A Response to Tricycle Interview with Shayne Clarke

The Summer 2016 issue of Tricycle Magazine contained an interview with Shayne Clarke, a Buddhist scholar who specialises in the monastic vinaya. It was all quite sensationalist, which apparently tends to be Clarke’s style. To the uninitiated it could easily give a very weird view of monastic Buddhism. A response was called for.

Ven. Ānandajoti (of Ancient Buddhist Texts) alerted me to the article and asked me if I wanted to respond, which I agreed to. I did send a short version of my response to the editors of Tricycle, but I have no idea whether it ever got published. However, I agreed to the editors’ request not to put anything online until October. Which is now! So, for anyone who is interested, here is my full response to the Shayne Clarke interview.

I refer to the interview with Shayne Clarke, titled “Rules for Pregnant Nuns & Married Monks”, published in your summer 2016 issue. Shane Clarke’s ideas are in part an important contribution to Buddhist studies and in part sensationalism. A response is needed.

On the contribution side, his emphasis on taking account of all extant textual lineages of early Buddhism is very important. The Buddhist canon was handed down and developed by a number of different Buddhist schools, and there is no a priori reason why any one of these should be given priority over the others. Only by taking into account all the available material can we expect to get the best possible understanding of the early Buddhist teachings.

Unfortunately, Shane Clarke does not make full use of the potential of such an approach. One of the incomplete tasks of Buddhist studies is to chronologically stratify the vinaya material used by Clarke. It is generally accepted by scholars that the canonical vinaya must have developed over a considerable period of time. For instance, a significant part of the vinaya has a commentarial nature, and it is uncontroversial that this material must have developed after the rules upon which it comments. The later material is more likely to belong to sectarian Buddhism, whereas the earlier parts may belong to the source material that is common to all of Buddhism. This is an important distinction, since it is only the material that belongs to the common heritage of all Buddhists that is normative for Buddhism as a whole. Using such an approach, Clarke would have succeeded in reconciling some, perhaps all, of “the contradictory statements” that he claims to have discovered.

Clarke does everyone a service by pointing out the human side of early Buddhist monasticism, and the vinaya material that he bases his findings on is well suited for this purpose. For those who are practicing these teachings, it can be a hindrance if early Buddhism is placed on a pedestal and early Buddhists are somehow regarded as superhuman. It is reassuring to know that the early Buddhists were no different from us, and yet they were often able to achieve outstanding results on the Buddhist path.

I also applaud Clarke’s enthusiasm in getting original texts translated into modern languages. But translating a few stories, as Clarke has done in his book, is not enough. It would be a very valuable service to Buddhist studies if more academics would do translation work. Sadly, this is a rarity in academia.

Although Clarke’s contribution is significant, his approach does suffer from some serious shortcomings. A glaring problem is his exclusive reliance on the monastic vinaya, because of which he ends up creating a caricature of ancient Indian monasticism. The monastic vinaya is all about the misbehaviour of monastics and as such does not represent the overall conduct of the monastic community. His approach is like trying to establish the general norms of behaviour for a particular society from its criminal records. The outcome would be very lopsided and would give rise to very dubious conclusions. To get a more balanced view, Clarke would have done well to take account of the broader literature of early Buddhism, especially the sutras. To think that you get a realistic picture of monastic Buddhism in ancient India by focusing solely on the vinaya is sheer fantasy.

It is not just the lack of overall perspective that mars Clarke’s approach. Sometimes his claims are based on misinterpretations of the material he is considering. One such problem is his statement that:

What I was seeing was that for the monk who commits the first pārājika, in all Buddhist monastic law codes, apart from the Pali texts, there is a process by which this person can remain within the Sangha in a demoted status.

