Culture, Women, Money & the Western Sangha

by Francesco Gimelli, Dhamma Word Blog, (, March 17, 2011

Lund, Sweden -- In my online wanderings, I recently came across a comment on a few pieces of reflection and information that seemed to shine a light on aspects of the role of women in the Theravada monastic tradition in the West, and clarify some links between culture and women’s roles within these communities.

The first element that made me reflect was what I think is a brilliant insight by a commentator on the West Wight Sangha blog who calls him or herself ‘Freethinker’, in which he or she stated that,

 “…do you really understand that the Forest tradition in the UK is funded and backed by the Thai people. Without their contribution there would be no Amaravati or Chithurst, westerners do not fund this tradition and their contribution is very small. Please do not make out that this is a gender and discrimination issue, because it is not. It is a Thai cultural issue and on that point Ajahn Sumedho’s hands are tied. Please bother to take the time to find out how all this works and how the forest tradition has established itself in the UK. Laung Por has worked for over thirty years to establish all the monastries in this tradition, including Rocana at great cost to the monks. I have been going to Amaravati for twenty years and have never seen a monastic male or female go without the four requisits, and apparently the Buddha said that is all that is required. Stop trying to split the Sangha with such talk, I for one prefer to support the nuns and am delighted that the California project is thriving, and I miss some of the nuns dearly. Yes things need to change and things will change, but please do your homework first. Fortunatly I am not racist or arragant enough to challenge the Thai culture and insist that they change their ways to accommodate my western views.”

As I have been involved in trying to understand the roots of issues that to the average Westerner’s eyes seem to be reflective of an inherent gender bias in the controversy over the full ordination of women in Theravada Buddhism (if you lack the background on this issue, please refer to this page for a very good overview over the current status of the controversy), I came to view Freethinker’s insight as being a very simple and logical one.

I had often wondered about this issue myself, wondering why the Sangha in the UK and elsewhere where there is a presence of Western monastics seemed to be so unresponsive to some of the lay people’s concerns about gender dynamics. In my brief experience of monasteries in the West, it does seem to be true that it is typically the Asian Buddhists who provide much of the material support for the institutions, both in terms of financial support and ongoing engagement. I have not had personal experience in the monasteries in the UK where there are siladharas (10-precept nuns, equivalent to novice nuns), but if the situation is similar there as it is in other countries where I have resided at monasteries, then this may well be true.

In my perspective, the Buddha was aware of cultural norms in India during his lifetime, and he worked skillfully with those to provide both men and women with an environment in which they could live contemplative lives. I am aware of my own assumption, however, that simply because some monasteries are located in Western countries, their supporting lay followers would be predominantly Western. Another fact I had overlooked was the culturally ingrained notion of dana in Buddhist countries such as Thailand, according to which it is a very meritorious act to give generously towards supporting monastic communities; no such tradition exists in the West, and it would not come as a surprise to me to find out that many Buddhist Westerners who frequent the monasteries do not provide the level of material support that many Asian Buddhist probably do. I am not saying here that money = influence is the key equation in the Sangha, but ongoing support is essential for any Buddhist community to thrive, and without such support my view is that much more would be lost by the dissolution of such communities than would be gained.

The Buddha saw the Buddhist community as being composed of the four-fold assembly of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, highlighting how pivotal such a vision was in his aim to firmly establish the Dhamma in the world in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (III.7), the discourse that he gave before his final passing away,

‘I shall not come to my final passing away…until my bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen, have come to be true disciples - wise, well disciplined, apt and learned, preservers of the Dhamma, living according to the Dhamma, abiding by the appropriate conduct, and having learned the Master’s word, are able to expound it, preach it, proclaim it, establish it, reveal it, explain it in detail, and make it clear; until, when adverse opinions arise, they shall be able to refute them thoroughly and well, and to preach this convincing and liberating Dhamma.’

Clearly, the Buddha appreciated that Buddhism is not just the domain of monastics, but also of lay disciples. This is very evident in the structure of the Buddhist assembly, which creates a symbiotic relationship between the lay and the monastic communities: they are interdependent. This is no excuse, of course, for a lack of cultural understanding between Westerners and Thais where monastic communities are frequented by both communities; nevertheless, I have come to understand that it is only the monasteries that seem to be heavily supported (materially and otherwise) by lay communities with liberal values and strong ethics of gender equality that have been able to take the step of giving women the support that they deserve in pursuing the spiritual life. I feel that this is why I have witnessed communities in Australia, where I live, display the capacity to take brave steps towards creating the conditions for women to be fully ordained monastics.

