Tricycle: How do you account for Buddhist monasticism, at least as you experienced it, as having evolved in such a uninspiring way?
Sangharakshita: Initially, the Buddha’s teachings had to be preserved through memorization and oral repetition. That was more easily accomplished by full-timers. So the monks inevitably gained a sort of monopoly. The original Buddhism was a sort of forest tradition, or freelance monasticism. “Settled monasticism” was a much later development. It was the settled monastics who evolved the formalized Vinaya [monastic code] and sharpened the distinction between themselves and the layperson, on the one hand, and the forest renunciate, on the other. In fact, they almost swallowed up the forest tradition. The settled monastics of the Theravada countries, and even in some Mahayana countries, became part of an establishment. The Buddha himself was very critical of many aspects of the establishment of his time. His forest renunciates belonged to a wandering tradition that was non-establishment, even anti-establishment. That is part of my critique of much contemporary Buddhist monasticism: though the monks may be very worthy and revered, punctiliously observing all sort of rules, they’re really just part of the establishment of that particular country. In many cases they’ve lost the fire and inspiration that a monk should have. A necessary component of monasticism must be its critical edge, perhaps even a conscious anti-establishment stance. What I call “freelance monasticism” applies to all Buddhists who have this sort of critical edge. This is all the more so with the monastic who, due to his celibacy and not having a formal career, separates himself much more from the establishment and the existing society.
Tricycle: You’ve often spoken in your writing about the need to create a “new society.” In that new society, would the authentic monastic be anti-establishment?
Sangharakshita: lf there really were a new society, you wouldn’t need that anti-establishment element. Even though we aim to create a new society, there will always be a tendency for the new society to become another version of the old society. Therefore in our spiritual life we must keep up a constant self-criticism. During the Order and Chapter meetings in the FWBO we have confession and mutual giving of critical feedback precisely to keep one another up to scratch.
[Editor’s post-script: The back story on his life is, as I learned from a FWBO friend, that Sangharakshita was gay. Perhaps that partly explains his choice to avoid the monasteries and live as a forest renunciate. Though the monasteries were all men, a gay man would not feel welcome around primarily heterosexual men. It also could have prompted his anti-establishment views.]