The Buddha Recast

Theravada Buddhism is in crisis everywhere. All Theravadin countries are suffering from corrupt or unstable democracy, dictatorship or civil war. Most are also going through a period of rampant development and rapid social change. People look to the Sangha for answers and guidance but all they get is more of the same. Like the Brahmins at the time of the Buddha, the Sangha seem to be able to do little more than ‘say what has been said and sing what has been sung.’ Most Buddhist leaders are so out of touch that they are not even aware of being in the midst of a crisis. Prof. L. O. Gomez has summed up the situation well: ‘More often than not, the modern Buddhist lives complacently encapsulated in the ready-made solutions of his ancestors, not only oblivious to the precarious position of Buddhism today, but of the problems raised by Buddhist doctrine as a world-view in this century and of the issues that confront Buddhism today.’ Calls for reform are beginning to be heard but inevitably the solution is seen simply as a return to more strict Vinaya practice; that is, equipping monks for living in the 2nd century BCE rather than in the 21st cent CE. Meaningful change is unlikely to happen anyway. The impetus for reform is usually aroused by highlighting misunderstandings, criticizing malpractice and naming culprits and south-east Asians have a strong cultural antipathy towards any open disagreement or contention. In Sri Lanka even the most well-meaning criticism of the religion is silenced by branding it ‘a Christian plot to undermine Buddhism’. The resistance to hearing anything negative about Theravada, particularly the Sangha, is almost total.

The fate of Mahayana in Korea, Japan, Singapore and to a lesser extent Taiwan, countries which underwent modernization in the 50s and 60s, suggests what is in store for Theravada. Statistics from those countries show that as people became better educated they were more likely to gravitate towards either secularism or Christianity. If evidence is needed that Theravada is failing to address the emotional and spiritual needs of many modern Sri Lankans one need only see how enormously popular devotion to Sai Baba and Kataragama (the Hindu god of war) has become in the last 30 years. Peasants and simple folk in Theravadin lands may remain loyal to the faith, but the young, the educated and the intellectuals will drift away if things do not change. This process is already well underway in Sri Lanka and to a lesser extent in Thailand and with the gradual penetration of modernization into Burma will begin there sooner or later too. The tragedy is that the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali Tipitaka are probably better able to address contemporary problems and needs than any other ancient teachings. But it is not the Pali Tipitaka’s practical psychology, its spirit of inquiry, and the social implications of its ethics or its humanistic outlook that are emphasized in Asia. There Theravada is committed to mindless formalism, indifferent to social issues and accommodating towards the worst kinds of superstitions.

It might appear from all that has been said that I would advocate throwing the old Buddha image with all its cracks, missing pieces and dents on to the scrap heap and leaving it at that. However, there might be another alternative. The metal the image is made from may be corroded and rusty but it is still of inestimable value. The image’s style might be at odds with modern tastes, but a skilled sculptor could fashion a more contemporary and beautiful form. The old Buddha image needs to be melted down and recast in a new mold. What will happen to Theravada in Asia remains to be seen but right now the signs are not encouraging. Despite emphasizing change as a concept most Theravadins have what Henry Olcott called ‘an innate passive resistance to any innovation’ and this is particularly true of the Sangha. The situation outside Theravada’s traditional homeland; Europe, America, Australia, India and parts of south-east Asia, is very different. There it offers the possibility for renewal, of exploring the Dhamma free from the centuries of accretions, of drawing out of it new and more revenant meanings and implications. But with a few exceptions this does not seem to have happened yet. Rather than adopting the timeless Dhamma, most new Theravadins are merely copying the time-bound assumptions and forms that prevail in Theravada’s homelands.

I have occasionally heard those familiar with the real state of Theravada say that even if it dies out in Asia at least it will survive in the West. This might be a comforting thought but is it really possible? One of the most noticeable features of Theravadin groups in the West is just how small they are, how slowly they grow and how frequently they peter out. This is particularly striking when compared to the widespread interest in Eastern spirituality amongst the general population and the success of Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, Vedanta and yoga. Theravadin groups attract a lot of people but the dour, uninspiring atmosphere which they usually exude means that few are encouraged to stay. The presence of a monk is often a problem too. He is the focus of all attention, a good part of the group’s activities consist of catering to his needs and if there is any teaching it will be done by him. The aura of sanctity and authority that surrounds the monk inhibits others from coming forward as teachers of Dhamma. When the monk is absent the group goes into suspended animation; if he leaves or dies it fades away. Another problem is that too many Asian monks in the West are not really there to spread the Dhamma. Getting PR or citizenship, finishing their education then disrobing and, in the case of those who head for Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, collecting money, are amongst other the less noble motives. Even monks who genuinely wish to teach are often slow to develop the skills needed to communicate with Westerners.

I joined a Theravadin group in Australia at the age of 18 and when I visited again some 14 years later it still had about the same numbers of members, all of them different except for a tiny core group and the man who had been president for many years had reverted to Catholicism. In London I was invited to speak over several weeks at a Buddhist group which had been established for nearly 40 years. The largest number of people who attended my talks was 11 and I was told that this was the usual number when a monk speaks; even fewer come to hear a lay speaker. I know of a Buddhist center in Singapore which had a succession of listless Sri Lankan monks for about 20 years and never attracted more than a few people. Quite by chance they eventually they got a Tibetan monk and within 18 months the place came to life and is now one of the largest and most active centers in the country. Ethnic temples in the West can have large congregations but these are usually made up mainly of expatriate Asians. Most of their activities are ritualistic and conducted in Asian languages which means that they attract only a few Westerners. As second and third generation Asians grow up with Western expectations and speaking Western languages they too find the ethnic temples have little to offer. Within two generations these centers will probably have faded away. In reality Asian Theravadins in the West are no more interested in Dhamma there than they were when they were living in their countries of origin. Their primary concern is with ethnicity, tradition and keeping alive memories of the old country. [1]

There is nothing wrong with this, in fact it is admirable. But it makes almost no contribution spreading the Dhamma beyond the expatriate community, or even the next generation of that community.

