+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com

Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
© Robert Menzies
There are three main “Vehicles” (schools, sects) of Buddhism. The first is Theravada. This is the
“Tradition of the Elders,” and it has continued to focus on the original texts of the tradition, the Pali Canon.
The Pali Canon, sometimes called the Tripitaka (Three Baskets) is the earliest collection of the tradition.
It includes a collection of the teachings attributed to the Buddha, a collection of monastic rules, and a
collection of other doctrines and philosophy. This is found mostly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia
(Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and so on).
The second main tradition is the collection of traditions we call Mahayana. Mahayana (The Great
Vehicle) is found in northeast Asia (Korea, China and Japan) with a strong influence on Vietnam as well.
It began as a sub-sect of Theravada, the Maha-Sanghikas (Those Who Accept a Larger Sangha). There
are three distinguishing features that separate Mahayana from Theravada: the acceptance of bodhisattvas;
the new cosmology associated with bodhisattvas; and a new philosophical position focusing on the deep
emptiness of being. As a part of this “expansion,” Mahayana has expanded the canon to include more texts
which it claimed were the legitimate teachings of the Buddha.
The third tradition is Vajrayana (Lightning Bolt Vehicle; Thunderbolt Vehicle; Diamond Vehicle).
Vajrayana arose out of the esoteric Tantric traditions in northeast India, and it quickly migrated into Tibet.
The Vajrayana monastic structures are descended from Theravada and Mahayana monasticism, but the
philosophy is a clear outgrowth of the Mahayana emptiness philosophy.
These are the three philosophical positions examined in some detail below.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The tradition that developed into “Buddhism” was one of many different schools that arose in the
late Vedic period of social chaos which Sanskrit writers called matsya-nyaya. This is the period when the
Upanishads were written, and we see the beginnings of Hindu meditative philosophy as well as other
nastika schools like Jainism. The goal of these systems was transcendence above samsara (the world of
karma and rebirth) and to enter into Nirvana (the state of non-suffering). The means to this goal were:
1. renunciation. The individual must become a monk/nun. The laity must accrue good karma, and in
a later life become monk/nun and from there achieve Nirvana.
2. moral precepts. By following the rules, the monk/nun is able to concentrate more fully on the goals
of meditation. They are designed to move the individual from attachment to worldly things to a
sense of detachment from them. The laity have rules as well, but they are for maintaining the social
system and gaining merit.
3. meditation. This is the focal point. The other two are foundational. Meditation (dhyana) has several
levels like concentric circles. The point of renunciation is to remove unnecessary social
distractions. Morality is designed to give a sense of order and discipline which creates a consistent
social structure within the monasteries and allow monks/nuns to meditate.
While Nirvana (Pali=Nibbana) was the goal it was not the focus; the focus of the teachings in the
Pali Canon are on the means to reach the goal. However, it would be good to have a sense of the goal
itself. The etymology of Nirvana is “blowing out” or “extinguishing.” But notion of the fire to be
extinguished was different In the Buddha’s day burning was understood to be a form of agitation. The
element “fire’ was understood to be present in the fuel, so we cannot “get rid of” the fire; all we can do is
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
keep it from being active. The extinguishing of a fire is not the annihilation of fire, but a calming. So,
Nirvana is a calm, unexcited, blissful state, that is the calming of suffering. It is not a state of nonexistence, nor is it a state where suffering does not exist. Nirvana is freedom from stress, pain, change,
and suffering.
Every religious or philosophical school has an understanding of the human condition. According
to the tradition, the first sermon the Buddha gave after he achieved Awakening was at the Deer Park in
Sarnath, just outside of Varanasi (Banaras) in north India. According to Pali Canon the human condition
the Buddha described in the Deer Park Sermon is:
1. Life is suffering
2. Suffering is caused by desire
3. Suffering can be ended. How?
4. Desire can be ended by the Eightfold path
To say it another way, in the Pali Canon these are the 3 Marks of Existence (3 Lakkhana): anicca
(Sanskrit=anitya), anatta (Sanskrit=anatman), duhkham.
A. Anicca (Anitya)
This is the doctrine that everything is transitory; there is no permanence in the universe. The
Upanishads posited a permanent essence to the universe, as did most of the other schools at this time.
These schools were on a quest to identify and liberate a person’s true, permanent self and connect it to the
true, permanent self of the universe. The Pali Canon, however, states that there is no permanence;
everything is constantly in flux, in chaos. Everything is constantly changing from what it is to something
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
B. Anatta (Anatman)
If there is no permanence in the universe, then there can be no permanent self on which karma can
cling. This is true of the individual, but also of all other beings. Animals, Gods, ghosts, trees and shrubs;
all lack a true, permanent self. Atman (Pali=atta) was the term used by most of the schools to mean a
permanent self. In virtually all other religions there is a sense there is a “real me” that I can perceive and
distinguish from all other beings. The Pali Canon, on the other hand, teaches that no permanent,
substantial, independent, metaphysical self existed.
C. Duhkham: All is misery ==== First noble truth
4 Noble Truths
1. Life is suffering
The assertion that life is suffering may not be immediately obvious. We can understand that the
death of a loved one is painful, and so is the rejection by a potential lover, being treated badly by people
who we thought were our friends, being fired by our employers, and so on. Sickness is suffering. Death is
suffering. Separation is suffering. But these are not the only forms of suffering. Failure is suffering, but
so is success. Success leads to craving and attachment. There is the inherent tendency in humans to remain
unsatisfied regardless of what we achieve. We are happily married and want more than one spouse, or we
have extramarital affairs. We are full after dinner and immediately begin thinking about what to have for
a snack, or for dessert, or for our next meal. The more we have, the more we want. Once we have
something, we are afraid of losing it. We crave physical pleasure, of sex or food, and we crave to hold on
to material goods and relationships. We know that all of us die, and at the back of our mind is the
attachment to our loved ones out of the fear that we will be sad when they die. So, even in a good
relationship there is the suffering of craving and attachment.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The origin of suffering is the ignorance of the first two marks of existence. We live in denial of
the fact that there is no permanence and no permanent self. This is why we act the way we do and why we
are constantly unsatisfied with our lives. Life is suffering because we are ignorant, or choose to ignore,
these two truths. The Pali Canon does not deny the existence of happiness in the world. But it emphasizes
that all happiness is transitory. Happy moments are temporary and leave a bitter aftertaste of longing, loss
and regret. With the exception of Nirvana, no happy state is permanent.
