By Richard and Wangmo Dixey
Wangmo Dixey is chief executive and Richard Dixey is associate director of the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation International (LBDFI), and an advisor to Khyentse Foundation. Founded in 2002 by Venerable Tarthang Tulku, one of the missions of LBDFI is to support the preservation and restoration of the shrines and cultural artifacts of India. In this essay, Richard and Wangmo discuss the Theravadin tradition of Buddhism and give us a taste of their experience in working in India for LBDFI.
Walking down the steps toward the main entrance of the Mahabodhi Mahavihara, the great Temple at Bodhgaya radiates like a jeweled lotus. As we enter this place of enlightenment, this sacred space immediately calls out an invitation to turn our minds toward the teachings of the Buddha.
There are few places in this world where all Buddhists come together under one umbrella—from the pilgrim who offers orchids fresh from Thailand to the Tibetan who has journeyed by bus or train from the Himalayas with a mandala offering of turquoise and coral or the Westerner who meditates under the sacred Bodhi Tree. They all share a common commitment to understanding and deepening their relationship to this sacred place.
After a few days, you come to recognize that there are three main strands of Buddhism. There are the Himalayan schools, represented by the Tibetans, the Bhutanese, and people from the Indian Himalayan regions; there are the classical Mahayana schools, represented by the Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans; and there are the Theravadins, represented by the Sri Lankans, Burmese, Thais, Laotians, Cambodians, Bangladeshis, and the Indians themselves. You might conclude that the Theravadins are the most austere, wearing their robes with great care, chanting in unison, and closely following the Vinaya rules of conduct laid down by the Buddha and codified by Kasyapa, the great Arahant, 2,600 years ago.
In some respects you would be right, but then there are many aspects of the Theravadin tradition that have been hidden to outsiders. This is not due to deliberate action, but more that in many of the countries where the school is prominent it enjoys government support, with the senior monks accorded the status of diplomats and representatives of the state, and with access to impressive facilities. In such circumstances, there is no need to explain the school on casual enquiry.
The twin pillars of the Theravadin tradition are respect for the Vinaya as a means for living and the practice of meditation as a path to wisdom. Although the Vinaya rules are laid down in canonical form in the Pali texts upon which the school is based, the meditation traditions vary widely, with numerous approaches, techniques, and results handed down from master to disciple in oral lineages, more reminiscent of the Tibetan Schools. After 8 or sometimes 12 years of ordination, a Theravadin monk is free for the rest of his life to wander, and many do, with only the requisites of robe, outer robe, begging bowl, umbrella, water bowl, thread, and tooth stick to support them. Although the northern forests are shrinking, there are still huge areas in northern Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos where monks wander freely, living in caves or building simple bamboo khutis, and following the life of one gone forth, exactly as the Buddha Shakyamuni demonstrated in his own life thousands of years ago.
There is a deep wisdom in the Vinaya. When Shariputta asked him why he had made the Vinaya rules, the Buddha replied that the previous Buddha had taught the Dharma but had not recorded the Vinaya, and his Dharma did not endure. It is through the Vinaya that the Dharma endures, and upon this rock all the other traditions stand. There is another consequence of the Vinaya that is even more tangible, tangible in the surprising change of atmosphere when one steps off a plane from the West, Middle East, or India and enters a Buddhist country. Most clearly seen in South East Asia, it is called the Buddha Sasana, the virtuous interaction of monks and laypeople. The Sasana emerges as a direct consequence of the rule of Dana, of generosity, by which a monk seeks sustenance from the general population in alms, and blesses them in return.
This central ritual of giving is simple but profound; its meritorious consequences ripple throughout the society, giving all a chance to participate, and through participation to generate the causes by which they too will hear and practice the Dharma in their turn. It is no accident that there are over 30,000 meditation centres in Burma, or that Thailand turns into a meditation retreat over the summer months, when the monks return to their viharas (monasteries) for the annual rains retreat and to teach. To give opportunities to make merit is a skilful means indeed.
Wangmo and I have learned something of this great tradition through our work for the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation (www.lbdfi.org), which was established in 2002 to rebuild the Buddha Sasana in the land of its origin, the ancient heartland of India. India lost almost all of its great realization lineages when the ancient kingdoms fell in the 14th century. Even so, much remains in the ancient lands where the Buddha walked and taught.
The strategy of the foundation is fourfold:
- To invite monks of good training to the International Tipitaka Chanting Ceremony, an annual chanting festival in Bodhgaya, so that Indian people can see once again the great Mahasangha and witness the respect with which their own religion is held in other countries.
- To beautify and develop facilities in the ancient sites of pilgrimage, which still contain so many traces that directly link back to the time of the Buddha.
- To encourage and support the training of monks.
- To provide teaching and materials to the millions of people in India whose interest in the Dharma is reawakening.
It has been a great blessing that the Theravadin Mahasangha is strongly supportive, seeing the work in India as an important new focus. The conditions in India are highly auspicious, as India emerges once again as a major power on the world stage. And for us it has been a great blessing too, for in working with the tradition, we have been brought into it. Through giving Dana we have received Dharma, and the Sasana has grown in our own lives as well. This is the cultivation of good roots, the roots of merit, and it feels exactly like a process of growing something. Like the millions of seeds falling from the Bodhi tree, it can be infinitely replicated, for it is not owned or understood; it is done. It is a gift the Theras, the Ancient Ones, can offer all of us.
The rebuilding of the Dharma in India is a noble cause, and we pray that many who are blessed by the Buddhadharma will feel inspired to join in this endeavour. Indeed, despite all the problems now manifest in the world, the time we live in has an auspicious quality and connection in this regard. India is coming of age on the world stage, there is new wealth and prosperity. Many of her people are now searching for greater meaning beyond material achievements.
This is an auspicious situation for the growth of the Dharma in society. Now is the time for the great Theravada sangha to come together once again, and to do so in India, and so to bring the great and manifold blessings and power of this tradition to bear fruit in the motherland of the Dharma. Beyond our individual hopes and desires, beyond national associations and identity, beyond affiliations to temple or sect, may we all move to a greater good, a greater project, to support the Dharma itself, to support the great tradition of liberation in its own heartland.
For more information about the Light of Buddhadharma Foundation International, please visit www.lbdfi.org. For information about the annual Tipitaka chanting ceremony, visit www.tipitakachantingcouncil.org.