Mulesika - Seeking the Roots

This website is designed and coordinated by Kester Ratcliff, formerly Bhikkhu Santi.

 This website was originally intended for publishing my research (called "Seeking the Roots: early Buddhist communal law and Theravada tradition") explaining how I found modern Theravada 'Buddhist' tradition to be radically and systematically incompatible with the pre-sectarian, and probably mostly original, Suttas and Vinaya, which are the texts the tradition claims its authority from.

 I was a monk in the Thai Theravada Forest tradition for six and a half years, 18-24, I disrobed in July 07. Since I left the Sangha and the TFT, I've been mainly concerned with trying to find my own way of being in the modern Western secular world, learning to integrate with mainstream culture enough to get along, but without too much losing my own sense of authentic humanity.

The differences between the TFT and what I consider to be 'probably original Buddhism' are not just a matter of different interpretations -that I would accept within the realm of bona fide disagreement, but the TFT institutionally does not even really practically treat the Suttas and Vinaya as authoritative, as it rhetorically pretends to (effectively mis-advertisement in recruiting for a life of complete commitment). It's not that they differ over interpretations, they don't even really care; i.e. they're not normally particularly interested in what is or might be the most authentic interpretation. The Suttas and Vinaya are not actually in practice foundationally important to them.

I felt for years afterwards that the best part of my youth was spent in vain because the abbots and their institution betrayed my trust and commitment. Even on the day I disrobed I still wished ideally to remain a monk for the rest of my life, but eventually I had had to accept it was not practically viable in the actual modern conditions. I learnt to judge what I should do not by what is 'best' ideally, but by what is the best I can practically manage in the actual available conditions. I was resentful that the best part of my youth was wasted, and my 'youthfulness' -optimism, enthusiasm, trusting inclination, and hope- was systematically crushed, for nothing but conserving their own privilege and power. I no longer actively feel resentful, mainly because it doesn't seem worth the energy, but also because I see that for me there was no other, shorter or less painful way I could have got to where I am now, and now I'm quite happy. I even dreampt recently about visiting my old monastery and meeting my old abbot, Ajahn Nyana, who I trusted and liked relatively the most, and telling him that I no longer felt angry or resentful, just a bit sad looking back but accepting, and beginning to feel able to be grateful for the good bits of the mixture I experienced.

 I wrote most of this page three years after disrobing when I experienced a massive deja vu of anger, to be honest, stimulated by the explosion of controversy about the revival of the bhikkhuni ordination in Australia, about my experiences and how I feel looking back three years since disrobing, in solidarity with the bhikkhuni revival movement, but also wishing to keep clear that the problem with the TFT for me, and for those others who I hope will contribute letters here soon explaining their own experiences and feelings for the TFT, is not just about womens' equality -I do wholeheartedly support womens' equality and the revival of the bhikkhuni ordination, but for me it is a secondary problem, symptomatic of a more fundamental problem:

If the Thai Forest Tradition was genuinely "established [...] to provide English-speaking people the opportunity to train and practice in the way the Buddha taught his monks in the forests 2600 years ago" as its own advertising still claims, i.e. if the sangha decision about bhikkhuni ordination, for instance, was actually sincerely and authentically based on Dhamma-Vinaya (Suttas and Vinaya), then there would be no objection to reviving the bhikkhuni ordination, or there might have been some concerns and doubts at first, but they would have been resolved long ago by reasonable discussion based on the texts and history. 

As an example, the bhikkhuni revival movement has done masses of careful research over many years now examining whether and how exactly the full ordination for women could be revived legally in accordance with the original Vinaya formulated by the Buddha. The traditionalist faction who happen to oppose the bhikkhuni revival since it contradicts the ruling of the Thai Mahatherasamaghorn (~Supreme State Ecclesiastical Council) have, as far as we can tell, completely ignored this body of research. They have not disagreed with it, they have not responded to it, they don't seem to have even looked at it.

If 'Dhamma-Vinaya' was really important to them, then this research would be important to them -whether it's actually correct or not (indeed especially if it was not!), it's undeniably a sincere and careful attempt within parts of the Tradition's claimed 'community' to examine and interpret the records of early Buddhism and compare modern practice against its claimed sources, and to convince and persuade others of the case for reform and revival reasonably and thus with respect for their freedom of conscience and freedom to bestow and to withdraw their trust and consent as they see fit. 

But when you get familiar with the institution, in practice the institutional hierarchy only uses the rhetoric of 'Dhamma-Vinaya' when it is expedient for legitimating their own power. Whenever the inconsistencies between the tradition and the original scriptures are pointed out, they attack and discredit the criticizer, typically saying such as you just have 'dust in their eyes', rather than responding to the argument in terms of Dhamma-Vinaya, because it is of course impossible that the institution (i.e. the abbots) could ever conceivably be wrong, according to their own system of teachings, because they see themselves as 'Buddhism'. It is effectively a cult of the abbots, not Buddhism.

The conflict over bhikkhuni ordination, I believe, is not primarily about sexist resistance to women's equality, because underlying the apparent issue of the legitimacy or appropriateness of reviving the bhikkhuni ordination in 'Theravada' communities, is the fundamental question of what should be the basis for cohesion for the community, what should be its communal identity, what should be its unifying common ethos, its source of 'authority' (forgive me for using the term vaguely for a moment)?

