On the Internet you can find this very interesting and challenging presentation by the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. He is a monk of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and the title of his talk is: “Whatever Happened to the Monastic Sangha?” Here is the link to the whole talk.
The problems Bhikkhu Bodhi presents are in one sense peculiar to the Buddhist tradition, but in another sense they raise questions and challenges for all within the monastic traditions and contemplatives in general. First of all comes the problem of the presence, or one should say the lack of presence, of the monastic sangha (community) within American Buddhism. The monastic sangha has been traditionally the “torchbearer” of the Buddha’s message, but in the U.S. the most prominent teaching roles in several Buddhist traditions have been taken over by the laity. The Sangha as custodian of the Dharma almost vanishes. True enough, the situation in modern Asia has its own problems. In the Theravada countries and in Japanese Zen there are many temple monks who are merely ritual enactors, but there are the so-called forest monks who still are serious practitioners of meditation and renunciation. Lay Buddhists still support these monks as in pre-modern days and still look upon them as custodians of the Dharma, but they are also very serious students and practitioners. They are fully informed about Buddhist teaching and doctrine as a full religious tradition and not just a technique of meditation.
According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, modern Western students of Buddhism come from a very different stance of consciousness. They come with what he calls “existential suffering,” or a fundamental lack within themselves. This is their primary motive, and in this case the Dharma takes on a role as “existential therapy” to fill a hole at the bottom of their hearts. Here is an acute quote:
“They are seeking above all a practice that they can integrate
into their daily lives in order to transform the felt quality of
their lives. They aren’t seeking explanations; they aren’t seeking
a new religion; and generally, they aren’t seeking a new system of
beliefs. They come to the Dharma seeking a radical therapy, a
method that will provide them with concrete, tangible, and
immediate changes in the way they experience their worlds….
And most Buddhist teachers…are presenting the Dharma as
exactly that. They are presenting the Dharma as a practice, a way,
a path, that will help ameliorate this disturbing sense of
In the Theravada branch of Buddhism, the primary practice that is taught is intensive mindfulness meditation—Vipassana. In the U.S. this is primarily a lay movement which shows no evolvement into any monastic sangha. The natural trajectory should be a movement of some kind toward monastic renunciation, toward “homelessness.” According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the main reason for this is due both to what the modern Westerner is motivated by and by what he/she is taught. They are basically cheated out of understanding their condition truly and deeply, their samsaric predicament, and of being able to really follow Buddhism to cure what “ails” them. Here is another powerful quote:
“If one keeps on feeding them adaptive presentations of
the Dharma, feeding them teachings and practices that
are designed to enrich their lives, but does not steer them
towards the ultimate truth that transcends life and death,
steer them towards a vision of the face of the Deathless,
then one is not serving as a fully responsible transmitter
of the Dharma.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi points to the book Buddhism Without Beliefs as an example of the problem—a presentation of Buddhism without the traditional Buddhist doctrine, as if such a thing were really possible. The basic equation is: Dharma equals mindfulness meditation equals bare attention. The really devastating thing is that mindfulness meditation as a therapeutic technique becomes simply a subtle reaffirmation of samsara—certainly not a liberation into ultimate truth.
Bhikkhu Bodhi again:
“Mindfulness meditation is thus being taken out of its original
context, the context of the full Noble Eightfold Path—which
includes right view…and also right intention as including the
intention of renunciation and right morality as including various
factors of restraint over bodily and verbal behavior…and it is
being taught as a means for the heightening and intensification
of experience simply through being attentive to what is
occurring in the present moment.”
One outcome of all this is the decline of the monastic path because renunciation is now no longer an essential step on the path but just one option among others. If that were the case, the question rises up why did the Buddha establish a monastic order of celibate monks?
Now for those of us who are not Buddhists there are in all this many interesting questions, parallels, and insights.
1. For those engaged in interreligious dialogue or wishing to engage other traditions, we note here the problems associated with trying to “import” a practice from outside its traditional context. Practices without the associated doctrine can simply be a distortion of what you are trying to do. Yet we also must point out that doctrine always needs “unpacking” as it were and not merely conceptual adherence. Whether it be Christian theology or Buddhist Dharma, the danger of fundamentalism lurks or a more subtle kind of blockage which makes progress in a truly deep sense very difficult. The obvious example of all this is Abhishiktananda, who had to struggle for years with trying to make his Advaita experience reconcile with his native Christian language. It is not simple or easy.
2. Catholic contemplative monks have also experienced a dramatic decline in the modern West. In earlier times these monks were put on a pedestal of sorts and idealized to an extreme degree at the expense of lay believers. How often they were not even oriented in a contemplative direction, but that life was considered “higher.” Today they are often presented as exemplars of orthodoxy by various ultraconservative groups. Otherwise it is a shrinking population—the genuine contemplative life is not well understood inspite of the writings of such people as Thomas Merton, and the role and meaning of renunciation is simply incomprehensible in our culture. Thus the reality of monasticism is a confusing if not devalued reality for many lay Christians. Within Christianity the real dynamic of religion very often turns into some kind of external activity or a question of morality.
3. The role of the laity in both Buddhism and Christianity presents some questions and problems. The celibate life as potentially a more effective means towards the realization of the ultimate goal is prevalent in many religious traditions. Interestingly enough the same tension does not seem to exist in Hinduism because the classic scheme is a trajectory of a person journeying through the various stages of life: student, married householder and finally ending up as a renunciant, a sannyasi. And the tradition is so free about this that a person can jump straight into the sannyasi category when he is moved to do so, but at least it is quite understood that one living as a householder is merely living at a certain stage, and either in this life or in another one will move on to another stage. The problem for women, however, remains unresolved, with women not seeming to get the same treatment—women sannyasi are not exactly prominent within Hinduism!
4. There is a very important exception to some of these limitations: the Sufis of Islam. Islam says very explicitly that it does not have such a thing as monasticism. The Sufis are not monks. Nor are they put on a pedestal or considered as “torchbearers” of any orthodoxy. In fact they are held in suspicion and hostility by various elements within Islam. But what’s important for consideration is that a Sufi can be either celibate or married–some of their greatest holy men were married; but they all understand the role of renunciation and detachment in the mystical life. And this is precisely what is their focus—simply the reality of God. It does not really matter in the grand scheme of things whether you are a hermit, a married person,(the problem of course is that in the practical scheme of things when you are married your attention goes largely to the dynamics of family life, like St. Paul himself said), a wandering ascetic, a scholar, a merchant, etc.–you will be plugged into one dynamic that leads to fana, “extinction” of the ephemeral ego, and reintegration into a new identity in God. That is a better way of looking at all this rather than as some select group being a “torchbearer” of the central doctrine. The title of my next posting is a Sufi adage and a perfect place to end this reflection: Wherever you turn, there is God.