Showing posts with label Western Buddhist Order. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Western Buddhist Order. Show all posts

18 September 2009

Ordination : a contested term.

Anagarika Dharmapala - Buddhist reformer
Anagārika Dharmapala
Recently I was involved in an online discussion on the subject of ordination. It revolved around the use of the word ordination by the Western Buddhist Order. The main contention was that the word 'ordained' should be restricted to bhikkhus (for the sake of brevity I'll use the masculine and Pāli [1]) . So what I propose to do is work through the various relevant terms and then see what conclusions can be drawn.

'Bhikkhu' is used like a title these days but was originally an adjective descriptive of a lifestyle. Literally it means 'beggar' or someone who lives off alms - a very low status, not to say ritually polluted, occupation in both ancient and modern India. [2] In the Buddha's day this meant going from door to door with a bowl collecting leftovers, but in modern times there are a variety of approaches -for example Tibetan monks often buy food and cook for themselves; while in some Theravāda monasteries lay people bring food to the bhikkhus and feed them in situ. Some bhikkhus maintain the practice of going out for alms, but this is highly formalised and there is no risk involved.

The Buddha originally made someone a bhikkhu simply by saying to them: 'ehi' - come! (second person imperative of √i 'to go' with ā- prefix signifying motion towards). However this was soon formalised into a two stage process. First a person became a sāmaṇera - this word derives from samaṇa (√śram) meaning a wanderer and implying a religious ascetic. The ceremony, also sometimes called an ordination, in Pāli is sāmaṇera-pabbajjā. Pabbajjā (from pa + √vraj 'to proceed') means 'going forth' and refers to the act of leaving home to become a paribbājjaka 'someone who wanders around'. A 'vagrant' in today's language. PED refers to the pabbajjā ceremony as an 'ordination'. Going forth was a distinct and important phase of religious life as can be seen in the Buddha's biography where the episode is highly elaborated. It was becoming a vagrant that was the really radical step - because in doing so one gave up the comforts of home, and the protection and support of one's family. For later Buddhists it meant taking on the sāmaṇera precepts [3], dressing in white robes, shaving one's head, and living a cenobitical lifestyle. In English this is sometimes referred to as being a 'novice' monk.

The second phase, which often follows immediately afterwards these days, is the upasampadā, usually referred to in English as the 'higher ordination' and a bhikkhu will often refer to themselves as 'fully ordained'. This word means 'taking upon oneself' and in this context it means taking upon oneself the patimokkha precepts or restraints. The original metaphor underlying this word 'patimokkha', according to Prof. Gombrich, is a medical one indicating a purgative that could return a person to health [4], meaning in this case ethical 'health' or purity. Because the Vinaya did not reach its final form for some time after the Buddha, it exists in several distinct recensions with greatly varying number of rules. Theravādins observe 227 for instance, while those who follow a Sarvastivādin Vinaya (some Tibetan monks) observe 250 rules. Most of the rules are relatively minor and infringing them is taken quite lightly. Many are of no ethical significance at all and are specific to cultural mores in the Ganges valley more than 2000 years ago, often being developed after complaints about the bhikkhus from the laity. However conservatism and formalism has resulted in the retention of rules even when they are apparently meaningless. It is akin to the rules of conduct in parts of the old testament in that respect. Many of the rules were instituted simply to distinguish bhikkhus from samaṇas of other sects, or brāhmaṇas or lay people etc., that is they are more about identity. The qualifiers 'higher' and 'fully' point to the overlooked fact that the sāmaṇera-pabbajjā is also seen as an ordination.

