Friday, 5 April 2019

The Broken Buddha, and its implications in Myanmar

Carl Stimson, a vipassana meditator who has been in and out of Myanmar for the last ten years, offers this review of Shravasti Dhammika's book The Broken Buddha. 

Having been a meditator in a Theravada-associated tradition for many years, an enthusiastic reader of books by Theravada monks and teachers, and an infrequent visitor to Southeast Asia for Dhamma purposes, I have long seen this religion as the most faithful representative of the Buddha’s teachings. Yet, a number of important aspects of Theravada have remained sources of discomfort and skepticism. In a ferocious way, The Broken Buddha puts this sticky dilemma into sharp relief. That is, are the problems with Theravada merely blights on an essentially noble enterprise, or is the enterprise itself corrupt?

The book is the work of Shravasti Dhammika, an Australia-born man who ordained as a Theravada monk in 1976. It was published in 2008, though as he states in the preface, most of it was written several years earlier and he only decided to publish after an “unauthorized draft” appeared online. I am unsure how much the official version differs from this draft, but the text retains a rough feel. At less than 80 pages, it is somewhere between long essay and short book, and is at turns angry, funny, cutting, astounding, and, unfortunately, sometimes poorly researched. For some, Bhante Dhammika’s casual relationship with facts and tendency toward generalization may limit their ability to take the thrust of his arguments seriously. I understand these concerns, and agree the content of this book should be taken with a grain of salt, but nevertheless I believe the framing of his thesis in such a comprehensive and unsparing way shines a light on important issues in a way that is both fresh and challenging.

Bhante Dhammika’s critiques of Theravada appear to fall into four main categories: problems with rules, wasteful giving, negativity/self-centeredness, and the poor treatment of women. Much of his argument can be summed up as follows, “Theravadins see the Buddha’s words through the lens of [the] commentaries’ turgid and often fantastic pedantry rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.” The Commentaries he refers to are those authored by Buddhaghosa in the 5th century, as well as later sub-commentaries. He argues that Theravada has taken simple and uncomplicated guidelines for lay and monastic conduct laid down by the Buddha and turned them into suffocating rules that are either taken to extreme, ignored completely, or broken using sneaky loopholes and tricks of logic, and that Commentarial interpretation is often found when one seeks the root of a problem.

He gives many examples from his long years in robes to illustrate these tendencies. Many of the most absurd and humorous of these involve the Vinaya. For instance, “handling money” (in Pali, ‘gold and silver’) is often the focus of criticism. To illustrate how this rule is taken to the extreme, he recalls being approached by an anguished monk who needs to “confess” to a severe infraction. His supposed crime? The gold filling in one of his teeth that his mouth and tongue have been in constant contact with, making him guilty of handling money not just once or twice, but almost constantly since the moment he became a monk. To state the obvious, this is surely not what the Buddha had in mind when he laid down that part of the Vinaya. Of course, many Theravada monks in Southeast Asia go to the other extreme and have no compunction about handling money. A friend of mine has described his disgust at meeting a monk collecting fees at a ticket gate to a Buddhist site in Myanmar. When scolded for breaking Vinaya so obviously and at a sacred site no less, the monk scolded my friend back for having the nerve to talk to a monastic in such a way. Other monks use a more wink-wink approach, insisting monetary donations be given in envelopes, ensuring the recipient is not technically touching any of the cash. And of course the practice of having a lay person manage a monk’s finances is widespread. These monks may keep their hands completely clean from the touch of banknotes, but still exercise full control over how donations given to them are used. The author is not critical of monks who handle money, indeed he admits to having done so himself in certain circumstances, his point being that a balanced approach is needed, one that avoids unnecessary anxiety over running afoul of extreme interpretations but is also intellectually honest enough to admit when the spirit of the law is being broken.

When an isolated issue is examined as in the above paragraph, it can be easy to argue back that such problems cannot be ascribed to Theravada itself. If monks choose to skirt or break the rules, or take them to extremes, it should be laid at the feet of individual monks, or possibly at the feet of certain Sangha leaders who encourage such behavior. However, the benefit of this book is its presentation of a myriad of issues in a never-ending onslaught, backed up by anecdote after anecdote, cultural practice after cultural practice, which are not only clearly ridiculous, shameful, or harmful when examined with simple common sense, but, through quotes from the Suttas, are shown to be out of step with or even against the Buddha’s actual teachings.

