How will the sangha fare in North American Buddhism?
I will begin with some questions: If Buddhism is to be successfully transplanted in the U.S., does it need a monastic sangha as its cornerstone? Must there be a monastic sangha at all, or is Buddhist monasticism an outdated institution? Can the teachings flow entirely through a “lay Sangha,” through lay teachers and communities of lay practitioners? If monastics are necessary, what should their role be? What their duties? What changes in lifestyle and orientation, if any, are required by the new conditions imposed by the Western culture in which Buddhism has taken root?
My personal belief is that for Buddhism to successfully flourish in the West, a monastic sangha is necessary. At the same time, I think it almost inevitable that as Buddhism evolves here, monasticism will change in many ways, that it will adapt to the peculiar environment impressed upon it by Western culture and modes of understanding, which differ so much from the culture and worldview of traditional Asian Buddhism. As a result, I believe, the role monastics play in Western Buddhism will also differ in important ways from the role they play in Asia. I do not think this is something that we need lament or look upon with dread. In some respects, I believe, such a development is not only inevitable but also wholesome, that it can be seen as a sign of Buddhism’s ability to adapt to different cultural conditions, which is also a sign of spiritual strength. At the same time, I also think we need to exercise caution about making adaptation. It would certainly be counterproductive to be in a hurry to make changes uncritically, without taking the long-standing pillars of our Buddhist heritage as our reference point. If we are too hasty, we might also be careless, and then we might discard fundamental principles of the Dharma along with the adventitious cultural dressing in which it is wrapped.
I first want to examine the traditionalist understanding of this issue, even though—and I stress this—the position to which I incline is not a strictly traditionalist one. From a traditionalist point of view, the monastic sangha is necessary for the successful transmission of Buddhism to occur because the monastic sangha sustains the continuity of the Triple Gem. We can briefly consider how this is so with regard to each of the Three Jewels individually.
(1) The Buddha: When the Buddha decided to embark on the quest for enlightenment, his first step was to become a samana, an ascetic. On the one hand, by adopting the lifestyle of an ascetic, the future Buddha was conforming to an ancient Indian paradigm of the spiritual life, a paradigm that might well have gone back centuries before his own time. But by taking up this mode of life, and continuing to adhere to it even after his enlightenment, the Buddha did something more than simply conform to the prevailing Indian convention. He conveyed a message, namely, that the renunciant way of life was an essential step on the path to the ultimate goal, to the state of transcendent liberation from birth and death, the ideal shared by many of the old Indian schools of spiritual culture. Even more: he indicated that renunciation is itself an aspect of the goal. Renunciation of sensual pleasures and cyclic existence is not merely a means to liberation; it is also integral to the goal itself. The goal is renunciation, and thus the act of renunciation with which the monastic life begins is not simply a step in the direction of the goal but also partly the realization of the goal, an embodiment of liberation, even if only symbolically so.
After his enlightenment, the Buddha created a monastic sangha on the model of the lifestyle that he had adopted during his quest for enlightenment. The monks (and later nuns) were to live in a state of voluntary poverty, without personal wealth and with minimal possessions. They were to shave their heads and wear simple dyed robes, to gather their meals by going on alms round, to live out in the open, in caves, or in simple huts. They were governed by a disciplinary code that minutely regulated their behavior, and were to undertake a training that directed their energies towards the same path that the Buddha had embarked on when he discovered the way to enlightenment.
Even though aspects of the monastic lifestyle have changed over the ages, in Asian Buddhist tradition the figure of the monk (and less often, I have to say, reluctantly but candidly, the nun) has functioned as the symbol for the Buddha’s continuing presence in the world. By his robes, deportment, and lifestyle, the monk represents the Buddha. He enables the Buddha, vanished from the stage of human events, to continue to shed his blessing power upon the earth. He draws down the Buddha’s past historical reality and sends it out into the world, so that the Buddha can continue to serve the world as a teacher, an image of human perfection, and a spiritual force—a force of grace that acts within and upon those who go to him for refuge.
(2) The Dharma. In a well-known passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells Mara, the Evil One, that his followers comprise monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who are “capable, well trained, confident, learned, and upholders of the Dhamma.” These four groups are known as the four assemblies. If we take this passage in isolation, it might seem as if the Buddha is assigning the four groups to a level of parity with respect to the Dharma, for they are described in the same way. However, another sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya (42:7), sheds a different light on their relationship. Here the Buddha illustrates the three kinds of recipients of his teaching with a simile of three fields: the superior field, the middling field, and the inferior field. The three kinds of recipients—compared respectively to the superior, middling, and inferior fields—are the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis (taken jointly), the male and female lay disciples (taken jointly), and the monks and ascetics of other schools. This statement doesn’t imply that monks and nuns, individually, are invariably superior to lay disciples. Often sincere lay disciples are more serious and diligent in practice and more knowledgeable about the Dharma than many monastics. But the Buddha’s statement does suggest that, as a group, monastics constitute a more fertile field for the Dharma to flourish than lay persons, and that is so because they have adopted the lifestyle that the Buddha designed for those who wish to fully devote themselves to the practice and advance thereby towards the goal of the spiritual life.
