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Vinaya in Theravaada Temples

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Vinaya in Theravaada Temples
Vinaya in Theravaada Temples
in the United States

By Paul David Numrich

University of Illinois at Chicago
ISSN 1076-9005; Volume 1 1994


Vinaya (the monastic discipline) plays an essential role in defining traditional Theravāda Buddhism. This article examines the current state of vinaya recitation and practice in the nearly 150 immigrant Theravāda Buddhist temples in the United States, and also speculates on the prospect of traditional Theravāda's firm establishment in this country. Specific vinaya issues discussed include the pātimokkha ceremony, the discussion about vinaya adaptation to the American context, adaptations in the areas of monastic attire and relations with women, and principles of adaptation at work in Theravāda temples in the United States. Various passages in the Theravāda literature recount a conversation between the Thera Mahinda and King Devānampiya-Tissa of Ceylon concerning the progress of Buddhism's establishment on the island. "When, Venerable Sir, will the (religion's) roots indeed be deep?" the King asks. Ven. Mahinda replies: "When a young man, born of Ceylonese parents on the island of Ceylon, having gone forth on the island of Ceylon and learned the monastic discipline in this same island of Ceylon, when he will recite that discipline on the island of Ceylon--then, Great King, will the roots of the religion indeed be deep."[1] In other words, Buddhism's firm establishment in a country requires indigenous monks (bhikkhu-sangha) who uphold the monastic discipline (vinaya) through recitation of its precepts (pātimokkha sikkhāpada) (see W. Rahula 1966:56; 1978:55, 65; Gombrich 1988:150-1). As Michael Carrithers (1984:133) succinctly puts it, "no Buddhism without the Sangha, and no Sangha without the Discipline."

With nearly 150 immigrant Theravāda temples and perhaps as many as 600 resident Theravāda bhikkhus in the United States today, we do well to examine the current state of vinaya recitation and practice in this country. Traditional Theravāda's survival here depends upon this among other factors.[2]

As the ancient conversation between Mahinda and Devānampiya-Tissa indicates, the firm establishment of Theravāda Buddhism in a country requires bhikkhus who recite the 227 precepts.[3] Traditionally, the recitation ceremony takes place twice monthly as the Theravāda monks within a given geographical area (usually a village) gather together at a temple with baddha sīmā, that is, sacred boundaries consecrated by specific ritual action of the bhikkhu-sangha. In lieu of such a temple, monks may recite the pātimokkha within abaddha sīmā, viz., "areas whose boundaries have been established by the government [e.g., a municipality] or by ancient usage [e.g., a body of water]" (Wells 1975:179). A minimum of four bhikkhus is required for a legitimate pātimokkha ceremony,[4] which reveals "the truly communal dimension of the pātimokkha institution," as Gombrich (1988:109) observes. The bi-monthly corporate recitation serves as both a "solidarity ritual" (Gombrich 1988:108) and "a kind of 'quality control'" (Wijayaratna 1990:124) for the bhikkhu-sangha.

The situation in America today makes it difficult for many Theravāda monks to perform the pātimokkha ceremony in the traditionally prescribed ways. For instance, a temple with fewer than four monks may be the only Theravāda temple in the immediate metropolitan area, as in Fort Smith, Arkansas, or Anchorage, Alaska. Even in cities with several Theravāda temples, like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., distances between temples and differences in ethnic identity can mitigate against frequent joint pātimokkha ceremonies. Moreover, only a few temples in the country have consecrated baddha sīmā.[5] Although Theravāda monks in America find ways of adjusting to these constraints--carrying out informal confessions, gathering together for the formal pātimokkha ceremony less frequently than bi-monthly--their sense of communal solidarity and institutional strength may necessarily suffer thereby.