The tradition of supporting religious orders and practitioners did exist in the West in the form of tithing (or most often simply as religious taxes), but this has mostly been made redundant. I am not saying that Westerners should start tithing (i.e. giving one-tenth of our income to spiritual causes), but that perhaps we could develop the view that generosity towards monastic communities can be of great benefit to both parties. In a piece on Anathapindika, the great Buddhist philanthropist and lay disciple, called Anathapindika: The Great Benefactor, Hellmuth Hecker highlights that after establishing the monastery at Jetavana,

“Anathapindika continued to feel responsible for the monastery which he had established. He supplied the monks who lived there with all necessities. Each morning he sent rice gruel to the monastery, and each evening he supplied all the requirements of clothing, alms bowls, and medicines; all repairs and upkeep in the Jeta Grove were undertaken by his servants. Above all, several hundred monks came daily to his home - a seven story palace - to receive the noon meal. Every day during meal-times his home was filled with saffron-colored robes and the feeling of saintliness.”

Rather than stating that we should all be as generous as Anathapindika was, what this passage points out in my perspective is that generosity within our means is essential in supporting communities of practice. In the short Adiya Sutta, the Buddha expounded the five benefits of wealth; what is notable in these five ways that wealth can provide benefits is the ubiquitous presence of sharing as an element of enjoyment from one’s wealth.

Although I would argue that many of us who are involved in Buddhist practice and with monastic communities see the benefits to be gained from this association and continued presence of full-time practice communities in our midst, I wonder how many of us back that up with solid material support? Certainly some of us do, but just as the Thai disciples in some of the communities are conditioned by their inherited social constructions regarding gender dynamics and hierarchy (for a subtle and very good commentary on this, view Ajahn Sucitto’s reflection on his blog here), many of us in the West are conditioned by the social norm of amassing money (i.e. saving), rather than using it wisely and keeping our lives simple, including sharing our wealth. While in the West we may be progressive with regard to gender dynamics (and this is very often disputable too, as highlighted by the continued glaring discrepancies between opportunities afforded to men and women), the Thais seem to be much more culturally progressive with generosity. So, rather than coming from a perspective of right and wrong, perhaps the focus needs to shift towards a searching for balance between relative strengths and the lessons to be shared with a view to cultivating skillful mental attitudes.

Money should not buy influence in monasteries, but it would also be ridiculous to expect material support to mean nothing when it is an essential ingredient in the maintenance of monastic communities, just as it has been in the time of the Buddha. When it is still the Thai community that predominantly patronizes monastic establishments like Amaravati and Cittaviveka, whose cultural perspective is going to find expression within the community? Certainly this is but one factor, and I do not claim here that it is the deciding one; nevertheless, I view this context as one that can be shifted dramatically, with potentially positive results to be achieved in regard to the status of women within these communities.

Having said that, Professor Richard Gombrich recently presented a wonderfully view-shattering assessment of the challenge that Theravāda Buddhists face in making the wonderful teachings of the tradition available worldwide in the keynote address called Comfort or Challenge? at the International Conference on Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century held in Salaya, Bangkok, Sep/Oct 2010, in which he highlighted that,

“To sell their religion, the Christian churches in the United States had to focus on what people wanted from a religion and decide to what extent they were prepared to give it to them. What people want most is comfort. Life is hard, the world often seems unfair, and death is a terrifying prospect unless one is convinced that it is the gateway to something better than life on earth. Just as small children believe that their parents have the power to give them what they want and wipe away their sorrows, people want to believe, and so are very easy to persuade, that the universe works in the same way: that there is someone in charge who basically looks after us and makes sure that it all comes right in the end.”

Unfortunately but understandably – for the same reason the Christians have – it seems that much of the Buddhist establishment follows the same strategy. Prof. Gombrich goes on to highlight that conversely,

“…if we think of the founders of religion and the great reformers, they have mostly felt the need to challenge their audiences, to criticise the status quo and to demand that people improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.”

With much positive force and conviction, Prof. Gombrich highlighted the course of action that he viewed as most appropriate in disseminating the Buddha’s teachings to the world,

“We have to return to the Buddha’s teaching. Our leaders must fearlessly stand up and tell the world that Buddhism is meant to apply to the whole of life, public and private. We have to understand, and act accordingly, that ritual has no intrinsic value and must be jettisoned if it gets in the way of living the Dhamma. We must acknowledge that Buddhism is for all, including foreigners and women: all must be the objects of our love and compassion, just as all are equally responsible moral agents. Yes; we have to take the Buddha seriously!”

I agree with Prof. Gombrich’s conclusions wholeheartedly, and feel like both laypeople and monastics have to play key roles in this revitalization of the Theravada. We are not talking about reform here, but about being true to the Dhamma.  We must seek not just comfort in the Dhamma, but also challenge, because this is what sets Buddhism apart from most of the other religious traditions and practices. Culture is a reality that we have to engage with, but not from a perspective of superiority. If we take the Dhamma seriously as Westerners, we will make use of our material well-being and our wealth to support and take part in creating an environment in which the challenge can be taken seriously, and where it can be presented as an experiment with truth and skillful living. Ultimately, we as Westerners who value the Dhamma but see elements of culture present within the practice communities that we frequent that create suffering and unease have to put our money where our mouth is.

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