Traditionally, monastics have not only been charged with the intensive practice of the Dharma, but also with the responsibility of preserving it and teaching it to others. This implies that there must be monastics who have thoroughly learned the Buddhist scriptures and mastered the body of Buddhist doctrine. In all Buddhist traditions, parallel with the exemplary practitioner, there stands the figure of the learned monk, the pandita, the dharma-master, the geshe—those who have acquired expertise in the doctrine and can skillfully teach others. In this way, too, the monastic person becomes a channel for the preservation and transmission of the Dharma.
(3) The Sangha. The monastic sangha also serves as a conduit for the transmission of the third Jewel, the Sangha itself, in the world. The Buddha did not merely confer monastic ordination on his disciples, permitting them to “go forth” from the home life. Going beyond this, he created a monastic order, a community of monks and nuns bound together by a common code of discipline, the Vinaya, and by other guidelines intended to ensure that they serve the well-being of the community that they have joined. He also established a number of communal monastic observances that bind the members of the Sangha together, the most important being the ceremonies of ordination, recitation of the monastic code, the rains retreat, and the ending of the rains retreat: upasampada, uposatha, vassa, and pavarana. Buddhist tradition—at least Theravada tradition—says that the performance of these ceremonies is the criterion for the continued existence of the Sasana, that is, for Buddhism to survive as a social and historical institution. I’m not sure whether there is any canonical basis for this idea; it might come from the commentaries or later tradition, but it is a well-established belief.
Thus, to sum up: From a traditional point of view, a monastic sangha is essential for the continuing presence of all three Jewels in the world. The renunciant monks and nuns symbolically represent the Buddha; they learn, practice, and teach the Dharma; they observe the guidelines, regulations, and rites of the Sangha; and they practice in such a way that they themselves might become enlightened beings themselves, fulfilling the ultimate intention of the Buddha.
This is the traditionalist perspective, but I question whether this traditionalist view of the sangha’s role is completely viable in today’s world. Is it sufficient simply to insist on the traditional understanding of the sangha’s task and mission, or are there forces at work compelling us to stake out new ways of understanding the role of the sangha? Do we face new challenges, never foreseen by the tradition, that compel us to renew our understanding of Buddhism and revitalize our monastic lifestyle in order to ensure greater durability for monasticism as an institution and a way of life? Are there forces at work that might actually undermine the survival of Buddhist monasticism?
Interestingly, while the Buddha speaks of forces threatening the future long life of the Dharma, we find nothing to indicate that he foresaw the kind of transformations that are taking place today. When the early texts speak about the future, they generally predict decline and degeneration—what they call future perils (anagatabhaya)—and the remedy they propose is simply to strive diligently in the present, so that one attains liberation before the dark ages arrive. The oldest collections of texts, the Nikayas and Agamas, consistently set the factors making for decline against the background of the social order that prevailed in the Buddha’s time. There is no recognition that society might undergo major social, cultural, and intellectual transformations that could stimulate the emergence of positive developments within Buddhism. There is no recognition that Buddhism might migrate to countries and continents remote from ancient India, lands where different material conditions and modes of thinking might allow the Dharma to develop in different directions from that it was to take in its Indian homeland. In general, from the standpoint of the early texts, the revolving Wheel of Time draws us ever closer to the end of the proper Dharma, and the best we can do is resist the tide sweeping over us. Change is subversive, and we must preserve the proper Dharma against its corrosive influence.
I do not like to take issue with the early Buddhist canon, but I have often asked myself whether it is necessary to take such a dark view of change or to see it as inevitable that Buddhism slides ever more rapidly down a slippery slope. I wonder whether we might not instead adopt an evolutionary perspective on the development of Buddhism, a perspective that does not oblige us to regard change in the doctrinal and institutional expressions of Buddhism as invariably a sign of degeneration. Perhaps we can see such change instead as a catalyst able to bring about a process of natural, organic growth in Buddhism. Perhaps we can consider changing social, intellectual, and cultural conditions as providing an opportunity for Buddhism to respond creatively, and thus to re-envision and re-embody the Dharma in the world, bringing to manifestation many aspects implicit in the original teaching but unable to appear until the requisite conditions bring them forth.
