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Forest Monks of Sri Lanka - Part 4

by Sangharakshita


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Questions and Answers on:


The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka, Chapter 8

llth August 1985

Devamitra : This morning we have been studying the chapter which gives an account of Ratnapala's life story. We have a total of twenty-two
questions altogether. The first question comes from Padmavajra, and concerns the use of the word 'egalitarian'.

Padmavajra : This is just a quote really that I would like you to comment on if you could. Occurring at the bottom of page 139, and continuing
to page 140. And on these pages we are introduced to first principle of the Sangha's constitution, and I quote now : "The archaic, egalitarian
principle enshrined in Buddhist doctrine and particularly in the rules of discipline, the Vinaya". Would you care to comment on this?

S: I think what the author has in mind when he speaks of an egalitarian principle in the Sangha's constitution, is the fact that every individual
monk belonging to a particular 'avasa' is the technical term, a particular parish one might say, has the right and the duty to participate in all
proceedings of the Sangha of that avasa. And its proceedings are not complete without him. There are very elaborate provisions covering this. I
think this is what the author has in mind here.

Devamitra : The second question comes from Dharmapriya concerning the denial of kalyana mitrata.

Dharmapriya : On pages 140 and 141, Carrithers expounds his third principle comprising the Sangha's constitution. In these paragraphs he
emphasises that the village monks are effectively part of the village society, rather than of a wider Sangha. There would seem to be no
possibilities for kalyana mitrata in such a situation. So would you agree with this assessment, and, secondly would you also agree that one of
Ratnapala's main achievements was the rediscovery of kalyana mitrata?

S: Yes that would seem to be so, and that is the note struck at the very end of the chapter isn't it, where he says: "Not for him any restoration of
the glories of Sinhalese history, or any hesitation over resurrecting the original significance of the texts: he went straight for the main thing,
primeval Sangha life, the small society of good and wise friends, kalyanamitta, seeking their spiritual weal together". So though he may not
have done so consciously, he was in a sense rebelling or protesting against that particular aspect of the village Sangha set up, which amounted
virtually to a denial of kalyana mitrata within the Sangha. One might say that the village bhikkhu ended up almost like a Catholic priest, just
living alone in his Presbytery and dealing with his parishioners, and with absolutely minimal contact with fellow priests. Except of course in the
case of the Catholic priest, at least he has got his Diocesan Bishop over him. In the case of the village bhikkhus, there was even less supervision
from above than that, and I think I have mentioned before when we have been discussing the fact that a number of Catholic priests are giving up
the robes, as Buddhists would say, one of the reasons that they often give is just loneliness. They meet lots of people, they have got perhaps a
busy parish life, they are constantly having to deal with their parishioners, but they've got no one that they can look upon as a real friend with
whom they can talk frankly, exchange ideas and so on. I'm not quite sure how isolated priests manage in connection with confessions,

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presumably there is some arrangement but also perhaps the priest to whom you confess does not necessarily become your personal friend. So I
think this aspect of the particular movement described in this chapter, is very important and very significant. It's as though chapter by chapter,
we are getting closer and closer to some of the basic concerns of the Western Buddhist Order, and this of course is certainly one of them.

But it has been commented upon by a bhikkhu with whom we are in contact, who has some contact with Chithurst, that there they don't have a
Sangha in the sense that we have an Order. Though they have a common discipline, and they are in personal contact to some extent, they don't
really have a shared spiritual life.

Devamitra : Another question concerning Sangha, this time from Buddhadasa, on the Sangha as an exemplar.

Buddhadasa : Yes, Bhante, on page 142, I was very interested in Carrithers comments that: "the Sangha is self referring and autonomous, and the
question is, rather, what role society plays in fostering Sangha". Also: "The view of the monk as a passive exemplar is to be regarded as a
development following the naturalisation of the Sangha in a Buddhist society";

Given that one of the greatest dangers facing the Sangha is to start fulfilling the expectations of society, do you think we should do more to
encourage an attitude of positive non justification toward society. Do we in fact owe society anything at all, even an explanation?

S: Well yes and no, I have I think years ago, dwelt upon this. I think I discussed it then in terms of the monastic life, that the monastic life was
its own justification, the spiritual life was its own justification. This is of course only half of the story. I think the danger consists in the fact that
the spiritual community, or church, or whatever you like to call it, is expected to justify its existence in, so to speak, secular terms. It's as though
the spiritual community is regarded as existing for the sake of, let us say, the group. In a sense it does exist for the sake of the group, but only to
the extent that it exists for the sake of helping members of the group to become members of the spiritual community. It's purpose is not to serve
the group on the group's own terms. I think that is the danger, and sometimes I think it's not easy to prevent oneself sliding from the one to the
other. This is a very obvious danger. Though one is expected in modern times very often to justify one's existence as a spiritually committed
individual, or as a spiritual community in terms of social work and social welfare projects, considered as ends in themselves. And many
religious minded people, of all religions and dominations seem to fall into this particular trap, very often because their own spiritual lives have
lost meaning and purpose, and they are looking around for some kind of meaning, some kind of purpose, and they find it in social work. Not
social work as an expression of spiritual commitment, but social work considered for its own sake, considered almost as an ultimate good.

Dhammaloka : A supplementary question. When you say the purpose of the spiritual community is not to serve members of the society on its
own terms, but to help the members to join the spiritual community. would that include, this can be accepted only when the highest value, the
highest general value in the society was the spiritual community, otherwise there is a necessary conflict?

S: Yes, in traditional societies this is usually recognised, at least theoretically, and it can be appealed to, but perhaps for the first time in history,
we have secular societies that did not on the whole recognise that man exists for the sake of some higher spiritual purpose. And therefore there
is this constant pressure to justify one's existence, and the existence of one's spiritual community in purely secular terms. So it is almost as

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though part of one's work is to try to extract almost from society at large, a recognition of the spiritual principle, a recognition of the fact that
man does have a spiritual objective, a spiritual goal. And that the pursuit of that spiritual objective or that spiritual goal can be supremely
worthwhile and does not require further justification in purely secular terms.

Dhammaloka : Another supplementary.

S: Just before you ask that question. One can see from the account which Carrithers gives of the village bhikkhu, that he has become
subordinated almost entirely to secular needs and group requirements. His whole life is spent really in servicing the group. There seems to be
no spiritual element there at all, certainly not explicitly present.

Dhammaloka : Would you say that modern society, particularly through some developments in modern science, heading to the sort of
encouragement in the direction that man has a spiritual objective, it seems that some science comes up to the sort of natural end of at least
mechanistic religions. So could a development in that sense be expected from there?

S: I think here and there, in as it were more cultivated circles. But I think the mass of people, would expect ...

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