Buddhayana

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Buddhayana is a term for a more authentic, progressive, tolerant, and inclusive Buddhism. Buddhayana calls on using the wisdom from all the traditions in a syncretic way, but without sacrificing the authenticity of the Dhamma. It typically calls for adaptations to fit with the modern world, which arguably keeps the Dhamma alive since the Buddha gave several teachings on skilful means, abolishing minor training rules if necessary, and adapting to local customs and language. Much of these ideas have since been incorporated in Modern Theravada. The following (below) is adapted from a book by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika:

A revitalized Theravada would be so different from its listless narrow predecessor that it would be only right to call it something else. Another name would also emphasize a conscious desire to evolve new interpretations of the Dhamma rather than just copying or trying to rationalize the old ones. The term theravada itself occurs only once in the Pali Tipitaka where, significantly, it is equated with ‘mere lip service, mere repetition’ (M.I,164). What name could a new Buddhism go by? The Buddha told his disciples that when others asked what religion they practiced they should say that they were Sakyaputtas, offspring or children of the Sakyan. This is a very endearing name but unfortunately it does not lend itself well to modern usage. On another occasion he called his teachings vibhajjavada, the doctrine of analysis, a name which reflects some aspects of his teachings but not all. Scholars usually describe the teachings in the Pali Tipitaka as primitive Buddhism or early Buddhism. The first of these names conjurs up the image of a monk wearing a bear skin rather than a yellow robe while the second refers only to the Dhamma’s temporal dimension. Navayana, the New Way, is better but would not be entirely correct. The revitalized Buddhism I envisage would be contemporary in many ways while still drawing most of its inspiration and nourishment from the Buddha, that is, from the past, and so in one sense would not be new. Dhammavada or Buddhavada are perhaps a bit pretentious. For the purposes of these reflections I will use the term Buddhayana, the Buddha’s Way. Such a name would be descriptively accurate, it follows naturally from the names of the earlier expressions of Dhamma – Hinayana, Mahayana and Tantrayana - and it rolls of the tongue well. What would this Buddhism for the 21st century, and hopefully for subsequent ones as well, be like?

Buddhayana would be governed by a properly constituted and legally recognized mahasabha, something like the Board of Governors of the Methodist Church, the Board of Jewish Deputies or perhaps better, the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). The mahasabha would be a corporate body owning all Buddhayana property and assets and represent it in all matters. The mahasabha would consist of four members – a monk, a nun, a male lay teacher and a female lay teacher who would be elected by local temples, monastic communities and other groups from which they came and they would hold their positions for ten years. The presidency of the mahasabha would circulate every ten years – a monk one time, a nun next, then a lay man etc. This arrangement would guarantee that the needs and concerns of all members of the Buddhayana community were taken into account and heard and that each would make its own unique contribution to the development of Buddhayana.

For Buddhayana the term Sangha would mean ‘spiritual community.’ Anyone, clerical or lay, who was fully committed to the Dhamma would be considered a member of the Sangha. This accords with a concept already implicit in the suttas where the Buddha says that a monk, nun, lay man or lay woman who is ‘accomplished in wisdom, disciplined, confident, learned, upholding Dhamma and living according to it’ illuminates the Sangha (A.II,8). All monks and nuns would receive a full education in Buddhism, Pali, history of Buddhism, psychology and philosophy before their ordination. During their education and training they would be instructed in meditation and also be psychologically assessed to see whether they were suited to the monastic life or for the role of being teachers. Academic accomplishments would be important in selecting candidates but personal development would be just as important. Physical disciplines like hatha yoga and tai chi would form an integral part of the training also. There would be three orders or nikayas within both the monastic and the lay Sangha – a contemplative order, a pastoral order and an academic order. Monastics in this first order would mainly be involved in solitude and self development but would be expected to make some contribution to the community as well - conducting meditation retreats and doing counseling and conflict resolution work. Those in the pastoral order would run local Buddhist centers and receive the appropriate training to equip them for this role. Monks and nuns of the academic order would be the scholars of the Buddhayana, teaching in universities, doing research work, advising the mahasabha on doctrinal matters, giving the Buddhist perspective on various issues when needed and also acting as dhammadutas both within their own countries and overseas. The monks and nuns of these last two orders would all have a regular meditation practice and also spend at least two months each year in retreat with those from the contemplative order.