This is really an argument from silence, and Clarke draws the wrong conclusion. Apart from the fact that one is no longer a fully ordained monk or nun, the Pali texts do not say anything about the relationship one may have with the Sangha after committing a pārājika offence. Since anything not explicitly prohibited is normally regarded as allowable, the silence of the vinaya implies that one may continue as a monastic at the lower level of a novice monk or nun. The status of a novice would be very similar, perhaps identical, to the “demoted status” mentioned in the other textual recensions. In both cases one would still be part of the broader monastic community, but one would be barred from formal acts of the Sangha, in which only fully ordained members can take part. The difference Clarke sees between the Theravada school and the other schools evaporates upon closer inspection.

Another of Clarke’s comments, a rather incendiary one, is based on a perspective that is too narrow. Clarke claims:

If you look at all the other monastic law codes in Chinese and Tibetan, a monk who without a single thought of concealment—and that’s a key phrase—confesses his offense is granted a type of probationary status. But if we look only at the Pali material, then we see that he’s no longer a monk or he’s excommunicated. If we look at the other traditions, we might say, from a Westerner’s perspective, they’re more “Buddhist.” It’s a more compassionate response.

This is highly dubious. As I have argued above, the vinayas of the different schools are not as different as Clarke seems to think, and the degree of expulsion (not “excommunication”) from the monastic community is roughly the same. More importantly, compassion cannot be measured in such a simplistic way. We are here dealing with a monastic institution, and it is obvious that the integrity of that institution is of utmost importance. If an individual threatens this integrity, it is only reasonable that they are mildly chastised, and this is why there are rules of conduct. If, after repeated admonishment, the individual is unable or unwilling to change their ways, then expulsion from the Sangha may sometimes be required. Such procedures exist in all the extant vinayas, and it is doubtful that the Sangha would be able to function properly without them. To single out one vinaya as less compassionate than the others is based on a lack of overall perspective.

Moreover, the monastic vinaya of all schools is in fact a very compassionate document. Physical punishment is non-existent, and the only form of disciplinary action – and this is used only for serious offences – are mild forms of shaming, such as a temporary demotion in status. In specific instances of misbehaviour, the Buddha always asks the offending monastic for their point of view before deciding what to do. According to the vinaya, a preceptor should regard their students as their sons or daughters. If either a student or their preceptor becomes remorseful, the other party should find ways of dispelling it, and if one of them falls into an offence, the other should help them go through the procedure of rehabilitation. Seeing an offence against the monastic vinaya for what it is, is called “growth” in the Dhamma, and offences are always dealt with by trying to rehabilitate the individual. And the list goes on.

Occasionally Clarke’s statements are based on a misreading of the original:

But we can take the well-known story of the monk Sudinna, who goes back to his home and his parents because, basically, his family wants him to impregnate his wife. They need an heir in order to avoid taxes. So he has sex with his wife, but then he goes on to attain arhatship after that, which is the goal of Buddhism.

This is not what the vinaya says, at least not in the Pali account. It seems other scholars too have misinterpreted this passage, but in fact it is quite unambiguous. The Pali mentions three people – Sudinna, his wife, and their son – two of whom went forth and became arahants. Clarke apparently takes one of the two to be Sudinna, but this cannot be the case since he had already gone forth. The two can only refer to Sudinna’s wife and their son. If one is going to make such controversial claims, one should make doubly sure that one has properly understood the source material.

At other times his presentation is misleading:

In what book do you find discussion of nursing nuns, or child-caring and nannying nuns at all, let alone to learn that this is said to be authorised by the Buddha? But these things are just sitting there in the vinaya texts.

To say that this was “authorised by the Buddha”, without giving the context, is to distort the content of the vinaya. The main issue at stake concerns nuns who were ordained after they got pregnant, but this was only discovered later on. The Buddha needed to find a practical and compassionate way of dealing with these cases. An important point is that these stories function as background narratives for the laying down of rules against ordaining women with such responsibilities. It is therefore unlikely that many such women would have entered the order after the rules had been established. In other words, these may have been one-off incidents. This is further strengthened by the fact that nuns would generally have had to practice for two years as sikkhamānas before ordination. This would largely have precluded pregnant nuns from being ordained, and consequently nuns who were breastfeeding or looking after young children would hardly have existed.