Wijayaratna's comment above about "quality control" within the bhikkhu-sangha raises an important practical consideration--the difficulty in holding to certain ancient vinaya requirements in a modern Western society. Of course, adaptation of the vinaya to new circumstances occurred almost from the beginning of the Buddha's movement: "The Master did not hesitate to modify the rules to make the life of monks and nuns easier in different climatic and social conditions" (Wijayaratna 1990:53). Before the Buddha died, he granted the bhikkhu- sangha permission to make necessary modifications of minor vinaya rules, but the bhikkhu-sangha has never been able to determine just which rules the Buddha considered "minor."[6] Consequently, the Theravāda tradition devised a paradoxical hermeneutic of vinaya adaptation which included, on the one hand, strict adherence to the ancient disciplinary code, and, on the other hand, a set of "amendments" or "new rules" standing outside the ancient texts (pālimuttaka-vinicchaya) and reached through consensual agreement among the monks (katikāvata). In this way, "without changing the letter of the law, monks discovered ways and means of overcoming the difficulty [of following some rules in their original form] by interpreting the law without compromising themselves" (W. Rahula 1978:63; cf. Wimalaratna 1991). The key here, as in any hermeneutical enterprise, has to do with the point at which the line of "compromise" is crossed.

In America, that line of compromise has been the subject of considerable discussion among both ethnic-Asian and American- convert Theravāda bhikkhus. The topic took center stage at the 1987 Conference on World Buddhism in North America, held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ven. Dr. Havanpola Ratanasara, Patron Monk of Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, Los Angeles, who later that year was named Executive President of the newly-formed American Buddhist Congress, summarized the social realities of vinaya adaptation.[7] "[Vinaya] is not a static thing," he observed, "because [it concerns] a living group of persons. Living persons will have to adjust to the changing conditions of the society. Monks are not like stones. . . they are living creatures, they have to face changing conditions in the society. So, according to certain conditions, things are changing."[8] Furthermore, Ven. Dr. Ratanasara asserted, the contemporary bhikkhu-sangha must take up the challenge of vinaya adaptation in America. "Who can go and make a petition to the Buddha these days?" he asked the Conference rhetorically. "Buddha has given permission to the Sangha. . . therefore, it is with the Sangha this problem to tackle."

On the other side of the issue however, several Conference participants spoke against any tampering with the vinaya at all. By pointing out that the bhikkhus at the First Buddhist Council considered only a Buddha's wisdom capable of distinguishing "minor" from "major" vinaya rules, Ven. U Silananda, Abbot of the Burmese Dhammananda Vihara, Daly City, California, implicitly challenged today's bhikkhu-sangha to show cause that its wisdom matches the Buddha's before tackling this problem. To change the vinaya is to change the bhikkhu-sangha's identity, Ven. Silananda explicitly warned. Ven. Walpola Piyananda, Abbot of Dharma Vijaya, Los Angeles, shared his fear that, by cutting up the vinaya, the monks would be "dismembering" the Buddha, since the Buddha had appointed the vinaya as Teacher after his physical death. Another Conference participant, Samaneri Sunanda, cautioned against a slippery slope effect: better to keep all the rules, even strict and inconvenient ones, since breaking a few so-called "minor" rules now will lead to breaking more rules later and eventually to having no rules at all.

My discussions with American-convert Theravāda bhikkhus have uncovered a clear strain of conservatism on vinaya matters that may characterize this group.[9] One told me straightforwardly that ethnic-Asian monks in America, not American-convert monks, are behind the push to modify the vinaya to suit the American context. Another agreed that American-convert monks do not wish to change any vinaya requirements, since the discipline provided by the vinaya remains crucial to a viable monastic expression of Buddhism. "The Vinaya is something that requires a lot of time to appreciate," one of the monks wrote me. "When I first was ordained, the prospect of memorizing and having to live by a lot of picayune rules was the least appealing part of the training. And yet I came to realize, after living several years in the [monastic] community, that most all of the issues that created friction within the community came from people breaking the rules." Since the scandals of leadership improprieties within larger American Buddhism in the 1980s (see Fields 1992; Butler 1990), the value of what one respected American-convert monk calls "the protective envelope that the Vinaya provides for monastics" has drawn renewed appreciation.[10]

To get a fix on the present state of Theravāda vinaya adaptation in the United States, let us briefly examine two key, practical areas--monastic attire and relations with women.[11]

The Buddha allowed his monks three robes--an undergarment, a loose-fitting top piece, and a double-layered cloak.[12] Triple- robed Theravāda monks in America face two challenges. First, the climate poses a real health concern. The possibility of hypothermia so troubled the director of security services for one Midwestern Thai temple that he circulated a letter through the Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the United States suggesting adoption of a "proper winter uniform for Monks," with yellow clerical collar and Buddhist lapel pin to identify the wearer as legitimate clergy.[13] Second, beyond the climatic incompatibility of robes and the harsh North American environment lies the more disturbing incompatibility of robes and American cultural prejudices. Often mistaken for "Hare Krishnas," Theravāda monks have endured "cat calls or rude comments, and in rare cases [have been] assaulted by religious bigots" while out in public (Y. Rahula 1987:16).

