Rituals

One often hears Theravadins say that they don’t like Mahayana because it has too much ritual. I would contend that ritual is more integral to Theravada and more prevalent in it than in Mahayana. But before proceeding it will be necessary to define what a ritual is? If an action is performed for a particular purpose it can be considered necessary and meaningful. If that same action is performed without regard to whether or not it achieves its original purpose or after the purpose has become redundant, it can be said to be a ritual. Based on this definition the way most Vinaya rules are practiced qualifies them to be called rituals. Take for example the rule which forbids a monk eating anything that has not been formally offered (Pacittiya 40). If I am walking through an orchard and I casually pluck an apple or pick one up from the ground the owner might get annoyed and I might get into trouble. Further, the orchard owner might also get a poor impression of the Sangha. Looked at thus this rule could be meaningful. But let us say a friend invites me to his home for a meal, I come, we are the only ones in the house, he gets the food ready and when it is he sets it before me saying: ‘Hear is your lunch’. When he puts the plate in front of me there can be no doubt in my mind that the food is meant for me and for me alone and I can consider it to have been given to me whether it had actually been put in my hand or not. If I ask that it be ‘formally offered’ (i.e. taken with two hands and put directly in my hand) or if he insists on ‘formally offering’ it, this action would cease to be useful or meaningful, it would be superfluous, in short it would have become a mere ritual.

Take another example, the vassa and the kathina. The Sangha started as and remained for some centuries mainly an organization of itinerants. During the monsoon in India when travel was difficult, monks would remain in one place for three months. At the end of this period before they continued wanderings lay people would offer them new robes and other necessities. During this period the kathina and the vassa were meaningful and useful, indeed they were necessary. But today the situation has completely changed. In India and even more so in Sri Lanka and Thailand roads, bridges and transport are as good during the monsoon as they are during the rest of the year. Further, like ordinary people, monks today usually travel from one place to another by car, bus, train, etc. And yet monks still don’t travel during the vassa. Nowadays, some Theravadin monks live in areas where the months July to October constitute the dry season. Yet still they observe the vassa. There are two monsoons a year in Sri Lanka and monks ‘observe’ the second but not the first. Almost no monks today are itinerants, they are often the legal owners of their monasteries and even when not usually have full rights of residence in a particular temple and may spend their whole life there. And yet the kathina is still carried out at the end of the vassa as if monks are only temporary visitors. In other words, observing the vassa and performing the kathina have become just rituals. Now it could be argued and I think quite rightly, that it is both possible and legitimate to give new meanings to old practices. But if one is going to give the kathina or the vassa new meanings (the main function of the kathina today seems to be fundraising) is it necessary to insist that every minute detail of these now obsolete practices be followed? A Theravadin would inevitably argue that it is.

One more example. Pacittiya 10 and 11 say that a monk must not destroy plants or dig the earth. Like some other rules these two originate in the beliefs and practices of pre-Buddhist ascetics, in this case the Jains. The Jains believed that even plants, rocks, water, sand and earth were living entities lower than other creatures but sentient nonetheless. So to pluck a flower or break a clod of earth would be to cause them pain or perhaps even to kill them. Sekhiya 74 and 75 are based on this same misconception. This means that if a monk eats a fruit containing fertile seeds he would be killing. Consequently, the Vinaya describes a procedure to avoid committing such an offence. Before a monk is given any seed-bearing fruit a lay person must plunge a knife into the seeds to kill them, thus making the fruit ‘acceptable’ for the monk. While doing this they should say ‘Kappiyam Bhante’ meaning ‘It is allowable, Venerable Sir.’ This practice is done in Thailand and Burma but has completely fallen into abeyance in Sri Lanka. Thanissaro has five pages on this rule and the essence of his comments is this. It is not necessary to go through all this rigmarole, firstly because this procedure is based on a primitive and false ‘animistic belief’, and secondly because it would take too long to kill all the seeds in say, a bunch of grapes or a bowl of oranges. All you have to do is kill the seeds symbolically running a knife lightly over the skin of one grape or one orange while saying ‘Kappiyam Bhante’ would make the whole bunch or the whole bowl ‘allowable.’ In other words, while admitting that this procedure is based on a false belief Thanissaro insists that one should still do it anyway, although it is only necessary to pretend to do it. A senior and very learned Burmese monk has assured me that fruit is allowable whether or not the seeds are killed as long as the phrase ‘It is allowable Venerable Sir’ is said in Pali; not English or even Burmese. Very clearly this and similar practices are nothing more than meaningless, empty and rather stupid rituals. They have no bearing upon morality, on discipline or on the transformation of the mind, and in the case just mentioned don’t even pretend to fulfill their stated purpose. Indeed it could be argued that to insist on performing this ritual would be example of silabhataparamasa, the second of the Ten Fetters.