2. Desire is the cause of suffering
The second of the Four Noble Truths has to some extent been covered. Suffering is caused by
desire. Literally, this is a “thirst” (tanha). It is a craving that is always on the look out for gratification but
simply can never be satisfied. We crave to avoid what we dislike and to revel in what we like. Like a
chemical addiction, however, access to what we like only increases our desire for more.
3. Suffering can be ended by ending desire
The good news is that there is a cure to this suffering. Suffering can be ended by ending desire. In
order to understand that cure, a person must make a realistic assessment of the illness.
4. Desire can be ended by the Eightfold path
The steps in the Eightfold Path were systematized; simply memorizing them as a list does not
explain much; there is an order which expresses this message.
Four Noble truths. Understand them. Know them at a deep level. Intuit them at such a level that
they are second nature to you. Live them.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
These are the attitudes one is to have toward other creatures. They are attitudes such as compassion,
empathy, ahimsa (nonviolence) and so on. These two are the “foundation” upon which the rest is based.
These three comprise the level of ethics and conduct; how we act toward the outside world. They
are external ways of acting, norms of morality. Right action is subdivided into: 1) abstaining from harm
(ahimsa); 2) abstaining from stealing; 3) abstaining from deception/lying; 4) abstaining from illicit sex;
5) abstaining from intoxicants. These five are also called the Five Lay Precepts. Every Buddhist is
expected to follow these as a bare minimum while monks are to follow more stringent rules. The point
here is to follow a middle path between absolute indulgence and absolute abstinence.
This is a reminder that the path is not easy, and it will take strength of will to follow it.
This is an injunction to meditate.
This is the concentration and discernment which breaks spiritual ignorance (avidya). Avidya is the
ignorance of believing that the world is permanent.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
In the Eightfold Path we see a gradual move from exterior to interior. Like the concentric circles,
this gradually moves the individual from the worldview (1&2) through the actions we make in the world
(3, 4, 5), and finally to correct mental states (6, 7, 8).
PATICCASAMUPPADA (Sanskrit=Patityasamutpada) (Dependent Origination; the Karmic Wheel)
The concept of karma is rather convoluted in the Pali Canon. The teachings of the Buddha are
intentionally practical and tended to be given in a specific context. So, explanations of karma are
somewhat different from each other. However, karma and rebirth were concepts that had such cultural
traction at this time that they needed to be examined. Dependent Origination is a very original way of
dealing with this problem.
Dependent Origination, this is a 12-Fold Wheel of Causation where each link in the wheel is
dependent on the one before. Cut one and they all end. This chain is a series of inter-related conditions
that begin immediately after death and impact the individual until the 12th stage comes, and this is the
stage of birth, aging, and death. Eleven out of the twelve steps in the Karmic Wheel are mental states, and
this is why meditation is so important. Breaking the spiritual ignorance (avidya) is the key because it gives
the individual the code to understand the reality of samsara and nirvana.
As a list, this seems rather complex and somewhat random. However, if we break it down, the first
of all of the steps is avidya (spiritual ignorance). The next nine stages are basically explanations of mental
and physical states that allow our bodies to function. Birth is its own stage, and all of life is one single
stage (and it includes death as well). Clearly the focus here is on mental states (ignorance, the
consciousness that sees differences between things, and so on).
Key to understanding this is that it is a wheel/cycle. We die, and because of our avidya we are
forced to go through the whole process again, and we continue to crave, make bad choices, and continue
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
to be born, die, be reborn, and re-die. If we can break the wheel at any step, then rebirth and re-death are
no more. However, nobody lives forever, so the most obvious way to break this is at the stage of avidya,
and that is done through meditation.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The Buddhist community (sangha) was originally a loose collection of wandering monks and nuns
who stayed in particular hermitages only during the monsoon season. Over time, the loose confederation
of groups coalesced into distinct lineages or schools and these began to disagree on points of doctrine or
practice. There were both male and female orders and there was a close relationship between the clergy
and the laity. From the earliest time there were schisms and debates on what the Buddha meant when he
discussed the rules (vinaya) and the doctrine. Virtually from the earliest period of the sangha there was a
movement which felt that the Buddha’s teachings could still be found in the world around them. They also
believed that many more people should be allowed into the sangha than the elders did. Finally, they saw
divine beings as also being possible teachers. Thus, their vision of the sangha was “larger” than that of
the established elders. It is from this group that Mahayana (The Larger Vehicle) develops and it gradually
splits away from Theravada (Tradition of the Elders).
The movement which became known as Mahayana arose some time between 150 BCE and 100
CE and it was not founded by one particular individual, nor was it linked to any specific school or lineage.
It was a general movement within the tradition. It had three main ingredients. Firstly, there developed a
new philosophy of the deep “emptiness” of being. Secondly, there developed a wholehearted adoption of
the Bodhisattva path. Thirdly, there evolved a new cosmology associated with these bodhisattvas.
Madhyamaka arose as a critique of, and a reaction to a sub-tradition of early Theravada, which, it
was claimed, did not go far enough in understanding that everything is not-self (anattā) or empty. This
sub-tradition had analyzed persons down to dharmas, each with an inherent svabhava (self-nature) so it
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
was seen not to have understood the “non-self-ness of dharmas.” That is, by seeing a dharma as an
ultimate building-block of reality with an inherent nature of its own one holds that it can be identified
without reference to other dharmas. This implies that things can exist independently. This makes it
equivalent to an independent self, clearly denying both the anatta doctrine and the concept of anicca.
In Pali Canon, one of the fundamental marks of existence is the lack of a permanent self (anatta).
Over the course of several centuries, certain schools of Buddhist philosophy had tried to wrestle with this
to make it consistent with Buddhist doctrine but also more accessible. Two groups suggested that there
could be moments where things do exist. The common factor to both of these schools is that both schools
supported the notion that there was an inherent svabhava to all things. Svabhava literally means “selfnature.” These groups argued that, for things to exist in the physical world there must be a permanent and
particular nature that can function as building blocks of experience and of the physical world. Even if the
world is ultimately impermanent and even if our perception is an impermanent physical sense, in order
for them to have even temporary existence there must be some sort of svabhava. There must be some sort
of permanent “self-nature” to things. There must be some “essence” underlying Dependent Origination
The Mahayana response is most clearly articulated by Nagarjuna (c 150-250), and most other
Mahayana schools arose as an elaboration of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka School.
