It is a common sight to see Buddhist kneeling down or bowing deeply to monks and nuns. I had a problem with that initially. Why should one person extend such formalities and reverence towards another human being just because they are bald?
Here’s what I learnt subsequently.
Buddhist monastics (monks & nuns) are renunciant. They gave up the colorful world of a householder to become a full time practitioner. The significance of that is due to the abandonment of ones familiar relationship, environment and situations. This is different from migration because one also abandon one’s lifestyle. Let’s explore what that means.
No Money allowed
Originally and /or traditionally; a monastic cannot own money (not even a single cent). You cannot keep it, not even in the bank. Nor can you accept it. You can imagine how difficult that is. One begs for food to sustain oneself (you cannot beg for money) and if you need to travel, then you can either walk or hitch a ride. That’s a tough lifestyle isn’t it? Isn’t that respectable? Some monastics still adhere to such discipline today.
For some of us, we live to eat. Let’s see the exemplary lifestyle of a Buddhist monastic. Originally and/or traditionally; a monastic begs for food once a day (in the morning) The food obtained from that alms round is meant to be consumed in the late morning but before noon. That is the only meal.
Do not be mistaken that the meal will be nicely packed like a Japanese bento set. Have you seen Buddha statue carrying a bowl? All the food that you receive goes into your alms bowl. In Buddhist practice, a begging monk does not choose what he eats. Thus, they are not vegetarian. But do not be mistaken that you will get a leg of lamb or a roast chicken in your alms bowl. Here’s what it used to be like. (I read this from a Thai monk’s biography)
Majority of the householders are poor. One cannot consciously beg from a rich neighborhood only. So majority of the donor are low income families and some can only offer water from the river or well. (They do not taste like bottled mineral water) Not everybody will come and offer food. Some families are not devout Buddhist.
Now imagine this. If you are extremely lucky, someone may offer a piece of fish to make merit on his birthday. Receiving a spoon of rice is considered fortunate. Sometimes one can walk for an hour searching for alms and only receive a banana or an orange. You cannot knock on people’s door. Some families may offer freshly cooked vegetable while some may offer pickled vegetables or river shrimps. Some families may offer broth or curry. Remember, some can only afford a small cup of river water (portable water is not available everywhere). All that goes into your alms bowl. Imagine what it is like in there. Basically, not much difference from a food waste bin. Some monastics still practice this today. Buddha wanted His monastics to create the least inconvenience to householders and be concerned with their spiritual practice only. Isn’t that respectable?
After eating that only meal for the day, a monastic earns his livelihood by practicing. That means meditation and mind training. Studying Buddhist scriptures is allowed. But no entertainment on TV or smartphone . No playing of chess to kill time or taking up hobbies like origami or bonsai pruning. It is supposed to be an austere lifestyle committed to full time meditation with the sole purpose of gaining enlightenment. Just like what Buddha did.
According to the scriptures and what my teachers taught, that is how a monk or nun earns their worthiness of respect and alms. In the scripture, Buddha actually said that one can attain enlightenment anytime between 7 days to 7 years if one practices according to His teachings.
Slothfulness is not encouraged. So no nap after food. Agitated mind is not encouraged, so you can’t go and participate in a “worthy cause” such as running a charity or orphanage to keep you occupied. The original intent was to meditate until late in the evening. Sleep little and practice more. Isn’t that kind of commitment admirable and respectable? Some monastics still practice in this manner today.
Originally and/or traditionally, the robes worn by monastics are from scraps and discarded cloths (such as funeral shrouds used for wrapping a corpse) The idea is to live cheaply, practically and with least imposition on the lay community. Monks and nuns would picked up pieces of cloths whenever they come across them. Wash them and sew them together into larger pieces.
When Buddha received a piece of exquisite and expensive material from a king, He had it cut into pieces and redistributed among the monastics! Thus, everyone received a piece of it. This is where we witness all man equal and no one is more equal than another.
With modern machineries, fabric had become cheaper and thus, monks or nuns usually wear a manufactured set of monastic clothing. However, one is not allowed to own an entire wardrobe of robes. Keep only the bare minimum necessary for livelihood. Isn’t that respectable?
Living in a cell
Originally and/or traditionally, monastics live in the open space. For example, Buddha lived under a tree (exposed to the elements) before someone donated a monastery. Some monastic still live in this manner, seeking shelter under trees and in caves.
Temples and monasteries are meant to be temporary abode and monks are discouraged from establishing a bond or attachment to any places or people. Thus they do not stay permanently in one location. The only exception are for those who are aged or sickly. In olden days, there weren’t any private rooms. Sleeping quarters were communal with at least 10 people to one room in winter countries. There wasn’t any boundaries and wandering monks can always lodge at any monasteries they come across during their travel.
In addition to communal living, monks live in open cells in tropical countries. Dried leaves or monastic robes were hung on ropes to serve as partition with no physical door. Since it is easier to become drowsy in dark places, monastics prefer to live “openly” Such kind of living space actually reduces the likelihood of people alleging misconducts in the living quarters of monks /nuns.
Sleep less meditate more
Some people may think that a monastic’s life is simply eating and sleeping. But slothfulness is a sign of a weak mind. Therefore, a sleepy monk doesn’t get much respect.
In reality, monastics usually wakes up at 4am. Sleep at 10pm or later. You can see the amount of time spent meditating, chanting or studying the scriptures. Isn’t that respectable?
In summary, monastics live a diligent and austere lifestyle so that they can focus on gaining enlightenment. Enlightenment is their best contribution to society because only then, can they be a good teacher. Only then, can they become a testimony of enlightenment and truly be considered a precious gem.
That is why Buddha taught His disciples to respect only those who are worthy of honor. This is a very important point. To put it bluntly, that scrutiny from the lay community also help to keep the monastic community on their toes. Unlike Christianity, Buddhist clerics or monastics are not god-man. We are encouraged to scrutinize the behavior and moral conducts of monks, nuns and clerics before deciding if they deserve our respects and donation.
It takes 2 hands to clap.
If we have the opportunity to help manage a monastery or design a Buddhist monastery or perhaps donate a monastery; then it is important that we know what is best for the monastics too. Let’s not give them private suites with attached bathroom? Let’s not be extravagant with food, bedding and clothing. Let’s not provide entertainment. Not because we are mean and nasty. But because we understand what the Buddha intended and we want to respect that too. Remember, the lifestyle of a layman and a monastic should be vastly different.
That way, the monastics can continue to be respectable.
May all be well and happy.