The Yellow and the Purple

If a sociologist in 1960 was told that in 50 years hence Buddhism would have a significant presence in the West and he was then asked to guess which type of Buddhism would be most popular, I am certain he would have picked Theravada. He would have probably explained his choice by saying that Theravada is less ritualistic, more rational, that its essential text were available in translation and that its teachings were more in harmony with contemporary Western values and ideas. Further, he might have pointed out that countries like Sri Lanka and Burma were former British colonies where English was widely spoken making it easier for Westerner to go there to study and for monks from there to teach in the West. Our hypothetical sociologist would have been right in believing that the teachings in the Pali Tipitaka were like that, but he would have been wide off the mark in assuming that Theravada was therefore like that too. And consequently he would have been completely wrong about which type of Buddhism would have become most popular. Because it is not Theravada but Tibetan Buddhism that has won wide acceptance from ordinary people as well as from academics and many public figures as well.

Why is it that despite being the last type of Buddhism to arrive in the West and being thoroughly feudal in some ways, Tibetan Buddhism has become so popular? The first and perhaps most obvious reason is what could be called the Shangri La factor. The air of romance and mystery that surrounds Tibet makes all things associated with it extremely attractive for many people. Related to this is what might be called the sympathy factor. Many informed people feel a deep sympathy for the plight of the Tibetan people and this can lead to an interest in their culture and religion. But while such things might account for an initial attraction to Tibetan Buddhism they are not enough to hold people’s attention over time or to get them to commit themselves to it as a philosophy of life. Other factors are needed to explain Tibetan Buddhism’s extraordinary popularity.

While Tibetan monks have a strong commitment to spirituality this does not prevent them from appreciating the beautiful. Like Ch’an and Zen, Tibetan Buddhism has integrated both the creative impulse and the aesthetic sense into spiritual practice. A number of great meditation masters have also been poets, painters and sculptors. A Tibetan Buddhist has written: ‘Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind. Both are nourished by the same source, but it may seem that they are moving in different directions: art towards the realm of sense-impression, meditation towards the overcoming of forms and sense-impressions. But the difference pertains only to accidentals, not to essentials.’ Theravadin cultures have produced great works of art, but Theravadin scholars and meditation masters have long regarded all the fine arts, if they have thought about them at all, as little more than a sop to popular needs rather than expressions of spirituality or a means of awakening and nurturing it. According to the commentaries, it is an offence for a monk to even touch a musical instrument. The Dambadeni Katikavata, drawn up after a reform of the Sangha in Sri Lanka in the 13th century tells monks that the literary and visual arts are ‘despised branches of knowledge’ which should be shunned.

The Theravadin position on art is epitomized by a famous story of Cittagutta from the Visuddhimagga. One day two young monks came to visit Cittagutta in the cave where he had lived for 60 years. One of the monks happened to notice the beautiful paintings on the roof and mentioned these to Cittagutta. The wizened old monk said that despite his long residence in the cave he had never raised his eyes to look at the paintings and in fact didn’t even know they were there. The only reason he knew that there was a flowering tree at the mouth of his cave was because once a year he saw the fallen petals on the ground. In his Refinement of the Arts, David Hume tells of the Christian monk ‘who because the window of his cell opened upon a noble prospect, made a covenant with his eyes never to turn that way.’ This is exactly the sort of thing strict Theravadin monks do even today. Theravada sees the enlightened person as dead to beauty, indeed dead to every human feeling. The Buddha was able to listen to and enjoy Pancasikha’s sitar playing (D.II,267), but a Theravadin monk could never do such a thing, not in public at least. He might get away with writing poetry, particular if it was about decrepitude, death or the worms that infest the bowels. But the idea of him painting, doing flower arranging or going to an art exhibition, a Shakespeare performance or a concert is unthinkable. The cultivation and appreciation of the arts in Tibetan Buddhism gives it a definite appeal to many people, while Theravada has nothing to offer in this area other than the simplistic notion that beauty causes attachment.

