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Bhante Shravasti Dhammika's book "Broken Buddha"

Following the discussion started here I would like to invite all those who may have had a chance to read or eventually become interested in reading Bhante Shravasti Dhammika’s book "Broken Buddha"to share their impressions and views on the content and message of the book.

It is important to state out clearly that Bhante Dhammika is not in his book advocating for a model of Buddhism in which there are no bhikkhus or bhikkhunis.

Bhante Dhammika’s first present us a realistic view of the issues within contemporary Theravada in the countries in which it is a predominant folk religion such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Myanmar.

He does as well put forth the argument that disagreements around interpretation and adherence to Vinaya training rules has been since the early days of Buddhism a source of fragmentation and sectarianism. This is not an unusual argument and other authors like Bhante Sujato have a similar view on that (as per his book Sects & Sectarianism).

Above all, it is important that in his conclusion to the book, Bhante Dhammika proposes that a way to save Buddhism from the flaws of its folkloric / regional idiosyncrasies a new Dhammavada or Buddhavada should be created.

He ends up calling this new approach a Buddhayana:

Buddhayana would be governed by a properly constituted and legally recognized mahasabha
(…) The mahasabha would be a corporate body owning all Buddhayana property and assets and represent it in all matters.

"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.

So far Bhante Dhammika’s Buddhayana is pretty much aligned with what we find in EBTs. Things start getting interesting when we read:

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 teacher

Here I start to have my doubts. I totally agree with what he is trying to address here: the risk of people with psychological issues taking the robes as a conscious or unconscious way to fly under the radar of society. Given that he is a bhikkhu himself I must assume he had encountered some really crazy characters in his years in robe!

The question I have is who has the right of allowing or not someone to fulfill his spiritual aspirations?

The way the training rules are explained and analysed in the Vinaya Pitaka implies that the society in which the Sangha originally took shape there was a lot of tolerance towards insanity, which in turn apparently was understood more as a temporary condition than a definitive or long lasting one: every single training rule has exception clauses for when individuals find themselves insane or out of their minds!

Interestingly, Bhante Dhammika’s Buddhayana apparently is not about getting rid of clergy but formalizing it further**:

**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 (contemplative) 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.

Last but not least, Bhante Dhammika’s Buddhayana is not about denying renunciation and discipline. Instead, it is all about people genuinely following them!

"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.

Where things go weird is when some sort of lay ordination is proposed:

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.
(…)
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.

I really don’t understand how this can make sense vis-a-vis the fact Buddhism is a spiritual tradition which pertains to the sramana movement - defined exactly by the proposition of spiritual life outside the usual mode of being of laity and based on some sort of austerity or restraint.

While in other traditions the move into homelessness is based on arguments of faith or logical deductions, in Buddhism we see something totally different. The Buddha is depicted in suttas like DN2 presenting a comprehensive portrait of the path of training he proposes, illustrating each stage of the training within a gradual training framework - from the external aspects of change in livelihood and environment to the inner aspects of solid development positive states and the access to insight-bearing and transformative stillness of jhanas.

From this point, Bhante Dhammika’s Buddhayana goes wild in its idealism, passing by ecumenism and even proposing further polishing to existing chanting styles and eventual creation of new Buddhist art trends! He even suggests inspiration to be drawn from Quakers:

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

The book ends with a “Final Word” chapter in which Bhante Dhammika’s gives us some insight into what may be a key driver for his concerns and idealization of his Buddhayana:

It would be easy to think that because Theravada has such ancient and apparently deep roots in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia that it will be there forever. (…)
During a recent visit to Cambodia I was shocked to see how many evangelical Christian churches there were and how many people they attracted. Just thirty years ago there were almost no Christians in the country, now they make up a significant minority and all indications are that their numbers will continue to grow.
(…)
Whatever Theravada’s future in Asia it certainly has no long term future in the West. Western Buddhists must
develop confidence enough to stop accommodating Theravada, rationalize it or copying it.
At present Western societies are very receptive to all types of Buddhism but there is no guarantee that this trend will continue. It would be a tragedy if Buddhism fails to take advantage of this rare and wonderful opportunity.

All that said, let me propose and try to answer few reflection questions for discussion in this thread:

How do you relate what you read in the Vinaya to what Bhante Sravasti Dhammika is saying in his book?

I see no difference between the spirit of the Vinaya’s training rules - as per the analysis recorded in the Bhikkhu Vibhanga - and what he proposes in his conclusion as a Buddhayana.

How did his book affect your practice?