The history of Buddhism might be viewed as the record of an interplay between two factors, challenge and response. Time and again, change takes place—a seismic shift in cultural or intellectual conditions—that strikes at the core of Buddhist tradition, setting off a crisis. Initially, the new development might seem threatening. But often there will arise Buddhist thinkers who are acute enough to understand the challenge and resourceful enough to respond in creative ways that tap into hidden potentials of the Dharma. Their responses lead to adaptations that not only enable the Sasana to weather the storm, but which embody new insights, new ways of understanding the Dharma, that could never have appeared until the appropriate conditions called them forth, until unforeseen historical, social, cultural, and philosophical challenges made them possible and even necessary. At times these responses may veer off the proper track into the wilderness of subjective interpretations and deviant practices; but often enough they reveal the creative viability of Buddhism, its ability to adapt and assume new expressions in response to new needs and new modes of understanding implanted in people by new social and cultural conditions.
In facing the new challenges, creative adaptation has to be balanced by an effort to maintain continuity with the roots and past legacy of Buddhism. This double task points to a certain struggle between two factors in the unfolding of Buddhist history: one is the need to respond effectively to the challenges presented by new circumstances, new ways of thinking, new standards of behavior; the other is the need to remain faithful to the original insights at the heart of the Dharma, to its long heritage of practice and experience. The weight that is assigned to these two competing forces establishes a tension between conservative and innovative tendencies within Buddhism. Inevitably, different people will gravitate towards one or another of these poles, and such differences often bring conflict between those who wish to preserve familiar forms and those who think change and reformulation are necessary to maintain the vitality and relevance of the Dharma. This same tension is still very much with us today, as we will see.
In the early centuries of Buddhist history, the architects of the evolving Buddhist tradition preferred to ascribe these newly emergent dimensions of the Dharma to the Buddha himself. This, however, was just a mythical way of conferring the mantle of authority upon new formulations of the teaching. Such is the characteristic Indian way of thinking. It is an open question whether these masters actually believed that these new teachings had sprung from the Buddha himself or instead used this device as a symbolic way of indicating that such teachings brought to light previously unexpressed aspects of the enlightenment realized by the Buddha.
Let us take a few examples of this: Several generations after the passing of the Buddha, the Vedic philosophical schools took to compiling complex, systematized lists of all the components of the universe. This tendency is particularly evident in the Sankhya school, which may have already arisen before the time of the Buddha and must have been evolving parallel with early Buddhism. This fashion of the age presented the Buddhists with the challenge of applying the same style of fine analysis to their own heritage. Consequently, Buddhist thinkers set out to systematize the various groups of elements recorded in the Buddha’s discourses, and over time what emerged from this exercise was the body of learning known as the Abhidharma. This trend cut clear across the early Buddhist schools, and the result was the creation of at least three different (but related) schools of Abhidharma: the Theravada, the Sarvastivada, and the Dharmaguptaka. Perhaps to give a competitive edge to their own system, the Theravadin commentators ascribed their Abhidharma to the Buddha, claiming that he taught it to the deities in a deva world; all the evidence, however, indicates that the Abhidharma resulted from a process of historical evolution extending over several centuries.
On this basis, one who adheres to a strict conservative stance, a position that I call “sutta purism,” might reject the value of the Abhidharma, holding that the only teachings worth studying are those that can be ascribed, with a fair degree of accuracy, to the Buddha himself. This position assumes that because the Abhidharma treatises were not actually taught by the Buddha, they are useless and fruitless, a lamentable deviation from the proper Dharma. However, by taking an evolutionary perspective, we can view the Abhidharma schools as responses to intellectual challenges faced by the Buddhist community in an early stage of Buddhist intellectual history. From this point of view, they then appear as impressive attempts to incorporate all the elements of the teaching into a systematic structure governed by the broad principles of the original teaching. The Abhidharma then emerges as a bold project that proposed to establish nothing less than a comprehensive inventory of all known phenomena and their relations, subordinated to the governing concepts of the Dharma and the project of transcendent liberation.
Similar considerations apply to the Mahayana sutras, which introduce far more radical re- assessments of Buddhist doctrine and spiritual ideals than the Abhidharma. Again, if one takes the conservative stance of “sutta purism,” one might dismiss these texts as deviations from the true Dharma and even as marking a step towards the decline of the Sasana. This, in fact, is a view that many conservative monks in Theravada countries take of the Mahayana sutras, even when they are completely unfamiliar with them. However, by looking at the history of Buddhism as a process governed by the law of “challenge-and-response,” we can see the emergence of the Mahayana sutras as a result of new challenges faced by Buddhism beginning in the post-Asokan landscape. Some of these challenges might have been internal to the Buddhist community, such as a disenchantment with the rigidity of the Abhidharma systems and a narrow interpretation of the arahant ideal; also, an interest in elaborating upon the path that a bodhisattva must travel over countless eons to arrive at Buddhahood. Other challenges may have been external, particularly the mingling in the Indian subcontinent of new peoples of different ethnicities, speaking different languages, and holding different worldviews. This would have challenged Buddhism to break out of the mold imposed upon it by its Indian origins and draw out, from its own inner resources, a new conception of the universal ethical ideal already articulated in archaic Buddhism.