Skepticism and critique of the Bhikkhu / Bhikkhuni Sangha

Over the years I have noticed within different lay Buddhist circles the occurrence of different shades of skepticism and contempt with regards to the institution of Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Sanghas which to me tend to tick all the boxes of proper conspiracy theories.

[details=About Conspiracy theories]

A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy without warrant, generally one involving an illegal or harmful act carried out by government or other powerful actors.
Conspiracy theories often produce hypotheses that contradict the prevailing understanding of history or simple facts.
According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.
Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore “a matter of faith rather than proof”.
Read more.[/details]

Usually, such theories suggest that the institution of Sangha we find alive nowadays is nothing​ but a way, almost a scam, some smart and lazy people found out to wear different robes, not work nor pay taxes, and get four basic requisites for free. :sweat:

And things like the parajika rule/offense #4 - which forbids bhikkhus or bhikkhunis of claiming any sort of any super-human quality, knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones - are pointed as evidence of the setup of a system in which the “good apples” are never to be identified and therefore the community of scammers not put at risk.

Sadly, such theories require one to deny totally the possibility that the Buddha established through the Vinaya and Patimokkha the foundations and boundaries of a model of right livelihood he Himself identified as the most likely to allow for awakening. Hence adherents of such views usually consider suttas like DN2, AN6.45 and MN 107 just not authentic.

Proponents of such views seem to rely on the peculiar hypothesis that just before his passing away the Buddha would have ordered the dissolution of the Sanghas. And hence the reference to the exhortation for us to be islands or refuges to ourselves.

If you look carefully you may find so-called EBT scholars who somehow adopt investigative stances aligned with such sort of conspiracy theories. And of course this shapes most of their so-called academic insights into a model of Early Buddhism void of Patimokkha or Vinaya.

It is as well a usual pet point of view of those who cannot find either ways to further profit from Dhamma (e.g. for-profit lay teachers, vipassana instructors, etc) or are unable to move themselves towards the level of renunciation required for the holy life to take place and its fruits be heaped. These peculiar individuals are usually looking for ways to identify in EBTs evidence of non-ordained arahants as well.

This topic is therefore created to discuss:

  • to what extent EBTs suggest the Buddha or the early Sangha were met with similar skepticism and/or conspiracy theories, and how they addressed (or not) to it.
  • gather references that tells us of the different ways these conspiracy theories take shape nowadays and how to address it.

The term “conspiracy theory” seems excessive in this context. Similar suspicions and critiques of religious orders have always existed in many times, places and cultures. They are sometimes useful, because they lead to periodic reform movements.


Noted but I disagree.

These suspicions / critiques have all elements of a true conspiracy theory, they rely on the view that the establishment of the Sangha was a process governed by design, and therfore embody three principles:

  • nothing happened by accident, the lazy scammers such theorists believe exist in the Sangha have over the centuries planned the creation of a way of not working and wearing different clothes
  • nothing is as it seems, these scammers are not people making the best of their efforts towards renunciation, virtue and wisdom, they are sneaky individuals perpetuating a lie.
  • and everything is connected, the scam can be traced to a group of original scammers who did not follow Buddha’s instructions for the dissolution of Sangha and practice of a Vinaya-free Dhamma.

Last but not least, I thank in advance for you collaboration towards not causing the discussion here to go astray and off topic - i.e. let’s not turn it into a debate whether or not we can call this kind of stuff conspiracy theory! :sweat_smile:


Well, who are you talking about, specifically? Which scholars? You don’t name any of them. Although I have also encountered many criticisms of the Buddhist monastic establishment along roughly the lines you describe, usually they are not coupled with the idea that it was all planned out long ago as a deliberate racket, and then carried forward to the present day by people who are consciously “in on” the conspiracy.

By peremptorily labeling these kinds of criticisms as “conspiracy theories”, it seems to me that you might be attempting to deflect them without an argument.

