Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Discussion of ordination, the Vinaya and monastic life. How and where to ordain? Bhikkhuni ordination etc.
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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:27 am

Greetings,
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.
santa100 wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:46 am
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.
My advice would be similar. It's a tough situation, and you may wish to address it via a similarly anonymous letter to the abbot, outlining that certain practices are dangerous, and some of those are actually against the law. Advise that if you see these behaviours and actions persist beyond a certain date, that you will have no choice but to inform the appropriate authorities. Allow for the possibility that their directions to others may genuinely be based upon ignorance of local law, and consider including materials/links etc. that will help them comply with the law, if they are so inclined. If not, they deserve whatever comes to them.

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)

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by JamesTheGiant » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:31 am

Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 1:49 am
I'm looking for similar experiences, and advice about how to deal with the situation.

Yes, I've have very similar experiences, and they've been solved/mitigated by me taking responsibility for my own safety and well-being, if the sangha is not going to.
# For instance I was asked to paint the rafters of a steel warehouse in a monastery, and it was 4 or 5 meters up. I located a safety harness and rope, and used it. Otherwise I wasn't going to do it.
# I always wear steelcap boots when building.
# I say no to tasks I'm not comfortable with.
# I educate monks if they want to dump chemicals, and offer to take it to the proper disposal facility.
# I declined to use the chainsaw without earmuffs.
# I say No to unreasonable requests from monks. For example a monk i know wanted to stop at Starbucks to use monastery money for an extra large soy frappuccino... twice in one 3-hour car trip. I simply told him No.

As for working very long hours with no possibility of time for own meditation, that's just unacceptable. Best to talk and explain with whoever is organising the work, preferably in front of other people and monks, so the work-master has to tell you to work those long hours in front of all those people. Public shame is a powerful tool!

.
..unadvisable to ordain in Western sanghas right now?
They're not all bad. Find a better monastery. Many/most of them have that very hierarchical structure, but there are better and worse ones.

Best wishes to you, and I hope your monks aren't too shocked by you beginning to politely say No.
Last edited by JamesTheGiant on Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:35 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by Questioning » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am

SDC wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:49 am
...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.
It is difficult for me, I wrestled with the idea of making this post, and I don't mean to portray the image that this kind of thing is happening all the time or that the situation is constantly abusive. I am uncertain about whether abusive is even the right word. It is usually a marvelous and unique experience. But over time I have seen all the things I listed and while I do not want to blow it out of proportion, at the same time I have been shocked from time to time by the disregard. The general attitude seems to be that anything bad that happens to us is due to our karma so we don't need to take safety seriously.

Safety is not my #1 concern here, however, my #1 concern is the marginalization of the unpaid volunteers who live at monasteries and support them into a servant class whose well being is seen as less valuable than others' by the monastic community.

I'm troubled by the negative reactions this post has already caused and I am dubious about saying anything further. I may delete the post.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:35 am

Greetings,
Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am
Safety is not my #1 concern here, however, my #1 concern is the marginalization of the unpaid volunteers who live at monasteries and support them into a servant class whose well being is seen as less valuable than others' by the monastic community.
If they're volunteering, that's their choice - hence the word volunteer.
Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am
I'm troubled by the negative reactions this post has already caused and I am dubious about saying anything further. I may delete the post.
People's inability to stay on topic needn't be your concern.

Kind regards.

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)

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by JamesTheGiant » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:38 am

Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am
I'm troubled by the negative reactions this post has already caused and I am dubious about saying anything further. I may delete the post.
Don't delete it, it's a real issue which should be talked about. You're serving the dhamma by airing out the dirty laundry.
And you're anonymous and so is the monastery and that's fine. No harm.
Please don't delete it.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by Questioning » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:41 am

retrofuturist wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:35 am
Greetings,
Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am
Safety is not my #1 concern here, however, my #1 concern is the marginalization of the unpaid volunteers who live at monasteries and support them into a servant class whose well being is seen as less valuable than others' by the monastic community.
If they're volunteering, that's their choice - hence the word volunteer.


Metta,
Paul. :)
It's true but I am concerned on behalf of the lay residents who have no other means. I have met several who, apart from the monastery, have no way to earn a living. These people tend to be either elderly, have personality disorders, or are disabled in other ways. These people aren't "volunteering" in the same sense because they often have no other choice. I am not one of these people but it's something that doesn't sit right with me.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:44 am

Greetings,
Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:41 am
It's true but I am concerned on behalf of the lay residents who have no other means. I have met several who, apart from the monastery, have no way to earn a living. These people tend to be either elderly, have personality disorders, or are disabled in other ways. These people aren't "volunteering" in the same sense because they often have no other choice. I am not one of these people but it's something that doesn't sit right with me.
Thanks for clarifying.

