Some years ago I attended a conference on Engaged Buddhism which was held on an island in a river near Bangkok. One of the guests was the then Sangharaja of Cambodia, a gentle benign old man who smoked a Sherlock Holmes pipe. After the closing ceremonies all the participants gathered on the bank of the river waiting to be ferried across to the other side where the buses were waiting. First to go was the Sangharaja. He and an attendant monk were taken across by the man who operated the raft by pulling it with ropes. When the raft got near the opposite bank the two monks jumped off simultaneously causing the raft to tip so that the man fell into the muddy water. It was a little careless of them but accidents sometimes happen. The point of my story is this though. The two monks looked back in response to the splashing and then without the slightest hesitation, without any attempt to help, and without even an expression of concern on their faces, they walked to the bus and took their seats leaving the ferryman floundering in the water. I and the other Westerners who witnesses this incident winced with embarrassment and several of us went down to try to help the man. Significantly, none of the Asians at the conference seemed effected by the two monks’ behavior and I strongly suspect that they would have only thought it improper if the monks had tried to help the man and got a little mud on themselves. The Theravadin concept of a good clergyman is the exact reverse of what it is in most other religions. Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy are meant to be servant of their community. In Theravadin lands it is the community who are the servants of the clergy.

In the late 1990s I did several walking tours of the war-affected areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka. A good number of monasteries were empty, the monks having left for safer areas. The idea of sharing the hardships with the people who had so long looked after them or of staying behind to give them guidance or solace in their trials, would not accord with the Theravadin monk’s role. The lay people are there for him and he is there for himself. An Australian woman once told me about her first experience with a Theravadin monk. She had invited a well-known monk to her town to conduct a meditation course which was to be held some 50 miles away. The woman turned up where the monk was staying with two other women who also wanted to attend the course. But when the monk came out to the car he suddenly began to look rather agitated. ‘What’s the problem?’ the woman asked. ‘I can’t go in this car’ the monk replied. ‘Why not?’ inquired the woman. ‘Because a monk is not allowed to sit on a seat with a female.’ Anxious to do the right thing, the woman discussed the matter with her friends and it was decided that they should wait behind while she drive the monk to the meditation center and then come back to get them. ‘That will be no good’ said the monk, ‘because then I would be in the car alone with you and I’m not allowed to do that either.’ After more discussion it was decided that the woman would go back to her home and get her son so that he could accompany her and the monk for the first leg of the journey, then she could return, drop her son back at home and then drive her friends to the venue. The monk said this would be okay but when the woman returned with her son, who was 12 years old, the monk announced that this was still no good. What was needed was an adult male. I won’t bore you with the rest of the story. Suffice to say that wanting to find out something about meditation this woman ended up getting a tedious course in the minutiae of Theravada Vinaya, had to drive 260 miles instead of a 100, received not a word of thanks from the monk for her all efforts, and that her two friends finally gave up in disgust and had to make their own ways home. The woman who told me this story said that after several other incidents of this kind she decided she’d had enough of Theravada and got involved in Zen instead. Could you blame her?

As I write this, the monastery in Malaysia where I am staying is filled with monks who had come to participate in yet another international Buddhist conference. Yesterday at about 5.20 p.m., I heard some crying outside the monks’ quarters, went to see what the problem was and found a tired looking woman trying to comfort her two very irritable children. I had seen her several times earlier the same day and asked her what she was doing there. She told me that at about 11 a.m. she and her family had come to the morning puja and to serve the dana after which two visiting monks had asked her husband to take them out to buy something. She was still waiting for him to return. As she spoke a car pulled up, two Sri Lankan monks got out and after profusely thanking the driver they disappeared into their rooms carrying numerous shopping bags and excitedly chatting to each other. The woman gave the monks a wan smile as they passed, then got into the car with her crying children and they all drove off. Later I found out that after the monks had got the things they wanted they asked the man to take them to the another shopping center, then to the town’s main tourist attractions and then to the zoo. In keeping with their Theravadin conditioning they had given no thought whatsoever to the needs of the man or his family, and the man for his part wouldn’t have dreamed of refusing the monks’ requests. It is also very possible that he had offered to pay for all the goodies the monks bought and that the offer had been accepted, although I could not verify this. The only thing about this incident which is atypical is that the monks actually thanked the man.

