The Brahmins of ancient India claimed that they were entitled to respect simply because they belonged to a particular social group. The Buddha criticized this idea saying that they were the virtuous and the wise really worthy of respect. From this position, Theravada has closed the circle back to the brahminical idea. According to the Milindapanha, even a layman who has reached the first stage of awakening must rise up and worship a novice who has no attainment (Mil 162). The monks insist that they should be respected and revered simply because they wear a yellow robe and, like the brahmins of old, they may feel very upset if they do not receive it. It is fascinating to see how long the monks of Theravadin will go to maintain their supposed superiority in the eyes of others. PA Bigandet writes about a scene he witnessed in Penang at the end of the 19th century.
A Thai monk had to visit a man confined in the upper room of a house. To see it, the monk would have to enter the room on the ground floor of the house, which means that, for a few moments, it would be lower than the profane: anathema to a Theravadin monk. What to do? The monk ordered a staircase to be bought and placed with one end on the floor and the other in the window on the upper floor, and he went up to the man’s room that way. I have not heard about these kinds of things nowadays, but I do know that Theravadin monks will even publish books that will instruct people on how to respect them correctly.
Inviting a Theravadin monk to your home or your Buddhist society can be a bit like visiting royalty. Before you arrive, you may be instructed on how to lean correctly, how to approach it, prepare a special high seat, reserve a toilet exclusively for your use, etc. When the monk makes his entrance it will be to silence the voices, inclined heads and women making exaggerated gestures to avoid even accidental physical contact with him.Before his sermon, he will have to formally invite him to speak and, before leaving, he should ask for forgiveness for anything he has done to annoy him. Ariyesako has fifteen pages of requirements that are expected of you if you are visiting a monastery of Theravadin in the west. This is a selection of some of them.
«If you meet the monk in the sanctuary room or inside the house, show your respect before beginning your discussion. When you leave, do the same. ‘
‘Please, do not … shake hands with the monk. When you talk to the monk, always be courteous and never raise your voice. «
‘Do not point your feet or your back to the monk. This is considered disrespectful. ‘
‘Unless you are serving a meal on a plate, always offer anything with both hands. Do not leave it in front of a monk without offering it. ‘
«The laity should not eat in front of the monk and should eat only after the monk has finished eating.»
‘People should not stop and talk to a monk when he is sitting’.
‘A monk must always be approached respectfully by the person Dana offers, who must always try to maintain a lower body posture than the monk’.
«When they walk in the company of monks, the laity should walk a little behind, but still within the distance of speaking.»
This list comes from the chapter of Ariyesako’s book entitled ‘Examples of Vinaya practice’, although to the best of my knowledge and understanding, none of these requirements, except perhaps the last one, is related to the Vinaya rules. As often happens with the Theravadines, Ariyesako is confusing the label of a particular culture (in this case, the Thai culture) with Vinaya and even with Dhamma. This is precisely the type of error that the closest Christian missionaries made in Asia in the 19th century. To be a Christian, you must not only believe in Jesus, but also speak English, wear pants and eat with a knife and fork, in short, become English. Such an attitude impeded the expansion of Christianity at that time just as it is inhibiting the growth of Dhamma now. Needless to say, the Buddha always had a much more intelligent approach. Knowing that Truth transcends culture and that he is deeply concerned that Dhamma is accessible to all, he was prepared to adjust to the culture and needs of others. «I remember well many assemblies of patricians, priests, heads of family, ascetics and gods … whom I have attended. Before sitting down with them, speaking to them or joining their conversation, I adopted their appearance and their speech, whatever it was, and then I instructed them in the Dhamma ‘(D.II, 109). The Buddha told his monks and nuns that when they taught
Dhamma abroad must adopt the language of the people with whom they live (M.III, 235). If this is true of language, should not that also be the case with etiquette and other cultural conventions?
Another point highlighted in the previous list is that Theravadin monks are not only very concerned about receiving respect, but they must also be respected in the way that suits them. In the West we can show our respect to someone by shaking their hand, a traditional gesture with their own grace and dignity.
But that’s not good enough for a Theravadin monk.
He wants you to respect him in the Thai or Burmese way even if he and you are Westerners. Extend your hand to a Theravadin monk and he will quickly inform in a rather imperious tone that «The Monks do not shake hands», despite not being a rule in that sense.
When he meets the King, it is considered polite that a man nods his head in a kind of symbolic reverence and a woman bows slightly. Do that to a Theravadin monk and he could pass you a little booklet that contains detailed instructions and diagrams on how to bow down to him «correctly», which means the way it is done in Southeast Asia.
