This first article appeared in the pages of the Maha Bodhi Journal in 1931. I reprint it here because it is the earliest example I have found of a Western Buddhist monk seeing the need for renewal in the Theravadin Sangha and giving suggestions, however briefly, as to how this might be done. Although the author’s language is awkward and dated, his sincerity is still evident as is his frustration and disillusionment. The article is of interest also because it shows that all the absurdity and corruption that Prajnananda was familiar with are still alive and well more than 70 years later. If anything has changed it is that the world has moved on while the Sangha has not, thus putting it even further behind. As for Bhikkhu Prajnananda himself, I have been unable to find out anything about him other than that he was an Englishman. After making his brief and futile appeal he disappeared from history, almost certainly to disrobe. Like many Westerners before and since he no doubt entered the Sangha believing that it would enable him to soar to the spiritual heights only to find himself weighed down by medieval superstition and nonsensical formalism. The second article was written under a pseudonym by a senior Sri Lankan civil servant and leading lay Buddhist and was published on Vesak 1997 in The Buddhist, the organ of The Young Men’s Buddhist Association. That such a conservative body as the YMBA should publish this unusually blunt article suggests that even they can no longer deny or hide the crisis in the Sri Lankan Sangha. To head off charges that some of my observations about Asian Theravadins are due to an ‘inherent Western sense of superiority’ or that I am really an agent for Catholic Action, I reproduce this article here to show what a few thoughtful and honest Sri Lankans think about the state of Theravada in their country. With the author’s permission I have made a few minor changes to this article for the sake of clarity.

The Reform of the Sangha

Bhikkhu Prajnananda

If Buddhism is to keep its rightful place amongst the religions of the world and become an increasing power for progress and enlightenment, the whole subject of the position and condition of the Sangha will have to be examined. Already prominent laymen in Burma, Siam, Ceylon, and elsewhere, view with misgivings the present state of affairs and know that sooner or later some alterations will have to be made. Nearly everyone sees signs of decay in the Order, that Order that has continued for 2500 years, but today there are new conditions and forces in the world and unless something radical is done this decay will increase until either the Sangha dies out, or becomes a dead letter, the refuge of the ignorant and unworthy.

The Buddha very wisely laid down rules for admission to the Order, that youths should be of good character, high minded, not physically defective or suffering from disease, yet such rules are sadly neglected today, and we find men wearing the Robe to whom not one of these conditions would apply. And the great difficulty is this, the laymen are not sufficiently organized to promote much needed reforms and the monks are afraid to modernize certain Vinaya rules for fear of offending the laymen.

Again, the Buddha showed his wisdom by admitting that many of these rules would not be suitable for all times and conditions, and allowed a modification of them when necessary. This was done in the Mahayana by Tsongkapa with most excellent results, but in the Hinayana none of the Theras have been courageous or strong enough to adapt these rules to modern conditions, with the result that the Sangha is now overburdened with many worn out customs, traditions and observances which have become useless and in some cases quite harmful. Many of the rules were doubtless necessary in ancient times but under modern conditions have become quite unreasonable. I could quote a whole list, some of them most laughable, and it is an insult to the intelligence of the Buddha to suppose that he would tolerate or support them. For example, here in Burma, in the afternoon a Bhikkhu can drink iced mineral water but not hot water, must not eat fruit but can smoke a box of cigars, can eat jaggary but not onions, beetel nut and not coconut. The shoes must have a strap between the toes, and not over the toes, the latter a serious offence. He must not bathe in a lake in case he might swim, but he can go to the bioscope (cinema) and see demoralizing pictures for there is nothing in the Vinaya to prevent him. All the bioscopes, football matches and race meetings are thronged with Yellow Robes, and no protest is made, but a poor little Samanera who eat an orange on a hot afternoon would soon come under a heavy penalty.

