Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Discussion of ordination, the Vinaya and monastic life. How and where to ordain? Bhikkhuni ordination etc.
Questioning
Posts: 3
Joined: Mon Oct 14, 2019 12:49 am

Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by Questioning » Mon Oct 14, 2019 1:49 am

Hi

I have lived as a layperson at a monastery in the Western Thai Forest Tradition for a considerable length of time.
During that period I have experienced a tremendous outpouring of kindness, support, and Dhamma teachings from the monks, nuns, and lay community.

So I will first and foremost express my gratitude for what I think is a wonderful institution that is worth supporting.

That being said. I am writing to voice concerns that I, and others in similar positions, have felt and continue to feel about certain (not all) members of the monastic community. I also want to discuss larger structural issues that I have observed. I want to know if anyone else has had similar experiences or shares similar concerns.

For those who may be unfamiliar, it is fairly common practice in the Western monasteries for laypeople to live at the monastery and be materially supported by the monastery. Usually in these cases the laypeople will assist the monastery with some material work, like cooking, outdoor work, et cetera.

I have to point out here, for those who are not familiar, that Theravada monasteries in the West are strictly hierarchical. So, the monastery runs as a mini dictatorship where the abbot's rule is law, transcending every social rule, even the laws of the country. After this, the senior monks are authorities. After that, the junior monks, and then, maybe, the nuns. At the bottom of the totem pole are lay residents, who have to unquestioningly obey each monastic without debate or face disciplinary action.

(Yes, I have actually heard it explicitly stated that a layperson has to do what a senior monk tells them to do, with the rationale "It's our monastery, if you don't like it, you can leave.")

When the abbot is being reasonable and the Community is harmonious, this is actually a good situation, because there isn't any need for us to debate on how things should be done, and so on. It eliminates bureaucracy and everything goes hunky dory.

My problem is when things are not hunky dore.

Here are some, not all, of the things that I have seen, or have happened to me or people I know, that I considered either abusive or problematic.

- being asked to do unsafe work, sometimes extremely unsafe
- being asked to violate road laws (driving without proper licence, insurance, etc.)
- being asked to violate building codes or proper trade practices
- being asked to do unlicensed trade work without training
- disregard for the health and physical well being of resident lay people (continued exposure to unsafe housing despite repeated complaints)
- disregard for general concerns offered by laypeople about monastery operations
- encouragement to do unsafe things (doing construction work in sandals, etc)
- environmental disregard (dumping of chemicals on monastery grounds)
- being asked to disregard environmental concerns
- exposing lay residents, alone, to retreatants who have become mentally unstable
- denial or rejection, even harsh condemnation, of criticism
- I won't even go into women's issues with Theravada here because that will blow the discussion out of proportion. But that is something too.
- subjecting lay residents to very long working hours with no possibility for meditation practice of their own, for months at a time

In addition to these examples I want to point out a general attitude of many senior, and rarely junior monks, that the laypeople exist to service them. I have seen laypeople with less strong boundaries be treated as though they were slaves - with senior monks acting incredibly demanding and childish when they do not get their way, or when the laypeople do not jump to their attendance and their every whim. Most lay people are a little shocked when they see this behavior but they don't comment further.

I should be clear; these are not junior monastics I am talking about, in fact, the behaviour I am referring to is more commonly seen among the senior monastics who have more clout. Again, it is not all of them, but a concerning proportion. I have not met all the senior monks in this tradition but I have seen these attitudes from a disturbing percentage of the ones I have met.

I understand that we are meant to put aside attachments and so on. And that it is "our practice" to keep our own minds in a good state when we are faced with bad treatment and so on.

But I am concerned, I am not writing this as a rebellion or something. I am concerned that this kind of behavior is not good. And I am concerned that the way the Western monasteries are structured is contributing to these issues.

I think the rigid hierarchy, and the unquestionable dictatorship of Western monasteries, in combination with the long-term treatment of senior monastics in a servile and obsequious way by the laypeople is contributing to the degradation of the Sangha, because the senior monks get used to this treatment and come to expect it as a given, come to feel that they are owed fancy things and servile gratitude.

