How does the Theravada Buddhist tradition adapt to change?



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Shap Journal 2004/2005

Shaping the Future

How does the Theravada Buddhist tradition adapt to change?


Sarah Shaw

The Buddhist bhikkhusangha, the order of monks and nuns, is what we see most clearly as representative of Buddhism — and is perhaps the best way of assessing how change is taking place in the tradition. My first contact with a Buddhist monk was over twenty-five years ago when I had become interested in Buddhism. Ven Candavanna, a Cambodian scholar, was studying at the University of Manchester. His cinnamon-coloured robes, brown umbrella, stout British walking boots, orange socks, jumper and beige woolly hat soon became a familiar sight around the campus. People who started off being rather bemused by what was strange apparel in those days came to like and enjoy the dignity, alertness and abundant humour of the person wearing it all. The robes and their new accompaniments, sensible adaptations to a wet and chilly climate, just seemed quite natural and appropriate. As a refugee and survivor of horrifying circumstances, Ven Candavanna seemed to me then, as in my memory now, like an embodiment of the Buddhist path. A strict observer of the monastic discipline, the Vinaya, the 227 rules by which monks conduct their lives, he nonetheless saw that in a different culture and atmosphere some adaptability was necessary. So all the rules he could keep, he did, but some he modified: British buses do not have a special seat reserved for Buddhist monks as those in South East Asian countries for instance do, so he had to work out how to honour the spirit of the Vinaya rulings on not carrying money and used a bus pass, purchased by lay Buddhists, to get around town.i Some friendly discussion with the catering staff at his hall of residence meant that he could eat before noon, another Vinaya ruling.ii Since then Buddhist monks in Britain have become a familiar sight and the sangha, or order of monks, has found over time ways of adjusting to a new country. Monasteries now have their own rules about things like carrying small coins to be used where necessary, in a country where Buddhism has not experienced centuries of support and adaptation to local mores.


