Attempting to Deworm Theravada

A look at some of the issues facing Theravada Buddhism and the problems encountered in the effort to look for solutions.

THERAVĀDINS (those who profess Theravāda — “Doctrine of the Elders”) generally have a high regard for their tradition. They see it as the best among the major Buddhist traditions — in terms of authenticity in both scriptures and practice. However, if we were to look objectively at the present state of popular Theravada (“Doctrine of the Elders” — Gotama Buddha’s teachings preserved in the Pali language) we have to admit that it is not as pretty and healthy as we would like to imagine it to be. In fact, it is like a lion that is infested with worms that have silently, yet pervasively proliferated inside.

In one of the discussion sessions of the Introduction to Monkhood Programme held in SBS in December 2003, we discussed some of the issues raised in an uncompleted manuscript by a concerned Buddhist on this subject. Here, let me share a few issues that we touched on and, more importantly, explore what we can do to help counteract the debilitating trends of the present Theravadin world.

Selective Emphasis and Questionable Interpretations of Theravada
The writer points out that Theravada does not equal the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the Pali Tipiṭaka (the Three Baskets). Rather, Theravada is based on a particular interpretation of certain teachings from the Pali Tipitaka.” (italics mine) That is a fact that we cannot rightly deny.

With more than two millennia of inevitable transformation since the Blessed One passed on to Nibbāna (highest and ultimate goal of all Buddhist aspirations, i.e. extinction of greed, hatred and delusion), we cannot expect any Buddhist tradition, as we know them now, to be an exact representation of the original teachings. Contrary to popular traditional belief, there are evidences within the Pali Canon itself (as we have it now) to show that it is not the same as the original sanctioned by the First Buddhist Council, which was held soon after the Buddha’s demise.

Furthermore, we must understand that Buddhism did not split into just a few schools in India, but at least 18 of them. Not only did they bear differing views among them, but also differing sets of scriptures. A few hundred years after Theravada reached Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), it split further into a few sub-groups. Although they probably agreed on most texts of the Pali Canon (which was then committed into writing for the first time), they did have some dissimilar texts and they did not share the same -interpretations in all aspects.

What we now generally accept as the orthodox Theravadin teachings is largely based on the interpretations of only one of those groups: the Mahavihara. (Their interpretations of the Pali Canon were compiled and sanctioned by them as what we now call the Aṭṭhakathā or the Pali Commentaries). This is so because all other Theravadin lineages (notably the Jetavana and Abhayagiri sects) did not survive due to various reasons. As such, the general understanding of the DhammaVinaya (Doctrine and Discipline) according to orthodox Theravada, as we know it today, may well be incomplete, and in some cases probably wrong.

Nonetheless, historians generally agree that although the set of Pali Canon sanctioned by the Mahaviharins (members of Mahavihara sect) may not be an exact “copy” of what the Buddha taught, it does contain the essence of it. Moreover, a careful comparison of the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) and their corresponding commentaries also strongly suggests that the Mahaviharins were conscientious enough to not modify the teachings contained therein according to their understanding. We can see this in cases where their commentaries disagree with the literal and obvious meaning of what the suttas say. Therefore, while Theravadins now cannot claim their Pali Canon to be a carbon copy of that sanctioned by the First Buddhist Council, they can have confidence that it is fairly close to that. In fact, as a complete, codified set of Buddhist scriptures, it is probably the closest.

On top of that, the teachings that an average Buddhist receives tend to be rather selective — in many cases not for the listener’s benefit, but the speaker’s. The writer boldly chided Theravadin monks who, motivated by self-interest, preach much about the benefits of generosity towards monks and monasteries, but little about other greater virtues. Selective preaching of the Dhamma also occurs when the preacher wants to draw others to his point of view — he highlights suttas that seem to support his opinions and conveniently ignores suttas that contradict them. This is rather common among meditation debaters.

Therefore, the question now is this: What can truth-seeking Theravadin Buddhists do under such circumstances? There is not much that we can do now to regain the complete original teachings of the Buddha (unless perhaps we are willing to trust certain individuals who say they can go back in time!). Nevertheless, if we wish to get as close as we can to the original teachings, considering what is currently available, the Pali Canon seems to be our best bet.

Getting back to the irrefutable statement that Theravada does not equal the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in the Pali Canon, truth-seeking Buddhists should make the effort to study the canon. The best, of course, would be to learn Pali so that one can go beyond interpretations (personal or from the commentaries) that tend to creep into translations. If that proves beyond a person’s limitations, he or she can at least study reliable translations by objective, learned and practising Buddhists (such as Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi) who are assisted but not confined by interpretations of the Commentaries. The only problem is that we do not have a complete set of such translations yet. As such, it is still necessary to learn Pali if we wish to have the full picture of its content.

By doing the above, we can cut through the orthodoxy of Theravada and get closer to what the Buddha taught. These measures form part of what SBS is trying to do, and we hope others will join or support us in this task so crucial to the health of the Sāsana (Buddha’s Dispensation).

The Vinaya
The writer also points out certain issues surrounding the observance of the Vinaya in today’s world:
1. Rules that are irrelevant and meaningless outside the ancient Indian context.
2. Monks who follow rules according to their own traditions, which do not always agree with the Vinaya Pitaka.
3. Misinterpretation of rules, which lead to inane and even hilarious observances.

