Asceticism

During the Buddha’s time a monks’ life was free but insecure. If he went begging he might get a good meal or he might get nothing. Some people respected monks while others scorned them. In good times a monk could manage while in times of trouble or famine just staying alive was a struggle. But those days are long gone. Theravadin monks are accorded respect, privilege, deference and honor probably unequaled by any group of people on Earth, except the few remaining absolute monarchs. And simply to be a monk is sufficient to qualify for such treatment. In Burma it is considered disrespectful even to walk on a monk’s shadow! Such notions makes austerity or even just simplicity of lifestyle virtually impossible. Theravadin monks have not really renounced the world, they have been elevated to the highest position in the world. Far from living in austerity, most monks live pampered, secure and very comfortable lives while making at most a feeble pretense at asceticism. This pretense begins even before one actually becomes a monk. To be ordained in Theravada can be a very expensive affair. In Thailand an abbot can only ordain monks if he has been authorized to do so by the Department of Religious Affairs on the recommendation of the Ecclesiastical Council. Such abbots can make so much money from the ‘customary gifts’ they receive at ordination ceremonies that they commonly pay huge bribes to the Department or the monks on the Council for the right to ordain others. In Sri Lanka in the 1990s the average ordination ceremony cost the equivalent to four months wages of the ordinary office worker. In Burma it is considered meritorious for the rich to pay for a poor youth’s ordination if his parents are unable to afford the expense. It is something of a paradox that in Theravada, renouncing the world can cost so much that the poor can’t afford to do it. In Thailand and Burma all young men become monks at least once in their lives with the full intention of leaving after a while. The attitude is: ‘I’m going to renounce the world for a while. Will you look after my car and just keep your eye on my girlfriend while I’m away?’ This sort of ‘reversible renunciation’ makes a mockery of the whole idea of the monk’s life. At the time of the Buddha naked ascetics used to encourage their disciples to undergo similar temporary ordinations. They would take off their clothes, pretend to give up all their possessions, act like an ascetic and the next day dress again and resume their normal lives. The Buddha said that their claims to have ‘renounced’ were no better than telling lies (A.I,205).

Once someone does become a monk, whether with genuine intentions or not, he enters a world of privilege and abundance. The only hardship he has to endure is dealing with sexual frustration and trying to find something to do to keep from becoming bored. In the better monasteries there are things to do like sweeping the grounds, going on pindapata and learning a few suttas by heart, but this is hardly a heavy schedule. In places like the north and east of Sri Lanka and in up-country Burma there are monasteries that are relatively poor, but even there the monks always live better than the lay people do. Most monasteries are well appointed, many, particularly in Thailand, could only be described as luxurious. In rural areas it is common that the local monastery is the only place in the village with a television, air conditioning or fans, cement buildings, tiled roof, running water, a car and servants. And all this is acquired without doing anything more laborious than putting on a yellow robe. Just recently I stayed with a friendly Thai monk who I have known for some time. I noticed that on the wall next to his bed was a small hook with a very expensive wrist watch hanging on it and that on the far wall on the other side of his bed was another one. I was intrigued by this and asked him why he had done it. He told me that he had placed the two watches where they were so that when he woke up in the morning, no matter what side he was sleeping on, he could see what the time was without having to roll over. It never ceases to amaze me how many expensive things Theravada monks are able to accumulate while still maintaining that they are simple ascetics who have renounced the world.