The first thing that Nagarjuna states is that there is no self-nature. Things cannot come into being
because of their own nature. The following is a simplification of Nagarjuna’s rejection of the concept of
svabhava, but the real game changing intellectual moment comes at the end of this train of thought.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
1. There is no self-nature. Things cannot come into being because of their own nature. They do not have
a svabhava to bring themselves into being. That is, they do not have some sort of inherent essence or
nature that can cause them to come into existence on their own. If a thing has no self-nature, it cannot
simply “pop” into being. It must be brought into being by something else.
2. There is also no “other nature” (anyabhava) to bring them into being. If nothing has a svabhava, there
is no “other” thing to cause arising. If nothing has a self-nature, there is no one thing that causes all
other things to come into existence.
3. All things come into existence dependant on all other things. All things come into existence connected
to, related to, dependant on all other things.
4. Shunyata – all things share an “emptiness” of permanence. If there is no permanence, no svabhava
and no anyabhava, then all things share this lack of permanent essence. That is, they all have one thing
in common: they are empty of permanence. Shunya means “zero.” It is the number zero and the
description of a thing that is empty. The term shunyata means literally emptiness. It does not mean
that things do not “exist” or are “unreal”; things are physically real, but constantly changing and so do
not have a permanent essence. They are empty of permanence.
5. Samsara and nirvana also share this emptiness of permanence. If all things lack both svabhava and
anyabhava, then samsara and nirvana must also. The category of “all” things extends to … all things.
6. Therefore, samsara and nirvana are identical.
7. Therefore nirvana = samsara.
This final point means that nirvana is not some place or thing or state that we need to achieve by getting
out of samsara. If nirvana is samsara, then we are already in nirvana, we just are ignorant of that fact.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Description of Bodhisattva.
One of the other significant differences between Theravada and Mahayana is the category of beings
called. Bodhisattva. Literally “bodhisattva” means “A bodhi-being.” Bodhi=Awakening; sat=Truth OR
Be-ing; tva=ness. So, bodhisattva is “Being who embodies the Truth of Awakening. A bodhisattva is an
Enlightenment Being. They are not just enlightened, but they are Enlightenment itself.
Bodhisattvas are the combination of prajña and karuna mediated by upaya (wisdom and
compassion mediated skillful means). In their wisdom (prajña) the bodhisattva knows that there are no
“beings” just fluxes of empty things. This wisdom (prajña) (the realisation of the truth of the emptiness
of things; their enlightenment) triggers their compassion (karuna) when they see the rest of us living in
our ignorance. This urges them to work for the salvation of all beings, and to do so by modifying the way
they teach us based on what we are able to understand. This “skillful means” (upaya) is the modification
of the delivery of the message based on the audience. Truth is the same; how it is explained is different.
The bodhisattva is typified in general by wisdom, compassion and the skillful means necessary to
apply these two.
The Vows.
According to Mahayana, when the bodhisattva has gained Awakening, their compassion for the
rest of us causes them to make vows. There is wide variety in the tradition: some vows are very specific,
and some are not; some bodhisattvas made one vow, others made several dozen. The general “bodhisattva
vow” is: “May I not enter into complete Enlightenment unless all other beings enter complete
Enlightenment with me.” This vow to save all beings is made credible by the notion that all beings already
have “Buddhaness,” so this is really a vow to help us understand ourselves. We are not ultimately different
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
than bodhisattvas (we all share emptiness of permanence and so are all the same), so if they have done it,
they can help us do it also. If a bodhisattva achieves something, we have also.
Each bodhisattva, the ones we know about and the ones we do not know about, has their own
“realm.” The traditional Buddhist understanding of the world (samsara) is a layered one with heavens
above, hells below, and the earth in the middle. Karma works, so individuals are reborn into the various
levels of the universe based on past deeds. The universe can be understood as layered.
What is new here is that the bodhisattvas are understood to create their own Pure Land. That is,
they create their own space/place/dimension/realm that connects to all of the layers of samsara but is
nevertheless not a part of samsara. The nature of these Pure Lands is very important. They are not nirvana.
They are also not “Heaven.” The heavens are places where good deeds are rewarded, and hells are places
where bad deeds are punished; even the gods are within samsara and are subject to karma and rebirth.
These Pure Lands are described in terms that sound very much like paradise, but they are simply realms
where it is easy to hear and practice the teachings of the Buddha and work toward nirvana. Because they
are outside samsara, they are not places from which one is reborn back into samsara. They are not nirvana,
but it is impossible to regress once one is born there.
Because each bodhisattva has their own Pure Land, the descriptions are very different and
sometimes contradictory. What is common is that they are waypoints that are conducive to doing whatever
is necessary to get to the final destination of nirvana.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The tendency to see Awakened humans as divine arose early in the tradition. While the monks and
nuns wrestled with the notion of the Buddha’s place in the universe, the laity appear to have focused on
veneration of a “special” human who had achieved Enlightenment. Anything connected to the Buddha,
and later to bodhisattvas became the focus for veneration as well. Veneration was often supported by the
wealthy and it is under royal and mercantile patronage that much of Buddhist art was commissioned.
Activities include worship, but also copying, translating, chanting and distributing texts. Giving to the
sangha was also a form of devotion.
At first it began as worship of stupas. These are the reliquary mounds of the Buddha that were the
focal point of pilgrimage. They were originally to symbolize emptiness and impermanence as they are
enormous structures with virtually no exterior markings. Pilgrims would come to circumambulate the
stupa and participate in veneration of it and of the relic said to be housed inside. Over time this developed
into a full-fledged worship of the stupa itself. Rituals were performed to the stupa in the hopes that
whatever form of the Buddha was entombed here would hear the prayer and transfer enough merit to
resolve the pilgrim’s plight. Some of these stupas are enormous, such as the one in Sarnath near the Deer
Park where Gautama gave his first sermon. Inside some stupas is nothing, symbolizing emptiness; inside
others is a physical object connected to the Buddha. In Kandy in Sri Lanka there is the Temple of the
Tooth where the object of veneration is a tooth that is understood to be Gautama’s.
Stupa veneration eventually developed into the whole style of pagoda architecture in East Asia
and took on different roles there.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Similar to the functioning of stupas, and in many ways underlying them, is the veneration of relics
associated with particular Buddhist personages. Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Shri Lanka is an example.
There are temples built up around places where Gautama, or a bodhisattva, is said to have slept, walked,
died, and so on, and they have also arisen around physical things like bones or hair. These are “real”
physical things that people pray to and worship as a way of collecting merit.
