Buddhist Leadership

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

Beyond Precepts in Conceptualizing Buddhist Leadership

Phra Nicholas Thanissaro
University of Warwick

Monastic saṅgha members may be seen as monopolizing leadership in traditional forms of Buddhism. The usual Theravādin justification for this is that monastics keep a greater number of precepts than laypeople and therefore provide a higher standard of ethical leadership as well as being symbols of their religion. Such allocation of authority to monks breaks down where the monastic-lay distinction blurs. This paper presents a review of the literature of anthropological and attitude research findings to explore how the demand for alternative modes of leadership, such as charismatic, visionary, servant, facilitative, strategic, or participative leadership or management, has opened up opportunities for lay people to take more prominent roles in Buddhist leadership in Western Buddhism as well as contemporary Asian contexts.

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One thought on “Buddhist Leadership”

  1. Thanks to the author for this very useful line of reflection and the presented sources. It is a very interesting approach and I discovered many fruitful investigations to pursue.

    Just few personal ideas.

    To me, it is a bit surprising that hierarchy and patriarchy are not included in the list of leadership styles. The mention of those types appears only in the context of a Western Buddhist “market” (to capture) : “A situational approach to leadership might expect a filtering out of aspects toxic to the Western consumer such as authoritarian, hierarchical, patriarchal, (…) .”

    I would think, although no specialist at all in leadership, that those factors are more than “aspects” but single out additional styles proper. A quick view at leadership styles in fact shows that there are so many kinds, according to theories. What is the import of my remark on hierarchy and patriarchy? It is because institutions are de facto powerful and pregnant vehicles of leadership. Institutions implement for example hierarchical and patriarchal leadership styles. Those two, but not exclusively, seem even to regulate, historically and presently, many organisations and societies, including Buddhist ones of course.

    I mention patriarchy because should not, according to the line of thought developed in the paper, nuns’ leadership benefit from keeping more precepts?

    331 precepts for nuns in Theravadin Vinaya against 227 for bhikkhus, as mentioned in the paper. The same goes with 348 precepts (against 250) for the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya (for example in China), and 371 (against 253) for the 371 Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya.

    But they do not.

    As for hierarchy, it deserves probably a proper treatment in the presentation of leadership styles. There are in traditional Asian Buddhist spheres a bureaucratic style of leadership, especially in the case of State religions.

    Also, for example, the very pregnant Tulku institution in Tibetan Buddhism is at the cross-road of hierarchical and charismatic leadership. Charisma is to be seen both ways I guess: the charisma of the person, (her aura, presence, qualities, …) and the trust people have for status and related eminence. Often the mere name of the person, attached to institutional distinctions, is enough to draw huge crowds and attract fervent devotion. In fact this is not even peculiar to religions.

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