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An Afternoon with Ajahn Sujato: Personal Courage and Restoring the Sangha’s Moral Purpose

By Raymond Lam
Buddhistdoor Global | 2016-12-09 |
Ajahn Bhante Sujato. Image courtesy of the authorAjahn Bhante Sujato. Image courtesy of the author

The tall and robust teacher of Ajahn Chah’s forest tradition speaks with a typically blokeish Aussie accent, however the words of wisdom and compassion he voices do not sound like those of a typical bloke at all. While I have deep traditionalist loyalties and instincts, I have long admired Ajahn Bhante Sujato, who ordained in 1994 and left behind his identity of Anthony Best to live the monastic life. He is one of the most incisive and courageous progressive thinkers in contemporary Western Buddhism. He has not updated his famous blog, which remains an engaging and passionate source of Buddhist social critique, in a while however, having lived in seclusion in Taiwan over the past year to work on his main project, SuttaCentral, a website hosting texts from Buddhism’s most ancient period (the so-called pre-sectarian era) in more than 30 languages. 

Bhante’s decision to engage intellectually and critically on issues of social justice came during a moment in Thailand many years ago. He had seen an article in a newspaper about bhikkhunis, or fully ordained nuns. “The monk being interviewed was making statements about bhikkhunis that I knew, as a student of the Vinaya, were incorrect. So what was I supposed to do about it? Do I just sit here and let this happen? Should I write a letter to the editor or contact the monk . . . ?

“Then I realized that as long as I was living in Thailand, I was essentially a guest in somebody else’s country. Someone was looking after my visa, and so on. And I knew that these were very sensitive issues, so for me to merely do what I would see as trying to establish what’s true would be seen by some as very controversial. Apparently saying things that aren’t true aren’t controversial, but saying things that are true is much more controversial,” he added, laughing.

“This was one of the things that prompted me to want to go back to Australia, my home, and find a way of living in Buddhism where I could pursue my contemplation and meditation, but also to live in a way that I could feel true to my authentic voice. I think that the world we have today is very largely dominated by voices that don’t have a lot of wisdom to them. I’m not saying that I have any great wisdom, but hopefully because of the Dhamma, I might have at least a little bit of the Buddha’s wisdom that I could share.”

Academics, both lay and monastic (such as Ven. Analayo and Bhante’s own teacher, Ajahn Brahm), have done extensive research that should have conclusively demonstrated that the Theravada Vinaya permits the revival of the bhikkhuni order. Furthermore, on the ground, the bhikkhuni order is already resurgent in countries with a Theravada presence, such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. These grassroots movements are supported by many laypeople hungry for the fresh and sincere perspectives that these nuns offer and cannot simply be wished away by the Buddhist establishment, which is dominated by men.

Yet Bhante is hearing more incorrect assertions about bhikkhunis than ever. “Well, like how you can’t live as a bhikkhuni in the modern day, the Buddha didn’t care about equality . . . and these are the mild ones. I’ve heard things like if you support bhikkhunis you’re going to go to hell. It’s strong language that’s not based on wisdom or love. It’s based on hate and fear. So a lot of people get intimidated and would prefer not to get involved. People are stuck in their ways and there’s greed, hatred, and delusion everywhere. There is a lot of perceived self-interest.”

He is keen to distinguish between the Dhamma and how the Buddhist tradition has manifested in a culture like Thailand’s. “Much of what functions as Buddhism in many cultures has very little to do with Dhamma, and more to do with prestige and billions of dollars worth of real estate.” Bhante was offered several large monasteries during his last year in Thailand and still recounts the incident with disbelief. “The number of monks has collapsed and so there are these monasteries that are completely empty. The thought is that the bhikkhunis might then move into these monasteries—from my point of view that’s a good thing—but that means the monks lose control of them.”

Has trust has collapsed between the Thai sangha establishment and the lay Buddhists to whom the former owes pastoral care? “Certainly it’s a lot less than it once was. Thailand is a mixed bunch, like anywhere else there are good and bad monks. I think the overall trend is towards a lessening of people’s faith in the sangha. One of the reasons why I think trust collapsed was that overall the sangha became too lazy and decadent.” He related a story during the 1960s when Ajahn Chah visited London with a companion, and a punk verbally accosted them on the street. “What are ya on about, mate?” After brushing off the incident, Ajahn Chah observed wryly that he should bring all his senior monks to Britain.

“I’ve spoken about this issue to Ajahn Brahm as well. We didn’t realize how arrogant and egotistic we had become until we left Thailand and came back to Australia, because of how reverently we were treated. It’s over the top, excessive.” Bhante insists that it is one thing to treat the sangha with respect, another to treat monks in a way that facilitates an unhealthy relationship with laypeople. He personally had a wonderful time in Thailand, but feels disappointed by how the sangha does not seem to have kept up with the pace of Thailand’s development over the past three decades. He also holds unabashed scorn for some practices he sees as superstitious, such as amulet dolls (often costing thousands of dollars) that are even brought to Buddhist temples to be blessed. Some might say that this is simply Thai Buddhism, but Bhante counters by suggesting that it is also Thai tradition to self-critique and to try to do better.

Royal Buddhist ruins at Ayutthaya. From Raymond LamRoyal Buddhist ruins at Ayutthaya. From Raymond Lam

While he hasn’t updated his blog in a while, he has not lost sight of how to critique global politics and society while staying centered on the Dhamma. “I find that Buddhists often feel too shy to come forward and aren’t bold in what they say,” Bhante observed. “I think the world is missing out on a lot of Buddhist wisdom, and something that I’ve heard in my home state of Western Australia, the former premier Geoff Gallop said to a group of monks that politicians need to hear more from the Buddhist community. They want to hear more but they don’t know what the Buddhist community wants or what we think about issues. Buddhism does have something to contribute to the political sphere in Australia.”

Bhante is particularly critical of the Australian government’s handling of climate change and its undermining of environmental legislation. “We have gone from being one of the most forward-thinking countries on the environment to one of the most regressive in the past decade.” He has spoken to more than a dozen Liberal Party politicians on climate change (in Australia, the Liberal Party represents right-wing politics). “A lot of them just don’t have a clue, while others just want to make money off fossil fuels. I was speaking to the environment minister at the time, Greg Hunt, and I asked him, ‘How much do you actually talk about climate change in the Liberal party?’ And his response was very telling: ‘I think about these things every day.’ I said, ‘With respect, that’s not what I asked.’ And I never got an answer from him.”

He then talked to an Indigenous minister from Western Australia (the minister’s name escaped him for the moment). “He was a lovely man, very gentle and wise, and I asked him the same question. He said, ‘Not at all. No one talks about it.’”

He answers possible charges that he may be “politicizing” Buddhism by pointing out that in Vietnam and Sri Lanka there are monks in political parties and parliament. A monastic council appointed by the king manages the Thai sangha, while in Myanmar the sangha runs according to an act of parliament. “How political can you get?” he laughs. “And in Tibet, the monks were the government. Such political involvement far exceeds anything we do or advocate in the West.”

Bhante’s final thoughts are both a warning and encouragement. If Buddhists do not speak up with voices of compassion and wisdom, that vacuum will be filled by voices of delusion and violence. Instead of hearing Buddhist voices, governments will listen to lobbyists from the coal and arms-dealing industries. “Being engaged just means talking about issues that matter with people. What it doesn’t mean is politicking, trying to exert power over others, or manipulating them. Always be clear, civil, polite, and kind. Remember that the only reason we’re speaking is to try to help all beings. Buddhism has been a shared force of values that has influenced the whole of Asia and I would love to see those shared values articulated in our world today because they can help address extremely urgent issues.”

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