Myth and Reality

When Theravadins wish to recommend their version of the Buddha’s teachings to others they often say things about it which sound very impressive but which bear little relation to reality. Some of these claims have been repeated so frequently and often in almost the same words that they have become literally slogans -‘Buddhism teaches that you should not just believe but find out for yourself’; ‘Buddhism it not a religion, it is a way of life’, ‘Buddhism is rational’, Buddhism is not pessimistic or optimistic, it is realistic.’ Western Theravadins can be excused for believing and then repeating such claims; they usually know little about how Theravada is practiced in Asia and even less about its history. The situation is very different with Asian Theravadins and to that degree they are guilty of a good deal of dishonesty. One of the most often repeated of these slogan-like claims is ‘Not a drop of blood has ever been shed in the name of Buddhism’, by which of course is meant Theravadin Buddhism. Even a cursory acquaintance with Asian history will show that this claim is baseless.

Take the career of King Anawarhta (1044-77) the monarch who made Theravada the state religion of Burma. After his conversion by the monk Shin Arahan, Anawarhta’s first task was to acquire the Pali scriptures. The nearest copy was in the neighboring kingdom of Thaton which was invaded, its capital sacked and the scriptures triumphantly brought to Pagan on the backs of a train of elephants. The king of Thaton and his family lived out their remaining days as slaves in a monastery. To get relics to enshrine in the numerous stupas he was building, Anawarhta then invaded Prome, stripped its temples of their gold, broke open its stupas and carted everything off to Pagan again. The next victim was Arakhan which possessed the revered Mahamuni Image that the king was determined to get to glorify his capital. This time the battles were inconclusive and the king had to be content with some less sacred images and relics. After this Anawrahta turned his pious and belligerent eyes to Nanchao where the Tooth Relic was enshrined. The king of Nanchao managed to avert disaster with an unexpectedly impressive show of arms and by buying off Anawrahta with a jade Buddha image which had come into contact with the Relic. All Anawarhta’s campaigns were opposed militarily and must have resulted in a great deal of bloodshed, although no figures are given in the ancient records. The clerics who recorded these events were only interested in the number of monks Anawarhta fed and the number of monasteries he built, not the number of deaths he was responsible for. However, what is clear is that these wars qualify to be called religious wars. Shin Arahan probably encouraged the king’s aggression, although there is no record of this. On the other hand there is no record that he ever tried to discourage his warmongering or restrain it either.

Now let us have a look at perhaps the most well-known and admired personality from Sri Lankan history, Dutthagamini. The story of Dutthagamini is recounted in the Mahavamsa, the official history of Theravada in Sri Lanka. For about 76 years a line of non-Buddhist Tamils had been ruling Sri Lanka when in 101 BCE Prince Dutthagamini began a campaign to overthrow them and make himself king. From the very beginning Dutthagamini and his supporters saw their struggle as a crusade meant to ‘bring glory to the religion.’ Monks accompanied the troops into battle because ‘the sight of the monks is both a blessing and a protection for us.’ They were encouraged to put aside their robes and join the fighting and several who were on the verge of becoming arahats did just that. Dutthagamini placed a relic of the Buddha in his spear and claimed that his struggle was not for his own advantage but for the promotion of the religion. However, he knew at least something about the Dhamma and after the war started to feel uneasy about all the blood he had shed. [1]

Eight arahats assured him that he had made very little bad kamma because he had only killed animals; non-believers being no more than animals. [2]

Again, by any standards Dutthagamani’s struggle would qualify as a religious war.

The stories about Anawrahta and Dutthagamini are very well known in their respective countries and both monarchs are seen as great national and religious heroes. I have seen several temple wall paintings in Burma depicting Anawrahta’s elephants carting the Tipitaka and other loot off to Pagan. Almost every Sinhalese knows the story of Duttagamani’s exploits. On one side of the Buddha image in the main shrine of the Ruvanvalisaya, Sri Lanka’s most sacred stupa, is a statue of Dutthagamani glaring at the Tamil king, who is on the other side. On the ceiling of the great cave temple at Dambulla is a painting of Dutthagamani shooting his bow and the dying Tamil king with the arrow lodged deep in his heart. Having said all this it is also important to emphasize that Theravada, like other forms of Buddhism, has generally had a softening and civilizing effect on people, and the wars that have been fought in its name pale into insignificance besides those of Christianity or Islam. I only wish to point out that plenty of blood has been shed in the name of Theravada. Likewise, there is as much blind faith, unthinking conformity, perfunctory religiosity and irrationality in Theravada as there is in other religions, probably more.