Again, the Sangha is actually becoming an obstacle to the health and happiness of the people. Many of the Viharas are in a dirty and unsanitary condition producing disease and early death to the men, women and children living near them. So bad has it become that the Red Cross Society offered to provide sanitary latrines for the monk, so that malaria and fever could be reduced. The offer was indignity refused as being ‘against the Vinaya’. To be quite fair, however, the Monks are not entirely to blame, they merely try to observe regulations which are unsuitable today, and must either be honest and break them, or become morally dishonest and keep them under silent protest. While travelling in India recently it was necessary to break several precepts. I had to touch money to buy railway tickets, sit in trains with women, eat in the afternoon when I had nothing in the morning and when in hospital actually slept on a board bed. Yet my conscience was clear, for I regard the will to become a Buddha to save mankind from suffering as more important than worrying about rules which are only the dead letter and not the true spirit of the Dhamma.

But enough. The present state of affairs is evident to every observer, and it is more important now to suggest remedies. And here I write with diffidence for I know that the conservatism of the Sangha will not be easily shaken, but it may prompt a future Buddhist Conference to consider the whole matter. I will therefore merely state certain reforms by which the prestige and influence of the Order could possibly be improved.

First. Admission to the Sangha. This should be strictly regulated for there are too many Bhikkhus at present whom the people in their present impoverished condition find difficulty in supporting. Only youths of good parentage or spiritually minded, perfect physically and mentally and of unblemished character should be ordained, to whom a certificate of registration, renewable annually, would be granted. This would keep out unworthy characters, and ensure a higher standard among the Monks.

Secondly. Education. The present lack of education in the Sangha is deplorable, and in consequence it produces no great preachers, philosophers or thinkers. Recently in Burma a Bhikkhu was needed to preach the Dhamma in English. Not one could be found anywhere. With hardly any knowledge of modern languages, science, history or geography how can such a body of men command the respect of the educated laity? Most religions today are educating their priests making them useful and efficient, but the Sangha does nothing, and any attempt to give this modern education to the Bhikkhus is vigorously opposed by the Mahatheras. When last in Upper Burma I noticed the number of Christian Missions that had sprung up, and when I asked a prominent man the reason he replied: ‘These missionaries have opened schools and hospitals and help us in many ways. They are doing the work of the Lord Buddha while our own Bhikkhus do nothing but sleep and smoke all day.’ His indignation was great for he was a true follower of the Dhamma but he saw how things were going, and unless the Sangha became more educated and active it would cease to exist in those parts. We need educated self-sacrificing Monks to awaken the lion roar of the Buddha.

Thirdly. Food. The present food regulations observed by the Sangha do much more harm than good. They produce ill health, gluttony, bad habits, and dishonesty. Let me explain what I see almost daily. A Monk goes around with a bowl in the morning, gets meat, fish, fowl, rice, etc, food that heats the blood and has little nourishment. But he must eat it all before noon and then starve for eighteen hours, so he stuffs down much more usually than he can digest and so has to sleep for some hours after. Late in the afternoon he gets hungry and then has to chew tobacco, pan leaf and jaggery, and smoke innumerable cigarettes and cigars. Bad health often results, and while boys in day schools are taught that smoking is ruinous to health, in the Order they are actually encouraged to do so. And of course dishonesty naturally occurs, various tricks and methods to eat stealthily without laymen or other Bhikkhus knowing it.

Surely our great Lord Buddha would not approve of all this. It would be far better for the Monks to drink tea and eat fruit in the afternoon. This could be considered as a medicine and taken without infringement of the Vinaya. In my Vihara Samaneras are allowed to do so with excellent results. They are learning to become useful men to their religion and their country and not acquire those bad habits which they get in the orthodox Viharas. On an empty stomach one can really do very little. I recently debated with a Christian missionary. Before the meeting he had a splendid meal, but I arrived hungry having eaten nothing for nine hours. What chance does poor Bhikkhus stand under such conditions? To remedy these harmful conditions, tea and fruit should be allowed up till sunset.

