Sects and Sectarianism

UnityEdictSarnathweb-fullThe problem with free eBooks is that, for all the gains in access they offer by removing the constraints of traditional distribution they remove some of the methods of traditional promotion. For Buddhist monastic authors this is usually not a problem since free access is greatly prefered to fame and fortune, but this means that many great eBooks fall through the cracks, unnoticed.

Thus, attention all Buddhist nerds: read Ajahn Sujato’s Sects and Sectarianism immediately. I cannot think of a more important book written for the cause of Global Buddhism.

Ajahn Sujato’s project is an ambitious one: he asks us to define exactly what we mean when we think of Buddhist sects, and challenges the construct from a legalistic vinaya perspective as well as from a historical/cultural perspective in which Buddhist groups struggle for power and royal patronage and benefit from sectarian differences.

Ajahn Sujato’s scholarship is refreshing. He delves into both Pali and Chinese sources and places an equal and healthy amount of skepticism on both. He also constantly holds historical claims up to the rigours of lived experience, as in the following passage, regarding the rest of Southeast Asia outside of Sri Lanka ‘converting to’ Theravada Buddhism:

When these areas ‘converted’ to Theravada (which mainly occurred around the 11th-12th Centuries), it is impossible that all the monks took new ordinations. Of course, the official histories will assert that when the religion was reformed that all the monks conformed to the new system. But the practicalities of this are absurd: sending city administration monks wandering through 1000s of miles of tiger-stalked, bandit-infested, ghost-haunted jungle tracks seeking out countless little villages, trying to persuade senior monks that their ordination is invalid or improper and must be done again, all on the basis of some political compromise in a far-distant capital, in a region of ever-shifting borders and allegiances. As history this is sheer fantasy, and the reality must have been that the reforms would directly affect only certain central monasteries.

What I enjoyed most about Ajahn Sujato’s book is that it seems to show a Buddhist approach to academia. Though Ajahn Sujato’s scholarship is fair and sound, it is done so with at least a partial purpose: the ressurection of the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage.

The notion that the Theravada bhikkhuni lineage is ‘dead’ relies on the idea that Chinese bhikkhunis are of a different ‘sect,’ and are therefore unfit to ordain Theravada bhikkhunis. By deconstructing our conception of sectarianism, Ajahn Sujato brings us closer to silencing the critics of Theravada bhikkhuni ordination, or at the very least exposing the basis of such criticism as gender discrimination that is only shakily supported by the vinaya.

6 Replies to “Sects and Sectarianism”

  1. There’s a Burmese meditation center in Riverside: Thanti-Thitsar Vipassana Meditation Center.

    It’s headed by U Sukhasambodhi, but there is also a bhikkuni who visits. She related her story to me and two friends when we stayed for a weekend: her research into the ‘dead’ Theravada Bhikkuni lineage, and her ordination by Chinese nuns. We should go some time.

  2. Arun –

    I think you’ll get a special kick out of this book because it looks hard at what “Theravada” means, while that concept was still being built. Makes for very interesting stuff.

    Oz –

    Bhikkhuni ordination is a big fascination of mine, and I’d love to hear U Sukhasambodhi’s perspective. I really do think that, one hundred years from now, if Fo Guang Shan is still remembered for anything, it will be for its participation in ordaining Theravada Bhikkhunis.

  3. There’s also another problem with free ebooks about Buddhism: they aren’t very good. Many many times I recommend people to read books via Google Books, if they’re really interested in one subject or another. There’s a reason certain books are published formally and others aren’t. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems and biases with the publishing industry at large… it’s just with a subject like Buddhism, it’s difficult to separate the accurate information from inaccurate information and propaganda. Usually books in this field that are formally published are written by scholars who know their stuff — it’s too easy for crackpots and wildly psychotic druggies to upload anything they want. I like Google Books to filter the serious from the non-serious automatically — even if you can only read part of the book, perhaps it will inspire you to buy the hard-copy.

  4. vandana bhante
    is this a book or just a blog bhante in you book ‘bhikkhuni vinaya’ you give it as ref. where can i down load it? with thanks
    ayya london dhammadinna

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