Excess and Wastage

In Theravadin lands vast resources are spent on religion in general and on the Sangha in particular. The Mahavamsa notes with approval that during his 11 year reign King Udaya spent 1,300,000 gold pieces on the Sangha and on various religious ceremonies. King Nissankamalla spent a staggering 4,700,000 gold pieces on conducting just two ceremonies at a particular monastery. Such extravagances are frequently mentioned in the clerical histories as proof of a monarch’s piety and as an encouragement for later kings to outdo their predecessors. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is sheathed in more than 60 tons of gold and crowned with a umbrella encrusted with thousands of diamonds and other precious stones. This in turn is topped with a huge 76 carat diamond. Every year the lower portions of the pagoda and its accompanying shrines are covered with 28,000 pieces of gold leaf. The effect of all this is to create one of the most enchantingly beautiful religious monuments to be seen anywhere. Nonetheless, one cannot help thinking that the Buddha, a man who refused even to touch gold, might prefer being honored by having this wealth used to help alleviate some of Burma’s appalling poverty. Spiro estimated that in the area of Burma he studied, most families spent an average of 40% of their disposable income on the Sangha. Other studies in different parts of Burma have showed that the percentage can be even higher.

But it is not just that monks have so much, a lot of what they are given is wasted. In Sri Lanka while monks are eating lay people will come around to see if they need more food. Typically, the monks allow food to keep being piled on their plates so that when they have finished eating there is as much left over as has been consumed. When the sweet plates are collected at the end of the meal there will be slices of cake with the icing eaten off the top, apples with one or two bites taken out of the and half eaten biscuits. And of course all this food is just thrown away. I have seen Theravadin monks from Bangladesh, a country where hunger and malnutrition are endemic, do exactly the same things. They are guaranteed a full meal tomorrow, they don’t have to pay for it and so they just don’t care. When people offer you soap or towels you may politely tell them that you already have more than enough but it will make no difference. They will insist that you take their gifts. Many times I have had conversations that went something like this: ‘Venerable sir, would you like a cup of tea?’ ‘No thanks.’ ‘Coffee?’ ‘No thanks’. ‘Would you like some fruit juice then.’ ‘Not now. Maybe later.’ ‘Then how about a glass of Milo?’ ‘No.’ ‘Then can I get you a drink of mineral water?’ etc, etc etc. The first visitor to the monastery will do this, then the second may go through the same routine, and so on. Eventually, worn down by the relentless desire to give, you surrender, accept what’s offered, take a sip out of it just to please the donor and the rest is later tipped down the sink.

Theravada encourages excess in the amount given to the Sangha and also in how and what is given. The more extravagant the gift or difficult the giving, the greater the devotion demonstrated and the amount of merit earned. The idea of going to any extreme in order to provide lavishly for the Sangha was already being promoted by the time the Vinaya was composed. We are told that some people ‘did not consume tasty solid food and drinks themselves and they did not give it to their parents, not to their wives and children, not to their servants or slaves, not to their friends or colleagues and they did not give it to their relations. But they did give it to monks who as a result were handsome, plump, with bright complexions and good features’ (Vin.III,87). We are also told that during a famine in Vesali people deprived their children of food in order to feed the monks (Vin.I,86-7). In the commentaries and later Theravadin literature this notion appears in its most disgraceful and self-serving form. There is a story about a man named Darubhandaka Mahatissa who sold his daughter into slavery so he could buy sumptuous food for monks. After working for half a year he managed to earn enough money to redeem the girl. But just as he was about to do so, he say saw a monk who was going to miss his midday meal and so spent all the money buying food for him instead. We have the story about the poor woman who fed her daughter scraps so she could provide lavish meals to the monk named Mahamitta. Then there was the woman who, during a famine, found a scrap of food and was about to give it to her starving baby but then saw a monk walking by with his begging bowl and gave it to him instead. The text then describes the wonderful celestial mansion this woman was born into after she starved to death. Compare this last story with that about Rukmavati from a Mahayana work called the Avadanakalpalata. Rukmavati was well known for her compassion to the poor. One day she saw a woman so starved that she was about to eat her own child and was in a quandary as to what to do. If she ran home to get food for the woman the child might be eaten in the meantime. If she took the child home with her the famished mother might die. With no time to wait she cut some flesh from her owns breasts and gave it to the starving woman to eat. The two stories epitomize perfectly the different concerns of Theravada and Mahayana.

Stories like the one about the man selling his daughter, and there are many of them, are never accompanied by any suggestion that what these people were doing was extreme or that monks should discourage such misguided devotion. Indeed, such behavior is held up as the ideal. Of course, this does not mean that people actually did sell their children or deprive them in order to give to the Sangha, but very clearly this what the monks who composed or recorded such stories wanted to encourage. And such excess is still being encouraged. In Singapore and Malaysia nowadays it has become popular to invite large numbers of monks from overseas for a dana. Sometimes as many as a 100 are flown in from Thailand or Sri Lanka just so that people can give them a meal. The air fare and the expense of accommodating and looking after these monks for a few days means that the cost of the meal given to each can amount to $1000 or more.

Extravagance towards the Sangha is very common and suggests that generosity as taught in Theravada is different from how most people would think of it. We give or share for a variety of reasons, the most common being to fulfill a specific need of the recipient. But this is not particularly important in Theravada. Once I was invited to stay for a while in a Sri Lankan Buddhist society in Australia. They didn’t have a resident monk but visiting monks would sometimes stay there. The monk’s room was rather cluttered and untidy and so I decided to clean it up. In the process I found over 200 cakes of soap, 60 tooth brushes, a large number of towels, flannels and robes (I can’t remember the exact number), nine electric heaters, a dozen or so digital clocks and innumerable of other things that had been offered to various visiting monks but never used. During my last visit to Burma I stayed in a monastery in Bagan and in the large room where the abbot talked to visitors there were 74 clocks hanging on the walls! I need hardly add here that as this was a Theravadin monastery most of the clocks told a different time. I know of a group of Burmese monks living in Malaysia who encourage their devotees to offer them robes for the kathina and also to offer extra robes to be given to monks back in Burma. Now Burmese monks are very particular, they will only wear Burmese-made robes. So this is what happens. Robes are purchased in Burma, shipped to Malaysia, re-purchased by the devotees, offered to the monks, shipped back to Burma and then given to other monks there. I also know that whatever monks in Burma need they are never in need of robes because people are always offering them. Cupboards and store rooms in monasteries are usually stuffed with robes. So when the monks back in Burma receive their well-traveled robes I strongly suspect that they sell them to the local robe shop, which is a common way of getting rid of excess robes and earning a bit of extra cash. From there someone may very well purchase them to ship off to Malaysia again. I once witnessed Ajahn Yantra, then at the height of his popularity, doing a staged pindapata. Several thousand people stood in two parallel lines while he walked between them and accepted their alms. When his bowl was full he would tip the food into large cardboard boxes carried by attendants. He did this again and again and at the end of the ‘pindapata’ there were about 200 of these boxes full of food. I was told that some of this was given to the poor and maybe it was. The crowds eat some but as it was either squashed, limp or churned into an unappetizing mush most of it was simply thrown away.

Wastage is never a good thing; it shows thoughtlessness and a lack of respect for both the community and the environment. But in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia, amongst the poorest countries in the world, it is little short of criminal. Why do people want to keep giving to monks even after they have more than can possibly use? Why is generosity to the needy, where it exists at all, only an after-thought? Why does Theravadin generosity involve so much wastage? Chapter four of the book The Teachings of the Buddha published by Burma’s Ministry of Religious Affairs as a text book for teaching Theravada, is called Dispensing Charity. In it charity is explained exclusively in terms of giving to the Sangha or to making offerings to statues. There is not even a hint that the unfortunate, the poor, the sick or even friends and neighbors are fit recipients for one’s generosity.

