On Self-Ordination, taking the title Sotapanna (Stream Winner), beginning a new Vehicle of Buddhism and Using the Buddha's terminology for hierarchy within that new vehicle
By Arahatta Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
First posted 09-09-04, updated 09-01-05
During the spring of 2004 I found myself free of parenting responsibilities for the first time in 25 years. The photo books of my two children that began with births had been completed with pictures of graduations and beyond, and now the children have grown up and are creating their own memories and photo books. With that freedom I wanted to dedicate every moment of the remainder of this very lifetime to, not only following the Noble Eightfold Path, but teaching it as well. So, I sought a preceptor.
In preparation for ordination during the three preceding years I scoured the web in search of a preceptor who was clearly knowledgeable on the meditative absorption states (Jhanas), This criteria seemed only appropriate since through my 3 decades of lay contemplative life I had mastered the jhanas. I reasoned, why would I take a preceptor who was not even jhana friendly let alone ignorant of jhana, as I have found most Theravadan monks and priests are? I certainly would not take ordination where my attainments were not respected.
In my research I found only about six Theravadan abbots qualified to ordain people who are also apparently familiar with jhana. I approached each preceptor and each one turned me down. I also investigated the teachings of each of these preceptors and found their knowledge of jhana was purely intellectual, and thus irrelevant to my trajectory.
With determining that no one within Theravadan Buddhism was qualified to ordain me, I looked elsewhere. I approached ordained priests in Zen and Vajrayana, and I even endeavored to articulate myself within their liturgy and language. However, in attempting to find a language of gnosis within those religions that reflected my experience I found Zen outright rejected the meditative absorption states as "makyo" which means the "devil's cave." So, Zen was clearly out of the running. When I explored Vajrayana through Tibetan Buddhism, I found instead of demonizing the meditative absorption states and other fruits of the contemplative life (phala), they had turned them into the stuff of super-heros and thus unattainable by us mere mortals.
Finally, since I found all three vehicles of Buddhism rejected the meditative absorption states (jhanas) and other fruits (phala) of the contemplative life for various reasons it seemed inappropriate for me to ordain in any of these traditions of Buddhism, thus I concluded with no preceptor knowledgeable in the meditative absorption states (jhanas) and other fruits (phala) of the contemplative life, and no tradition of Buddhism supportive of the meditative absorption states (jhanas), then I must start my own tradition of Buddhism.
This new vehicle of Buddhism was to be re-dedicated to the meditative absorption states (jhanas) and other fruits (phala) of the contemplative life from its very inception, as was the Buddha's original sangha. Thus I started my own order of Buddhism, the Great Western Vehicle, which is a Western Vehicle of Buddhism. I ordained myself and gave myself the title of Sotapanna (Stream Winner), because I, at the very least, clearly qualify for that determination, and future monastics within the Great Western Vehicle deserve a preceptor who is qualified to ordain them.
I also chose the name Jhanananda because it clearly describes what I am about, which is "one who has found the bliss of the meditative absorption states (jhanas)." And, interestingly enough I have not heard of that name being used in any of the Buddhist traditions or literature that I have studied, thus it seemed like a most appropriate name for the leader of a movement for the revivification of Buddhism.
To justify my use of the term Sotapanna (stream winner) I researched the Buddha's discourses and I found he used specific terminology for classifying his monks, It might be worth pointing out that no Buddhist tradition has used the Buddha's terminology for classifying its monks, since the Second Great Council (380 BCE). This is yet another reason why the Great Western Vehicle has begun using the Buddha's terminology in designating its monastics.
The Buddha's terminology for classifying his monks was based solely upon the criteria of attainment. Since attainment was rejected during the proceedings of the Second Great Council (380 BCE) it appears that this is the origin of the rejection of attainment by the Buddhist monastic community. It is thus part of the revivification of Buddhism to once again acknowledge attainments as the central determinant of hierarchy within the sangha.