Reading Bhante Dhammika’s Buddhayana Manifest only served to make me more awareness of how complicating it can be to not seek to calm down one’s tendencies towards idealistic proliferation!

The Buddha taught in an ancient India in which things were much likely even more challenging than they are right now, and still all his focus was towards inspiring people through an inner and gradual journey towards awakening.

As properly recorded in EBTs, external and communal rules and codes of conduct were established as the need aroused and are never presented as anything but ways of allowing those able to renounce and take robes to “ward off those things that are the basis for taint” (MN65)

How does Bhante Sravasti Dhammika’s book relate to the EBTs?

I struggle to find in the book a proper thesis on whether Vinaya was or not originally part of Buddha’s teachings.

If one is to follow that path he/she will definitely have lot of trouble explaining how the concept of discipline-based removal of unwholesome behaviors vinaya is all about was inserted by members of an ancient wicked clergy into every single nikaya!

PS: For those concerned about copyrights, Bhante Dhammika has a blog entitled Dhamma musings and has himself shared the the link to the PDF version of his book I provide above and upload to this topic as well. brokenbuddhanew.pdf (679.2 KB)

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Gabriel, thanks for posting this post and the link to Broken Buddha. I had read Broken Buddha years ago, and this morning was a nice opportunity to review it again.

I’m not that familiar with Shravasti Dhammika, but have read his blog time to time over the years, and I have the distinct impression that he’s a good person with a good heart, with an intellect that gives hm the ability to express his eclectic interests rather well in writing and photography. I see also that he has been a fairly prolific Dhamma speaker to various groups in Singapore, and his talks are lively and thoughtful.

It seems to me that Broken Buddha tells well one side of the coin; the dysfuntion in Theravada monastic life. The essay does not reflect heavily on what “Theravada” Buddhism has been doing well of late, and serves as a wakeup call to all that care about Theravada Buddhism in Asia and the West. He makes mention of Spirit Rock as an example of the modern way forward, but he certainly could have highlighted Bodhinyana, Sutta Central, Buddhist Global Relief, as exemplars of what is good, progressive, and vigorous about modern “Theravada.”

Part of the sense that I have is that the Buddha and his disciples of the EBTs gives us an example of the kind of engaged, comassionate life that the Buddha envisioned for his monks and nuns. I don’t feel that “Theravada” needs to drift to a classic overarching corporate model (ie how to herd cats into a bag) , nor do we need to celebrate Spirit Rock over modern monastic life in the West. The Buddha of the EBTs, and the Ananda of Broken Buddha are strong inspiration:

Ananda, you have been in the Tathagata’s presence expressing love with body, expressing love with speech, expressing love with mind, beneficially, blessedly, whole-heartedly, unstintingly. You have achieved much good, Ananda. Make a last effort and in a short time you will be freed from the defilements’ (D.II,144). What does the phrase ‘expressing love through body’ (mettena kaya kamena) mean here? Surely the Buddha was saying that Ananda’s years of selfless giving, of quiet helpfulness and of thinking of others and putting them before himself, had allowed him draw near the portals of Nirvana. Surely Ananda’s loving actions were his meditation.

I’ve always liked Bhikkhu Bodhi’s admonition that one needs to, from time to time, get up off the cushion, assess one’s aptitudes and interests, and see how one, like Ananda, might employ mettena kaya kamena in lay or monastic life. My goal ( such as goals exist) is to ask for higher 10 precept ordination in a few years, assuming there’s a Thai wat foolish enough to accept me, and to have a more engaged practice, such as doing some NGO and/or legal work in Thailand for refugees and trafficked victims, this along with meditation and study. I’d like to round out my life this way, and Broken Buddha highlights both the progress possible and the pitfalls to be wary of in Thailand. I don’t have the amazing gifts of scholarship and heartfelt expression that Bhante Sujato has, nor the scholarship and wisdom of Ajahn Brahmali, nor the ability to inspire and engage thousands the way Ajahn Brahm is gifted. I know my limitations. But as Bhikkhu Bodhi suggests, we take what we have and try to deploy it in a suffering world as best we can. If Broken Buddha taught me anything, it suggests that a more reformed, more engaged path is perhaps a more vibrant path, and one that may pave the way for Theravada’a future vitality.

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I have not read the book but your overview with quotes is so well-done that I now know enough to comment on it.