The ritualizing tendency of Theravada goes far beyond the practice of Vinaya; indeed it seems to infest nearly every aspect of the tradition from morality to meditation, from dana to devotion. At the time of the Buddha one became a monk by a radical change of attitude leading to the renunciation of the world. In Theravada it is by participating in a ritual and exhibiting certain outward characteristics that one becomes a monk. Candidates to the monkhood usually keep their personal property, allegiances and ties, and yet are considered monks so long as they have undergone the correctly preformed ordination ceremony. They are not required to give up anything, indeed they are not even asked to do so, but the greatest care is taken that the ordination ceremony is done properly. In Sri Lanka there is uncertainty about the pronunciation of one Pali letter and so part of the ordination ceremony is repeated twice; once using the one pronunciation and again using the other, because the ceremony is considered invalid if the words are not said properly. A sil maniyo or a maichi [1] could have genuinely given up everything.

and be more disciplined, sincere and virtuous than the monks in the nearby monastery. But she would never be considered a member of the Sangha because she would not have undergone the ordination ceremony and therefore could not legitimately have the outward characteristics of a monastic. According to the Milindapanha an immoral monk is superior to an immoral lay man, and gifts given to him will still yield great merit. Why is this? Because such a monk has the mark of a monk (shaven head etc.) and because when he is in the company of others he acts as if he were virtuous (Mil.257). It couldn’t be more clear. A monk is one who has undergone a particular ritual and looks and acts like a monk, no matter what he is like on the inside. If he has genuinely renounced the world and is learned and virtuous so much the better, but the defining factor of his monkhood is having undergone the ritual. It need hardly be mentioned here that the Buddha took the exact opposite view on what made a monk. See for example Dhammapada 142, 264, 266, etc.

Writing of his experiences in Thailand the English monk Phra Peter mentions that most of the food he and other monks are given on begging rounds is thrown away. ‘Even after my two [temple] boys have eaten all the food they need for the day, there are three or four carrier bags full, plus a considerable quantity of rice. This is all thrown away. Everyday. When that much food is multiplied by the number of monks and novices who go out on bindabhat, it must add up to a great deal of food wasted daily… Besides being a useless waste, the food is frequently offered by poor people and they may give the monks better food than they themselves eat. I thought at first, the people presumably expect the monks to eat it. Or had going on bindabaht become merely a symbolic gesture concerned more with ‘making merit’ than actually feeding the monks?’ Phra Peter asked the students in the class he was teaching for their opinion on this matter. ‘Somewhat to my surprise there was general agreement amongst the students that the monks should accept as much food as the people wanted to offer, even though most of it would be thrown away. The students said that the donors were usually fully aware that the monk couldn’t possibly eat all the food but that the point was in the giving, not in the receiving. They agreed that the monk should show Metta and allow the people to ‘make merit’.’ Thus Phra Peter’s suspicions were confirmed, going on alms round, like many Theravadin practices, is primarily a ‘symbolic gesture,’ a ritual. The opinion of Phra Peter’s informants, which most Thais would agree with, illustrates how even practicing metta has become ritualized. One ‘shows metta’ by taking from people food that you don’t need and they can’t afford and then throwing it away. To a Theravadin, educating the poor to use their meager resources more intelligently would be considered a secular act that had nothing to do with metta.

For ancient Mahayana monks the alms round wasn’t a ritual, it was a way of getting sustenance and yet another opportunity to develop compassion. The Ratnarasi Sutra says a monk going on pindapata should think like this. ‘ “Those people are busy, they are not obliged to give me anything. It is a wonder that they notice me at all. How much more that they give alms!” Thus one should go begging without worrying. For all beings that come within his view – men, women, children and even animals – he has love and compassion… Whether the alms he gets are poor or good we must look around all the four quarters and ask “What poor creature is there in this village, town or city with whom I might share my alms?” If he sees some poor creature, he must give him some of his alms. If he sees no such creatures he must ask “Are there any poor creatures who I have not seen? For them I will set apart a first share of my alms”.’ Even if a Thai or Burmese monk going on pindapata wanted to share the things he was given with a hungry or homeless person he met on his way, he couldn’t do so without risking strong disapproval. His donors would be most indignant if they knew that the offerings they gave him were then given to anyone other than another monk or a temple boy. Further, even a very hungry person would be reluctant to accept the monk’s offer of food. Theravada teaches that it is extremely bad karma to accept anything from a monk and this is a notion that ordinary people take very seriously indeed. In Sri Lanka I used to have a small hermitage on the side of a steep hill and anyone who walked up to see me would usually arrive hot and sweating. I would always offer them a glass of water but more often than not they would refuse, saying, ‘Paw nedha,’ ‘It’s a sin isn’t it?’

Notes

  1. Female renunciants in Sri Lanka and Thailand. [back]