Buddhayanist monks and nuns would genuinely renounce on being ordained, giving all their assets to the  Sangha and anything they earned or inherited  subsequently would also  become the property of the  Sangha. The Vinaya  would govern the behavior of all monastics.   Certain rules would be disregarded, just as is done in Theravada,  the only difference being   which rules  were followed and which  were not.  Buddhayana monks and nuns would abide by the Parajikas as well other rules relevant  to monastic living and the modern world. There would   also be a Code of Conduct to cover matters not  dealt with  by these rules and this would  be   modified as circumstances required. There would be a  body to which complaints about serious breaches of discipline by monastics could be made,  it would have the power to investigate such accusations,  suggest appropriate punishments and when necessary  recommend expulsion from the Sangha. All monasteries  would aim to  be self-supporting. Monks  and nuns of the contemplative order would run businesses making high quality labor intensive products, operate hospices and conduct retreats. Such  enterprises would provide monastics with opportunities for mindfulness in daily life, provide their monasteries with an income and make a contribution to the community. Monks and nuns would  normally  wear their distinctive and beautiful robes but where necessary or expedient they might  don ordinary cloths. They would   have common sense  enough to know that ‘outward form does not make a monk’ (Dhp.266).  

Even when open-minded Theravadins discuss the possibilities of reestablishing the nun’s Sangha the deliberations always seem to revolve around how to reconcile doing this with what the Vinaya says. Such discussions could go on for centuries. Whatever the Buddha said or is supposed to have said, Buddhayanists would believe that it is wrong to exclude woman from the monastic life, that it is inappropriate in the 21st century to require them to always take second place to a male and that it is degrading to treat them as if they had some sort of contagious disease. They would take as their guide on this and several other issues the Kalama Sutta in which the Buddha says; ‘Do not go by tradition…do not go by the sacred text … But when you yourself know that certain things are right, good, skillful and when followed or practiced results in happiness and benefit, then follow them’ (A.I,188). If no other solution to the problem could be found the first women candidates to the monastic Sangha would be ordained by monks and all subsequent ones would receive the double ordination. If these women were not accepted as real nuns by traditional Theravadins they would not loose too much sleep over it. In Buddhayana nuns and lay woman teachers would have respect, recognition and opportunity in accordance with their commitment and achievements, just like anyone else.

Being realistic enough to realize that monasticism is never going to be significant in Western society Buddhayana would develop an order of lay teachers similar to Protestant pastors or better, to the Dharmacariyas and Dharmacariyinis of WBO. Some of these might marry, others might choose to remain single. Many monks and nuns would have been lay teachers before ordaining. At least one forward-looking and thoughtful Sri Lankan monk has already made a move in this direction. Ven. Piyananda of Los Angles has a program of lay training and ordination which has had some success and could well be a model for similar efforts. Lay teachers would run local Buddhist temples or assist monks or nuns in running them and involve themselves in social work. They would receive an adequate salary from the congregation. Buddhayana lay teachers would be known for their quiet unobtrusive efforts to help others, especially in areas that are strong points of the Dhamma, – relaxation training, counseling, animal welfare, hospice work etc.