His ideas of reforming Buddhist institutions are unrealistic. They posit an exertion of an inordinate amount of control. A corporate entity controlling all Buddhist property and assets? That’s a recipe for corruption and abuse. As is the case in every large human institution, concentration of power attracts corrupt people like feces attracts flies. And it creates so many problems. Who would decide thorny issues, like bhikkhuni ordination? Who would sit on the board of directors? Who would formulate the structures and laws of the organization? Also, non-Theravada tradition and practitioners would not want to subscribe to this clearly Theravada-flavored Buddhayana. And there are far more non-Theravada vs. Theravada folks.

It seems to me that the great flowerings of Dhamma come from the bottom-up, not the top-down. It is the practice of extraordinary individuals and those who are inspired in Dhamma because of them who have and will continue to keep the sasana flourishing. He is proposing a top-down reform that, if it were even plausible to implement, would lead to the opposite of its intention.

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I read this the first time over two years ago when I had first moved to the monastery. This was a time for me when a lot of the expectations, ideals, and preconceived notions I had about monks and monasticism were being broken down and replaced by reality, and I found this article to be extremely valuable.

WHile I don’t really consider myself a Theravadin(personally I like Suttavadin), I’m not quite sure I’d jump at the Buddhayana either. I’ve never been to any of the Buddhist countries, but I’ve seen a lot of what he speaks about right here in America, with both westerners and cultural Buddhists.

I would be interested in the opinions of Bhante @sujato and Ajahn @brahmali in relation to Bhante Dhammika’s article however.

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I agree, Venerable.

Broken Buddha was one of the things that saved me and my faith at a period when I was thoroughly crushed after staying at monasteries and wats in Asia.
It should be compulsory reading for every serious Buddhist.

The whole Buddhayana thing is a pretty minor part of the book, and I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be literal, maybe more just Bhante Dhammika’s vision and way of saying ‘Here’s what we could do differently, and how’, rather than simply criticizing.

There is something irksome about a top-down concept though.
I dislike using such terminology, but I think there’s much to be said about coming face to face with, and integrating the ‘shadow’ side of our faith. And the whole picture Broken Buddha paints does that very well.

I hope such reflections do provide impetus for a ‘bottom-up’ change.
…After all, it all starts with suffering…

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The ‘shadow side’ is defilements being acted out, in various settings.

We can know the ‘drawbacks’ (aadinava) of the system from this book. I personally found it a bit too negative.

With metta

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I really liked the book when I first read it because it raises so many difficult topic that tend to be overlooked by virtually all religious traditions. Reading it will help you confront reality and abandon the ideliazed picture of the Buddhism and Theravada you had in your mind - something that probably never existed in the real world even back in the Buddha’s day.

I didn’t really like the Buddhayana part. If you give it a name, you objectify the unobjectifiable, you create an identity, and each identity is bound to become rigid at some point in time, which would mean confrontation with Theravada, Mahayana and any other competing Buddhist identities out there. I think it is bound to eventually lead to what Ven. Shravasti Dhammika wanted to avoid in the first place. So yeah, overall a great thought-provoking book with great observations and ideas, but also some flawed and apparently not well thought-out suggestions near the end.

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It can be heartbreaking to immerse oneself into the Dhamma, and have this joy and saddha in the Triple Gem, and yet have that faith challenged by some of the bad acts, and bad actors, in some of the wats. I wish I had been less idealistic before going to live in Thailand 7 years ago; this book warned me, but I didn’t listen well. and it did not fully prepare me for what I lived and experienced in the wats, at times. So much good I have found in Thailand, but some really bad stuff, too.

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Strangely , I never had this problem. I started my journey by turning up to my local Thai Wat. While it was the inspiration of the ordained and lay people that propelled me into the Dhamma, it was immediately apparent that there is a wide range of levels of dedication and practice among the lay and ordained community. The disconcerting things that one can come across in Asia, such as seeing monks selling amulets on the streets in Bangkok, was then rather unsurprising.

I never finished the book, since I didn’t find it particularly interesting, for the reasons I’ve explained above. In fact, I was surprised to find later that the Venerable was still in robes, given the bitter tone of the book!

It seems that the book can be helpful for dispelling romantic notions of how Buddhism plays out in Buddhist-oriented societies. However, I do hope that it does not put off people from seeking the genuinely excellent support that may be available close to them, and the amazing things one can find in Asia.

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Mike, if anything, my negative experiences ( and the issues raised in the book) only strengthen my saddha and resolve. I am happy that Cara persevered. I, too, wished to persevere. Rather than blindly accepting every Thai wat and every abbot at face value, my experiences only caused me to do some due diligence. Once my idealistic blinders were removed, I began to discover the temples that practice and keep Vinaya, and the ethical and skilled teachers that are opening Dhamma doors for others. Of course, I am glad that your Path has been inspiring from the start; this is really how it should be for everyone. Shravasti Dhammika has written a book that should be required reading, not to discourage or disheartern, but to inspire travelers on this Path to do the due diligence, and put forth the effort necessary to not fall into troubling situations. I wish that Theravada wats did not have these pitfalls, but some of them do. It’s good that we are having this discussion here on the subject.