Fourthly. Discouragement of Superstition. Pure Buddhism has today become overgrown with a mass of superstitions which the Buddha himself would be the first to discourage and which prevents its progress as people become more educated. The waste of money on innumerable candles, gold leaf, building pagodas, etc. is particularly deplorable when it could be much more wisely and humanely spent. Some Bhikkhus actually encourage superstition among ignorant people, teaching for example, if gold is put on a pagoda the giver will become rich, if a woman feeds many Monks she will be reborn as a beautiful boy, if money is given to the Sangha the happiness of the Brahmaloka is assured after death, teachings which pander to selfishness and are the complete negation of the selflessness which is the bed rock of the Buddha Dhamma. So many false customs, traditions and beliefs are now associated with Buddhism that the educated layman naturally laughs at them, and our religion is likely to make poor progress in the West until we can get rid of all these excrescencies and show it to be the rational religion that it really is. The better education of the Sangha would be one of the best ways of achieving this.

Fifthly. Buddhist Unity. At present there is not only no unity between Buddhist monks of different countries there is actually hostility between them. The Burmese Bhikkhu has little regard for his Ceylon brother, and the latter regards the former with not as much affection as he should. The Chinese monk derides both as having “incomplete views” and the Japanese has very scant knowledge of the Sangha in other countries. And the tragedy is that while they are all agreed on essentials, – the Buddha and his Dhamma, they disagree on the unimportant national customs, traditions and observances which have sprung up and destroy all harmony between them. In Ceylon and Burma for example, a Bhikkhu can smoke but must not drink beer, but in Tibet a monk drinks as much native beer as he pleases but never smokes, which is a most serious offence. In one country a Monk must eat before noon, in other Buddhist countries the best meal of the Bhikkhus is generally after noon. Certainly the Lord Buddha could not have taught all these contradictions, and there will never be the Buddhist unity that is so desirable until local customs have less prominence and the true spirit of Buddhism is better understood. Then may we get a united Buddhist World.

Sixthly. Revival of Meditation. Not until the ancient Buddhist practice of meditation is revived can we have a spiritual Sangha. Today it has not only almost died out, it is actually laughed at in some Viharas, as those who have tried it know full well. Yet mind control and the awakening of the super-mind is the basis of all spiritual development, and is far superior to the mere empty repetition of the Scriptures which is all a Bhikkhu learns at present. I have met Yogis in India who were far nearer to the Iddhis and Samadhi than anyone I have seen in the Sangha and the years a Bhikkhu spends in learning Pali and repeating long passages from the Pitakas could be far better employed if he strove to realize, and help others to realize Nibbana, instead of only talking about it. The world needs men who can speak from actual experience of the reality of the spiritual states, and not those who can merely say: ‘Thus have I heard.’ The practice of meditation is of the utmost importance, far more important than the customs and rules upon which a Bhikkhu now wastes his time, and when this is followed the Sangha will regain the spiritual power it had in the days of old.

But I have written enough. Has Buddhism a message for the world today, a world that seems to be sinking deeper into misery, poverty and unbrotherliness? I believe it has, and that message must come from the Sangha. If this Sangha can be reformed, awakened and spiritualized it could regain the tremendous influence it had at the time of Asoka. If it cannot, then we can expect it to pass away as the Order of Bhikkhunis had done. If the Sangha dies, the Dhamma goes, and unless things change, to some future generation the name Buddha may be but a word recalled from the past. The Maha Bodhi Society and its supporters have earned the gratitude and admiration of innumerable people; the fight for Buddha Gaya, its hospitals and schools, the new Vihara at Sarnath, all redound to their credit. Will its support now be given to a crusade for the reform and uplift of the Sangha so that it could become a real force for the peace, progress and happiness of the world?

Why Am I A Buddhist?


Around a century ago Buddhist journals in colonial Ceylon, dazzled by the glamour of Europeans embracing Buddha Dhamma, gleefully published articles by some of them carrying such titles as ‘Why I am a Buddhist.’ Today, as an older Sinhala Buddhist, I look around with dismay at the disturbing milieu in which we find ourselves and I ask myself: ‘Why am I a Buddhist?’ I often ask myself this question, not because I doubt the Buddha Dhamma, but because I am deeply perturbed about the unseemly twists and turns taken by Sinhala ‘exponents’ and ‘practitioners’ of Buddhism in Sri Lanka today. This, dear reader, is a deliberately provocative article which, I hope, will make Sinhala Buddhists think hard and long.