Like all  responsible  citizens, Buddhayana monastics, lay teachers  and ordinary followers would have a deep love for their country but this would never blind them to the reality that their main commitment  was to the Dhamma, which transcends nationality, race and culture. Knowing full well that the Buddha taught  for all humankind they would see themselves as citizens of the world and work for the benefit of all, not just for ‘our people’ or ‘our  country.’ As an inviolable  principle, no Buddhayanists whether monastic or lay would  ever be involved in or seek to justify any form of violence. If  required by law to  join the army  in time of war they would willingly serve as medics, nurses or stretcher-bearers but would never bear  arms or fight. Buddhayanists would take the Precepts seriously rather than just recite them mindlessly as is usually done in Theravada. They would  never drink or smoke and they would have a strong leaning towards vegetarianism. Between each other they would retain the anjali (palms together and head slightly bowed) as a graceful and distinctly Buddhist greeting and salutation. When anjalied themselves monks and nuns would always be humble enough and polite enough to return the salutation.   
Recognizing that the  prevailing   interpretations of the Pali Tipitaka has few insights that could  be used in  its development, Buddhayana should be confident enough of itself to seek nourishment and examples  from other sources. To help breath new life into the understanding and practice of meditation it would enter into dialogue with the Ch’an, Zen and  Dzogchen   traditions, with  modern psychology and also perhaps with the teachings of people   like Vimala  Thakar. Such dialogue is well under way in the West, particularly in the USA, and has already proved fruitful. Buddhist-Christian dialogue has been going on for some decades but  is usually initiated by and directed by   Christians themselves and not surprisingly they are the ones who benefit most from it. Nonetheless, there are  three areas where dialogue with Christianity might prove useful for an emergent   Buddhayana. The first concerns how monasticism  might function and survive in the modern world. Catholic monastic orders  have declined dramatically in the last   forty  years   but  those that   survive   could  be   models for how  Buddhayana monasteries might function. A blending of Catholic practicality  and the best of the Vinaya might ensure the continuance of the monastic  Sangha. The second area where Buddhayana  could benefit from Christian  input concerns social engagement and practical compassion.  What is it in Christianity that has made love so central  to the life and practice of its followers? What is it in Theravada that has retarded this from happening?  What aspects of the Buddha’s teachings   could be emphasized or  reappraised so that   a  Buddha-like compassion might once  more animates and motivate those who  live by the Dhamma? Teachers like  Thich Nhat Hanh have already begun   exploring such issues from the   Mahayana  perspective but  more needs to be done and   much  could be learned from Christianity.  
There is one other area where Buddhayana might be enriched by dialogue with Christians. Theravadian hostility towards all forms of beauty has prevented the development of any sacred music  or  plainsong  beyond the most rudimentary forms.   Thai chanting is not unpleasant to the Western ear although its simple tune and rhythm offer  limited scope for further development. Burmese and especially Sri Lankan chanting is little more than a caterwaul.  Sonorous music, song and chanting can have an enormous value in communal worship, they can give expression to saddha and they can even be an adjunct to meditation. The Buddhayana  would study the rich Christian   tradition  of plainsong and sacred   music and try to develop forms of each that would be suitable to use with Pali gatha and other mediums.
 Great emphasis would be given to  Dhamma education in Buddhayana.  Apart from the normal activities at local   temples (Sunday sermons and pujas, Dhamma classes and discussions, group meditations monthly weekend retreats,  Sunday School, etc)  there would be  occasional courses on the more profound aspects of the Dhamma.  An accurately translated and readable edition of the Tipitaka would be available in every temple. However, most people would  be familiar  on the  Cula Tipitaka, a single  volume containing a good representative collection of suttas including those relevant   to lay people. Both would have  the repetitions  carefully edited out,  a rational and easily usable reference system and a detailed index. To supplement this there would be a multi-volume  Encyclopedia of Dhamma  comprehensively and authoritatively covering every aspect of the Buddhism.  Both the  Cula Tipitaka  and the  Encyclopedia  would be available in every  public library in the country. These and other educational resources would be  available from the Buddhayana’s own publishing company which, being run by monastics,  would be able to produce them at reduced prices.   Buddhayana would have at least two seminaries, one for training monks and male lay teachers and another for nuns and female lay teachers. The education   would be liberal, critical, wide-ranging  and imbued with the spirit of the Dhamma. Some graduating   from these institutions would go on to university to do specialist studies  before  commencing  on their duties. 

Another aspect of the Buddhayana’s educational endeavors would be to promote the Dhamma as widely as possible. The Buddha’s exhortation to ‘go forth for the good of the many’ would be taken very seriously. Rationally planned campaigns to promote the Dhamma within specific groups and in certain areas would be a prominent part of Buddhayana activity. All universities would have a Buddhayanist chapel, a chaplain and a study group as would many other institutions. Declining, weak, or neglected Buddhist communities in Asia – Malay speaking Thais in northern Malaysia, Dalits in India, Tamangs and Newaris in Nepal, Chakmas in Bangladesh etc, would be major beneficiaries of dhammaduta campaigns. Some of these people would be brought to the West for training while Buddhayanists in the West would be specially trained to serve such communities. Together they would work for both the spiritual and material welfare of these people. The Trailoka Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayak Gana, the Indian branch of the WBO, and the Tzu Chi Foundation of Taiwan would be excellent models for such work. Buddhayana would give special attention to promoting the Dhamma in India, not only because of its enormous potential there but also as an expression of gratitude to the Indian people for giving the world the Buddha.

How would Buddhayana fund itself and its various undertakings and projects? It goes without saying that Buddhayanists would never squander their precious resources on gigantic Buddhas, garish over-decorated temples or lavish ceremonies. In fact they would the severest critics of such embarrassing wastage. Simply not having this drain within the Buddhayana community would mean that there was plenty of money available. Buddhayana would seek to rationalize and modernize the open-handed generosity characteristic of traditional Theravada and this too would be a good source of funds. Like other charitable organizations, some of its good works would be eligible for government grants while others would attract the generosity of a sympathetic public. The business enterprises run by some monasteries would be highly profitable and the excess after expenses were met would go into a central treasury, although all financial matters would be handled by lay persons. Likewise, when there was an excess in local temples this would go into this same treasury. This central treasury would be carefully managed and temples, monasteries or groups would submit proposals when they needed funds. When these were approved grants would be made.