The traditionalists argue that on receiving the upasampadā, a sāmaṇera has been accepted into the bhikkhu-saṅgha. Translating into English we might say something like: at his ordination the novice has been ordained into the order of monks. It has been argued that 'ordination', 'ordain, and 'order' are the specific province of the bhikkhu and should not be used any other way in a Buddhist context. The main point seemed to be that it was important to distinguish bhikkhus from other lifestyles, although it was not clear why we should do so, though it's an ancient concern as it occurs in the Pāli canon. Apart from the traditional reference to the sāmaṇera ordination, my argument against this is threefold: firstly that the word admits many other uses; secondly, that it is conventionally used differently by Buddhists anyway; and thirdly, that in seeking to appropriate the term Buddhists are propagating an elitism which is out of touch with reality. So let's begin by looking at what the English terms mean. [5]

'Order' in the sense of "a group of person living under a religious rule" dates from the 13th century. This and the other words we are considering derive from the Latin ordo meaning 'row, rank, series, arrangement', originally 'a row of threads in a loom'. Hence we can 'put things in order'. Clearly order in our sense referred to Christian monastics who typically adopted an ordered and regular lifestyle, spelled out in their rule, which not only laid down moral rules but also dictated what prayer and services were said and when. This began to happen as early as the 4th century CE. We can see that different orders of monastics took on very different rules, but that the term 'order' still applied because they all had in common conformance to a rule.

The verb 'ordain' meaning "to appoint or admit to the ministry of the Church" also dates from the 13th century. Many dictionaries (including Collins) describe 'ordain' in this context as the "conferring of Holy orders". This refers to the fact that the Roman Catholic church considered ordination a sacrament. Protestant churches, on the whole, do not consider ordination a sacrament though they still use 'ordain' to refer to conferring the office of minister or priest. Positions within an order, such as bishop or cardinal, were not sacramental, but only offices and titles. One is not ordained a bishop, one is promoted. Also novice Christian monks are not ordained at all in contrast to the sāmaṇera.

Ordination is simply the ceremony by which one is accepted into an order, most typically a religious order. The rule and denomination of the order were not relevant to the use of the term 'ordain'. A Pentecostal minister or a Catholic priest are both ordained. The key part of ordination is being accepted into an order and following a religious rule. Bhikkhus do conform to this usage, and although it's not clear who first used 'ordination' to translate upasampadā it does work. However bhikkhu ordination is a special case of ordination rather than an epitome, or acme. So let's turn to the use in a more specifically Buddhist context.

Ordination also serves for Buddhists following other lifestyles who commit themselves to a 'rule'. Particularly in the English speaking Buddhist world the use of the term ordination is commonplace. For example,  an American acquaintance,  Al, describes himself as "an ordained Zen Priest" (his lineage is in fact Korean). Priest, by the way, comes from a Latin word presbyter meaning 'elder'. The Japanese move away from upasampadā ordinations probably stems from the Tendai School whose founder Saichō formally abandoned the Vinaya in favour of a Bodhisattva Ordination in 822 CE. (Note that even in settings where the Vinaya ordination is the standard, this taking of the bodhisattva precepts is still referred to as an ordination.) Saichō met a great deal of opposition from the Buddhist establishment of the day, but he had the Emperor on his side precisely because the Buddhist establishment were wealthy and interfered in politics. In the WBO also we refer to having been ordained into an order. At our ordination ceremony we undertake to follow our set of ten precepts (traditionally known as dasakusaladhammā or dasakusalakammapathā), and an additional four 'acceptance vows' [6] which constitute the 'rule' by which we all vow to live. So the WBO order/ordination certainly fit the English usage, as well as the Japanese Buddhist precedent.

Note here there is a distinction between joining an order and becoming a Buddhist generally. Even though all Buddhists undertake to keep precepts, ordination, as defined in the WBO, requires that the practice of the precepts, including repairing breaches, be thorough-going and effective. One has to be not only willing, but demonstrably able, to take on the precepts for life.

So given that the English usage is pretty straight-forward and there are numerous Buddhist precedents in the present and dating back almost 1200 years: why the continued insistence that only bhikkhus can claim to be ordained? My answer to this is privilege.

Bhikkhus are outwardly marked in many ways: shaved head, robes, and dietary habits for instance. These external signs of ordination amount to lifestyle choices. One can be outwardly a bhikkhu and inwardly a lay person (see e.g. Dhammapada, Chp 19). Sangharakshita abandoned the monk/lay divide because on the one hand he met so many Theravādin bhikkhus who did not practice Buddhism, and on the other hand he met many Tibetan lay lamas who very much did. Sangharakshita was also influenced by the example of Anagārika Dharmapala (pictured above) who he refers to as a man of "towering moral and spiritual grandeur". [7] Dharmapala was also critical of established traditions and adopted the invented title Anagārika to indicate a committed Buddhist who was neither monk nor lay. It became clear that being a monk was important when it came to the practice of the Dharma, what was important was commitment and application.

