The Brahmins of ancient India claimed that they were entitled to respect simply because they belonged to a particular social group. The Buddha criticized this idea saying that it was the virtuous and the wise who were really worthy of respect. From this position, Theravada has come full circle back to the Brahminical idea. According to the Milindapanha, even a lay man who has attained the first stage of awakening must stand up and worship a novice who has no attainments (Mil.162). Monks insist that they should be respected and revered simply because they wear a yellow robe and like the Brahmins of old they can get very piqued if they do not receive it. It is fascinating to see the lengths Theravadin monks will go to in order to maintain their supposed superiority in the eyes of others. P. A. Bigandet writes of a scene he witnessed in Penang towards the end of the 19th century. A Thai monk had to visit a man confined in the upper room of a house. To see him the monk would have to enter the ground floor room of the house meaning that for at least a few moments he would be lower than the lay man; anathema for a Theravadin monk. What to do? The monk ordered a ladder to be brought and placed with one end on the ground and the other on the upstairs window and he climbed into the man’s room that way. I have not heard of this sort of thing being done nowadays but I do know that Theravadin monks will even publish books instructing people on how to respect them correctly.
Inviting a Theravadin monk to your home or your Buddhist society can be a little like having royalty visit. Before he arrives you might be instructed on how to bow properly, how to address him, to prepare a special high seat for him, to reserve a toilet exclusively for his use, etc. When the monk makes his entrance it will be to hushed voices, bowed heads and women making exaggerated gestures to avoid even accidental physical contact with him. Before his sermon you will have to formally invite him to speak, and before he leaves you must formerly request his forgiveness for anything you may have done to upset him. Ariyesako has 15 pages of requirements expected of you if you are visiting a Theravadin monastery in the West. This is a selection of some of them.
‘If you meet the monk in the shrine room or inside the house show your respect before you start your discussion. When you leave please do the same’.
‘Please do not… shake hands with the monk. When speaking to the monk always be polite and never raise your voice’.
‘Do not point your feet or your back to the monk. This is considered disrespectful’.
‘Unless you are serving a meal out of a dish, always offer anything with both hands. Do not leave it in front of a monk without offering it’.
‘Lay people should not have their meals in front of the monk and they should eat only after the monk has finished his meal’.
‘People should not stand and talk to a monk when he is seated’.
‘A monk should always be approached respectfully by the person offering dana, who should always try to maintain a bodily posture lower than that of the monk’.
‘When walking in the company of monks lay people should walk a little behind, but still within speaking distance’.
This list comes from the chapter in Ariyesako’s book called ‘Examples of Vinaya Practice’ although to the best of my knowledge none of these requirements except perhaps the last pertain to any Vinaya rules. As often happen with Theravadians, Ariyesako is confusing the etiquette of a particular culture, in this case Thai culture, with Vinaya and even with Dhamma. This is just the kind of mistake the more narrow-minded Christian missionaries made in Asia in the 19th century. To be a Christian you had to not only believe in Jesus but also speak English, wear trousers and eat with a knife and fork, in short, become an Englishman. Such an attitude held back the spread of Christianity then just as it is inhibiting the growth of Dhamma now. Needless to say, the Buddha always took a much more intelligent approach. Knowing that Truth transcends culture and being deeply concerned that the Dhamma should be accessible to all he was prepared to adjust himself to the culture and needs of others. ‘I remember well many assemblies of patricians, priests, householders, ascetics and gods…that I have attended. Before I sat with them, spoke to them or joined their conversation, I adopted their appearance and their speech whatever it might be and then I instructed them in Dhamma’ (D.II,109). The Buddha told his monks and nuns that when teaching Dhamma in foreign parts they should adopt the language of the people they were living with (M.III,235). If this is true of language should it not also be true of etiquette and other cultural conventions?
Another point highlighted by the above list is that Theravadin monks are not just very concerned about receiving respect, they require being respected in a way that suits them. In the West we may show our respect for someone by shaking their hand, a traditional gesture with its own grace and dignity. But that is not good enough for a Theravadin monk. He wants you to respect him in the Thai way or the Burmese way, even if he and you happen to be Westerners and in the West. Hold out your hand to a Theravadin monk and he will very quickly inform in a rather imperious tone that ‘Monks don’t shake hands’ despite being no rule to that effect. When meeting the Queen it is considered polite for a male to nod his head in a sort of symbolic bow and a female to give a slight curtsey. Do that to a Theravadin monk and he might pass you a little tract containing detailed instructions and diagrams on how to bow to him ‘properly’, by which is meant the way it is done in south-east Asia. Sri Lankan monks and Western monks trained in Sri Lanka tend to be a little less finicky about this sort of thing.
