Because Theravada Vinaya like Theravada lay moral practice is presented primarily as a collection of ‘don’ts,’ this means that a monk who does nothing can qualify to be good. Significantly, there is no Vinaya rule requiring monks to study the Dhamma, to teach it, to do anything practical to help others or even to meditate. 
This deficiency was understood long ago in Mahayana and rectified by drawing up proactive rules. So for example, in the Bodhisattavabhumi which was meant to be an alternative Mahayana Vinaya, not sharing things with others is an offence as is refusing to teach Dhamma when requested, ignoring people just because they are immoral, adhering to minor rules in the face of the conflicting needs of others, etc. A small number of monks have a good or even a profound knowledge of Dhamma, many have at least a basic knowledge, although it is quite common to meet those who know little or none. Despite popular perception to the contrary, meditation is very rare in Theravada. Spiro says: ‘[V]ery few village monks ever meditate, and only a hand full even claim that they do. Typically, they plead lack of time. The situation differs little in the larger urbane monasteries. In Mandalay, according to an official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, no more than 15 per cent of monks spend any time at all in meditation. In rural Thailand, according to Ingersoll, no monks meditate. Usually, as in Burma, they say they have no time.’ Anthropologist Jane Bunnag who did a study of monks in a regional Thai city wrote: ‘Less than one third of my informants in Ayutthaya reported that they practiced meditation, and even these monks only meditated ‘from time to time’ or ‘when they were free’. When questioned as to the techniques used they inevitably replied in very vague terms…Although most monks paid lip service to the idea that one should meditate… it was regarded as an activity more appropriate to nuns…to bhikkhus who were saiyasat (magical practitioners) or to those monks who doen thudong (go on pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines).’ In Sri Lanka meditation is almost non-existent outside the small number of special meditation monasteries and even there it is by no means universal. 
Monks who do have a vocation for study or meditation certainly have a wonderful opportunity to do their practice, but they are a small minority. As for the others, the motivation to do anything is small and the temptation to settle back and let the lay people make merit by catering to ones’ every whim, is great. And sadly this is what many, many monks do.
Thai and Burmese monks spend hours every day chatting with matrons and young ladies and most of the talk is village gossip, not Dhamma. In Sri Lanka monks prefer reclining in big easy chairs, chewing betel and reading the paper. Even a well-run monastery with an exceptional abbot is sometimes not enough to arouse the interest or enthusiasm of more than just a few. Paul Breiter, who spent years at Wat Pah Pong with Ajahn Chah, wrote that most of the Thai monks there were ‘a bunch of ordinary Joes whose hearts weren’t completely in it.’ Spiro’s observations on Burma apply equally well to other Theravadin countries. ‘Boredom, no doubt, accounts for the inordinate amount of sleeping one sees in monasteries – monks are forever taking naps – as well as for the dullness and apathy frequently encountered in them. I suspect too, that those…who practice alchemy, medicine, exorcism and…politics, do so not only for the intrinsic interest of the subject, but as an escape from the tedium of monastic living. Similarly, boredom probably accounts for the great interest monks show in visitors.’ Others take a different escape route. In a survey of monks in Thailand anthropologist J. C. Ingersoll found that boredom was the main reason why young men left the Sangha. When Somerset Maugham was traveling through Burma he had an interpreter who had spent time in a monastery during his youth. Maugham asked him what he thought of the monk’s life. ‘He shrugged his shoulders. “There was nothing to do” he said. “Two hours work in the morning and there were prayers at night, but all the rest of the day nothing. I was glad when the time came for me to go home again”.’ And of those who stay behind their natural youthful exuberance is gradually crushed under the weight of tradition and of having lay people doing everything for them, and before long they begin doing what they the older monks doing – they sleep.
You could hardly believe it possible for human beings to sleep so much until you’ve spent time in a Theravada monastery. The most enduring images I have of my years in monasteries is of Burmese monks dozing in chairs while their devotees massage their feet, of Thai monks lying flat on their backs snoring at ten in the morning, and of somnolent old nayaka hamdarus in Sri Lanka getting out of bed for lunch and going straight back again after it is over. The English monk Phra Peter relates an amusing incident he witnessed when a junior monk was paying respects to his senior with the traditional three bows. The first bow went okay, the second was somewhat slower and during the third bow the monk drifted off and remained fast asleep on the floor. This pervasive slothfulness is a logical consequence of the Vinaya notion that monks must have everything done for them. To quote Spiro again. ‘Almost all his needs are satisfied by others, without his doing – or being permitted to do – anything on his own behalf. As we have seen, he does no work; he does not earn his own bread; even if he wants to, he cannot so much as pour his tea or lift his serving bowel, let alone tend his garden or repair his monastery. Everything he needs must be given to him by others; everything that he desires must be provided him by others. Moreover, others not only must provide for the monk, but in fact they do provide for him, and – as we have seen – with lavish hand’ (italics in the original).