The monks of Sri Lanka and the Western monks trained in Sri Lanka tend to be a little less meticulous about this sort of thing. It is interesting to see how all this compares with the Buddha’s attitude toward honor and worship.
After Sonadanda took the Three Refugees, he confided to the Buddha that he had a particular problem. He was a Brahmin and his income depended on the respect that other Brahmins had for him. If they saw him bowing before the Buddha, he would lose respect and, consequently, his income would suffer. «So, if when I enter the assembly hall I put my palms together to say hello, consider it as if I had defended you. If when entering the set I remove my turban, consider it as if I had doubled at his feet. If I had to go down in my car to greet you, others would criticize me. So, if I pass you in my car and only under my head, I consider it the same as if I had come down and made a bow at your feet «(DI, 126).
The Buddha had no problem with Sonadanda’s way of paying respect, presumably because he sympathized with his situation and because social formalities were of little importance to him.
Elsewhere, the Buddha says: «I have nothing to do with the homage and the homage has nothing to do with me» (A.III, 30).
When reading Ariyesako’s book and similar publications, it would be easy to get the impression that being a Theravadin monk has a lot to do with the homage. Once, Sariputta told the Buddha that he had tried to compare himself to a humble cloth or a humble child (A.IV, 375). How different was the enlightened Sariputta from those unenlightened Theravadin monks who sit on high thrones with their smiles satisfied and their sense of right as they give orders to the laity and acknowledge the homage they receive from them with only a brief nod or a snarl.
The Mahayana sutras often refer to what they call ‘all the proud arahants’ and centuries later many Theravadin monks still give the impression of being slightly haughty and presumptuous.
This incident happened recently in a small Buddhist group in Europe. A certain visiting monk who will not say his name was giving a talk to an audience of about thirty people, which included a woman who had a hat.The monk noticed this and apparently felt that it was a threat serious enough to his dignity to elude him in his talk. He deviated from the essence of his sermon and mentioned how important it is to pay due respect to the Sangha and how rude it would be to wear a hat, for example, while a monk taught the Dhamma.
Everyone in the room turned to the embarrassed woman and a few minutes later she crawled silently out of the room and burst into tears.Later it was learned that this woman had terminal cancer and had lost all of her hair while undergoing chemotherapy. She wore a hat to hide her disfigurement.
In Sri Lanka I once attended a talk by a well-known meditation teacher.When he entered the room, several people could not stand up. Visibly annoyed that he did not get the respect that he believed was his duty, he went to the front of the hall, harangued the organizers of the talk and the audience and then left.
There are stories in the commentaries that show that even the Theravadines arahants can get angry when they are not properly honored.Arahant Dhammadinna, for example, was invited to a particular monastery to teach meditation, but inmates were performing their daily tasks when he arrived and did not greet him properly. After kicking his foot with disapproval, he rose into the air and left. This story is not intended to disapprove of Dhammadinna. Far from it, he is told to illustrate the idea that being rigorous with paperwork is an indication of the highest spiritual attainments.
Once I heard how Come. K. Sri Dhammananda remembered his youth in India when he was studying at the Hindu University of Benares. He spoke with affection and admiration about the then Vice Chancellor Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the great philosopher who later became President of India. He was silent for a moment and then said: ‘There is one thing that I regret. When I and the other monks used to go for an early walk, we often passed Dr. Radhakrishnan on his morning walk. He always clasped his hands and greeted us, but since we are monks, we never greeted him again. Today I really regret not having done it. «
Most Theravadin monks still act like Ven. Dhammananda did then, the only difference is that it is unlikely that they will ever develop the wisdom and humility to repent of their behavior. If genuine and «strict» monks are so preoccupied with honor and respect, what are the most common ordinary monks like?
Spiro recounts an incident he witnessed during his stay in Burma. «When a bus driver from Mandalay allegedly insulted some monks traveling on his bus, a large gathering of monks demanded that the driver walk from the government building to the Arakan Pagoda, at a distance of approximately five miles, with a sign He identifies his crime by hanging from his neck, and a group of monks rides behind him announcing that this is the price to pay for insulting a monk. After many negotiations with the administration of the bus company, the monks yielded, conforming to a public request for forgiveness from the bus driver, and of course a special party.
«In the Tathagataguhya Sutra and many other Mahayana works, it says that a bodhisattva must ‘bow down to all beings.’ A monk Theravadin would never consider doing such a thing.
Why are monks so sensitive or demanding when it comes to social formalities that elevate them in the eyes of others?
Why not return a greeting or a greeting, even from a mahāyāna monk, much less from a layman?
