Sunday, October 03, 2010

Pali Scholar Condemns Buddhist Ritualism

"I am begging you to give up obsession with ritual and custom," Richard Gombrich said to a gathering of Theravada monks and lay followers at an academic conference in Bangkok last week to discuss why this form of Buddhism is today less influential in the world than its cousins, Mahayana (Zen) and Vajrayana (Tibetan).  "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."

Gombrich, author of numerous books and founder of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies in England where he teaches Pali and Sanskrit, took the Thai Sangha of monks to task for its "parochial nationalism," its failure to condemn violence against Buddhists inside and outside Thailand, and for its treatment of women.  These failures can be traced to an obsession with ritualism which ignores the Buddha's teaching that "ethical value lies in intention alone...the point of ritual lies in doing, not in intending."  If there is nothing wrong with the message, than the failure of Theravada Buddhism's influence must be due to the messengers, he said. 

Most modern religions, Gombrich told his audience, see their purpose as offering comfort to believers, but "the founders of religion and the great reformers 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."  Last year, on a similar occasion, the birthday of the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand (now 97 and hospitalized for a long time), I heard Gombrich deliver a scathing condemnation of the Sangha's misogynistic treatment of women and its refusal to ordain nuns.  The applause then was as lukewarm as it was last Thursday at Mahamakut Buddhist University where Gombrich delivered the keynote address on the conference theme, "Dissemination of Theravada Buddhism in the 21st Century." 

The Oxford academic describes himself as "not a Buddhist, but I very much admire Buddhism and especially Buddhist ethics. I am not a Buddhist in a technical sense. In one way, you could say I am more of a Buddhist than most Buddhists, because I believe that the Buddha was an intellectual genius and had some extraordinarily interesting things to say. This is something that most Buddhists simply don't take any interest in."  Unlike many modern deconstructionist commentators, Gombrich believes it is possible to read the original Pali scriptures in order to understand what the Buddha actually thought and meant.  He faults the Buddhist Theravada religious establishments (in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia as well as in Thailand) for their failure to study the texts and for their ritual changes based on custom rather than scripture. 

"I am perpetually horrified by the failure of the Buddhist establishment to understand the Buddha's message, to teach it and to act upon it," Gombrich told his audience, and he called it a "tragic and culpable failure."  The majority of Theravadins, he said, consider only Buddhists of their own nationality to be true Buddhists, and believe Mahayana monks and nuns are "not true Buddhists because they do not prohibit taking solid food after midday."  Mahayanists, on the other hand, consider true Buddhists to be vegetarian (which Theravadins are not).  Buddhism, he argued, "which measures action by ritual and custom can never spread anywhere."  The Buddhist government in Sri Lanka refuses to recognize the Dalai Lama, "the person whom the world regards as the greatest living Buddhist," and the Sangha on that island has never tried to disseminate the Dhamma to its Tamil minority or in mainland India. The Thai Sangha has failed to criticize the persecution of monks in Myanmar where the government treats protesters as if it "were merely squashing a few mosquitoes."  One of the main things that "attracts people to a religion is when it produces figures who are prepared to speak against cruelty and injustice," and he asked where are Theravdin leaders comparable to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.  (I would suggest Sulak Sivaraksa in Thailand fills that role).

"If I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf?" he wondered.  And yet only two Buddhist states anywhere, Bhutan and Cambodia, have no capital punishment.  In Thailand recently, "people seeking refuge in a monastery in the heart of Bangkok were killed by what some call the forces of law and order," and he also mentioned the military coup four years ago and the far south which is not at peace.   By keeping Buddhist monks out of politics when they should be advising leaders on morality, the Sangha's silence fails to persuade people that Buddhism is a religion of non-violence.  "Is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd?"

Like his talk last year, Gombrich reserved his strongest words for Thai Buddhism's treatment of women.  Only Thai and Burmese Buddhism have a notion of female impurity during menstruation, but "they are going against the Buddha, befuddling themselves with superstition, and in the process insulting women."  This is not the worst crime, however.  "In Thailand the Vinaya has been changed in a grotesque manner, so that the monks may not only not touch a woman, but may not receive anything directly from a woman's hand...from babies to centenarians." This is not just a misguided ritual obsession, but "true misogyny, a horror and dread of women, a fear that the slightest contact with a female is seductive and may inspire lust."  And finally, the rule that the Bhikkuni order of nuns cannot be restarted because it died out is the product of "obsessive neurotics."  Reinstating the order of nuns would be "the one development which, I believe, has the power to preserve Theravada Buddhism for many future generations."

Gombrich presented the Theravadin Sangha monks with a strong challenge that I'm afraid most of the leaders will probably ignore.  The missionary effort of Theravdins in the past has been to establish cultural centers in different countries which service South Asian immigrants rather than reach out to the indigenous populations as Tibetan and Zen monks and teachers have done most successfully in the past.  Western women are often repelled by the patriarchal and even misogynistic rituals and attitudes they encounter in Buddhist countries and have gone on to reinterpret Buddhist teaching to incorporate women when they go back home.  Much of what Gombrich argued was taught years ago by that great Thai reformist monk Buddhadasa Bhikku but his ideas have not yet  spread fully to the laity where I have been told by Thai women that only male monks can achieve enlightenment.

The Buddhist religion I have observed in Thailand is mostly devotional and involves elaborate rituals that include animist and Hindu elements.  It probably provides more comfort than challenge to its adherents.  But this is not to deny that the teachings of kindness and compassion are not part of Thai culture in a deep way.  I find Buddhist piety in Thailand to be deeply moving and impressive and I have only begun to understand and participate in it personally.  As a lover of ideas, I find these discussions about Buddhism stimulating and enlightening.  But I also recognize that ideas are the tangible coin of intellectuals and academics and not of much use to the bulk of devotees who are seeking in their lives to be good and happy people.  When Nan prays before the altar in our home, or when making merit in a temple, she prays the metta prayer, that all be happy.  It's as simple as that.

1 comment:

Hobby said...

Nice summary, thanks.
They didn't take on board what Buddhadasa said, so unfortunately Richard Gombrich is most likely also pissing into the wind.