The Good Samaritan and the Good Theravadin

A man once asked Jesus what he must do to be saved and Jesus asked him what the scriptures said. The man quoted the two Bible verse: ‘Love your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus agreed with this and then the man asked him another question: ‘Who is your neighbor?’ In response to this question Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. ‘Once a man was going on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho when robbers attacked him, stripped him and beat him up leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going along that same way but when he saw the man he walked by on the other side of the road. Then a Levite also came along, went over and looked at the man and then walked passed on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan who was traveling that way came upon the man and when he saw him his heart was filled with pity. He went over to him, poured oil and wine on his wounds and bandaged them; then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. “Take care of him”, he told the inn keeper “and when I come back this way I will pay you whatever else you spend on him”. Jesus then asked the man which of the three had acted like a neighbor to the man attacked by the robbers. “The one who had been kind to him” replied the man. Jesus said “Then go and act like this”.’

This parable of Jesus and his words ‘Insomuch as you did it for the least of these my brothers, you did it for me’ (Mathew 25,34-40), have had a profound and positive effect on Christianity. The story of the Buddha nursing the sick monk and his exhortation: ‘He who would nurse me, let him nurse the sick,’ so similar to Jesus’ words, have had no corresponding influence on Theravadin thought or practice. They have been like a symphony played to the deaf. A Theravadin version of the parable of the Good Samaritan would go something like this. Once a man was going along the road from Bangkok to Ayudhya when robbers attacked him, stripped him and beat him up leaving him half dead. It so happened that a monk was going along the road, saw the man and thought to himself: ‘I better not do anything because I might break the Vinaya and besides, if I don’t hurry I’ll be late for dana’ and he continued on his way. Next, a meditator came along, saw the man and putting his palms together and smiling said: ‘May you be well and happy’ and then he continued mindfully on his way. Finally a pious old woman came along, saw the man and thought: ‘Now if I help him I’ll get ten points of merit but if go and serve the monks I’ll get a thousand times more’ and she scurried off to the local monastery.

I have sometimes met young monks in Sri Lanka who would genuinely like to express metta or karuna through action but they find it extremely difficult. Lay people are always watching to make sure monks conform to traditional patterns of behavior and are quick to show disapproval when they don’t. The notion of monks as precious, revered individuals is a further hindrance to such efforts. If a Sri Lankan monk tried to wash a sick man half a dozen horrified people would rush up saying: ‘I’ll do that for you Venerable Sir.’ ‘No Venerable, leave that to me.’ They would snatch the soap and towel from his hand , lead him away to a comfortable chair while one would rush to get him a glass of water another would stand on the side fanning him and asking him whether he’d had his dana. If a Thai or a Burmese monk were ever stupid enough to try such a thing he would be branded ‘a bad monk’ and probably have to leave the district, perhaps even disrobed. And the idea of a monk nursing a sick female, even his sister, a baby girl or an old woman, even in an emergency, is utterly inconceivable. During the London blitz the well-known Burmese monk U Thittila, always a bit of a maverick, put on a helmet and trench coat and helped rescue people from bombed buildings. This won him much respect from British Buddhists but the severest condemnation in Burma and it took years for his reputation to recover. I met him just before his death and asked him about this incident. He chuckled and said: ‘We Burmese wouldn’t know karuna if we tripped over it’ or words to that effect. Theravada must be the only religion in the world where a spontaneous act of kindness by a clergyman could be considered an offence.

In Sri Lanka and Thailand social work by monks is a little more acceptable than in Burma, as long as the monk restricts himself to administration, fund raising or organizing the lay people and does not actually physically exert himself or get his hands dirty. But even then he will be struggling to get much encouragement or support from the community. Commenting on the Burmese situation Spiro says: ‘[O]ne group [of monks], concerned with performing acts of charity, have established orphanages in their monasteries… By 1962 there were 77 orphanages, scattered throughout Burma and the Shan States, affiliated with their monasteries, with more than 600 resident (male) orphans. As might be expected however… little interest has been shown in its work, either by other monks or by the laity. Financial support for its activities was mainly provided by the (American) Asia Foundation until its expulsion from Burma in 1962. Indeed one of the moving spirits of the work of these monks and in the founding of their association, was a Burmese employee of the latter foundation, a western educated Buddhist who, exposed to and influenced by Christian missionary work, was obviously trying to cast the Buddhist monks in the latter mold.’ This is an astute observation. The funds for the little Theravadin social work that does exist often comes from beyond the community and such social work is usually done by either Western or Christian influences individuals, is in imitation of Christian social work, or is done to counter the social work Christians do. [1]

This is better than nothing but it is further evidence that practical compassion is not really a part of Theravada.