It is interesting to see how all this compares with the Buddha’s attitude to honor and worship. After Sonadanda took the Three Refuges he confided to the Buddha that he had a particular problem. He was a Brahmin and his income depended on the respect other Brahmins held him in. If they saw him bowing to the Buddha he would lose respect and consequently his income would suffer. ‘So if on entering the assembly hall I put my palms together in greeting, consider it the same as if I had stood up for you. If on entering the assembly I remove my turban consider it the same as if I had bowed at your feet. If when riding in my chariot I were to get down to salute you others would criticize me. So if I pass you in my chariot and I just lower my head consider it the same as if I had got down and bowed at your feet’ (D.I,126). The Buddha had no problems with Sonadanda’s way of paying respect, presumably because he had sympathy with his predicament and because for him social formalities were of little importance. In another place the Buddha says: ‘I have nothing to do with homage and homage has nothing to do with me’ (A.III,30). Reading Ariyesako’s book and similar publications, it would be easy to get the impression that being a Theravadin monk has everything to do with homage. Once Sariputta told the Buddha that he tried to compare himself to a lowly dusting rag or a humble outcaste child (A.IV,375). How different the enlightened Sariputta was from those unenlightened Theravadin monks today who sit on elevated thrones with their self-satisfied smiles and their sense of entitlement as they give orders to the laity and acknowledge the homage they receive from them with only the briefest nod or grunt!
Mahayana sutras often refer to what they call ‘all the proud arahats’ and centuries later many Theravadin monks still give the impression of being just slightly haughty and conceited. This incident occurred just recently in a small Buddhist group in Europe. A certain visiting monk, who shall remain nameless, was giving a talk to an audience of about 30 people which included a woman who had a hat on. The monk noticed this and apparently felt that it was a serious enough threat to his dignity to be eluded to in his talk. He deviated from the gist of his sermon and mentioned how important it is to render proper respect to the Sangha and how rude it would be to wear a hat, for example, while a monk was teaching the Dhamma. Everyone in the room turned to the embarrassed woman and a few minutes later she crept quietly from the room and burst into tears. It later emerged that this woman had terminal cancer and had lost all her hair while undergoing chemotherapy. She wore a hat to hide her disfigurement. In Sri Lanka I once attended a talk by a well-known meditation teacher. When he entered the hall several elderly people who had not noticed his arrival didn’t stand up. Visibly annoyed at not getting the respect he believed was his due, he walked to the front of the hall, harangued the organizers of the talk and the audience and then stormed out. I have witnessed similar performances on several other occasions.
There are stories in the commentaries which show that even Theravadin arahats can get in a huff when they are not suitably honored. The arahat Dhammadinna for example, was invited to a particular monastery to teach meditation but the inmates were performing their daily duties when he arrived and failed to greet him properly. After stamping his foot with disapproval he rose into the air and left. This story is not meant to be disapproving of Dhammadinna, far from it, it is told to illustrate the idea that being a stickler for formalities is an indication of the highest spiritual attainments. Once I listened as Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda reminisced about his youth in India when he was studying at Benares Hindu University. He talked with affection and admiration about the then vice chancellor Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the great philosopher who went on to become president of India. Dhammananda was silent for a while and then said: ‘There is one thing about those days I regret. When I and the other monks used to go for an early morning walk we would often pass Dr. Radhakrishnan out on his morning walk. He always put his hands together and greeted us but being monks we never greeted him back. Nowadays I really regret doing that.’ Most Theravadin monks still act as Ven. Dhammananda did then, the only difference being that they are unlikely to ever develop the wisdom and humility to regret their behavior. If genuine and ‘strict’ monks are so concerned about honor and respect what are the far more common run-of-the-mill monks like? Spiro recounts an incident he witnessed during his stay in Burma. ‘When a Mandalay bus driver allegedly insulted some monks who were riding in his bus, a large meeting of monks demanded that the driver walk from the Government Building to the Arakan Pagoda – a distance of approximately five miles – with a sign identifying his ‘crime’ hanging from his neck, and that a group of monks ride behind him announcing that this is the price to be paid for insulting a monk. After many negotiations with the management of the bus company, the monks relented, settling for a public request for forgiveness by the bus driver, and of course a special feast.’
In the Tathagataguhya Sutra and many other Mahayana works it says that a bodhisattva will ‘bow before all beings.’ A Theravadin monk would never even consider doing such a thing. Why are monks so touchy or demanding when it comes to social formalities that elevate them in the eyes of others? Why won’t they return a greeting or a salutation even from a Mahayana monk, let alone a lay person? Why do they never say ‘Thank you’ when given something or helped in some way? Nowhere does the Buddha say a monk must not do any of these things, nor is there any Vinaya rule to that effect, so fidelity to the scriptures can’t be the reason. The fact is that Theravada is constructed in such a way as to make it more likely that a monk will develop a superiority complex. The very languages of Theravadin cultures reinforce the monks’ sense of self-importance. In Burma monks are referred to as yahan which is derived from the Pali word arahat and they are addressed as pungi meaning ‘great glory’. The Thai honorific phra is only used for the Buddha, the king, the gods and predictably, the monks. In Sinhala, monks refer to themselves as muradevatavo, ‘protective gods’ and are addressed as swamiwahanse which means something like ‘Your Lordship’. When talking to or speaking of monks, Theravadin lay people use what amounts to a special separate vocabulary. Sri Lankan lay people nidienawa, ‘sleep’ while monks satapenawa, ‘gracefully repose.’ Ordinary Burmese tamin sarde ‘eat’, while monks sun poung pide ‘glorify the food’. Most telling of all, ordinary Burmese theide ‘die’ while monks pyando mude ‘return to heaven’. Monks in Sri Lanka even lose their temper in a different way; they ediriwenawa while lay people merely tarahawenawa.
