Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Whatever Happened to 
the Monastic Sangha?

 An Extract of Dhamma Talk by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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 If a monastic Sangha doesn’t 
become well established in America, 
I don’t see much hope for 
the Dharma here.

The roles of monastic persons in theory are intensive study of the Dharma and meditation, as well as performing services for the laity. What happens in practice, however, in most temples in Asian Theravada countries, is that the role of performing services for the laity gains the upper hand; it has even become the major function of temple monks. Even intensive, in-depth study of the Dharma has faded out, and the practice of meditation has almost vanished, so that it is reduced to just five or ten minutes of quiet sitting in the daily devotional service. Forest monks often place more emphasis on meditation in the hope of reaching true attainment. 
For all its shortcomings, in traditional Asian Buddhism, these activities take place against a long-standing background that includes trust and confidence in the Three Jewels as objects of devotion and a world view that is determined largely by the teachings of the suttas and the commentaries. It is built upon solid trust in the law of karma and rebirth and upon an aspiration for nibbāna as a state of world-transcending realization.
Modern Westerners, in contrast, come to the Dharma from an entirely different stance of consciousness. They generally have a much higher level of education than traditional village Buddhists. Many Westerners will have read widely in psychology and in fields that might be grouped under the heading of “spirituality” and “higher consciousness.” They also approach the Dharma with different problems in mind and they therefore naturally seek different solutions.....

Now those Americans – and Westerners in general – who turn to Buddhism or to Dharma practice because they are oppressed, either consciously or unconsciously, by the sense of existential suffering see the Dharma as a means of restoring a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. Not only do they see it in this way, but it works in this way. It helps them to overcome this bitter feeling of alienation from themselves, from others, and from the natural world. In the Theravada tradition, or the “Vipassana movement,” the practice of mindfulness serves this purpose by helping one to cut through the net of conceptualization and obtain a fresh and direct encounter with immediate experience. It helps one to make a fresh and direct contact with one’s experience through the senses, to come back into the present moment, to make more direct contact with the workings of one’s own mind, and thereby to have fresher and more vital, more dynamic, more enriching human relationships. And so mindfulness meditation is seen as the technique that takes us back to the concrete experience of actuality, to actuality which is always fresh at every moment. For most people this is quite a startling revelation.

Now this function of mindfulness is common both to classical Buddhism and to meditation practice as taught within the lay Vipassana movement. Given that this function of mindfulness is common to the two, we can raise the questions: 

“Why does 
the lay Vipassana movement
remain primarily 
a lay Vipassana movement? 

Why doesn’t it evolve 
towards a monastic Sangha? 

Why doesn’t it look towards 
a monastic Sangha as 
a ‘polestar’ providing 
the ideal towards 
which its members 
should be striving?” 

And we can ask: 
“Is there a significant 
difference between 
the style of 
mindfulness meditation 
as taught within 
the lay Vipassana movement 
mindfulness meditation 
as taught within 
a classical 
monastic-based system?”

Faith has various aspects; it isn’t synonymous with belief, but one of its aspects is cognitive, and that involves holding certain beliefs. Among them is the belief that the historical Buddha, Gotama of the Sakyan clan, was the fully enlightened Buddha of this historical period; and the belief that his teaching is the teaching that leads to enlightenment and liberation; and the belief that those who have followed and practiced his teaching with a high degree of success have gained world-transcending realization. That is, for classical Buddhism faith is uniquely rooted in the Triple Gem, and rooted in them partly by way of certain beliefs. Faith also involves an emotional component. It involves devotion, and in this case it is devotion directed towards the Triple Gem, above all love and devotion directed towards the Buddha as the human being who has perfectly realized all the noble qualities and ideals expressive of the Dharma; also, as the one who, out of great compassion, has taken up the burden of teaching and transforming obtuse sentient beings like ourselves. I find that this aspect of devotion is conspicuously lacking in the contemporary lay Buddhist scene here in the U.S. With a few exceptions, we hardly see traces of devotion and reverence for the Buddha in any of the popular Western Buddhist journals....

I believe that for monastic Buddhism to take root and become properly established, what is needed is a laity that has an intrinsic respect for monastics, and for lay people to develop this respect, two themes that must be emphasized again and again in the teaching of the Dharma are faith and right view. Perhaps we shouldn’t begin with heavy doses of Buddhism pietism and  teachings on the intricacies of Buddhist cosmology; but when the time is right to do so, we also have to be straightforward and unabashed in teaching people. Otherwise we will just become robed and shaven-headed teachers of mindfulness meditation, similar to our lay colleagues, and then the main difference will be that lay people will find greater affinity with the lay teachers, who can speak to them at a more intimate level of shared experience of the household life.

Another theme we have to emphasize, without any fear or hesitation, is the contributions that monastics have made to the survival of the Dharma. We shouldn’t hesitate to speak about how the Buddha Dharma has survived down the centuries through the self-sacrificing efforts of monks and nuns, who had the courage and earnestness to give up the pleasures of mundane life and dedicate themselves fully to the cause of Buddhism, surrendering their very persons to the Triple Gem. And we have to draw the inevitable corollary: If the proper Dharma is to take root and flourish here in America, we need Americans to come forward and make that courageous move. Not just because it is “more conducive to their practice,” but because they truly have been swept off their feet by the Dharma and want to offer their lives to the Dharma in every respect. It is when lay people encounter monks and nuns leading lives of selfless dedication that they can appreciate the beauty and value of the monastic life, revere it, and bring forth a mind of generosity to support those who have entered its fold. I also want to add some concluding observations regarding the situation of lay Buddhists here in America. 

I don’t think that we should expect lay people today to revert to the roles of lay people in a traditional Buddhist culture, that is, to see their roles to be simply devout supporters of the monastic Sangha, providing their material necessities as a way of earning merit for a future birth; nor do I think this is desirable. I think in today’s world, lay people have much richer opportunities to lead a fuller Dharma life, and as monks and nuns we have to rejoice in this opportunity and try to encourage them. We should be of service to help them to realize their full potential as Dharma practitioners and teachers. We live at a time when people want and need to experience the concrete benefits to which the Dharma can lead, and they should have every chance to do so. This is a time when lay people will have more leisure and opportunity to participate in long-term meditation retreats, to study the Dharma in depth, and to live lifestyles that will approximate to those of monastics. This is also a time when there will be lay people who have the knowledge, experience, and communicative skills needed to teach the Dharma. Much thought has to be given to the task of establishing roles for lay Buddhists that can tap their talents, and we will have to adjust the social forms of Buddhism to the new conditions we find ourselves in today.

We simply can’t expect Western Buddhism to imitate Asian Buddhism. And yet, I feel, for the true Dharma to flourish as the Buddha himself had envisaged it, a healthy development of Western Buddhism will have to preserve the position of the monastic Sangha as the torch-bearers of the Dharma. I say this, of course, not to try to reserve certain privileges for ourselves, so that we can sit up on high seats and wield fans with our names inscribed on them and get addressed with elegant and polite terms, but because I’m convinced that it was the Buddha’s intention that the full monastic ordination with the opportunities and responsibilities it offers are necessary for the true Dharma to survive in the world. And this means that, in each major Buddhist tradition, we will need more people of talent and dedication to come forth, take ordination, receive proper training, and then reach a point where they can give training to the next generation of monks and nuns. In this way, the Dharma will be able to reproduce itself from one generation to the next.

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