Monks, critical thinking and how Theravada Buddhism would benefit the world

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 6, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand -- The Buddhist Channel catches up with the manager of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU), Dr. Dion Peoples. The following are his views on saddha (faith, or as he prefers - confidence) vs critical thinking, Asian monks' knowledge in general of the Buddha Dhamma and how Theravada Buddhism would benefit the world.

This is the first of a two part interview. Tomorrow, we will publish Dr People's views on support for the ordination of women as Theravada Bhikkhunis.

Thank you Dr. Peoples for agreeing to this interview. To start off, please tell us when and how did you get in touch with Buddhism.

I first came into contact with Buddhism through Chinese Kung Fu movies, when I was a young boy, perhaps around age 7-8 (1980?).  I remember seeing the Shaw Brothers' Kung Fu movies, in particular the ones featuring Shaolin monks.  I remember seeing the Abbot of the Shaolin Temple (in the movie), and reading the subtitles of the movie, and thinking that the wisdom that he was saying was very profound. 

I was attracted to the wisdom-tradition, and always wondered to be a disciple of a wise master.  Years later, and not coming into contact with Buddhism, the Dalai Lama would win the Nobel Peace Prize.  I joined the US Air Force in January of 1992, and when I arrived at my first duty-station in Germany, I would go to the bookshop sometimes to purchase some books.  Since he was so famous, the only Buddhism books in the shop were those by him.  I bought them, and read them, but felt these texts were not genuine Buddhist texts. 

A few years later, the internet became more widely available, and I did research into Buddhism and Buddhist texts, and discovered Theravada Buddhism.  After attending a Diamond Way Buddhist center in Saarbrucken, Germany on a few occasions, I learned that I was not a Vajrayana Buddhist, but a Theravada Buddhist, and dedicated my life then, to the Theravada Buddhist tradition. 

In 1999, or early 2000, I officially converted to Theravada Buddhism - and took the necessary steps to change my identification-card, and dog-tags while in the United States Air Force, while stationed in Germany.   I became a fully-ordained Theravada Buddhist monk, in the Dhammayutika-Nikaya tradition of Thailand, at Wat Patumwanaram in 2002. 

After many deep conversations with my master, who recently died (he had two PhD's from India), we decided that I should disrobe to continue my higher-education in Buddhist Studies.  So after living in a cave, by myself, in a provincial area) for a few months, I disrobed and finish my BA degree in the USA. 

I returned to Thailand in April of 2004, to earn my MA & PhD, with Thai Studies and Buddhist Studies as my higher academic degrees, respectfully.  I have dedicated my life to the pursuit of Buddhist wisdom, since an early age.

Your views on Asian monks in general: about their adherence to the faith (saddha) vs critical thinking.

I don't want to make any racial-stereotypes, and must clarify that I can only speak about either Thai-monks that I have encountered, or those international students from around Southeast Asia that I formerly taught.  So, I have a limited perspective, so whatever I say will not be entirely conclusive. 

"There are monks who possess faith in Buddhism, but are ignorant (of) the texts - and when ... something (is mentioned) about the texts, it challenges their paradigms" - Dr Peoples  >>

I'm around only monks who are either working or studying at the largest Buddhist monastic university in Thailand, and maybe the world: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU).  Many monks, despite their nationality, possess faith in Buddhism, but I think this is dangerous.  I disbelieve in the concept of faith.  I know what it means, but I think faith is akin to ignorance; rather, when translating "saddha", I use the word: confidence. 

When I was alone in my cave-temple in rural Thailand, I did a lot of walking meditation.  Rather than resisting the training I was given from my master back in Bangkok, I decided to embrace his methods, and trained earnestly or diligently in his methods, and I became successful with samatha-samadhi.  Therefore, I possess confidence in the Buddha's training system and his Buddhadhamma because I have experienced the truth of his teachings, as momentary as those moments existed, before fading away. 

I endorse confidence in Buddhism.  I cannot endorse faith.  I know people believe in Buddhism, but if they can confirm - which has practical implications - then faith (ignorance) is transformed, and confidence is gained.   This is one aspect of my teachings. 

