One has to spend time in a Theravadin monastery to see the spiritually deadening effects that centuries of Vinaya formalism has had. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pervasive hypocrisy of monastic life. While insisting that one particular rule be followed with almost fanatical exactness monks will quite casually ignore rules that do not suit them. For example, one of the rules says that ‘you should not travel in a vehicle. Whoever should so go commits a Dukkhata offense’ (Vin.I,190). This was taken to mean any form of conveyance whether wheeled, carried by human or drawn by animal and the modern equivalent would be a car, bus, train etc. Yet monks are quite happy to have their supporters to drive them around in cars. The Sangharaja of Thailand and the Maha Nayakas of Sri Lanka have no qualms about traveling in their chauffeur-driven Mercedes. To the best of my knowledge no attempt is made to get around this rule with the usual sophistry and hairsplitting. Like the rule about having only one set of robes, it is simply ignored. Then there is the widespread practice of adhering to the letter of the rules while studiously ignoring their purpose and spirit. I once stayed in a monastery in Sri Lanka where the monks always scrupulously examined the buckets of well water for tiny creatures before tipping them over their heads to bathe (Pacittiya 20). One day one of the monks found that he had worms. He informed the monastery attendant who had previously been instructed in how to deal with such contingencies. The attendant brought a bottle of worm medicine, soaked the label of it, filled several other small unlabeled medicine bottles with water and then put them together in the wormy monk’s room. Several times during the following day the monk selected one or another of these bottles at random and drunk it until he had emptied them all thereby killing the worms without breaking the rules.
But the hypocrisy goes far beyond this. Strict Theravadin monks actually publish books instructing lay people how help them wheedle their way around inconvenient rules. The book The Bhikkhus’ Rules-A Guide for Laypeople by Ariyesako is a good example of this type of literature. In one place it informs the reader that monks are not allowed to dig the earth or get another person to dig it for them (Pacittiya 10). But if a monk wants a hole dug to plant a tree, for example, what is he to do? He cannot ask anyone to do it for him and they do not know what is required. The solution is to teach lay people what might be called the ‘wink wink, nudge nudge’ approach to Vinaya. I quote from Ariyesako’s book: ‘It is…allowable for monks to hint to lay people or novices about what needs doing as long as the words or gestures fall short of a command. When bhikkhus need paths to be cleared, necessary work done on the ground, firebreaks made, etc., any lay attendant wanting to help should look out for hints and indications.’ Thanissaro recommends a similar strategy for getting around the rule against damaging plants. You can indicate ‘indirectly that the grass needs cutting (Look how long the grass is) or that a tree needs pruning (This branch is in the way) without expressly giving the command to cut. In other words, this is another rule where one may avoid an offence by using kappiya vohara; wording it right’ (in both quotations italics mine). If one is going to get around the rules like this then why insist on having them in the first place? Vinaya fundamentalists say that following the rules strictly encourages acceptance and discipline. Stratagems like the ones mentioned above suggest very strongly that it encourages nothing more than a Pharisee-like mentality.
There is nothing new in this sort of thing either, it has a long tradition in Theravada. The ancient commentaries to the Vinaya and traditional Vinaya manuals give numerous similar instructions on how to circumvent the rules. Another way of getting around the rules is by juggling definitions. Thanissaro gives an example of when this can be done. Sekhiya 73 says that a monk should neither defecate or urinate while standing unless he is sick. But what if you are in the West, you have to urinate and the cubical in the public toilet is taken? Thanissaro suggests that you designate yourself as ‘sick’ so you can go up to the urinal and relive yourself with a clear conscience and without breaking the rule.
Not surprisingly the greatest hypocrisy within the Theravadin Sangha revolves around money. As pointed out before, the overwhelming majority of monks quite openly accepts and uses money, and in this sense at least they are being honest and realistic. This is the one rule that nearly all monks are prepared to be flexible about. The majority are therefore only guilty of hypocrisy in that they disregard this rule while still making a big show of other equally obsolete or less important ones. It is however, the fundamentalists who pride themselves on being ‘pure’ and on ‘upholding Vinaya’ who are the most hypocritical in this respect. There are two ways some of these monks circumvent the rule concerning money. The most common is by instructing devotees to put their donations in an envelope so that in the strictly literal sense the monk does not actually ‘touch’ it. I once knew a monk who kept a pair of tweezers so that he could count the donations he received without having physical contact with them. In the main shrine rooms in Theravadin temples throughout south-east Asia there is always a large box with envelopes in it so that people can put money in them before offering it to the monks. The second way and one used by the more sophisticated fundamentalists, is to have what amounts to a personal accountant. I know ‘strict’ monks who go on speaking tours, do blessing ceremonies or appeal for support for their monasteries, knowing that they will generate money. They benefit from the money thus donated, they have complete control over how it is spent, and they peruse the accounts, while being careful not to have direct physical contact with a single cent. Such monks remind one of John D. Rockefeller, who, when he became a multimillionaire, never actually carried or used any money.
The one redeeming feature of all this Theravadin hypocrisy surrounding money is that at least it provides opportunities to sometimes have a really good laugh. Once, on arriving in a certain south-east Asian city, I had no choice but to stay in a large, rich and very popular Thai temple. The day after my arrival the abbot told me that I must accompany him and several other monks to a private home for a dana. After we had eaten and were leaving, the lady of the house stood at her door with envelopes bowing to each monk as they passed and dropping an envelope into their shoulder bags which they opened for her. I did not have a shoulder bag and so put out my hand to take the envelope. The women hesitated for a moment before giving it to me, unsure that she was ‘doing it right.’ The abbot spent much of the journey back to the temple scolding me for having taking the envelope directly, which he said, was ‘against Wini’ (i.e. Vinaya). As soon as we got back to the temple he rummaged through a cupboard until he found an old shoulder bag, threw it to me and said angrily, ‘Wini! You must practice Wini!’ and then mumbled something in Thai about ‘farang’ monks. Two nights later I was awoken by a loud noise, I fumbled for the clock to see what the time was and found that it was about 1.30 am. I lay in bed for a while trying to think what the strange noise coming from downstairs could be and finally got up and see what it was. As I turned the corner and began to descend the stairs I was confronted by one of the most amazing sight I have ever beheld. There on the huge table in the dining room was a pile of coins and bank notes which must have been five or six inches high and which spread from one end of the table to the other, a distance of about 25 feet. All the monks sat around the table counting the money and putting it in neat piles and the abbot sat at the far end, cigarette in mouth and notebook in hand, adding up the monthly take from all the donation boxes which were lying upturned on the floor. The strange noise I had heard was the metallic click and jingle of thousands of coins being gathered up and counted. I could not help laughing to myself and returned to my room, lay down on my bed and drifted back to sleep while chanting that old Theravadin mantra Wini, Wini, Wini, Wini!
Of course all this dissembling and hypocrisy could be easily avoided. If a monk has genuine commitment and sincerity he should be able to use money where necessary and not be seduced by it, it could touch his hand without touching his heart. Adhering strictly to rules does not thereby change the mind, in fact it is often just a cover for cunning, inflexibility, self-righteousness and other negative states.