There are however four Theravadin organizations outside Theravada’s traditional homeland which have attracted a significant number of people and could be said to have a national and even an international profile. It could be instructive to look at these groups to see what the key to their very un-Theravadin vitality is. The largest and most widespread such organization in the West today is that founded by S.N. Goenka. Despite Goenka’s longstanding insistence that what he teaches is not Theravada or even Buddhism, it very clearly is and so I will treat it as such. In some ways this movement is typically Theravadin. It is strongly sectarian, it is schismatic, its meditation is technique-orientated and Abhidhamma-based and it incorporates various folk superstitions and pseudo-scientific concepts into its practice (‘pure’ techniques and locations, vibrations, experiencing individual atoms, etc.). In other ways it is quite untypical; its main activity is meditation, it is an entirely lay movement, it has a distinct evangelical feel and it involves itself in some social work. Goenka himself is an inspiring individual and he has brought a businessman’s drive and acumen to his movement. He has also taken care to encourage and train teachers to take his place. These factors can, I believe, account for this movement’s success so far and its likely continuance after Goenka passes from the scene.

In 1977 the first of Ajahn Chah’s disciples arrived in the West and since that time they have established 13 monasteries worldwide and have attracted a large following. In the UK for example there are nearly 40 meditation groups associated with this movement. Given its fundamentalist Vinaya practice, its clericocentrisity and its strong adherence to Thai cultural forms, the success of the Ajahn Chah movement comes as something of a surprise. This success can be explained mainly by the number of exceptionally gifted and inspiring teachers the movement has so far produced. These teachers have been able to attract a following by their high ethical standards, their commitment and the very practical and appealing way they present meditation. Their ability to rationalize their fundamentalist Vinaya practice has also been able to mollify people who might otherwise be put off by such things. How the Ajahn Chah movement will fare in the long term remains to be seen though. If it can continue to attract candidates for the monkhood and to produce inspiring teachers it may keep growing. If it is unable to do this it may have to rely more and more on Thai monks and will then slowly degenerate into just another ethnic organization catering to the ritual needs of expatriate Asians. Another potentially more serious problem is that all the Ajahn Chah monasteries in the West are largely dependent on funds from Thailand. If this money stops for some reason the movement may be unable to maintain itself.

The two most promising movements in the West based on the Buddhism of the Pali Tipitaka are the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. Since its founding in 1976 the IMS has slowly and quietly grown so that it now has over a 100 centers and affiliated meditation groups in America and Canada. In 1984 Jack Kornfield, one of the original founders of the IMS, started the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the two groups still have close contacts with each other. All the founders of the IMS and the SRMC are lay men and women who studied with various teachers in Asia and then took what they had learned back to the West. Recently the IMS inaugurated The Barre Institute of Buddhist Studies where those practicing meditation can come and learn Buddhist psychology and philosophy and other spiritual disciplines. Although both groups draw much of their inspiration from the Pali Tipitaka they are accommodating towards other related traditions. But they do not just mouth the rhetoric of Zen, Vajrayana, Krishnamurti and contemporary psychology, they utilize such teachings and disciplines to help read deeper meanings into Buddhist categories and to approach them from different perspectives. The result is a fresh, dynamic and practical approach to meditation and the spiritual life. Equally as important, the IMS and the SRMC try to creatively apply Dhammic values to contemporary needs and problems. Their Teachers Code of Ethics is one of many examples of this. Both the IMS and the SRMC are organized around a community of teachers and there is open, transparent decision making in all matters, instead of the usual Theravadin structure where a single person, usually a monk, dominates.

In trying to identify factors common to the groups mentioned above two things immediately come to mind. The first is that they all emphasize meditation. Westerners are primarily interested in practical rather than theoretical spirituality, and if it is presented to them in an inspiring and meaningful way they will come. The second is that neither the driving forces behind any of these movements or most of their members are from traditional Theravadin backgrounds. The inspiration behind the Ajahn Chah movement was of course a Thai but its monasteries in the West were all established by Western monks and are staffed and run by them. Goenka was born in Burma but was from an orthodox Hindu family and all the founders of the IMS and the SRMC are Americans. Theravadin cultural conditioning seems to be like a soporific drug that deaden creativity and sap the ability to do anything beyond repeating old familiar patterns of behavior. Those free from such conditioning are more likely to initiate, adapt and consider new possibilities. A factor common to three of the movements mentioned above which is probably also significant to their success is that they are entirely lay. The very fact that lay teachers do not wear a ‘uniform’ or require being treated with barrier-creating formalities gives other lay people the confidence that they can and indeed should know and practice the Dhamma fully. Moreover, time, energy and resources that would otherwise be spent on looking after monks can be directed towards more productive things.


  1. On some of these points see Paul David Numrich’s Old Wisdom in the New World, 1996. [back]