The Purpose


As we have already seen, without a living Buddha it is not possible to be enlightened and, in addition, the words of the Buddha resonate:

Collection of speeches grouped numerically
AN 1.316-332. Third sub-chapter

«Monks, as well as even a negligible amount of excrement stinks, so I do not praise even a negligible amount of existence, even for a fraction of a second.

«Monks, as well as even a negligible amount of urine stinks … an insignificant amount of saliva smells bad … an insignificant amount of pus smells bad … an insignificant amount of blood stinks, so I do not praise even a negligible amount of existence, even for a fraction of a second. «


Enlightenment consists precisely in ending existence.

So … what sense does a Buddhism have without a Buddha? Moreover, what is the point of monks today, without having a Buddha to accompany?

In the Buddha’s time, people became monks or nuns to «overcome suffering, to reach Nibbāna». Oddly enough, this is probably the least common reason to enter the Sangha Theravadin.

In Burma and Thailand it is expected that all men will order at least once in their life. This experience could have a positive influence on a person, but in most cases it seems to leave little impression.

In a well-run monastery in Mandalay, there was an old monk and each time he came to join a small group of young monks, they would be quiet, seemed a little nervous and one by one he left us leaving the two alone. This senior monk spoke excellent English and had a good understanding of Dhamma and an interest in meditation. It seemed that the discomfort of others in his presence was only deference to his age or perhaps to his position in the hierarchy. But the real reason is that he was the head of the dreaded local secret police and had a deserved reputation for brutality. Once a year, I would spend a few weeks as a monk «practicing Buddhism.»

Thais believe that ordering is a way to compensate their parents for the sacrifices they made in raising him and is the main motivation to become a monk in that country. As a rite of initiation, this is an endearing and socially important message, but as a reason to join the Sangha it is not very good at all and does not guarantee that one becomes a true monk.

In Burma, all men become monks for a time because … well, simply because it is tradition.

In both countries, most leave after a few days or weeks, but others decide to stay. They do it for a variety of reasons. Some develop a genuine interest in the Dhamma, some consider that the quiet life of the monastery is a welcome escape from work and social obligations, some do not have what it takes to do it in the world and they have no choice but to stay. Some remain for the most nefarious reasons that I will not enter here.

This means that a given percentage, usually a high percentage, of monks has little or no real interest in the spiritual life.

In a strange acknowledgment of the true situation, the modernist Thait Chatsumam Kabilsingh says that many monks in his country are simply «simple uneducated farmers in yellow robes».

In Sri Lanka, the situation is different. The tradition of temporal ordination does not exist there and once in the Sangha is expected to stay. Most monks are ordained when they are very young and often because their parents are too poor to care for them. Sometimes, a child with an auspicious astrological sign is placed in the Sangha with the hope that he can change his destiny. Monasteries with valuable farms linked to them are commonly controlled by certain families for generations and one of their members will be ordered to ensure that the land remains in the family.

But whatever the motive for ordination, with a good guardianship and an inspiring example of their elders, a child can become truly religious. If such influences are absent, if he does not like monastic life or if he is not psychologically prepared for it, he has no choice but to stay.

Recently, the social pressure to remain in the Sangha had begun to collapse and now a lot of young monks are leaving. More and more people are studying secular topics in order to escape and get a job as soon as they graduate. This means that the monasteries are gradually staying for the very young, for the very old, for those who do not use them and for those who stay alone because they have no other way of earning a living. The system in Sri Lanka was never particularly good at getting the best out of a person, but now it is even worse than ever.

Just as whoever orders is not related in large measure to an interest in the Dhamma, so is the number of ordained monks. In Burma, during the seventeenth century, so many men entered the Sangha that was causing a serious shortage of labor in the country. King Thalun had all the monks undergo a basic Buddhism examination knowing that the majority would fail and, therefore, give him an excuse to undress them.

According to the Department of Religious Affairs of Thailand, in 1990 there were 290,300 men in tunics in the country and during the monsoon, the time when men traditionally entered monasteries, the number increased to 423,400. People like there are many monks so they can take advantage of them, have someone perform blessing ceremonies and funerals and just to make sure the local monastery is full. If they are genuinely committed to the spiritual life it seems to be only a secondary consideration, if so. In Sri Lanka, sometimes the reasons for the number of children ordained are very difficult to understand.

In a ceremony in which thirty-seven boys between eight and twelve years old were ordained, it was heartbreaking to see the little ones crying for their mothers. When asking the president monk why that number he smiled and told me; ‘Because there are thirty-seven Enlightenment Factors.’

It is not surprising that the monasteries are full of monks who are there for reasons totally alien to the true purpose of the Sangha. These monks are the majority, tend to establish the tone of the monastic life and atmosphere of the monastery. The monks inspired by Dhamma find little support for their aspirations, they are reduced to the level of the majority or more and more nowadays, they simply get undressed.

According to the Vinaya, a boy of just eight years old can become a novice monk. To become a fully ordained monk, you only need to answer affirmatively and truthfully twelve questions and give the name and name of the teacher. In the second and first centuries BC, when the Vinaya was compiled, these requirements were probably already insufficient to determine whether a candidate was suitable. Today they are woefully inadequate and are among the main reasons for the low level of spirituality in the Sangha. But according to Theravada’s apparent inability to change, these same requirements are still all that is needed to become a monk.