Another book I have just read called A Course in Basic Buddhism published by the Klang and Coast Buddhist Society in Malaysia highlights even better the characteristics of generosity as taught in Theravada. The book is clearly written under direction of a Burmese monk In the chapter on dana there are sections on the meaning of sanghika dana, the right time to give to monks, the correct way to make the offering and of course on ‘the great wealth, riches and prosperity’ one will gain by giving to monks. There is no mention of being generous to anyone other than monks. The chapter on the ten Meritorious Deeds gives ten examples of generosity, eight of these concern giving to monks or monasteries while only one, donating one’s organs after death, could be said to benefit anyone other than monks. On page 48 there is a helpful chart listing 14 types of recipients and the amount of merit gained by giving to each. The smallest remuneration at the bottom of the list comes from giving to animals. Just above that come the poor. The amount of merit earned by giving to those who have attained any of the four stages of enlightenment (in Theravada this almost always means monks) is ‘immeasurable’. Quite clearly only a fool would bother to give to animals or to the poor and that’s why Theravadins rarely do so. On page 55 of this book there are two sentences; I repeat, two sentences, recommending helping charitable organizations and nursing the sick. This is a nice touch, but it is hardly noticed amongst the pages of text about giving to the Sangha and the mercenary calculations about the material benefits one will gain by doing so.

I have a booklet on giving written by the respected Thai meditation teacher Phra Panyapatipo. The author is quite up-front about the purpose of his booklet, it is entitled How To Get Good Results from Doing Merit.’ He says that if you offer monks food you will have good health in your next life, if you offer them candles or flash lights you will have good eye sight and if you offer Buddha statues you will be as beautiful as a Buddha image. Offer soap and skin lotion to monks and you will have beautiful skin, give money or material to build a temple will get you a nice house, while tooth paste or tooth brushes will result in good teeth, At the end of this long list Phra Panyapatipo adds that if you build an eye hospital you will have good eyes and that if you donate your organs you will have a fit body. Like the other claims this is simplistic in the extreme, although in complete accordance with Theravada teaching, but at least it suggests that generosity can be extended beyond the Sangha – a rare touch indeed. Theravada has turned one of the most beautiful virtues, giving, into just another form of selfish getting. How different all this mercenary giving is from that taught in the Mahayana sutras where one is encouraged to give without thinking only of oneself. The Narayanapariprccha for example says: ‘Noble sir, the bodhisattva must think like this “I have devoted my very body for the benefit of others. How much more material things?… I will relinquish my possessions without regret, without grudging, without wanting merit, without making distinctions between persons, out of kindness, out of compassion, to be theirs to have, so that these beings… may know the good Dharma”.’

It should be emphasize here that the three publications mentioned above were not written by simple unsophisticated peasants or meant for such people. They were written by informed Theravadins well-versed in orthodox doctrine and they express notions elaborated in the commentaries, in hundreds of similar publications and in thousands of sermons preached every week throughout the Theravadin world. These notions guarantee that genuine charities will go begging and that monasteries will be places of surfeit and wastage. Just as bad, they also both express and reinforce a profound misunderstanding of what giving and sharing are supposed to be about. The idea of giving for the simple joy of giving, of giving out of compassion, of giving to those in genuine need, is rarely if ever discussed in traditional Theravadin literature or even in modern expositions. The idea of giving anonymously or with modesty is equally rare. One gives in order to get merit, but if one can also get the admiration and praise of one’s fellows so much the better. In Burmese monasteries almost everything has the name of the donor written on it, the cost is sometimes included as well. In Sri Lankan and Thai monasteries during festivals, loud speakers turned up full-bore screech out the names of who gave what and how much it cost them. Giving modestly or quietly as Hatthaka did is not a virtue in Theravada (A.IV,113). The cloying abundance one sees in monasteries, the thoughtless wastage and the incongruity of supposed renunciates living in luxury while ordinary folk live in want, are all the logical outcome of the Theravadin doctrines that one gives in order to get and that the best recipient of one’s generosity is the Sangha.