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I wonder what advice the experienced folk here would give the naive and idealistic newbie before setting off on his/her first Wat/temple visit?

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Sort of riffing off of the theme of the Kalama Sutta: investigate. Ask others what worked well. Read up on teachers and the experiences that others have had with these teachers. Do a kind of due diligence to accumulate a body of research, and then strike out and investigate further. Travel far, if need be, rather than going to the nearest resource. Fortunately, with the internet, we now have ways to share this information, and to investigate, and hopefully guide others in the journey so that harms and mistakes are not repeated.

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Well, in my view, It’s due diligence, and open-mindedness, that are important, not the particular opinions expressed in that book.

I think it is also extremely important to be aware that there is both Eastern and Western Folk Buddhism. I would be wary of judging too quickly which things that you see are actually problems, or assuming that there is some perfect version of Buddhism out there somewhere…

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Well, in my view, It’s due diligence, and open-mindedness, that are important, not the particular opinions expressed in that book.
[/quote]
I agree. It’s just the nature of things that bad apples crop up, even in the best of soils. And a parasitic lifestyle can be a successful one from a survival standpoint. We see these things consistently play out in human behavior, and there was never any reason to expect the monastic Sangha to be any different. Though I admit initially having a romantic notion of the behavior of the monastic Sangha, that quickly went away once I began learning more and meeting people in the flesh. This isn’t a call to cynicism, but to common sense and acceptance regarding human behavior.

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Dunno if I’m ‘experienced’ but here’s what I’d say -

  • Prepare to meet the greatest suffering and the greatest joy of your life.
  • Seriously, actually prepare. Learn some psychology or self-help techniques to help yourself cope.
  • Going with a good friend can help.
  • Understand that people are mostly kind and want to help you. The way that comes out might be strange, but accept it with grace and humility. If it’s hurtful, either learn how to let it go quickly or get out.
  • Be humble.
  • Understand and respect cultural differences, but remember that won’t make you part of that culture.
  • If you’re familiar with an existing world religion, well then yes, your new religion has aspects that are just as bad as that one.
  • Know the difference (personally) between pushing yourself and abusing yourself.
  • Show kindness and love to everyone, but trust no-one.
  • Make yourself a refuge. I repeat, make yourself a refuge.
  • Understand that nothing is worth giving up your faith in Dhamma.
  • If you’re a woman, don’t learn to hate yourself or your body because of other people’s defilements, even when those defilements come out as ‘righteousness’.
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Has anyone found in the book’s account of the ‘drawbacks’ (thanks @Mat ) of current (and likely always) imperfect state of Theravada Bhikkhu Sangha any reason to doubt on whether Vinaya was not originally part of Buddha’s teachings?

:anjal:

Even during the Buddha’s time there were plenty of bad monks; monks who got scolded, reprimanded and some who were disrobed. So no, it doesn’t make me doubt the Buddhavacana of the Vinaya at all.

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Some of Ven. Dhammika’s proposals have already come to fruition. There already are lay Dhamma teachers. There are U.S. military Buddhist chaplains, Buddhist prison chaplains, lay Dhamma teachers at large retreat centers; for example IMS and Spirit Rock.

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I think you might be correlating two separate things here, although both of which are good questions.

That there will always be an imperfect state of Bhikkhu (and Bhikkhuni!) Sangha I believe is true.

But whether or not the Vinaya was not originally part of the Buddha’s teaching is an entirely separate, and possibly unrelated question. I read Broken Buddha a while ago, so I’m not sure Bhante Dhammika correlates these in the book.

That there was no patimokkha in the early days of the Buddhasasana is evidenced by SN16.13, MN65 and I guess implied by the narrative in the Vibhanga of the first training rule. The early Sangha didn’t need training rules because they were all arahants. So technically it wasn’t ‘originally’ part of Buddha’s teaching, but most agree the patimokkha itself probably goes back to the Buddha himself or has very very old roots. That’s how I know it anyway, but perhaps I am wrong or not addressing your question at all :smile:

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Thanks Cara!

I myself struggle to find in the book a proper thesis on whether Vinaya was or not originally part of Buddha’s teachings. As you, I connect the same dots on the reasons for not there being a Patimokkha in the very earliest Sangha.

:anjal: