Monastic lineages and the Vinaya: Which is Buddhist?

by Kester Ratcliff, The Buddhist Channel, Nov 10, 2009

Kester Ratcliff used to be a monk (known as Bhikkhu Santi) in the Thai Forest Tradition. Here he gives his insight into why it is essential for monks and nuns to be guided by the Dhamma-Vinaya, not monastic lineages

Bristol, UK -- I used to be a monk for six and half years in the Thai Forest Tradition, my name then was Bhikkhu Santi. As well as a lot of meditation, in those six years I also did a lot of study and particularly Vinaya, and especially the two main neglected areas -the Bhikkhuni Vinaya and the communal legal procedures (adhikarana-samatha-dhammas).

<< "The Perth Ordination": On Sept 22, 2009, four bhikkunis were ordained at the Bodhinyana monastery, setting off a monastic firestorm which resulted in the expulsion of Ajahn Brahmavamso from the Wat Pah Pong Sangha

I fully agree that there is no valid Vinaya reason to oppose the revival of the bhikkhuni (nuns) ordination. As I see it, the issue of reviving womens' ordination, is actually secondary in this conflict, but the ferocity of the conflict is due to its having exposed the underlying issue of what should be the basis for cohesion of the community - basically, Thai traditionalism vs radical scriptural orthodoxy.

Although it is a very upsetting process, I think it will probably be for the best in the end to have exposed this underlying tension and forced the Thai traditionalist side to face the problem rather than always just suppressing it.

Monastic lineages and the Vinaya

The points I would like to mention, because they are less often mentioned than some of the other reasons, are these: Traditional 'lineages' (nikayas, paramparas) have no status in Vinaya.

They are not mentioned in the authoritative Buddhavacana parts of the Vinaya texts. The nearest match for the concept of ordination lineages in Vinaya is to different samvasas / communions, but the difference between different communions by definition has to be based on significant disagreement over Dhamma and Vinaya.

Thus, if present bhikkhus and bhikkhunis from geographically distinct ‘lineages’ actually have no substantive disagreements over the 'Eighteen Points' or categories of doctrinal and disciplinary disagreements, then there are no grounds for the difference of communion, and from the point of view of Vinaya it immediately no longer exists; whether their 'ancestors' in the ordination lineage had incompatible views is irrelevant.

The talk of 'Theravada ordination lineage' as separate from other 'lineages' then, is nonsense in terms of Vinaya, unless there are currently actual valid grounds for it. Most often, the traditionalists referring to 'lineages' have no understanding of any of this.

To maintain the practices appropriate to different communions as defined in Vinaya when a bhikkhu knows there are actually no grounds for it is a minor offence, as it is an intention on the way to deliberately aiming for schism for its own sake (schism is not always wrong either in terms of Vinaya or in terms of kamma, but that's a long story too).

There are actually very few conditions in which an ordination carried out by a sangha can possibly not be valid defined in the Vinaya, there are many cases in which it can be done improperly and carry a minor offence for the monks participating, but it takes a lot in canonical Vinaya for it to actually be invalid.

So even if one believes or suspects that the sikkhamāna (female novice preparing to be a nun) preparation stage was intended to be universally applicable, not just for women under 20, this would at most make it a dukkaa offence for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs involved, and could not invalidate the legal act. I have some doubt about the interpretation that the sikkhamāna stage is unnecessary for women over 20, but since I haven’t looked at the evidence presented by Bhante Sujāto yet, it would be very wrong of me to judge yet. It does sound reasonable, but I just haven’t seen the evidence yet.

There are plenty of historical doubts about the continuity of all the monastic lineages, including the Thai Dhammayut forest lineage, supposedly the most secure of all. Yet considering that the huge emphasis on continuity of lineage found in traditional(ist) Buddhism actually has no mention in canonical or early Vinaya texts, I suggest we should not be overly concerned with it.

Vinaya according to the early Vinaya texts is a deeply pragmatic system, it only gets technical and complicated when there's a good practical reason (even if it's not always immediately obvious), not just to be complicated and technical for the sake of impressing laypeople.

On Garudhammas (heavy burdens of the Dhamma)

I have many doubts about the reasoning which led Bhante Sujāto to his conclusion that the Eight Garudhamma are basically either inauthentic or inapplicable to bhikkhunīs in general, however, I did some research years ago to try to examine precisely what the original meaning of each of them was.

Basically I found that the garudhammas had been traditionally and popularly misinterpreted to seem far more draconian and sexist, and when carefully interpreted in the most reasonably probably original form and set in their own historical, cultural context, they're really not so bad after all.

