THE BROKEN BUDDHA
Critical Reflections on Theravada and a Plea for a New Buddhism
by the Venerable S. Dhammika
I finally finished this book. I found two versions on the internet, one 60 pages and one 80 pages. The title above links to a PDF of the longer version.
In a nutshell, the book is by a western born monk and is about criticisms of Theravada Buddhism as he saw it practiced in Asia ( Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma primarily). Venerable S Dhammika is still a monk. His book includes two articles by Sri Lankans with similar criticisms, as well as many notes to other authors who had similar observations. The book also includes Venerable Dhammika's suggestions for a reformed Buddhism, some of which, he claims are being implemented by Mahayana influenced groups such as the "Western Buddhist Order" and "Friends of the Western Buddhist Order". Interestingly, Venerable Dhammika had praise for the IMS, Spirit Rock, a western group of Ajan Cha followers and S.N. Goenka's meditation centers.
Anyone thinking of ordaining would do themselves a favor by reading this book and reading it in its entirety. Doing so will prepare them for a strong culture shock and alert them to problems they will need to navigate around to get what they want out of being ordained.
A good overview of the message of the book can be had by reading 2 short articles in the appendix by other authors with similar criticisms.
This book deserves a thorough review, but I will only mention some top points of what the author had to say. I can't emphasize enough that actually reading the entire book is very thought provoking.
According to the Venerable S. Dhammika the Asian Theravada laity is only concerned with making merit. That is, ensuring a good rebirth for themselves by making donations to the monks. They grow up being taught that the maximum amount of merit is to be had by giving to monks, so few make donations or do volunteer work for others. The rest of the time, outside of holidays the laity is unconcerned about Buddhism. They do not read the suttas. They do not meditate. They are discouraged from doing so by the monks. They believe both things are not for ordinary people, but only for monks.
Many monks are also unfamiliar with the suttas and do not meditate. In fact if a monk chooses to meditate they will not get any encouragement and even some discouragement as it makes other monks look bad. Many monks go into the Sangha as children, out of poverty and leave after they get a college education paid for by dana from the laity. The ones who stay experience a life time of being waited on hand and foot by the community. The monks become spoiled and narcissitic, caring only about their whims to use dana money to put up buildings and statues that people don't need and often when there is a lot of poverty in the surrounding area. The monks often get big egos demanding huge amounts of respect and demanding to be catered to. Often the Buddhist community in Asia will sacrifice on essentials to their own families to give dana to monks who already have an excess of what they need or could want. This happens because of the aforementioned belief in merit making. For monks the most important thing is following the vinaya, and most could care less about the dhamma, even if they knew about it.
Venerable S Dhammika does not fault the monks or laity for these problems. He mentioned that exceptional people have tried to turn things around, even if only for themselves, but both groups will reinforce the status quo out of fear of upsetting the other group. Venerable S Dhammika responds to the listing of names of exceptional people by stating that is exactly the point. There are so few people trying to be true to dhamma instead of the status quo that people *can* remember their names.
As a brief aside I was shocked to learn that there is a caste system in Sri Lanka and this extends to Buddhism. While westerners can join most orders, if you are Sri Lankan there are some orders you can't join if you are not a member of that caste. I also learned that Sri Lankan monks owned slaves. Slavery was abolished there in the late 19th century as it was in the U.S., but people born into slavery had to remain slaves. Some people continued to be slaves in Sri Lanka and in monasteries until the early 1900s.
One of the most interesting and I think the most important points Venerable S. Dhammika had to make was that he thinks Asian Theravada is in danger of dying out. The dhamma isn't taught to most Asians, they don't get any spirituality or inspiration out of it. What they get is a religion to keep during the holidays and to make merit in as they begin to worry about future lives. The relationship between the people and the monks appears to be one way, with all of the giving coming from the people. In the meantime Christianity is gaining in Asia quickly, much faster than Theravada is spreading in the west. Christian missionaries are doing charitable works for the people ( something the Buddhists monks don't do ) in addition to offering them the spirituality they aren't getting from the monks.
That really hit home with me. I left the religion of my family as a teenager to become an atheist. The "clergy" I interfaced with cared only about tradition for tradition's sake, with no concern for meaning
, let alone meaning relevant to contemporary life. They offered no spirituality, no inspiration and only made demands. Having had that experience, I agree with the author that Theravada could be threatened by that situation.
In any event. I think the book is worth reading and in its entirety. What I wrote isn't my opinion, I was explaining the opinions of the author.
On the downsides of the book, it was published about 10 years ago so I have no idea if some of its points are out of date or not. The author does not back up his points with statistics ( I don't think it would be possible ), only anecdotal accounts. His views could only be his own as the result of an uncommonly bad experience. The reader, unless s/he lived in Asia for a long time would have no way of knowing how accurate his points are. That and there was some obvious writing errors which he didn't proof read out.
All in all a very powerful, education and thought provoking book.