copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

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

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The trouble with monasticism


“Monasticism” is a general term for the ordination of monks and nuns as celibate spiritual specialists. To begin with the Buddha’s ordination led to a wandering lifestyle, reliant on begging for alms, and only later did the order become “domesticated”, settling down in fixed buildings. So, the crucial feature of monasticism is not the monastery, but the solemn commitment to the Buddhist path, with its disavowal of all former possessions and relationships, its celibacy, and its training in the Dharma through monastic rules (Vinaya). The solemn commitment is particularly symbolised by the wearing of robes, which set the monks and nuns immediately apart from the lay people.


Monasticism is still an accepted part of the vast majority of Buddhist schools today. Only the Pure Land and Nichiren sects in Japan have dispensed with it, together with the minority Nyingmapa School in Tibet, and more recently the FWBO/TBC , which I will return to in the next section. The most obvious advantage of monasticism is that of all specialisation: monks can concentrate on following the spiritual path whole-heartedly, without being distracted by other responsibilities. Buddhism also greatly appreciates the power of personal example, and the monastic system focuses on training the best men and women in the Dharma first, so that they will then be an example to everyone else.


However, given that monasticism is a social institution, it is important to consider it in its effects on society. The most important of these is that simply, in creating an elite group of spiritual specialists, one immediately condemns the remainder of the population to be spiritual second-raters. Like those who advocate selective grammar schools in English education, the advocates of monasticism too frequently focus on the advantages of selection for the elite, much less on the disadvantages of being denied such preferential opportunities to the remainder.


This does not mean that instead we should adopt some sort of egalitarian uniformity whereby nobody is allowed to benefit from talents, drives or creativity to access more resources that could be used to train him/her than those given to others. Rather, it means that we should not make fixed and long-lasting divisions in society that fix people’s social roles, and deny some for the rest of their lives opportunities they might have benefited from. The monk-lay division is one such fixed division.


The consequences of that fixed division are those of high social status for the monk (usually less so for the nun) in Buddhist countries, constantly reinforced by rituals such as monks eating first and sitting above lay people. Such social status often renders real spiritual effort unnecessary, and makes the whole Buddhist religion primarily a matter of form: monks become more concerned with how they appear to lay people than with their actual spiritual state.


Striking evidence of the corruption of monasticism in the Theravada can be found in Sangharakshita’s book Forty-three years ago, where he recounts some of his experiences as a Theravada monk in India. There apparently it was commonplace to engage in secret sexual activity, and even to have hidden families, but a bond of silence between the monks prevented this being made known to the lay people[1].


Perhaps we should not need such reports to expect the imperfection of monks in their role, only a fair knowledge of human nature as commonly experienced. Their role sets them up in an idealised position that often substitutes for the spiritual efforts of others, and that alone must cause a huge strain for many. Add to this the difficulties of celibacy (to which many Catholic priests have also proved inadequate) and you have a ready recipe for hypocrisy.


Contrast this with the situation of the lay people, who have to provide for the monks and nuns. Although in recent times the education of some lay-people has improved greatly, and lay-people may also be involved in what were formerly purely monastic activities like meditation and study, there are still all sorts of formal ways in which they are second class citizens of the Buddhist republic. In the Theravada they are still believed unable to attain enlightenment without ordaining first. Their goal is primarily a better rebirth, even in the Mahayana. Their prime virtue is generosity towards the monks, which is seen as an opportunity for the lay people to gain merit.


Generosity is indeed a virtue, but when such emphasis is put on it for one whole group in society towards another, one has grounds for suspicion. Suppose, for example, it was seen as the role of women to earn merit by being generous towards men, but men did not respond with material goods, only with good advice. It would be clearer in such a case that there was an unequal power relationship going on. Nor would men benefit in the long-run from not having to work to support themselves, any more than monks and nuns do. The loss of physical energy and initiative would be the most likely result, and this does seem observable in some Theravada monks – though of course there are many others who remain vigorous through practice, and Mahayana monks often have to work.


However, the deeper trouble with monasticism is not just to do with the power relationship involved and the lack of spiritual motives and opportunities for lay people. These factors do, in any case, vary a good deal through the Buddhist world. The deeper problem is due to the very model of enlightenment as the overcoming of desire that it rests on. The monastic system could never have been created by Buddhists who really had a transformational view of their desires rather than a purificatory one. If some of our desires have a tendency to produce suffering, the Middle Way solution, as I have discussed in earlier chapters, is not to pluck out or remove those desires, but to divert the energy they represent into better channels.


However, the monastic life is based on the removal or purification of desires: for example, celibacy is intended to stop sexual desire arising in the first place, and the rule about not eating after midday is intended to stop excessive desire for food. A transformational approach would be concerned, not with stopping these desires arising, but with balancing and integrating them. Sexual activity and food may be a source of healthy energy, and it is guiding and channelling these energies to stop them becoming obsessive or one-sided that is most important. Some people are able to use completely prohibitory practices for transformation with much effort and practice (for example, those who are celibate can succeed in channelling their sexual energy elsewhere), but this is so difficult that it can hardly be claimed to realistically be the main goal of the prohibitory practice. To re-channel a river, you do not dam it first and only then think about which direction to re-channel it, as the force builds up ready to break the dam. Rather, a genuinely transformational approach diverts the flow little by little to its new destination.


In the next chapter I will have more to say about the relationship of this problem to moral attitudes; for Buddhism as a whole is disadvantaged by the ethic of purity. The monastic system is a particularly strong instance of reliance on purity ideas. As we will see, purity has a close relationship with rigidity and rule-following, too, which is another feature of the monastic tradition.


Apart from the traditional monasticism that is still practised by many groups, I have noticed a sentimental attachment to monasticism even amongst Buddhists who do not practise it, such as the FWBO. This is because they still see the monastic life as an ideal model, even if they also feel that it cannot be feasibly practised in the modern West. I think it is this kind of underlying attachment to the monastic model that needs challenging most in the West. The Middle Way requires a focus on all conditions, not just temporary personal advantages. A monk or nun, through their status, is contributing to making a huge division in Buddhist society which is to the long-term benefit of neither ordained nor lay: for the lay-person needs the monk’s training and refinement, whilst the monk needs the lay-person’s energy and wealth. We all need all of these things without the influence of over-specialisation to prevent it.