As far as critical-thinking is concerned, I have written a few textbooks on this, but need a publisher, to get these ideas out to the greater Buddhist public, beyond just posting the documents on my website. 

Monks have the basic knowledge of the doctrine, but most of the monks have not read the entire Tipitaka: either in their own language, or in Pali (not really necessary, in my opinion), or in English.  They do not possess an all-encompassing view of the Buddhadhamma. 

For instance and for a fact, I've read 100% of what is available in English.  This means I have not read the Nidana or the Yamaka - but there are texts or articles that introduce the contents - nevertheless, I possess all of the available texts, and teach these texts. 

I encounter monks who possess faith in Buddhism, but are ignorant to the texts - and when I mention something about the texts, it challenges their paradigms, and they have complained to the department that I am teaching unfamiliar ideas and may possess the wrong views.

Enough ignorant students have taken up their frustrations, despite my citations, and made their protests clear - so through mutual consent, I no longer teach to students who do not want to learn.  If someone wants to learn Buddhism at a higher level, either for their MA, or PhD, I will willingly become their advisor, but my reputation for advanced thinking and higher expectations is unattractive to the general population of students struggling to get through the academic-curriculum in a language that is not their own. 

Currently, I am not teaching at MCU, despite teaching there for the first seven years of the program.  I challenge their faith, and try to encourage how Buddhism has practical applications - but it must be known, before I continue, that my courses that I taught were: World Religions, Sociology, Ecology, Professional Development, History of Buddhism, Abhidhamma, Selected Texts in Buddhist Scriptures, and Research/Literature in Thai Buddhism - so these classes offered very little in terms of critical thinking.

While lecturing at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University , did you encourage your students to think critically? Any examples? What was their response?

When I was teaching at MCU, and teaching my course on Research/Literature in Thai Buddhism and the class on Selected Topics in Buddhist Scriptures, I had one exercise for the final assignment.  For BA-students, I would pick a random number from the Dhammapada, a different number for each student - and the assignment was to run that verse through the analytical tools provided in the Nettippakaranam.  The Nettippakaranam has the sixteen-haras.  Each hara allows for a different perspective of the Dhammapada verse. 

Therefore, each student would have a different verse, which would not allow for copying assignments.  Each student had to work individually.  For the MA students, I selected a key-term, a famous Buddhist vocabulary term, and they had to scrutinize the term through the sixteen-haras. 

This was my assignment, to encourage the students to think critically.  While the BA students performed it with satisfaction (some better than others), the MA students protested, and proclaimed it was too hard, or different from the pre-existing curriculum that they were expecting to plagiarize. 

My assignments were new or novel, and after teaching that MA course - it was decided that the students were not proficient enough in English to study with me.  I am willing to assist any student willing to learn, but then no students were demanding my supervision! 

I've written two books on Buddhist critical thinking skills, and most recently combined all of this research into a new book that I've entitled: Buddhist Analytical Methodology, but I need a publisher. Inside, I clearly detail the analytical/critical thinking skills that the Buddhist tradition possesses and sanctions.  Buddhists seem more keen to scrutinize something through Western-psychology or Greek-philosophy, and can say nothing beyond the Kalama Sutta for Buddhism, but there is much much more to work with.

What is your current role in IABU? Please share with us some key research which have inspired you.

I am the Manager of the International Association of Buddhist Universities.  Every Buddhist university in the world or every program of Buddhist Studies or a related program is eligible to be a member of our association.

"Our Buddhist tradition is great and should play a greater role in universal affairs."
- Dr Dion Peoples  >>

Currently we have nearly 90 universities in the association, but many are unable to communicate with us, or have personnel who have transferred away from the universities, and our contact has diminished.  We are not legally able to collect membership fees, but do have an account for donations - but donations from universities are basically not forthcoming.  Many universities struggle financially. 

There is no key-research that inspires me, in terms of my duties for the IABU, rather, I am inspired through my love and appreciation for Buddhism, and the confidence that I possess, knowing that our Buddhist tradition is great and should play a greater role in universal affairs. 

