Monday, August 3, 2009

How Long Can Caste Last? II

Despite the Buddha's repudiation of caste, less extreme variations of the system exist in most Buddhist countries. For example, the buraku of Japan (see picture) and the yanban of Korea, were originally denigrated because of pre-Buddhist notions of purity and impurity. But the coming of Buddhism did not help them. Rather, it accepted and even reinforced discrimination against them. Look up burakumin on Wikipedia and see what it says about Jodo Shinshu attitudes to Japan's untouchables. The paya kyun of Burma are the descendants of monastery slaves and will still not be given ordination. As for the ragyapa of Tibet, I have found it quite difficult to get much information about this group. For all the books now available on almost every aspect of Tibetan life and religion (The Tibetan Art of Potty Training), this is one subject that remains in the dark. What I do know is that all the Bodhisattva vows taken by all the rimpoches and 'living Buddhas' never did very much to improve the ragyapa's miserable lives. The accompanying picture shows a ragypa’s dwelling in old Lhasa, made partly of the horns of the animals they slaughtered and for which they were allotted the lowest and most degraded rank in the society.
Last time I was in Nepal, I was the guest of a leading Vajradhara family who treated me with almost embarrassing generosity and kindness. But when I asked to visit their temple I was given a dozen hurriedly invented excuses as to why it would not be convenient right now. Of course I knew that Nepalese Buddhists practiced caste, but until them I had no idea that they would not even allow a monk from outside their own community to enter one of their temples. Caste used to be very strong in Sri Lanka but has lost most of its power nowadays, although more due to education and urbanization than to faithfulness to the Buddha’s high ideals.
Paradoxically, the only Sri Lankan institution where caste is still significant is the Sangha. The country's three monastic sects are still divided sharply along caste lines. A monk of the Siam Nikaya will be delighted to ordain a Westerner but he simply will not ordain a Sri Lankan from a non-goyagama caste. Sri Lanka also has its own outcasts, the rodhiyas, who even in the early 1900’s were not allowed to enter the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. I do not know about their status nowadays, but I suspect that they are still marginalized.
Continued tomorrow.

18 comments:

ah-ha said...

This caste ideology or modern day social stratification is about territorial instinct. I read somewhere that monkeys and cocks have pecking order. For humans, it is one's vocation, wealth and social construct that determine one's standing (status) in society. The question is 'how long can caste lasts?' For as long as humans find it beneficial to maintain it. Religion does nothing to change it (going by the Hindu belief). On the contrary, religions indirectly reinforce it despite the ultruistic claim of equality for all mankind. I rather believe in orang utan than god.

David said...

Unfortunately, regardless of the particular faith's expressions of love, tolerance and understanding, there will be many professed followers and adherents for whom such behaviors are foreign. Indeed, often the most ardent believers are those whose behaviors are most at odds with their faith's altruistic verbal expressions.

Remarkably, many cannot perceive or appreciate that contradiction. Just another example, that, very often, the person to whom we lie the most is the person we see in the mirror.

Gulab said...

Dear Bhante,

In view of what you say about the conditioned nature of the caste system, which would seem incontestable, I would like to ask your thoughts on something that has puzzled me. Are there not suggestions in the Tipitaka that the caste system is somehow a fixed characteristic of the Land of the Buddhas (India)? I recall references (perhaps in Digha Nikaya) to the Buddhas of the distant past or future in which the individual's caste is nominated as one his key attributes.

What is the standing of such references and what do you make of such descriptions?

Kind regards,
Gulab

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gulab,
I know of no reference to anything like what you ask about. Interestingly though, one of the arguments the Buddha used against the idea that caste was of divine origin, was that it was not found amongst the Yonas (i.e. the Greeks) and the Kambojas and therefore that it is a regional custom and not a universal accepted truth (M.II,149).

Gulab said...

From palikanon.com:
---
The Mahāpadāna Sutta (D.ii.5f) mentions seven past Buddhas (including Gotama) giving the following particulars of each one under 11 heads (paricchedā) -

the kappa in which he is born,
his social rank (jāti),
his family (gotta),
length of life at that epoch (āyu),
the tree under which he attains Enlightenment (bodhi),
the names of his two chief disciples (sāvakayuga),
the numbers present at the assemblies of arahants held by him (sāvakasannipāta),
the name of his personal attendant (upatthākabhikkhu),
the names of his father and mother and of his birthplace.

