Resolution 2014

My New Year’s resolution for this blog is to read Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism. I’ve listened to a podcast interview with Iwamura on New Books in Religion (thanks, Danny!), and I’ve read an article by her in Hyphen Magazine (thanks, Barbara!). I’m intrigued with how Iwamura writes about the “Oriental monk” icon. I would even argue that one cannot properly understand Buddhism in America without understanding this icon.

Note that my resolution is to read this book, not necessarily to write about it. My writing has trailed off over the past few months. I don’t expect ever to publish as frequently as once a month. But if you are inspired to read, question and discuss this book, then I hope you share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. (Just remember the comments policy.)

In Memory of Bana Bhante, 1920-2012

I just learned from the Daily Star that the Venerable Sadhanananda Mahathera has died. He was the most revered Buddhist monk in Bangladesh, commonly considered to be an arahant. Like many others, I always referred to him as Bono Bhante, his nickname in the local Chittagonian dialect, a name which translates literally as “Forest Monk.”

If you remember Luangta Maha Bua, you can probably get a sense of how important Bana Bhante was to Bangladeshi Buddhists. He was of the Chakma people, an ethnic minority, and had a reputation for clear, incisive and straightforward speaking. Many of his years in the monkhood were spent practicing in the forest. He lived into his nineties, having witnessed his native Chittagong occupied under British colonialism, partitioned into Pakistan, and thrown into turmoil following Bangladesh’s liberation. He was ordained for 63 years, and he was a widely-respected living Buddhist institution in a majority Muslim nation.

When I was much younger, I had dreamed of traveling to the beautiful Chittagong Hill Tracts to pay my respects to Bana Bhante. It seems now the best donation I can give is to share his story with you. You can read his biography online. You can also download an English-language book of his sermons, thanks to a contributor on Dhamma Wheel.

If you’ve never heard of Buddhists in Bangladesh before, you can read more in other posts I have written on the topic. I especially encourage you to learn more about the struggle for self-determination of the Chakma people in Chittagong. As I wrote before

Bangladesh’s Chittagong division is home to a large number of Buddhists, including the meditation masters Dipa Ma and Anagarika Munindra. These teachers in particular had a profound impact on Buddhism both in the West and elsewhere in Asia far beyond their native Chittagong. The Buddhists of Bangladesh, however, have no Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi to direct the world’s attention to their plight. They pursue their quest for liberty and justice largely in the shadow of the world’s attention.

And now they have lost one of their most venerated Buddhist leaders.

Monkish Nomenclature

Jundo Cohen addresses some confusion over the use of the term “monk” in Zen settings and its often tacit association with an ascetic and solitary lifestyle—especially when the term is pointed at him.

In the West, more and more, Zen clergy have come to resemble Protestant Christian Ministers, married with family and, very often, with outside jobs to pay the bills, yet leading a congregation.

That’s why calling many of us “Zen Monks” is kinda funny, excepting those periods of months or years when Zen clergy live and train in a monastery, usually in a celibate situation. (Then, the name “Zen monk” is appropriate). After that, most live in temples, with their families — wife and kids. So, maybe “Zen Priest” is a better term, or “Zen Minister”… or perhaps just “Zen Teacher”or “Zen Clergy”…

An old friend of mine is the son of a Shin Buddhist minister, and he used to routinely refer to his father as a monk. Other Buddhists gave my friend quite a bit of flak over his terminology. In contrast, Cohen is willing to bow to convention and accept the ascetic sense of the word monk, rather than trying to stake a flag in it. He could certainly provide justification to do so, but alternative titles are proposed instead. I find that admirable.

Why Are Thai Monks Protesting?

According to Phra Cittasamvaro, it’s because Thai monks are, after all, mere mortals.

In fact monks are like any other Thai – they have opinions too. The reason Thailand keeps them away from politics is to stop popular teaching monks using their ‘moral credentials’ to sway voters for one party or another. It is probably a good idea.


Monks feel that even if they should not be involved in party politics, they are quite free to take a moral stance, which is why so many have joined the Red Shirt rally over the last few weeks. Naturally, where the line is drawn between politics and morality is very flexible…

I encourage you to read his thoughts in full. For the perspective of a couple academics on this issue, check out Danny Fisher’s interview on Shambhala SunSpace.

This Is Not A Schism

I was stunned to view the Buddhist Channel headline: “Ajahn Brahm excommunicated for performing Bhikkhuni Ordination in Australia.”