If, at all, I am inspired by research which could have inspired me, it would be the work of Karl Marx.  While I was studying Buddhism and Socialism, I came into contact with the writings of the former Prime Minister of Myanmar, U Nu.  U Nu has inspired me greatly, through his utterance: Karl Marx taught only a fraction of a portion of dust, compared to what the Buddha taught. 

This made me reassess Buddhism, after my period as a Marxist, and I discovered that a great textbook for Buddhist Studies is the Sangiti Sutta of the Digha-Nikaya.  My PhD dissertation is on the utilization and application of the Sangiti Sutta.  I've freely contributed my expansion of the Sangiti Sutta to a website, Sutta Central, as well as made it generally available in my first book, published by my university, as Chanting the Sangiti Sutta, which merges my MA thesis on morning and evening monastic chanting, with the Sangiti Sutta for the sake of Buddhist Education. 

Now, with this as the root of my academic-career: Buddhist Education - or how to educate Buddhists to become better and wiser Buddhists, I moved into the realm of teaching Buddhist analytical methodology. 

My peers in Buddhist academia inspire me.  Many of my inspirations write for our annual UNDV conference that I organize through the IABU.  I crave to read and learn the wisdom of my peers. 

You seem to read western philosophy as much as the Suttas. How has this blend help you to understand Buddhism better?

As I just mentioned, I am a student of the writings of Karl Marx, and by extension, the Marxist tradition.  In fact, I left the United States Air Force, because I was a Buddhist-Socialist.  I advocate for Buddhist-Socialism, and am currently working on writing a text on improving Buddhist Socialism. 

I know it is not a popular idea in our capitalistic-globalized society, but my earnestness for compassion in action should not be so categorically rejected by social-antagonists.  I read Marx, yes; but currently I am fascinated by the writings and speeches of Slavoj Zizek. 

I have written a piece on his interpretation of Buddhism, as an attempt to introduce Buddhists to his writings - this piece can be found online.  I know Marxism is unpopular in some circles, so my radicalism has significantly decreased, but I am very much interested in Jurgen Habermas, Derrida, Ricoeur, Haile Selassie I, and basically just anything that I determine that has profound wisdom, deep enough to influence my perspectives. 

Yes, I am careful.  I try to read through Karl Popper, Whitehead, Spinoza, William James, Durkheim, Max Weber, and textbooks on Astronomy, Sociology, Economics, and so forth, but time is limited, and sometimes words just merge into other words, and I have to stop reading.  I read too much. 

Additionally, I read the Noble Qur'an and the Hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad, became aware of the great example of Malcolm X, and follow the lectures of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan (Nation of Islam).  I know Islam to a good degree.  Now, all of this material assists in my understanding of Buddhism, or Theravada Buddhism, because I learn that discipline, or social-discipline is important. 

I learn that people should follow some laws, and that these laws should be sanctioned by society.  I am bearing witness to the race-crimes in the United States, and I know that America is not based on Buddhist principles, but these unjustified-killings are tragic and painful to witness.  Intelligence and compassion is what Buddhism encourages, and if we behave and think better, our lives can improve. 

I think, as a scholar, I have not written my most profound work yet, so I am still struggling to reveal my most profound utterances or magnum-opus - but I do learn what is Buddhist and what is not Buddhist. 

If I read only Buddhism, I would not be able to translate the ideas across genres.  This leads into my career as the Manager of the IABU, and my organization of the annual United Nations Day of Vesak academic-conference, because I am trained in alternative wisdom-systems. 

I believe that my work enrichens Buddhism and Buddhist Studies.  I continue to read and reread the Tipitaka, and continue to find new things that I may have overlooked or did not focus on previously because of the filtering needed to compose an article pertaining to some strategic theme. 

Your thoughts on Thai Buddhism and how it can help enrich Buddhism worldwide.

I've basically lived in Thailand since the beginning of 2002 (leaving in 2003, and returning in April of 2004).  I've been around the monastic-tradition, either as a bhikkhu or as a professor for bhikkhus (and the occasional bhikkhuni).  I am well aware that in the Western World, the monastic tradition is not too popular, but the immigrant communities strive to maintain their foreign traditions within the United States, for example.