To date, among Theravāda monks in United States temples, adaptation of the three-robes requirement has entailed donning certain items of protective clothing, for instance, saffron-colored T-shirts under the upper robe in Southern California, sweaters over the robes in the Midwest, the latter practice having received approval from the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand according to one Thai monastic respondent from Chicago. Suggestions that monks adopt a "proper winter uniform" or perhaps confine the wearing of robes to ritual occasions have fallen on deaf ears. The "absence of robes," the reasoning goes, creates more problems than it solves: Buddhist laypeople would be deprived of an object of reverence, "for it is the robe which is honored rather than the person," and non-Buddhist Americans would no longer find their interest piqued by a distinctive monastic symbol that might "stimulate thoughtful conversation."[14] When I questioned one Sinhalese monk about wearing civilian clothes in order to avoid confrontations on the streets of Los Angeles, he responded that, although it might spare him some abuse, he might also forget he was a monk and be empted to act in un-monkly ways.

Another important area of Theravāda vinaya adaptation in America concerns monks' relations with women. The tradition sees absolute celibacy as essential to the monastic lifestyle. The pātimokkha lists sexual intercourse as the first offense, a pārājika, literally a "defeat" or "setting aside (from the bhikkhu-sangha)" (see Gombrich 1988:104), commission of which makes one ipso facto no longer a bhikkhu.[15] Moreover, in a fashion analogous to Judaism's "building a fence around the Torah," the pātimokkha prohibits a monk from being alone with or traveling with a woman, while the tradition forbids a monk's physical touching of a woman.

The dilemma in this for Theravāda monks in America runs along two levels. Strict adherence to traditional etiquette can embarrass and even offend American women visiting a temple or seeking individual counseling or instruction from a monk. One monastic respondent predicted that monks in America will slowly adopt the practices of shaking hands with and hugging women as normal, cultural expressions of courtesy and friendship. As to the second level of the dilemma, while Theravāda monks in America may recognize the stumbling-block to monastic recruitment presented by the celibacy rule,[16] none would advocate setting aside the rule. Instead, it appears that efforts will be directed toward ways of cultivating a non-monastic leadership in United States temples (see Numrich 1994, [1996]).

In United States temples where vinaya adaptation has occurred, three principles seem to be at work. First, only minor modifications have been implemented, or, to put it differently, only "minor" vinaya rules have been modified. Clearly "major" rules like triple robing and celibacy stand unchallenged, though accessories to the robes have appeared and social relations with women may be more flexible.[17] Secondly, practicality comes into play--where vinaya restrictions become impractical, adaptation occurs. This principle depends on the first principle, however, for no matter how impractical a "major" vinaya rule seemingly becomes (e.g., wearing robes in public or requiring a celibate monastic community), modification of it has not yet occurred. Lastly, vinaya adaptation relies on a consensual process, among monks certainly, but also between monks and laity in a temple. Without the approval of its lay constituency, a United States temple's bhikkhu-sangha finds it difficult if not impossible to enact even "minor" modifications in the most "impractical" rules. Summing up the frustrations sometimes felt by progressive Asian monks in immigrant temples, Ven. Dr. Ratanasara of Dharma Vijaya, Los Angeles, observed that "they often are trapped by their congregation members who wish them to remain 'old country' in order to preserve a nostalgia for their old home life, while they themselves pursue the new American dream" (Dart 1989:7).[18]
It is still early in the historical development of immigrant Theravāda Buddhism in the United States.[19] If immigration trends hold steady or increase, we should see the continued proliferation and consolidation of temples in coming decades. Barring a tightening of United States visa restrictions,[20] and assuming a constant source of monks in the home countries, these temples can import their monastic staff from Asia indefinitely. Communal recitation of the pātimokkha will become easier, minimal adaptation of vinaya requirements will continue. However, unless these imported monks can speak to the offspring of Asian immigrants in culturally and spiritually meaningful ways, a native-born bhikkhu-sangha will not likely arise among this group. Moreover, even though we may be seeing a renewed appreciation for the value of the monastic path among American converts, it seems unlikely that such appreciation alone will overcome the strong cultural sentiments favoring lay-oriented religiosity in this country.[21] Without indigenous American bhikkhus, whether ethnic-Asian or American-convert, Theravāda Buddhist monasticism will remain a perpetually replenished green growing garden, rather than becoming a deeply-rooted, natural outgrowth of the Theravāda experience in the United States.[22]


