ComCenterDisclaimer / NoResponsabilidadBKAWho is who

Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue Congress, Bilbao-2005

@Ven.Dhammananda (Asso.Prof.Dr.Chatsumarn Kabilsingh)
Factors behind Diversity and Conflict within Buddhist Tradition

The well known Suzuki Roshi who brought Zen Buddhism from Japan to U.S.A. once commented on the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism by comparing it to a tree. The leaves, flowers, fruits of a mango tree definitely must be different from the trunk and the root of the tree. But all those must still belong to the same tree otherwise it will not be called by the same name. With this example given by the Roshi makes it easier to understand the growth of Buddhism and its later development.

For any religion to become established and spread far and wide, one will automatically expect changes to take place. There is not one Buddhist community that looks like others. There is no pure Buddhism as such, once when it has taken root in one country it has absorbed and adjusted itself to that particular land which includes geographical, cultural, language differences. Hence, Japanese Buddhism is different from Korean Buddhism, and so on.

Even within the same country, i.e. Thailand, the Sangha consists of Mahanikaya, the larger sect and Dhammayut, the reformed sect. Yet among these two sects, some are forest monks who are more interested in mental training (vipassana dhura) and some are city dwellers (ganthadhra) who are more involved in study and administrative work.

Geographical differences also lead to differences in division of monks. In Bangkok, if the abbot came originally from southern province, automatically monks from southern provinces would be easierly related due to cultural similarity. Cultural factors cover both the language and preference of food, etc. To give just one example, Wat Wiseskarn in Prannok area is a community of southern people in Bangkok, even the stores around the area are mostly people from the southern part of Thailand.

Among the forest monks who are supposed to be interested in mental training also differ according to various type of techniques practice to further one’s spiritual improvement. It is true that mostly the forest monks in Northeastern region would follow vipassana meditation according to Ven.Man’s style but we cannot rule out that this is the only technique used by all the forest monks.

When the Buddha set up the Sangha (community) he lifted up the caste system which was the social structure in India at that time. So his Sangha was very democratic in its nature. There was no difference between race, caste and even gender. In his meditation technique which is very important for his Sangha, he prescribed at least 46 different kinds to suit each individual. There is no one prescribed technique that could claim to be best for everyone. What is best for one person may not be so for others. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” concept.

Even in the practice of one person, at different time of the day we can also apply a different technique to suit that particular circumstance.

Buddhism believes in continuous flux of changes. The practice of each Buddhist is to be totally aware and be in the present to be able to understand this nature and to give up the clinging of the eternal self as real and unchangeable. With such practice and teaching it does not leave any room for a real Buddhist not to note this diversity even within oneself.

Diversity is there and to be respected as a natural growth of any religion.

However this diversity often is quoted as the major cause of conflict. It is so because we hold on to our way as the only way, and not respecting others, at the same time not having a proper understanding of Nature with its diversity and its natural way which is never one.

In Buddhist teaching, the unique character of Buddhist faith is an understanding of Anatta, non-self. If we have basic understanding of the Buddha tried to tell us, it should lessen the conflict within ourselves, and conflict with the world outside.

In order to appreciate the message of non-self, one needs to have a brief context of how the theory came into being, as it came out of that particular mental context. In Brahmanism, the spiritual tradition existed in India prior to Buddhism, they believed in the concept of self (atta) and Self (Brahman, Universal Self). The self came out of Self, both are eternal and non-changeable. With Brahman’s playful act, he created a veil called Maya (illusion) so the self (individual self) sees Brahman as the Other. But when the individual self come to Moksa (realization), it realizes that the self is after all Self, and there is no difference between the two.

Buddhism denies this concept of eternal, non-changing self. Individual self is recognized as real at conventional level, but its reality is not real in the ultimate sense. To give an example, if I think that my self is real, but when I have physical ache and pain, I have no control over it. If this self is real in the ultimate sense then I must not grow old, etc. So this self is subjected to the law of the three characteristics, namely impermanence ,suffering, and non-self. Hence, this self is real only at a conventional level and is not ultimately real. This is what Buddhism means that there is no (ultimate) self; therefore in other word it is non-self.

There is no savabhava, inherent existence in the self. There is no one substance which is completely independent. Whatever is there always exists dependently. Whatever exists dependently cannot exist by itself, but having to depend on others all the time.

With this understanding of the true nature of ourselves, ethically we become humble, we have to depend not on one but many other people, many other things for our existence. At the time when we were born, we were most dependent beings. We could not help ourselves, we could not sustain our lives by ourselves for many years. We were the most invalid beings as compare to other animals.

As a grown up beings, as we sit here for our meals, again when we thoroughly look at this one plate of food in front of us. We realize how absolutely we have to depend on others. One plate of rice provided in front of us is made possible through many people. With this dependent way of examining things, we can only become but humble and grateful.