When considering the subject of this article the picture of Ven Candavanna inevitably came to mind. It seems to me that it is in responses to specific situations that we can see the real flexibility and the spirit of the Buddhist teachings. The teaching of the Buddha, the dhamma, is described as akaliko, not of any time and so applicable at any time. When it is working it seems in practice to find the middle way through all sorts of contradictions and difficulties. Oddly enough, although one might assume that adaptation to a new environment would, in the case of the sangha, involve a slackening of rules, this is not the case. On the contrary, as an increasing number of western Buddhists join the monastic order some of the most ascetic traditional practices are undertaken by those new to Buddhism, who sometimes introduce a new spirit of adventure into them. At Amaravati monastery in Hemel Hempstead, Chithurst in Sussex and Harnham in Northumberland for instance, homes to the British forest sangha and a high proportion of Western monks and nuns, the ascetic vow of eating one meal a day – a practice sanctioned but not made a ruling by the Buddha – has often been maintained.iii A number of long and arduous walks have also been undertaken by monks from these monasteries, who have made a vow to travel around Britain trusting that they will receive food and shelter from lay Buddhists. Faith in these cases necessarily includes some practical forethought too: routes for such trips need quite a bit of forward planning. The almsround is quite practicable in Chorlton in Manchester, where there are now a number of Buddhists who just need to be informed that they are going to take place. There is nonetheless the risk, cheerfully accepted by the monks who made these long walks, that you just might not get to a friendly place in time and so have to sleep under a hedge without a good meal that day. For the monks who have done these walks it has all just part of the cultivation of mindfulness (sati) and patience (khanti), whatever the circumstances around —and a chance for Buddhism to meet the great British sense of humour in adversity! For lay Buddhists though these pioneering treks gave us and our children a chance to see something of an ancient tradition finding its way, or perhaps one should say trudging its way, into the life of this country. Now Asian and Western monks try and introduce traditional practices such as the morning dana, the offering of food, and the almsround in Britain. For children these simple rituals and contact with monks and nuns are often the best way of finding out about Buddhism. One of my most vivid memories of living in Manchester was seeing a monk performing the early morning almsround, holding the begging bowl in front of him, while we waited for him on the pavement, scooped rice, meat and fruit in his bowl, and watched him walk on. Despite my misgivings about what the neighbours would think it was interesting that the postman and passers by going to work were quite unperturbed and even pleased by it all. It just seemed, and indeed was, a completely natural and unaffected ritual that fitted without fuss into the usual routines of a British day.
This sense of the low key and of courtesy to those around shows how Buddhism has already adapted and will seem increasingly normal and acceptable in a Western environment. Meditation practice, a key element in the eightfold path (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration), was regarded as very odd until quite recently. During one meditation retreat twenty years ago local residents actually called in the police at the sight of suspicious people walking slowly in their area practising mindfulness of walking! Now, with accredited research on the effects of meditation on the brain and personal well being, the stigma has gone: doctor’s surgeries are happy to have notices advertising classes and often even recommend meditation to people experiencing depression and difficulties in life. Cultural influence can work both ways too. Westerners are often interested in meditation first; the more traditional Buddhist practice of Asians has centred on visits to monasteries, chanting and dana, the giving of food. This difference has had an interesting effect on Asian Buddhists. When I first went to Sri Lanka twenty years ago few lay people I encountered practised any kind of formal meditation. They tended to leave that to monks and consider that meditation was something far too difficult for the laity. Years of contact with westerners have changed that. On another visit to Sri Lanka last year I visited a monastery on a full moon (poya day) and found a number of Sri Lankan lay people, of all classes, spending the day undertaking various forms of meditation practice. The great interest encountered in tourists and visitors in this side of things has just given renewed confidence in the Buddhist path for some for whom it is a native tradition. The Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, which was housed in a tiny building when I first visited it, now has a vast shop, selling all kinds of books on Buddhist culture, philosophy and practice. There is also a very good Buddhist bookshop at Colombo airport – unthinkable twenty years ago.
It is early days to tell how Buddhism will develop through this interchange between cultures. Unfortunately in the East the influence of other aspects of modern western culture has meant that in recent years there has been a loss of interest in some aspects of Buddhism. For instance some Sri Lankans and Thais I have met say that the Jataka stories, which recount the past lives of the Buddha, are not passed on as much as they used to be, although they have always been the traditional way of teaching Buddhism to children. I hope that this is a cultural ‘blip’, just as I hope that the Sri Lankans I met this time around on my last visit do not feel embarrassed by the devotional aspects of their Buddhism. One of the most moving experiences for a visitor to a Sri Lanka is go to a temple around twilight when butter lamps, incense and flowers are being offered by people just dropping by on their way back from work to make offerings and to do a little chanting. The smell of the coconut oil and incense, the sound of different people chanting softly and the sight of masses of frangipani and lotus blossoms around the shrine make an atmosphere of profound peace and contentment. This is something that has helped me greatly, though like many westerners, my first interest was in sitting practice and the philosophy of Buddhism. The modern verity that ‘Buddhism is not a religion’, which provides us with interesting insights into certain aspects of Buddhist theory, needs to be qualified by the observation that for many Buddhists the aspect of devotion is a central part of their rootedness in their faith. Buddhist practice has worked and evolved through centuries by understanding the subtle chemistry of the relationship between the mind and body. The recent, well publicised research from the Wisconsin University, which has shown that Buddhist meditation tends to make people happier, and that this effect is scientifically quantifiable, will, I hope, reinforce a sense of the importance of the meditative peace that derives from the practising the recollection (anussati) of the Triple Gem – simply bringing to mind the qualities of the Buddha, the dhamma, the teaching, and the ariyasangha, all those who have ever practised and are practising the Buddhist path.iv Oddly enough children seem to have an intuitive liking for this area of Buddhism, which needs minimal explanation: just the sight of a Buddha figure, an account of his life story and hearing the sound of some chanting seems to produce real interest.
The way that a tradition adapts to a new culture, and that culture to it, is highly complex and even subliminal. I have focused on the sangha in this article, but it can be seen in the way that a number of aspects of the Triple Gem are perceived and examined in the West, and by the East after it has been to the West, and after that, to borrow the kind of juxtaposition you find in Buddhist texts, by both East and West. Years ago, if you saw a British film that showed a Buddha figure in someone’s house, you knew you were being shown the lair of a ‘baddie’, probably bent on mass destruction. Now the image of the Buddha is recognised in Britain and in many other parts of the world as a symbol of serenity and peace in the midst of change, even amongst those who have no doctrinal understanding of the tradition: acceptance has just happened gradually. The dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, has given the English language some new terms: kamma, nibbana and dhamma itself. It is also being constantly re evaluated and retranslated by academics East and West – a process for which practitioners are indebted. Such work makes Buddhist texts more readable and gets rid of some of the archaisms in the use of Buddhist terminology that sometimes persist through the use of older translations. This is quite a serious point. For years I did not know what a ‘canker’ was, an old translation of the word asava, even though I kept on hearing at talks that it was something enlightenment was supposed to eliminate. When I heard this changed to ‘corruption’ or ‘in-fluence’ the point became at any rate a little clearer.v The teaching itself does not inspire boredom, perhaps one of the biggest dangers for someone on a spiritual path. It is highly challenging intellectually, particularly the abhidhamma, literally the ‘higher philosophy’, and is also being constantly reformulated and applied in new scientific disciplines, such as psychology, physics and neuro-science. The sangha, best represented by the order of monks and nuns, now has a good mix of Asians and Westerners, of both sexes.
These are some impressions about the way that Buddhism is adapting in Britain and being gradually accepted. There are obviously all sorts of difficulties involved in this and the picture is not all positive: Buddhism is sometimes overlooked in discussion of the major religions; some aspects of the tradition may be being lost. But there seems to be an unhurried awakening to what it can offer on a number of fronts. I recently asked a university lecturer in theology, a devout lifelong Christian, why she had come to be interested in Buddhism late in her career. She said: ‘Do you know, I just feel happy when I am teaching it’. There seems to me a profound insight in this remark. If the life story of the Buddha tells us anything it is that wisdom needs, and produces, happiness (sukha) and calm (samatha). It was because he saw this that the Buddha rejected the extremes both of over-indulgence and of the mortification of mind and body on his way to enlightenment.vi There is a great deal of work to be done on the understanding of Buddhism in the West, and in translating the language, philosophy and practical application of the teaching to a new environment. If this is undertaken with a bit of joie de vivre (piti) and genuine search (dhammavicaya), as well as alertness, I feel it will be on the right tracks. Buddhism is steeped in the acknowledgement of change: the Buddha after all taught that ‘all conditioned things are impermanent’(anicca sankhara). An academic sees change in the need for new terms and translations, a monk in adapting to new mores around and a meditator in the simple physical consideration as to whether it is a good time to move his knees. The extent to which those practising, studying and teaching Buddhism enjoy all these different challenges will be the real test of how Buddhism itself adapts.