Lay people give the clergy donations in order to create merit and the higher the social status of the recipient the greater the merit. So laypeople have played along with the superstition and we are being asked to perpetuate it in the west. The generosity of laypeople has in some places led to the accumulation of wealth and often political influence, not to say political control. The irony here is heavy. The initial idea of becoming a sāmaṇera was to leave behind concerns with property and power: nowadays monasteries are often centres of both. I've seen more than one news story of monks fighting pitched battles for the control of a monastery.

One of the traditional roles of monks was to teach. However monks have in many cases become intermediaries between the people and liberation rather than facilitators. Monks are seen as necessary for the 'administering' of the refuges and precepts for instance; or they perform religious activities such as pujas on behalf of spectators (I've been invited to watch a senior lama perform a puja for instance); or as officiants at what are essentially secular ceremonial occasions, such as weddings. Monks are in fact operating as priests in the pejorative sense of that word.

Monks, especially as preservers of texts, became arbiters of orthodoxy, i.e. correct opinions. And the correct opinion is that monks deserve a special status because of their role in society. From the point of view of Western social mores, this appears to be corrupt. We preserve texts through mass printing and often look to secular scholars for translations and exegesis precisely because they apply the methods of higher criticism. Often times the tradition demonstrably does not understand its own texts. In Pāli for example, Buddhaghosa was at times confused by the text and fudged the commentary; where there is a difficult reading in a Pāli text it is often simply left out of the Chinese translation.

Traditional Buddhism often preserves the social mores and superstitions of one or other ancient Asian culture. One of which is the high social status of bhikkhus. As English speaking Westerners we are in a position to decide how relevant that culture is, but the arbiters of this are often the same men who benefit from the privileged status, the bhikkhus. I'm not keen to abandon my cultural heritage, especially the values and achievements of The Enlightenment. Traditional Buddhism with its feudal hierarchies and institutionalised privilege seems to point back to pre-Enlightenment values. One glaring area of disparity is that traditional Buddhism is distinctly anti-women.

I'm critical of the system: there are many reasons to support monks, but none to worship them or automatically treat them as superior human beings. On the other hand I've met or know of bhikkhus I respect and see no reason to take the other extreme and automatically treat bhikkhus with disrespect. As I wrote in How to Spot an Arahant, it takes time to evaluate the spiritual maturity of anyone even if they have all the trappings. In the mean time we have precepts to live up to.

To sum up (this overly long post) I've looked at how the word ordination is used in context and shown that bhikkhus have no special claim on that term. I've shown that within Buddhism there are precedents for using the term in other ways dating back to Saichō in 822 CE. These seem reasonably clear. But still the very idea that someone who was not a bhikkhu might call themselves 'ordained' seemed to cause some people considerable distress. I speculate that the reason for this is that the system of renunciate bhikkhus having left behind the world, has been replaced by an elite who preserve privilege that sometimes translates into power. They have historically controlled orthodoxy in ways that benefit them as a group. The term for this is "provider capture".

Experience suggests I am either preaching to the converted or the intractable on this issue. My colleagues on the one hand, and other Buddhists on the other. The history of Buddhism is one of change, development, reform and even syncretism. Indeed our credo, if we have one, is "everything changes". This slogan was first enunciated by one of the greatest anti-establishment thinkers of all time, who systematically demolished every system he came across. There is an obvious tension between the inevitability of change, the uncertainty this leaves us with, the imperative to adapt to Western culture; and the powerful desire for unchanging traditions and institutions and the certainty (and I argue privilege and power) they represent. So we are faced with social and religious conservatism from a group which loudly proclaims that everything changes. Perhaps our credo must be modified to exclude certain institutions? Or perhaps it is time to acknowledge the anachronism and move on. I'm voting with my feet.


