Monday, April 12, 2010

Temple or Monastery

A word on some of what has happened recently. I imagine news of the nature of my thoughts on this weblog has garnered me some new and unexpected audience members, hungry for at the least an explanation of the events leading up to what became an unfortunate misunderstanding between myself and a certain group of fellow human beings. I am sorry to say I will not satiate this desire; sorry only in the sense that one might wish to do one's best to oblige the thirsts of others. But this story will have to lay unwritten. I was asked, ordered even, to at the very least post a revised version of my thoughts on the proper role of a Buddhist monastery in regards to the rest of human society and the proper every day attitude, behaviour and comportment of a Buddhist monk; revised, that is, from a recent post I put up briefly and quickly took down, though not quick enough.

I replied, at the time, that were I to write on the subject again, I would write in the same way as before. The substance of what I originally wrote was not the reason I took it down; the problem was a disconnection between my view, up until recently, of what this weblog is and what it is in reality. I think the two are closer now. When I was in Thailand, there was no danger of my blog being read by the people and situations I referred to, nor any of their followers, enemies or even acquaintances, most of whom didn't even read English or own a computer to connect to the Internet. Here, the situation is much different, and I failed to grasp this in time to avert an embarrassing situation. I still believe that there is little or no harm in talking openly about these things among those who are far removed from the situation (e.g. most of the people who read this weblog) but can see the very real harm in broadcasting on a tighter frequency, and for doing just this, I am very sorry indeed.

Once I considered carefully, though, I decided I would not write again in the same way, even if my audience were only my parents and International friends and students. No, I would have expanded my thoughts considerably. So, here I hope to do just that.

The Role of a Monastery

I had a strange but oddly familiar argument recently over the Thai word วัด (wat), a word I reckon comes from the Pali word aavaasa, a dwelling place, but has for whatever reason been translated by Thai people into the English "temple". No native English-speaking monk I know of has ever made this mistake, at least not in setting up their own Wats. Thus we have Wat Metta and Wat Abhayagiri, to name two in California, both clearly understood to be "monasteries". Neither has any English-speaking monk ever called a monk's robe "Buddhist Priest Suit" (sic, from a box of monk's robes shipped over from Thailand). The reason I was arguing was that if you go to the municipal office and tell them you want to build a temple, they will tell you, without even pausing to think, that you need special zoning for places of worship. If you tell them you want to build a monastery, you can then at the very least argue that it is simply a living place for monks.

But the premise of the argument is truly near to the essence of the disagreement between people like myself and, well, certain groups of people not like myself. Because, like the people arguing against me who claimed that I was splitting hairs and that it is too late to change what, in their minds, has become the accepted translation, there are many people who see monasteries, places where monks live and carry out their way of life, as temples, places where ordinary people come to worship.

In many other religions, I should think that these two activities might cohabit in the same "dwelling place". The problem I have is not that lay people come to Wats, it is that they come to worship. Worship what? The Buddha said don't look at my finger, walk the path. And this really is where most Wats start down the path towards Getting Things Wrong. Because from this little slip of misunderstanding the pointed finger as an object of worship rather than a signpost, appears a whole Pandora's box of unseemly activities that seem to fit nicely in with the temple motif, but jar glaringly with the idea of a what a Buddhist monastery should, as envisioned and lived by the Lord Buddha himself, be.

There are no Buddhist temples in that vision. There is no worship. The last thing the Buddha said to his first sixty followers before sending them out into the world for the "benefit and happiness of many" was:
"muttāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sabbapāsehi, ye dibbā ye ca mānusā. tumhepi, bhikkhave, muttā sabbapāsehi, ye dibbā ye ca mānusā."

"Free am I, o monks, from all fetters, both human and divine. You too, o monks, are free from all fetters, both human and divine."

(Mv. 1.8)

Meaning, "there is no God or human for you to worship, now go and save the world from its ignorance!"

