sangha,” in the purely profane, legal sense of a “society,” but the Buddhist community, as a unified, cooperative commonality has not existed for nearly 2,400 years. Strictly speaking, no Buddhist organization today can claim to be the “sangha” in the proper Buddhist sense of the word.

The word “Sthaviravada” means “Teaching of the Elders.” The schism was the result of the majority (Mahāsaṃgha) refusing to accept the addition of rules to the Vinaya by the minority (Sthaviras). The Mahāsāṃghikas saw the Sthaviras as a schismatic group that was trying to change the original Vinaya in favour of a more rigid monasticism, similar in fact to the efforts of the heretic and would-be murderer Devadatta during the Buddha’s lifetime. The Mahāsāṃghika account is supported by the fact that the Vinaya texts associated with the Sthaviras do in fact contain more rules than those of the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya. It is also consistent with the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, which is the oldest surviving account of the schism, and for this reason is the prevailing view today.[3]

The Sthaviras subsequently split into several additional schools, including the Sarvāstivāda school and the Vibhajjavāda (Sanskrit: Vibhajyavāda). The Vibhajjavāda also gave rise to several schools, including the Tāmraparnīya (later called Theravāda, the Pali for “Teaching of the Elders”).

History owes a great debt of gratitude to the Theravadins, whose famous conservatism led to their tenacious preservation of the Pali Canon, the only ancient canon to survive intact. Due to the efforts of the Pali Text Society and others, almost all of the Pali Canon is now available in good English translations. Recently, much of the Sarvastivadin canon has been discovered in Afghanistan, but it has yet to be translated into English. Nonetheless, most scholars now believe that the Pali suttas, preserved in the second part of the Pali Canon, are substantially similar to the pre-sectarian suttas that also survive (in part) in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese translations.

However, it is impossible to accept the somewhat militant contention of contemporary Theravadins that they alone represent the only authentic survival of the original teachings of the historical Buddha, for at least seven reasons:

  1. Historically, the Theravada is only one of several divisions of the Vibhajyavāda school, which is in turn only one of five divisions of the Sthaviravada. Thus, there is no direct or exclusive lineage from the Buddha to the Theravada.
  2. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that the Theravāda school arose until about two centuries after the Third Buddhist Council. The Third Council is believed to have occurred around 250 BCE. Therefore, the Theravada cannot claim to have existed as such prior to about 50 BCE – around the same time that the Pali Canon was first committed to writing in Sri Lanka.
  3. Even if one accepts the extremely doubtful Theravadin self-identification with the Sthaviravada at the Second Buddhist Council, their’s was the minority view and therefore contrary to the Buddha’s explicit declaration that the sangha should be governed by consensus and that no new rules should be made.
  4. The Theravada sangha also actively discriminates against Buddhist nuns, contrary to the declared intention of the Buddha, who accepted both monks and nuns. In Thailand, for example, it is actually illegal for a nun to “impersonate” a Buddhist monastic, and perhaps in other Theravadin countries as well.[4]
  5. The Theravada cannot claim to be identical with the Hinayana either, since there were 18 or 20 Hinayana schools. All of these schools shared a similar sutta tradition, but all had different Abhidhammas, none of which can be attributed to the Buddha. The Theravadin view of dhamma is largely based on their Abhidhamma rather than the suttas.
  6. Nor can the Theravada claim any primacy in terms of Vinaya, since at least six different Vinaya traditions are known. Modern scholarship agrees that the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya is the oldest of these.
  7. By the mid-19th century, the Theravada was moribund, and had completely forgotten the original teachings of the Buddha concerning meditation, which had to be reconstructed from textual sources in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thus, all of the Theravadin meditation traditions taught today are only about 100 years old.[5]

The Mahasamghika led directly to the formation of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism. Today, the Theravada has approximately 150 million adherents, compared to about 400 million adherents of the Mahayana. A clear majority of Buddhists adhere to the Mahayana. Therefore, based on the Buddha’s clear and explicit commitment to the liberal democratic principle of consensus, and in the context of the previous arguments, it is clear that the true dhamma heirs of the Buddha today must be regarded as the Mahayana, not the Theravada, from a strictly legal and historical perspective. It is also worth noting that, contrary to popular perception perhaps, the Mahayana does not reject the Hinayana. Thus, the Mahayana is the inclusive view, in accordance with the dictum of the Buddha that in “theological” discussions the correct approach is to find common ground.

Notes:

1. The Vinaya rules developed over the course of the Buddha’s life, and were formulated and adopted in response to specific situations. At first, there was no Vinaya. Because the rules are geographically and historically contingent, the apparent paradox of preserving the tradition by abolishing the minor and lesser rules can be understood. If one reads the Patimokkha, it is clear that many of these rules have outlived their usefulness. Other rules, on the other hand, have permanent and enduring, universal spiritual significance. It is the latter that the Buddha intended the sangha to keep, realizing that in accordance with the law of change (anicca) the former would become progressively irrelevant. Thus, by deciding not to abolish the minor and lesser rules, the First Buddhist Council actually undermined its own position. When one analyzes the Vinaya in this way, one discovers that there are only about ten essential rules. According to tradition, the First Buddhist Council consisted entirely of arhants. The clearly dysfunctional character of this council, in which Ananda was attacked for “convincing” the Buddha to agree to ordain women, raises serious “theological” issues for Buddhism concerning the status and nature of the attainment of arhants, which resurfaced in subsequent councils, and appears to justify the Mahasamghika position that arhants are not perfect in wisdom or equal in attainment to the Buddha himself –  unless one is prepared to accept the restoration of Indian misogyny as a “view.”

2. Compare the Buddha’s Seven Principles of Social Stability. See http://www.vesakday.mcu.ac.th/vesak49/article/pdf/Buddhist_Society.pdf.

3.  Charles Prebish, “Saiksa-Dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahasamghika Origins.”

4. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, The History of the Bhikkhunisangha. Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on bhikkuni ordination from the 11th United Nations Day of Vesak 2014 is merely the most recent confirmation of the misogyny of Theravada Buddhists. See “Banning Ajahn Brahm’s speech on nuns was a spectacular own-goal.” Note that restoring bhikkuni ordination does not restore gender equity between men and women, since the Buddhist formula of ordination for bhikkunis is inherently discriminatory.

5. David Chapman, Theravada reinvents meditation. Chapman notes that men who embraced “extreme asceticism,” a practice that the Buddha rejected as useless prior to his enlightenment, undertook the Theravadin reinvention of meditation. See also S. Dhammika, Broken Buddha: Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism.