The Diamonds Under the Coal

I often encourage serious students of the Dhamma to read the Buddha’s discourses. This can be something of a hard sell. The language is repetitive, the cultural references are – of course – 2400 years out of date, and the concepts being taught can be incredibly subtle and well outside the mainstream of anything we have in our current experience. (I had a discussion with a neighbor of mine yesterday in which I used the term “universal consciousness”, which he took to mean some synonym for “God.” This, of course, has no place in Buddhist thinking.)

But, nonetheless, like Don Quixote, I strive onward, hoping to convey some of my love of the Canon.

It is, I think, without question the most remarkable literature in history. If you told me that I had to spend the rest of my life living alone on a desert island with only the Majjhima Nikaya (the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha) to keep me company, I would consider that the best of all possible lives.

Still, communicating that love to others is not always easy, but I will try.

When I first started practicing 20 or so years ago, I was told not to bother reading the original canonical literature. It was “boring and repetitive”, I was told. And to be sure, at that time Bhikkhu Bodhi had not yet made his first translation available, but nonetheless, I was told to stick to the “commentaries”.

But after many years of hearing that the Buddha said this and the Buddha said that, I got tired of hearing about what he said second hand. For one thing, a part of me always wondered how much of what I was being told was slightly doctored to support whatever point the teacher wanted to make.

Serendipitously, that was just about the time that Bhikkhu Bodhi made his (and Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli’s) translation of the Majjhima Nikaya available. I bought it, I read it, and life has never been the same for me.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is a real treasure. He is an American who, in 1972, went to Sri Lanka. At that time the only English language translations of the Pali canon were the “PTS” (Pali Text Society) editions that had been translated in the 19th century. Although they were remarkable for their time, the translations were suspect, and burdened with Victorian language and cultural conventions. There is at least one section in the Vinaya – the monastic code – that was left un-translated because it would have offended Victorian sensibilities. (It was about a monk who was having sex with a monkey!)

Thus, Bhikkhu Bodhi, in order to support his own practice, started working with translations that were in progress by a monk named Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, a British Theravadan monk and scholar. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli was educated at Oxford; Bhikkhu Bodhi has a Ph.D in Philosophy. (Sometimes in Buddhism, as with Mozart, it is just best to sit back and enjoy the ride.)

I am greatly abbreviating this story, but the end result of all this is that in 1995 the Majjhima Nikaya was published. This is the first volume of the Buddha’s discourses I read, and it is still my favorite. It is a true treasure, and if you are ever going to read just one volume of the Buddha’s discourses, this is the one to read.

Now to be sure, the average person will probably find the text a little difficult. But bear with it. This was an oral tradition. Typically what would happen is that the Buddha would give a talk, after which the monks present would get together, review what the Buddha had said, and memorize it. I am also guessing that like later poets in oral traditions like in medieval Ireland, the language had certain structure and conventions to support this oral tradition. It was like composing music on the fly.

It isn’t really so very strange from things that exist today, but we probably don’t think of them in this way. Blues bands used to have “battles”, where lyrics were made up on the spot. They adopted stock phrases and rhymes and rhythms. Beat poets did this in poetry slams, and I am guessing that rap musicians do the same thing. You develop a “technology of language” that supports what you are up to.

The Pali Canon is full of poetry, and this was probably part of the technology of the oral tradition in ancient India.

So while the language can be, admittedly, quite repetitive and uses a lot of the same stock phrases over and over again, I encourage people to think of the discourses more like poetry or music. No one complains when the chorus of a song comes around. In fact, I think a wonderful way to read the discourses is aloud, and in a group. This was, after all, how they were transmitted century after century.

So that is my speil on how to read the discourses. Read them as poetry; read them as music.

As to why I encourage people to read them, well…

In my last blog entry I took Leigh Brasington – and he is certainly not the only one – to task for teaching Buddhism in a western, revisionist way. If you read his comment and my comment back to him you will see that I assert – and I think I am on unusually solid ground here – that his statement that the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are “skillful means” is completely untenable. And I think that anyone who reads the discourses for themselves will find that a self-evident statement. The evidence is quite overwhelming.

I have also written about how when I read the Majjhima Nikaya, I kept coming across this thing “jhana”. I have been going to meditation retreats for over 20 years, and I have only heard the word used at 2 retreats, and one of those was a jhana retreat (!). I had never even heard the word when I read the Majjhima Nikaya, yet there it was, over and over again. To this day “jhana” is sort of the bogeyman of Buddhism.

And this is precisely why I encourage people to read the discourses themselves. We get the Buddha’s teachings filtered to the point that they are at times hardly recognizable. Sometimes they are completely wrong. And to be sure, I am not suggesting that anyone take at face value what they read. I certainly don’t. But we should all start from the same baseline.

If you don’t believe in rebirth, my goodness, there is nothing wrong with that. The same is true for the teachings on non-self, which are particularly subtle. People have been debating these issues for generations.

But all forms of Buddhism started with the canonical literature as the same base line. I mentioned that I just finished a course with Ajahn Analayo that compared Chinese versions of the discourses with the Pali ones. One of the most remarkable things about the two is how little they differ in meaning. Now, of course, the Chinese versions are the ones used by the Chinese traditions, including Cha’an (Zen) and so forth. So it is not that the basic teachings are different, even though traditions like Zen differ from Theravadan Buddhism in their interpretations.

And, OK, so maybe that sounds a little too scholarly, and I don’t mean to sound that way. Goodness, I am anything but a scholar. I am a practitioner. But I do encourage all students to pick up a copy of the Majjhima Nikaya – and I would even say Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations, which are the best – and give it a go. Read them slowly. I read one or two a day for a year. There is no hurry. But a lot of what is being taught out there as Buddhadhamma is unsupportable in the literature. It causes a lot of angst and confusion. There is nothing quite like going back to the source. And who knows, you may find yourself, after a while, getting used to the rhythm of the literature, and finding that underneath all that coal is a treasure trove of priceless diamonds.

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Oh, What A Tangled Web….

A dear Dhamma sister of mine just got back from a retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. It was a retreat nominally devoted to learning how to do jhana (tranquility) practice, although it is not limited to jhana.

This retreat is taught by Leigh Brasington. Leigh is an interesting case. My own opinion of him is that he is first and foremost an outstanding teacher of the steps required to enter and move around the jhanas. To be sure, he teaches what I rather unceremoniously call “jhana light”, what is sometimes called “sutta jhana” (jhana as taught in the discourses) as opposed to “Visuddhimagga jhana” (jhana as described in the Visuddhimagga, which is a later commentary). The latter is a much more difficult practice to cultivate, and requires many months – perhaps years – to master. But generally I agree with people like Leigh and Thanissaro Bhikku who teach a milder form of these practices, that in the Buddha’s time jhana practice was probably not the intense version that was later developed and documented in the Visuddhimagga.

Anyone who has been following this blog knows that my understanding of the way the Buddha taught meditation is that jhana was a centerpiece of the practice. This is not the way meditation is generally taught. But even doing preliminary practices to jhana – developing what tranquility one can muster – is a much more pleasant way to learn meditation. You learn to develop joy, happiness, contentment, and equanimity. It is a more pleasant way to meditate, and it is a more pleasant way to live.

As to other matters, well…

A teaching of the Buddha with which Westerners have particular difficulty is rebirth, and I understand that. It is long way from the norm of what we are taught. People who are from a religious background in the West tend to believe that after this life there is an afterlife in heaven or hell or some equivalent. People who are from a scientific – sometimes called “materialistic” – background tend to believe that when this life is over, that is all that happens. You simply cease to exist.

Now to be sure, in order to meditate and to benefit from the Buddha’s teachings, you do not have to suddenly discard everything you used to believe is true. That would be silly. The Buddhist path is one to be cultivated. It opens up bit by bit. It is a path based on direct experience, but also on contemplation and growth. So if rebirth is difficult for you to accept, do not – please – think that this should preclude you from getting what you can from the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddhist path is intended to help you to become a happier person, not to provide more ways for you to suffer.

Having said that, rebirth is a fundamental part of what the Buddha taught. There can be no denying this. And rebirth is not some metaphor. The canonical literature uses the phrase “with the breakup of the body, after death”, which makes it pretty clear what rebirth means.

Further, there are numerous instances of discussions of the other realms, and these are quite detailed. So whether or not you believe in these teachings, make no mistake that this is what the Buddha taught.

Now for a meditation teacher to say that they do not believe in rebirth, or that they are agnostic on the subject of rebirth, is one thing. But there are teachers who say that rebirth is not a teaching of the Buddha. This is not true and cannot be supported by anything in the Buddhist literature or tradition. Sadly, I was actually in a retreat when Leigh Brasington said, “The Buddha never talked about rebirth.”  I almost fell off my cushion.

Further, Leigh is quite adamant that ”when you die, that is it. Life is simply over.”

Leigh not only has no way of knowing this is true, it is a dangerous thing to teach. He might say that this is what he believes, but he has a strong and forceful personality, and for a student who is trying to come to grips with life, this can do serious emotional damage.

What Leigh is teaching is called in the Buddhist canon “annihilationism.” It is the materialistic belief that I mentioned earlier. There is a sutta (The Ananda Sutta) in which the Buddha specifically refutes both the doctrines of eternalism and annihilationism. This sutta also touches on that difficult issue of non-self.

Note that in the Ananda Sutta, the Buddha does not say that the self does not exist. It is a subtle distinction. He does say – elsewhere – that the five khandas are not self. (In brief, the five khandas are 1) the physical body, 2) sense feeling, 3) perception, 4) mental formations and 5) consciousness.)

The khandas are the things with which we normally identify, the things we say are I, me and mine. The Buddha described these as not permanently existing, as being processes. Thus – and this is important – the Buddha did not say that you do not exist. This is nihilism, and he did not teach that. What he did teach is that you are a process, something that changes from moment to moment. There is no permanent essence there, just a process. But a process still exists. Where is the permanence in the weather, yet it certainly exists.

However, you can probably see how easy it is to slip into nihilism and annihilationism. This is the danger, and this is why I think it is so important that Dhamma teachers, well, that they know what the hell they are talking about. Mis-teaching in this way can lead to depression and even suicide in students in the extreme case. (This happened even during the time of the Buddha.) That is certainly not leading away from suffering.

There is, while I am on the subject, good evidence for rebirth. There are stories of people having memories of past lives. The classic one in Buddhism is Dhammaruwam, who at the age of 2 starting chanting Buddhist discourses in Pali. Not only was it in Pali, it was in a form of Pali and in a style of chanting that had not been in use since the first millennium. ( There are also the studies of Near Death Experiences. So not only is rebirth a teaching of the Buddha, there is at least some empirical evidence for rebirth, and likewise there is no proof of annihilationism. Admittedly, you can’t prove a negative, but you at least have to address the evidence for alternatives.

As to the issue of teaching responsibly, in the canon there are many stories of monks who, when asked about the Buddha’s teachings, declined to do so because they were afraid that they would get it wrong, that their understanding was not yet mature enough to explain it in its subtlety. I have always been very moved by this devout respect for “getting it right.”

I see this same respect among the best teachers that I know. I am currently taking an online course with Ajahn Analayo, who wrote the definitive book on the Satipatthana Sutta  (Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization). Ajahn Analayo is one of the really bright stars in the world of Buddhism. He is German, but teaches in English and translates Pali, Sanskrit and Chinese. I believe that he also does some Tibetan translation. Further, he is a monk and a meditator, so he has both impeccable scholarship and a devout practice.

One thing that impresses me about Ajahn Analayo is how gently he teaches. He rarely says that something is just so. Rather he gives all the aspects to an issue, and often invites you to disagree with him. It is a type of teaching full of both wisdom and humility.

Now shockingly, given his pedigree, I do occasionally disagree with Ajahn Analayo. But I think the way in which he/I/we disagree is as fellow searchers on the path. I may be wrong (most likely), he may be wrong (least likely), and we both may be wrong. The Dhamma is to be held lightly. We are both, I think, looking for the right answer, not just to win a debate point.

The Dhamma is ultimately about discovering the truth. To the extent that you hold dearly onto opinions, that is a serious impediment to the truth. And to the extent that you teach opinion as fact, and worse yet to misrepresent what the Buddha taught, that is at the very least troubling.

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A Good Man, and Oy! What a Memory!


The purpose of the Buddhist canonical literature is to preserve the teachings of the Buddha. To that end there is no intent to create a biography of the Buddha, or anyone else.

Having said that, one of the things I love about the canon is how human the people are, how real they are, and there are many lovely anecdotes that give us insights into the people of the Buddha’s time.

Without question one of my favorite people – perhaps my most favorite – is Ānanda.

The bare details of Ānanda’s life are that he was the Buddha’s cousin, although much younger (about 20 years) than the Buddha. When the Buddha started teaching, he had a series of attendants. Eventually the Buddha chose Ānanda as his attendant, and from there on until the Buddha died, Ānanda served in that role.

The more revealing facts about Ānanda are more interesting. Ānanda is in a certain sense everyman, or every person. He asks the Buddha questions that we might ask. He makes mistakes that we might make. He is wonderfully warm, mistake prone, and human.

To be sure, I don’t want to make him out to be some sort of bumbling idiot. In particular Ānanda was supposed to have an extraordinary memory. If you read the many thousands of pages in the Buddhist canonical literature, most of this literature is due to Ānanda remembering it. I used to think this was sort of a folk tale, but we have a modern version of Ānanda. During the Watergate scandal, John Dean remembered details from years and years of meetings: who was there, who said what, and so forth, and this was years after the events occurred. When the White House tapes were discovered, they confirmed absolutely John Dean’s extraordinary memory

It is also hard to tell how much of the characterization of Ānanda in the canon is the result of later revisionism. Ānanda is dealt with quite harshly in some places in the canon. This is most notable in the Parinibbana Sutta. The Parinibbana Sutta is the story of the Buddha’s final days. According to it, three times the Buddha gave Ānanda the opportunity to ask the Buddha to use his will and power to live longer. Ānanda is supposed to have sort of spaced out, not realizing what the Buddha was saying, and thus the Buddha came to die. In a certain sense the sutta accuses Ānanda of being responsible for the Buddha dying. Ouch.

However, when you read the whole of the literature this story seems terribly out of character for Ānanda. One reason that I love Ānanda so much is his completely selfless devotion to the Buddha. Ānanda even short-circuited his own practice in order to serve the Buddha. It is hard to imagine anyone being more devoted to another person than Ānanda was to the Buddha.

So in the context of the whole of the canon, this story does not make much sense. And since according to tradition, the Buddha’s discourses as we have them are largely a result of Ānanda remembering them, how did he come out so badly?

Well, there are two things that come to mind, and the canon itself gives some indication that both of these things are true.

First of all, as the Buddha’s attendant, he was the gatekeeper, like the White House Chief of Staff. If you wanted access to the Buddha, you had to go through Ānanda. And Ānanda, given his complete devotion to the Buddha, was not going to let him be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. Thus, without question there was a lot of jealousy about Ānanda and his privileged position.

The other issue has to do with the ordination of women.

As I have written in the past, the Buddhist tradition has at times been quite shameful in its treatment of women. However, the Buddha himself did ordain women as nuns, which in India at the time was quite revolutionary.

According to the canon, however, it was actually Ānanda who convinced the Buddha to ordain women. The whole issue of the ordination of women in Buddhism is somewhat complicated, but at this point we are concerned mainly with Ānanda’s role, which is as the champion of women in the Dhamma. For this women have always regarded Ānanda in a special way. Even after women started to ordain, Ānanda is supposed to have been particularly supportive of them in their practice, helping to train and instruct them.

However, just as this gave him a special place among them women of the Dhamma, this also served to earn him ill repute among many of the men of the Sangha. Thus, we have a little post-Buddha (and presumably post-Ānanda) revisionism.

I am happy to say that I am not the only person who has come to this conclusion. I have been told that Ajahn Sucitto believes this as well (although to be sure I cannot at the moment find any confirmation of that). Nonetheless it is my opinion (!) that some of the inconsistencies in the canon about how my dear Dhamma brother Ānanda is treated is due, in fact, to his impeccable character, his courage, and his devotion to “Dhamma as truth”. And I don’t think that is much of a stretch. I approached my reading of the canon with “beginner’s mind”. I didn’t have any choice. I came from a place of complete ignorance. That turned out to be a real blessing. I had a mind unsullied by knowledge or experience. Sometimes the things you “know” are the most dangerous.

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Honor… and Humility

ImageThich Nhat Hanh has this very beautiful teaching about our ancestors. He says that whenever we miss our parents or our grandparents or any of our ancestors, all we have to do is to look into our own hands.

Of course we know about genetics and how we inherit our ancestors’ genes. But we also inherit a tradition and a culture and certain values.

Shortly after I heard Thich Nhat Hanh give this teaching I heard this story that drove his point home. In England some years ago, a pre-historic skeleton was found. A local schoolteacher, as an exercise, had all of his students submit a DNA sample. The objective was to see if any of the students in the class were distantly related to this prehistoric man Almost as an afterthought the teacher himself also submitted a DNA sample, and sure enough, he was related directly to the prehistoric man. How remarkable.

I have this photo of my great-great-great grandmother. Her name was Sarah Boyer. The summer before my mother died she sent it to me. We shared the cost of having it restored. Thus I have both the water-damaged original, plus the version that was restored by a local photo studio.

My sister did a little research on Sarah, and found the census listing for Sarah Boyer from 1870. She was 22 years old then. It is quite something to think of the young Sarah Boyer in 1870. Like anyone who is young and fresh and full of life at that age, she must have been really something. I’ll bet she stole more than a few young men’s hearts.

According to the census data her father made $750 in that year. Even in 1870 that was not very much money. His profession is listed as “farm hand”. My family for generation after generation found life hard and unyielding. It is a story of persistence and forbearance. In the many family photographs I have, there are not very many smiling faces.

As I write this, I sit here having retired early to pursue the life of a spiritual seeker. It is a luxury of sorts. Gandhi used to joke about the fact that his benefactors always complained about how expensive it was to keep him in poverty. I am a college graduate in a family that has only known three of those (not including my children). My mother was only the second person in a family that came to the United States around 1750 to graduate high school, and she had to work as a waitress to pay her way through. My grandparents were very poor, and the only way they could afford to have my mother finish high school was to have her help support the family.

I often think of my ancestors, of how hard life was for them, and how much gratitude I feel toward them. The greatest aspiration in life is to become a spiritual seeker, but it is a luxury. Life has to be a certain way in order to support that life. And so when I practice and when I think of the difficulties of the life I have chosen, I think how much harder it was for my parents and my grandparents and so on back through time, and I am humbled by that memory.

When we practice, we practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. We do not simply practice for ourselves. The Buddha once gave a discourse in which he – in typically Indian fashion – gave a 2 x 2 matrix for the reasons for practice. One side of the matrix is whether we practice for ourselves – yes or no. The other side of the matrix is whether we practice for others – yes or no.

According to the Buddha, the best practice is the one where we practice both for ourselves and for others.

There is a tradition in Buddhism whereby at the end of a meditation session one dedicates the merit of the practice to all beings. It is a very wonderful and useful practice, and I do it every day. It is worth remembering, and to honor all of those who have made our very privileged lives possible.

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Oh, Those Unruly Monks! (Finale)


I suppose that every human institution has its dirty laundry. The sutta about the monks at Kosambi shows that this was true even in the Buddha’s own time and even in his own community. So it isn’t too surprising that Buddhism today has plenty of dirty laundry, too. One of the dirtiest of these pieces of laundry is the way women are treated, particularly those remarkable women who ordain as bhikkhunis, nuns. (Bhikkhuni is the Pali word for nun.)

On the positive side of the ledger, the Buddha established, for the first time, an order of nuns. He was entreated by his step-mother, Mahapajapati, and his wife, Yasodara, to allow them to ordain. They must have been extraordinary women. Both of them became enlightened. The Buddha did, however, add extra rules for the nuns.

India, then as now, was an extremely sexist society. Any woman who was not traveling under the protection of her father, brother or husband was fair game. A man could do anything to her and there was no protection under the law. Thus, to allow for the full ordination of women was a very radical step. Some of the extra rules for women had to do with their own protection in such a society. For example, no bhikkhuni was allowed to travel alone, and bhikkhunis had to travel with at least one monk. [Note 1.]

Bhikkhuni ordination could only happen if both monks and nuns were present. If, indeed, this rule goes back to the Buddha, the intent may have been to make bhikkhuni ordination more palatable to Indian society. Remember that nuns as well as monks were dependent on alms food. The Indian people had to accept the idea of the full ordination of women to keep them fed.

So now we fast forward to the 21st century. The bhikkhuni ordination died out in the countries of southern Asia a long time ago. It never actually made it to Thailand, and it died out in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka. Because there are currently no existing bhikkhunis to give ordination to new bhikkhunis, according to the strict letter of the monastic code, this is no longer possible.

There is a lineage that continued unbroken in the Mahayana traditions, into China. This lineage has been used in recent years to ordain, once again, women in the southern Asia traditions. However many monks do not recognize this ordination, and this is where the story gets really ugly.

You might think that, well, this is an Asian problem. No self-respecting westerner would deny a woman the right to fully ordain. Sadly this is not true. Even very (and I mean very, very) prominent western monks, like Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Thanissaro, have refused to fully ordain women. Ajahn Sumedho even went beyond the restrictions of the old monastic code, adding news ones.

I can’t possibly go into all of the details of this dispute here. To be honest, I don’t even understand all of the arguments. It’s like listening to lawyers argue, which ought to tell you something right there. Once you start sounding like a civil suite, you have probably left the realm of anything remotely related to what the Buddha taught, things like love, compassion, wisdom, and an end to suffering.

That latter is, for me, a grounding centerpiece to any issue related to Buddhadhamma, Buddhism, Buddhist institutions, practice, or anything else remotely related to the word “Buddha”. The Buddha famously said, “I teach only suffering and the end to suffering.”. It is the Buddha’s Prime Directive. Everything else that he taught is a fuller explanation of that. Sometimes when I am confused about an issue, I try to remember to come back to that basic, most important premise

For example, take the issue of euthanasia. The first precept is quite simple; do not kill. But the basic premise is to end suffering, and you can certainly imagine circumstances under which the first precept is in conflict with ending, or at least reducing, suffering.

