Once you have two people together, it seems, it’s difficult to avoid creating some kind of hierarchy. Even between an older sibling and a younger there is an unspoken dynamic. Unlike most religious organizations, however, the guidelines for the Buddhist monastic community are anti-hierarchical. Despite this, modern Buddhist organizations tend towards a strongly hierarchical model. Is this just a practical evolution, reflecting the more complex times we live in? Or is hierarchy something fundamentally unjust, to be suspected and rejected wherever it appears?
Given that hierarchies dominate organizational systems, their misuse is a major source of suffering. Hierarchies are not merely one benign option among others for organizing things. They are a method whereby power is created and controlled by some, and as a necessary corollary, taken from others. The ethics of hierarchical systems are, therefore, an essential dimension of justice.
Full disclosure: I’m an anarchist by temperament and political leanings, and have been ever since I learned what it meant. I dislike hierarchies, and the feeling is, I suspect, mutual. I am strongly disposed to be suspicious, especially when I hear defenses of hierarchies spoken by powerful men. However, I am not blind to the fact that hierarchy is a fact of the world that we live in, and I have benefited from it as much as anyone.
Hierarchies vary, so let’s look a little at some different dimensions. Please be aware, this is not a subject on which I have any great expertise. I am sure that these things have all been studied in detail in a vast literature of which I am unaware. Here I am simply making a few observations based on my knowledge of the Vinaya and observation of modern organizations.
Dimensions of hierarchy
I’d like to discuss three aspects of hierarchy:
- Hierarchy of organization
- Hierarchy of value
- Hierarchy of power
Hierarchy of organization
A hierarchy of organization is where things, ideas, or people are classified or grouped under a branched hierarchical structure.
The computer you are using is a good example of this. Folders include other folders, and they ultimately include files. Clearly this is a system that works. It is not without its problems of course, as in any moderately complex system it is never 100% clear which folder things belong in. This is why a computer OS has an internal system of links whereby resources in one place in the hierarchy can invoke things across folders.
Another example of this is the organization of a University. There are Departments and Faculties and Schools and Institutes, all of them nested and related in some way. Again, this solves a lot of problems: in what building does this department go? But it also creates problems: once a department is located in a building, its members are relatively isolated from the members of another department in another building, which materially affects the ideas, relations, and output that the department creates.
The Buddha used such hierarchical structures for ideas. Indeed, the Four Noble Truths form an overarching structure, within which all the other teachings can be assigned. The “five grasping aggregates”, for example, are assigned to the first noble truth. The first of the five is the aggregate of form, which then contains the four elements. Each element is further subdivided into internal and external, and so on. Such hierarchical structuring of ideas is implicit throughout the suttas, and is explicitly taught in many places.
But this too has the limitations of any hierarchy. The five aggregates are the “grasping” aggregates, and “grasping” pertains to the second noble truth. It is never possible to fully contain things within a box: hierarchies are leaky. Nevertheless, the hierarchy of organization has proven itself a useful model for organizing ideas.
Hierarchy of value
In the Buddha’s day, the brahmins proposed a hierarchy of value, with themselves at the top. The four castes represented, not just a way that society was organized, but a divinely-decreed system with the workers at the bottom and the brahmins at the top. It is not just that society happens to be this way; this is how God wants it to be.
The Buddha rejected such inherited hierarchies of value, instead arguing that value was determined by one’s deeds. Thus the four kinds of noble person form a hierarchy of value, with the stream-enterer at the bottom and the arahant at the top. The difference between this and the brahmanical system is that one’s position is not fixed, but is determined by one’s own level of insight. Anyone can reach any point in the hierarchy.
In a more general sense, value within a Sangha is related to one’s seniority. A senior is felt to be respected and worthy of honor. However, when you look closely at the Vinaya, this is applied in only a few minor instances; for example, the order in which monastic eat is often in accordance with seniority. And the Buddha is very careful to point out that the true meaning of a senior is one who acts is a respectable way, undermining the notions of automatic authority due to seniority.
Hierarchy of power
In a hierarchy of power, there is someone who gets to tell others what to do, but who cannot be commanded from below. An officer orders a soldier, but a soldier cannot order an officer. This kind of hierarchy is commonly found in religious orders, where the virtue of “obedience” indicates a worthy submission to the higher powers.
The Buddha avoided hierarchies of power, except in very limited circumstances. For himself, since his followers had gone forth out of faith in him, he would make rules and expect them to be followed. But at the end of his life, he allowed the Sangha to relax most of the rules, allowing them to decide for themselves to keep them.
Within the Sangha, a hierarchy of power is only established in certain limited circumstance, namely, in disciplinary proceedings and in the appointment of Sangha officers. In the case of disciplinary proceedings, the authority stems not from any individual but from the Sangha as a whole. This is the normal state of affairs in Vinaya. Only the Sangha, in the sense of the monastics present within a particular monastery boundary, has the authority to make enforceable decisions, and only then when it operates in accordance with the Dhamma and Vinaya.
