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Sangha at the crossroads
By Bhikku Bodhi, The Daily Mirror, Feb 5, 2004

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- There can be little doubt that in Sri Lanka today Buddhism finds itself at crossroads, its future increasingly in question.

The challenge it faces is not one of numbers and power, but of relevance. Not that the Dhamma itself, the Buddha's teaching, has lost its relevance; for neither the shifting drama of history nor the undulating waves of culture can muffle the timeless message embedded in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem lies not with the teaching itself, but with those responsible for bringing the teaching to life. What is lacking above all is a combination of skills that can be summed up in three simple words: comprehension, commitment, and translation.

Comprehension: a clear understanding of how the teaching applies to the hard realities of human life today, to a society and world in which the old certainties of the past are being scattered like leaves before a storm.

Commitment: the willingness to apply the teachings in the way they were intended, even when this means defying the encrustations of established tradition.

Translation: not stereotyped "sermons," not sweet consolation, not religious lullabies, but solid, sober explanations of how the timeless principles of the Dhamma can resolve the distinctive problems and quandaries of our age.

As we stand at this crossroads looking towards the future, three choices offer themselves to us. One is simply to resign ourselves to the decay of the Sasana, accepting it as a back- ward swing of the pendulum of history -sad but inevitable. A second is to wring our hands and complain, shifting the responsibility to others -the government, the monks, or the minorities. A third is to ask ourselves what we can do to stem the rising tide. If we adopt the third route we might begin by noting that the Sasana does not exist in an ideal realm of its own, but only as embodied in the millions of people who call themselves Buddhists and look for refuge in the Triple Gem.

This statement might sound obvious, even trite. However, if we reflect for a few moments we will see that, though obvious, it has enormous implications, for it means that we ourselves are ultimately responsible for the prosperity and decline of the Sasana: our own views, attitudes, and conduct decide whether the Sasana is to thrive or wither. To recognize this is to see that the welfare of the Sasana ultimately rests on our own shoulders, not on some state ministry or ecclesiastical council. Just as the health of the body depends on the vitality of its cells, so the strength of the Sasana ultimately devolves on ourselves, the cells in the living organism of Buddhism.

In this article I want to focus on one particular constituency of Buddhists in present day Sri Lanka, the Bhikkhu Sangha, the order of Monks. I intend to examine, though briefly, the problems it faces and its prospects for the future. This task is especially critical because of the central role the Sangha plays in guiding the destiny of the Sasana, and it is clear that if the Sangha does not learn to deal with the momentous forces in inundating present-day society, the future will see it increasingly relegated to the sidelines.

Buddhist tradition meticulously defines the mutual duties of Sangha and laity and these roles form the warp and woof of the Sasana. The monks are to uphold the teaching by study, practice, preaching, and moral example; the lay people, to support the monks by offering them the four requisites of robes, food, lodging, and medicines. This intimate relationship between the two communities has provided a stable basis for the persistence of the Sasana through the centuries.

Despite the fluctuations of Buddhist history in Sri Lanka, which at times had sunk so low that even a proper Sangha could not be found, whenever Buddhism thrived the relationship between the monastic order and the laity has been its lifeblood. This relationship of mutual assistance, however, found its supporting matrix in a stable agrarian society with clearly defined social roles and a lifestyle governed by common religious and ethical norms.

That is precisely what has altered so radically today.

A global culture, driven by exponential technological innovation and a relentless free-market economy, has made its presence felt in every corner of this land, challenging every obstacle to its dominance. In consequence, the entire social order has been shaken by upheavals that reach from the halls of economic and political power right through to the most remote villages and temples.

This modernistic onslaught does not limit itself to mere external triumphs but reaches through to the most private places in our lives: our values, worldviews, and even our sense of personal identity.

The result, for the ordinary Buddhist, has been a profound disorientation, a feeling of being stranded in a strange landscape where the old familiar reference points no longer hold. Looking back, we see a past of comfortable certainties that we can never recapture; looking ahead, a future that looks increasingly unpredictable. But amidst the confusion of the present, the Dhamma still appears as a stable reference point that can provide clear answers to our pressing questions and relief from existential stress.

This brings us right to the crux of our problem: the problem of relevance, of conveying the timeless message of the teaching in a language that can address the difficult, unique, complex problems we face navigating our way through the post-modern world.

The most critical challenge facing the sasana today is that of surviving in this "new world order," and not merely of surviving institutionally, in name and form, but of contributing to the recovery of universal human values, of helping countless men and women find a way beyond the intellectual and moral abyss.

It is precisely here that the role of the sangha becomes so vitally important, for it is the monks and, I dare say, the nuns as well who should be capable of offering a convincing refuge to "a world gone mad" -a vision of basic sanity, selfless goodness, and serenity amidst the storms of greed, conflict, and violence. Yet it is just on this point that we face a gaping chasm: namely, that the sangha today seems hardly equipped to respond to such a challenge.

What is needed most urgently, in my view, is not a reinforcement of Buddhist religious identity or a governmental policy that gives "pride of place to Buddhism." Nor will the construction of more Buddha images and the daily broadcasting of pirith chanting over the loudspeakers give the sasana the infusion of fresh blood it so badly needs.