In the case of the lowest designation of attainment within the Buddha's classifications he determined if one simply followed the Noble Eightfold Path diligently and with determination to become enlightened, then one would become enlightened in no more than 7 rebirths and possibly as early as 7 years of practice (MN 22). This is the very definition of Sotapanna (stream winner), please see below:
Sotapanna (stream winner) is the "lowest of the eight noble disciples (s. ariya-puggala). Three kinds are to be distinguished: the one 'with 7 rebirths at the utmost' (sattakkhattu-parama), the one 'passing from one Noble Family to another' (kolankola), the one "germinating only once more' (eka-biji). As it is said (e.g. Pug. 37-39; A III 87)
Nyanatiloka "The Buddhist Dictionary"1) "If a man after the disappearance of the three fetters (personality belief, skeptical doubt, attachment to rules and rituals; s. samyojana) has entered the stream (to nibbana), (s/he) is no more subject to rebirth in lower worlds, is firmly established, destined to full enlightenment. After having passed amongst heavenly and human beings only seven times more through the round of rebirth, he puts an end to suffering. Such a (person) is called 'One with 7 Births at the Utmost' (sattakkhattu-parama).2) "If a man after the disappearance of the 3 fetters...is destined to full enlightenment, he after having passed among noble families two or three times through the round of births, puts an end to suffering. Such a (person) is called "One passing from one Noble Family to another' (kolankola).3) "If a (person) after the disappearance of the 3 fetters...is destined to full enlightenment (s/he) after having only once more returned to human existence, puts an end to suffering. Such a (person) is called 'One Germinating only once more' (eka-biji).--See Sotapatti-Samyutta (S.LV).
Thus after reading the Digha, Majjhima and Samyutta Nikayas, I concluded that since I have diligently endeavored to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and the 5 precepts for the last 3 decades; and I have been observing the 8 precepts for the last 4 years, and I have given rise to and sustained jhana for almost the entire 3 decades of my practice, then it seemed reasonable to determine that I am at the very least a Stream Winner (Sotapanna).
These days lineage seems rather important to many traditions of Buddhism, however, considering no tradition of Buddhism recognizes, understands or honors the attainment (phala) of meditative absorption, then we can assume the lineages of Buddhism cannot be based upon attainment (phala).
Requiring lineage makes it rather difficult for the contemplative with many years of solo practice, and considerable attainment, but with no living teacher, or a teacher with any lineage. All of this contemplative's key dhamma teachers are now dead, and none of them came from any recognized lineage. They also did not leave any designated dhamma heir. Thus this contemplative was left with having to establish his authority and empowerment to teach within a power vacuum.
As stated earlier the determination of hierarchy within the sangha was originally established by Sidharta Gotama to be based upon attainment (phala). Thus using a hypothetical argument, a 21 year old, who has become established in the 8 jhanas would have seniority over a 75 year old Bhikkhu with 50 years in the order and a PhD in philosophy from a western university. We can extend this argument even further to include a mother of three, who has attained any level of jhana, has superior status to a 70 or 80 year old monk with 50 or 60 years of seniority who has no jhana. This may explain why attainment (phala) was rejected as a determinant for status within the Buddhist sangha.
I believe birth was another means of determining an individual's "rank" within the sangha. Birth, as used as a ranking form in the early sangha, was not about who one's parents were, or what caste one was from, but whether one had attainments (phala) in previous lifetimes, which then was considered superior again to one who had attainments (phala) only in this lifetime, even though he or she maybe an elderly monk or nun with many rains retreats.
In conclusion even though I am a self ordained monk, with only two rains retreats accumulated in this lifetime, I have recalled many, many lifetimes where I engaged in intense contemplative practice that had given rise to attainments (phala), and in this lifetime I have also engaged in an intense contemplative practice regimen that has given rise to attainment. Thus, according to the dhamma, I have superior ranking to any elderly monastic who has not given rise to attainments, regardless of his or her age, length in the monastic order, number of accumulated rains retreats, or honors and status attributed to him by his order.
For a contemplative tradition that is intent upon supporting individuals all of the way to enlightenment (nibbana), it seems only right that birth and attainment be recognized as superior to duration in the order. Because only one who has attainment can understand the journey well enough to properly articulate it. A scholar, priest or monk with no attainment can never understand the path to enlightenment.
