Monday, 1 February 2016

The Thread: Why Is the Four-Fold Sangha Important?




Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed. To see their entire collection of messages, please see here.

Gerald: I took a moment to re-read Ethan's suggestion that Bhikkhu Obhasa and I were painting Burmese Buddhism glowlingly. Actually, I disagree with both examples he gave. The three of us have a history in communication (that is, before we offered the idea of sharing this chat with the Burma-Dhamma audience), and from past discussions it has been suggested that we (Bhikkhu Obhasa and I) present Burmese Buddhism in too favorable a light, and so I wonder if this past consideration was applied to this previous round unduly.

For example, the following line was quoted by me: “a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher." When I wrote this, I was very intentionally not suggesting any positive or negative aspects beyond a historical fact that needs to be remembered. The word "experimentation" does not imply that they have successfully resolved or found the answer for how one creates a Dhammic society; only that the attempt (and which is sometimes a very messy attempt!) has been consistent. This was why I intentionally used "experimentation," rather than something like "effective implementation." Similarly, the latter part of the sentence highlights that the Burmese have oriented their society around a single spiritual teacher-- this is also not seen as either positive nor negative, but a statement of fact, as opposed to the spiritual marketplaces found amongst neo-atheists and Buddhist secularists in the modern U.S., or throughout India today as well as in the past. Some people would say that a pluralistic spiritual society is actually better!

Similarly, rereading Bhikkhu Obhasa's post (I'm not sure which specific line Ethan felt was "glowingly"), I find he has written much less on specific cases in Burma and specific cases in the West, and more on what it means to have and not to have a monastic system, in a universal sense. In other words, I don't find him supporting the Burmese system vis-a-vis the West, but rather expressing that lay connection to monastic systems are in general a powerful addition when seeking to practice the Buddha's teachings.

Of course, Bhikkhu Obhasa puts an entirely different spin on this discussion by suggesting we look less at the language Pannobhasa Bhikkhu introduced of an "Epic Battle" between the U.S./West and Burma, and more at what each can learn from the other.

Finally, I'd like to share an observation that Bhikkhu Obhasa and I had in person. We realized that Ethan's posts tend to be objective in nature, mine bring in history, and his concern the personal narrative. Looking at our own backgrounds, this makes sense. Ethan has spent the least time in Burma amongst the three of us, so his view is more concerned with general rules, principles, information, comparisons to other systems, etc., as he tries to understand this intellectually. Being in academia myself, I've read many books on the subject and my view has been informed by "how we got from there to here." Bhikkhu Obhasa has made a radical transformation in his own life, leaving the householder's life entirely behind by ordaining last year, and his journey from lay meditator to Buddhist monk makes all these facts and debates a very personal issue.

I think the beauty of this roundtable format is that these three different puzzle pieces can come together as they do, and it can allow us to look at a single subject from different layers. At the same time, it also presents a danger of miscommunication and misunderstandings, so I think it's helpful to be explicit about how we are approaching the subject, so that we can better understand one another and consider how we frame our writings. While expressing our individual strengths is a gift to the communication, I think it will also be good if we each allow ourselves to delve into the others' spheres as well; for example on my part to remember the power of including my own personal narrative, while also considering objective questions as they may look to an outsider.

To conclude, despite these superficial differences, we are all united by a commitment to the spiritual journey, and a respect that it takes different forms for different people, and we are here to explore those forms in this dialogue.


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Ethan: To be clear, I was not accusing either of you of any kind of bias. My intention was only to highlight a point I felt had been downplayed in the discussion so far: that negative trends and influences are present in Burmese Buddhism as well. Since we all clearly agree that they are, I won’t spend any more time on it.

In fact, while I enjoyed reading the “Epic Battle” post, I think the question of which system is better is ultimately unanswerable. Yes, certain systems are better at certain things, but in the end the best system is the one that best promotes spiritual progress, and that can vary greatly depending on the person, and can even differ at different times in an individual’s life (or lives). One of the questions that came up after reading “Epic Battle” was whether Western Theravada needs a monastic system, and if so, what should it look like? Since we all agree the answer to the first question is “yes,” what are your thoughts on the second? Since one of you has approaching a decade of experience living in a society with a Theravada monastic system and the the other has been an actual Theravada monk for (one? two?) years, I am very eager for your responses!