Sometimes Clarke makes statements for which there is no apparent support:

The other thing to remember is that although sutras were written for public consumption, the vinayas were not; they are strictly in-house documents, for monastic eyes and ears only—and perhaps for good reason!

There is no evidence for this. It seems that everything, both the sutras and the Vinaya, was the province of the monastics in the early days of Buddhism: there is a pātimokkha rule against monastics teaching the Dhamma verbatim to lay people. Apart from this, there seems to have been no limits on what the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs could tell the lay people, even in terms of vinaya. A large number of cases are recorded in which the Buddha took lay people’s criticism of monastic behaviour very seriously, and there is no evidence he did not want them to have a general acquaintance with the monastic rules. In the vinaya account of the first communal recitation (saṅgīti) the monastic rules are said to be known to householders and the lay people are said to know what is and what is not allowable for monastics.

Another example of Clarke’s misleading statements:

There are many otherwise unallowable things that are allowable as long as they are done out of the public eye. Because the last thing you want is potential donors grumbling.

This is far too cynical. It is true that there are some minor rules of such a kind, but they only concern the proper deportment and dress code for monastics when they enter inhabited areas. That such rules should exist is hardly surprising. When it comes to rules about morality, full integrity of the monastic is expected, and there are no exceptions for inhabited areas.

A final example should suffice to make the point of Clarke’s lack of balance:

I think of the Japanese clergy as an example. Japanese priests are generally married. They drink alcohol. They handle money. … I don’t think Indian Buddhist monks had gone quite that far, but they may have been leaning closer to the Japanese model than previously recognized. If you look at Newar Buddhism in contemporary Nepal, monks continue to live in households, which are called viharas, and they are married and have children, and their sons inherit their temples. This is probably not as different from the Indian Buddhism as described or understood or assumed by the authors and/or redactors of the monastic law codes.

But the Japanese Buddhist clergy do not follow the monastic vinaya, mostly because they were forced to marry during the Meiji restoration era. The Newar clergy, too, do not practice the vinaya. By way of contrast, we have no reason to believe that this was the case in ancient India. In fact, the very purpose of the origin stories in the vinaya is to show what kind of conduct was acceptable and what was not. To say that “This is probably not as different from the Indian Buddhism as described or understood or assumed by the authors and/or redactors of the monastic law codes” is really a non-sequitur. Comparing Newar Buddhists or the Japanese clergy to the monastics of ancient India is to compare apples with oranges – the former do not practice the vinaya, while the latter did.

There are numerous other problems with Clarke’s comments, but this should be enough to give a flavour of the shortcomings of his approach. To sum up, although there is much of value in Clarke’s writing, it suffers from a one-sided and sensationalist approach. Sensationalism is often at the expense of a third party. In this case that third party is monastic Buddhism.


I liked this essay very much, Venerable Brahmali, except for the very last sentence, which ends your cogent and courteous statement on a discordant accusatory note. I don’t know that its is helpful to promote speculation about the ulterior motives of the author, about which people can only guess. Perhaps it would be better just let the rest of the essay stand with the criticisms of both the factual errors and misguided approach that can be discerned from the writing alone?


I am glad that Ajahn Brahmali called it as he sees it. Too often, academics are driven by self promotion, and allow careful analysis of a subject to drift into sensational themes. Unfortunately, it seems that in the academic “publish or perish” world, those that shout loudest may be the only ones heard. Especially as we are in an environment where the proper dissemination of the Dhamma and Vinaya is so critical, it doesn’t hurt for our leading scholar monks and nuns to call these offenses as they see them, and to voice these objections in a clear, dignified voice. Otherwise, one risks being the quiet objector in the room of shouting sensationalists, and risks never being seen or heard.


Yes, the last sentence is a bit polemical. Perhaps you are right that it would have been better left out. At the same time, I tend to agree with @Anagarika below. I think he is right when he says academics sometimes prefer shouting to a balanced approach. For now I will leave it as it is, since I feel the statement is justified.


