Thirdly, I just always trusted the Suttas and Vinaya more -the quality of the wisdom in them is deeply sympathetic and yet uncompromising, penetrative but gentle, challenging but respectful of those they seek to inspire and convince -crucially,
the Suttas treat their audience like fundamentally equal, autonomous adults,
who have a right to choose to give or to withdraw their trust, and have
to be inspired and convinced -not commanded and terrorised, to give their trust and consent to
participate and commit in the community. Also, since I came initially trusting the Suttas and Vinaya most, and since the Suttas and Vinaya say that's exactly what you should trust most as a Buddhist, I was understandably distrustful of demands that I should compromise my commitment to the Suttas and Vinaya and instead place my trust in the abbot.
The teachings of the abbots, however, are fundamentally independent of the Suttas and Vinaya- they claim to base their teachings on their own individual experience instead, so by their own admission, they are practically an independent religious tradition, with some influence and continuity from Buddhism, but not particularly determined to rely on Buddhism (as in, the Teachings of the Buddha, -and even if there are difficulties with that ideal definition in practice, an ideal still has a function even if it's not completely achievable). Individual experience is not a reliable source for a unifying ethos for a community already committed to another person's teachings (the Buddha's) -inscrutable individual experience belongs in the realm of private realisation, not public legitimation.
Thai and other Asian Buddhist cultures developed the intensely hierarchical, traditionalistic style of Buddhism, as part of the adaptation of Buddhism to function primarily for the legitimation of the feudal State, but the Western contribution to that development was an ideological individualism that completes the alienation experienced in both vertical hierarchical relationships and peer-to-peer relationships in the 'community'.
In my first vassa as a monk, I started consciously noticing how serious the inconsistencies between the total doctrine and feel of the Suttas and Vinaya versus modern tradition in Ajahn Amaro's book "Small Boat, Great Mountain" which I used to call -both jokingly and seriously, 'the Compendium of all Heresies'. I wrote to him with sixteen 'questions' quoting a passage from the book against a short passage from the Suttas directly contradicting each other and politely asking him to explain the apparent inconsistencies. What really shocked me was that he showed no respect for the Suttas and Vinaya, as what I assumed we both held in common as our Refuge, but instead claimed that I should respect his authority as "equal to Ajahn Chah". I was deeply disturbed, and my abbot then was too (monastic culture severely disapproves of claiming enlightenment even among monks so casually, and especially in the context of a dispute, the main view is that if someone is really enlightened, it should show through their life, without them having to claim it). But although I sympathised with Ajahn Nyana and liked him relatively the most of all the abbots I lived with, I became even more disillusioned because he mainly agreed with my criticisms of the book but ultimately wasn't prepared to do anything practical by using the Vinaya procedures for holding Aj Amaro accountable to his claimed commitment to Dhamma-Vinaya, effectively because that would disrupt the hierarchy and set a precedent.
Well, it did set a dangerous precedent- by alienating its most idealistic, intelligent, most intensely committed young monks- not just me, but many: the Thai Forest Tradition regularly loses those who would, in due time, become visionary leaders, not just administrative managers. The abbots are aging faster than they are being replaced, and their credibility is being seen through more and more widely by lay people.
The TFT isn't especially bad, in fact it's probably still relatively one of the best modern Buddhist organisations. I believe these problems run through all modern Buddhist organisations, more or less, plus some additional factors in some.
If you remain a layperson, or are just peripherally involved, you would probably never notice any of these problems, at least not enough for them to register personally as 'problems'. But beware too- the teachings and the discipline of the community (Dhamma and Vinaya) are practically, inseparably interrelated. False Vinaya feeds false Dhamma, and false Dhamma feeds into false Vinaya. In practice, in a community, the communal ethos is an integrated organismic system -theory and practice, Dhamma and Vinaya, all occur in the mind -and in the communal mind.
The times I have endured through a 'Dhamma' talk trying to count the times the abbot distorted the Dhamma in a move that legitimated or defended his own position, often in relation to current politics in the monastery which the lay visitors would never recognise, but lost count of the systematic misinterpretations, those times are uncountable too.
There is no end to the circularity of the tradition's apologetics- in the end the most I can do is "offer this for your reflection" and plant a seed that might one day fruit into the confidence to trust your own intuitions and stop the self-censoring thoughts that turn the criticism back on you whenever you even think a critical thought towards the institution. You may think I'm implying the TFT is a cult by this use of words; I both am and am not implying that, because I think that kind of group-think is more or less endemic to all traditional, hierarchical groups.
I think what's happening in modern Buddhism is more to do with the forces of modernisation than Asian-Western dispersal.
Personally my journey has led me to join the Quakers, last year, now that I'm a layman in a family-oriented life. I no longer call myself a Buddhist, and I can use conventional regional religious terminology like 'God' quite comfortably (with a massive footnote explaining that I don't mean anything supernatural or having sabhava). I find I fit much better in the Quaker community, and one of the most obvious differences for me from my experience of the TFT is that the Quaker 'institution' treats people as full adults (maybe even a bit too much, because we mostly seem to attract people in their 40s onwards!), but I needed a change and it's the furthest opposite extreme if you have religious allergy to hierarchicalism and enforced prolongation of adolescent-type dependence.
I hope oneday I'll complete the research I started here, with the whole perspective of my life since and the context of global biological anthropology and sociology of religion, probably starting from Australopithecus, the disintegration of tribal societies and the in-foldings of the original functions of religious culture with adaptations to the totally different social environment of 'civilization', and showing how the history of Early Buddhism to the Thai Forest Tradition fits into that whole context! It's probably the kind of book that's best written in retirement with the clarity and tendency to refine down the complexity into something simple enough to be useable that some lucky old people have. So for now I shall just live and eat plenty of broccoli to help stave off dementia so I can finish my book eventually!
(The mulesika group is currently only open to monks, please send an application to the email address below with some information about yourself. I send drafts and questions to the group for feedback before publishing.)