A counterculture – think of the romantics, the bohemians, the beatniks or the hippies – defines itself in opposition to the dominant or mainstream culture in terms of its values and social norms. As if to underscore its role, it often distinguishes itself even in coiffure and apparel. A counterculture holds a mirror up in which the mainstream can see itself for what it is. No one wants to look unsightly, and so the natural response of the dominant culture can be quite harsh; the -nik in beatnik, for instance, was an attempt to associate this peaceful movement absurdly with the much feared Communist menace of its time. But over time many of the counterculture’s values and social norms become mainstream. Since a counterculture is likely to arise in response to something askew in the mainstream, its influence is likely to be corrective.
The monastic Saṅgha represents the universal counterculture that defines itself in opposition to any mainstream culture of any time and place in terms of the ancient radical values and social norms espoused by the Buddha. It even distinguishes itself in coiffure and apparel. The Saṅgha holds the looking-glass up in which the mainstream, the looking-glass world, can see itself for what it is. However, in Buddhist lands, the challenge of this reflection is actually welcomed as a reality check and a wholesome counterweight to the rampant unwholesome influences found in any dominant culture. Rather than eschew, Buddhist cultures appreciate and even support these orthodox radicals in their midst. This is the contract implicit in taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha. As a result, the values and social norms of the Saṅgha have a continual civilizing influence on the dominant culture.
The Saṅgha is both orthodox and radical. It is orthodox in that the Buddhist monastic order is plausibly the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence, still recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice, function, values and social norms after 100 generations. It was there as great empires arose and grew mighty, it was there as those empires collapsed. Its charter, the Vinaya, is the most widely recognized scripture in Buddhism. From India it extended its civilizing reach to Ceylon and Southeast Asia and into Indonesia, into Central Asia where it followed the Silk Road eastward into China and East Asia and westward as far as the Mediterranean. Even as Buddhism has adapted quite freely to new cultures and ideas, its most constant and conservative factor has been the Saṅgha, the fixed point around which the freewheeling folk elements of Buddhism are allowed to revolve. The well-being of the Saṅgha has historically correlated with the well-being of Buddhism. It will be no different in the West.
The Saṅgha is radical in that it lives according to Dharma, which has always been, as the Buddha described it, against the stream. It points to another way of being, recognizing that left is really right and right is left, forward is backward, outside is inside and what is alluring is generally too hot to handle. Monastics are walking science experiments that illustrate something to all that otherwise defies common sense, giant test tubes that allow everyone to see how this renunciation thing outside the looking-glass world is working out. And it does. We are a reality check on the allure of the triple fire of desire, ire and mire. We are Saṃsāra Anonymous, living in the rarefied environment ideal for letting go of our addiction to the soap opera of life. As long as we are practicing and living according to the Vinaya, the Buddha tells us, the world will not lack Awakened ones.