  1. Pāli: masc. bhikkhu, fem. bhikkunī; Sanskrit: bhikṣu, bhikṣuṇī. A feature of traditional Buddhism is a decidedly anti-woman streak, though there is now a revival of bhikṣuṇī ordinations. For my views of women's ordinations see Women and Buddhist Ordination.
  2. Anyone who doubts this might like to read the account of what Sāriputta's mother thought of his going forth in Nyanaponika and Hecker. Great Disciples of the Buddha, p.34; or consider the story of the Buddha leaving home in the version found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta (MN 21), Bhikkhu Thanissaro translates:
    "So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness".
  3. The 10 precepts are abstaining from: harming living beings; taking the not given; sexual intercourse; lying; liquor and intoxicants; eating after noon; dancing, singing, and musical performances; using garlands, unguents, or ornaments; sitting and sleeping on a high or broad bed; handling gold and silver.
  4. Gombrich, Richard. “Pātimokkha: Purgative,” in Studies in Buddhism and culture in honour of Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda on his sixty-fifth birthday, edited by The Editorial Committee of the Felicitation Volume for Professor Dr. Egaku Mayeda. Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin, 31-38, 1991. I made use of this research in my paper on the phrase yathādhamma patikaroti: "Did King Ajātasattu Confess to the Buddha, and did the Buddha Forgive Him?" Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Vol 15. I'm grateful to Prof Gombrich for sending me a copy of his (hard to find) paper.
  5. I will use Princeton University's WordNet for convenience, and the online etymological dictionary.
  6. The four acceptance vows are: "With loyalty to my teachers I accept this ordination/ In harmony with friends and brethren I accept this ordination/ For the benefit of all beings I accept this ordination/ For the sake of enlightenment I accept this ordination".
  7. Sangharakshita. A Flame in the Darkness : the Life and Sayings of Anagārika Dharmapala. Tiratna Grantha Mala, 1980. This book is largely based on editorials written by Sangharakshita for the Mahābodhi Society Journal in the 1950's. Dharmapala's movement was subsequently labelled "Protestant Buddhism" by Gananath Obeyesekere. Ironically Dharmapala took the upasampadā shortly before his death in 1933.

Extra Notes

June 2015
I've noticed that some monks refer to themselves as "Bhante" (the third person vocative of the honorific pronoun). Bhante is what lay people call monks. It's kind of ridiculous for a monk to refer to themselves this way. Certainly it's bad Pāḷi grammar to use it as a title. 

09 January 2009

A Pronouncement on Pronunciation.

vocal tractSomeone recently asked me whether or not it was important to pronounce mantras correctly. I was surprised to find that I hadn't written much on the subject - only some notes on pronunciation on my other website In another essay on that website I distinguish three contexts for mantra use, and I'll use that framework here as well. There are mantras as used in Tantric rituals, mantras used in devotional settings, and informal mantras that people chant outside or any ritual or formal practice situation.

Let's start with a little background. Mantras as you may know were central to the ancient Vedic religion. The term mantra is first used for verses made up and declared on the spot in competitions associated with the sacrifices. Over time they were formalised and then collated into the collection known as the Ṛgveda. Although this collection itself was fixed around 1500 BCE the Vedic religion kept developing and mantras underwent changes, especially in the Sāmaveda and the Yajurveda, thought to have been composed during the period around 1200-800 BCE. In the Sāmaveda the mantras were set to tunes, and frequented had syllables called stobha added to fit different meters. In the Yajurveda the mantras were incorporated into instructions for performing the rituals - it was here that oṃ was used for the first time.

Brahmins were centred in the area of the Kurukṣetra (the realm of the Kuru's, near modern day Delhi) and did not begin to move east until quite late. In fact they saw the eastern Ganges valley (Johannes Bronkhorst calls this area Greater Magadha) as barbarous. This is probably because up to about the common era the dominant socio-political and religious forms were not Brahminical. In Greater Magadha the religious sphere was dominated by the Śramaṇa groups (the word means 'toilers' ) like the Jains and Ājivakas who had ideas and practices which were very different from the sacrificial religion of the Vedas. However both influenced each other, and it is possible to see that earliest Upaniṣads as showing the assimilation of ideas such as rebirth, karma, and ātman from the Śramaṇas.