This is not to say that Theravadins are not kind and generous. They are, sometimes noticeably so. But their kindness and generosity is extended to the unfortunate only in a piecemeal and individual manner. A lay person will throw a few coins to a homeless man but he or she would rarely do anything about homelessness itself. Sustained and effective service is reserved almost entirely for the Sangha. Monks for their part can be equally kind, but the Vinaya and public expectations prevent them from doing anything much more than just feeling kindness. Mendelson’s comments on Burma are applicable to other Theravadin lands: ‘Despite the occasional acts of social service customary for monasteries in royal Burma, the feeling has always been in that country that the principle aim of monks should be their own search for enlightenment and that they should not be distracted from this by any worldly pursuits albeit of the most charitable kind. Thus, acts of social service are not traditionally performed as a matter of course or in consonance with any Buddhist theory on the subject, but rather are the natural outcome of usually good and ethically minded Burmans…It was already apparent to me, before going to Burma, that the whole nature of Burmese society might well be changed if Burmese changed their views about what actions constituted meritorious deeds. Overwhelmingly, these have consisted of gifts to the Sangha, primarily of food but also of buildings and various facilities and basic requirements.’

Theravadins will say that I am judging them by Christian standards and that monks were meant to be contemplatives not social workers. This is true and I have no argument with it. But there are two false assumptions behind this statement. Firstly, the reality is that the vast majority of monks in Theravadin countries are not contemplative. At best they are scholars and ritual specialists, at worst they are…well, we won’t go into that again! Secondly, the notion that social service is somehow incompatible with meditation or even detrimental to it, is invalid. Social involvement could be a contemplation – it could be an exercise in letting go, a way of seeing and diminishing the ego, a means of developing metta and karuna. Take mindfulness practice for example. In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha says: ‘Further, a monk is one who acts with mindfulness while coming and going, while looking in front and looking behind, while reaching out with his arm or drawing back his arm, while putting on his robe or caring his robe and bowl, while eating and drinking, supping and tasting, while defecating and urinating, while walking or standing, falling asleep or waking up, while talking or remaining silent’ (M.I,57). The point being made here is that any activity can and should be done with mindfulness. Instead of using adherence to sterile and arcane rules as a means of developing mindfulness, as Thanissaro and other fundamentalists suggest, why not use helpfulness to others? If one can eat mindfully during a meditation course, why can’t one mindfully prepare food for the hungry? Then there is that old Theravadin favorite, the contemplation on the repulsiveness of the body. If one can become detached and calm by thinking of the unpleasant aspects of the body, why can’t one do the same thing while caring for a terminally ill patient? The pedantic and conservative attitude of Theravada has retarded the development of such creative approaches to spirituality. Add to this the narcissistic self-preoccupation of Theravada and its clericocentrisity and such possibilities have never even been considered.

In 2000 I spent some time as a volunteer at Mother Theresa’s Home For the Destitute Dying in Calcutta. The whole experience was an eye-opener for me. The first thing I noticed was that despite the toil, the misery and the not infrequent pressure, many of the sisters and other volunteers possessed the very qualities that we Buddhists try to develop through meditation – acceptance, detachment, contentment, as well as compassion and love. Their work was a way of helping others, a means of personal transformation and an offering to their God. It seems to me that this very idea is suggested in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. In the hours before the Buddha’s passing Ananda went to the lodgings, leant against the door post and sobbed at the thought that soon he would see his beloved friend and teacher no more. The Buddha noticed his faithful attendant’s absences, asked where he was and on being told, called for him to come. Ananda came as requested and sat near the Buddha. ‘Enough Ananda, do not weep or cry’ said the Buddha. ‘Have I not already told you that all things that are pleasant and liked are also ephemeral, subject to change and impermanent? For a long time, Ananda, you have been in the Tathagata’s presence expressing love with body, expressing love with speech, expressing love with mind, beneficially, blessedly, whole-heartedly, unstintingly. You have achieved much good, Ananda. Make a last effort and in a short time you will be freed from the defilements’ (D.II,144). What does the phrase ‘expressing love through body’ (mettena kaya kamena) mean here? Surely the Buddha was saying that Ananda’s years of selfless giving, of quiet helpfulness and of thinking of others and putting them before himself, had allowed him draw near the portals of Nirvana. Surely Ananda’s loving actions were his meditation.

The other thing I noticed about working in the Home for the Destitute Dying was that every night when I went back to my room my mind was for the most part cleansed of and free from the Hindrances, particularly kammacchanda. Despite being physically tired my mind was as lucid as when I had been doing long periods of solitary meditation. This was so noticeable that I began to wonder what could have caused it. As I had spent most of the day wiping up feces and washing infected wounds I am certain that it was because I had in effect been doing the contemplation on the repulsiveness of the body. Once, over a period of 12 months, I had done this contemplation formally, visiting the morgue at Kandy General Hospital once a week and found that it brought about a very deep stable detachment. But the detachment and clarity I experienced in Calcutta was qualitatively different, it was imbued with the joy and warmth of knowing that I had made at least some difference to the life of a fellow human being. I have often tried to logically work out the apparent paradox of being detached and yet caring about others. In Calcutta I didn’t work it out logically but I did learn from my experience that the two can occur simultaneously. A Western Tibetan monk who runs a hospice has told me he has had this same experience. As an aside, the other thing I noticed about working in Calcutta was the difference between the lifestyle of the nuns and my own. While ‘technically’ having few possessions, I like other Theravadin monks, actually own or have the use of a cornucopia of things. The Little Sisters of Charity own nothing but two saris and a bucket. They spend all their time giving while we Theravadin monks spend most of our time receiving – and I think we are the poorer because of it.


  1. For more on this syndrome see H. L. Seniviratna, The Work of Kings, 1999, p.319. [back]