The first category—the slavish adherence to or disregard for Vinaya—may be the easiest to dismiss as having nothing to do with “true” Theravada. Indeed, there is so much variation among Theravada monks it is difficult to make a unified critique. Burmese monks stick to rules that Thai ones ignore, and vice versa. Sri Lankan monks interpret a rule one way, Cambodian ones another. And even within countries, one sect will do one thing and others will take different approaches. Aren’t these cultural or personal differences, not problems with the foundation of the religion? Yet, the author makes a compelling case that (a) when Theravada goes too far, it is often because it is following the minute stipulations given in the commentaries rather than the simpler guidelines given by the Buddha, and (b) Theravada has a strong tendency to value tradition and culture over the Buddha’s teachings, even in the face of clear scriptural evidence.

The second category—wasteful giving—is something I believe many Western Buddhists struggle with when encountering Theravada in its native setting. Why are monks given far more food than they can eat in countries that are so poor (and even without poverty, isn’t that still wasteful)? Why are there so many pagodas and temples dripping with gold, and why do even more continue to be built? Why do monasteries always seem to have so many empty unused buildings, often falling into disrepair? Why are monks constantly being given robes when they are only supposed to own a few, and what happens to these extra robes? The answers to these questions vary. The most nuanced answer, which simultaneously disarms the critic and paints the practice in a positive light, is that lay Theravadins give out of a desire to support the Sangha and perform wholesome deeds, thus making merit that will help them karmically in the current life and lives to come. Monks, for their part, have no real choice in the matter. They live at the mercy of lay supporters, and besides, denying an opportunity to make merit to someone with a sincere desire to give would be unseemly if not wrong. For many years, I mostly accepted this answer. It seemed to cover all the bases—one couldn’t blame the lay people because their desire to give was pure and founded in solid Buddhist logic, and one couldn’t blame the monks because they are simply vessels for the lay public’s generosity—and remaining critical made me feel somewhat culturally insensitive. Nevertheless, when I saw monks being given bowls and bowls full of food, or gazed upon golden pagoda after golden pagoda in the midst of wretched bamboo huts, I still sometimes wondered, “Shouldn’t there be a better way?”

According to Bhante Dhammika, there absolutely should be. Again, the thrust of his argument is devastatingly simple. The amount and type of giving that occurs in Theravada is wasteful and it is so because Theravada not only teaches that giving to monks is the highest form of giving, but has almost nothing to say on giving to others types of people, such as the poor or sick. He cites a number of books by Theravada authorities and teachers that describe “charity” only in terms of giving to monks, one of which contains a chart laying out the different degrees of merit that are gained by giving to different categories. The poor are placed nearly at the bottom, only above animals, while the merit gained by giving to monks who have reached some level of attainment is described as “immeasurable.” Theravadins are not stupid—when presented with such clear cost-benefit figures, who would want to waste their dana on the poor and needy when there are monks around?

The generosity of Southeast Asian Buddhists is often described in glowing terms, in many ways rightly so. There is something incredibly beautiful about the widespread practice of giving frequently and sincerely out of one’s hard-earned money to support those engaged in the ultimate spiritual endeavor. However, while outsiders may have much to learn seeing this form of giving in action, those practicing it should also recognize the enormous inefficiencies and vast areas of neglect the current system comprises. And finally, these critiques do not mean to say that giving or charity aimed at non-monastics is nonexistent in Theravadin societies, only that there is an strong, and in the author’s opinion unhealthy, tendency to focus on giving to the Sangha.

The third category—self-centeredness—was something I had not thought of before and caused a dramatic shift in my understanding of how well Theravada puts the Buddha’s teachings into practice. The typical explanation of the difference between Theravada and Mahayana goes that the former sticks only to what was taught by Gotama the Buddha, while the latter adds teachings from other “buddhas” and spiritual figures. To the faithful, this lends Theravada an air of purity, which by implication means Mahayana teachings are somehow “polluted.” Leave it to Bhante Dhammika to burst this bubble. His fascinating contention is that Theravada has a pronounced negative and selfish tendency that ignores many things the Buddha taught. To quote the monk at length:

“Theravada certainly has a marked negative outlook, negativity being the tendency to consider only the bad, the ugly or the deficient side of things…When we look at Theravadin discourse on virtue we see this same tendency. The first chapter of the Visuddhimagga, that great compendium of Theravada, is entitled ‘A Description of Virtue’ and is the longest and most detailed analysis of morality in all traditional Theravadin literature. According to Buddhaghosa the function of virtue is to stop bad actions and to avoid blame and its ‘proximate causes’ are remorse and shame. Starting off on this negative note he proceeds in the same manner for a full fifty eight dry-as-dust pages in the English translation. There is hardly any mention of actually doing anything one would normally think of as being virtuous. Virtue is defined and described, its proximate causes and kammic effects are discussed in detail, but in the final analysis it is presented entirely as the avoiding of bad rather than the actual doing of anything good.”