In the case of Sangha officers, the Sangha delegates its power to an individual. When there is a job needing to be done in the Sangha, for example looking after the monastery stores, the Sangha may appoint a monastic to do the job. That monastic should be competent and capable of doing the job properly. Since it is the Sangha’s duty to ensure that the candidate is competent, once they have taken office, their decisions should be respected within the scope of their job. They do not need to refer back to the Sangha for every little decision.
An individual monastic should not criticize or disobey the Sangha officer within the scope of their duties. For example, if a requisite is scarce and the Sangha officer allocates it to the monastics via a lottery, someone who has missed out should not just take what they want from the stores, nor should they groundlessly accuse the Sangha officer of bias. But if a genuine conflict or difficulty arises, the Sangha can raise the issue and make a decision.
This system is very effective for small organizations like a typical monastery. It allows the community to determine the most important aspects of a task, without burdening people with too many meetings and discussions.
Good hierarchies, bad hierarchies
Considering the above, it seems to me that we can begin to identify certain qualities that distinguish between hierarchies that are healthy and moderate, and those that tend towards absolutism. None of this is, of course, meant to be exhaustive, I am just noticing a few features.
Prefer flat over deep
Deeply nested hierarchies tend to become entrenched, and the deeper the nesting, the less visible are the other branches. Thus organizations tend to become blind to themselves, and end up needlessly competing and replicating efforts.
In addition, consider what happens when decisions are made in deeply nested hierarchies. The one who makes the decision is remote from those who actually carry out the decision, and is immunized from the consequences. The more deeply nested the organization is, the stronger this effect becomes. It is easy to sack a hundred workers if they are no more than numbers on a spreadsheet. If you work beside them and know their families, however, it is not so easy.
Given that large organizations tend to accrue deeply nested hierarchies, this suggests that, if there is to be a hierarchical organization, smaller is better. Very small organizations, on the other hand, don’t really need hierarchy, so hierarchies are most effective for systems of middling complexity.
To illustrate this, again consider computer systems:
- To organize a set of files for a project, like, say essays for D&D, I don’t need a hierarchy, I just plonk them in a folder.
- To organize a complex but fairly predictable system like the GNU-Linux operating system, nested folders are used in a hierarchy.
- To organize a vast and dynamic system like the internet, hierarchical organization fails, and every address may be linked directly from anywhere else.
Prefer flexible over fixed
In the hierarchy of values, whether one is a brahmin or not is fixed at birth and can never be changed. One’s level of spiritual development, however, is constantly evolving, so it is not fixed.
The same thing applies with hierarchies of power. A Sangha officer wields authority within their own domain, but none in the domains of others. The store-master can make the rule about the stores, but when it come time to have the huts assigned, their word means no more than anyone else.
Prefer unmixed over mixed
Notice that in the hierarchies discussed in the Sangha, there is no real overlap. An arahant who asks for a requisite from the stores is subject to the decision of the store-master, just like everyone else. And a Sangha officer is not regarded as spiritually more valued than anyone else.
This is quite different from most hierarchies, where the notions of organization, value, and power overlap. In a typical corporation, for example, one gets promoted to a higher level in the organization; that position is more valued in terms of wages; and in that position you exert more power over more people.
Prefer dynamic over static
Any kind of hierarchical organization tends towards the kinds of problems discussed here over time. And the more entrenched the hierarchy becomes, the worse the problems. Thus it is better to have an organization where the people in decision-making positions change, and also where the positions themselves change. A stream is better than a stagnant pond.
Too much change is, however, disruptive, so there needs to be a balance. For this reason, a healthy rate of turnover should be built into the organization from the beginning.
Prefer impeachable authority over unimpeachable authority
In the Vinaya, a student has the right, indeed the responsibility, to question their teacher if they believe they are drifting from the Dhamma or the Vinaya. If the student cannot bring the teacher back in line, they should leave. An accusation of offenses should be investigated, no matter how senior the monastic. When monastics confess offenses, they do so as equals, regardless of seniority, status, spiritual development, or institutional power.
It is remarkable that the Vinaya includes a mechanism whereby, if a credible accusation of sexual harassment is brought against a monk by a laywoman, the Sangha is obliged to investigate and levy the appropriate punishment. In any organization that does not follow such a rule, you can be sure that sexual harassment is tolerated and unpunished.
Hierarchies in modern Buddhism
Sad to say, organizations in traditional Buddhist countries often ignore the principles espoused by the Buddha and enshrined in the Vinaya, and implement hierarchies that exemplify all these flaws. Organizations tend to be static, deeply nested, with power, value, and position all mixed together, and with no accountability for senior members. Such organizational flaws are not only characteristic of traditional Asian organizations, but are often carried over, in even more extreme forms, to organizations in the West, under the mistaken idea that this is an authentically Buddhist practice.
More progressive organizations have shown the lead in addressing such flaws, taking care to implement feedback mechanisms, using transparent and fair methods for appointing officers, and taking more consideration of the rank and file members.They have also taken the lead in recognizing and redressing the historical marginalization of women, people of color, and people of diverse sexualities and genders. While such things may be perceived as innovations by those are familiar only with 20th century Asian Buddhism, to those of us who study early Buddhism they appear as a welcome revival of the principles followed by the Buddha.
