31 May, 2004

Thervada's Rocky Road to Revival

Nation Weekly, May 31-June 6, 2004

Sushma Joshi

Five years ago, I was walking in Patan when I felt the urge to go into the Kwa Bahal, a Buddhist monastery popularly known as the "Golden Temple". It was a quiet summer afternoon. The temple complex was deserted, but one of the men came out and started talking to me. "Young people," he said, "are no longer interested in the old rituals and traditions anymore. Foreigners are more interested in traditional Newari religion than Nepalis." Then he went on to talk about one such foreigner who had spent a long time learning everything about the guthi at the temple. This man, he said, was named David Gellner, and he had written many books.

David Gellner himself was present to give a lecture at the Social Sciences baha on May 27. Gellner is university lecturer of anthropology at Oxford University, and is currently a visiting professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. His topic, interestingly, refuted the claim of the Golden Temple's priest - there is, he claims, a revival of Buddhism, specifically of a transnational Thervada, in Nepal. Thervada, of course, is not the same as the Vajrayana Buddhism traditionally practiced by Newars, but this new Buddhism on the block draws many Newars into its folds.

There are three kinds of Buddhisms in Nepal - Tibetan, Newar and Thervada. The first two draw from Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, and are heavy on rites, rituals, magic and dieties. The third is a reform movement that was introduced in the Valley only in the 1930s, but has gained prominence since the fifties. Rebelling against the caste heirarchies and divergence from Shakyamuni, this movement tries to bring adherents back to the words of Buddha, and meditation.

Not just Buddhist Newars, he says, but also people from Hindu backgrounds, are increasingly getting interested in this new movement. One Thervada institution in particular - the Vipassana meditation Center in Budanilkantha, which follows the guidance of S.N Goenka, has been especially open to laypeople. Numerous people have come up and told him that Vipassana meditation changed their lives, says Gellner.

The issue of ordination of nuns is a thorny issue within Thervada, he recounts. Women, who were only allowed to be anagarikas but not fullscale ordained nuns, finally rebelled in the late eighties. Drawing on a nuns' ordination tradition from China, the nuns in Nepal started to follow the 267 rules like a male bhikshu. There was, needless to say, an outcry from the men who claimed this sort of initiation rites, drawn from a Mahayana tradition, was not legitimate. But the women overrode these objections by pointing out that the male ordination tradition itself is of foreign origins, and that ordination traditions are common to all sects.

"Nuns," says Gellner, "have been phenomenally successful in Nepal." This, he explains, is because becoming a nun is often a way to autonomy and freedom for women in Nepal. Women escape domestic slavery by entering nunneries. Men, on the other hand, face restrictions when entering monastic life, and feel their lives are more confined. They often have difficulty following all the precepts required to be a fully ordained monk.

While Gellner's talk was thick with reference to mediaval monks and nuns, with whom he seemed to be on easy Oxford terms, his dry British humor was also in evidence as he talked about the underlying politics of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism, he says, has been very successful in marketing itself in Southern California, but has not been as open to Nepalis who are cut out due to the income gap. Foreigners who pay in dollars have access to expensive Mahayana workshops but Nepalis often feel left out of it, he mentions. Now that bit of knowledge, often delicately brushed aside by foreigners pursing the path of the Buddha, must have taken some deep hanging out to figure out.

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