So when I start reading Ajahn Sumedho’s disturbing directive for the women of his own Sangha (, and Ajahn Thanissaro’s almost equally disturbing legalese that describes Ajahn Brahm’s ordination of women in Australia (, I go back to the Prime Directive. How do their positions lead to an end of suffering?

(One thing that I have noticed over the years is that ideologues use whatever is the accepted platform to prove their own point. The U.S. Constitution gets twisted and mangled almost beyond belief sometimes. People who do this start with their own opinion, and then look for ways to make some document prove what they want it to. People like this are not trying to find the truth or to do the correct thing. It is – to use the Buddha’s phrase – a “thicket of views.” People who want something to happen find a way to make it happen; those who don’t want something to happen find a way to keep it from happening.)

This whole issue is like being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, and then listening to his family argue all day. At a certain point, frankly, I don’t care any more. I just want to get away. It’s not what I signed up for.

However, there is a punch line, and it isn’t all bad. It relates to what happened at Kosambi. What ended up happening at Kosambi is that the lay followers got to the same point that I have. Really? You want us to give alms food to you guys? [Note 2.]

This is where being a lay person has its perks.

I have read a number of well-meaning articles and blog entries by monks advising lay people how to think about this dispute. One of them in particular is a monk I revere. And I say this with all due respect: If you guys can’t get this right, then we lay people need to be the ones to make you get it right. Your advice on how we should think about this is duly noted.

The Vinaya is 2400 years old. It is an amazing document. But we are not even sure what parts are original and what are not. There are multiple versions of the Vinaya that have survived.

Further, the more you study Buddhism around the world, the more you realize that hardly anyone follows the Vinaya. Even the ones who claim to have their own interpretation of the Vinaya. Not all of those interpretations are in agreement.

Around the world, very senior, learned monks have different opinions on full bhikkhuni ordination. Wouldn’t it make sense then to – gasp! – actually do the right thing? Wouldn’t that be easier? Better? More correct? Lead to less suffering?

Discrimination against women is illegal in many countries. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are two of them. It is against the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It also happens to be wrong. Shouldn’t the Buddhist monastic sangha at least come up to speed with civil law?

The way the system was set up in ancient India has a mutually dependent relationship between the monastics and the lay people. The monastics devote their lives to pursuing the ultimate questions of life. The lay people support them, as long as the monastics do not abuse their privileges. In such a system, monastics are actually expected to meet the social standards.

So to all of you out there who are lay people, I strongly urge you to stop supporting monasteries that discriminate against women. I don’t want to name them here because some of them have changed their policies over the years, and I don’t want to commit their names to a permanent blog. But you ought to be able to find out by asking. But be prepared to be legalesed. You may get a very convincing and nice sounding response that basically says, “No.”

Part of the power to change this wrong is the same power that the lay people had in Kosambi. Let’s use it.

Note 1. There is a particularly gruesome story in the Vinaya of a nun being raped while traveling.

Note 2. : This part of the story isn’t in the Majjhima Nikaya sutta. It is in the Vinaya, the monastic code.

Note 3. The Dalai Lama has been quite proactive in his support of the full ordination and full rights for women. I personally know of one bhikkhuni monastery in Nepal ( that in a fairly short period of time has gone from being almost hopelessly poor to having fine – beautiful, even – accommodations, and first class training for the nuns.

Note 4. If you want to support the pioneering efforts of women to fully ordain as bhikkhunis, there are two places in the U.S. I recommend are The Saranaloka Foundation ( and Dhammadharini ( There are many others, as well.

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Oh, Those Unruly Monks! (Part 2)

When we last left the story, the Buddha had quietly slipped out of the monastery (really, just a park). He paid a brief visit to a friend and bhikkhu, Bhagu, and then went on to the Eastern Bamboo Park.

It is worth mentioning here a little about the life and infrastructure in India at that time. Every city had land set aside outside of the city gates for a park. It is in these parks that the wandering spiritual seekers stayed. Once the Buddha became better known, some kings set aide land specifically for him and his followers, and these became the first monasteries. But the infrastructure had been there for quite a long time.

Except for the rainy season, however, most of the monks – and later the nuns as well – would not stay in one place for very long. Their daily routine would start with the alms rounds in the morning, which came after the morning meal of the people in the city. (The monks basically ate leftovers.) In the afternoon the monks would walk to the next park.

The road system was set up with places to stop every “yojana”. The exact distance of a yojana is the subject of some debate, but essentially it was the distance that an ox could go without needing food and water and rest. I have my own pet theory about the length of a yojana. I think it may have been a measure of effort rather than distance. So if the terrain were more difficult, the actual distance would be shorter. However, I would warn you that I am not a scholar, and this is just a guess. In any event, in actual length a yojana is believed to be between 8 and 10 miles (15 kilometers).