Images always function at least as reminders of the spiritual qualities of holy beings. They are
often more, however. They are often seen as being infused with the power of whatever being they are an
image of. Thus, they are to be venerated, worshipped and offered to as if the being were immediately
Another form of devotionalism has already been mentioned earlier: texts. Patronage of monastics was
considered a perfectly legitimate endeavor for a wealthy man’s resources. As time went on the sponsoring
of copying or reciting fell to merchants. The copies were used as a conversion tool for when Buddhism
spread. Texts were often put in particular places in monasteries and these served as the focal point of the
religious life of the monastery. Not only were they recited in individual or group settings, but they were
sometimes venerated as objects of worship in their own right.
Texts and folktales associated with Guan-Yin indicate a more mundane intention: changing the
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
current situation of the individual devotee or their family in the short run. Guanshiyin (Chinese for
Avalokiteshvara, also Guan-Yin; Guanseum or Guaneum in Korea; Kanon in Japan) is “He Who Hears
the Cries of the World” and that is his function. Avalokiteshvara is a bodhisattva who appears early in the
Mahayana tradition in India. Over time, as his worship travels along the Silk Routes and into China, his
compassion requires a change of gender. That is, in Chinese thought, karuna (compassion) is an inherently
female characteristic, so in around the 12th century CE we have both Avalokiteshvara as a male and
Guanshiyin as a female. Tales associated with Guan-Yin were “proof” of the truth of the adherent’s claims,
but also documented for the faithful more and more miracles ascribed to this bodhisattva. The common
theme in all of these stories is that pure devotion to Guanshiyin will get you out of any difficulty. Jail,
drowning, enemy attack, illness; none of these are dangerous for one who truly worships Guanshiyin.
Even the lack of a son, that most unfilial of all acts to one’s ancestors, can be corrected.
Chanting of these folk texts, not the elite monastic sutras, was taken as giving the desired result.
Having someone else chant it is also effective, but it must be always done with utmost sincerity and piety.
It is stated explicitly that piety and sincerity of heart are necessary ingredients. At this level mere monastic
accuracy of tradition is not enough. It becomes a tradition of emotion. These folk texts continue the notion
of filial piety, a clearly Chinese Confucian value, but within the Buddhist context.
Legends of Guan-Yin as Miao Shan
In China, Guan-Yin came to be most frequently worshipped in female form as the Goddess of
Mercy. This transformation from an originally male bodhisattva into a female one seems to have occurred
sometime during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) and is reflected in Guan-Yin’s miraculous
appearance in human form in the legend of Miao-shan.
The cult of Miao-shan at Fragrant Mountain Monastery (Xiang-shan ssu = Hsiang-shan ssu) was
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
first made public in an inscription written by Jiang Zhi-chi (Chiang Chih-ch’i) (1031-1104) in 1100.
Before then, this monastery had been known for its splendid statue of Guan-Yin as the Great
Compassionate One (Da-pei) with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. In the Mahayana tradition,
Avalokiteshvara has a thousand eyes to see all of the problems of the world, and a thousand arms to help
out those who are in trouble. The legend recorded by Jiang identifies the Fragrant Mountain Monastery as
the location of Guan-Yin’s manifestation, where she revealed herself in her Great Compassionate form
with the thousand arms and eyes, neatly joining the Miao-shan legend with the image of Guan-Yin
enshrined in the monastery. Jiang’s inscription went on to claim that the relics of Guan-Yin were enshrined
in a stupa, thus making Fragrant Mountain Monastery a popular pilgrimage centre. Another inscription,
dating from 1185, commemorates the restoration of Fragrant Mountain Monastery and notes that since
around 1100,
the abbots of this monastery successively built it up on a magnificent scale and with
increasing extravagance. Because the bodhisattva’s relics were there in the stupa and
many miracles were done, every spring in the second lunar month people from all parts
of the world would come, regardless of distance. The worshippers must have numbered
tens of thousands, and they made donations according to their abilities. The monks of
the monastery had no need to go for alms to meet their annual budget. They had more
than enough to eat.
So, the cult of Guan-Yin is important as early as 1100, and here she is clearly female.
The oldest extant version of the legend of Miao-shan, and here is where it begins to connect to
Guan-Yin, is preserved in a chronicle of Buddhism in China, the Long-xing fo-jiao pien-nien tong lun
(Lung-hsing fo-chiao pien-nien t’ung lun) written in 1164 by Tsu-xiu (Tsu-hsu). The story is as follows:
Dao-xuan (Tao-hsuan) (596-667) once asked a divine spirit about the history of
the bodhisattva Guan-yin. The spirit replied:
In the past there was a king whose name was [Miao]-juang-yen. His lady was
named Pao-ying. She gave him three daughters, the eldest was Miao-yen, the second
was Miao-yin, and the youngest was Miao-shan.
At the time of Miao-shan’s conception, the queen dreamed that she had
swallowed the moon. When the time came for the child to be born, the whole earth
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
quaked, and wonderful fragrance and heavenly flowers spread near and far. The people
of that country were astounded. At birth she was clean and fresh without being washed.
Her holy marks were noble and majestic; her body was covered over with manycoloured clouds. The people said that these were signs of the incarnation of a holy
person. Although the parents thought this extraordinary, their hearts were corrupt, and
so they detested her.
As she grew up, the bodhisattva became naturally kind and gentle. She dressed
plainly and ate only once a day. In the palace she was known as “the maiden with the
heart of a Buddha.” By her good grace the ladies in waiting were all converted to
Buddhism; all turned to the good life and renounced their desires. The king took
exception to this and prepared to find her a husband. Miao-shan, with integrity and
wisdom, said, “Riches and honour are not there forever, glory and splendour are like
mere bubbles or illusions. Even if you force me to do base, menial work, I will never
repent [from my decision to remain chaste].”
When the king and his lady sent for her and tried to coax her, she said, “I will
obey your command if it will prevent three misfortunes.”
The king asked what she meant. She replied, “The first misfortune is this: when
the men of this world are young, their face is as fair as the jade-like moon, but when
they grow old, their hair turns white and their face is wrinkled: in motion or at rest they
are always worse off than when they were young. The second is this: a man’s limbs may
be lusty and strong, he may step as if he were flying through the air, but when an illness
suddenly strikes, he lies in bed without a single pleasure in life. The third misfortune is
this: a man may have a great assembly of relatives, but it all comes to an end [with his
death]. Although father and son are close, neither can take the other’s place when death
comes. If it can prevent these three misfortunes, then you have my consent to marry me
off. If not, I prefer to retire to pursue a life of religion. When one gains full understanding
of the original mind, all misfortunes cease to exist.”
The king was angry. He forced her to do the gardening and reduced her food and
drink. Even her two sisters tried to change her mind, but Miao-shan held firm. When her
mother confronted her, Miao-shan said, “Don’t worry, Mother, you have two other
sisters to care for you.”
The queen and the two sisters then asked the king to release Miao-shan to follow
a Buddhist path. The king became even angrier. He called for the nuns [at White
Sparrow Monastery] and commanded that they treat her harshly so that she would
change her mind. The nuns were afraid, so they gave her the heaviest tasks to do carrying wood and water, gardening, and so on. Because of her, vegetables and flowers
grew even in winter, and a spring miraculously appeared right outside the kitchen.
Much time passed, and Miao-shan held firm.
When the king heard about the miracles of the vegetables and the spring, he was
furious. He sent soldiers to bring back her head and to kill the nuns. As they arrived at
the monastery, a fog appeared, and they could not see their way. When it cleared, Miaoshan was the one person they could not find because she had been taken away by a spirit.
They lived in a crag, but one day the spirit said, “This land here is too barren to sustain
life.” He moved here three times before settling on Fragrant Mountain.
Time went by, and the king contracted jaundice. His whole body became one
big, oozing, open sore. He was so uncomfortable he could no longer sleep or eat, and
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
none of his doctors could cure him. He was about to die when a monk appeared claiming
that he could cure the king but would need the arms and eyes of one free from anger.
The king knew this would be difficult to find. Then the monk said, “On Fragrant
Mountain there is a bodhisattva. If you ask these things of her, she will definitely give
The king had no choice but to command a palace envoy to go and give the
request. Miao-shan said, “My father showed disrespect to the Three Treasures, he
persecuted and suppressed the True Doctrine, he executed innocent nuns. This called for
retribution.” Then she gladly cut out her eyes and cut off her arms. She gave them to the
envoy and added the instruction that the king should turn toward the good and should
no longer be deluded by false doctrines.
When these things were given to the monk, he made up a medicine. The king
took it and instantly recovered. He generously rewarded the monk. The monk said,
“Why thank me? You should be thanking the one who provided the arms and eyes. And
then he disappeared. The king was startled by this divine intervention, and immediately
went to the hills to thank the bodhisattva. They met, and before words were spoken the
queen recognised Miao-shan. They all embraced and shared tears. The queen was about
to kiss the empty eye-sockets, but before she could do so, auspicious clouds surrounded
them, divine musicians began to play, the earth shook, flowers rained down. And then
the holy manifestation of the Thousand Arms and Thousand Eyes was revealed,
hovering majestically in the air. Attendants numbered in the tens of thousands, voices
celebrated the bodhisattva’s compassion and shook the mountains and valleys. In an
instant, the bodhisattva reverted to her former person, then with great solemnity
departed. The king, the queen and the two sisters made a funeral pyre, preserved the
holy relics, and built a stupa on that very spot.
Dao-xuan again asked, “Surely the bodhisattva can take mortal form in any place
and not just at Fragrant Mountain.”
The spirit replied, “Yes. But of all sites at present in China, Fragrant Mountain
is pre-eminent. The mountain lays two-hundred leagues to the south of Mount Song. It
is the same as the Fragrant Mountain in present-day Ju-Zhou.”
What does this story tell us? This story gives us a number of themes with respect to women within
the folk traditions.
First, it states that women are spiritually capable. Miao-shan was female and she had more
compassion and depth of character than any other character. So, the text seems to be reinforcing the
original Pali teachings that women are capable of being spiritually advanced. Even if Avalokiteshvara was
originally male, by the time of this story it was understood that all of these deep and powerful drives were
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Second, compassion and self-sacrifice are inherently female traits (karuna). While
Avalokiteshvara was male, in the Song the gender had to change because compassion, of the type that
would lead to self-amputation and self-sacrifice, would naturally only come from a feminine being. This
is a reiteration of Chinese conceptions of the inherent nature of male and female bodies. So, while a
permanent nature is being debated within philosophical circles, in the folk texts there is no question that
the female form is inherently linked to karuna.
Third, filial piety and respect for parents are still valued, even if reframed in a Buddhist context.
Miao-shan may be compassionate toward others, and the existence of a popular cult with pilgrimage places
suggests that this is how she was perceived by devotees. But the primary focus of her main sacrifices,
those sacrifices that show the depth of her compassion, were to her parents. Even when she was treated
poorly, she acted compassionately toward her father. This is a clear Confucian value; xiao (hsiao) (filial
piety) is one of the primary values in Confucianism and is one of the litmus tests for all actions in
Confucian-influenced societies. Here, however, it is a Buddhist story. So, while celibacy of the ordained
monks and nuns was an issue for the Chinese, this clearly supports the traditional Confucian values, and
in doing so firmly grounds Buddhism within folk Chinese culture.
Fourth, pilgrimage and devotion are central to having your difficulties erased by Guan-Yin. GuanYin/Miao-shan are compassionate to every being, but they will definitely be compassionate to those who
are piously devoted to them. Going on a difficult pilgrimage to a mountain-top temple, and then making
offerings and giving prayers, shows a depth of conviction that will get the bodhisattva’s attention. And
this will increase the likelihood of her interceding and eliminating whatever trouble you are asking for her
to resolve.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Finally, this story functions as a “proof text,” as do so many folk tales in many different traditions.
Here the narrative is to remind us that, just as the events in the story unfolded, this can happen to you, if
you are pious enough.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The whole history of Theravada can be seen as an economy of merit. That is, there are many
different levels of thought in Theravada, as there is in virtually all religious traditions. There is the layer
of theology or philosophy; there is the layer of practical rules that are followed as “habit” or “tradition”;
and there is the layer of accumulation of merit. In Theravada, these layers are especially clear. People
build monasteries, libraries, universities, and temples as a way of increasing their own merit. The
vocabulary of merit is not limited to the monastic realm. Rather, it is one of the things which links the
monastic community to the lay community. For example, merit is understood as being the most fruitful
when planted in the appropriate place. It is good to do good, but it is better to do good for a monk. Thus,
showing respect for an individual monk is a very meritorious act.
On the surface, this may look like it is simply the same infighting that happens in every group. But
with Theravada, this attempt to revive itself is central. The reason for this is the necessity of gifting. Lay
people give gifts to monasteries. These could be food, clothes, or even a day’s work doing maintenance
to the buildings that the monks themselves cannot do. In return, monks donate back to the community by
teaching the Dhamma (Buddhist teachings) and most especially, by living the Dhamma. They are to
provide teachings and good examples for the laity to follow. Ideally, this reciprocal relationship runs
smoothly. It breaks down, however, when trust is broken; when the laity thinks that the monks are corrupt
or lazy, or when the monks think that the laity is disrespectful or stingy.
Buddhist traditions were spread by two things: monastic expansion and financial patronage. Both,
however, are interlinked. Patronage came from either the aristocracy or wealthy merchants. Mahayana
spread along the trade routes from India to what is now Afghanistan, and then east into China. From there
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
it spread to Korea, Japan and, finally, Tibet. Theravada is a little different. It also spread via monastic
expansion and political patronage, but the whole area around the Indian Ocean came to be known as
“Greater India” or “Further India.” The crescent from Sri Lanka all the way around to Indonesia and up
the coast to Vietnam, was heavily influenced by South Asian culture in general. Buddhism was not the
only tradition that spread; there are Hindu communities and performance in Indonesia whose roots go
back nearly two thousand years, and there are Hindu deities in many temples and shrines throughout
Southeast Asia.
The details of Theravada expansion into these countries is, of course, different. However, they do
maintain one significant pattern. Theravada became closely associated with the royal court, monasteries
became very wealthy and began a tradition of “universities” where they taught, translated, and wrote
commentaries on the Pali Canon. There was a rejection of this wealth and the foundation of wilderness
Village Buddhism
Village Buddhism is primarily focused on merit. Within the village there are three categories of
making merit: generosity, virtue and meditation. In much of Southeast Asia, the local word used for the
Buddhist buildings can usually be translated as either temple or monastery. Wat, for example, is the Thai
word for temple/monastery. This indicates the dual function of these places. They are both the place of
ritual where villagers may come to see, participate in and gain the merit from the rites, and they are a place
where monks are supposed to live, work, and meditate. In most villages, the temple/monastery is not very
isolated. It is an integral feature of village life and contact with monks is a daily occurrence. In wealthier
institutions the temple complex and the meditation area may be clearly separated, but most villages cannot
afford an elaborate structure nor the number of monks which would justify it. The ritual area is called the
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Buddhavasa (Dwelling of the Buddha) and the monastery part is called the Sanghavasa (Dwelling of the
The Buddhavasa contains the main meeting hall of the temple, as well as images and any altars
used in veneration of these images. Here is where the villagers will gather for any ritual: merit making
rites, taking of the precepts, and listening to the preaching of the monks. The presence of the Buddha
images is thought to intensify any merit that might be gained.
The Sanghavasa is not merely a dormitory for monks who work in the Buddhavasa. Rather, it is a
necessary component because monks are required to live the Dhamma. That is, they are obligated to live
upright lives in full view of the villagers. Their following of the strict moral rules of the monastic codes
makes them ideal recipients of the gifting of the laity.
There is a third area, the ordination hall. Technically this belongs to both the Buddhavasa and the
Sanghavasa. This is where monks will conduct their business, including certain private monastic rituals.
Most importantly, however, is its function to publicly ordain new monks. This is one of the key
connections between laity and monastics. Here the patrons give their child into the safekeeping of the
sangha and gain merit by having a family member become a monk. All of this is done in a place which
reiterates the connection of sangha to laity.
Monks are particularly important in their role as ritualists. For most Theravada Buddhists, there
are many other kinds of beings in the universe in addition to the ones we can see. It takes a person of high
spiritual attainment who is highly trained in ritual to control these other spiritual beings. Thus, monks
function as ritualists for the villagers when they need certain things. Monks may also act as astrologers
and numerologists who can predict the best time to begin a particular venture. All of this does not deny
the law of karma, however. Monks are also frequently consulted about certain situations in order to explain
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
the “karma” of a particular act. Thus, they not only serve for the community as exemplars of Dhamma,
but they are the preachers and ritualists as well.
The City
Theravada monasteries in the cities are similar to that of the village with a couple of notable
exceptions. Monks will go on their alms-rounds within the neighborhood and often individual monks have
very strong connections to their local community. However, because cities are much larger and wealthier
than villages, monks may not have the same degree of familiarity with all levels of their neighborhood
that village monks have. And they will not be as well-known outside their neighborhood. They may be
able to focus specifically on meditation, ritual or preaching because their monastery is big enough to
support specialization. The monastery may also be quite wealthy from a long history of endowments. This
provides a great deal of stability to the monks and allows them to specialize in the area that they are most
suited. The downside of this size and wealth is that there is limited contact with the populace. A monk
may be well-known in his neighborhood, but he may be a complete stranger outside it. People from the
community may come to the temple for the big celebrations but may go to another one for daily or weekly
rites. If a monk specializes in meditation or translation, he would have limited contact with his lay
neighbors anyway. Thus, there is a greater possibility for corruption and laxity of the monastic rules in
the city monasteries. Or, at the very least, there is the greater possibility of the laity believing that there is
corruption and laxity.
As a result of this, many city monasteries are both quite wealthy and quite generous. They often
sponsor very elaborate festivals with the express purpose of increasing the merit of their neighbors, but
also of maintaining these connections.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
The Wilderness
A reaction to the corruption, or the perception of it, from within the community resulted in a trend
similar to monastic communities in Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Some monks felt that the city monks
were soft, lazy and corrupt, and living in the city was the cause. So, they moved from the comforts of the
city to more difficult and desolate areas. These are not monks who chose to go back to village monasteries.
Rather, they chose to set up monasteries as far from civilization as possible. Often these monasteries are
quite austere and usually lack a public Buddhavasa. This would be unnecessary, since lay visitors are rare.
These monks base their lifestyle on the life as described in the Pali Canon. They are trying to return to
what they consider the ideal life of a monk: meditation in the solitude of the wilderness. Often there is no
furniture, no carvings, and no ornamentation of any kind. It is a hard life, particularly since it is difficult
to get food if there is nobody nearby from whom to ask for alms.
These forest monks are highly respected by lay members of society. Often when a royal patron felt
that there had been a total collapse of morality or teaching in the city monasteries linked to his court, he
would turn to the wilderness monks. He would ask for them to ordain new monks, create a new ordination
lineage and thereby purge the city monasteries of their corruption. So even here, there is a connection
between village, city and wilderness.
