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Forest Monks of Sri Lanka - Part 2

by Sangharakshita


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Questions and answers on Chapter Three, The Forest Monks Of Sri Lanka


7th August 1985

S: ....did raise it arising out of the account of the life of Nyanatiloka, the question of obedience, do you remember that? Obedience is one of the
three foundations, or requirements of monastic life in Christianity. A monk is vowed to Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. But in the case of
Buddhism there is no question of obedience to any personal superior in the way that there is in Christianity, and this was one of the aspects of
Buddhism that appealed to Nyanatiloka, that one was more free. But is it in fact as simple as that in the case say of Theravada Buddhism?

So really there are two questions here, one is the question of the value if any, or place if any, of obedience in monastic life or spiritual life, and
two; whether the element of obedience is so absent from Theravada Buddhism as the author seems to believe. Does anybody have anything to
say on either of these two points?

Abhaya : You did say something on this in Tuscany last year Bhante and you did say there is a place perhaps in Buddhism, or in the Movement,
for obedience, but that it requires a high level of individuality on the part of the person who is obeying.

S: And also of course that obedience cannot be absolute. You obey that which you yourself recognise to be higher, because it is higher. Or you
obey someone who is more experienced, or more advanced than you are, because you yourself recognise him to be more experienced, or more
advanced. Not because he has been placed over you by some external, ecclesiastical authority. I think I mentioned in this connection, Thomas
Merton's experience, as described by Monica Furlong in her biography. It seems to me when I read that biography - I don't know if anybody else
has read it - that this was the great issue, as it were, really between him and the Christian Monastic life, or even possibly between him and
Catholicism. It seemed to me when I read this biography that really he skated round this problem, or shirked this


problem. He didn't really face up to the fact that he was not happy with this principle of obedience. He got round it as best he could, without
actually questioning it explicitly. That seemed in some ways the least satisfactory aspect of his life and the one that did give him the greatest
trouble. So perhaps there is a limited place for obedience, though in Buddhism, in the spiritual life, but not in the Christian sense of a practically
blind obedience to an authority appointed by the ecclesiastical superiors.

Buddhadasa : What about in Buddhism, obedience to a collective? You suggested that you can as it were be obedient to someone that you
recognised as being in a higher way with more experience than yourself, but is there not a case for saying that one can be obedient to the
majority of one's fellow Order Members that you respect?

S: Well if we take the Bhikkhu Sangha as our model, there is no question of obedience to the majority, because all questions concerning the
Sangha have to be settled by consensus. There is no question of the odd man out having to obey the majority, merely because it is the majority.


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Anyway not to linger over that particular question of obedience too much. It seems to me that in the Theravada there is actually obedience, but it
is not to any person, as in Christianity. The obedience that is required of the monk is to the whole monastic discipline. For instance,
Nyanatiloka, I think it is, makes the point, or maybe Nyanamoli made it, I think and the author quotes that, that when you obey the monastic
discipline you are relieved of a great deal of trouble, because the scope of choice is restricted and very few alternatives are left to you. The
monastic rule, the monastic law, tells you what you may do, what you may not do, and that relieves you from possible conflict, possible doubt. It
simplifies life, but that is also the very point that is made in the context of Christian monasticism with regard to obeying a personal monastic
superior. You have only one responsibility then - just to obey, and that will greatly simplify life. No problems, no psychological conflicts, it is
all so simple so easy.

So one does find that in the monastic rule, in the monastic law, the Vinaya, in Buddhism, there is a sort of impersonal monastic superior, who
tells you what to do, and makes life simple and, in a sense, easy for you by so telling you. Therefore, I say that it seems to me that perhaps
Nyanatiloka was not quite so free from the necessity of obedience in Theravada Buddhism as a monk, as he seems to have believed. Not that it
is quite the same, being told what to do by a personal superior, and being told so to speak, metaphorically, by the Vinaya. But there is certainly a
common element, and therefore, also an element of obedience in both cases.

Kamalasila : What about the relationship between a bhikkhu and his preceptor, the relationship with the nissaya? I thought that in the Three
Jewels, you said this was that he was obedient to him at all times, it might be for several years, or it might be for his whole life?

S: Yes, in a sense he is obedient, but it is not unqualified. For instance, he is not obliged to do anything which his teacher or preceptor may ask
him to do if he feels it is against the Vinaya, or against the Buddha's teaching. In fact there is even provision made, where necessary, for the
pupil, the disciple to point out his preceptor's mistakes, or even criticise him, which is not the case in Christian monastic life, at least not in most
Orders as far as I can remember. So the obedience is far from being absolute, and one might say that in the case of Christianity, the training or
the object of the training is to make the monk more and more obedient. But in Buddhism the aim is to make the monk less and less obedient.
The aim of the training is to make him self dependent. You are as it were, apprenticed to an older monk, as to someone who is more
experienced, more skilled than you, and his job is to train you so that you become as he is, you become as responsible as he is, and able to take
charge, so to speak, of your own destiny.

So the obedience is quite limited, and quite provisional in the case of Buddhism. But perhaps in the West for certain well known reasons we
tend to go to the other extreme. Perhaps in reaction in some cases, to the extreme of the Christian type of obedience. We start thinking that
disobedience is a virtue, where as, in the middle, in between, you have the Buddhist conception of a sort of limited and provisional obedience,
not unlike on its own level, the obedience of the child to the parents. Perhaps it is not without significance that even that obedience, or at least
the idea of that obedience, seems to be rather in abeyance nowadays. We tend to think very often, that it is disgraceful to obey. You feel
humiliated by having to obey somebody, even when he's giving a quite reasonable sort of command, or just asking you or telling you to do
something.

Even in the case of some modern apprentices, the master says, "Give me that piece of wood," and the apprentice says, "I am not going to be

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ordered around, I didn't come here for that!" You see what I mean? There is that sort of attitude. So nissaya means dependence, but it is
dependence with a view to eventual independence. It is dependence in order that you may become independent. Usually it is considered that a
monk needs to stay depending on his teacher for five years, or anything up to ten years. Quite a few monks choose to remain technically
dependent indefinitely. They are not in a hurry to become independent by any means, and this is not for any negative reasons. They may be
very strong characters in their own right, but they prefer to remain dependent on, in that sense, their teachers and to defer to their teachers. That
certainly doesn't mean that they would surrender their power of judgement, or anything of that sort, or their own consciences.

It's a well known comparison in Christian monastic circles and monastic life, that the disciple is to be just like a corpse in the hands of his
superior. I think the Jesuits make much of this. You have no more volition of your own than a corpse has. Bit this sort of way of looking at
obedience would be quite unthinkable in Buddhism, because Buddhism does prize autonomy and responsibility so greatly. None the less, having
said that, I think in these days it wouldn't be a bad idea if someone, at least for a limited period, as an experience, was to place himself under
somebody's direction or ...

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