Tibetan Buddhists can be fiercely sectarian, sometimes even more so than Theravadins. However, within each sect there is a high degree of unity and cohesion. Each has its leader and teachers who are looked up to and who decide general policy. Stronger centers in one country help weaker ones in another, they share teachers, cooperate with each other in charitable work, etc. The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition for example, had more than 80 centers worldwide, it run numerous social service programs including schools, a prison project, clinics and hospices and has its own highly successful publishing company. The Foundation’s several affiliated monasteries educate and train monks and nuns who are then sent to the different centers which in turn help support the monasteries. Members and friends around the world, and they amount to many thousands, are kept informed of the Foundation’s activities through its magazine which is published in several languages. Theravada’s ‘every man for himself’ attitude makes joint efforts like this very difficult and guarantee that most centers and groups in the West remain small and isolated. In the case of ethnic centers in the West (i.e., centers with Asian monks catering mainly to Asian expatriates) they are usually unable to work with each other due to personal jealousies, nikaya rivalries and in the case of Sri Lankan temples, caste antagonism.

Another thing that makes Tibetan Buddhism more attractive to Westerners than Theravada is that it has a richer contemplative tradition and more of its monks are experienced in meditation. I agree with Bhikkhu Bodhi when he says: ‘The main reasons [Zen and Tibetan Buddhism] have gained in popularity over the Theravada is, I believe, because within their fold the lineage of meditation has been kept more alive than in mainstream Theravada… Rarely do [Theravadin monks in the West] exhibit the same degree of spiritual vitality as the Mahayana and Vajrayana masters.’ The majority of Theravadin monks know little or nothing of meditation beyond the theory, and often not even that. The idea of hundreds of monasteries filled with thousands of monks diligently meditating every day is probably the biggest illusion Westerners have about Theravada in Asia. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned it might even be true to say that there is a distinct anti-meditation culture within much of the Sangha. Few monks meditate so one who does is immediately out of step with the majority. His practice is a continual reminder to the others that they are not doing what they are supposed to and quite naturally they resent this. The meditator will become the target of subtle jibes and snide comments. If he accidentally leaves his toothbrush in the bathroom someone is sure to say with a self-satisfied smile: ‘Ah! Not very mindful today are we.’ They will rarely miss the opportunity to put him down or disparage him. To make matters worse, the meditating monk will soon attract the admiration of the laity and they will come to the monastery asking to see him, bringing gifts for him and praising him. It won’t be long before the other monks get jealous and start making the mediator’s life decidedly uncomfortable. Eventually he will either go to live in an arannya, one of forest centers meant for such monks, or more likely just give up.

While rarely failing to commend meditation, at least when lay people are present, Sri Lankan monks actually believe that it is more suited to simple folk, women and the elderly and evidence suggests that this attitude has prevailed for centuries. Walpola Rahula writes: ‘Examples found in the commentaries show that almost all able and intelligent monks applied themselves to grantha-dhura (study) while elderly monks of weak intellect and feeble physique, particularly those who entered the Order in their old age, devoted themselves to vipassana-dhura (meditation).’ Anthropologist Martin Southwold found that amongst the Sri Lankan lay people he interviewed meditation was a euphemism for sleeping and that many ‘village Buddhists, especially men, and including some of the clergy, regard the practice with derision.’ I know that at least some monks in Sri Lanka see meditation as having more a punitive value than a spiritual one. In one monastery where I used to stay the abbot would punish the little monks when they misbehaved by making them ‘do meditation’; he would force them sit in a meditation posture for an hour or two without moving. Not a few Sri Lankans monks have confided to me the embarrassment and discomfort they felt when they first got to the West and were asked to teach meditation. Some learn it as they go along, most just bluff their way through or avoid the subject and concentrate on explaining the basics of Buddhism. Meditation is more common in Burma than Sri Lanka and some Burmese monks coming to the West certainly have experience in meditation. Having said this though and while acknowledging their sincerity, it would be difficult to imagine a more dry, impersonal, joyless and ‘by numbers’ approach to meditation than that offered by the Burmese.