I know of a Western Vinaya fundamentalist monk who consented to give a talk on Buddhism to an inter-religious conference. As he got up to deliver his address he suddenly remembered that the Vinaya forbids a monk teaching the Dhamma to anyone wearing shoes (Sekhiya 61), and of course everyone in the conference had the offending items on their feet. After long discussions with the organizers the audience was informed of the problem and asked if they would take their shoes off. To their credit they had the good grace and the good manners to acquiesce to the monk’s requirements. But the good grace and the good manners almost always comes from the other party, not the Theravadin monk. He is very used to getting his own way, and if that means inconveniencing, as in this case, a 100 or more people, then so be it. Spiro observes: ‘It is rare that a layman visiting the monastery is not requested by the monk to do something for him; to run an errand, make a delivery, drive him to some destination. That the visitor might be busy, might not have the time, might be going in the opposite direction – these possibilities never seem to enter his mind. This concern for self is observed not only in episodic events of this type. In one of the villages in which I worked, to give a fairly usual example, the pupils in the state school had the task of collecting the monk’s alms food (which is of course, is an important means for acquiring merit). After collecting the food, they would serve the monk his meal and clean up when he had finished. Only then did he permit them to go to school. As a result they were deprived of at least an hour’s schoolwork in the morning, and the teachers could do nothing but mark time until they arrived. The inconvenience for the teachers and the educational deprivation for the students presumably never entered the monk’s mind… At a funeral, especially, what might be called the ‘institutionalized narcissism’ of the monk is clearly to be seen. Although they have just suffered the loss of a loved one, it is not the bereaved but the monk whose needs must be attended to. In accordance with his role requirements the monk expresses no sympathy to the bereaved for their loss, he offers no consolation and in general shows no special concern for them. Rather it is he who is the object of concern. It is he for who the food is brought, it is he who is fed; it is he who must be brought from and returned to the monastery’ (italics in the original).

This kind of self-preoccupation without any concern for its consequences on others is the norm with monks and would unfortunately be easy to justify from some passages in the Tipitaka. The story of Sangamaji is a more glaring and unattractive example of this. One day the monk Sangamaji was sitting at the foot of a tree resting when his former wife approached him holding their infant son and said: ‘I have a child. Support me.’ Sangamaji said nothing. Three times she asked and each time he refused to respond. Finally she lay the infant in front of Sangamji and said: ‘At least support your son.’ Again there was no response. Leaving the child she walked away and after a while surreptitiously looked back to see what her husband was doing, but as before he neither spoke to or even looked at his offspring. Realizing that she was going to get neither help or even sympathy from her husband the poor woman walked back, got the child and left. At the end of this story the Buddha supposedly praises Sangamaji as ‘a true brahmin’ (Ud.5-6). We are not informed about the woman’s subsequent struggles and hardships as an abandoned mother.

I still vividly recall my first encounter with the ‘institutionalized narcissism’ of Theravada. I had just arrived in Sri Lanka and had been asked by the abbot of the monastery where I was staying to attend a dana or ceremonial feeding. It was in 1976 when there was food rationing and widespread hunger in the Island. The abbot had asked me to accompany four other monks. My companions grumbled because the only way to get to the house was by bus and they wanted to go by car. The house turned out to be a slum, our hosts were a desperately poor family and the dana was for their infant daughter who had died seven days previously. The senior monk gave the usual glib sermon about what a waste of time it is to grieve because death is inevitable and then we were served an enormous meal. I found it difficult to eat. The heartbroken mother, her gaunt children and the wrenched house had all taken my appetite away. The other monks showed not the slightest interest in the family’s tragedy and tucked into the food with the usual gusto. At the end of the meal we were each given a tin of powdered milk, a rare and expensive luxury at the time, and it is quite possible that the family had borrowed money to provide us with our meal and gift. When we got up to go I hid my tin under the seat hoping that the mother would find it later and use it to feed her surviving children. As we left there were a few whispered exchanges and the man of the house ran off to get a taxi. The senior monk had subtly suggested to him that it might be better if we returned to the temple in the style to which monks are accustomed. No doubt he ‘did not expressly give a command’ and was careful to ‘word it right’ as Thanissaro and Ariyesako would recommend. Unfortunately, before the taxi arrived the woman found the tin of milk and rushed out to give it to me. I told her gently that I didn’t need it and that she should keep it but this suggestion horrified her and she insisted that I take it. The man arrived with the taxi, gave yet more of his meager earnings to the driver for the fare and we left. As we drove back to the temple one of the monks quite innocently said to me: ‘You don’t want your tin of milk so can I have it?’

The Sri Lankan scholar H. L. Seneviratne suggests that the esteem monks are held in, their complete alienation from physical work and their comfortable lifestyles ‘contributes to an explanation of the paradox of an allegedly infinitely compassionate order’s appalling insensitivity to large-scale human suffering…The effect of these cultural notions also contributes to an isolation of monks from a realistic and felt idea of the economic hardship of the ordinary people.’ He concludes bluntly but I believe accurately: ‘It [is] not possible for even ordinary social concern, far less radical concern, to arise in such a group.’ Vinaya fundamentalists paint a rosy picture of how strict Vinaya practice helps, nay how it is essential, for a monk’s spiritual progress and how it benefits the lay community. The real outcome of such teachings and practices is sometimes so grotesque that it is even difficult to think about.