I understand in Asia that everyone bows to anyone. I believe it is in part acknowledging that one never knows who has superior attainment, and thus anyone can become enlightened, even a 19 year old mother of three. It might be worth pointing out that taking this hypothetical example of a monastic of 50 or 60 years who is unable to recognize the attainments of someone, such as this hypothetical 19 year old mother of three with jhana, then this monastic disqualifies him or herself as a Dhammaacariya (teacher of the Dhamma), due to his or her inability to recognize attainment in the individual in question.
With respect to this contemplative's qualifications to teach the dhamma (Dhammaacariya), In addition to attainment and birth being valid qualifications for being a dhamma teacher, which are arguably subjective, I most often support my arguments with relevant canonical references, have edited 19 suttas correcting numerous errors in their translation by otherwise highly respected Dhammaacariyas, and have written and posted to the web hundreds of articles on the dhamma, therefore it seems reasonable to argue that this contemplative is very much a teacher of the dhamma (Dhammaacariya) and a high ranking member of the community of Buddhist contemplatives (sangha).
I have posted several lengthy and detailed letters directly to numerous lay and monastic dhamma teachers and dhamma centers regarding my subjective experiences and attainments. I have followed the four suttas detailing the practice of Sati to the successful attainment of meditative absorption (samma-samadhi). And, I believe the record of the Buddha, as it is revealed in the Pali canon, shows he rejected the teachings and teachers of his time as corrupt. He claimed he had attained jhana and nibbana and he sought empowerment through empowering others, and he was self ordained, as was Jesus of Nazareth, Bodhidharma and al Hallaj, just to mention a few. Thus there are ample precedence and reasons for self-ordination, using the Buddha's designation for status within the sangha, for establishing a new vehicle of Buddhism and taking the name Jhanananda.
The proceedings of my ordination on 09-04-04 are as follows:
At the end of the day I felt complete with being in the Owens River Valley, so I drove south on 395 to Big Pine, then east on 168 into the White Mountains to take my ordination a day earlier than planned among the oldest known creatures on earth, the Bristlecone Pines. I arrived at the campground well after dark around 8:30 PM. Since it was Labor Day weekend, I found the campground nearly full. But I was able to find a fairly isolated site among junipers and limber pines. I unloaded my meditation and sleeping gear and meditated and slept under the stars for the night.
I got up before dawn to meditate until sunrise, then I packed my gear in to the van and headed up the forest service road to Schulman Grove, where a grove of these ancient trees are. I arrived before the rangers, but the gate was open, so I rapped my rag cloak around this body, because at 9,500 feet of elevation it was very cold early in the morning. I hiked the Methuselah trail.
Here in Schulman Grove, instead of finding half dozen 500 to 1,000 year old trees, I found a whole grove of trees in excess of 4,000 years in age. Here a dead Bristlecone Pine can remain standing for up to 6,000 years and the oldest dead wood lying on the ground has been dated to 8,700 years. These trees are not only remarkable in their age, but their appearance is remarkable as well.
The Bristle Cone pines are very gnarled and bent and twisted from the ages. The ancient trees here all have the classic characteristics of antiquity among trees, they have thick, carrot-like trunks, thick downward facing lower limbs, confused crowns and thick exposed roots that were almost as large around as the tree's trunk. These trees actually outlive their topsoil, which appears to be the cause of their death.
In the presence of trees that are almost twice as old as Buddhism I took my solo and silent vows of ordination: to live every moment in service of the enlightened ones (Buddhas); to be a living example of the ethics, philosophy and practice strategy that leads to enlightenment (Dhamma); and to support and work toward building a community of sincere seekers, as well as those who have attained, enlightenment (Sangha). These are the four characteristics of stream-entry that the Buddha described in his "Mirror of the Way" (Dhamma-dasa) exposition in the Sotapattisamyutta (SN XI, 55, 8 The Brick Hall, Samyutta Nikaya, page 1800)
I also pondered the nature of a universal religion, because I believe Sidharta Gotama was interested in creating a universal religion out of what has come to be called Hinduism. It seems to me that he took the Vedic traditions of Hinduism and stripped them of their culturally distinct identity, to form what we know of today as Buddhism. In the same way I believe Jesus of Nazareth took the culturally distinct religion of the Hebrew-speaking peoples and stripped it of its culturally distinct material to produce a religion that could be exported around the Mediterranean. And, I believe, Mohamed 600 hundred years later did the same thing when he invented Islam from a synthesis of Judaism and Christianity.