Bibliography and notes


There are several excellent general books on Buddhism and modern practice. See R.F.Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social history form Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, 1988; Damien Keown, Buddhism: a very short introduction, Oxford, 1996; Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford 1998. Chapter 13 of Peter Harvey’s An Introduction to Buddhism, Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge 1990, gives a comprehensive account of the modern Buddhist practice outside Asia.




i See Bhikkhu Ariyesako, The Bhikkhus Rules : A Guide for Laypeople, Sanghaloka Forest Monastery, Kallista, Australia, pp 94-9 regarding the use of money. The undertaking not to carry money is also the tenth of ten precepts for a novice and a ten-precept nun.

ii For times of mealtimes, see pp ibid 79-80, pacittiya offence 37.

iii The dhutanga practice of eating for instance only what is put in the bowl in the morning almsround is amongst several mentioned in the MahaSakuludayisutta, sutta 77, I.B. Horner trans., Middle Length Sayings, Pali Text Society, London and Boston, 1957; reprint 1975, vol. II.

iv Prof Flanagan, University of Wisconsin- Madison, article on happiness and Buddhist meditation, New Scientist , May 2003; received widespread publicity in American and British newspapers 22nd-24th May 2003.

v For translation of asava see excellent but sometimes dated translations in Middle Length Sayings, passim.

vi For Gotama’s decision to practise meditation (jhana) and abandon excessive self-mortification, see Mahasaccaka Sutta, sutta 36, Middle Length Sayings, vol I.


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