I also think the situation with lay residents at monasteries is highly problematic. This applies to junior monastics as well. Our situatiion is not like the East where there is a monastery on every street corner and willing laypeople who will take care of you if you find yourself homeless. The reality for many lay residents at western monasteries is that they have no source of income and no alternative livelihood. So when they come to the monastery, the monastery will readily accept their help. After all, those are the most useful people and the easiest to exploit. Due to the hierarchy of the monastery and the lack of means of the lay residents, to disobey the abbot or a senior monastic puts you on the rocks. At any time the abbot can eject you from the monastery.

For a lay resident with no savings or social safety network, this could mean obedience or death. And from the list of requests I wrote above, some of these requests are not appropriate, unlawful, or even life threatening.

And on top of all this, there is no mechanism for feedback. Any criticism of the monastery or how it runs is harshly shut down by the abbot. It is not something to be discussed. This means the problem can only get worse.

As an aspiring monastic myself, to see this kind of thing happening shakes my faith in the institution of the Sangha and the larger Dhamma that it is an expression of. It shakes my faith in the value of the going-forth and it makes me consider that the old criticisms of monastic life might indeed be true, at least in many cases. The prospect of associating with and tolerating these people for the rest of my life fills me with doubt in the ordained life.

So I wanted to ask if anyone else has had a similar experience, and open this topic for discussion. It isn't my wish to condemn the Sangha, but only certain behaviors I have seen in it. I want to offer a critique of the structure as it is, not any person in particular.

I hope this will not drive divisions in any community. My intention is to reach out for support and also possibly guidance. I'm looking for similar experiences, and advice about how to deal with the situation. I also wanted to discuss whether this issue, if it is not all in my head, makes it unadvisable to ordain in Western sanghas right now.

Thank you for reading.
Last edited by Questioning on Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:18 am, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:23 am

Do others hurt your feelings?

One can refuse to feel

Then no one can hurt your feelings
Last edited by cappuccino on Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:28 am, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
retrofuturist
Site Admin
Posts: 21850
Joined: Tue Dec 30, 2008 9:52 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Contact:

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:28 am

Greetings,
cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:23 am
Do others hurt your feelings?

One can refuse to feel

Then no one can hurt your feelings
This is a topic about structures, relationships and very real physical dangers in a monastic setting.

That warrants more serious consideration than a facile response that boils it all down to "feelings".

Please try harder.

Metta,
Paul. :)
"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate." (AN 10.2)

“Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” (Flannery O'Connor)

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:29 am

Try harder to appreciate exactly what I'm saying

Buddhism is about how you feel

If you're not feeling dukkha, the problem is solved

User avatar
retrofuturist
Site Admin
Posts: 21850
Joined: Tue Dec 30, 2008 9:52 pm
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Contact:

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:37 am

Greetings,
cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:29 am
Try harder to appreciate exactly what I'm saying
Try harder to appreciate that what you're saying has nothing to do with this topic.

If you wish to create a topic on the wit and wisdom of cappuccino, by all means do, but until then...

:focus:

Metta,
Paul. :)
"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate." (AN 10.2)

“Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” (Flannery O'Connor)

santa100
Posts: 3822
Joined: Fri Jun 10, 2011 10:55 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by santa100 » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:46 am

Questioning wrote:I have to point out here, for those who are not familiar, that Theravada monasteries in the West are strictly hierarchical. So, the monastery runs as a mini dictatorship where the abbot's rule is law, transcending every social rule, even the laws of the country. After this, the senior monks are authorities. After that, the junior monks, and then, maybe, the nuns. At the bottom of the totem pole are lay residents, who have to unquestioningly obey each monastic without debate or face disciplinary action.
You will need to provide the exact name of the monastery and its abbot for transparency purposes because if the above was true, it would go completely against the teaching of the Buddha. The abbot is still a citizen of the land and needs to observe both laws: the law of the land AND the discipline codes as laid out in the Vinaya. If he breaks the common law, he will be tried just like any regular citizen in front of the court. If he breaks the Vinaya, he'll stand in front of the Sangha to get the verdict. So, no, he is absolutely not above the law. If any, he has to observe double the laws, while we worldlings only needs to observe one.
Last edited by santa100 on Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:50 am, edited 1 time in total.