According to (what I call) the 'Thai Traditionalist' faction, the proper source of the communal ethos of the community is and should be the teachings of the Elders -i.e. the institutional centralised hierarchy, the abbots, accumulated Thai tradition. 

But according to what I sometimes call the 'Radically Scripturally Orthodox' faction, the only ultimately valid basis for cohesion, source of the communal ethos (or 'religious authority') for the Buddhist community, by definition, has to be the original teachings of the Buddha, which are probably reasonably accurately represented by the Suttas and Vinaya (in principle regardless of their language recension, but for convenience we often still rely primarily on the Pali).

The 'seeking the roots' or 'radically orthodox' movement appears to be very intellectual, and it is, but it is extremely unfair to dismiss this as just intellectualism or as superficial discursiveness. 

In my own experience, the reason I started studying Vinaya in particular was because I felt, intuitively, that there was something deeply wrong with my experience of the TFT 'sangha'. I deeply, urgently wanted and needed to trust someone/something, but definitely preferably somebody as well as just texts. I would have been totally overjoyed if I'd met a teacher or Good Friend (in fact I was a few times when I just thought I had) who I could genuinely, freely put my whole trust in, to trust more than my own intellect. Intellect, in my experience, is defensiveness, it's a filtering mechanism, to protect myself or at least limit the damage from outside influences. Intellect is essentially social. Underlying my intense intellectual mask, was a much deeper, and in the last few years conscious, need to trust and to belong, actually to grow my first ever secure emotional bond with another human being. 

However, I found the abbots I was expected to trust untrustable -firstly, because they demanded it too much -if somebody is truly trustworthy, they don't need to say "you should respect me" or anything of that sort, they would be confident that they are trustworthy enough to just be themselves quietly; like getting a toddler to come in for a hug, you have kneel down, open your arms, and wait for the kid to run into your arms; grabbing or shouting don't work. 

Secondly, hierarchical culture (which is something of an oxymoron) always de-personalizes and de-humanizes relationships; i.e. if the abbot relates to the junior monks first and foremost as 'a junior monk', their personal, immediate presence is of secondary importance, if any. The consequence of that de-personalisation is that there is a total absence of human warmth from the abbots to their subjects, or at least it is strictly contingent on obedience. Such a mode of relationship -setting up autonomy and affection, intimacy and independence in seemingly inevitable conflict and compromise, is dysfunctional and abusive. To maintain the dominance relationship, if there is any affection also has to be arbitrarily inconsistent. It reduces the subject's capacity for natural affection, emotional security and sense of belonging securely in relationships. At best, it is tolerable for child novices or adolescent young monks, but it is not a way to retain independent-minded fully adult monks.

'Attachment' in the sense of affectionate bonding between persons is not
upādāna, it is called piya or pema. Piya has both positive and negative things said about it in the Suttas- it's basically positive, e.g. the Vinaya says an upajjhaya (mentor) and saddhiviharika (co-resident student) should have piya for each other, but it has as its inevitable consequence soka -sorrow/grief at separation and death. (Sorrow at losing a good friend, even a Good Friend, is part of dukkha, but piya in the relationship with a spiritual mentor is also part of the way to the end of dukkha ultimately, since the how and why of dukkha are different questions.) The first thing the Buddha says about the duties of teacher and student in the Vinaya is, "the upajjhaya should cultivate the mind of a father towards his student as if he was his son" and vice versa -like a son, intimate, affectionate and bonded, not like a subordinate. Piya, I believe, also has a necessary function in the Path to help stabilise the heart enough to develop samādhi. Anyone who has observed many different monastics for a long time will probably have noticed that those who had happy, secure natural relationships with parents or sexual mates or very close friends before ordaining find meditation a lot, lot easier, but those who have never internalised the sense of relative 'good enough' security in existence (ultimately an illusion, but a functional one up to a point) that comes from happy, bonded relationships, have a lot more difficulty. The desire, or perhaps need, for emotional intimacy is much harder to overcome than the desire for physical, sexual intimacy -this is another reason I believe a genuinely intimate and fatherly relationship with the upajjhaya is as necessary, or more necessary, to maintaining celibacy sustainably when young than seclusion from the opposite sex.

Metta, if it is to become more than a concept, needs to start with a natural prototype, an example of tangible practical human or mammalian warmth to extrapolate and universalise from. 'Metta' is often used within the hierarchical culture of the TFT as a concept of rationalised, disembodied, depersonalised abstract and vacuous 'love' for "All Beings" but no being in particular, and never the particular person immediately present, because that would be incompatible with the de-personalised, even de-humanised hierarchical culture. To care for the student in a natural way would make it impossible to de-personalise him and treat him as 'just a junior monk.' The suttas on the other hand, use the example of the love between mother and infant as the defining example of ideal metta -so much then for being essentially 'cool' and 'detached'.

 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.

The kind of hierarchical culture that exists in the Thai Forest Tradition is an adaptation of large centralised societies, not small communities. Early Buddhism grew up in the NE of India in the end times of tribal society, while the tribes of the Vajjian confederacy were probably in a conflicted cultural transition, which eventually led to them being subsumed in the Mauryan empire. Very similar processes were happening over most of the world at about the same time.

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!

Schism in the Pali Vinaya (AABS Seminar abstract)

Early Buddhist Studies Links  


Sarvastivadin Pratimoksasutra, edition by Finot

Copyright and Ancient Texts

Early Buddhism Forum at Websangha  

Mulesika group 

(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.) 

Babelfish Translator