Sectarianism and Ethnocentricity

In all Theravadin countries the Sangha is split into different sects; two in Thailand, three in Sri Lanka and more than half a dozen in Burma. In Sri Lanka the Siam and Amarapura Nikayas are further split into so-called chapters. Each of these sects and chapters has a head who is supposed to have authority and jurisdiction over the monks below him but in actual fact have little real influence. The Sangharajas of Burma and Thailand have some power given to them by their governments but they rarely seem to exercise it except at the behest of the powers that be. Sri Lanka’s Maha Nayakas are no more than figure heads and have no jurisdiction outside their own monasteries. So in actual fact there is not and has not been a Mahasangha for many centuries, virtually every monastery is an autonomous self-governing body. This independence could have certain advantages, but the disadvantages far outweigh these. It makes it very difficult for reforms to be instituted, for discipline to be maintained, for miscreants to be corrected or expelled or for unified action on any matter to be taken. If the abbot is sincere and wise his monastery will probably be good, if he is not it won’t be and there is little anyone can do about it. As pointed out before, the main factor governing monks and monasteries is not Dhamma or even Vinaya but long established tradition and these traditions usually owe more to feudalism and monarchism than they do to anything the Buddha taught. Thailand’s Supreme Sangha Council for example, is supposed to see to the proper administracion of Sangha affairs whereas in fact anything beyond their usual remit (usually done by civil servants anyway) is completely beyond them. When the Ajahn Yantra scandal broke in 1995 in Thailand the Sangha Council was completely at a loss to do. It dithered and equivocated for months gradually becoming a public relations disaster until finally pressure from the government and the public forced it to act.

There is no more unity between Theravadins in different countries than there is within them. The popular and outward expressions of Theravada in these lands are more pronounced than the similarities. Add to this the high degree of nationalism and ethnocentricity amongst Sri Lankans, Burmese and especially Thais, and they only barely recognize each other as co-religionists. When King Chulalankhorn of Thailand visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma in 1870 he marched right in with his shoes on. True, it was a Buddhist temple but it wasn’t one of ‘our temples’ so it didn’t really matter. The Burmese for their part were not too upset by the king’s behavior. After all, he was not Burmese so he hardly qualified to be a Buddhist. Western monks living in Asia are treated with the greatest courtesy and kindness, but they are rarely accepted as real monks or real Buddhists. To a Burmese you have to be Burmese to be a ‘real’ Buddhist, Thais think the same way, the Sri Lankans somewhat less so. Phra Peter says: ‘It is a fact that a lot of Thai people don’t seem to take me very seriously as a monk and I have heard other Phra Farang. [1]

say they have met with similar ‘resistance’. Despite wearing the same robe, shaving my head and following the same rules as my Thai colleagues, I am still not a ‘real’ monk… When I have occasionally asked why I am not taken seriously, I am told ‘You are not Thai and you do not chant’. I point out gently that the Buddha was not Thai either and as far as I know, he didn’t have a lot to say about the necessity or efficacy of chanting. It doesn’t make any difference.’ The situation is not dissimilar for Westerners going to temples in their own countries run by Thai monks or even by Western monks trained in Thailand. Long before they learn any Dhamma they find they have to adopt Thai etiquette, pronounce Pali with a Thai accent, sit in the Thai manner, bow in the Thai way, in short become a Thai clone. One gets the feeling that it would be more in keeping with their real attitude if the monks in such establishments wore Thai flags rather than yellow robes.

It is not at all surprising that when a Westerner ordains in Thailand people don’t say ‘He’s becoming a monk.’ They say ‘He’s becoming Thai.’ I recently attended a ceremony conducted by some Burmese monks at which a number of Thai monks were present also. When the Burmese began their chanting the Thai’s started smirking to each other. The Burmese style of chanting and pronouncing Pali differs somewhat from their own and so of course the Thais found it highly amusing. If a Theravadin center in the West run mainly by Westerners gets a Burmese monk Burmese people will suddenly start coming and giving generous support. If it then gets a Sri Lankan monk the Burmese will gradually disappear and the Sri Lankans who never came before will start coming in large numbers. Asian Theravadins in the West would much prefer a monk from their own country who does nothing than a monk from another county who is a competent teacher. A Sri Lankan monk in the UK told me an amusing and very characteristic story of something that had happened to him some years previously. A Burmese man had just arrived in London, came to the temple, expressed his enthusiastic desire to attend regularly during the time he would be staying in the city and then made a donation of 50 Pounds. Apparently that very afternoon he found out that there was a Burmese temple in London. The next day he came to the Sri Lankan temple, asked for his donation back and never came again. Theravadins of different countries are not hostile towards each other, it’s just that they couldn’t care less about what happens outside their own little domains. The World Fellowship of Buddhists was started in 1950 to try to rectify this situation, but given the ethnocentricity of traditional Buddhism and its general apathy, it has achieved almost nothing. Christmas Humphreys described WFB conferences as consisting of ‘much talk about what should be done but little of who should do it, how and when.’ The internationalism of ancient Buddhism long ago gave way to a narrow parochialism and consequently the solidarity and mutual support between Christians, Muslims or Jews for example, is almost nonexistent among Theravadins.


  1. Foreign monk. [back]