Especially the apparently most offensive one, that bhikkhunīs cannot admonish'  (vacanapatho) monks, is definitely much more specific than it is commonly thought of: vacanapatho means more than just a generic criticism, it is a technical legal term for a formal accusation in the midst of a sangha.

It means that a bhikkhunī cannot directly, personally initiate a formal accusation process in the bhikkhu sangha - a procedure which is never followed nowadays anyway because the whole communal legal system has practically obsolesced, part of why nobody recognises it - but she can admonish a monk personally in any other setting, or inform another monk and ask him to take the case to the bhikkhu sangha to initiate formal investigation and disciplinary proceedings against the monk she wishes to criticise.

The purpose of the rule seems to have been to keep the two monastic communities apart – independent jurisdictions, effectively, because the bhikkhus are also explicitly forbidden from enacting formal investigation and disciplinary processes against bhikkhunīs directly (“bhikkhūni bhikkhunīna kamma ropetvā bhikkhunīna niyyādetu,” - by the bhikkhus is an act of the bhikkhunīs to be passed off and to be referred to the bhikkhunīs, Vin II.26) – the most the bhikkhus can do is to inform the bhikkhunīs and then if they fail to handle it adequately to refuse to cooperate with the bhikkhunī sangha for the bhikkhunīs’ exhortation on the Uposatha until they do resolve it.

Refuge in Dhamma, not person

Thirdly, about the status in Vinaya of traditional authority/ies, including the Mahatherasamaghorn, Wat Pah Pong Theras Council, Thai State law over the Sangha, etc. and the meaning of 'refuge' as the commitment defining being 'Buddhist': The whole corpus of Suttas and Vinaya, in all the recensions, make it absolutely incontestably clear that 'refuge' in Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, or "refuge in (/reliance on) Dhamma and not a person" requires an absolutely uncompromising and exclusive commitment to Dhamma-Vinaya "only".

Dhamma and Vinaya in this context also clearly means the Suttas and Vinaya (e.g. the Buddha’s deathbed words: "The Dhamma and Vinaya "as taught and formulated by me", will be your Teacher when I am gone"), or to be more precise - those parts of the Suttas and Vinaya (regardless of which language recension) which have a reasonable probability of being authentically, historically, literally Word of the Buddha, or accurately representing what was spoken by the Buddha, or spoken by disciples but directly endorsed by the Buddha in his lifetime, as long as the record of endorsement seems probably authentic, are authoritative.

Anything else, spoken by disciples or by outsiders, can at best be legitimate if it is in conformity (anulomika), but it can never be authoritative. This is not my own brand of extremism, it is just a repetition of what is in the Suttas and Vinaya and was reaffirmed at the Second Council when they concluded that "What is traditional (ācinno) is not allowable".

The recent official statement from Wat Pah Nanachat, however, begins with the first explicit acknowledgment I know of that they regard the Mahatherasamaghorn and Thai State law as acceptable religious authorities and that they require all monks of the same communion to also submit to these extraneous traditional authorities.

This effectively means that they are not in practice truly committed to refuge in Dhamma-Vinaya only, and in practice the Thai Forest Tradition often seems more like a cult of abbots than a scriptural religion. To submit to the Mahatherasamaghorn or Thai State law or even Wat Pah Pong Elders Council or the English Sangha's Elders Council as religious authorities, independent of Dhamma-Vinaya, is so seriously compromising the commitment to Refuge that those 'Buddhist' practitioners are practically not really Buddhist.

Yes, I am saying that I believe the Thai Forest Tradition is not actually Buddhist, but it is, in practice, 'Thai Traditional Religion', with much continuity and influence from Buddhism, but ultimately not Buddhist, because when push comes to shove, as we have seen, when traditional authorities with no validity in Dhamma and Vinaya contradict and claim to overrule or supersede Dhamma Vinaya, they choose the Thai traditional(ist) authorities over the Suttas and Vinaya that were authorised by the Buddha on his deathbed as his representative and replacement for as long as the Sasana endures.

True meaning of Schism

Lastly, the question of 'schism' - the current conflict over the bhikkhunis' ordination is coming close to the full technical definition of a schism (sanghabheda) in Vinaya, but it is not there yet: one side has declared explicitly that they consider the other faction to be of different communion (nānasanvāsa), with potentially valid grounds, but they have not yet done sanghakamma separately within the same boundary, so it is not technically a 'schism' yet.

