There is no law in history which guarantees that Buddhism will grow roots in the West or advance beyond its present infantile stage. But one would expect that it will grow more conscious of its own difficulties and Buddhists will awaken to the problems which Buddhism itself thrusts upon man as an essential part of its treasure. One would also hope that doubt should appear as the sign of a deeper conviction. Luis O. Gomez
In the southwestern suburbs of Mandalay is a temple enshrining one of the most famous and revered Buddha statue in the world, the Mahamuni Image. According to legend, this statue is actually a portrait of the Buddha himself although its real origins are lost in time. For centuries it was kept in Arakhan until King Bodawpaya of Burma invaded the country with the specific intention of getting the statue for himself. Having defeated the Arakhanese and decimated their land the king had the huge statue dragged over the mountains at great loss of life and then enshrined in the temple where it sits today. In 1973 during my first visit to Mandalay I got the opportunity to see this famous statue. I had asked two Burmese I had met if they would take me to see it and they were only too happy to show their new ‘white Buddhist’ friend the country’s most sacred icon. They led me through a hall crowded with devotees and eventually we entered the sanctum sanctorum. It was something of an anticlimax. Rather than the graceful image I had expected, a squat and somewhat ungainly form loomed up before me. The face was pleasant enough but the rest of its body was lumpy and misshapen. It took me a few minutes to figure out the reason for this. Men clamored over the statue (women are forbidden to touch it) placing the small squares of gold leaf on it which devotees passed up to them. Over the centuries the gradual accumulation of this gold has formed a thick uneven crust over the statue so as to obscure its original shape. Since that time I have often thought that the Mahamuni Image could be a metaphor of what has happened to the teaching of the Buddha itself.
In 2001 I had been a monk in the Theravadin tradition for 25 years as well as reaching the conventional halfway point in my life, having also had my 50th birthday. It seemed a good time to asses my life and my practice up to then as well as to give some thought to where the two might go in the future. Even before I became a monk I had reservations about some of the things I had seen during my stays in Thai and Laotian monasteries. This didn’t deter me from ordaining though. Corruption and misunderstandings exist in all religions, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to find those who practiced the true Theravada. As it happened it was quite difficult to find such people. But more disappointing, when I did meet dedicated and sincere Theravadins all too often they seemed to give exaggerated importance to things which, to me at least, appeared to be little more than rituals and formalities. I recall visiting a tea plantation one afternoon with the late Venerable Sivali of Khandaboda, a dedicated monk and skillful meditation teacher. The manager of the plantation walked a quarter of a mile down the steep hillside to welcome us and then asked if we would like a cup of tea. We said yes and he walked back up the hill to his bungalow, prepared our tea and brought it down to us. As I sipped mine I noticed that Sivali was looking rather coy and not drinking his. I looked at the tea, saw that it had milk in it and knew straight away why. A few minutes later the manager also noticed that Sivali was not drinking his tea and came over to see what the problem was. Sivali gently told him and the solicitous and embarrassed man took his cup, threw the tea out and ran all the way back up the hill to get him another one without milk in it. If an ordinary person were as fussy about not having milk in their tea after midday we would dismiss it as just a silly eccentricity. But why would an otherwise decent intelligent person dedicated to the practice of letting go, being content with what is and developing a kind heart, be prepared to cause embarrassment and inconvenience over such a minor thing? To be able to answer this question is to understand the very essence of Theravada but this dawned on me only gradually. As it did I decided to just do my own practice and try to have as little contact with institutional Theravada as possible. But being a monk in a Theravadin land this proved easier said than done.
Quite understandably, Asian Theravadins expect you to follow their traditions and not question them. You can point out that certain practices or ideas are not in the Tipitaka or are even contrary to it, but it will make no difference. Right or wrong, inane or practical, that’s how it has always been done and that’s what you must do. In 1996 I traveled in Europe for the first time thus giving me the opportunity to see how Theravada was understood and practiced there. Theravada in Asia might be hidebound and fossilized I thought, but at least Westerners will have been able to separate the fruit from the peel, the gift from the wrapping, the Buddha from ‘the thick uneven crust’ surrounding him. To my astonishment and despair I found that this was not so. Most groups, centers and monasteries I visited adhered to such practices with even more tenacity than in Asia. I finally had to admit that this is Theravada and reluctantly and with some sadness decided that I could not be a part of it any longer. I began telling anyone who might be interested that I did not consider myself or want to be considered by others to be a Theravadin monk. In fact I had probably never really been one anyway, not a good one at least. When I mentioned this to a friend he asked ‘Then what sort of monk are you?’ I wasn’t prepared for this question but after thinking about it for a while I decided that I did not have to align myself with any school. Now I follow the Buddha’s teachings to the best of my understanding and to the best of my ability. What follows are thoughts and observations on the Theravada tradition that I have formed over the last twenty five years, some of the experiences that have led to them and some suggestions about the possible future of the Dhamma in the West.