On the first point, we have to agree that some rules seem rather absurd to observe in our present world, and it does make some sense to do away with such rules, which have become more like mere rituals. Besides, in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha was said to have allowed the Sangha to abolish minor rules if it so wished.

However, as the Buddha did not say which rules are to be regarded as minor, it does not seem prudent for any one of us now to cite that allowance as a valid justification for abolishing rules. Why is that so?
1. The enlightened attendees of the First Council could not agree as to what the Buddha meant by minor rules, and instead agreed to keep all of them. Who among us now can say for sure what the Buddha meant? Are we to consider ourselves wiser?
2. If one group or even individuals (particularly respected ones) are seen to do away with what they think are minor rules, we can only expect others to also abolish what they think are minor rules. Furthermore, if one group were to start abolishing rules, what is there to prevent future generations from abolishing even more rules? If members of the Sangha keep pruning the Vinaya (in keeping with their traditions), can we expect the level of discipline to be better than if they had kept the Vinaya as it is?
3. We should remind ourselves that the splitting of the Sangha was due to the wish of a larger segment to change ten rules. Following that came an unstoppable proliferation of new groups with differing ideas of not just the Vinaya but the Dhamma as well. Do we want to instigate a repetition of that regrettable episode of history?
4. Besides, if such abolishing is to be done, we should bear in mind that the Buddha allowed only the Sangha to do so — not individual members or chapters. This presupposes the need for a sanghakamma, a monastic legal action. To my knowledge, there has never been such a sanghakamma in the entire history of the Theravadin tradition — which is a good thing. Otherwise, with a trimmed down code of discipline as a guide for monastic behaviour, what can we expect the Sangha to become?

On the issue of monks who merely go by their own traditions, it drives home the necessity to go back to the Vinaya Pitaka and uphold the Vinaya according to it instead of blindly following the norm of a certain community. Admittedly, this is quite impossible to implement in a large community deeply entrenched in its own norms. However, it can be done by small groups that appreciate the advantages of doing so for the benefit of the Sasana. As variations of interpretation are unavoidable, it is only fair that different communities agree to disagree in those areas so long as they do not contradict the original rules.

As for the writer’s point about misinterpreting the rules, it is clear that monks need to have practical understanding of the Vinaya, which necessitates tutelage under a learned, qualified teacher. Otherwise, it should not surprise us to find misguided monks who do such things as using tweezers to count money they have received (as mentioned by the said writer), thinking that they are being pure in their precepts.

Becoming a Monk
It should not be too difficult for well-informed Buddhists to realise that quite a large portion of the Sangha consists of people who seem to have entered it with not-so-pure motives. Although there are cases where some of such monks later discover their spiritual potential and grow to become respectable monks, it rarely happens. As for the rest of them, they naturally actualise their unwholesome motives, thereby bringing disrepute to and consequent loss of faith in the Sangha in the eyes of the laity. This is another issue that the writer brought forward.

“We need to have some quality control in the Sangha!” Such is the concern of many knowledgeable and observant Buddhists. However, in most Theravadin cultures — particularly long existing ones — this is hardly done.

In Ven Aggacitta Bhikkhu’s “Role of the Sangha in the New Millennium: the Monastic Perspective”, he reiterated the need for Sangha quality control. For this purpose, it is the policy of SBS (of which the venerable is the abbot) that a person wishing to be ordained a monk here must be a postulant for at least one year before he can be considered for ordination. This also provides the monk aspirant an opportunity to try out the life very similar to that of a monk before he makes a deliberate decision.

Many other monastic communities besides SBS have insisted on a similar policy and it has proven practicable and effective in filtering off unsuitable individuals. While we do not expect this to change the whole face of Theravada, we certainly hope that more communities will see its necessity and implement the same policy.

A New Buddhism?
There is no doubt about the grave problems facing the present Theravada Buddhism and the writer’s call for change deserves much attention. While sensational and outrageous issues may grab our attention, they are relatively isolated and have more to do with the individual rather than the community. The scriptures tell us that such things also happened during the Buddha’s time, though perhaps in milder degrees. As for those issues that are not so sensational but pervasive, they are in reality more pernicious and virtually impossible to uproot in places where immoral behaviour among monks has become the norm.

At the end of the uncompleted manuscript, the writer presented a proposal for a new sect of Buddhism. He shared a number of very constructive suggestions that are truly worthy of our attention. However, the proposal also includes certain things that are unsuitable and even deviate from the Dhamma-Vinaya as enshrined in the Pali Canon.

So, while we can agree with a large portion of the writer’s proposal, we cannot agree with that of creating a new sect, which has happened more than enough times in the history of Buddhism. Doing so has always opened new cans of worms — the gravest one being the breaking up of the Buddhist family, which the Buddha is known to have taken pains to prevent.
Instead, we believe in revitalising the Sasana from within, starting with the core of the Buddhist community: the Sangha. Like natural medicine to cure a deep-seated illness, it may be slow, but it is steady. SBS is taking measures to this end. Care enough to join us?

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