[1] Samantapāsādikā I, 102; cf. Mahāvaṃsa 126; Dīpavaṃsa chapter. 14, vss. 20-4; Vinaya-nidāna 103. Return

[2] The bulk of the present essay comes from a larger paper on this topic (Numrich 1994). Return

[3] On the 227 pātimokkha sikkhāpada, see Ñāṇamoli Thera 1969; Vajirañāṇavarorasa 1971:5-31. Return

[4] More informal procedures (pārisuddhi, "purity") are followed with less than four monks; see Vinaya I, 124-5. Return

[5] For instance, according to my monastic respondents, 1 of the 8 Sinhalese temples and 2 of the 20 Dhammayuttika Thai temples in the United States have baddha sīmā. Return

[6] The Theravāda texts tell us that the Buddha's beloved disciple, Aananda, neglected to query the Buddha about the "minor" rules and that the First Buddhist Council could not make a determination thereupon (see Dīgha Nikāya Ī, 154; Vinaya Ī, 287-8). Return

[7] Quotes from World Buddhism in North America, a video documentary of Conference proceedings. Return

[8] Ven. Dr. Ratanasara immediately nuanced his statement, perhaps with the notion of pālimuttaka-vinicchaya in mind: "if certain practices are to be altered, if you don't like to use 'alteration' or 'change,' we may call it 'to add'." Return

[9] I suggest elsewhere (Numrich [1996]) that Theravāda Buddhism may hold a particular attraction for American converts from fundamentalist religious backgrounds. Return

[10] Bhikkhu Bodhi (1992), now living in Sri Lanka, contributed his "open letter" to a forum discussion in the now- defunct newspaper Dharma Gate. Two other American-convert monks whom I interviewed stressed the need for a monastic presence in American Buddhism. One spoke of a group in the Boston area that may soon take concrete steps in this direction. Several respondents pointed to the Bhavana Society's (High View, West Virginia) efforts as well. Return

[11] A more detailed examination of these and other areas may be found in Numrich 1992. Return

[12] Vinaya I, 289. The three robes requirement is assumed in the pātimokkha sikkhāpada, the 227 precepts recited bi- monthly by Theravāda monks. Specific precepts in the pātimokkha prescribe proper reception, possession, and wearing of the three robes. Return

[13] Fodde correspondence. Return

[14] Dharma Vijaya Newsletter February, 1982:3. Return

[15] Vinaya I I I, 109. The other pārājika offenses are taking something (above a certain value) not given, murder, and false claims of attaining superhuman states. Return

[16] As some observers point out, the monastic lifestyle simply goes against the grain of mainstream American culture. In contrast to Asian Buddhist countries, monasticism is not portrayed as a viable option in this society, much less as a spiritual ideal. The perpetual, spiritually-motivated chastity of the monastic calling must appear odd to the average American who, as a Sinhalese monk put it to me, seems to consider sex as much a human necessity as food and water. Return

[17] Interestingly, I received slightly different opinions from two monks on the question of where to draw the line between the "major" (i.e., non-modifiable) and the "minor" (i.e., modifiable) rules in the 227 pātimokkha sikkhāpada. One monk, an ethnic Asian, considers the first 19 rules "major"--the 4 pārājika, the 13 sanghādisesa, and the 2 aniyata (these last forbidding a monk to be alone with a woman). The other monk, an American convert, draws the line at the first 17 rules only. An example of a "minor," modifiable rule in both of these interpretations would be the prohibition of traveling alone with a woman, one of the 92 pācittiya. Return