All the best.

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)

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by SDC » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:44 am

Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:33 am
SDC wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 2:49 am
...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.
It is difficult for me, I wrestled with the idea of making this post, and I don't mean to portray the image that this kind of thing is happening all the time or that the situation is constantly abusive. I am uncertain about whether abusive is even the right word. It is usually a marvelous and unique experience. But over time I have seen all the things I listed and while I do not want to blow it out of proportion, at the same time I have been shocked from time to time by the disregard. The general attitude seems to be that anything bad that happens to us is due to our karma so we don't need to take safety seriously.

Safety is not my #1 concern here, however, my #1 concern is the marginalization of the unpaid volunteers who live at monasteries and support them into a servant class whose well being is seen as less valuable than others' by the monastic community.

I'm troubled by the negative reactions this post has already caused and I am dubious about saying anything further. I may delete the post.
I would think right past all the negativity and look at the enormous potential for education and outreach. Are the organizations who could work to serve as liaisons between local contractors and monasteries? Why don't these abbots seek outside entities for the work? Are they worried about being ripped off? Do they lack the knowledge to know what they need done?

Just off the top of my head, a non-profit who not only acts as this liaison, but also could take part in educating the abbot and seniors and perhaps even pick up a portion of the cost for work that requires a contractor.

So instead of figuring out how to report the monks, you go right to the heart of the issue and interfere in a different way.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by JamesTheGiant » Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:45 am

Questioning wrote:
Mon Oct 14, 2019 3:41 am
These people tend to be either elderly, have personality disorders, or are disabled in other ways. These people aren't "volunteering" in the same sense because they often have no other choice. I am not one of these people but it's something that doesn't sit right with me.
Ah I see now. So it's more the monks taking advantage of people who won't feel able to say No or be assertive. Yes, that's a real problem. The weakest are often the most oppressed.
Hmmm difficult.
My previous answer isn't so useful any more in this case then sorry

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by Bhikkhu_Jayasara » Mon Oct 14, 2019 4:08 am

It's true but I am concerned on behalf of the lay residents who have no other means. I have met several who, apart from the monastery, have no way to earn a living. These people tend to be either elderly, have personality disorders, or are disabled in other ways. These people aren't "volunteering" in the same sense because they often have no other choice. I am not one of these people but it's something that doesn't sit right with me.
I'm surprised a western monastery would allow such people as residents, for the past two years I was part of the process at Bhavana of reading over and choosing to accept residency applications, accepting people who basically have no where else to go or are elderly or disabled is quite a burden on the monastery, which is already quite burdened as it is. We tell people that we do not have the facilities or expertise to handle people with mental illness.

As you say Western monasteries don't have the support of ones in Asia, so they usually need all the good , skilled help they can get, to have less work, not create more, although I have encountered the " we just need a body" mindset, where they just want to accept anyone to have more people... that rarely ends well. This real need for help to maintain facilities can lead to taking the help of the lay people for granted, and as someone who was a hard worker in lay life, and has been also here at Bhavana as we've been short handed for some years, I know how much work is needed to maintain a monastery, especially if its also a retreat center. Some people come here as a resident expecting to be able to meditate 10 hours a day, I've just not been to a monastery here in the west where that is a feasible reality. Some have lots of free time(Bhavana essentially has 12pm-6pm as free time, in addition to the two hours of mandatory meditation time, but when you live here you end up sharing more of the chores so you may need to do a half hour or so of chores during that time.

That being said there are some things that should just be done by professionals. It's a common thing for people to do a lot of their own work at monasteries, but I can't count how many times in the past few years I've spoken to a professional, a plumber, electrician, etc, who tell me " man Jay I don't know who originally did this work but its so haphazard and horrible and potentially dangerous". So we end up spending more money fixing and updating then we would of if years ago they paid a professional. It's hard though if you don't have lot of backing, and seems much more appealing to trust someone who comes to the monastery who says " hey i have these skills I can do this for you".. I ask to see their qualifications, insurance, and references, just like I would any other contractor I work with in lay life.


as for many of your other things, I've both seen and heard many of them on the Sri Lankan end of things, I don't think these issues are just specific to Thailand, but the Buddhist world in general. In Sri Lanka the senior monks are gods, never to be questioned, especially about their ability to lead a monastery or wanting to make things better. This is especially the case for the ones who were ordained since childhood and have never had to deal with criticism or being questioned since reaching adulthood. Their role models were very authoritative and abusive towards them, beating them into submission.

