Just as the Sri Lankan government has recently reviewed the whole system of secular education in this country with the aim of reforming educational policy, a similar reformation will have to be introduced right at the heart of the Sangha. If one compares the system of instruction in the Buddhist monasteries with the curriculum of the Christian seminaries, the disparity is striking. In the seminaries the future priests and nuns are trained, not only in Latin, theology, and scripture, but in all the fields of modern knowledge they will need to play a leading role in today’s world, including the critical and comparative study of religion.
In the pirivenas or Buddhist monastic schools, so far as I can see, the young monks (never nuns!) are trained to become village priests capable of preserving a religious culture not very different from that of the sixteenth century.
One can see the bizarre result when a monk educated in the pirivena system has to give a sermon to an audience that might include an astrophysicist, a psychiatrist, several computer analysts, and even some lay Buddhist scholars trained in the methods of critical scholarship. Is it any wonder that the listeners pass the time glancing idly at the ceiling or casting weary smiles at each other?
In what follows I will merely throw out a few random suggestions. A systematic programme would have to be worked out by those more directly involved in Sangha administration and the training of monks and nuns. I will speak about monks rather than nuns, since I am more familiar with their lifestyles and training. But corresponding changes should also be considered for the nuns, whose status, education, and functions require drastic upgrading if Buddhism is to present a respectable face to a world moving rapidly towards complete gender equality.
For the monks, radical change might be needed at the very beginning, in the system of recruitment. The method of recruitment that currently prevails in the Sangha is the induction of young boys who are far from mature enough to make their own decisions. Often they are “offered” to the Sangha by their parents, as a way for the parents to earn merit. If the parents would sacrifice a youth who seems temperamentally inclined to the religious life, the ultimate effect such a system has on the Sasana might be a positive one.
Indeed, in the past it was usually “the best and the brightest” who would be given to ‘ the monastery. Today, however, the child selected is too often the one who appears unlikely to succeed in worldly life: the mischief maker, the maverick, the dullard.
I am aware that this system of childhood ordination is deeply entrenched in Sri Lankan Buddhist culture, and I would not propose abolishing it. Despite its faults, the system does have its positive points.
For one thing, it enables the youngster to enter the path of renunciation before he has been exposed to the temptations of worldly life; thus from an early age it helps promote the inner purity and detachment needed to withstand the rigours of the monastic training. Another advantage is that it gives the young monk the opportunity to study the Dhamma and the textual languages (Pali and Sanskrit) while the mind is as yet fresh, open, receptive, and retentive. Thereby, it conduces to the wide erudition which is one of the traditional hallmarks of the cultured monk.
However, while I would not go so far as to suggest abolishing adolescent recruitment, I do think the Sangha could vastly improve its ranks by imposing more stringent criteria for admission. One measure that might be adopted at once is a longer probationary period before granting the novice ordination.
For example, it might be made mandatory for boys intent on being ordained to live at training centres as lay postulants for a minimum of two or three years before they are considered eligible for novice ordination. This would give the Sangha elders an opportunity to observe them more closely, in a wide variety of situations, and to screen out those who seem unsuitable for the monk’s life.
If this is not practicable, then some other selective procedure might be applied. Whatever method is chosen, the standards of selection should be fairly rigorous—though not inhumane—and the elders should not hesitate to turn away unfit applicants. For one thing has become too painfully obvious to all concerned Buddhists alike, and also to non-Buddhists (both residents of Sri Lanka and foreigners) who judge the Dhamma by the conduct of its followers: far too many youngsters are being draped in saffron robes who do not deserve to wear them. Such misfits only sully the good name of the Sangha and of Buddhism itself.
More rigorous screening of candidates for ordination is, however, only a preliminary measure aimed at sealing off the Sangha from those unsuited for the monkhood. What is equally essential is to offer those who do get ordained training programmes that will promote their wholesome, balanced development. This is truly a critical step, for if youngsters with the potential for the monk’s life fail to receive proper training they won’t find fulfilment in the monastery, and if they don’t find fulfilment their future as monks will be in jeopardy. They will either become disillusioned with the Sangha and return to lay life; or else, from fear of the social stigma attached to disrobing, they may continue as monks in a perpetual state of frustration and discontent. This may explain why we see so many younger monks today involved in politics, business, and other activities unworthy of their calling.
What is necessary above all is for the young monk to find meaning and happiness in his chosen path of life, a path that does not offer the immediate satisfactions available to his comrades who remain behind in the world.
If so few monks today seem to show a real joy in the Dhamma, I suspect this is because the Dhamma is not being presented to them in a way that inspires joy.
For the Dhamma to exercise a magnetic power that will draw the young monk ever deeper towards the heart of the holy life, it must address their needs and aspirations at a deep interior level. This means it has to be offered to them in a way that arouses an immediate, sincere, and spontaneous response.