The term for “monk” in Sanskrit is bhikshu and in Pali it is bhikkhu. It is etymologically linked to
the English word “beggar.” But a better translation of bhikkhu is “almsman.” That is, what they “beg” is
the offering of food from lay-people for their sustenance. This request of alms has a number of components
to it which are designed to reinforce the bhikkhu’s recognition of the truth of the teachings of the Buddha,
to reinforce their desire to limit contact with the world, and to limit the distractions that make meditation
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
difficult. But the way in which it is requested, the time of day, types of food and so on, are all constructed
so that there will be minimal imposition on the giver. This conforms to the doctrine of ahimsa in that it
does minimal “violence” to the giver because, ideally, they only offer leftovers. That is, they do not go
out of their way to cook something fresh for the monk. The monk then eats whatever is given as a
reiteration of humility, as a recognition that this physical body is impermanent, and as an ethical statement
that they are embodiments of ahimsa. Being able to receive alms is a way to reinforce the bhikkhu’s
determination to remain a monk and limit contact with society. At the same time, this almsgiving and
alms-receiving paradoxically reinforces the bhikkhu’s contact with, and connection to society. Their
receipt of food from lay-people connects them to the society, but also gives merit to the almsgiver.
Monastics, both men and women, were involved in the life of the communities near which they
lived. They were teachers, administrators and physicians, and they functioned as ceremonial specialists.
Their involvement in lay life was crucial to maintaining the good-will of their supporters. Often this
support was given to the institution rather than the individual, as individual ownership was prohibited.
Monasteries were often sponsored by merchants and it was through merchants that Buddhism spread.
There was the inevitable tension between these groups, the forest-dwellers were accused of
becoming isolated and able to rely on personal charisma, while the city-dwellers were accused of
becoming lax in their application of the Vinaya. Both have their benefits. City life allows the development
of libraries and the ability to study, while the calm of the forest is conducive to meditation. Both are also
important for the laity to demonstrate that support is important, but also to indicate that monks are not
truly interested in politics. This latter point is another means to allay fears of the rulers that the monasteries
be politically disruptive.
The giving of alms to a bhikkhu is called dana. This is a Sanskrit word literally meaning “giving.”
It can mean giving in the mundane world, but in the religious context, dana is a required element of the
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
rituals. And the recipient of the gift is a religious person, whether it is a monk/nun performing a ritual or
the monastery itself. Dana is a gift freely given. There is absolutely no requirement on the part of the
layperson to give to the bhikkhu. They must do it of their own free will. If it is freely given, there is merit
in the gifting. That is, the layperson who gives receives merit for that act.
In the modern period, the alms-receiving is a little more formalized. In the ancient period it was to
follow the vinaya rules and reinforced them. For example, the monk was to go on the alms-round to get
his one meal for that day around noon. That is, he was to go after the first meal of the day. This would
mean that he could not accidentally come across someone who had not yet cooked and have them go out
of their way to make him a meal from scratch. That would be an imposition and would therefore be a
“violent” act. Eating around noon meant that the bhikkhu still had plenty of time later in the day for
meditation. He would not be so full in the evening that he would fall asleep during meditation sessions.
Thus, it has a practical and theological value for the bhikkhu. It also reiterated connections to the
community by demonstrating that the monks were serious abut their work and were not parasites living
off the community. It also ensured that there was little imposition on the householders who provide for
them. This increased the goodwill of the laity and resulted in better relations between sangha and laity.
In the modern period, Theravada bhikkhus and bhikkhunis will make the rounds early in the
morning. While the time of day may have changed and there are formalized activities involved that may
not have been there in the ancient period, the intention has not. Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis are to walk with
their head bowed making no eye contact with their donors. They are not to move quickly, nor may they
talk. This is to maintain their calmness of mind, but also to remind them of their humility: they may be on
a spiritual path and therefore be “more advanced” than the laity, but they rely on the laity for sustenance.
Therefore, they cannot become arrogant and think they are better than their lay donors. The donors will
put cooked food into the alms bowl and then bow. This is most emphatically not a bowing to the individual
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
bhikkhu or bhikkhuni. Rather, it is a bowing to the sangha as a whole as it represents one of the “three
refuges.” These are the three vows that all monks will make on ordination, and often lay-Buddhists will
make the same vows. “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the
Sangha.” That is, I trust that the Buddha was an Enlightened being who taught the Truth. I trust that what
he taught (Dharma) was True. I trust that the monastic community is a true transmitter of the Truth, and
of the intentions that the Buddha had in creating it.” That’s a very awkward interpretation of the three
refuges, but it works. Bowing to the monks is simply a way of physically demonstrating veneration for
and trust in the sangha.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (literally “the monk who is a servant of the Buddha”) was born in 1906 in
southern Thailand. His mother was Thai; his father was a second-generation Chinese businessman. At the
age of 10, Buddhadasa became a Temple assistant for three years, during which time he learned to read
and write. He became familiar with temple routine, but he also became well-versed in traditional Thai
medicine. He was ordained as a monk at 20 and went to Bangkok to undertake Pali studies. He was very
unhappy in the city, so he returned to his home village. There he began a number of small groups, many
of which had some connection to “nature.”
The cornerstone of Buddhadasa’s beliefs is that only shunyata (emptiness of permanence) truly
exists. Everything else has a qualified reality, and he draws this from the Mahayana school of Madhyamika
philosophy. All existence we can see in the world is in constant change and as a result is impermanent.
Only shunyata never changes, meaning both this physical world and nirvana are not only identical but
empty of permanence. If ultimate reality, nirvana, is unchanging then the cycle of rebirth is not a process
that somehow leads to nirvana, but is in fact here, now; nirvana can be found within samsara.
Everything in the universe is an interdependent web because all phenomenal things in the
phenomenal world arise interdependent with all other things.
The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a
cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we
realise that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise, … then we can
build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.
This goes back to the earliest Pali tradition. Buddhadasa’s this-worldly “here and now” interpretation is
particularly appealing to busy professionals who have no time to meditate, and often feel inferior to those
who do meditate regularly. For these busy professionals, shunyata is more the quality of one’s activity
than a separate meditative technique. That is to say that, as with the Zen tradition, any act done with total
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
concentration can be meditation. This approach of Buddhadasa’s results in an idea common in Zen, but
rather new in Theravada.
Buddhadasa did not become actively involved in politics, but he often spoke about dharmic
socialism. He argued that there can be no ultimate separation between the spiritual and the social, and this
is actually a concept that goes back to the Pali Canon. In many places in the Pali Canon, especially in the
Digha Nikaya and in the Jatakas, we find the Buddha making comments about the creation of a just society,
so even in the earliest texts we have evidence of a social conscience. For Buddhadasa, dharma means one
is in tune with other beings on the social level, but also on a natural level. “The trees can speak, the rocks
can speak, the pebbles and sand, the ants and insects, everything is able to speak.”