The Commentary (DA.ii.422ff) adds to these other particulars -

the names of his son and his wife before his Renunciation,
the conveyance (yāna) in which he leaves the world,
the monastery in which his Gandhakuti was placed,
the amount of money paid for its purchase,
the site of the monastery, and the name of his chief lay patron.
---

And from http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/jeffrey2.htm, in reference to the same sutta.
---
In the beginning of this sutta, the six Buddhas who preceded Gotama are mentioned as well as their names, the eons when they became buddhas (i.e., when they attained enlightenment and taught), their caste, their clan, their life span, the trees where they attained enlightenment, the number of their disciples, their personal attendants, and their parents.
---

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gulab,
The Mahapadana Sutta’s contents is a give-away to its age. Clearly it is saying that every aspect of all Buddha’s lives, actions and achievements are the same and can be known kalpas before they happen – meaning of course that they must be predetermined, rather doubtful ideas indeed. I think it’s fair to say that this sutta is very late and more mythological than Dhammic. However, even if we take it literally, it would only mean that caste is more enduring than most of us think and hope.

yuri said...

Thank you for raising this subject. I thought that Mahayana origin is in the cast relationships, which even the Buddha could not much change in India. In the course of centuries in all buddhist communities leading positions were given to people form brahman caste. And that is why Sanscrit replaced Pali and mystical and philosophical elements were added to the Teaching.
But it is a strong surprise to me that caste divisions exist among buddhists in other Asian countries. Which is sad and needs discussions and actions.

yuri said...

About 40 years ago I worked in New Delhi and read a newspaper report about an American followed by a beggar. It was a short but very dirty lane near Connaught Place. The American spotted a broom and suggested that the beggar swept the lane and would be given 10 rupees. That would be a large sum for a beggar at that time. But the beggar was offended - he proudly said that he belonged to the sub-caste of beggars but not to the lower caste of sweepers, and indignantly went away.

no said...

"...all the Bodhisattva vows taken by all the rimpoches and 'living Buddhas' never did very much to improve the ragyapa's miserable lives."

What the rinpoches and 'living Buddhas' couldn't do, Carl Marx did. Isn't that ironical...

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yuri,
Your story about the beggar is an interesting one. But it is unlikely that he refused to touch the broom ‘proudly’. He probably refused out of a deep, genuine fear. If he had used the broom he would have lost his caste and even his beggar family and friends (if he had any) would have shunned him for life. Even Indian soldiers wounded on WWI battlefields would refuse to take water from their fellow soldiers, medics or officers if they weren’t from the same caste. Most people are probably unaware that when Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi went to London to study law in 1887 he lost his caste by ‘crossing the dark waters’ and could not return to his home and family for another 30 years. Of course millions of Indians ‘cross the dark waters’ today without losing their caste. The ‘cans’ and ‘can’ts’ rules of caste are very flexible but the divisions and the discrimination by upper to the lower castes is as prevalent as it ever was. Of course, I am referring to the Hindu, not the various Buddhist, caste system here.

yuri said...

Thank you very much for your comment on the Story of the Beggar. But that is how it was related by the American tourist to the correspondent. True, the feeling of the broom being "unclean" must have been there. But some arrogance could have been there too. As sweepers are among the lowest subcastes and the beggar could have felt his higher status as well.
I have a question concerning your name. Dhammika is Pali, I believe, but Shravasti is obviously Sanskrit. In Pali it might be Savatti or smth like that. Could you explain it, please? And can one be ordained without changing his original name, I mean the one given by parents?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Yuri,
I first became a monk in the ruins of the ancient monastery of Jeta’s Grove at Savatthi, now pronounced Shravasti by the locals. When I first went to Sri Lanka in 1976 I found that all monks take as their first name, the name of their village. Thinking it strange to call myself Devonport Dhammika (for that is where I was born) I decided to give myself the name of the place where I was ‘born’ as a monk. I would not do this today. I know of no rule saying that you should or should not take a new name when you become a monk. In Asia most monks do and I think its not a bad idea, it can reinforce the idea of a new beginning. However, I note that some Western monks ordained in Thailand call themselves Phra Jeff, Phra, Peter or Phra Moriarty, although I find it strange that they should keep their English name and then preface it with a Thai term. But Phra Yuri sounds okay to me!

yuri said...

