Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What about the Vinaya Pitaka?

Wine Tasting Sister
Wine Tasting Sister, Kefraya, Lebanon, 2003

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests has an excellent post about the problems in Buddhist sanghas that have recently come to light. He points out that there appears to be a kind of naiveté about group dynamics in them—it's all about individual practice and responsibility, or some kind of vague institutional oversight, with Brad Warner who sees Zen teachers as artists who should be completely free agents in one corner, and James Ford who wants official certification and oversight in the other.

Weird shit goes down in groups, and extremely weird shit can go down in "spiritual communities" (for want of a better expression). At worst, such groups can degenerate into death cults. Buddhism isn't immune—a Buddhist cult is responsible for the only terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction that have yet happened, after all. Of course, that very rarely happens, but it's still a possibility: religious practice is dangerous stuff, even more so than punk rock or football.

The thing is, there's a massive body of knowledge about precisely group dynamics in spiritual communities right in the middle of the Buddhist tradition. It's so important that it's one of the three "baskets" in the original Pāli Canon. The Vinaya Pitaka.

From where I'm at, the Vinaya Pitaka has been pretty badly neglected among Zen groups in the West. Brad Warner points and laughs at stupid rules that say that yes, you can stop meditating and climb a tree if an elephant attacks you, or no, it isn't a transgression if somebody's having sex with you when you're asleep and don't notice it. Vinaya Masters of old are portrayed as prudish, domineering, and thoroughly inferior monks, compared to, say, Zen Masters—probably even worse than Kitchen Masters who do occasionally get enlightened. We're supposed to be beyond all of that.

We're not. The world has changed a bit since Siddhartha, but people haven't.

I don't think it's practical to apply the Vinaya in excruciating detail to our sanghas. For one thing, it assumes that the people involved are full-time monks, which is not the case in our practice. However, I would expect that a careful reading of the Vinaya Pitaka and its commentaries would reveal a great deal of rather profound understanding of the dynamics of spiritual communities—what goes right, what goes wrong, and so on. Perhaps we could try to apply that knowledge to devise remedies that take into account the rather different form that Western lay practice takes?

I wonder if the Theravadins would have anything to say about this? They know their Vinaya, and they've been running a pretty tight ship for, what, a few thousand years now. What about swallowing our famous Mahayana pride and hiring one of those yellow-robed Hinayana śravakas to consult?

Do Zen communities need a Vinaya Master after all?


  1. Hi Petteri,

    Have you looked into why the Japanese abandoned the vinaya in the first place? It's quite interesting. The story is told in some of the Kūkai biographies, though it was Saichō, the founder of Tendai, who did it and lead the way (with the collusion of an Emperor). It was all quite political. The Buddhist establishment had gotten caught up in politics and power. It's said that Emperor Kanmu moved his capital city in order to get away from them (though of course the story is more complex in reality). This happened 400 years before Zen became prominent in Japan. The granting of the non-vinaya ordination, which had to be approved by the emperor, I see as a political move on the part of Emperor Saga to drive a wedge between Buddhist factions competing for power and influence. Divide and rule.

    The vinaya renewal argument is one that is floated by a friend of mine from time to time. Greg Schopen has shown that where archaeological evidence exists for the monastic sangha, it almost always contradicts the ideal presented in the vinaya. For instance despite a prohibition on handling money, caches of coins are regularly found in monasteries; in one a pile of metal and a coin stamp were found. The vinaya represents an ideal, not one that was always put into practice. And the same is true of present day monasticism. Yes, the Theravādins are more strict about their vinaya, and don't forget that Tibetan monks follow a Sarvastivādin vinaya. In fact all Mahāyāna bhikṣu(ni)s follow an early Buddhist vinaya. Calling someone's yāna defective (hīna) is hardly likely to endear you though. Still this does not weed out the human element - else why would Sri Lankan bhikkhus bless soldiers guns in the war on the Tamils, or meddle in politics; and Tibetan bhikkhu's do battle and even kill someone because of a sadhana practice?

    I certainly haven't read the Theravāda vinaya thoroughly, but I have looked at it in parts, at case studies (e.g the mad monk), and at broad themes. What can it tell us about what goes wrong in spiritual communities? Everything - that is to say everything that can go wrong, will go wrong; has gone wrong; is going wrong. It is particularly instructive on the matter of sexual relationships.

    One thing that is not well understood about the vinaya, which you will appreciate I think, is that many of the rules were imposed on the bhikkhus at the request of lay people - they often complained to the Buddha and he usually backed them up!

    Like all law codes the vinaya suffers from two major faults: one, you can't legislate against naiveté or stupidity, and two it will not prevent wilful harm. In the end what a legal code does is provide for sanctions against wrong doers. Most of us behave, not because of the law, but because we believe it is right. Most of us don't hesitate to break laws we think are wrong.