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Bhikkhu Obhasa: As a preliminary to what a monastic system 'should' look like, I'd like to share more specifically why I think a monastic system, or more completely, why the entire four-fold sangha of monks, nuns, and lay men and women together, is important. I feel understanding what the value is will inform what it then might look like.

Valuing monastics is like valuing scientists in that supporting the field of scientists so they can devote full time to discovering things, benefits the people that support them. Monastics are different in the sense that they aren't trying to discover anything new, but they devote full time to replicating the grand experiment of liberation. And when there is success, this is a great inspiration for others.

In the last post it was stated that "in the end the best system is the one that best promotes spiritual progress..." and this was framed in terms of a person or individual. I think this is a bit too loose. In setting up the Vinaya for monks, the purpose wasn't only for the progress of the individual but also for the longevity of the teaching. I think this balance is more easily forgotten in the individualized western culture and that puts longevity at risk. Also I think progress towards the ultimate goal needs to be emphasized rather than just simply 'progress', as secondary benefits can come to be more emphasized and the highest goal marginalized, perhaps eventually even forgotten. These aims balance out what could otherwise become a self serving, short sighted system. In this regard, the communal monastic system seems far better poised to maintain this balance than individuals.

Monks an nuns spend their lives practicing and studying Dhamma. When they share that knowledge, they provide shortcuts to learning for others that don't have or make that time to dedicate to study. And since there are so many monks and nuns studying and practicing, there are bound to be available much variety in languages and ways of explaining that suit different people of different learning styles and different levels of understanding. This great pool anyone can lean on. It's a well anyone can drink from. Not only that, anyone can participate, for a short period or for life. This symbiotic interdependent relationship between monastics and laity is, in my opinion, the most stable, reliable, and sustaining system for spiritual progress.

So why would a monastic system be better for an individual than just learning Dhamma from individual lay teachers? First, that there are lay Dhamma teachers is great so it's not a matter of either/or and certainly lay teachers can be of great benefit. But I would say that lay teachers fare better and only actually exist BECAUSE OF the four-fold sangha, AS A PART OF IT, not seperate. Relying on a single Dhamma teacher that claims complete independence from monastic sangha is first of all, a farce because without the four-fold sangha, there wouldn't be any Dhamma to teach. It would be like a branch of a tree with no trunk or roots.

Second, relying on a single independent teacher in that way would be like relying on one scientist instead of a large pool of collaborating scientists with a deep history of research, shared contribution, renewed inspiration, and fresh successes. There's just no good reason to to cut yourself completely off from the pool (although there may be some good reasons to filter the water). Sharing in a greater sangha has the same benefits. It's alive and it has a momentum that helps carry everyone along. This is actually why the Buddha DIDN'T WANT monks to be independent of the laity. The four-fold sangha is communal and this sense of symbiotic interdependence helps to incline the mind away from individualist ego and more towards ideas like dependent arising. The larger the sense of sangha and the more one participates in it, the less strength of attachment there is to self, teacher, and technique. And the more momentum the sasana has, the more it can help us along.

Some say this mode, this system, is outdated. I however fail to see where these benefits, these values are not as relevant today as they ever were. I have focused mostly on benefits of the laity so far but there are also tremendous benefits for the monastics well beyond simply sustaining life via the four requisites. The mere act of being revered as is so abundant here in Myanmar makes me want to be worthy of that reverence, helps keep me on track and making effort to do my part to maintain the integrity of the monastic sangha. The results of striving then are shared with the laity who are naturally further inspired to support which further inspires me to striving. Around and around it goes in a cycle of mutual benefit.

Thanks for enduring the exegesis. I think in writing the above, I'm more clear on what conditions would need to arise for a naturally sustained four-fold sangha to exist but I'll speak more to that next time perhaps.