I remember a Sri Lankan lay woman , out of great concern, telling a western resident we had who called me " jay" instead of Bhante, that it was bad kamma for him to do so, and that even if a monk were to hit you, you put your hands in anjali and say " yes Bhante, sorry Bhante"..... I don't think i'll ever forget that one, it was quite telling.

The hierarchy has always existed in Buddhism, from the days of the Buddha when he was passing on and set the hierarchy up with seniority. The atmosphere and community at a monastery will always be at the whim, and abilities, of the abbot, so it's important to be under one who knows how to build a community, is skilled, competent, and thinks about those under him and their safety and spiritual growth.
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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by retrofuturist » Mon Oct 14, 2019 4:37 am

Greetings,

One other possibility, would just be to leave them to their strange little commune, and seek surroundings more conducive to your personal and spiritual development.

When Buddha spoke in praise of the homeless life, I don't think he had this kind of dysfunction in mind.

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)

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by DNS » Mon Oct 14, 2019 4:46 am

In regard to the part about feeling somewhat stuck to stay in an abusive place; I have seen some set up a sort of safety net back home. For example, I know a guy who ordained but kept his vehicle and bank account with his brother. He gave his brother power of attorney over his bank account which was used for vehicle maintenance and registration. And then sure enough after about a year, the monk did in fact disrobe (over similar bureaucratic issues) and he had his vehicle and bank account waiting for him to get back to lay life. Not sure if that's completely kosher, vinaya speaking that is, but that is what he did so as to not feel trapped.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by chownah » Mon Oct 14, 2019 5:52 am

As to unsafe work practices and dumping of hazardous chemicals......these should be reported to the legal authorities.
chownah

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by JamesTheGiant » Mon Oct 14, 2019 5:57 am

If the abbot has a senior above him, somewhere, it might be worthwhile to send a letter telling what's going on at the monastery.
Or if it's part of the Ajahn Chah wat pah pong sangha, contact some senior from that organisation and tell them what's happening.
If it's an independent monastery that won't work though.

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Re: Power and Oppression in Western Monasteries

Post by Chanh Dao » Mon Oct 14, 2019 6:37 am

As a Monastic myself I will say that I find this kind of behavior completely unnacceptable and I don't think it's something that should be supported or seen as the *Way of the Buddha* in any monastary.

However the transplant or Asian culture and Buddhist monasticism into other countries is always quite intensive and involved. It's an ongoing process.

In Myanmar and Thailand for example temples offer positions in the community to lay people.

They sometimes offer small wages, a good place to live, a decent position in society as a close member of the local temple and someone who is frequently supporting the monastics.

In the western world this simply is not offered by becoming a Monastic supporting lay resident of a community.

In the eastern world there are two kinds of supporters. In general.

One kind is someone who donates large funds or resources to a head monk or temple in general, this kind of person usually has some say so on certain things going on in the temple and the Community, they are respected and everyone in the community to the degree that they are aware make it a point to treat these people with respect and consideration when present at the temple. Usually being given a friendly audience with the senior Monastics or other such pleasentries.

The other kind is likely someone coming from a poorer part of the local community. Someone who may in fact be extremely devout but frankly can only offer some labor and maybe some other general services that are certainly well needed. Sometimes these people are afforded a wage, decent food, a place to stay, local respect and a position in the community as a devout member of the Buddhist Sangha.


In the west I think we need to take an approach that is inclusive to both sides but leans more towards the respect and civility and consideration afforded to the wealthy donors who offer large resources to the temple.

We should strive to treat each lay supporter with respect and consideration and if we as a Sangha are going to hold on stringently to an authoritarian top down organization at our temples there should be a comparable lay organization that also works together, communicates, and has a presence and equal say in matters that are important to them.


I think it's an ongoing process and one that should always have safety, compassion, wisdom, insight, and consideration for all parties involved at the forefront of our community focus.

In more practical terms for the individual in this Community I reccomend doing what you can to ensure the safety of yourself and other. Maybe write an anonymous letter to all involved. Maybe leave and find another temple of which there are many.

Maybe try to organize the Lay supporters to the degree that is possible.

Sincerely,
-Bhikkhu Varrapanyo

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