User avatar
SDC
Posts: 5140
Joined: Mon Dec 14, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:49 am

Wow...quite a bit to digest here...

The unsafe work practices hits close to home for me. I not only work around high voltage electricity, but we are constantly dealing with the remnants of a time where the use of hazardous materials (lead, asbestos, pcbs, etc.) were very common. Even though use of these materials is now heavily regulated it is present in so much prior to the 1970s and we routinely have to abate these things in a very controlled and safe manner as not expose ourselves out families. That being said, mishandling and exposure to these materials is deadly.

Working at elevations above 6 feet has been proven to cause more high hazard injuries then work below that height.

Improperly fitted gas installations have been leading to leaks and explosions for years.

Improper electrical construction and improperly sized wire leads to fires. One amp of current across your heart for any duration is enough to kill you.

Chemicals in the soil can leach into well water and cause cancer.

If any of the senior monks are aware if these hazards, it is abuse to expose you to them. But chances are they are wholly uneducated in these matters. That needs to change. They could be held criminally liable if anyone were to die performing any of these tasks, not to mention if any of these acute or chronic exposures were to lead to diseases.

If this is happening in the US I would anonymously contact the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to report everything related to health and safety in terms of work being done. I'm sure Europe has a counterpart in this vein. You could also contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the FBI or the local police. (Again if this is Europe, find the counterparts).

You have to understand that in reporting these conditions, it could result in these places being shut down. On the other hand you should also understand that in saying nothing, they will continue to push the envelope and eventually someone will be killed. I don't know you and I don't know if what you said is accurate in the least. That is between you and you, and if it were not accurate and you were to report it inaccurately to authorities, you could affecting the lives of many. So just be sure about what is actually happening. But if it as bad as you say, this is an abusive situation and terribly unfortunate. Ultimately you know what you can do end it.

User avatar
SDC
Posts: 5140
Joined: Mon Dec 14, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:52 am

cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:29 am
Try harder to appreciate exactly what I'm saying

Buddhism is about how you feel

If you're not feeling dukkha, the problem is solved
This sounds exactly like the attitude being promoted at this monastery and I promise it will lead to someone being killed. You seem to be under the impression that it would be passive liability on behalf of the abbot and the seniors - I promise you that it is directly their fault if someone were to die. They seem to know the risk and they are taking the action of ordering the work nonetheless.

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:54 am

I note the facts but

from my perspective… you're indulging in drama (feelings)

there are two levels of discussion here

User avatar
SDC
Posts: 5140
Joined: Mon Dec 14, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:57 am

cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:54 am
I note the facts but

from my perspective… you're indulging in drama (feelings)
I've seen someone lose the skin on both their hands from negligence. You're relishing in luxury of not knowing what unsafe work practices lead to. I'm glad you can represent the position of indifference here, but it is clearly based on lack of awareness as opposed to wisdom.

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:59 am

I'm a Buddhist, not Greenpeace

User avatar
SDC
Posts: 5140
Joined: Mon Dec 14, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:00 am

cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:59 am
I'm a Buddhist, not Greenpeace

the world will have to deal with itself
Congratulations on yet another wonderfully crafted one-liner. You remind of a magic 8 ball from the early 90s.

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:02 am

the essence of everything is what is important

the only thing is people cannot handle the essence

they prefer to speak a lot instead

User avatar
SDC
Posts: 5140
Joined: Mon Dec 14, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:07 am

cappuccino wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:02 am
the essence of everything is what is important

the only thing is people cannot handle the essence

they prefer to speak a lot instead
If I'm in a position to educate people on matters they don't understand, I'm fully willing to take the time to do it. I have no interest in treating this like some unfortunate entertainment. Since you clearly don't have the time to care in a specific manner about this difficult situation at these monasteries (obviously you care in a broad sense), than I suggest you leave it at what you wrote. We get it. Now everyone knows you are above it and now hopefully the remainder of this thread can be about clarifying this issue and helping those involved.

User avatar
cappuccino
Posts: 3092
Joined: Thu Feb 11, 2016 1:45 am

Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by cappuccino » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:09 am

sure

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Chanh Dao, frieden311 and 19 guests