The Buddha was born in Greater Magadha, and therefore would have been unlikely to have been influenced by Brahmins in his early life. However gradual migration of Brahmins eastward had continued, and they are frequently encountered in the Pāli Canon. Although the Magadhans did speak an Indo-Aryan language, their culture was different. Indeed Brahmins are often the subject of curiosity and fun in the texts, as though they were a novelty. One of the things that Brahmins did was chant mantras at special occasions, for which they expected to be paid. This custom struck the Buddha as unhelpful and he actually banned his monks from doing it - we presume that at least some of his monks were esrtwhile Brahmins. He also forbade two ex-Brahmin bhikkhus from putting the Buddha's words into 'chandos', literally: (poetic) 'meter'. The meaning of this passage is disputed amongst scholars, however from the context I take it to mean that the two monks wanted to turn the Buddha's words into regular verse like the Vedas. And he made it a vinaya offence to do such a thing.

So this is our starting point for Buddhist mantras. Many people point out that the early Buddhists did in fact record some texts, called parittas, intended to be chanted for protection from malign influences both mundane (snakes for instance) and supramundane (yakkhas). These are usually said to be a form of mantra, but I do not agree. My reading is that these were spells from an indigenous Magadhan magic tradition - given the subject matters I would say that we could see them as belonging to the various folk traditions which focused on yakkhas and other nature spirits. The use of parittas continues to the present day in Theravadin countries. A small number of the paritta texts have continued to be important in other traditions, although often in modified form, with the most notable additions being tantric style mantras! Sometimes we are fooled into thinking that because the texts that are chanted are themselves profound, such as the Karaniya Mettā Sutta, that parittas had some spiritual significance, but as parittas they are solely for worldly protection. There is some evidence that the Buddha tried to get his monks not to participate in local spiritual beliefs, but the persistence of these practices suggests that he did not entirely succeed.

The next development for Buddhist mantra was the dhāraṇi. I have written at more length on the origins, meaning and use of dhāraṇi's here before, so I won't say much now. Dhāraṇi's may well be associated with developments in the Gāndhāra area in the Northwest of India (what is now the Taliban controlled area of Pakistan). Originally a dhāraṇi may have been a memory aid such as the Arapacana acrostic. However the word is mostly used for phrases embedded in sūtras or whole sūtras, again, intended to be chanted for protection. Over time the word seemed to change it's meaning and it is not always clear what is it refers to. Later, in tantric contexts, dhāraṇis were used more like mantras as we know them now. In some Mahāyāna sūtras, the Golden Light for instance, dhāraṇi are used in connection with rituals which seem to have a Hindu flavour, suggesting that they represent the first stage of assimilation of outside elements. One of the things about dhāraṇis and dhāraṇi sūtras is that they tend to focus on one dhāraṇi at a time (although in the Lotus Sūtra there are lists of dhāraṇi spoken by several gods and demons one after another). At some point in this period mantras also came to be used as expressing devotion or faith in a Buddha or Bodhisattva - I'll say more about this below.

A seismic shift came after the end of the Gupta Empire. Some time in the 6th century a grand religious synthesis happened that combined elements of Buddhism, the old Vedic religion, the newer Vedantic religion, and aspects of the Śramaṇa and animistic traditions of Magadha. This weaving together of many strands was called appropriately enough "tantra", i.e. woven. Mantras now came into Buddhism in a form that we will recognise qua mantra. In fact mantra took centre stage along side meditation and puja. The mantras were different in form from dhāraṇi or paritta, and seem to owe something to the Yajurvedic tradition. Tantric texts are full of mantras, and for example a mantra accompanies every stage of the tantric ritual - the function being to make the ritual action potent. This idea is already found in the Vedic tradition, so we assume that's where it comes from.