To be humble is one kind of mental frame work to reduce conflict.

To recognize that each one of us is not real in the ultimate sense helps lesson the strong grip we tend to hold on to ourselves. We are here on earth for a fleeting moment and we should all try our best to make our time most beneficial to oneself and others.

The Message of Buddhism

The very quest which Prince Siddhartha (who later on became the Buddha) was trying to overcome was very simple and had a strong existentialist interest. He was trying to overcome suffering caused by sickness, old age and death. After six years of strenuous spiritual search, he discovered the Truth. The beauty of it is that this Truth is accessible to everyone. And the fact that he discovered this Truth, since then, he came to be known as the Buddha, meaning the Fully Enlightened One.

The unique message of his discovery was to tap the root cause of suffering. He denied the existence of the eternal, non-changing self as held by the Indians of that time. Instead proposed that this empirical self is real as far as it goes, but we have no real control of this self. Instead it works under the law of three characteristics, namely suffering, impermanence and non-self. If we think that this is truly ourselves we must be able to keep ourselves forever young, but this is not the case. This is what the Buddhists means by not having the true self to explain in a very simplified manner.

Ethical aspect behind this kind of teaching is to allow one not to hold on to I, me, my, mine so intensely. When we are able to give up this “small self” then we can transcend our interest and project on to the “Greater Self”.(Philosophically we have to transcend even “self”) In a practical level, it allows us to be able to share our interest with others, even across traditions and religions.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the concept of Bodhisattva is more popular. Recently I had a visit to an organization called: Tzu Chi. Ven. Master Cheng yen, a Buddhist bhikkhuni is their spiritual guide. They have more than 6 million volunteers around the world, and their work focus of purification of oneself and expressing it by involving with social work. Their work is far advance than any one organization could cover, ranging from building hospitals (not less than 6), building schools in earthquake effected area (not less than 50), then they have their own TV station and radio station to report on the positive side of human kind. This work is possible when one has gone beyond the limit of oneself. The energy to work for other is collective and much more effective.

When Tsunami hit Thailand last year (Dec.26, 2004) Many Christian organizations extended their hands to help in various ways i.e. medical, education, organizing basic system of survival. Some media were concerned as they noticed also that there are many Christian centers and churches mushrooming in the area. If local Thais, who where Tsunami victims, would like to convert to Christianity with their own conviction, that is well and good. But the Christian missionary should not give help with the expectation of converts, then it will be exploitation and those converts gained by such means will not stay.

Factors behind conflict

If we go back to read the message of Buddhism, we will see that conflict arises as soon as we derail from the spirit of Buddhism. Buddhism talks about the three fires, i.e. greed, anger, delusion. Our whole existence is the cyclical movement effected by the interplay of these three fires. In Tibetan Buddhism we often see the cock, pig and snake running after each other for this eternal suffering of existence.

But these three fires will not harm us if it is not OUR greed, anger and delusion. So the root of all these suffering is caused by that clinging to our “self”.

When we talk about religions, I would think only the benefit of Buddhism which I belong to. When dealing with the benefit of nations, I would look for the benefit for MY nation, MY country. When there is a discussion about language, I would prefer Thai as it it MY language, etc.

The other party also has the same attitude, then conflict arises as it is conflict of benefit, YOUR benefit against MY benefit. That was the problem of the Palestinians and the Jews in the Holy Land. If both parties really respect how HOLY that land is to them, they would not have fought for so long, but share that HOLINESS with each other. Of course the real problem was much more complicated than this, I am only trying to get my point across borrowing a real situation that everyone here can relate.

Conflict in Gender issue

Buddhism is the first religion in the World Religions to come out very clearly that women do have equal spirituality potentiality to be enlightened. Feminists take this as a golden phrase, and from this spiritual assurance by the Buddha, it allows women in Buddhism the whole horizon to explore. But this beautiful message remains hidden and buried in the text for so long, and the real situation women face in Buddhism is very different from the spirit of Buddhism, at least what the Buddha had intended it to be.

In Buddhist tradition, historically we are better off than the Roman Catholic sisters, for we have historical support that the Buddha gave ordination to women as equal or at least almost equal to monks. Fully ordained women are called bhikkhunis where as the monks are called bhikkhus. In this presentation, I try to avoid using “nun”, as it conveys a different connotation from the real meaning in Buddhism.
The media sometimes use “female monk”

The Buddha, after having recognized the spirituality of women that they too can be enlightened, had to open the door for them to join the Sangha, that is to be fully ordained.

The first bhikkhuni was his own step-mother and aunt. Women under Indian social context found such a solace in Buddhist context, many of them joined the order. Among them at least we have 73 names of these fully ordained women, and 13 of them were singled out and praised for being foremost in various art by the Buddha.

The female order shared the same responsibility as the monks, they were equally successful and truly helped to propagate Buddhism. The Order continued in India until 11th Century when the Turk Muslims invaded India and monks and nuns disappeared from that period.