Then on Phra Noah Yuttadhammo’s blog, he writes: “An interesting topic, and indeed history in the making; new Bhikkhunis in Australia and a schism in the Thai forest sangha… I’m not sure which is of more significance.” What schism?

The Australian bhikkhuni ordination has generated some hard feelings in the many different corners of the Wat Nong Pa Pong lineage. There’s also quite a bit of hand-wringing on the sidelines. But use of the terms excommunication and schism constitute a reckless characterization of recent events.

These words embody very serious religious implications. While Ajahn Brahm (and the world) has been notified that he is now a persona non grata in the Wat Nong Pa Pong network, he has not been excommunicated. They neither formally disputed his status as a Theravada monk nor his authority to officiate and participate in religious ceremonies—they rather informed him that he is not welcome in their club. It’s not playing nice, but it’s not excommunication.

Phra Noah’s use of schism should likewise be avoided. Anyone raised on stories of Lord Buddha is well aware that schism is often a direct reference to the Bhagavan’s scriptural antagonist Devadatta. This word ought to be used with caution. The expulsion of Bodhinyana monastery from the WPP network is no more a schism than the suspension of a nation from the Commonwealth.

This post is not meant to trivialize current events. The bhikkhuni ordination and subsequent backlash are both significant and newsworthy events. But they shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.

The gravity of this situation is more political than religious. This fracas is very much a Buddhist issue, but we mustn’t confuse it as being a spiritual quarrel. I can expect more bitter words and much awkward silence to ensue. A formal schism of the Theravada sangha, however, is unlikely.

When Monks Go Bad… (Speak Up!)

The Phnom Penh Postreports that “Buddhist intellectuals and civil society groups have called on the government to address a recent outbreak of offences ranging from drunkenness to rape and a deadly beating all allegedly committed by monks.”

Tep Vong, supreme patriarch of Cambodia, said he was aware a monk had been charged with killing a nun earlier this week in Banteay Meanchey province and welcomed the legal action.

“I do not have any particular advice on the issue because Buddhism already takes a clear position against killing animals and human beings,” he said, adding that anyone who committed a crime should be brought before the courts. 

He also insisted that his adviser, Kiet Chan Thouch, chief monk of Wat Leu in Preah Sihanouk province, was not guilty of getting drunk and attacking fellow monks in his pagoda, as was recently alleged. 

“I already investigated [Kiet Chan Thouch’s] case, and the accusations against him are untrue,” he said. The supreme patriarch is now pursuing legal action against Kiet Chan Thouch’s accusers, who he said had deliberately set out to damage the man’s reputation.

previous post here cited a UPI article, which addresses this very case. It’s important to understand the context surrounding these episodes—not just regarding the near annihilation of the Khmer sangha in the late 70’s, but also regarding who exactly today’s saffron-robed perpetrators are. Erik W. Davis wrote a thoughtful piece on this topic at his (former) blog.Nevertheless, a little more enforcement of the Vinaya might be overdue.

Much to Offer

Phra Cittasamvaro writes about the custom of the offering cloth and the issue of contact between men, women and celibate monks and nuns.

The etiquette with the offering cloth is this: if a female is offering food, clothing or medicine to a monk, he will lay a cloth/bowl or other suitable item in front of him. The lady puts the item on the cloth and it is then ‘offered’ – which means it has formally been given to the Sangha of monks. And of course vice versa between nuns and laymen.


Things are ‘offered’ in this way so there is no discrepancy between what has been given to the monk and what has not – so that he does not take something on presumption, that the owner might not feel is appropriate. If a layperson touches the offered item after this point, it is then considered ‘unoffered’ and the monk will not take it for his own use.

The post ends with a discussion of cultural traditions and attitudes (namely attitudes towards others’ cultures). It’s certainly nice to discover that some of the customs I’ve witnessed (such as the “drop method”) are not merely idiosyncratic customs of particular monks I know.

The Saffron Revolution Continues in Utica

The New York Times LENS blog is exploring the lives of U Pyinyar Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana, three monks who were involved in Burma’s Saffron Revolution, and who now continue their struggle in New York. You can view the full video here.

In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led the “saffron revolution,” a series of peaceful marches in response to military oppression and a dire economic situation in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Since then, three monks who escaped Myanmar and settled in Utica, N.Y., have continued campaigning across the United States for democracy and human rights for their country with the All Burma Monks’ Alliance.

As soon as I saw this link in my news feed, I had to call them up. (You’re famous!) The New York Times has plans to publish weekly pieces on Burma, they told me, with this one as their first. Stay tuned!