In the rhetoric of the Thai traditionalist faction, they regularly use 'harmony' and 'schism' as threats to enforce conformity and suppress any kind of dissent from the totalitarian autocracy of the abbots, which is rather obviously, radically and totally inconsistent with the original constitution of the Sangha defined in the Vinaya.

They also have a handy redefinition of 'seniority' in terms of 'hierarchy' which they usually mention at about this point in the argument, but inconveniently for them it is debunked by the definition of the principle of seniority in the Suttas and Vinaya, where it says that the Sangha should consider Elders as "to be listened to" (sotabban maññessanti), not as authoritative in themselves.

The principle of respect for seniority and all the manners associated with it are just that: manners and careful consideration for long experience and learning, not a justification for authority. Seniority, according to Vinaya, carries absolutely no authority at all independent of Dhamma-Vinaya, and it is not a justification for the traditional practice of hierarchy, which has its origins in medieval political shenanigans, especially the 12th Century Sri Lankan Pollanaruwa Katikavatas issued by kings to restructure the Sangha in line with the secular polity then in a feudalist, hierarchical structure – these contain the first references to ‘abbots’ (adhikāra).

To be precise, 'authority' (assumed right of entitlement to command) doesn't really apply even regarding Dhamma-Vinaya; what I really mean is the attribute of regularly being trusted, to the extent of a community committing to someone/something as the source of its unifying communal ethos, and having joined a committed community, that source of the community's ethos is ethically binding so long as one remains a voluntary member of it - i.e. the 'authority' (using it vaguely again) is based on a social contract.

Returning to the issue of schism, it is commonly considered in modern tradition that schism is always wrong, always a Vinaya offence and always bad kamma. However, an examination of the Vinaya shows this understanding is false, besides its being politically biased for suppressing any kind of dissent, even sincere, well evidenced and valid criticism of the institution.

The reasoning and evidence to arrive at this conclusion is long and complex, but the conclusion is basically that schism is only a vinaya offence when the aim is schism itself and for bad reasons apart from sincere disagreements over Dhamma and Vinaya, but not when the aim is to have a sincere dispute over Dhamma and Vinaya, even if they are sincerely mistaken.

For comparison, consider how ‘divisive speech’ (pisunavāca) is defined as speech aimed specifically at dividing friends. Second, it is explicitly defined in Vinaya that schism is only anantarayika kamma (extreme bad kamma) when it is done intentionally deceitfully, aware that the disputed issue is bogus.

In both cases, a schism which involves a Vinaya offence but not any deliberate deceit and thus no anantarayika kamma, or a schism which is both a Vinaya offence and anantarayika kamma, the blame lies with the side advocating actually false Dhamma and Vinaya, and there is no possibility the schism can be considered the responsibility of the side advocating actually correct Dhamma and Vinaya, even if they are “offended, annoyed and spread it about” in a not perfectly skilful way.

This last point – that the faction advocating correct Dhamma and Vinaya by definition cannot possibly be legally responsible for a schism, is the one most often covered up in traditionalist rhetorical usage to threaten dissenters.

Further, a schism once formally finalised can only be validly resolved having first actually fully resolved the issue that caused it down to the roots - it is explicitly stated in Vinaya, that a formal saṅgakamma to resolve a schism performed without actually having resolved the dispute issue down to its roots, is not valid, is as null and void legally as it is practically.

Through all the many passages referring to schism, harmony and communion in the Suttas and Vinaya, there is actually far more concern for preservation of truth, and getting to the roots of problems and disputes, than for maintaining a superficial appearance of harmony. This is the opposite of traditional rhetoric again.

I wish that Ajahn Brahm and the monks of Bodhinyana and Santi Forest Monastery will seriously consider these points, and seriously consider not compromising the foundations of their true harmony based on Dhamma and Vinaya, for the sake of superficial keeping up appearances of practically vacuous and legally invalid 'harmony' with the Thai traditionalist faction, who have now explicitly declared that they take other Teacher(s)/ other religious authorities, and are not committed to Refuge in Dhamma only and not a person, not tradition, and not secular Thai State law.

The time has come to let go of our Thai heritage. There may be a few ariyans left among it, but they are not practically in control of the institution anymore, and as ariyans are still capable of being misinformed and sincerely mistaken so we do not need to necessarily renounce our faith in our teachers who remain on the Thai side. But the institution has become definitively non-Buddhist and hostile to genuine uncompromising commitment to authentic Buddhism, therefore let it go.

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