Is the ‘Stick Referendum’ against Buddhist and democratic principles?

When a society comes together and makes decisions in harmony, when it respects its most noble traditions, cares for its most vulnerable members, treats its forests and lands with respect, then it will prosper and not decline… – Mahaparinirvana sutra

Buddhist monk Khedrup researched the claim of the New Kadampa Tradition the ‘Stick’ referendum would be against Buddhist and democratic principles.

Here are the results of his investigation and his thoughts.

Resolution by Majority

The NKT has claimed that the “Stick” referendum was against Buddhist and democratic principles. I decided to research this topic and consulted several books as well as the abbot where I reside, a Sri Lankan scholar monk of some 30 years.

Here is what I found: Tibetan English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology, Revised Edition

Please excuse the phonetics as I only know how to read Tibetan script, not the phonetic system. So I translate the script the way it sounds.

Kang Mang Gi Shi Wa
Resolution by Majority: One of the seven ways of pacifying quarrels and arguments within the Sangha community according to Vinaya rules. If any dispute cannot be resolved through the eight appellate procedures, it is then decided by throwing tooth sticks, and whichever side gets the majority is considered the winner.

There are also several Theravada sources on similar procedures, so it is not a Tibetan invention. It can be found in the Vinaya Pitaka under Sattadhikarana samatha. Also it can be found in the Agahatapatiminaya in the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon.

When I spoke with the senior abbot from Sri Lanka here he confirmed according to Vinaya, a stick referendum would be considered proper and democratic procedure.

I guess the NKT people don’t understand traditional Buddhist procedures properly.

Monastic Community and Western Society

Keep in mind a monastic community is not the same as a country. For example, in a country people dwell seperately and go about their own jobs, raise their own families etc. In monastic communities everyone must live together in close quarters, practice together, seek alms together, share requisites etc. This is the very reason why Westerners don’t fare so well in traditional monastic communities.

Because of the lack of privacy, close quarters and the impossibility of avoiding interaction, it is almost impossible for people to have anonymous opinions about this issue. Having lived at Sera for some time, I can tell you that everyone knows everybody else, and the Shugden contingent was very outspoken and very visible.

If we look in Buddhist history there are many precedents for the way this dispute is being handled. In the Theravada countries, when there were disputes as to how closely to follow the Vinaya, the methods for resolving disputes were used. When consensus could not be reached, a vote was held. The two parties usually went their separate ways, and that is why we see so many various “Nikaya” or monastic sublineages, in the Theravada world. Doctrinally there is very little difference, but in terms of how to follow the Vinaya rules there are some differences. Thailand and Cambodia have 2 Nikayas, in Sri Lanka there are 3 and I believe Burma may have as many as 4.

In terms of using this method for doctrinal disputes, we can look to the ancient Buddhist council where the Mahayana and Theravada monks went their seperate ways. In the end, I think this was so beneficial. Both of these systems were able to evolve seperately but peacefully, and because of that we have beautiful and tremendous variety in Buddhism. We Westerners can benefit by having access to so many unique and different teachings!

As a student at Sera Mey who was forced by the pro-Shugden Khangtsen Gen to attend Pujas after which the short Shugden prayer was recited (we were disciplined or fined for not attending) I can tell you that this issue was forced into a vote. Those of us loyal to the Dalai Lama, his samaya students, at first just sat silently during the prayer. Then the house Gen and his disciplinarian printed it and started putting it in the laps of those of us who didn’t recite. We still remained silent. But the situation was tense and uncomfortable.

While sad, I think this seperation into the two seperate monasteries is the best solution. The Shugden monks are WELL funded. Trijiang Rinpochey has a wealthy sponsor in Vermont, Gangchen Tulku has many sponsors (including several officials in the PRC Tibetan region), and Gonsar Tulku in Switzerland is one of the best funded Tibetan lamas on the planet. They have the money to establish and support monasterie, especially considering we are only talking about 200 or 300 monks here, instead of the 5,000 at Sera for example.

For those interested in researching Vinaya procedure:

Hope this information is useful.

These two posts were originally posted on New Kadampa Survivors’ Forum, Aug 2008.