Will the Real Chief Please Stand Up
by Bhante Aggacitta
Since I became a bhikkhu more than 30 years ago, I have often been asked by local Buddhist devotees as well as foreign bhikkhus whether the “Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore” was indeed the head of the whole Saṅgha in Malaysia and Singapore. Thai bhikkhus were more specific: “Is he the SaṅghaRāja of Malaysia?” they asked, according to their own understanding of the hierarchy of their national Saṅgha organisation, which is headed by a SaṅghaRāja.
Many a time have I had to explain to the laity—Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike—that bhikkhus are not priests, and that Malaysia doesn’t have a national Saṅgha organisation comprising all the bhikkhus from the three main cultural traditions, viz.Burmese, Sri Lankan and Thai. Although there is an officially registered “The Malaysian Siamese Saṅgha Association” for bhikkhus (mostly of Thai descent) ordained in the Thai tradition, there are no equivalents for bhikkhus ordained in the Burmese and Sri Lankan traditions. To make matters even more complicated, there are many denominations within each tradition that operate according to their own socio-cultural protocols and interpretations of the DhammaVinaya. Therefore, there has never been any consensus for a bhikkhu to be appointed or elected the “Head of the Malaysian Saṅgha”, as the title “Chief High Priest of Malaysia and Singapore” would connote.
Nowadays our local Buddhists are a bit more educated in Pāli terminology, so the title “Chief Saṅgha Nāyaka of Malaysia / Singapore” is also being used. This saves me the embarrassment and trouble of having to explain the difference between a bhikkhu and a priest, but still the title carries implications and connotations that can be both misleading and confusing. Frankly speaking, I was not fully aware of the import of such a title or the circumstances under which it was conferred. I certainly knew that it was confined to Sinhalese bhikkhus of the Sri Lankan tradition, but that was all—until very recently, when I received further explanations from reliable sources. Let me share with you this enlightening information based on Bro Tan Ho Soon’s article which was recently published by Nalanda Buddhist Society in its website.
Sri Lankan Monastic Lineages
In Sri Lanka, there are three main Theravādin lineages, namely the majority Siyam-Upali (or Siam-Nikāya), the Rāmañña-Nikāya, and the Amarapura-Nikāya. These refer to the reintroduction of upasampadā (bhikkhu ordination) back to Sri Lanka after a long stretch of general decline in Buddhist fortune during the Portuguese and Dutch periods of domination. Siam-Nikāya refers to the Theravāda lineage re-introduced to Sri Lanka from Thailand; whereas Rāmañña and Amarapura are Theravāda lineages brought over from Burma.
These three lineages are further divided into many ‘chapters’, centred around important or popular monasteries. Under the Siam-Nikāya, there are the bigger Malwatta and Asgiri Chapters based in Kandy, among others. However, there are no doctrinal differences among the three Theravādin Nikāyas in Sri Lanka. They differ only in ordination lineage.
Titles such as “Saṅgha Nāyaka” are often bestowed upon overseas Sinhalese monks to honour their role in propagating Buddhism in distant lands. These titles, no doubt, are in recognition of their individual contribution and services to the BuddhaSāsana outside their motherland, and are understandably a matter of personal and social prestige to Sinhalese Buddhists. However, such titles are purely honorific, much like an honorary doctorate, and carry no extra ‘jurisdiction’ or ‘authority’. They are also not ‘offices’ and cannot be inherited by other monks upon the death of their title-holders.
Very often, several individual Sinhalese monks can be honoured with similar titles of “Saṅgha Nāyaka”, such as in the case of Malaysia, Singapore, the USA, the UK, Canada, etc. It must further be clarified that these titles are only bestowed upon the Sinhalese Saṅgha, and thus communal by nature, and are by no means universally ‘recognised’ by other Theravādins or Buddhists in general.
The late Venerable Kirinde Sri Dhammananda was bestowed such an honorary title by a Sri Lankan monastic chapter back in 1965. He was much respected for his vast knowledge and erudition, loved for his joviality and warmly referred to by many as “Chief“, not so much because of his ‘title’, but because of his affable character and commanding personality. Even when he was alive, there were other senior “Saṅgha Nāyakas” around, such as Venerable Pandit Sri Pemaratana of Penang.