"Buddhism is a come-and-see tradition, and this is the beauty of its simplicity and complexity.  It is for mature people who are ready to undertake the precepts and live with morality." - Dr Dion Peoples  >>

In 2003-2004, I attended Wat Buddha-Oregon, in Turner, Oregon (near Salem), so I could be referring to this localized experience.  In the USA, monks are afraid to leave the temple, or because of their cultural restrictions, do not leave the temple.  Buddhism's missionary-attempts fail. 

The come-and-see attitude doesn't work around people who do not know, and often if these converted-houses, performing as a temple, usually cannot handle large crowds.  Buddhism is not something like a mega-church.  Buddhism does not perform in this way, and nor should it perform in this way. 

Buddhism is a come-and-see tradition, and this is the beauty of its simplicity and complexity.  It is for mature people who are ready to undertake the precepts and live with morality.   A problem with Americans is that they are unable to get on their knees and genuinely bow or prostrate before a Buddha-image in all humbleness, as being before the greatest teacher for humanity and our collective civilizations. 

I endorse the full Buddhist Sangha, the fourfold assembly of Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, and the laity (men and women).  A table with three legs is unstable.  Knowing that, but progressing, Thai Buddhists should continue to stress the importance of monasticism. 

Confidently, I proclaim that monasticism will ease global homelessness and poverty.  Some people, if they knew of or are able to come into close-contact with Buddhist monasticism, could alleviate their impoverished condition and do great work for society.  However, many Americans (and Europeans by extension), and Africans (for the lack of resources with the tradition) are unwilling or are ignorant to the benefits of monasticism. 

Sensual over-indulgence and material acquisition is harming global civilization.  In this sense, Buddhism challenges the capitalistic status-quo and serves a revolutionary function in this regard.  Buddhism would be the social utopia that many seek.  In contrast, the might of the government advocates for submission to law, to disarmament, to taking care of self and others - many dictates of our governments are pronouncements similar to Buddhism, but because the governments are improperly motivated, we see this as a violation of our human rights.  We would then have to take up the question of what rights do we genuinely want to express and possess?

Buddhism would genuinely improve our societies, but even within Thailand, rates of alcoholism are high and sexual misconduct pervades - life here in Thailand seems to run against the Buddhist precepts.  To this, I confirm: Buddhism is a renunciation-tradition, a monastic tradition, and it is not for the governance of a free-society.  I formerly taught at a Thai high-school, which neighbored a major brewery, and our own Buddhist university, MCU, also is neighbored by a brewery.

Buddhism advocates for rejecting the intake of intoxicants but the general population ranks highly, globally, for rates of consumption of alcohol.  In one study, Thailand ranked as high as #5 in the world for rates of consumption. 

Buddhists may proclaim to refrain from consuming intoxicants in front of the monk at the temple, but then go home and drink beer or something else with alcohol.  I would like to reclarify the question.  It may not be Thai-Buddhism that would benefit the world, because the Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, Sinhalese, and Bangladeshi-Buddhists have a great tradition as well, but greater respect for the textual tradition of Theravada Buddhism would benefit the world. 

The Dhamma has great teachings, the Jatakas have nice stories, the Abhidhamma has great psychology, and the Vinaya has great social-regulations. 

Our governments could rewrite laws and constitutions, and implement some basic ideas, as we move our civilizations forward through the crises that we are facing - but globally, too many people are attached to their traditions, which were once fine, but are growing more and more obsolete.

Dr. Dion Peoples is the Manager of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, and the General Editor and Conference Organizer for the United Nations Day of Vesak Academic Conference, since 2007.  He additionally serves as an advisor for the Alliance for Bhikkhunis' magazine, Present.  He is also an academic-advisor (curriculum designer) for the Hispanic Institute for Buddhist Studies (IEBH), and for Buddhist Studies programs for ASEAN.  He has written books on the Sangiti Sutta, and on Buddhist Critical Thinking Skills.  He has been working with Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University since 2007.  His collection of writings, Buddhist and others, can be found online, on his website-page.  He also publishes the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (JIABU), and the Santisuksa Journal for Peace Studies, through MCU's Peace Studies Program.  He can be freely contacted on his Facebook page, or the Facebook page for the IABU Secretariat. 

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