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We have a Buddhist monk at home! What are we going to do with him?

Bhikkhu Ayu Kusalananda

Buddhist monks follow certain rules which enable their spiritual practice and also secure their smooth interaction with laypeople. These rules are encoded in the part of Buddhist Canon known as the Monks' Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Monks, however, should not discuss their breaches of the rules nor those of any other monk with lay people; they may give information about what they should abstain from according to the rules in any particular situation.

First of all, keep in mind that the Buddha formulated the monastic rules in order to make it as easy as possible for the laity to communicate with the monks and to take care of them. In the Vinaya-Pitaka no requirements are mentioned for lay people in connection with monks; their support of the Sangha is entirely voluntary. Yet it is good to be considerate and not to make it unnecessarily difficult for the monk to be with you. If someone who appears to be a monk or a nun tries to impose duties upon you, ignore them. When some such person tries to take advantage of your obvious readiness to help monks, then use your common sense, decently yet decisively: do not associate with him or her. It may happen not only with a Westerner who has not obtained proper monastic training, but also with some Asians who became monks or nuns just to profit materially or socially.

So what should or should not be done? Neither invite a monk to your place nor make him any promises until you find out over a reasonable test period what that person is really like. Also clarify in advance what are your mutual expectations, especially what are the limitations relevant to the situation you are going to share. You need not discuss Vinaya rules for that purpose.

The Buddhist monk should not accept an invitation to live "under one ceiling" with a woman, no matter whether lay or nun. This means, strictly according to the tradition, that there are no women allowed to live in the same wing of a monastery where monks live. According to the modern Western way of treating a monk, this means that he has to be given a dwelling place with separate entrance. If the monk's room (with lavatory etc.) is within a meditation centre, a hotel, or in a private house, it should be on a different floor than the rooms for women, or at least permanently locked off and thus clearly separated. Unless these regulations are granted, the monk can be accused of the most serious offence.

No women are allowed to enter the monk's dwelling, unless accompanied by a trustworthy man and coming for an acceptable reason. And also the monk never enters a nun's dwelling or women's section of a meditation centre, unless accompanied by another monk or trustworthy lay person. All the same, the monk would never be alone with a women in a room or a shielded off place where no one else can see and hear what is going on. This also applies to the so-called private counselling interviews and to individual instruction in meditation. This is not simply to secure the monk's moral purity, as there are cases recorded both in Asia and the West where the woman's husband comes and seriously hurts or even kills the monk.

There are four offences against the monastic rules, breaking which entails the monk ceasing forever to be a monk. These are first, having committed sexual intercourse with a woman, a man, or an animal; second, having stolen a thing or taken what was not given in such a way as would be punishable according to the law valid for that situation; third, having killed a human being, or encouraged someone to kill; fourth, having falsely claimed an attainment of supernatural states in meditation or of some stage of enlightenment. When you know for sure that a person (while ordained) has committed one of these four most serious offences (known as pārājika), do not take him or her to be a monk or a nun anymore and inform others about it.

It is not the laity's business to interfere with the inner regulations of the monastic order; but they do have the right to decide which monks or nuns they want to support and attend upon. For this it is not necessary to know more than the ten ethical precepts, which are sufficient as rules for male and female novices (sāmanera and sāmanerī) as well as for those laypeople who are undergoing intensive training. The first five rules are kept by Buddhist lay people too, so we need not discuss them. The sixth rule forbids eating after midday; clear drinks may be taken, however. The seventh and eighth forbid attendance of frivolous shows or dances and dressing up or beautifying oneself. The ninth and tenth concern frugality: abstention from using luxurious seats and beds; also from handling valuables and money. Laypeople should not tempt monks and nuns into breaking or straining their rules.

For a monk with higher ordination (bhikkhu) it might be somewhat more difficult to handle daily situations in the modern Western setting, unless an able attendant accompanies him. The attendant may prepare the situation for the bhikkhu and inform the lay hosts about the proper ways. Entertaining a bhikkhu may be a valuable training in mindfulness for lay people and in this case they may ask either the attendant or the bhikkhu himself for guidance. Otherwise it is to be expected that the bhikkhu uses his own judgement to communicate so as not to create awkward situations harming his ethics or making it unpleasantly demanding for laypeople. There are only a few principles to be born in mind in such cases: e.g. the bhikkhu does not take any foods, drinks, and other offerings which are not explicitly placed into his hands or into his bowl and he should be seated on a higher seat and treated preferentially in all aspects.

Both bhikkhu and sāmanera generally avoid the intimacy of shaking hands while greeting, not to speak about any other sort of intimate touching to express affection or appreciation. In order not to offend non-Buddhists, a monk may need to greet people according to the custom of the country. Normally you greet a monk by folding the hands as in prayer (añjali). In a more formal way, the monks are to be greeted in the same way as they pay respect to the Buddha statue. It is polite not to sit or stand too close to a monk. There is no sense in importing to the West all those various rituals and habits that are culturally bound to different Eastern countries. Yet there are some basic rituals which are meaningful independent from any cultural setting. And these rituals are connected with the requisites that must be present in any place where the original form of Buddhism should flourish.

There are two requisites which, since the time of Buddha, make the person a monk: they are called patta-cīvara, the bowl and the robe. Unless there is some important reason not to do so, the monk eats his daily meals from his bowl. There are several spiritually meaningful and very beautiful rituals connected with putting the food into the monk's bowl; these rituals, as practiced also in the West, e.g. by the Āyukusala Central European Sangha, provide for the mutual welfare of the lay people and monastic community. The other requisite, called cīvara, is the upper of the three monk's robes. In the same way as cloak-and-sword makes knighthood, the patta-cīvara makes monkshood. It is not possible to greet and worship a monk who does not wear his cīvara.


To sum up, attendance upon monks and nuns is a rewarding and inspiring experience. If done properly, this is one of the best fields for the exercise of mindfulness and clear comprehension that is the pivotal part of all Buddhist training. Serving, helping, and nurturing the Buddhist monk, who outwardly represents the Buddha, symbolises the inner nurturing of all the Buddha-qualities within oneself.


Source: Ayukusala Central European Sangha, http://www.volny.cz/dhamma/english.htm  

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