Anyway, it is clear that the Buddha was himself quite worried about the possibility that a religious institution might prey on the gullibility of the superstitious and ignorant. His criticisms of the Brahmin priesthood were based on similar criticisms. And he laid down rules against fortune-telling, etc. to prevent the sangha from drifting into similar patterns of wrong livelihood. Unfortunately, his efforts have not been entirely successful.


That’s why I started the thread! Let’s gather references to such sort of views.

Don’t shoot the messenger! I am trying to create here a reference point for the exploration of this phenomena of contemporary Buddhism and seeking hints in EBTs of how those with wisdom have in the past tackled such sort of critiques without pushing people away.

Sorry, I really should have kept my mouth shut. :slight_smile:

I don’t have much to contribute on this topic.

I actually have some experience in what you are talking about. For a great deal of time I stayed well away from anything marked with “Early Buddhism” due to a few bad apples that ruin the bunch.

The usual “evil sangha” conspiracy theory basically involves a complete doctoring/re-write of the Dhamma after the death of the Buddha. Occasionally I have seen “theorists” chose to believe that Mahākāśyapa instigated this “great apostasy”, based on sheer inference and bad “dot-connecting”. This mutilation of the Dhamma always happens to miss the aspects of Buddhism that appeal most, personally, to the conspirator. The paradox that only the bits of Dhamma the conspirator “likes”/agrees with are “authentic” is completely lost on the conspirator.

In addition to throwing out whatever is poorly understood, the “theorist” also almost always tries to incorporate some pre-existing non-Buddhist belief into “Early Buddhism” (i.e. Buddhism “before” the Great Apostasy), lets just say, for the sake of example, believe in the total salvific power of “faith-alone” in the Buddhadharma’s truth. This will be insisted upon as a “vital lost element” of “Early Buddhism”.


Yes, I recall this is what authors like Batchelor suggest.

Well, who are you talking about, specifically? Which scholars? You don’t name any of them.[/quote]
Indeed. I’ve never heard of such scholars. If they exist, they certainly are on the fringe, and the cynical fringe at that. Honestly, I don’t see a good reason for even bringing up and addressing such deplorable views as you’ve described. Why give them exposure? Why stir up the mud?

I don’t want to focus on naming but instead investigating whether the EBTs provide us any reference of how to address this. It is an elephant in the room and it is more present and influential than one would assume.

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I think this is a good point. It is true, as Gabriel says, that there are modern attempts to marginalize or eliminate the monastic Sangha, which clearly go against the grain of what is taught in the suttas. But it is also true that much of what the modern monastic Sangha is does is equally contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching.

At least part of the solution, I hope, is to encourage both lay and monastics to have a better understanding of what was actually taught by the Buddha. A decent education will not solve all problems, but it is a start.


A decent education will solve most of the world’s problem not only the problems of the monastic Sangha.


It’s unfortunate that has been your experience. Mine has been devoid of encountering such views IRL and even on the internet, I rarely see it among Buddhist circles.

Certainly, cynical secular materialists may hold such views, but this is certainly to be expected. I would actually be surprised if that weren’t the case. Their negativity isn’t worthy of a serious response.


True, but that cynical materialism is applied to ALL religions not just Buddhism. They’d say all religions are scams, exploiting fears and insecurities to make money.

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This is exactly what Banthe Dhammika is saying in his book Broken Buddha :

I felt very sad after reading this book about the state of affair in the traditional Theravada countries.
And I felt so happy and grateful to have such committed monastics, both male and female, here in Perth.


but you don’t take refuge:

Taking refuge means seeking protection.
Oneself and the Dhamma are just enough for protection.

If we talk about advices, explanations, clarifications, etc. I may go to the monastics but only after having exhausted other sources of data.

I agree. Now of course there are bad apples in all religions who take advantage of the structures they provide for selfish reasons. But these types are found everywhere in all parts of society and they are the exception, not the rule. But though they’re the exception, they are ubiquitous so it doesn’t make sense to condemn an institution solely for their presence.


So you are saying the monks here are all wrong, because they have taken the three refuges.