Thus, at every yojana there was a place for the wanderers to stop, rest, and presumably get alms food the next day. One of the things the Buddha always touted about the life of a monk was how healthy it was. They did not overeat, but only took in what was necessary to sustain them. They walked significant distances every day. Then in the evening they would gather, meditate, practice, have Dhamma discussions and debates, and then retire for the night. You can imagine that such a simple life, especially when led together with Dhamma brothers, could be very peaceful, very stress free, and very rewarding.

So back to the story, the Buddha was now traveling as the wanderers did to the next park, the Eastern Bamboo Park, which was not too far from Kosambi. What follows is one of those little details that makes the canonical literature so endearing.

These parks had park keepers. They were there presumably to keep order and to care for the park. The park keeper at the Eastern Bamboo Park had apparently developed an affection for and somewhat protective feelings towards three of the Buddha’s monks who were staying there and living together.

So when the Buddha approached the park, the park keeper tried to fend him off. “Do not enter the park,” the park keeper said, “There are three clansmen here seeking their own good. Do not disturb them.”

Clearly he did not know who the Buddha was.

One of the monks, Anuruddha, hears the exchange, and what he says and the way in which he says it is wonderfully affectionate. “Friend park keeper” – Friend park keeper – “do not keep the Blessed One out. It is our teacher, the Blessed One, who has come.” It is so gentle. You can imagine Anuruddha putting his arm around the park keeper’s shoulders.

Next comes one of the most beautiful passages in the whole of the Pali canon. Remember the context. The Buddha has just left this group of contentious, unruly monks. He has come to the Eastern Bamboo Park, where he finds these three monks, all followers of his Dhamma. Naturally he asks them how they are getting along. He says:

“I hope, Anuruddha, that you are all living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

…blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes…

The Buddha then asks Anuruddha how it is that they live together. Anuruddha’s response is this:

“Venerable sir, as to that, I think thus: ‘It is a gain for me, it is a great gain for me that I am living with such companions in the holy life.’ I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness towards these venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness towards them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what these venerable ones wish to do. We are different in body, venerable sir, but one in mind.”

How beautiful. How simple. How poetic.

In a previous blog entry I talked about how in Buddhadhamma, the understanding is that there are three types of actions: body, speech and mind. Here you see that in practice. Anuruddha is saying that at all times he maintains feelings of loving-kindness towards his fellow monks in his bodily actions, in his speech, and in his mind. As to the latter, he is not, therefore, acting one way, but thinking something else. He has taken his feelings to heart.

Next, according to the sutta, Anuruddha’s companions say likewise, affirming what Anuruddha has said.

Next the Buddha asks them if they “abide diligent, ardent, and resolute.” I read this to mean that the Buddha wants to now know if they are just hanging out having a good time, or are they working diligently at their practice. Once again, Anuruddha responds:

“Venerable sir, as to that, whichever of us returns first from the village with almsfood prepares the seats, sets out the water for drinking and for washing, and puts the refuse bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over, if he wishes; otherwise he throws it away where there is no greenery or drops it into the water where there is no life. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and for washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of water for drinking, washing, or the latrine are low or empty takes care of them. If they are too heavy for him, he calls someone else by a signal of the hand and they move it by joining hands, but because of this we do not break out into speech. But every five days we sit together all night discussing the Dhamma. That is how we abide diligent, ardent, and resolute.”

Compare this to the situation at Kosambi. Here the monks do not think of themselves. They think only of what needs to be done. When something needs to be done, whoever is most appropriate does it. And they do it out of loving-kindness for each other.

There are lessons here, I think, for all of us. In these simple paragraphs is a blueprint for how we can live together. It’s not that complicated, but that also doesn’t mean that it is easy. Perform actions that arise from loving-kindness. Think of others first. Think only of what needs to be done.

I can almost hear some of you thinking, well, yeah that works great if everyone agrees to be like that. What happens when you are not around people who buy into the whole loving-kindness thing? What if you are around people who will just take advantage of you, may even want to hurt you?

Well, of course, as always, life requires some wisdom. But let me tell you a story that isn’t from 2400 years ago. It happened about 15 years ago.

There was a man who was going through a contentious divorce. One of the main reasons for the divorce was money, and in the process of creating two households from one that meant that money got stretched even further. The man’s wife did everything she could to get as much money as possible from the man, and he was living a very poor existence already.