But wait, one might ask, weren’t you just criticizing Theravada for an excess of giving? Even if wasteful, isn’t this the opposite of a “negative and selfish tendency”? To allow the author to respond, “The impact that one’s behavior, whether good or bad, has on others is of little importance in Theravada. A Theravadin [will] refrain from hurting others, not because he cares about them but so that he can avoid bad karma and if he does good it is not because it helps others but for the personal advantages he derive from it.” This may be overly harsh, but he makes a convincing case that the emphasis on avoiding bad and garnering merit for one’s own sake has deleterious effects; i.e., too little attention is paid to the proactive doing of good, and when a good deed is performed, how it will affect the recipient is given too little consideration. He contends that when the Buddha’s words are examined, a balance of both negative (not harming others) and positive (actively helping others) is found, and praises Mahayana for its teachings on the positive aspects of virtue. Indeed, it is easy to see that if gaining merit is one’s primary consideration, things like whether a monk already has enough food or whether one’s dana would be better used outside the monkhood can easily slip lower on one’s mental priority list. He is particularly hard on monks, who he criticizes for simply being vessels for service and dana who take little concrete action that directly benefits others, apart from a few active teachers.

The fourth category—Theravada’s poor treatment of women—is sadly the area I needed the least amount of convincing, despite being aware of the cultural and doctrinal arguments for why one should accept things like the banning of women around the Mahamuni statue in Mandalay or the lack of a bhikkhuni order in many areas. Bhante Dhammika’s section on ‘A Woman’s Place’ is short but only because the argument is clear. After a brief litany of the myriad ugly and shameful ways women are treated Theravada, he delivers the verdict:

“Theravadin apologists say that these and numerous other embarrassing ideas and practices are the result of misunderstanding and superstition and are not ‘real Theravada.’ But with monks having such pervasive influence and teaching ‘real Theravada’ for so many centuries one can only wonder how such superstitions have managed to survive. The truth is that the monks do teach such things and where they do not they have never bothered to teach against them.” 

Besides for an unnecessary and clearly wrong assertation that Islam is more inclusive of women than Theravada, there seems to be little to take issue with in the author’s arguments. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for treating women as second-class members of a religion, and anyone interested in spreading Theravada outside its native lands would be well advised to leave these practices behind.

To end his book, Bhante Dhammika provides a short outline of how a Buddhist organization or religion could be shaped in a way that avoids the above pitfalls. Overall his ideas are good, though they feel quite “pie in the sky,” which he half-acknowledges. One might argue that his ideas would make monks and nuns more worldly than the Buddha intended. This is perhaps true, though the counterargument is that the vast majority of Theravada monks are currently coming nowhere close to living up to the contemplative example set by the Buddha, and that rather than moving away from that, the implementation of Bhante Dhammika’s ideas would represent a significant step in that very direction. Nonetheless, this part of the book feels merely theoretical compared to the raw reality described in its main sections.

Does The Broken Buddha provide a definitive answer to the question given at the outset of this review? Is Theravada noble or corrupt? To this spiritual traveler, the question remains up in the air. I am sensitive to the idea that no religion or organization is practiced in its ideal form, and that many wholesome acts and much sincere Dhamma practice happen under the Theravada umbrella. However, going forward I feel I will be less willing to excuse away its defects and more willing to see mistaken or harmful practices for what they are. At the same time, I hope I can retain an open mind and remember it often takes deep investigation and long familiarity to see into the depths of phenomena.

I heartily encourage others to read the entire book, which is available for free online (

1 comment:

  1. It seems as if neither the author of the original book, nor the author of this article has ever read the Majjhima Nikaya's Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta. It is an original text which is widely believed to be the word of the Buddha Himself.

    If the Buddha's word doesn't sound sweet to you, why wouldn't you follow a different (or no) religion? I'm sure you'd find a way that suits you, or possibly make your own, better... ? ☺

    Here is Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta, which will perhaps blow your mind?

    Here are rules for monks well written in accordance with the Buddha's words mentioned in Parajika Pali, Vinaya Pitaka. I suppose this will also blow your mind?

    Enjoy your day,
    monk Sarana ☺