Phra Yuri! :))) But if to follow that tradition about birthplace as the first name, I could be named Phra Tokyo Whatever. :) I am Russian and live in Moscow but I really was born in Tokyo and probably an incarnation of a Japanese Zen follower - hence my interest in Buddhism since my childhood :). But for the last 5 years it's been Theravada. And 3 years ago during a week-long retreat in Moscow with Achaan Sumedho, and thanks to his timely advice I reached a very deep level of concentration in meditation which changed me in many ways. And thank you for your site which is very informative, interesting and enjoyable.

Gulab said...

Dear Bhante,

If I understand you right, you are somewhat sceptical or wary about the notion of future prediction of Buddhahood, seeing it as perhaps "mythological." Wouldn't this imply too that the whole business of Bodhisatva-hood is mythological, and therefore the supernatural phenomenon of Buddha-hood itself. Clearly all of us who enjoy strong faith in the Buddha-Dhamma tend to accept many supernatural things without direct evidence, e.g. rebirth, deva lokas, etc. I guess we all need to draw the line between acceptance/scepticism somewhere, but it's hard to define where.

In any case, my impression from casual reading of suttas is that the Buddha did not seem to directly condemn the caste system, or any other aspect of the social order. Rather, he seemed to focus on how individuals should try to fulfill their roles in the prevailing social reality in a more ideal way. For example, he talked about how a king should rule, how a husband and wife should treat each other, how a wife should run her household and treat her servants, etc. He even lectured Brahmins on how they had lost sight of the deeper meaning of their traditions, revealing how the Brahmins of old had pursued their duties with greater purity. In some cases he did criticize certain traditions and practices, for example when he pointed out to a ruler the uselessness of animal sacrifices and the proper way to make a genuinely fruitful offering.

Is the caste system in itself necessarily unnatural and evil? Surely there is a stratification of social roles/classes in any complex society, even a Marxist paradise. The existence of such divisions does not preclude truth, goodness, and happiness. Theoretically, happiness and spiritual growth will always be possible when true Dhamma prevails, regardless of the kind of social order. On the other hand, the most politically correct social order would yield nothing but misery in the absence of Dhamma. The tragic reality of India's caste system may just reflect that it is degenerate. Just as the purest and most sublime spiritual teaching can degenerate into an unjust, convoluted, and polluted system of religion, so the caste system we know today (or even that Buddha saw) may not reflect what it once was.

Just as Buddha seemed to accept the notions of monarchy and republic equally well, he did not seem particularly averse to the caste system per se, limiting himself essentially to correcting the ignorance of the individual. In view of the fact that Buddha clearly saw the whole human world, and all other abodes of existence, as imperfect, unsatisfactory, and impermanent realities that one should ultimately detach oneself from, it makes sense that he did not pay much attention to restructuring the social order.

By the way, if Buddha had had a bent for social reform we might have expected to see him organize and shape the sangha of monks to fit his peculiar vision. Yet, the sangha seems to have formed rather spontaneously, out of necessity,* with few rules and no particular social ideology. As I understand the sangha was based only on the very simplest principles (e.g., seniority takes precedence), with precepts and rules being introduced only as practical need arose.

* If it is accepted that a layman cannot survive as an arahant (another supernatural belief?), then it was an urgent necessity to establish a monastic culture as soon as the first companions of Buddha achieved arahatship.

Just a few thoughts to further this discussion of caste and its place in the phenomena of India and the Buddhas

I'm sorry if I've gone off too far on a tangent. And please forgive any mischaracterizations.

Kind regards,
Gulab

yuri said...

