This essay was written by S. Dhammika in 2001, published in 2004 in the Maha Bodhi Society journal. The author is an Australian Buddhist monk who reflected on his 25 years as an ordained monk, practicing in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Burma. The article is a searing critique of the state of Theravada Buddhism in Asia. It was difficult to read a viewpoint that was so critical, and at times painful. Dhammika argues that most people have only heard of the ideal and beneficial aspects of Theravada, that someone has to honestly put forth the problems of the religion. For me personally, it helped me to see the cultural chasm between Theravada as it is practiced in Asia and Theravada and as it is practiced in the West, such as the Insight Meditation Society or Triratna. I now understand why Asian Theravadins don’t understand or appreciate Western Theravadins in their communities, and it’s because we don’t understand their religious culture and what makes it so different from Western practice.
In 2001 I had been a monk in the Theravadin tradition for twenty five years as well as reaching the conventional halfway point in my life, having also had my fiftieth birthday. It seemed a good time to asses my life and my practice up to then as well as to give some thought to where the two might go in the future. Even before I became a monk I had reservations about some of the things I had seen during my stays in Thai and Laotian monasteries. This didn’t deter me from ordaining though. Corruption and misunderstandings exist in all religions, I thought, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to find those who practiced the true Theravada. As it happened it was quite difficult to find such people. But more disappointing, when I did meet dedicated and sincere Theravadins all too often they seemed to give exaggerated importance to things which, to me at least, appeared to be little more than rituals and formalities
Quite understandably, Asian Theravadins expect you to follow their traditions and not question them. You can point out that certain practices or ideas are not in the Tipitaka or are even contrary to it but it will make no difference. Right or wrong, inane or practical, that’s how it has always been done and that’s what you must do. In 1996 I traveled in Europe for the first time thus giving me the opportunity to see how Theravada was understood and practiced there. Theravada in Asia might be hidebound and fossilized I thought but at least Westerners will have been able to separate the fruit from the peel, the gift from the wrapping, the Buddha from ‘the thick uneven crust’ surrounding him. To my astonishment and despair I found that this was not so. Most groups, centers and monasteries I visited adhered to such practices with even more tenacity than in Asia. I finally had to admit that this is Theravada and reluctantly and with some sadness decided that I could not be a part of it any longer. I began telling anyone who might be interested that I did not consider myself or want to be considered by others to be a Theravadin monk. In fact I had probably never really been one anyway, not a good one at least. When I mentioned this to a friend he asked ‘Then what sort of monk are you?’ I wasn’t prepared for this question but after thinking about it for a while I decided that I did not have to align myself with any school. Now I follow the Buddha’s teachings to the best of my understanding and to the best of my ability. What follows are thoughts and observations on the Theravada tradition that I have formed over the last twenty five years, some of the experiences that have led to them and some suggestions about the possible future of the Dhamma in the West
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