Intermediate Section on Virtue
Continuing from the previous discourse, Buddha outlined the following abstinence as being virtuous for his monks. This is especially applicable for people whose livelihood is derived from receiving donations from the faithful.
- he abstains from damaging seed and plant life (for example, plants propagated from roots, stems, joints, buddings, and seeds ) By extension, gardening and landscaping should be included.
- abstains from consuming stored-up goods (for example, stored-up food, stored-up drinks, stored-up clothing, stored-up vehicles, stored-up bedding, stored-up scents, and stored-up meat)
- he abstains from watching shows (for example, dancing, singing, instrumental music, plays, ballad recitations, hand-clapping, cymbals and drums, magic lantern scenes, acrobatic and conjuring tricks, elephant fights, horse fights, buffalo fights, bull fights, goat fights, ram fights, cock fights, quail fights; fighting with staves, boxing, wrestling, war-games, roll calls, battle arrays, and regimental reviews) By extension, soccer matches, sports events, movies, and etc.
- he abstains from heedless and idle games (for example, eight-row chess, ten-row chess, chess in the air, hopscotch, spillikins, dice, stick games, hand-pictures, ball-games, blowing through toy pipes, playing with toy plows, turning somersaults, playing with toy windmills, toy measures, toy chariots, toy bows, guessing letters drawn in the air, guessing thoughts, mimicking deformities) By extension, any form of games and entertainment for idling or time killing is to be avoided.
- he abstains from using high and luxurious furnishings (For example, over-sized couches, couches adorned with carved animals, long-haired coverlets, multi-colored patchwork coverlets, white woolen coverlets, woolen coverlets embroidered with flowers or animal figures, stuffed quilts, coverlets with fringe, silk coverlets embroidered with gems; large woolen carpets; elephant, horse, and chariot rugs, antelope-hide rugs, deer-hide rugs; couches with awnings, couches with red cushions for the head and feet) That means living frugally
- he abstains from using scents, cosmetics, and means of beautification ( For example, rubbing powders into the body, massaging with oils, bathing in perfumed water, kneading the limbs, using mirrors (In strict Buddhist monastery, you won’t find mirrors in the monks or nuns’ quarters), ointments, garlands, scents, creams, face-powders, mascara, bracelets, head-bands, decorated walking sticks, ornamented water-bottles, swords, fancy sunshades, decorated sandals, turbans, gems, yak-tail whisks, long-fringed white robes) Thus it is inappropriate for us to gift expensive toiletries and ornate stuff. The problem is, ancient kings who sought political influence over his population used to gift famous monks items of great value and artistry beauty. Such gifts became symbol of power even amongst the monastic community. Consequently, we start to see monks or nuns decked like a peacock when disciples of later time inherited these articles. As we can see from this stanza, Buddha disapprove receiving such gifts. What did Buddha do? There was a story of how Buddha shredded an expensive piece of fabric gifted by a king and redistributed it to his monks. Those expensive pieces of scraps are then recycled into monastic robe together with scraps from other sources (rubbish dump, death shroud and etc). In that manner, all the monks received a piece of expensive fabric in his robe. This story has 2 points, 1. The recipient of expensive gifts must give it away. 2. Giving away such a gift in a manner that benefit more people. In my opinion, if a monk receive an expensive gift, he can perhaps donate it to charity or redistribute it to help fellow monks. But I guess, not everyone is as fearless and mighty as Buddha.
- he abstains from talking about lowly topics (for example, talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not) As we can see here, the monastic communities shouldn’t be idle chatting about politics, trends, entertainments, news and even speculative concepts about the universe.
- he abstains from debates (‘You understand this doctrine and discipline? I’m the one who understands this doctrine and discipline. How could you understand this doctrine and discipline? You’re practicing wrongly. I’m practicing rightly. I’m being consistent. You’re not. What should be said first you said last. What should be said last you said first. What you took so long to think out has been refuted. Your doctrine has been overthrown. You’re defeated. Go and try to salvage your doctrine; extricate yourself if you can!’) This refer to argumentative debate that value a winner. When we read the scriptures, sometimes we come upon dialogue whereby Buddha asked questions to guide people towards wisdom. We might find this entertaining and rejoice that Buddha “won a debate”. In reality, Buddha was teaching that person to see the Truth. His objective is never about winning someone in debate. In other occasions, Buddha simply kept quiet. That was simply because it wouldn’t benefit anyone if He spoke.
- he abstains from running messages and errands for people (for example, running messages and errands for people such as kings, ministers of state, noble warriors, brahmans, householders, or youths [who say], ‘Go here, go there, take this there, fetch that here’) In short, don’t involve in diplomacy affairs of the state or householders,
- he abstains from all forms of scheming and persuading [improper ways of trying to gain material support from donors] (for example, engage in scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, and pursuing gain with gain) Such as,if you give me a donation, then I will recite sutra on your behalf.
From this sutta, we learn what are virtuous abstinence for a monk or nun or Buddhist contemplative. If that person earns a living by receiving donation from people, then it is appropriate for us to appraise their virtues according to the standards above. Should we find anyone lacking virtue, it is appropriate for us to stop donating to them. This is because we only make offering to those who are worthy of our honor. It is a very dynamic check and balance system.
Buddha did not mince His words and He lead by example when He lived His entire life frugally and with discipline. (Even though He had many disciples who are billionaires, Kings and minsters of states.)
I think there is a MAJOR misunderstanding of a famous Mahayana stanza that states, “One should offer the best clothing and incense to Buddhism.” What is “best” in the eye of a covetous greedy person is not the best in the eye of Dharma. It really takes 2 hands to clap. Being a responsible Buddhist, we ought to know the standard of living that was set by Buddha. We shouldn’t overindulge our offerings to the extend of creating obstacle for the monks.
In the eye of Dharma, the best gifts doesn’t have to be the most expensive and of the best material quality. (Not saying we should offer junk)
For example, offering an electric blanket to help the monks keep warm in winter is a best offering if;
- we give it with pure love and charity,
- we can afford it without bankrupting ourselves or cause our own family member to freeze,
- the gift is funded by our well-earned money (not stolen property),
- no people or animals were harmed in anyway because of our gifts (You should not offer silk, mink, fur and such)
- our gifts will not hinder or disturb their practice (for example, a faulty electric blanket that post a danger to the user and on the other hand, it should also not hinder their practice of austerity)
But if we spend a million dollars to buy a limited edition designer, electric blanket that claims to keep the skin radiant and beautiful after each use, promote blood circulation and various health benefits, perhaps even play a little lullaby? then we are actually creating problems for the monastic community instead of helping.
Think about it and spread awareness. Will the Buddha accept such a million dollar blanket if there are homeless people freeing to death outside? And Buddhist monks or nuns wearing diamond rings or jewel studded watch is just so wrong…..
Thus, it is also our layman’s duty to help the monastic community maintain a simple lifestyle that is conducive for a 24 hour, full-time pursuit of enlightenment. The lifestyle of a true Buddhist monk or nun is really not easy.
May all be well and happy.