The greatest myth perpetuated by Theravada however, is the idea that monks are a race apart, a unique breed, a special class of beings so different from everyone else that they must be treated with extraordinary reverence. Thus when a monk walks into a room people start to whisper as if the sound of the ordinary human voice will somehow damage his ears. When people spoon food into his bowl they do it as if they are performing a delicate surgical operation. I find that when I visit Theravadin groups in the West that have had a Thai or Burmese monk prior to my coming, that the word I hear more often than any other is ‘sorry.’ I ask if I can have a glass of water and someone immediately says ‘Sorry bhante’ and rushes off to get one. I walk towards the door and if someone is coming through it in the other direction they will say ‘Sorry’ and back away and let me pass. Unlike Theravadins, the Buddha had no illusions about unenlightened human beings, including monks. In Dhammapada verse 307 he says: ‘There are many uncontrolled men of evil character wearing the yellow robe.’ But say such a thing in a Theravadin land or even suggest that most monks are not much different from other people and you will provoke shock, outrage and accusations of impiety.

Over a two year period Michael Mendelson perused the Rangoon newspapers for reports of monks involved in unseemly behavior. This was his findings. ‘Two cases were reported of monks arrested for trafficking opium, two involving theft and refuge in the Sangha after misappropriation of large sums, one of kidnapping, a case of two monks in a pilgrimage racket designed to smuggle goods and foreign exchange to India, a report of a monk carrying medical supplies to insurgents, and one example of a monk confidence man who tricked a school mistress out of a valuable ring…There were accounts of three monks involved in clandestine affairs with women, one resulting in a paternity charge, another culminating in a mortal assault on a boy and his companion who had gossiped about an older monk’s affair with a young girl, and a third involving a trishawman’s wife and a monk. For “embracing and kissing in a railway carriage” a monk and a girl were imprisoned for three months. Finally, I read of a monk who wounded his own abbot because the abbot had threatened him in order to gain the monk’s sister in marriage. Violence between monks was reported on occasions. Three cases were noted of monks or novices attacking others in the monastery, often with apparent minor provocation: one from a school ragging, one from a quarrel over the possession of a book, and another from a derogatory note found during a Pali exam. An equal number of incidence of violence led to the death of someone in the monastery; in one incident, a novice, lightly reprimanded by the presiding monk, killed him with a dagger; in another, a monk was discovered dying in a pool of blood, and a missing colleague was sought; in a third, an abbot who had spent twenty-eight years in the Sangha turned himself in to a village headman after running amok in his monastery and killing one monk and badly wounding a companion… In addition, two cases of suicide were reported, one due to mental torment and conflict, another concerning a seventy-six-year-old sayadaw who thought it was time for him to leave the world, and an account was given of a monk hospitalized with acute stomach pains seemingly related to his agonies over his five children, whom he had left to join the Order.’

Mendelson also found numerous reports of fights between monks in the same monastery and between monks of different monasteries. In the 1960s Burmese monks were admittedly more rowdy and undisciplined than those in other Theravadin lands, but incidents like these are commonly enough reported in the newspapers in those countries too. Despite this, it would be wrong to believe that all monks or even many monks are thugs and criminals. But the belief that most monks or even many monks are especially holy, or that monasteries are places of profound sanctity is equally wrong. In fact, given that so many monks ordain due to poverty, custom or social expectation rather than conviction, that they are pampered, that they are always the center of attention and that peoples’ reverence for the robe means that they are unlikely to ever be reprimanded or pulled into line, it is surprising that the level of bad behavior is as low as it is. The reality is that most monks are completely ordinary human beings and that most monasteries completely ordinary human institutions. Despite this, one of the core dogmas of Theravada and one that monks are very anxious to promote, is that the Sangha is ‘an incomparable field of merit in the world’ and that monks must be treated as if they are quasi-divine beings. It may have been like that at the time of the Buddha but it is not now and has not been so for many centuries.


  1. According to the Mahavamsa Dutthagamani killed a million Tamils, which is certainly an exaggeration. However, it says something about the mentality of the Theravadin clerics that they inflated the number of people slaughtered rather than diminished it. [back]
  2. The author of the Mahavamsa uses this pause in the narrative to make the usual plug for lavishing yet more wealth on the Sangha. After Duttagamini’s scruples had been put to rest by the arahats he remembered that he had once eaten a single pepper without feeding the monks first. As a penance for this failing he built a huge stupa, a palatial monastery and then showered ‘expensive gifts’ on 190,000 monks and nuns. [back]