In considering the nature and role of hierarchies it is essential to avoid relying on the opinions of those at the top. The first voice and the last must be those who are excluded by the hierarchies.
In sexist institutions, like many modern Theravadin monasteries, the voices of women are absolutely excluded. This kind of male-dominated hierarchy is called a patriarchy. The idea of patriarchy is complex and may be applied in multiple ways, but here I am using it in the most obvious sense of a hierarchical organization run by men that explicitly denies equality for women.
To understand the nature of patriarchies, one must first listen to the women in the organization. This is not easy, as in such cases women are systematically taught to have no voice and show no respect to their own opinions and experiences. It takes time and trust to draw out an authentic voice, one that is not merely echoing the words of the patriarchs. I have spent countless hours over the past decade and a half listening to the experiences of women who have been harmed by patriarchy. And mine is but a tiny contribution; as always, it is the women themselves who do most of the work. The patriarchs, insulated from the consequences of their actions, do the damage, while others take on the burden of healing.
The purpose of patriarchies is to deprive women of power and agency, allowing men to act with impunity. The obscure and unaccountable nature of patriarchies means that sexual harassment, abuse, and rape are to be expected. Rape is the endgame of patriarchy. We have seen how widespread sexual abuse is in secular environments like Hollywood, or in religious institutions like the Catholic Church. Invariably, the patriarchy locks in behind abusive men. Buddhism has proven itself to be no exception, with multiple sex scandals affecting traditions east and west. The common factor is that these are perpetrated by men in positions of power, and patriarchies protect the perpetrators, not the victims.
Such toxic and violent depravity is maintained within patriarchies by a simple trick of delusion. The patriarchy establishes a sense of unimpeachable authority based on some standard to which they control access, such as ritual authority (like ordination), personal charisma, a sacred place, or a teacher’s tradition. The followers become convinced of the essential purity and righteousness of their patriarchy. No matter how many examples of corrupt patriarchies are exposed, it has no effect, because this one is special. Women collude in defending and supporting their patriarchy, even when it is they or their own children who are abused. The more blindly one asserts one’s own subjugation and relinquishes any semblance of agency, the more one demonstrates one’s spiritual purity and worthiness in the light of the patriarchy. To question or to criticize is to show more than a lack of gratitude; it is to be cut off from spiritual salvation.
This is why, as I noted above, the Buddha made sure to include clauses empowering women to speak against the patriarchy without fear of reprisal, ensuring that due consequences befall men who give way to their darker impulses.
It is only a matter of time. Any patriarchy will fall prey to the same dynamic, because the same darkness lives everywhere in the hearts of men. If you still think that your patriarchy is an exception, perhaps you might ask yourself this: if these men truly are spiritually and morally advanced, why are they so bent on maintaining their own power and prestige? Why do they not follow the Buddha’s lead, given that history has, time and time again, proven him to be correct?
It should go without saying that simply eradicating patriarchies does not end sexual violence. It is just a start, an essential first step. The prejudices and assumptions of patriarchy are embedded in subtle forms, both cultural and psychological, that long outlast the existence of explicit patriarchies. It is in this sense that “patriarchy” becomes used as a more general and hard-to-define term for male privilege and assumed power. Even organizations that work to address such issues do so imperfectly. Still, we must not let this obscure the basic fact: an accountable and fair organization is better than an unaccountable and unfair one.
A healthy hierarchy
It’s an old joke, but still relevant: if you dislike organized religion, Buddhism is for you. Buddhism, with some exceptions, tends to be a distributed and poorly organized movement. Such organization as there is tends to be under-resourced and under-appreciated.
Once we move beyond just a few people coming together to practice, we need some form of organization. This is especially so once real-estate is acquired. This is the defining point at which an organization must get serious about decision-making and accountability. And it is when an organization must consider how it is to deal responsibly with the trust placed in it by its members and donors, and establish a framework to sustain it in the future.
There is no one right way to do this. There are plenty of examples of healthy and accountable organizations that do things in different ways. Some reject hierarchies altogether in favor of flat and networked systems. Others adopt some form of moderate hierarchy, wary of the dangers and alert to avoiding them. Hopefully the principles outlined here will provide some help for those seeking a just and sustainable way of organizing.
Creating organizations should be a part of our Dhamma practice, and it should follow the principles of the Dhamma itself. I’d encourage everyone to become familiar with the basic organizational principles of the Vinaya. Learn how the Buddha did things; this is the wellspring of Dhamma to which Buddhist traditions must always return.
To challenge hierarchy, especially entrenched patriarchies, is our duty. To build accountable and just organizations based on the Dhamma is our privilege. We are blessed to have a Teacher who did not just bequeath us lofty philosophies and high-sounding principles, but who showed in detail how to apply them in material and practical ways. If we take the care to listen to him, we can ensure that our organizations heal without harming.