However, in 3rd Century B.C. King Asoka’s Daughter, Sanghamitta went on royal invitation, to Sri Lanka to give ordination to Sri Lankan women which worked as a continuation of the lineage to the Far-Eastern countries i.e. China, Korea, etc.

Buddhism consists mainly of three major schools, Theravada (the orthodox), Mahayana (the liberal), and Vajrayana (Tibetan tradition) Mahayana covers far-eastern countries whereas Theravada is more prevalent in South East Asian countries, i.e. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The bhikkhunis still prosper in Mahayana but not in Theravada. The Theravada insisted that the lineage of the bhikkhunis died out and cannot be revived.

When the Buddha established Buddhism, he was very clear to say that he expected that the four groups of Buddhists, namely the bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen would 1. Study his teaching, 2. Put it into practice and 3. Should there be an outsider making wrong claim, one should be able to defend and state the right teaching. Elsewhere the Buddha also predicted that Buddhism will decline when the four groups of Buddhists do not respect the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the study and the practice, and that they do not respect each other.

With respect to the Buddha, if the bhikkhuni lineage is that which was established by the Buddha, we should try our best to bring it back to fulfill his desire. What is really the root cause of this rejection, denial and resistance?

One key word for this conflict is fear. Fear of losing benefit of faith which the monks have monopolized for very long period of time. One monk openly pointed out that each morning that the monks go out to receive alms round, women were the majority of the donors. As people are losing faith in the monks due to frequent scandals publicized by the media, definitely they would turn to support women monastic as an alternative if the bhikkhuni sangha is established.

Apart from fear of losing benefit (which is quite complicated), there is also another reason: The sense of insecurity.

Few monks are very well developed spiritually, but majority are not. They lack proper Buddhist education, and hardly have any spiritual training. On top of that mostly they have less economic support. Once when they get to climb the hierarchical structure of authority and wealth provided in the Sangha, they have to keep it up and proceed on with the climbing. They are afraid of losing what they have gained, and to allow the ordination of women means allowing women to share both power and wealth which was previously monopolized by the monks only. This is the thinking, and this is the root of fear and anything contrary to this become conflict. In order to protect this status, violence was applied in various forms.

The first case of ordination of women in Thailand was in 1928, the first bhikkhuni was disrobed and put in jail. And from that time onward the Sangharaja (Supreme Patriarch) issued an order to forbid Thai monks to give ordination to women. This order is still being quoted as reason for the Sangha not to consider ordination for women as late as 2003, in spite of the fact that the constitution was introduced in 1932, and even the King had to come under this constitution. Logically it would follow that any order before that would be nullified, but this is not the case as practiced by the Thai Sangha.

Interesting to note that the order completely contradicts the allowance of the Buddha, “I allow you O, monks to give ordination to bhikkhunis” (Vinaya Pitaka, Culla vagga)

Textually this is a conflict to follow or not to follow the teaching of the Buddha.

When the Buddha established Buddhism, he trusted that the four groups of Buddhists, namely bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, laymen and laywomen would study his teaching and put it into practice. Then should there be any outsider who might come up with false claim, the four groups of Buddhists should be able to clarify and state the right teaching.

Also he proclaimed that in the future Buddhism will decline if the four groups of Buddhists do not respect the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, the practice, the precepts and do not respect each other.

The conflict within Buddhism whether with regards to gender, sectarian attitude will not become problematic if Buddhists are firm on following the Buddha’s guidance and spirit. A true Buddhist needs to have a total picture of Buddhist teaching so that one could grasp the spirit of Buddhism. We, however, tend to take Buddhist teaching partially. Most important of all we tend to quote the teaching to support our way of thinking and behaving rather the other way around.

Conflict within religion arises as soon as we claim our way as the only right way of doing. I have attended many interfaith dialogues with other traditions, we tend to be able to listen to others and open up enough to learn from other traditions. But the one intra-faith dialogue among the Buddhists held in Chiengmai was a total waste of time and money. Each one of us came with much textual understanding to quote to deny others, and to establish that “my way” is the correct one, and is the only correct one.

Respect and sensitivity in the difference of others are yet other key words I think we as a gathering of interfaith traditions need to take to heart.

To respect in the others in a demonstrative manner is to be willing to learn of other traditions as we sit around the table trying to dialogue.

To be sensitive of other’s way of life and do not take it for granted is also equally important.

To be true to the spirit of interfaith dialogue is to be first of all true to our own spiritual tradition. To be able to benefit from interfaith dialogue is to be able to strengthen our own faith.

May we, as a gathering of religious beings benefit ourselves in this dialogue so that we can benefit others in a larger context. By our presence together from various religious traditions is already a statement that there is hope to bring the end of conflict within religious traditions.

ComCenter  •  Home