The Pali suttas present meditation as a very experiential and experimental endeavor, but rather than approaching them in this spirit or using them as guides to further practice, Theravadins see them as the only and final word on the subject. To make matters worse, all suttas, including those on meditation, are interpreted through the Abhidhamma and the commentaries, which are strong on semantics and making meaningless distinctions but very weak on psychological insights. Meditation is usually understood only within the parameters of exactly defined numbered categories. Thus there are five Hindrances, not four or six, and they are always the same five. If one has problems with kammacchanda one does A, B or C as detailed in the commentary, and if this doesn’t work one simply tries harder until it does. This literalist attitude also means that Theravada meditation is usually technique based. All one has to do is find the right or ‘pure’ technique and adhere to it exactly and results will come. The same technique is taught to everyone no matter what their psychological state, their previous experience or problems they might have with the technique. You change to fit the technique not the other way around. The Buddha’s common sense observation that ‘the faculties of individuals are different’ (M.II,455) and the fact that he recommended a variety of techniques, is too subtle an idea for most teachers to understand. Outside all these formulas, lists, steps and stages the meditation teacher has little to say. I met a man who had done 16 meditation courses with Goenka and had experienced a particularly distressing problem during every course. Each time he went to the teacher about his difficulty he was told exactly, word for word, the same thing: ‘It’s just samkharas coming up. Go back and continue the practice.’ According to my informant, no other advice or explanation was given. Asian Theravadin teachers are extremely reluctant to say anything beyond the text or deviate from the standard explanation or technique. A friend of mine once told me that while discussing piti with his teacher, an eminent Burmese master, he mentioned that he had once experienced great joy while watching a sunset. The teacher looked puzzled for a moment and then said: ‘That’s impossible,’ by which he meant that such a thing is not mentioned in the Visuddhimagga and so it couldn’t have happened. I am not suggesting that such literalism or lack of psychological insight is universal, but it certainly is the norm.

Between 1966 and 1970 a famous debate was conducted through the pages of World Buddhism between Bhikkhu Kheminda of Sri Lanka and Nanuttara Sayadaw of Burma on the merits of the Mahasi technique. [1]

The protagonists quoted from the suttas, the Abhidmamma, the commentaries, the sub-commentaries and the commentaries to the sub-commentaries, but never once throughout the whole debate did either party ever refer to their own meditation experience. As astonishing as this might seem it is quite in keeping with the usual understanding of meditation in Theravada. Meditation is about reduplicating within oneself exactly what the text say, or more correctly, the commentarial interpretation of what the text say; it is not about understanding one’s experience. In Rod Bucknell’s account of how he was instructed in vipassana he says: ‘I had been taught how to have experiences rather than how to observe and understand them’ (italics in original). My own experience is that the better Theravadin meditation teachers are competent in giving basic and mid-range meditation instruction, but when it comes to specific psychological problems or the more subtle aspects of the path they have little to say that is helpful. There are exceptions to everything said above; Ajahn Chah and some of his disciples, the teachers from the Insight Meditation Society, Ashin Tejaniya and the late Godwin Samararatna being some who come to mind.

If further evidence is needed for the richness of the Tibetan contemplative tradition and the poverty of its Theravadin equivalent, one only need look at the literature produced by each. Sri Lanka has been a Buddhist country for about 2200 years and yet did not produce any meditation manuals or practical works on meditation until the 20th century. The same is true of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. This is truly astonishing when one think of the implications of it. The Visuddhimagga is sometimes thought of as a meditation manual but it clearly is not and was never meant to be. According to the Mahavamsa Buddhaghosa wrote the Visuddhimagga to demonstrate his orthodoxy, not to instruct meditators. The Vimutthimagga on the other hand, is a practical manual based on Pali sources and may have been composed in Sri Lanka, although this is by no means certain. But even those scholars who see it as a Sri Lankan work agree that it was not a product of the Theravadins but probably of the Abhayagirivasins. Buddhism did not really become firmly established in Tibet until the 11th century and since that time it has produced an extraordinary amount of literature on meditation. Some of these works are not just beautifully written but are also practical and not uncommonly show profound psychological and spiritual insights. Thus a good number of Tibetan teachers are able to offer a rich variety of meditative techniques, illustrate their talks with interesting antidotes and stories about past masters and speak confidently about the higher aspects of practice. Their general openness and flexibility also means that they are accommodating to some of the wisdom of contemporary psychology which helps them to present meditation in categories that Westerners are familiar with.