So this is a potted history of the introduction of mantras to Buddhism. As I have said there are three main contexts in which we currently use mantras. In the Tantric tradition a mantra exists in a particular context. It is said that the first communication from the Dharmakāya Buddha consisted of mantra, mudra, and mandala (or images) in the context of a ritual anointing that mirrors a royal coronation. These three modes of communication represent the body, speech, and mind aspects of the Dharmakāya and are called the Three Mysteries. When we perform a tantric sadhana we are in theory recapitulating this original communication. It allows us to align our body, speech and mind with the Three Mysteries and become a Buddha "in this very life" as Kūkai used to say. Clearly here is it vital to reproduce everything exactly as it was done originally and in that case pronouncing the mantra correctly would be essential. To pronounce it incorrectly would be to garble the message, to rob it of any significance what-so-ever. In this I see some influence of the Vedic mantra traditions which had a very strong emphasis on accurate pronunciation. The Vedas were an oral tradition for something like 2000 years as the Brahmins eschewed writing well after the Buddha came along. The Vedas were divine and getting them wrong also was thought to rob them of their power to influence the gods. So in this context of sadhana it was originally important to pronounce the Sanskrit accurately.

However once Buddhism began to be transmitted outside India there were difficulties. Sanskrit has many sounds which are not found in other languages - true particularly of Central Asia, China, Japan and Tibet where the tantra took hold. It was very difficult for them, as it can be for us, to pronounce Sanskrit accurately. English pronunciation of Sanskrit has problems with retroflex letters, e.g. ṭ ṭh ḍ ḍh ṇ, and with nasalised vowels e.g. aṃ uṃ iṃ etc. And this is leaving aside the issue of regional variations within India! Pronunciation of mantras shifted with time to conform to local norms. So svāhā becomes soha in Tibet, and sowaka in Japan. Most Buddhists are therefore pragmatic about pronunciation. Sometimes you will here a story told of a hermit who was pronouncing his mantra wrong, and a travelling Lama called to see him. The Lama corrects the hermit and goes off on his travels. But as he leaves he hears the hermit calling him, and sees him running across the surface of a lake to ask again about the 'correct' pronunciation. The moral of course being that pronunciation doesn't maketh the saint. Funnily enough Donald Lopez, in Prisoners of Shangrila, has pointed out that this story was in fact told by Tolstoy at the end of the 19th century (read The Three Hermits online). It was a Russian folktale told about three Christian hermits. How did it come to be a Buddhist, and indeed Tibetan, story? My guess is that it was quoted in The Autobiography of a Yogi (p.309) by Paramhansa Yogananda, first published 1946, and from there into Buddhist circles via enthusiastic yogis.

This all raises the issue of transmission. Ideally we pronounce the mantra as it was spoken during the first anointing ritual by the Dharmakāya Buddha. Because pronunciation has shifted over time some of the mantras that come down to us are clearly corrupt - the best example to my mind is the Vajrasattva mantra were the Sanskrit has become quite badly mangled in places. So if we know any Sanskrit we will find it creates a cognitive dissonance to hear mangled Sanskrit in a mantra. There are two schools of thought about this. One is that we should pronounce it exactly as taught to us by our teacher - even if it is plainly wrong. The other is that if it's clear what the original Sanskrit was we should use that instead. How you view this will depend on your tradition, and indeed how traditional your teacher is. But consider that if the word padma is pronounced 'pema', then at some point someone got it wrong and what we are transmitting is simply a human error, not the mantra spoken by the Dharmakāya. If it doesn't matter then there are implications for our entire approach to lineage and transmission: they simply cannot be as important as they are made out to be. If it does matter how are we to reconstruct something which has been changing for 1000 years? Is it even possible?

The second main context for using mantra is devotional, ranging from large public rituals, down to individuals. The idea for this context came to me while reading Alexander Studholme's book The Origins of Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ. I have written two précis of relevant parts of the book on this blog - The Origin of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ and The Meaning of oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ - and so again I won't go into detail. The main thing here is that this practice bears little resemblance to the tantric ritual and is closely associated with practices known as bringing the name (of the Buddha) to mind (nāmānusmṛṭi), and bringing the Buddha to mind (buddhānusmṛṭi). In the former case the root texts are the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras in which it is said that recalling the name of the Buddha Amitābha even once with faith will mean your next rebirth is in the pureland Sukhāvatī from where enlightenment is guaranteed. In the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra it says that the mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ is in fact equivalent to chanting the name of Avalokiteśvara and that by chanting the mantra, we are in fact chanting the name, and can expect to be born in a kind of pureland.