This ecological theme becomes progressively more significant in Buddhadasa’s life. The two
central components of his focus on ecology spin around two terms: care, and nature. Care is often loosely
translated into English as “conservation,” and monks who oppose logging are described as “forest
conservation monks.” However, when Buddhadasa uses this term he gives it a much more empathetic
One cares for the forest because one empathizes with the forest just as one cares for people,
including oneself. One has become empathetic. The active expression of the state of empathy is
fundamentally linked to nonattachment or liberation from the preoccupation with self, which is at the very
core of Buddhadasa’s thought. This nonattachment or self-forgetting is something we learn from nature.
We truly care for our total environment, including humans, only when we have overcome selfishness and
those negative qualities which drive this selfishness: desire, greed, hatred, lust, anger, and so on. In
Buddhadasa’s dharmic understanding, caring is the active expression of our empathetic identification with
all life forms. This means all life forms, sentient and non-sentient, humans, and everything else in nature.
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
In this sense, caring runs deeper than simply well-publicized strategies for protection and
conservation of the forest. In various places in the Buddhist world, trees had been ordained meaning a tree
was now a monk, and therefore it was inappropriate to cut that tree down because that would be doing
harm to a monk. While this can be helpful in preventing logging of a specific area, this is still at the surface
level. This is where the term “nature” enters the picture. The Thai term is usually translated as nature. but
is actually derived from a Pali word that, more or less, simply means everything that is linked to dharma.
That is to say, it is all things in their true, natural state. This is what Buddhadasa refers to as “normal.”
This is the way things are in their true, dharmic, condition. To conserve nature is to have at the core of
one’s being empathy for all other things in their natural condition; this is to care for them as they really
are rather than because of what they might be. Trees are valuable as trees not because they are liable to
become desks or tables, but also not because I happen to find them beautiful. Trees are valuable as they
really are in themselves with absolutely no relationship to me. This implies that the “I” is not over against
nature, but is an interactive, codependent, and interpenetration of with it. The moral/spiritual quality of
non-attachment or self-forgetfulness implies the realization of the intricate interdependence of all things.
From an ethical perspective, this means that our care for nature comes from an ingrained, natural,
selfless, empathetic response. It is not motivated by a need to satisfy our own pleasures, the way we might
maintain a beautiful garden, and it is certainly not derived from the utilitarian perspective of what nature
can do for me. Buddhadasa’s view that dharma embraces the social and environmental elements of human
activity has inspired a number of other monks. It is important to note here that Buddhadasa did not
encourage these other monks to undertake various community development activities, because this was
actually to be the role of lay people. However, Buddhadasa was very supportive of these ideas and he sees
them is valuable not only for the maintenance of forests, streams, and mountains, but also for the
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
maintenance of Thai society. “If monks are concerned about solving social problems, they will not have
time to be distracted by beautiful women in attractive clothing.”
The involvement of monks in social and environmental programs raises important questions about
appropriate and inappropriate behavior for monks. According to the Vinaya (all the way back to the Pali
Canon), a monk may not damage a plant or dig the earth. These rules do not prohibit a monk sawing a log
if someone else has cut down the tree, however. In addition, novices are not subject to all 227 rules, but
are only subject to 10. As a result, novices may very often be politely requested to perform activities that
monks may not. Most lay Thais are well aware of these monastic rules and are extremely sensitive to what
monks may and may not do. Every so often it becomes national news when a monk acts inappropriately,
and it becomes major national news if the monk is fairly high-ranking.
Public opinion tends not to be quite as critical about the breaking of these monastic rules if it is
clear that there is a positive reason for it. If this activity can be endorsed from a Buddhist perspective,
even actions that might be considered inappropriate under ordinary circumstances might be considered
appropriate because of the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law. There is a specific prohibition against
monks having contact with women. Initially, over 2000 years ago, this was meant to prevent monks from
becoming distracted from their meditations, but it was also designed to protect women from predators in
religious clothing, and thirdly, it was also to prevent any potential accusation of impropriety within the
Buddhist community. In Thailand, this prohibition of contact between male monks and lay women is taken
very seriously. In the 1980s a Buddhist monk discovered an herbal remedy that would help in curing
heroin addicts. There were special techniques for administering this remedy that were used by monks. But
here comes the ethical dilemma: both men and women were heroin addicts. It would be considered
unethical for monks to only have contact with mail heroin addicts, and therefore leave female heroin
addicts uncured. As a part of this breaking of heroin addiction, monks may have to perform other tasks
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
that are ordinarily considered inappropriate like cleaning up lay people’s vomit and chasing after people
who may attempt to leave the program. They may also have to carry money as a part of supporting the
detoxification process, and that is considered a major breaking of the rules. However, while all of these
acts are technically inappropriate according to the Vinaya, they were condoned by Thai society because a
person who heals drug addicts is following a higher Buddhist principle of showing compassion and
empathy, in addition to enforcing one of the five lay precepts, which is the prohibition of intoxicants.
Thus, Buddhadasa and those influenced by him were breaking some of the monastic rules for the greater
good of protecting forests as well as the human ecosystem.
Social and environmental programs enacted by Buddhadasa and his followers have aroused very
little controversy so far, but some monks are becoming significantly more confrontational in trying to stop
deforestation in Thailand. Trees have been ordained by encircling them with saffron cloth to prevent them
from being cut, and sacred groves have similarly been created with sacred thread. Literally taking a thread
and wrapping it around several square kilometers of forest is designed to protect the whole forest with the
understanding that it is now a collection of Buddhist monks. Philosophically this is not really a stretch. If
all things are in fact identical, as the doctrine of shunyata suggests, then there is no reason that trees cannot
be ordained. Even so, this has not always gone over well. Several monks have been arrested, tried, and
convicted for encroaching on a forest designated for logging.
Some monks, heavily influenced by Buddhadasa, have been imprisoned because of their support
for farmers being forcibly resettled. In some areas of Thailand, monoculture is being promoted in order to
harvest certain trees as cash crops. These areas become government land and the people living on this
newly designated forest preserve are forcibly removed. While some people have been somewhat
supportive of this forced expropriation, many have become quite critical of the government when it turned
Ways of Thinking III: Buddhism Across Asia
out that these newly planted forests were to be turned over to multinational corporations and the proceeds
of the sale were to fund the military.

Purchase answer to see full

error: Content is protected !!