But it is when comparing teachers that the differences between Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism are most pronounced. The average Tibetan monk is friendly, accommodating and good humored. The best example of this is the leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama. Despite being a former head of state, a senior monk, a scholar of great erudition and a Nobel laureate, this man not only describes himself as ‘just a simple monk’ but actually behaves like one. The general impression he gives is of a humble and unaffected individual and he is by no means the only Tibetan monk like this. Such behavior stems from a notion shared by Mahayana and Western culture and has worked to Tibetan Buddhism’s advantage in the West. In both cultures the person who is high but makes themselves low is appreciated and such behavior is even seen as indicative of important spiritual qualities, as indeed it could well be. The West had derived such ideas from the Christian doctrine that while Jesus is the savior of humankind he is also its humble servant. Tibetans have got it from the Bodhisattva Ideal, the concept of putting aside one’s own interests in order to benefit others. In Theravada by contrast, spiritual virtuosity is inextricably linked to social status and formality. A person who is superior (spiritually or otherwise) must act in a superior manner. He must always have an expression of lofty indifference on his face, always go first, always take the place of honor, and always give the impression that this is no more than his due. To ask people not to bother about formalities or to return a greeting, to hug a child or indulge in good-natured self-deprecation as the Dalai Lama does, would be seen as proof that a monk was shallow and unworthy of respect. Thus Theravadin monks are usually stiff and aloof and many Westerners find this off-putting.

Some time ago I stayed with the eminent meditation teacher in Burma, Chamye Sayadaw. On my arrival I went to his suite to pay my respects and found him sitting on a gilt teak throne surrounded by a large retinue of devotees, mainly rich matrons. It was a little like entering the court of a petty monarch. He had translated one of my books into Burmese and I was interested to talk to him about it, but he was uncommunicative and hardly acknowledged my presence. After my polite inquiries about his health etc., met with no more than a few grunts I lapsed into an awkward silence and was eventually led out by an attendant who showed me to my room. Towards dusk the same day I happened to see the teacher in the garden and decided to go and try to make contact again. He greeted warmly, asked me what I had been doing of late and we had an interesting exchange on the matter I had wanted to discuss with him. Why this apparent change? Because in front of the public he, like all sincere Theravadin monks, must present the facade of the arahat-like individual; controlled, unsmiling and indifferent, otherwise he would simply not be taken seriously. It is only when he is ‘off duty’ as it were, that he can relax and be himself. The naïve psychology of Theravada equates detachment with having a blank stare, never a smile. It is not relaxed self-confidence which is indicative of virtue but being inflexible about minor rules. Proof of meditational progress is not a heightened sensitivity and openness but sour withdrawal. This is what Theravadins believe an arahat to be like and so this is what they try to become, or at least to appear to be in front of their devotees. This control and suppression combined with the strain of continually pretending to be what they are not, robs Theravadin monks of the humanness and warmth that makes Tibetan monks so attractive. An American I know who practiced vipassana for years before becoming a Tibetan Buddhist once said to me: ‘Being with a rimpoche is like sitting on a comfortable rug beside a warm fire. Being with a Theravadin meditation master is like sitting in a refrigerator with a tight corset on.’ This is not always true but the point is well taken.


  1. When Mahasi Sayadaw’s disciples introduced his meditation into Sri Lanka in the 1950s they met with fierce opposition. Sri Lankan monks were incensed that foreigners should presume to teach meditation on their turf. The notoriously acid-tongued Bhikkhu Kassapa of Vajirarama denigrated the Mahasi technique as ‘bowel displacement meditation.’ [back]