copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 9 (Sangha trouble) part b

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The trouble with Orders


Given some of the above issues with monasticism, the approach of the FWBO (now Triratna Buddhist Community) has been to maintain the system of ordination, but to turn it into a system of non-monastic ordination. Members of the Western Buddhist Order are not necessarily celibate (only a very few adopt celibacy as an additional commitment), they do not wear robes, and do not follow monastic rules. They may continue engaged in “lay life”, that is, jobs, marriages, children and mortgages. Their commitment is only to following the Buddhist path, not to a particular lifestyle.


I have personal experience of being a member of this Order, and I have little doubt that it is an improved model from the monastic one. Yet by the time I resigned from it, I had reached the conclusion that the underlying problem was not just monasticism, but ordination. Many of the underlying issues created by monastic ordination remained.


The biggest of these is the large social division created in the Buddhist community between the ordained and the non-ordained. In the FWBO a lot of store is set by ordination: a lot of time and energy goes into preparing for it, and it is granted, or perhaps lengthily deferred, by the preceptors. In some ways it may thus be harder work to become a member of the WBO than to become a monk. So admission to the Order becomes a badge of social status, a qualification, an entry to the elite – no less so because of the constant theoretical denial of this social significance, and the insistence that it is only a recognition of spiritual commitment and spiritual orientation. Like monks, Order Members are given a social status which they may then not deserve in some respects, even if they have worked hard for it in others, and the distrust shown to the uninitiated is suddenly turned into unreserved trust at the point of ordination.


As with the monastic system, the danger of complacency on the part of the ordained is matched by the opportunities denied to the non-ordained. However highly qualified, committed, or energetic they may be, the unordained meet constant barriers of trust and responsibility in the FWBO world that can be easily surmounted by the ordained. They cannot go on retreats that are limited to order members, where of course the most important discussions will occur. They often cannot sit on the trusts that make decisions for local FWBO groups. They have very limited opportunities for teaching the Dharma, even if they are highly skilled at it.


In short, the frequent complex and subtle assessments of the characters of others that we all need to engage in, in any organisation, are largely replaced by the one big formal discontinuous assessment of ordination. Once you are past this big test, you are likely to want to support the system that honoured you in that way, and before you pass it, your complaints will carry little weight. Our unbalanced development, our backsliding, and the limitations of preceptors’ assessment abilities, cannot be taken into account by such a system. The same inequalities of power, regardless of skills, ability, or capacity for responsibility, are found here as in the monastic system; and, as in the monastic system, the ordained do not necessarily benefit from having unrealistic expectations placed upon them.


Defenders of ordination will say that it enables the FWBO to be in the hands of the spiritually committed, so that it will never be diverted from its most important spiritual goals, or taken over by those who do not understand them. However, this assumes that a picked elite group, well-versed in a particular set of cultural expectations that they have had to meet, is in a better position to judge the spiritual direction of a group than those who might bring in other ideas from outside. In effect, ordination ensures a degree of conservatism rather than encouraging the openness that might be required. It is not overwhelming commitment to a tradition that is required by the leaders of spiritual groups: it is freshness of vision, intellectual flexibility, and a realistic engagement with all conditions. I was disappointed in the extent to which I found these qualities in the Western Buddhist Order.


Defenders of ordination are also likely to say that it gives an overwhelming shape and commitment to an individual’s life, which can transform it positively. The public role of the ordained is thought to be subordinate to the inner change, and to merely reflect it. In this case, then, the public role of the ordained, and the public ritual of ordination, becomes dispensible. Let individuals set themselves goals with great seriousness, and let their more experienced spiritual friends assist them in reaching those goals – long may this continue, but it has nothing to do with the social status of the ordained. If the individual process of working towards ordination is valuable for many (as it was, in some ways, for me), then let us simply take that process and decouple it from social status. Instead, spiritual progress should be its own reward.


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