What is required are monks and nuns of intelligence, insight, and sensitivity who can demonstrate, by their lives and characters, the spiritually ennobling and elevating power of the Dhamma.

To produce monastics of such calibre is not easy, yet such a task cannot be left to chance. It will require, above all, deep-rooted changes in the entire system of monastic recruitment and education, and thus will call for serious thought and careful planning on the part of the sangha elders. The task is not one to be taken at all lightly; for one can say, in all truth, that nothing less is at stake than the future of Buddhism in this country.

Just as the Sri Lankan government has recently reviewed the whole system of secular education in this country with the aim of reforming educational policy, a similar reformation will have to be introduced right at the heart of the Sangha. If one compares the system of instruction in the Buddhist monasteries with the curriculum of the Christian seminaries, the disparity is striking. In the seminaries the future priests and nuns are trained, not only in Latin, theology, and scripture, but in all the fields of modern knowledge they will need to play a leading role in today's world, including the critical and comparative study of religion.

In the pirivenas or Buddhist monastic schools, so far as I can see, the young monks (never nuns!) are trained to become village priests capable of preserving a religious culture not very different from that of the sixteenth century.

One can see the bizarre result when a monk educated in the pirivena system has to give a sermon to an audience that might include an astrophysicist, a psychiatrist, several computer analysts, and even some lay Buddhist scholars trained in the methods of critical scholarship. Is it any wonder that the listeners pass the time glancing idly at the ceiling or casting weary smiles at each other?

In what follows I will merely throw out a few random suggestions. A systematic programme would have to be worked out by those more directly involved in Sangha administration and the training of monks and nuns. I will speak about monks rather than nuns, since I am more familiar with their lifestyles and training. But corresponding changes should also be considered for the nuns, whose status, education, and functions require drastic upgrading if Buddhism is to present a respect- able face to a world moving rapidly towards complete gender equality.

For the monks, radical change might be needed at the very beginning, in the system of recruitment. The method of recruitment that currently prevails in the Sangha is the induction of young boys who are far from mature enough to make their own decisions. Often they are "offered" to the Sangha by their parents, as a way for the parents to earn merit. If the parents would sacrifice a youth who seems temperamentally inclined to the religious life, the ultimate effect such a system has on the Sasana might be a positive one.

Indeed, in the past it was usually "the best and the brightest" who would be given to ' the monastery. Today, however, the child selected is too often the one who appears unlikely to succeed in worldly life: the mischief maker, the maverick, the dullard.

I am aware that this system of childhood ordination is deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan Buddhist culture, and I would not propose abolishing it. Despite its faults, the system does have its positive points.

For one thing, it enables the youngster to enter the path of renunciation before he has been exposed to the temptations of worldly life; thus from an early age it helps promote the inner purity and detachment needed to withstand the rigours of the monastic training. Another advantage is that it gives the young monk the opportunity to study the Dhamma and the textual languages (Pali and Sanskrit) while the mind is as yet fresh, open, receptive, and retentive. Thereby, it conduces to the wide erudition which is one of the traditional hallmarks of the cultured monk.

However, while I would not go so far as to suggest abolishing adolescent recruitment, I do think the Sangha could vastly improve its ranks by imposing more stringent criteria for admission. One measure that might be adopted at once is a longer probationary period before granting the novice ordination.

For example, it might be made mandatory for boys intent on being ordained to live at training centres as lay postulants for a minimum of two or three years before they are considered eligible for novice ordination. This would give the Sangha elders an opportunity to observe them more closely, in a wide variety of situations, and to screen out those who seem unsuitable for the monk's life.

If this is not practicable, then some other selective procedure might be applied. Whatever method is chosen, the standards of selection should be fairly rigorous - though not inhumane -and the elders should not hesitate to turn away unfit applicants. For one thing has become too painfully obvious to all concerned Buddhists alike, and also to non- Buddhists (both residents of Sri Lanka and foreigners) who judge the Dhamma by the conduct of its followers: far too many youngsters are being draped in saffron robes who do not deserve to wear them. Such misfits only sully the good name of the Sangha and of Buddhism itself.

More rigorous screening of candidates for ordination is, however, only a preliminary measure aimed at sealing off the Sangha from those unsuited for the monkhood. What is equally essential is to offer those who do get ordained training programmes that will promote their wholesome, balanced development. This is truly a critical step, for if youngsters with the potential for the monk's life fail to receive proper training they won't find fulfilment in the monastery, and if they don't find fulfilment their future as monks will be in jeopardy. They will either become disillusioned with the Sangha and return to lay life; or else, from fear of the social stigma attached to disrobing, they may continue as monks in a perpetual state of frustration and discontent. This may explain why we see so many younger monks today involved in politics, business, and other activities unworthy of their calling.

What is necessary above all is for the young monk to find meaning and happiness in his chosen path of life, a path that does not offer the immediate satisfactions available to his comrades who remain behind in the world.

If so few monks today seem to show a real joy in the Dhamma, I suspect this is because the Dhamma is not being presented to them in a way that inspires joy.

For the Dhamma to exercise a magnetic power that will draw the young monk ever deeper towards the heart of the holy life, it must address their needs and aspirations at a deep interior level.

This means it has to be offered to them in a way that arouses an immediate, sincere, and spontaneous response.



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 Update :06-02-2004

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