It may be that some will see the following reflections as just an angry parting shot. They are not although it is true that putting them down on paper was to some extent a catharsis. I am convinced that the Buddha’s teachings really are ‘beautiful in the beginning, the middle and the end’ and that they can offer a credible answer to the spiritual crisis in the West. However, I also believe that a major obstacle to the growth of the Dhamma outside its traditional homeland is the highly idealized view most Westerners have of Theravada in Asia. This all too often means that they adopt the Dhamma together with outdated practices and misunderstandings that have built up around it. If this persists the Dhamma will never really take root in the West. Worse, Westerners may just perpetuate many of the problems that plague Theravada in Asia. Consequently these reflections will also attempt to show what Theravada really is, how it got like that and suggests ways of bringing it closer to the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings so that it can become revenant to a non-traditional environment.
Few of my observations about Theravada are original, they are the sort of things one often hears about it from former Theravadins, Mahayanists and others. Nor are they particularly contemporary. In the famous Vimalakirtinidesa Sutra for example, a Mahayana work dating from the early centuries of the Common Era, the layman Vimalakirti pretends to be sick and the Buddha one by one asks the monks to go and visit him. Each of them refuses because they know Vimalakirti is wiser than they and the idea of being seen learning from a lay person is too much for their monkish self-image. But the Buddha is insistent and so they decide to go all together. Many of Vimalakirti’s friends have also come to see him and so he takes the opportunity to teach the Dhamma. But just as he begins there is a disturbance in the audience. Sariputta, here representing the archetypal ‘Hinayana’ monk, cannot find a chair that will make him higher than the lay people in the audience so Vimalakirti magically manifests ‘allowable’ furniture and then begins his sermon. Half way through Sariputta interrupts the Dhamma talk yet again. Vimalakirti asks what the problem is this time and Sariputta replies that he and the other monks must eat before noon and the time is getting near. Vimalakirti manifests food for the monks and while they tuck in he continues expounding the good Dhamma. When the sermon is finally finished the heavens open and celestial blossoms fall from the sky and stick to the congregation. Sariputta and the other monks indignantly brush the blossoms off saying as they do: ‘We monks are not allowed to decorate ourselves.’ Although in less exalted settings, such behavior could be observed in a Theravadin monastery even today, even in the West.
These reflections are not concerned with the abuses and corruption that infest Theravada and I will elude to such things only in passing. It is not the failure to practice Theravada that is my main concern, but its proper practice and the problems arising therefrom. Many will accuse me of focusing too much on the negative and of failing to mention that despite the problems there are still enough monks and lay people who practice with understanding. But the good in Theravada and of course there is a good side, is already well-known, in fact it is the only side that is known. Almost all discourse on Theravada presents the exceptional as the normal and the ideal as the actual. The massive problems that beset Theravada are ignored, denied, sidestepped or more usually just passed over in silence. Hopefully, my reflections will help to give a more balanced picture of the situation. Some of my observations might apply equally as well to Mahayana, especially Tibetan Buddhism. However, there are thoughtful Western Vajirayanists who are beginning to question certain aspects their own tradition and are better placed to comment on it than I. Neither have I discussed fully the problems surrounding meditation in Theravada. This subject is of such a crucial importance that it deserves to be explored in depth and this I hope to do at some time in the future.
I have quoted frequently from several books, in particular The Buddhist Monastic Code by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and The Buddhist Monk’s Discipline – A Layman’s Guide by Ariyeseko, both of which represent the orthodox Theravadin standpoint. I have disagreed with most of what these venerable authors say which I hope will not be taken as disrespect towards them personally. However, the Buddha’s teachings are rich enough to allow for a broader interpretation, and I think that an alternative to the Theravada position is long overdue. I also quote often from Milford Spiro’s Buddhism and Society, an anthropological study of Theravada in its Burmese setting. Spiro observations are of value not just because they often coincide with my own, but because they are those of an objective observer with no ax to grind. Finally, it only remains to say that I hope my comments about lay people pampering monks are not mistaken for ingratitude on my part. In my years in Sri Lanka numerous people, from the Colombo 7 crowd to simple pious villagers have always treated me with the utmost generosity and kindness and for this I will be forever grateful. However it is time to part company. I must walk another path.