    What is required is personal responsibility. The spiritual community doesn't need laws, we need values; values we are prepared to live by. You can't legislate for that, as I think the vinaya amply demonstrates.

  2. @Jayarava—First off, just to clear it up—my use of "Hinayana" was intended to be ironic. Sorry if that didn't come across properly.

    Second, no, I don't know much at all about the very interesting history you mentioned. I don't even know much about the Vinaya itself.

    What I had in mind wasn't really a legislative approach, though, let alone a Vinaya revival (at least in the literal sense of the word). My assumption is that there's a lot of knowledge about what goes on in sanghas implicit and possibly explicit in the Vinaya, and it might be useful to study that, and then try to figure things out from there, to craft a "new Vinaya" suitable for communities of lay practitioners.

    However, if I understand you correctly, I strongly disagree with you about values versus laws—or, rather, I think it's totally beside the point. If everybody has noble values and lives by them, then, sure, anarchy is the perfect form of government, and we wouldn't even need to have this conversation.

    The trouble is that we don't. No community, nowhere, ever. Not the Buddha's original sangha. Not monastic communities, which, as you say, never live up to the ideal depicted in the Vinaya. That's where laws come in. As long as people will be people, we will need some code of public morality to live by, formal or informal, and some mechanisms to enforce it, formal or informal. There's just no way around that. If you refuse to do it explicitly, it'll appear of itself implicitly, and such emergent forms of social control are usually much worse than intentional ones—they start out as mob rule, and usually evolve to a structure to justify and maintain the power of whatever thug seized it in the first place.

    Shouting "personal responsibility!" is just washing your hands of the situation; making it into somebody else's problem.

    So no, you can't legislate values, but you *can* legislate behavior, and you *can* put into place mechanisms, roles, and institutions to identify and resolve problem situations. I feel very strongly that we should, because the alternative is worse—thugs and lynch mobs. I don't want to live in that kind of world.

  3. Hi Petteri and Jayarava

    This harkens back to the issue of good governance that you, Petteri brought up in another context.

    Sometimes it seems there is a lack of maturity involved that precludes people taking personal responsibility.

    When a reasonable framework of behavioral expectations is outlined it at least gives guidance for those who lack that maturity. This will not prevent some from acting out but it at least provides some remedy for damage that is caused. There will always be those who are immune to viewing their own behavior on any terms other than their own, but that gets into psychopathy rather than simple transgression of social acceptability.

    Personal responsibility is a mature ideal. It is my view that this does extend into social responsibility as well since in community we do not live in that kind of isolation. So as part of personal responsibility care of the social milieu, attempting to maintain it in a condition conducive to practice rather than catering to individual hedonism, seems important.

    Hopefully people can grow into that personal responsibility but unfortunately some never do.

  4. "So as part of personal responsibility care of the social milieu, attempting to maintain it in a condition conducive to practice rather than catering to individual hedonism, seems important."

    That's it, exactly. A sangha is supposed to be a community where teachers can teach, instructors can instruct, and practitioners can practice. That doesn't happen by itself; it needs some kind of system of governance, formal or informal, implicit or explicit. Just saying "we need better values" doesn't cut it, precisely because values are internal and can't be governed. Ideally, a healthy sangha will have a code of behavior that nurtures better values and discourages worse ones, but that doesn't happen by itself either.

    But that's not simple to do at all, and it certainly goes beyond facile blanket codes of "right speech" or "never sleep with a student/sangha member" or suchlike. It's difficult stuff. Most utopian communities designed from first principles fail dramatically. And as Nathan so insightfully put it, it's rather strange that Zennies in particular seem so reluctant to discuss group dynamics, or even admit that they're worth discussing.

    That's why I think the Vinaya Pitaka might be worth looking at—it does include a whole bunch of stuff that has been shown to work, or at least not fail catastrophically, in practice. I would certainly not ONLY look at the Vinaya Pitaka, but it does seem like a place to start, and a strangely ignored one, given its position in the Canon.

  5. Well, there is the fact that most Zen teachers, for example, wouldn't be able to follow the Vinaya unless you expect them to abandon their wives and children (like the Buddha did) to become full-time monastics (though supported by whom is an open question since someone has to pay the bills).

    As a Zen priest with a wife and a child, I certainly couldn't become a Vinaya follower without abandoning my family.

  6. @Al, that's not what I meant. I already said that I don't believe that it would be feasible to apply the Vinaya as-is. My point is just that I believe there's a lot of knowledge about the group dynamics of sanghas in the Vinaya, and it might be worthwhile to mine it for that knowledge, to perhaps craft a new one suitable for our changed circumstances.

    Just to make it clear, I think the celibacy requirement in particular should be dropped; there are too many warning examples around of what can happen with regards to that.

    Check out my reply to Jayarava above; I address this point there too.