@Brahmali @DKervick

Dear Bhante,

I was just rereading your response to Shayne Clarke’s interview, which I think is excellent though I also have mixed feeelings re: the last sentence. While I agree it may be justified (in that it seems he’s probably doing just that), I do not think it adds to the rest of your response but instead slightly weakens it. It takes the focus away from your actual arguments (by venturing into your opinion about his personal motives instead of your well-written and clear critique of what he does & why it’s not altogether accurate or trustworthy) . Ending with the middle sentence of the last paragraph, to me, makes your response stronger.


Thanks for the comment, Linda. The last sentence is not really meant to be about Shayne Clarke’s motives, but about the actual effect of a sensationalist approach. Perhaps something like this would be better: “In effect, Clarke is promoting his own career at the expense of monastic Buddhism.”


Dear Bhante,

OK, I see now there’s a difference between questioning his motives and noting the effects of a sensationalist approach. Good point, and I do think your alternate wording works better, though I’d prefer something more specific in order to clarify, such as “A sensationalistic approach may attract attention and promote one’s career, but in this case it does so at the expense of monastic Buddhism by obscuring and misinterpreting key facts.”

My sentence isn’t necessarily well-written but something along this line might make it seem less like a judgement of a particular person’s motives and instead point out , as you say, the effect that this kind of approach can have. So just my two cents…

I sure hope the short version you sent to Tricycle got published (I don’t read the magazine, unless I happen to see a specific article someone references, so I don’t know).

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to my taste too the last sentence sounds like getting personal instead of ‘neither overrating nor underrating but speaking only Dhamma’ in the language of MN 139

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To me, the above is the most important point, which events such as the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church highlight. Some sexual abuse scandals of non-ordained Tibetan lamas also come to mind. I get the impression one primary rationale of such as systematic Vinaya is to protect both the institution and the public. This needs to be highlighted since real compassion certainly is not endangering the public in respect to the monastic & priestly requirements of absolute trustworthiness & harmlessness.

For me, a very ‘Protestant’ comment in terms of appearing to not discern the liberative purpose of celibacy. This may be inherited from a Western framework where Christianity, particularly the Catholic church, has historically poorly defined the rationale for celibacy.

Possibly. I personally did not feel the article was particularly harmful to monastic Buddhism because of its quite obvious sensationalist nature & its apparent lack of appreciation for the virtue of morality designed to negate harm. In other words, I felt the article’s trivial nature & weak academic arguments harmed the author’s career more than it harmed monastic Buddhism.

I did find your reply very appropriate & educational but would agree the last sentence is probably not necessary since your clear highlighting of the errors of the article is more than sufficient.

As I previously mentioned, I find the views very ‘Protestant’ and it might possibly appeal to a similar Protestant audience, who can project outwardly a non-disposition towards the idea of celibacy to the point of diminishing their own discernment/wisdom about why the Vinaya is so crucial & important. I recall Ajahn Brahm highlighting in a video speech somewhere how impeccable (harmless) the behaviour of his monks has been since establishing in Australia, which I found inspiring & think others also would to dispel cynicism towards monasticism.

I think the rationale for celibacy, namely, being merely a vehicle for jhana (rather than an implicit rejection of sexuality), should somehow be highlighted & often explained.

Which exact rule is this? Thank you :deciduous_tree:

Thanks, @LXNDR. I have amended it again to make it less personal.

Hi Deele,

I suppose it depends on the audience. For many, especially very committed Buddhists, you are probably right; they will dismiss it as over the top. But I think there is a large segment of Western Buddhism where the appreciation of monasticism is very weak and for which this sort of interview certainly does not help.

And I think you have good point on the importance of showing the linkage between deep meditation and celibacy, or to be more precise, sexual abstinence. But that will have to be for another occasion …

Bhikkhu pācittiya 4: “If a monk instructs a person who is not fully ordained to memorise the Teaching, he commits an offence entailing confession.” (my translation)


Thank you Ajahn Brahmali. I am reading bhikkhu pācittiya 4 now. With metta. :seedling:

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