This kind of practice is really a form of recollecting the Buddha which has roots going back to the earliest days of Buddhism - it appears in the very oldest parts of the Pāli Canon. Later, although before the canon was written down, the practice is formalised and one recollects the special qualities of the Buddha by reciting and reflecting on the words of the Buddhavandana - iti'pi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampano sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā ti. In this context what is important, what makes the practice efficacious is that we recollect the Buddha and call his name. So I conclude that accurate pronunciation is not essential in this context. However I would add that pronouncing someone's name accurately is a good practice. We all know how it jars when someone gets our own name wrong. So I would think that making an effort to pronounce the mantra correctly would be appropriate for anyone really devoted to a Buddha or Bodhisattva. Although the counter argument that such figures are always forgiving is almost always brought out at this point so as to excuse any fault on the part of the practitioner. I'm not convinced that absolution from faults was what was intended. Surely it is still up to us to make as great an effort as we can? Pronunciation is a realtively simple matter that very few people seem to bother with.

The last of the three contexts is informal mantra chanting. This means chanting a mantra outside of any formal ritual or devotional context. Perhaps we are seeking to ward off danger, or we just want to keep up our connection with the Buddha. More superstitious Buddhists use mantras this way for all kinds of mundane worldly purposes, just as paritta were used at the beginning. In this context pronunciation is as important as the previous context, i.e. it is not so vital as the tantric ritual, but could still be a worthwhile effort. I would add here that learning how to pronounce Sanskrit is not that hard (follow the link to my rough and comprehensive guides!), and focussing on pronunciation is an excellent mindfulness practice! Try really paying attention to what your vocal cords, mouth, tongue and lips are doing when you chant. Sanskrit is a beautiful language when pronounced well. Note also that Pāli has a sonority and rhythm all of its own, quite different to Sanskrit - it is less sibilant and the many double consonants give it a lilt like a Skandanavian language I find.

There is one thing left to say in this now over-long post. In the Western Buddhist Order, as you may know, we practice a visualisation meditation that includes chanting a mantra, usually while visualising the letters of the mantra. However we say that this is not a tantric sadhana, because for good reasons Sangharakshita decided not to take tantric Buddhism on it's own terms. There are of course members of our order who have received tantric initiation and practice tantric Buddhism, but the majority of us do not. So where do our practices come in the scheme above? I think it's clear that we are practising a sophisticated form of the recollection of the Buddha in our sadhanas, and that the context is therefore devotional. However the form of the practice also highlights śunyatā - the lack of independent existence (svabhāva) of any phenomena.

So do we need to pronounce mantras correctly? I think we should make an effort on aesthetic grounds, it is more beautiful; and also on the basis that we all like our names to be pronounced correctly. I find it is a useful mindfulness practice, and most people need to be more mindful! But outside of the tantric tradition it is not vital, and, sadly, even within that tradition it seems to be many centuries since there was any real effort to maintain Sanskrit pronunciation.

image: vocal tract from MIT OpenCourseWare

06 April 2006

Monk or Layman or what?

Men from the Western Buddhist Order in their ordination robesLast weekend I was away at a national gathering of the Western Buddhist Order in the UK. 340+ order members, a little less than half the UK order were there - practising together in harmony. So it seems fitting that this week I write about the Order. One of the aspects of our order which appears to cause consternation in some traditional Buddhists is that we are not a monastic order. So I'd like to spend some time looking at two related questions: Why did Sangharakshita found a non-monastic order? And, are we therefore a lay order?