The almost complete absence of physical exercise coupled with the rich diet is probably the reason for the abnormally high incidence of diabetes amongst older Sri Lankan monks. A study released in 2002 showed that the leading cause of death amongst Thai monks was smoking related illnesses. Having little else to do they while away their time sleeping, chatting and puffing on Klongtips. Even monks who are interested in meditation or study are unable to refresh their minds with spells of physical exercise; the Vinaya and the public’s desire to pamper monks and earn merit make this very difficult. In the late 1970s when I was staying at Peradeniya University, I used to walk each afternoon through the campus and up to the beautiful Hindagala Vihara, a distance of about four miles there and back. The abbot came to know of this and each time I got to his monastery he would very kindly insist on having his driver take me back or giving me the fare so I could return by bus. He could never understand why I should want to walk when I had an alternative. Tibetan monks mold butter offerings and carve printing blocks, Chinese monks run vegetarian restaurants and practice tai chi, Zen monks do calligraphy and tend their gardens. Many Theravadian monks do absolutely nothing. 
The only significance Theravada gives to the body is as an object of filth and disgust. The Greek or Hindu concept of developing the whole person – physical, mental and spiritual – has never been appreciated in Theravada and the end result is disastrous. Whether by friend or foe the assessment of Theravadin monks has often been the same; pleasant, gentle, smiling and utterly inert. In despair Anagarika Dharmapala cried: ‘If only the monks would move themselves Buddhism wouldn’t be called the religion of pessimism.’ Concerning his efforts to get monks involved with Buddhist education in Sri Lanka Henry Olcott huffed in frustration: ‘I am afraid we shall have to wait long for this help to come from Buddhist Bhikkhus…at least I have not been able, during an intimate intercourse of twenty-two years, to arouse their zeal.’ David Maurice, a devote Australian Buddhist who lived in Burma for years wrote: ‘Spend time in Burmese monasteries and you would swear that you were really in East Africa; everyone seems to be suffering from Sleeping Sickness.’
Despite the large amount of free time Theravadin monks have it is astonishing how few of them seem to do anything affective to promote the Dhamma. In 1991 when I was living in Singapore I did a survey of all the Thai temples in the country. I located five temples and 15 house temples staffed by either Thai monks or Singaporeans monks ordained and trained in Thailand, 43 monks altogether. Even before interviewing the abbots it was clear that the main activities in every one of these establishments was what can be called Thai magic; lucky charms, Four Faced Buddhas, fortune telling, black magic, protective amulets, etc. The Palelai Temple in Bedok had what was called a ‘Lucky Buddha’ at which one is supposed to be able to predict auspicious numbers. The temple is very popular with punters before the races on Sunday afternoon. Another temple, on Racecourse Rd, seemed to be a market rather than a place of religion. Amongst the postcards and gewgaws for sale in the main shrine hall I found key chains with mildly pornographic images on them. I asked each abbot if they or any of the monks under them meditated and several declined to answer but most said no. When I asked why several said that it is difficult to meditate in the city but most just smiled, some bidding me to continue with my questions. When I asked the abbots if they did any charitable activities four answered affirmatively saying that they sometimes gave cash to visiting monks or organized danas where monks were fed. One monk, sensing what I was getting at, insisted that he regularly sent money back to Thailand to help the poor. When I asked for details he smiled, equivocated and changed the subject. Only two places had anything beyond chanting and ceremonies where food and money is given to monks that could be described as Dhamma activities. These consisted of regular talks and discussions on Buddhism. The interesting thing was that these activities were organized entirely by a small group of lay people. No monks helped arrange the talks, attended them or delivered them. In both cases the lay people told me that the abbot allowed them to use his premises and if they didn’t organize the talks no one else would. It is quite possible that a survey of Thai temples in Malaysia and perhaps in any major Thai city would a show a similar pattern.
- Gregory Schopen has some interesting observations on this point; see Donald Lopez Jr. Buddhism in Practice, 1995, pp.473 ff. One of the services that monks traditionally rendered to society was education. This education was narrow and limited but it did mean that literacy was fairly widespread amongst males, particularly in Sri Lanka and Burma. [back]
- The recent growth of interest in meditation among lay people in Sri Lanka is one of the few encouraging religious developments in that country. [back]
- Perhaps one exception to this is some monks in Laos and the less Siamized Lao-speaking areas in north-east Thailand. Monks there will sometimes do strenuous physical work. Until recently this region was remote, very poor and well known for producing a small but influential number of exceptional meditating monks. Could there be a connection between hardship and work on the one hand and spirituality on the other? [back]