Here are some recent examples in Malaysia:
- Venerable Dhammaratana Nāyaka Mahā Thera, the Chief Monk of Buddhist Mahāvihāra, Kuala Lumpur, was appointed the “Chief Saṅgha Nāyaka of Malaysia” by the Malwatta Chapter of the Siyam Mahānikāya of Sri Lanka on 12th March 2007
- Venerable Saranankara Nāyaka Mahā Thera, the Chief Monk of Sri Lanka Buddhist Temple, Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, was appointed by the above-mentioned authority as the “Adhikaraṇa (Judiciary) Saṅgha Nāyaka of Malaysia” on 29th January 2007
- Venerable Dr Sumana Siri Thera was conferred the title “Chief Saṅgha Nāyaka of Singapore and Malaysia” by the Supreme Council of Amarapura Nikāya on 1st January 2013
So don’t be surprised if, in response to the request: “Will the real Chief please stand up?” all of them stood up, for—going by the titles above—they are all real!
Or are they?
A closer scrutiny may cast some doubt on how real they really are. Let’s begin with the titles “Chief High Priest of Malaysia / Singapore” and “Chief Saṅgha Nāyaka of Malaysia / Singapore”. If both of them are translations based on the Pāli terms Padhāna / Mahā Saṅgha Nāyaka, the first one is certainly way out because the bhikkhus who comprise the Saṅgha are not priests, much less high priests. The word padhāna literally means “chief/foremost”, mahā means “great” and nāyaka means “leader”, so a literal translation would be “Chief / Great Saṅgha Leader”.
However, whether or not the Saṅgha should have an appointed leader or chief is questionable, as we can gather from the following episode which took place shortly after the Buddha’s demise (parinibbāna).
The brahmin Vassakāra who was a Magadhan administrator met Āyasmā Ānanda at a worksite and asked him if the Buddha had appointed even one bhikkhu, saying “He will be your refuge (paṭisaraṇa) after I am gone,” and to whom the bhikkhus now would turn. When Āyasmā Ānanda replied in the negative, he asked if the Saṅgha had agreed upon a similar appointment made by a number of elder bhikkhus (therā). Again Āyasmā Ānanda replied in the negative.
“Without having such a refuge,” he asked, “what then is the cause for concord?”
“Brahmin, we are not without a refuge. We have a refuge, brahmin. The Dhamma is our refuge.”
Pressed by the brahmin for further explanation, Āyasmā Ānanda said, “When we gather on Uposatha Day listening to the recital of the Monastic Code (Pātimokkha), if a bhikkhu’s offence or transgression becomes apparent, we make him act in accordance with the Dhamma, in accordance with what has been instructed. Truly the worthy ones (bhavanto) do not make us act; the Dhamma makes us act.”
“Is there, Master Ānanda, even one bhikkhu whom you now venerate, respect, esteem and honour, on whom you live in dependence, venerating and respecting him?” asked the brahmin, to whom Āyasmā Ānanda answered, “Yes.”
The brahmin was bewildered. “When asked if the Master Gotama had appointed even one bhikkhu to be a refuge after his passing, or if the Saṅgha had agreed on even one appointed by a number of elder bhikkhus, Master Ānanda answered, ‘No.’
But now Master Ānanda says that there is even one bhikkhu on whom the bhikkhus live in dependence, venerating and respecting him. So how is the meaning of what was said to be regarded?”
Āyasmā Ānanda explained, “The bhikkhu whom other bhikkhus now venerate, respect, esteem and honour, on whom they live in dependence, venerating and respecting him, is anyone who possesses the ten qualities inspiring confidence declared by the Buddha, i.e.
1. moral purity according to monastic standards,
2. being learned, well-versed and experienced in the Dhamma,
3. contentment with the four requisites,
4. skill in attaining the four jhānas,
5. psychic powers,
6. divine ear,
7. ability to read others’ minds,
8. recollection of one’s own past lives,
9. divine eye that sees the continual deaths and rebirths of other beings according to their kamma, and
If we go by this very lofty standard, then due to a lack of certainty concerning any bhikkhu’s attainment, it looks as though the Saṅgha these days is like a flock of lost sheep, without any real Chief or Nāyaka to look up to. But that should not be so, for before his final passing away the Buddha expressly declared in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16):
It may be, Ānanda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ānanda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.
So the real Chief or Nāyaka of the Saṅgha, whether in Malaysia, Singapore, or elsewhere, is none other than the DhammaVinaya of our Blessed One, the Buddha Gotama.
And of course, when asked: “Will the real Chief please stand up?” no one should be getting up from his seat, except perhaps someone holding up a hard or digital copy of the DhammaVinaya.