Buddhayanists will never be even a large minority within  Western societies but  their influence  will be out of proportion to their numbers.  Like Quakers and  liberal Jews  they would be respected for their liberal and humane outlook,  admired for their charitable work and be well-known as progressive and active community leaders. The best advertisement for Buddhism would be the lives and examples of Buddhayanists  themselves. A  good number of well educated thoughtful   people would see  Buddhayana as an attractive alternative to the dogmatism of Christianity or the emptiness of secularism. Far from being just an exotic curiosity Buddhayana would be well integrated into  Western society.

Is all this just a pipe dream or could it be actually feasible? Something like what I have called Buddhayana has already been envisaged and brought into being, although not surprisingly, by someone more influenced by Mahayana and Vajrayana than by Theravada. The Western Buddhist Order and the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order were founded in 1967 and now have dozens of centers and thousands of members throughout the West and in India. The large and flourishing Indian branch of the FWBO is known as the Trilokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana. There are Buddhist groups in the West which at first glance appear to be firmly established but which are actually dependant on monks from Asia or Western monks trained in Asia, on funds from Asia or from Asian expatriate communities. The WBO has seen the danger of this sort of dependency and has succeeded in being self-supporting and self-sustaining. The apparent success of some other groups is due to a single charismatic teacher and they quickly go into the doldrums when he or she dies, leaves or falls from grace. The WBO’s initial success was to a large extent due to Sangharashita’s charismatic personality but the main focus has always been on the Dhamma, the benefits of the spiritual life and the attraction of being part of a dynamic and growing community. The WBO runs its own highly successful business enterprises freeing it from a complete dependence on donations and which at the same time provides its members with meaningful work. The Goenka and the Ajhan Chah movements are centered almost entirely on meditation while the WBO takes a more integrated approach, stressing meditation but also the intellectual, the social and even the economic and aesthetic dimensions of the Dhamma. This not only does justice to the richness of the Buddhist tradition, it gives the WBO a much wider appeal as well. Members of the WBO are almost the only Western Buddhists I ever meet who seem to have an informed view of Buddhism in Asia instead of the usual dreamy idealized one and I suspect that this has had a role in their success too. It has allowed them to see and adopt what is good in the Buddhist tradition and reject what is not, rather than swallowing the whole package.

Historians often say that as Buddhism spread it changed to make itself relevant to the new cultures it encountered. However, this suggests that some sort of agreed upon policy was at work and that the process of adjustment and adaptation was a conscious one,  which  was certainly not the case. Change took place  haphazardly, often unintentionally  and sometimes to Buddhism’s detriment  One of many examples of this would be the caste systems in Sri Lanka and the Katmandu Valley. When Buddhism came to these two regions caste was already established but rather than change society,  it was Buddhism that changed. Buddhism compromised on its teachings of human equality and dignity  and accommodated itself to the institution of caste. Thus even today  Sri Lanka’s Siyam Nikaya will only ordain males from the highest caste and Newari Buddhists will not allow  people of other castes into their temples. Sangharashita’s genius was not just that he saw the need for indigenization  long before anyone else but that he understood that the process of indigenization had to be conscious and deliberate. He set out to evolve a movement with an organizational structure and an interpretation of the Dhamma that would take into account the realities of Western society without compromising   with those  aspects of it that were at odds with Dhamma.  Not surprisingly, the result has been highly successful and qualifies Sangharashita to be considered one of the few original   Buddhist thinkers  of the last  three hundred years. It also qualifies him to be considered the first authentic Western Buddhist as opposed to being merely a Westerner who has adopted the Buddhism  of Tibet, Japan, Burma or Thailand. This is not to say that the   WBO  has  all the answers but it is an important step in the right direction. The WBO has not been free from   problems either, the most serious of  which have been  caused by Sangharashita’s  somewhat  dubious interpretations of several aspects of the Dhamma. But it has shown itself capable of change and more importantly, of critical self-examination - a sophistication entirely absent amongst Asian Buddhists. The WBO proves that a cross-pollination  of the best of modern Western thought with the best of ancient Buddhist wisdom can revitalize  the Dhamma. What is needed now is more realistic visionaries like Sangharashita.  

See also

Modern Theravada

References