Virtually anyone can order and for almost any reason and in fact they do. The problem has been recognized for more than a thousand years. In the 10th century, King Kassapa V of Sri Lanka ordered the Sangha to stop ordering small children. Two hundred years later, King Nissankamalla begged the Sangha to be a bit more discriminatory as to who recruited as many «deceitful, cunning and evil men» were becoming monks. Do you have leprosy? Do you have boils? Do you have a ring worm? Do you have tuberculosis? Do you have epilepsy? Are you a human being? You are a man? Are you free of debt? Are you free of obligations to the government? Do you have your parents’ permission? You are twenty years old? Do you have your tunic and your bowl?

Despite such exhortations, the Sangha continues to advance. In today’s India, all sorts of discredited types appear in the few Thai and Burmese temples in the country and receive ordination whenever they go elsewhere. They walk away, without training, without knowing anything about the Dhamma, using their robes to make a living and, generally, giving Buddhism a bad reputation in the process. In 1975, the former exiled military dictator of Thailand Thanom Kittikchorn became a monk in Singapore and returned to his country.Being a monk gave him de facto immunity from the many criminal charges against him. He plotted his return to power, undressed and then organized a coup.

In the early 1990s, a Thai monk raped and killed a British tourist and then threw his body into a cave. After his arrest, he was found to be a heroin addict with a long criminal record and who had just been released from prison a few weeks before. Despite this, he had no difficulty being ordained. After this incident there were calls in the press for the ordination system to be reformed, but, as usual, the atrophied ecclesiastical council of Thailand did nothing.

In Singapore, when asking a noisy Thai monk who was quite happy why he had joined the Sangha, he replied that he and a friend had put all their money in a nightclub in Bangkok and shortly after its opening, the river was flooded. There were six inches of water on the ground for several weeks and his investment, although unfortunately not the water, went down the drain. He had ordered, he said, to try to get enough money to start another nightclub. Each month I went down to Singapore with a large suitcase full of magical amulets and lucky idols to sell to Chinese Singaporeans who have an insatiable appetite for such things. The interesting thing about this monk was that he was quite open about his reason for ordering himself. He spoke of it as if it were the most normal thing in the world, as it is for a good number of Thai monks.

Occasionally, the practice of ordering anyone can be beneficial, although more for good luck than good management.

A particularly nice Thai monk had his left eye badly injured. He had been a member of a band of bandits and once, when firing a shotgun, had exploded in his face almost blinding him.Finally, the police arrived at his house and told his parents that they were tired of arresting him and that the next time they caught him they would kill him. Out of fear and to be able to lie down until the heat went out, he fled to a monastery and became a monk.

In Thailand, criminals sometimes find that the yellow coat is a convenient temporary shelter for the police. In the case of this man, his abbot turned out to be a skilled and compassionate man and put him in charge of the little monks. He enjoyed being an older brother for these young people and this showed him his best nature. With time, he came to appreciate the monastic life and with the encouragement of the abbot he began to study Dhamma, became interested in meditation and twenty years later he was still a monk and also a good one.

More commonly, the various misfits who end up in the Sangha usually remain there. A more demanding abbot will check the background of a candidate and perhaps ask him to wait a moment to observe him and see if he is a suitable monk. The Vinaya stipulates that this must be done, but this is another example of a good rule that is traditionally ignored.

Anyone over the age of twenty who wishes to become a monk usually receives his ordination as a novice and then his full ordination immediately thereafter. As with so many other things in Theravada, the emphasis is on making the procedure correct, not the purpose behind the procedure.

As with the locals, a Westerner can appear at a Theravadin monastery in Asia and be ordained almost immediately. According to the Vinaya, you will be asked if it is a human, if it is a man, etc. But you will not be asked questions that any person with some intelligence would consider as more pertinent questions; ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ ‘Have you suffered from any mental illness?’ ‘Can you read and write?’ ‘Is this really what you want to do?’

Surprisingly, he will not even be asked if he is a Buddhist!

Where else in the world would it be possible to become a cleric of a religion before knowing anything about that religion? The original purpose of the Sangha was to provide the optimum environment to reach Nibbāna and have a group of people capable of disseminating the Dhamma.

The Theravada, has ceased to be of much value for these noble purposes.

We already saw that we have the extraordinary unprecedented situation in which most people who adhere to a religion, including many of its clerics, freely admit that their religion can not lead to its intended purpose.

But religion works for other things. The situation differs somewhat in Thailand and Cambodia, but there is the popular conception of what constitutes enlightenment, a very particular one. Any old scruffy laungpo credited with predicting a winning lottery number or performing a miracle is hailed as an arahant. Of course, more perceptive observers have a very different evaluation of the general level of spirituality in the Thai Sangha.

Ajahn Chah used to say: «Buddhism in Thailand is like a big old tree, it looks majestic, but it can only give small sour fruits».

Combine notions like these with the dysfunctional, antiquated and even counterproductive practices of the Sangha. and its structure and it is not surprising that it produces so few great teachers. One meets good scholars in the Sangha, some sincere practitioner and no arahants or even sotapannas.

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