[18] My written survey of two such temples revealed less resistance among adult immigrants to modification of "minor" vinaya rules than to modification of the "major" rules on monastic robes and celibacy. Second-generation immigrant survey respondents showed significantly more openness to modification of "major" rules than the adult generation (see Numrich 1992:270-2). Return

[19] All but one of the approximately 150 temples were established after 1970, the exception being the Washington, D.C., Buddhist Vihara (est. 1966). Return

[20] One Sinhalese monastic respondent keeps reminding me of the situation in Malaysia, where the government apparently shut off the supply of monks from Sri Lanka, resulting in the closing of the Sri Lankan vihāras there. Return

[21] Cf. Prebish's (1988:677) prediction: "It appears that, for the immediate future, Buddhism will remain an almost exclusively lay community in America." Return

[22] Cf. W. Rahula 1978:66-7. The vast majority of the monks in Theravāda temples in the United States are Asian nationals, often possessing only minimal English-language proficiency and passing acquaintance with American culture. My monastic respondents (from within Thai and Sinhalese circles) report no new permanent monks from the ranks of the American born and/or raised immigrant second generation, and can identify only about ten non-Asian monks (one African-American, the rest Caucasian) in United States temples. Return


Bhikkhu Bodhi

1992 "What's Wrong with American Buddhism?" Dharma Gate:International Buddhist Newspaper 1,3 (February):10-11.

Butler, Katy

1990 "Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America." Common BoundaryMay/June:14-22.

Carrithers, Michael B.

1984 "'They Will Be Lords upon the Island': Buddhism in Sri Lanka." In The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, Edited by Heinz Bechert and Richard Gombrich, 133-46. New York: Facts on File.

Dart, John

1989 "Los Angeles Monk Advocates an Americanized Form of Buddhism." Los Angeles Times, July 8, pt. Ī:6-7.

Dharma Vijaya Newsletter. Los Angeles: Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara.

Fields, Rick

1992 How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. 3rd ed., revised and updated. Boston: Shambhala.

Fodde, Robert W.

1990 Correspondence to Phravisuddi Sombodhi. October 23.

Gombrich, Richard

1988 Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. New York: RKP.

Ñāṇamoli Thera, Venerable (translator)

1969 The Pāṭimokkha: 227 Fundamental Rules of a Bhikkhu. Bangkok: King Mahā Makuta's Academy.

Numrich, Paul David

1992 "Americanization in Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples." Dissertation, Northwestern University.

1994 "The Prospect of the Sangha in US Theravāda Buddhism." Paper presented in Buddhism Section and North American Religions Section, ĀR Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois. November 20.

[1996] Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming.

Prebish, Charles S.

1988 "Buddhism." Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements, ed. Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams. Vol. 2. New York: Scribner's.

Rahula, Reverend Walpola

1966 History of Buddhism in Ceylon. 2nd ed. Colombo: MḌ. Gunasena.

1978 Zen and the Taming of the Bull: Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought. London: Gordon Fraser.

Rahula, Yogavacara

1987 "Buddhism in the West: A View by a Western Buddhist Monk." Dharma Voice: A Quarterly Bulletin of the College of Buddhist Studies Los Angeles, April:15-16.

Vajirañāṇavarorasa, Somdet Phra Mahā Samaṇa Chao Krom

1971 Phrayā. Navakovāda: Instructions for Newly-Ordained Bhikkhus and Sāmaṇeras. Bangkok: Mahā Makuta Buddhist University.

Wells, Kenneth E.

1975 Thai Buddhism: Its Rites and Activities. Bangkok: Suriyabun.

Wijayaratna, Mohan

1990 Buddhist Monastic Life, According to the Texts of the Theravāda Tradition. Translated by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wimalaratna, Venerable Dr. Bellanwila

1991 "Research Problems in the Contemporary Study of Theravada Buddhism." Religion Department Colloquium. Northwestern University, October 12.

World Buddhism in North America: A Documentary Based on the Conference on World Buddhism in North America. 1989. Videocassette. Ann Arbor, MI: Zen Lotus Society.

Copyright 1994
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