Despite this thoroughly domesticated lifestyle the language of asceticism is used all the time. No matter how opulent a Sri Lankan monastery might be it is always referred to as a ‘pansala,’ a leaf hut. Before Burmese monks begin eating those veritable banquets they consume every lunch time they chant verses which refer to the food as ‘pindapata’, alms food acquired by begging. Despite the fact that almost all monks in Sri Lanka and Burma are the legal owners of their temples and the often extensive lands that go with them, each year at the start of the rains retreat lay people ‘invite’ the monks to reside in the temple for the next three months. Sometimes the fake asceticism moves beyond the culturally excepted forms to become truly laughable. In the last decade or so, it had has become something of a fad for Thai monks to go dhutanga, the dhutangas being the 13 ascetic practices allowed by the Buddha. A monk will get his supporters to buy him the whole kit; the fancy bowl with all the attachments (stand, lid, straps, carrying bag etc.), the umbrella, the mosquito net, and of course the obligatory dark-brown robe. The whole outfit can cost thousands of bhats. Then his supporters will drive him to some pleasant national park where he might spend the long weekend sleeping under a tree and posing for photos while the supporters camp nearby preparing delicious food for him. The monk will return to his temple satisfied that he has spent time doing the ascetic practices and his supporters will be genuinely convinced that they have earned more merit than usual by helping an ascetic monk. Of course there are a few real dhutanga monks in Thailand too, but until recently that they have been looked upon with a degree of suspicion. In the 1970s Jane Bunnag found that such monks were ‘frequently regarded as being on a par with tramps, beggars and other kinds of social derelicts.’ You see, the Thais like to be absolutely sure that a monk is real, (i.e. has his bisuthee, official monks’ ID card stating that he has undergone the properly performed ordination ceremony) before they give him anything, otherwise their generosity wouldn’t earn them any merit. And you can never be quite sure with those ragged, sweaty monks who don’t stay in monasteries. The weekend ascetics are a much safer investment.

The reality is that despite claiming to be ascetics, insisting on receiving all the respect due to ascetics, and using the language of asceticism, the life of the average Theravadin monk differs remarkably little from that of the average lay person, except in three area. Most lay people are not celibate while all monks must be. Lay people have to work to get the things they need while monks do not. While enjoying all the advantages of ownership, security and social status, monks have none of the responsibilities or obligations which go with such things. More often than not real austerity is even seen as inappropriate for such delicate and revered creatures as monks. I recall an incident that happened to me during my first months in Sri Lanka. I had gone on pilgrimage to Anuradhapura with three other Western monks. None of us had been in the Sangha long and we were still naïve enough to think that hardihood and roughing it a bit was a part of a Theravadin monk’s life. We arrived late at the monastery where we were to stay, all the lights were off and everyone seemed to be asleep. Rather than wake the inmates we decided to spread out our robes under a tree in the large garden in front of the monastery and sleep there. The next morning when our hosts found that we had slept in the open and on the ground they were flabbergasted. There were gasps of amazement, guffaws of laughter and fingers put up to ears and moved in a circular manner to indicate insanity. When the senior monk, Ven. Madihe Pannasiha, heard what had happened he called us to his room and severely reprimanded us. What on earth were we playing at? Thank goodness none of the lay people had seen us. What were we trying to do – lower the Sangha’s dignity in the eyes of the dayakas? We were supposed to be monks for goodness sake, not vagabonds! The very idea! He finished by making it clear that if we pulled any more ascetic stunts like that he would send us packing. During the few days we stayed in this monastery the other monks would always break into giggles when they saw us.

Periodically throughout the centuries sincere monks have tried to live in real austerity but they have rarely succeeded for long. In Sri Lanka during the 8th century a group of monks, disgusted by the worldliness of the majority, took to living in the forest and wearing robes made out of rags, and hence their name, the Pansakulakas. They inspired great reverence and soon devotees were lining up to shower them with praise and gifts. We read in the Culavamsa that one king offered them robes made out of his own clothe-of-gold royal gowns and equipment ‘fit for royalty’. Another text even lists some of the expensive delicacies that were fed to them. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the Pansakulakas were as lax and wealthy, as corrupt and as worldly as the others. It is true to say that Theravada contains an in-built mechanism for the degeneration of the Sangha and the passivity of the laity to anything beyond giving to monks. Lay people cannot attain enlightenment, so the most they can do is worship monks and shower them with gifts in the hope of making merit for the next life. The more austere the monk, the greater the adulation he receives, the more lavish the gifts he is given and the more likely he is to become corrupted.