Memory takes me back about 25 years ago when well-meaning supporters honored the 80th birth anniversary of a revered bhikkhu by ordaining 80 young boys as samaneras. They were all the sons of poor village parents and all under ten years of age. The incessant sobbing of one of these boys, which kept him up all night and the next morning, yet echoes sadly in my ears. This incident symbolizes to me much that is wrong with the Sinhala Sangha. First and foremost, there seem to be almost no ‘volunteers’ who have sought the yellow robe with understanding and a sense of vocation. Most entrants to the Sangha have been ‘conscripted’ – young village boys pitchforked into the Sangha by poor parents ridding themselves of one more mouth to feed. In the older and more established Nikayas, scions of a few families have monopolized the position of Mahanayaka and are determined to retain their grip on these lucrative fiefdoms. They are all village boys, poorly educated, unprepared and often unwilling. This is the harsh truth that we must face and it is the root cause of the rot in the Sinhala Sangha.

It is no surprise that these ‘conscripts’, unwittingly deprived of their boyhood and youth, grow up into hairy, unkempt undergraduates who, while pursuing studies irrelevant to the Dhamma, squat on pavements and roofs and march yelling unseemly slogans and waiving raising fists. Other, grown older and shrewder, have embarked on lucrative careers, some of which are listed below.

(1) Ayurvedic physicians and astrologers who ply their trade for money and perform no religious activities whatsoever. This is an ancient and well-trodden path, now more commercialized than ever and heavily advertised in the media.

(2) Paid employees of government institutions, mainly teachers, who personally pocket their wages. Some are now competing for other administrative jobs as well.

(3) Squatters on government land, canal banks and other unsalubrious, slummy surroundings who build rooms for rent, often for nefarious purposes. One recent such ‘temple’ had harbored a Tiger terrorist tenant and had ammunition buried in its grounds.

(4) Renting space in temples for the parking of cars, taxies and lorries. A bomb-laden terrorist lorry was recently found in such a ‘temple.’

(5) Conducting paid tuition classes for public examinations while failing to conduct Sunday schools for children.

(6) Establishing front organizations (ostensibly religious) to siphon vast sums of money from wealthy but gullible Japanese and Koreans who relish in photo-ops and hobnobbing with Sri Lankan VIP’s which monks can easily arrange.

(7) Temple robbers who plunder relics, ancient artifacts and palm leaf books for sale to antique dealers.

(8) Office bearers of trade unions, political and other non-religious organizations who control considerable funds and wallow in related publicity.

(9) Monks who act as priests of Sai Baba, the south Indian ‘god man,’ and who prostitute their temples and provide rich Sinhala matrons with a whitewash of ‘Buddhism’ for their primitive idolatry. Recently a ‘pilgrimage’ to Sai Baba was being organized to observe the five Precepts on Vesak at ‘His Lotus Feet!’ Need more be said of the ‘Buddhist’ matrons who pay such homage or the ‘bhikkhus’ who pander to them?

(10) Sculptors, artists and songwriters who hold public exhibitions and launch their ‘artistic’ works on the commercial market.

This sad list is merely illustrative and not exhaustive. Other examples abound.

We Sinhala Buddhists have to face up to the fact that most bhikkhus disgrace the Buddhist Sangha and aware laymen turn a blind eye to their misdeeds. All too few bhikkhus observe the Vinaya or study the Dhamma deeply or meditate to any effect. We all know that often sermons are by rote and of extraordinarily poor quality. There is too little original thinking, commentary or interpretation by discussion or in writing. The emphasis in most temples is on rituals and festivals aimed at raising money for the construction of yet more buildings, all broadcast by the very loudest of loudspeakers. These shenanigans involves the temples in an incessant hunt for patronage. There is a constant quest for wealthy or socially /politically prominent supporters whose association with the temple will gain it more glory and the supporter more ‘merit.’ There is a tragic disregard for the religious needs of the community where the temple is located while prominent patrons are sought far and wide. The contrast with the Christian churches which assiduously serve their respective parishes is sadly obvious. Our temple management committees are just tame organizations for the greater glory of their temple and are in no way orientated to serve the spiritual needs of the Buddhist community.