The received tradition of Buddhism allows for two categories of Buddhists - the full-timer, or bhikkhu (literally one who begs), who is bald, robed, celibate and somehow engaged in spiritual practice; and the part-timer or householder who is mainly focused on business and family, and who's spiritual duty is to feed the full-timer. Reggie Ray notes, in Buddhist Saints in India, that Buddhist society was originally tripartite with the full-timers being either forest dwellers or settled monastics. We could say this reflects a social structure in India where the Brahmanas were relatively settled, and the Shramanas tended to dwell alone and wander about. Even if Reggie had not pointed this out, it is obvious if you spend some time reading the Pali Canon that there are indeed two quite distinct lifestyles amongst the bhikkhus. One constantly comes across the advice to dwell alone in the forest meditating, at the same time one reads about bhikkhus living enmasse in viharas.

Eventually, perhaps because they recorded the texts, the settled monastic came to be seen in the texts as the ideal Buddhist in the Southern Buddhist countries. The Himalayan Buddhists, especially in the Nyingma school, have tended to have a more diverse social structure: for example they have married lamas and full-time practitioners who are not monks. Later, with the emergence of truly Japanese forms of Buddhism in the Kamakura period, the Japanese abandoned the vinaya which meant they could have married clergy, and that Zen monks could work for their living. However the meme that the bhikkhu is the ideal Buddhist is one that persists.

A Dharmacari and a monkSangharakshita spent nearly twenty years living in India, was ordained as a bhikkhu, and had plenty of opportunity to observe modern day bhikkhus. And what he saw was a lot of men going through the motions, shaving their heads, wearing robes, and refraining from meals after noon, but not actually attempting to Awaken. Although there may have been exceptions, formalism seems to have been the rule. We get a hint of why from Peter Masefield, an academic and Theravidan Buddhist, in his book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, where he concludes that without the direct intervention of a Buddha that Awakening is impossible, and within a generation of the Buddha's parinibbana Arahants would have died out. Actually Masefield, despite his voluminous citations, has overlooked a vast number of examples which contradict his conclusions and the book is deeply flawed, although still in print. But if Awakening is not possible, then what is the point? The Tibetan Buddhists that Sangharakshita met did seem to have a living Buddhism. Despite the fact that many of them were not following the vinaya to the letter, or at all, they had a depth of practice that inspired Sangharakshita.

Another facet of Indian Buddhism was that the Mahabodhi Society was, at that time, run by Hindus. Anyone could be elected to the governing body and ambitious Hindus had muscled there way onto the executive, even though they were not Buddhists, and some were even antithetical to Buddhism. This prevented the society from functioning effectively.

Back in England in 1964, Sangharakshita found that nascent British Buddhism was thriving, but in a narrow way. It was all very genteel and quite sectarian. Sangharakshita found the insistence on strict Theravadin interpretation of Buddhism a bit stifling. Fortunately the English Sangha Trust decided to break off relations with Sangharakshita, which allowed him to start afresh.

After a two year return to India to wind up his affairs, and consult with his teachers, Sangharakshita returned to England with the blessing of his teachers,and set about starting a new Buddhist movement. He was sure that it was going to be run only by committed Buddhists. He was also sure that he wasn't interested in formalism.Initially Sangharakshita envisaged a hierarchy of ordinations from upasaka/upasika up to the Bodhisattva ordination. However he came to realise that since Going for Refuge was the primary act that made one a Buddhist that only one ordination, one witnessing of ones effective Going for Refuge, was necessary.

As a member of the Order I am someone who is acknowledged by my peers and preceptors to be practising effectively. I happen at the moment to have long hair; dress in jeans, teeshirts and trainers; do not have a sexual partner or children; have few possessions; live in a Buddhist community with six other men; work for a Buddhist charity; and consider myself a full-time (though far from perfect) practioner. I therefore combine aspects of the householder, and the bhikkhu, and indeed at times take up the life of a forest dweller for brief periods. Some traditionalists seem to struggle with this indeterminacy - I've been told, for instance, that because I don't follow the letter of the vinaya that I am a heretic that is distorting the Dharma. I guess it shows that fundamentalism is not something that theistic religions have a monopoly on.

So to sum up, the Western Buddhist Order is not an order of monks or lay people, it is an order of effective practitioners. This appears to be radical in the face of the monk/lay model. But that model has never been intrinsic to Buddhism, it's just a cultural norm, and one that may not be relevant any longer.