After a couple of years the man got a little bonus from his job and he did something quite unexpected. He gave most of it to his ex-wife. He just sent her a check. And do you know what? Well, I won’t say that fixed everything, but for a while things got better between them. You can imagine her surprise after they had been arguing about money for so many years. This check just showed up in the mail.

The best thing you can do for your worst enemies, sometimes, is something generous or kind. It reminds me of what Mark Twain once said. He said, “Always speak the truth. It will impress some, and astonish the rest.” The same can be said of generosity and kindness.

Always be kind and generous. It will impress some… and astonish the rest.

As for those quarreling monks at Kosambi? At this point they are still quarreling, but that, too will end. I will cover that in the next blog entry.

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Oh, Those Unruly Monks! (Part 1)

There are many remarkable stories in the Pali canon. One of my favorites is the Upakkilesa Sutta. “Upakkilesa” translates to “imperfections”.

Yeah, I know. It doesn’t sound like a page-turner. But bear with me.

This discourse has several sections. I won’t go into all of them. If you want to read the full discourse, it is here at [MN 128].

This is one of those stories that makes me feel such affection for the Buddhist literature. It is painfully honest. It certainly doesn’t make the Buddha out to be all knowing and all-powerful, and that is one of the things that I like about it. The Buddha was not a god. He was a human being. To be sure, later Buddhist traditions recast him into something more divine, but that was a later development. In the earliest traditions, the Buddha was always understood to be a human being.

The story starts out in a city called “Kosambi”. Kosambi was a prominent city in India at that time. The Buddha is staying there with a large number of monks when a dispute over a violation – or alleged violation – of the monastic code takes place. The dispute escalates to the point where all of the monks have lined up on one side or another, According to the sutta, the Bhikkhus (monks) “had taken to quarrelling and brawling”, and were “deep in disputes, stabbing each other with verbal daggers.”

Ouch. Not exactly the kind of behavior you would expect from Buddhist monks, especially when they were in the presence of the Buddha himself.

One of the monks went to the Buddha and asked him to intervene. What happens next is rather astonishing. He is basically blown off. Three times the Buddha asks them to stop quarrelling, and three times he is told to go away, that the monks will handle things themselves. “We are the ones who will be responsible for this quarrelling, brawling, wrangling, and dispute.” In other words, we’ve got this old man, bugger off.

Really? You said this to the Buddha?

The next day after alms rounds, the Buddha recites this lovely poem:

When many voices shout at once
None considers himself a fool;
Though the Sangha [community] is being split
None thinks himself to be at fault.

They have forgotten thoughtful speech,
They talk obsessed by words alone.
Uncurbed their mouths, they bawl at will;
None knows what leads him so to act.

‘He abused me, he struck me,
He defeated me, he robbed me’―
In those who harbor thoughts like these
Hatred will never be allayed.

For in this world hatred is never
Allayed by further acts of hate.
It is allayed by non-hatred:
That is the fixed and ageless law.

Those others do not recognize
That here we should restrain ourselves.
But those wise ones who realize this
At once end all their enmity.

Breakers of bones and murderers,
Those who steal cattle, horses, wealth,
Those who pillage the entire realm―
When even these can act together
Why can you not do so too?

If one can find a worthy friend,
A virtuous, steadfast companion,
Then overcome all threats of danger
And walk with him content and mindful.

But if one finds no worthy friend,
No virtuous, steadfast companion,
Then as a king leaves his conquered realm,
Walk like a tusker in the woods alone.

Better it is to walk alone,
There is no companionship with fools.
Walk alone and do no evil,
At ease like a tusker [elephant] in the woods.

And with that, he bids them adieu, and he leaves for greener pastures.

This ends the first thing that I take from this story. The Buddha himself was unable to resolve a dispute among his own monks. It isn’t like this is a dispute between kings or a husband and wife or a couple of merchants. These are people who have voluntarily taken up “the holy life” under his direction and teaching. And they won’t listen to him.

I think like most people I sometimes get frustrated with my inability to have a more positive affect on the world. It’s no secret exactly that there is a lot of pain and suffering going on, and most people I know would like to make a difference, and would like the world a better, happier place. I would like to be able to convince people to be more kind, more loving and more compassionate, certainly less angry.

Minus the theism, I think the Buddha would agree with this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

And that is what the Buddha did. He made his effort to solve the dispute, and once it became clear that he could not, without anger or any unnecessary over-reaction, he packed up and left. In Buddhist terms, he was acting with wisdom and equanimity.

Sometimes when I am feeling frustrated at my own attempts to get something done, I have to remind myself of this sutta.

I will talk more about this discourse in my next post. May you all be happy, and free from quarreling monks!

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