Reforming religious institutionsIt is strange that people who have renounced the material world acquire assets beyond imagination.
Every event makes us reflect and ponder. Last week, one of Nepal’s leading global Theravada Buddhism thought leader and head of the monk order, Ven Jnanapurnika Mahasthavira passed away. Born in Tansen, Palpa he went to get his Dharmacharya education at the Pali University in Myanmar; as a disciple of Ven Mahasi Sayadaw, he gained popularity beyond Nepal. He was instrumental in reviving Theravada Buddhism in Nepal, a practice that was denounced by the Rana regime that actually expelled Theravada Buddhist monks from Nepal. These monks took refuge in India and preserved the teachings and practice within a small group of practitioners.
With the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, especially under the global brand recognition of the Dalai Lama, Theravada Buddhism now has a new competitor apart from the traditional Vajrayana Buddhism, practised by the Buddhist Newas of the Kathmandu Valley. However, it seems that the challenge for the proliferation of Theravada Buddhism in Nepal has been hampered by institutional issues that perhaps need to be pondered upon.
Attachment or detachment?
I ordained as a temporary monk under Ven Jnanapurnika and did enjoy spending time with him on discussions around the Dhamma. One of the key discussions with Ven Jnanapunika I used to have is on the issue of detachment. I kept wondering how people like him, who left home in the pursuit of knowledge of the Dhamma, leaving behind the material world, worldly life and family, land up building up one of the largest asset bases that they cannot manage over a period of time. At Vishwa Shanti Vihara in Manbhawan when he was stressed with issues relating to the plumbing of the vihara, I posed the question as to why monks who have left the material world land up building so many assets that they cannot manage them? I discussed with him the concept of core competencies. The core competencies of a monk are supposed to be to spread the Dhamma, engage in discourses, and if possible, activities with a social impact. However, they end up spending more than half their time managing real estate, properties and events.
Apart from Vishwa Shanti Vihara, he was instrumental in putting up an international meditation centre at Sankhamul. Two years ago, at the age of 80, he went on to build a retreat near Godavari, and that is when I started to wonder about the Buddhist principle of greed and detachment. Why is it that having enough space, one yearns for more, even when one is very old and under difficult medical conditions? Those were my final arguments with him.
There are many institutions that have been built by other Theravada Buddhist monks, but like businesses or companies in Nepal, they are associated with particular monks. The monks, who have supposedly renounced worldly possessions, have personalised assets that after their death become great battlegrounds for land grabs, at times leading to legal battles among disciples and followers. After the demise of Ven Amritananda and Ven Mahanama, Anandakuti Vihara in Swayambhu, once patronised by the royal family, is in a shambles. The beautiful Srikirti Vihara built in the Thai style in Kirtipur has lost its spark after the demise of Ven Ashwaghosh. We find many other abandoned viharas in different parts of Nepal or many in a shambles. In Lumbini, as competition heats up between different sects and disciples of different monks, many temple structures have been built whose fate is unknown when the monk associated with the vihara passes away. With no succession planning, millions of rupees spent on these assets that could have other productive uses are wasted.
There are a few key issues to ponder for institutional reforms. First, the fundamental question to ask is what is meant by renunciation from the material world. Renunciation in real terms also means not building up unnecessary assets. Second, we need laws on trusts to ensure that the assets are owned by institutions and can be managed well after the demise of the person who initiated the monastery. Institutions have to become person agnostic and have a good system of succession planning. Perhaps lessons can be learnt from the Vajrayana temple system of the Kathmandu Valley that has survived thousands of years through the building of a scheme that ensures community ownership of the responsibility of keeping the asset well maintained, and the intangible heritage preserved.
Third, these institutions have to start thinking about the role of women. These viharas have been male-dominated, but there are many nuns who keep the viharas going in terms of providing support to the system, be it managing the kitchen, housekeeping, medical support and care, and at many times, the management of the entire estate.
Learn from the nuns
On the first day of my ordainment, I remember how during lunch, I, as a day-old novice monk, was asked to stand in the queue ahead of a nun who has been donning the robe for 60 years. This has to be changed. Such changes cannot happen overnight, but reforms are necessary. There are lessons to learn from the nuns who have run institutions well, not only in Nepal, but in big temple complexes in Myanmar. They may be asked to lead the change.
Finally, people who donate in the name of the Dhamma need to question where their money is going. If assets are being built, where will the money come for its maintenance? Is it important to build more monasteries or put money in rehabilitating old ones? Should not money go into building resource centres and centres of education where people can come and learn rather than spending money on unnecessary rituals, especially in a practice that denounces rituals? With healthcare becoming expensive, should not money be set aside in funds so that the monk and nuns will not have to go back to donors to ask for more money for medical treatment?
There is never an appropriate time for reforms; the discourse has to start now, and the discourse should be translated into real action.
What do you think?
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