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Buddhist hierarchy?

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  • Buddhist hierarchy?

    Dear brothers,

    I was listening this morning an older Dhammatalk of Ajahn Brahm on power. He kept referring to the Buddha's instruction that there should be no formal leader and thus hierarchy in Buddhism once he's gone, but the Dhamma. Nevertheless, some Tibetan monks of the Mahayana tradition clearly follow Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. Is he only the primus inter pares? What about the Thai monasteries where there are different 'ranks' of monks? Ajahn Brahm often recollects his early monastic days in Thailand when he was "third or fourth monk in line", which always suggests to me that there is some formal order. Is this purely for logistics and organisational purposes? How is that decided? I understand that power is not important, especially in the controlling sense, but I keep getting confused by some of these information that I don't see where they are grounded?

    Many thanks in advance. With metta,


  • #2
    Dear Boris,

    If we followed the Buddha's injunctions properly, there would not be much of a hierarchy in the Sangha. Decisions would be made through the monks or nuns meeting together and then deciding either through unanimity or through majority vote (depending on the issue). The senior monks or nuns would still have leadership positions in guiding the proceedings and in ensuring that all was done within the framework of the Dhamma and Vinaya. But they would not have any dictatorial authority. Nor would there be any abbots.

    That's the ideal. But power seems to abhor a vacuum, and Buddhist history is in part the story of how hierarchies were formed. Early on, the secular powers, such as kings, would sometimes interfere in Sangha matters when e the Sangha did not appear to be able to clean up its own act. (E.g. if parts of the Sangha were seriously corrupt.) Such was the case with emperor Ashoka, who lived around 150 years after the Buddha. But it has been a regular feature of Buddhist history.

    Over time - perhaps starting a few centuries after the Buddha - the position of monastery abbot became prevalent. The Sangha may have felt it was preferable for secular governments not to interfere in Sangha matters and therefore established a hierarchy to deal with issues that affected the Sangha as a whole. It may even be that the secular powers asked the Sangha to form such a hierarchy. In the modern era in Thailand, the Sangha structure is apparently in part modeled on the structure of the Catholic Church. The Thai king King Mongkut, who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century, was a Sangha reformer who, it seems, was impressed with the structure of the Catholic Church. In Thailand today there is a Sangharaja (lit. "King of the Sangha"), a position reminiscent of that of pope. It seems we quite blindly tend towards hierarchies. Perhaps this is just part of human psychology.

    Lastly, the seniority of a monk (that is, whether he is third or fourth ion line, or whatever) is decided by the date of his ordination.

    With metta.


    • #3
      Dear Ajahn Brahmali,

      Thank you for this detailed historical overview that very well clarifies the issue. Rather interesting.

      With metta,




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