Monks are treated as if they were superior and of course hopefully they should be. But the reality is that short of being sotapannas or something higher, monks will be ordinary human beings with the usual weaknesses and frailties of other ordinary human beings. Of all the defilement pride is the most easy to arouse and by far the most seductive. Treat an ordinary person, even a very sincere and mindful one, as if he were God Almighty and it is only natural that in time he will start to think and act as if he were. Adulation, deference and praise can be very seductive. First monks like it, then they expect it, in time they depend upon it and eventually, to guarantee that it is always forthcoming, they make it a theme of their sermons and writings. A monk may fail to teach many aspects of Dhamma, but the importance of serving and honoring the Sangha is a subject that is never neglected. The Buddha said that those who practice the Dhamma best honor him best (D.II,138). Many Theravadin monks appear to teach the reverse of this, that those who honor them best practice the Dhamma best.
The usual justification monks give for bowing to them, eating separately from them and never sitting higher than them is that it is a way for you to confront and weaken your pride. Isn’t it heartening to know how concerned Theravadin monks are about helping lesser mortals get rid of their pride? How thoughtful they are in making themselves available for this worthy end! But if bowing to others can lessen pride does it not follow that being bowed to can give rise to pride? This point never seems to be discussed. The monks’ insistence of the importance of respecting them and the fact that it is usually the first thing a newcomer to Theravada is taught, suggest that its real purpose is something else. The meditation teacher Eric Harrison writes: ‘A bow is a little thing, but what does it mean? It is almost impossible to approach a Buddhist teacher as an intellectual equal. The teaching dynamic can’t happen until you acknowledge his superior status. That authority needs to be constantly reinforced by deferential behavior… The ritual behavior around a teacher is designed to enhance his status and that of the teaching. Deference, or a willingness to enter into the pecking order, is usually a requirement for being taught at all.’ It is hard to disagree with this assessment.
But the excessive reverence surrounding monks does not just tend to make many of them complacent and proud, it also has a more insidious effect. It helps create an atmosphere in which lay people can end up attributing to monks virtues they do not have and being unable to see vices they may have. It almost seems that lay people go temporarily blind when they see a yellow robe. In the Dhammapradipika there is a story that suggests the ideal lay Theravadins’ response towards failings within the Sangha. A man once saw a monk and a nun having sex together, but rather than remonstrate with them he blamed his own eyes and then blinded himself so that he would never again see evil in the Sangha. The intellectual equivalent of this sort of thing is the norm and in time even a good monk can be tempted to take advantage of it in ways that imperceptibly lead to him becoming dishonest and exploitative. I think this goes a long way to explaining not just why there is corruption in the Theravadin Sangha, but why the corruption is so pervasive. And incidentally, it is not just those with traditional Theravadin conditioning who are gullible when it comes to the Sangha; idealistic and uninformed Western Buddhists can be just the same.
Years ago I was asked to conduct a meditation course at a particular center in the West. When I arrived I was told that another monk was also using the premises to give a course and I was taken to meet him. He was an elderly Burmese monk of decidedly shabby appearance. He welcomed me in a hearty manner, slapping me on the back and talking at the top of his voice. He smoked one of those stinking Burmese cigars and his teeth and fingers were stained brown with nicotine. As it happened I already knew about this monk. He had quite a reputation in south-east Asia for hawking fake relics and for his shady business dealings. This was no surprise to me, such monks are common enough and I have encountered them many times before. What did astound me though was the ease with which he was able to pass himself off as a meditation master and the apparent awe that his Western students held him in. They drunk in his every word as if he were an arahat, or at least nearly enlightened. Bad people usually have to disguise their true character and intentions from those they wish to deceive, but for the shady Theravadin monk this is usually not necessary. Just to wear the yellow robe is all that is needed to put peoples’ critical faculties to sleep. The woman who had originally invited this monk to the West later distanced herself from him after he had made a pass at her but by then it didn’t matter. She of course would never say anything and he had already attracted numerous others who were only too happy to adore him, raise money for him and do his bidding.
It would be easy to be critical of monks like this and see them as undermining Theravada. My feeling is that it is actually the other way around. They are as much victims as the devotees they exploit. They corrupt Theravada but only because Theravada has corrupted them. There can be no doubt that enough males enter the monastic life with good intentions and that even the youngsters who are dragooned into the Sangha could, with the right influence, develop into genuine monks. But slowly and inexorably even good monks have their egos inflated by constant adulation. They are lulled into indolence by swarms of devotees waiting on them hand and foot. Their attempts to live in austerity are undermined by the mountains of gifts they receive. And their integrity is eroded by the admiration and acclaim that greets their every word and action, no matter how commonplace. The problem is not really with the monks, it is with the system, although it is true that the monks keep the system going.