I really think this is near the core of the problem. If we would just stop drawing a parallel between a monastery and a temple as though there were no distinction, we'd have a lot more meditation center Wats and far fewer cultural center Wats. I used to argue that there was something nice about having a cultural center for a displaced group of immigrants. Now I see that it is a more or less total waste of time and energy, unless ones goal is to preserve culture and tradition, which I suppose is indeed the goal in most of the problematic cases. The problem of course with the preservation of culture and tradition is that not only is it totally unnecessary in a Wat where proper Buddhist teachings are taught, studied and practiced (it having been supplanted in its entirety by Buddhist culture and tradition), it is a positively destructive influence on the general sense of peace, harmony and focus required for such a Wat to exist; frills of all kind must be so. But in a place of worship, as is always the case, frills are essential, eliciting as they do such feelings of rapture and bliss necessary for belief in God, Santa Claus, etc., as only the sensuous can. So, music, dancing, even physical beauty have a place in the temple. In no place is this more clearly visible than in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, where the tradition of the devadasi or "God's slave girl", a girl hired to dance, sing and give her body to the rich and powerful among the temple-goers, was widely prevalent for a time.

And here we clearly see the difference between the two. It is often remarked that Buddhism in India arose as a counterculture to the Brahmin temple-based society, something which is obviously not true in its entirety. Surely, there is no room for doubt that it most certainly rose in stark contrast to its glitzy counterpart, but it was more as a replacement than an alternative. The Buddha even went so far as to say he himself was more of a Brahmin than the Brahmins:

What do you think, Vasettha? What have you heard said by Brahmins who are venerable, aged, the teachers of teachers? Is Brahma (God) encumbered with wives and wealth,” or unencumbered?” “Unencumbered, Reverend Gotama.”

“Is he full of hate or without hate?” “Without hate, Reverend Gotama.”
“Is he full of ill-will or without ill-will?” “Without ill-will, Reverend Gotama.”
“Is he impure or pure?” “Pure, Reverend Gotama.”
“Is he disciplined or undisciplined?” “Disciplined, Reverend Gotama.”

“And what do you think, Vasettha? Are the Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas encumbered with wives and wealth, or unencumbered?” “Encumbered, Reverend Gotama.”

“Are they full of hate or without hate?” “Full of hate, Reverend Gotama.”
“Are they full of ill-will or without ill-will?” “Full of ill-will, Reverend Gotama.”
“Are they impure or pure?” “Impure, Reverend Gotama.”
“Are they disciplined or undisciplined?” “Undisciplined, Reverend Gotama.”

“So, Vasettha, the Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas are encumbered with wives and wealth, and Brahma is unencumbered. Is there any communion, anything in common between these encumbered Brahmins and the unencumbered Brahma?” “No, Reverend Gotama.”
(DN 13)

The point I'm trying (and have previously tried) to make, though, is that the temple and the monastery are two very different things, not just as words on paper, but as concepts in minds and places in reality, and we should be clear that in Buddhism, it is the monastery, not the temple, that our Wats should most emulate. I was sidetracked while writing this by a three-hour long discussion on the topic with some of my good friends and students who came to visit, and probably will cut this shorter than intended. But the conversation, besides being a delightful chance to learn from my seniors, was instructive in that I was warned of what I have believed for a long time, that "it is always important to be right, but it is not always wise to try to make others see that you are right."

I hope I have given some people some food for thought, that was all I intended. I honestly think there is at least a grain of truth in what I say, but I really have no intention of proselytizing. As always, you are free to read or turn the page. I know there will always be people bent on causing headaches for themselves and others (perhaps I am one!), and I had best be quiet for my own sake and the sake of my students, but honestly, and from the bottom of my heart, this is for the sake of Buddhism. There are forces out there destroying the Buddha's teaching, and they are closer to home than most of us are willing to admit. Yes, in the end, these forces are in the hearts of each and every one of us but when the problems become institutionalized, they are magnified a hundred times over. I hope we will not have to wait until the religious head of a Buddhist state becomes implicated in a child abuse scandal before we start to rethink our ways; I know we are not on that level of evil, but I would hope we would all at least be willing to take a step back and ask ourselves whether we are truly promoting the teachings of the Buddha or simply using them as just another flower in our hand-basket on the way to... well, you know.

Please, don't read this looking for trouble. At worst, see it as the deranged ramblings of a lost monk and discard it without further thought. Perhaps there will be some who gain something from it; that all I hope. I am happy now; I have a purpose, a goal, and a means. I will build a monastery and teach, practice and study the Buddha's teaching. Let it be so, and I die happy.

I didn't manage to get onto the second subject, "The Nature of a Monk". I'll have to address that later, as it too was part of what I earlier said so improperly but again exactly as I still feel it. In communication, it is always the words that get in the way. Later. For now, back to the practice part of my life.