I feel that the issue of caste and its relevance to Buddhists is not so complicated as it might seem. I personally have maybe an over-simplistic understanding but here it is. Castelike divisions have always existed in more or less developed human societies. But nowhere they were so strictly defined and sanctified by religion as in India. For instance, religious and spiritual matters since Vedic times were exclusively in the hands of Brahmins. But by the time the Buddha started his mission certain changes had occurred. Warrior caste entered into this field (e.g. Mahavira) and it wasn't well received by the priests caste. Therefore, the opposition to the early Buddhism was especially strong from brahmins. Therefore the Buddha insisted that the caste was no hinderance to full spiritual development and redefined the very word 'brahmin' as a person who was devoted to spiritual development irrespective of his caste origin. As a spiritual reformer Buddha was very pragmatic and realistic. He did not object to many prevalent views and customs if they were not utterly incompatible with his Teachings. Could he destroy caste system? Definitely not! But he insisted that in matters spiritual there were no caste-restrictions. Could he persuade Indians that all their deities were non-existent? No, again! So he simply redefined their roles and sent them to a separate world of heavenly bliss.
If the Buddha came to our time, we certainly would hear a very different Dhamma — not in essence, of course, but in so many not really important aspects. To guess now what could stay and what could be omitted is too much speculative and subjective. So we should rely on the essence of Buddha's Dhamma. And Loving Kindness (Metta) is of universal quality and transcends all national, caste, social status boundaries. And that should be reflected in Buddhists' attitude to problems of caste-discrimination.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gulab,
Thanks for ‘going off on a tangent’. Although the early idea of a bodhisattva seems to me to be quite acceptable, the fully-fledged bodhisattva concept is for me ‘over the top’ and clearly an attempt by Buddhists to compete with and counter a Hindu revival after the 1st millennium. I’m not sure that ‘all of us’ accept many supernatural things’. Both East and West many Buddhists are able to be devote, committed and serious while being intelligently skeptical and not accepting everything in the Tipitaka and the tradition. When a philologist offers me good evidence that some texts are earlier or later than others I certainly take it into account. So far, no one has offered any convincing evidence that the central doctrines of Buddhism owe anything to the past, that they need to be reassessed or that they need to be radically reinterpreted.
There are numerous places where the B critiques caste. In the Assalayana Sutta he presents a string of arguments against it. When his protagonist refuses to give up his belief the B does not let the issue drop but offers yet another argument and another argument against it (M.II,147 ff).
I also think that, while not ‘precluding’ truth, goodness and happiness, caste certainly hinders them. High caste people tend to become smug, arrogant, develop a sense of entitlement and close themselves off from good and wise people if they happen to be from another caste. Low caste people are excluded from intercourse with often cultured and learned upper caste people. And most of all, the system is and always has been maintained by force, sometimes draconian force. As I’m sure you know, the Laws of Manu (2nd cent BCE-2nd cent CE ?) lay down the most vicious penalties for low caste people if they even hear the sacred scriptures being recited. I was in Motihari in Bihar once when it was discovered that a high caste boy had fallen in love with a low caste girl. The subsequent riot, that went for several days, led to a dozen deaths, scores of low caste shanties being burned and hundreds of low caste people fleeing the district. The natural tendency of humans is to freely mix and interact – caste dramatically limits that.
The B was not a social reformer in the sense that we understand it today – using all means against the abuse, and being against it to the bitter end – but it seems clear to me that he believed that society would be better, and the spiritual life would be open to more people, if caste disappeared. And make no mistake, caste is an evil. Reading the regular reports in the Indian papers about ‘caste atrocities’ (and that’s the right term for them) and you could have no doubt about it. There seems very little evidence that the present caste system is a degeneration of an originally good and pure setup. Reading Manu shows that it was already pretty nasty from a very early period.
The idea that a lay person cannot survive as an arahat is not found in the Tipitaka but first appears in the Milindapanha (1st cent BCE-2nd cent CE ?).
Anyway, Gulab, feel free to go off on a tangent any time.

ah-ha said...

Any form of social discrimination is just plain disgusting. Our capacity to justify any systems for our own benefits and to perpetuate them knows no bound. To lend authority to our disgusting acts we invoke god or divine beings.
Ignorance and submissive behaviours allow caste system to continue and the answer to the question is obvious.

Vinnie Camaro said...

Greetings bhante.

I was trying to find your e-mail here but could not.
So, I decided to use the comments section.
Feel free to delete after reading.

Is it possible to do an article on ordination in the theravada tradition?
What I mean, could you explain the pros and cons of various countries in the region, from Lanka to Cambodia etc from a westerner's point of view?
I am sure it will be very useful for foreigners who want to ordain and stay in this region..
Regards
Rico