So, during my ordination I looked at the 3 vehicles of Buddhism and saw culturally distinct religions that were formed to serve various Asian communities that have embraced a number of values and concepts that show no clear indication as to having come from their progenitor, Sidharta Gotama. Therefore, in search of a Buddhism that will appeal to the Western people I want to strip away the culturally distinct material that accreted upon Buddhism as it moved about Asia, and work to construct a Buddhism that will work for the Western peoples.
So, if we of the Great Western Vehicle work to build a Buddhism for the Western peoples, then we must ask ourselves a few questions. What is it that is central to Buddhism? What is it that is culturally determined and can thus be thrown out of Buddhism and still have an authentic contemplative tradition? What constitutes a universal religion?
When Mohamed designed Islam he intended to construct a universal religion from the beginning. He intended to build in some of the concepts of Christianity and Judaism, while bringing forth other ideas that he thought were important. In Islam, the people of Christianity and Judaism were respected and allowed to observe their religious beliefs, as they were seen as people of the "Book," (the Bible). However, his concept of a universal religion only took into account the Abrahamic model. Cultures that practiced from a different tradition, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, were at a great disadvantage under Islamic rule.
What is central to Islam is to submit to God (Allah). In fact Islam means to submit. I have often reflected upon the idea of submission in Islam and I find it not unlike the concept of giving up to God that is summed up in the Christian concept of "thy will be done."
Buddhism also has a similar concept, which they call "refuge." In refuge Buddhists take consolation in the idea that enlightenment is possible, which is represented by the Buddha. And, they take refuge in knowing that there is a distinct practice path that leads to enlightenment, which is articulated in the dhamma. And, finally Buddhists take refuge in the community, or sangha, of people who seek enlightenment. Therefore, refuge, is not unlike the surrender of Christianity or the submission of Islam, it is all a giving up to the process of transformation which is central to the contemplative life.
So, as I pondered giving birth to a 4th wheel of Buddhism in the Great Western Vehicle, I thought a truly universal religion would have to be able to submit itself before the culture, language and religion of all peoples, not demand that people submit to it. It is not that all people must submit themselves to the dictates of a foreign religion, but that religion must be willing to submerge itself underneath what people find most comforting about their respective cultures, which is their language and their religion.
If Islam wanted to be a truly universal religion then it would not assume everyone had to learn Arabic to understand that religion. In the same way, if Buddhism wants to appeal to the Western people, then it must work at finding better translations that work harder at understanding the languages of the West, which means native speakers of those languages must be the central speakers of Buddhism, not Tibetans, or Japanese, or Sinhalese natives who speak through interpreters. And the Buddhism that will work for the western people will be one that will not demand that people relinquish their religion of origin.
A Buddhism that truly wants to be a universal religion must be able to exist underneath the three Abrahamic religions. That means for a Western Buddhist vehicle to succeed it must relinquish its atheism and learn to coexist under a monotheistic model. This means the Great Western Vehicle, if it wants to succeed in the West, must strip itself of the cultural trappings of Asia and become simply a philosophy and practice strategy that anyone can observe within any cultural or religious context.
So, while walking through this grove of ancient trees I considered a religion that was resilient enough to survive for thousands of years, like these trees, by submitting itself beneath the culture of any and all peoples. And, while Bodgaya is the central pilgrimage site for Buddhists, which is based upon a descendent of a tree that Sidharta Gotama sat under 2,600 years ago, I thought of this place, the Bristlecone Pine Forest being a worthy Western pilgrimage site for the Great Western Vehicle, because among these ancient trees we could certainly contemplate the impermanence of self, culture and religion, because these trees are older than human history and religion.
May you become enlightened in this very lifetime