Yet another tragicomic feature is the Sinhala Sangha’s thirst for ‘honors.’ Every nook and cranny boasts of a Mahanayaka or Anunayaka who revel in being photographed or telecast receiving his insignia of office from some politician of dubious integrity and transient fame. Another phenomena is that of the expatriate Sinhala monks who get themselves ‘anointed’ with due publicity as Mahanayaka of some far off non-Buddhist country or other. Their vanity is tragicomic and symbolic of the degradation of simple Sinhala Buddhist values. We Sinhala Buddhist almost always gloss over the issue of caste which lies at the root of the degradation of the Sinhala Sangha. It is a tragic farce that there is no organization in Sri Lanka as caste-ridden as the Sinhala Sangha. Every single caste boasts of its own Nikaya or sub-Nikaya. Nobody of an ‘outside’ caste can ever penetrate the hierarchy. They are often fobbed off with valueless high sounding titles carrying no authority. A blind eye however, is readily turned on white Europeans who are welcomed with open arms in every Nikaya. It is galling to see our ‘Mahanayakas’ lapping up the transient glory when VIP’s call on them for ‘blessings’ on assuming office.

The tragic results of this proliferation of caste-ridden Nikayas is the absence of discipline or the total unreadiness to exercise it over these errant bhikkhus by Nikayas that ordain them. The newspapers appall us with accounts of ‘bhikkhus’ found guilty of assault, rape, murder, financial racketeering and drunkenness. Not one of these malefactors has ever had the self-discipline to disrobe himself until his name has been cleared. Many shamelessly go to jail yet wearing their hallowed yellow robe. Tragically, no Sangha organization has ever exercised its inherent authority to disrobe a single errant robe-wearer.

Politics has long been the bane of the Sinhala Sangha. They readily appear on political platforms and other places where, under the guise of ‘saving Buddhism’, they indulge in the most virulent communalism. To most of them Buddhism comes a long, long way behind their Sinhalaness. ‘Bhikkhus’ vociferously endorse a variety of political parties – each claiming to safeguard the Sinhala race better than their rivals. The Buddha’s exhortation to show loving kindness to all living beings does not seem to extend to the non-Sinhala peoples of Sri Lanka – if one listens to our ‘activist bhikkhus.’

Today our Buddhist youth drift rudderless into the 21st century with no intelligent guidance from the Sangha. We badly need a cohort of educated bhikkhus trained in modern thought who can provide Buddhist guidance to today’s youth engulfed in the myriad temptations of modern life. This is what we need – not larger, posher and louder temples. This is the real challenge the Sinhala Sangha has to face. Let us not deceive ourselves by the high visibility of the Sunday schools with their white clad boys and girls. They are the innocent victims of ill-prepared and unmotivated teachers who parrot goody goody clichés and cram them for the unseemly competition of academic exams in the Dhamma. We should remember that the insurgents of 1971 admitted under interrogation that they had all gone to Sunday schools! This vivid proof of the abject failure of such religious education never seems to have had any impact on the establishment which lumbers on regardless.

One final grouse against our premier Buddhist organizations which have ossified into havens for aged retirees. No young Buddhists have shown any interest in joining their fossilized ranks. Decades ago there were active and effective organizations led by Anagarika Dharmapala, Baron Jayatillala and G. P. Malalasekera in their vigorous youth. We need all the young Buddhist intellects we can encourage to lead the community once again and wrestle the decedent Sangha back to its sacred vocation. But are these organizations and their sadly limited Sangha committees open enough? If they do not reform themselves to attract youth to their ranks, I foresee a rapid dissolution of the Buddha Dhamma among the Sinhalese while at the same time ever larger and richer temples flourish and loudspeakers blare dull sermons to sleepy old ladies.

In conclusion, let me try to answer my opening question –‘Why am I a Buddhist?’ It is because I am convinced of the truth of the Buddha Dhamma and as a Sinhalese it keeps me in touch with my roots and our ancestors who first embraced the Dhamma over 2300 years ago. My fervent hope is that we will rid ourselves of the dross that adheres to its practice in Sri Lanka and that the pristine Dhamma will lead our country for the millennia to come.