copyright Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 9 

This book is also available as a paperback or pdf download from

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Sangha trouble

The term “sangha” has been used in Buddhism both to refer to the community of monks and nuns, and to the wider community of all Buddhists. In either sense the Sangha is also traditionally the third of the Three Jewels, particularly reflecting the importance of social support for spiritual progress. In this chapter I shall be looking at a variety of issues concerning the social expression of Buddhism and offering a critique of both monastic and non-monastic orders. I shall argue that a better alternative in the West is to substitute incremental recognition of spiritual attainment for sharply-defined elite groups.


Click on section summaries below for the full text of each section:


a) The trouble with monasticism


Whilst monasticism enables spiritual specialisation, it also rigidly demarcates a spiritual elite on whom unrealistic expectations are loaded, whilst disadvantaging those outside the elite. Monasticism also assumes an ethic of purity rather than one of transformation, perpetuating the inconsistency between karmic and nirvanic Buddhism and working against wider incremental progress.


b) The trouble with Orders


Even when the monastic tradition has been softened into a non-monastic order such as the Western Buddhist Order, the basic problem of discontinuity remains. The social expectations of the ordained do not match the complexity of conditions in an individual, and do not necessarily encourage the right qualities for spiritual leadership. Trust in those with spiritual qualities needs to be earned gradually rather than discontinuously formalised.


c) The Buddhist Society of Friends


A Buddhist community does not need to be a fortress, and if the requirement for an elite with discontinuous boundaries is dispensed with then the boundaries no longer need to be policed. My suggestion is that Buddhists in the West would be better off organising in a much simpler and more open way similar to that of Quakers, but incorporating Buddhist insights and practices. The conservative fear of the loss of Buddhist values without elite guardians is largely self-perpetuating and unnecessary.


Continue to Chapter 10 'The ethics industry' (index page)

Return to 'Trouble with Buddhism' index page

Return to home page