The Public Face of Buddhism

October 25, 2007

Author: John C. Holt

Source: Martin Marty Center

When most of us in North America think about Buddhist monks, the image we are likely to conjure is one of ochre-robed contemplatives engaged in the quietude of meditation. But in fact, there has been a debate within the Buddhist sangha (monastic community) over the past two millennia regarding the question of how the Buddhist monastic vocation might best be realized. This debate has been especially apparent in the Theravada tradition that has been dominant in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. On the one hand, vipassanadhura monks epitomize the Buddhist monastic ideal as a quest for enlightenment or nirvana through the reclusive practice of meditation, usually within remote forest hermitages. These are the monks who seem to have most captured the Western imagination. On the other hand, granthadhura monks, inspired by the Buddha's summons to "wander for the welfare of the many" in order to assuage the existential condition of dukkha ("unsatisfactoriness," "suffering") in this world of samsara, are far more likely to be encountered within the context of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist societies. These monks, involved as they are in a variety of social issues and activities within their communities, are the public face of Buddhism.