Why do they never say ‘Thank you’ when they are given something or are they helped in some way?
The Buddha does not say anywhere that a monk should not do any of these things nor is there any rule of Vinaya for that purpose, so that fidelity to the Scriptures can not be the reason.
The fact is that Theravada is built in such a way that a monk is more likely to develop a superiority complex. The same languages of the Theravadin cultures reinforce the sense of self-importance of the monks. In Burma, the monks are known as yahan, which is derived from the Pali word arahant and is called pungi meaning «great glory». The Thai honorific phra is only used for the Buddha, the king, the gods and predictably the monks.In Sinhala, the monks refer to themselves as muradevatavo, «protective gods» and are called swamiwahanse, which means something like «Your Lordship.»
When speaking or speaking of monks, lay Theravadines use what amounts to a special vocabulary separately. Sri Lankan nidienawa laymen «sleep» while the satapenawa monks «rest with grace». In common Burmese tamin means «eat», while sunpoungpide monks «glorify food.»
Most revealing is that the ordinary Burmese «die» while the monks ‘return to heaven.’
The monks in Sri Lanka even lose patience in a different way; they ediriwenawa while the laymen merely tarahawenawa. The monks are treated as if they were superior and, of course, hopefully they should be.But the reality is that, instead of being sotapannas or something higher, the monks will be ordinary human beings with the weaknesses and frailties of other ordinary human beings.
Of all, pride is the impurity is the easiest to wake up and, by far, the most seductive. It treats an ordinary person, even a very sincere and conscious one, as if he were Almighty God and it is natural that over time he begins to think and act as if he were. Flattery, deference and praise can be very seductive.
At first the monks like it, then they wait for it, eventually they depend on it and, finally, to ensure that it is always accessible, they make it a subject of their sermons and writings. A monk may stop teaching many aspects of Dhamma, but the importance of serving and honoring the Sangha is a subject that is never neglected.
The Buddha said that those who practice Dhamma honor him better (D.II, 138). Many Theravadin monks seem to teach the opposite of this, that those who honor them best practice Dhamma. Monks of usual justification give to lean For them, to eat separately from them and never sit higher than them is that it is a way of confronting and weakening their pride.
Is not it encouraging to know how concerned the monks of Theravadines are for helping lower mortals get rid of their pride?
How thoughtful they are to be available for this worthy final!
But if bowing to others can diminish pride, is not it logical that the fact of being inclined can lead to pride? This point never seems to be discussed.The monks’ insistence on the importance of respecting them and the fact that it is usually the first thing taught to a newcomer to Theravada suggests that their true purpose is something else.
Meditation teacher Eric Harrison writes; ‘A reverence is a small thing, but what does it mean? It is almost impossible to approach a Buddhist teacher as an equal intellectual. Teaching dynamics can not happen until you recognize your superior status. That authority needs to be constant and reinforced by deferential behavior.
The ritual behavior around a teacher is designed to improve his state and that of teaching. The deference or willingness to enter the hierarchical order is usually a requirement to be taught. «It’s hard to disagree with this evaluation. But the excessive reverence that surrounds the monks not only makes many of them feel complacent and proud, but it also has a more insidious effect: it helps to create an atmosphere in which the laity can end up attributing to the monks virtues that are not They have and can not see the vices they may have.
It almost seems that the laity are temporarily blinded when they see a yellow robe. In the Dhammapradipika there is a story that suggests Theravadins’ ideal response to faults within the Sangha. A man once saw a monk and a nun having sex together, but instead of protesting with them he blamed himself and then blinded himself so that he would never see evil again in the Sangha.
The intellectual equivalent of this kind of thing is the norm and, over time, even a good monk may be tempted to take advantage of him in a way that imperceptibly leads him to become dishonest and exploitative. I think this explains to a large extent not only why there is corruption in Theravadin Sangha, but why corruption is so widespread. And, by the way, it is not only those with traditional Theravadin conditioning who are gullible when it comes to the Sangha.
The idealistic and uninformed Western Buddhists may be the same.
In a particular center in the West a monk was using the facilities to give a course. He was an old Burmese monk who looked decidedly pitiful. He smoked one of those stinking Burmese cigars and his teeth and fingers stained brown with nicotine. We already knew about this monk. He had a great reputation in Southeast Asia for selling false relics and for his shady deals. This was not a surprise, those monks are common enough and I have met them many times before. What did amaze me was the ease with which he was able to pass himself off as a meditation teacher and the apparent astonishment that his western students held him back. They drank in each word as if he were an arahant or at least almost enlightened.
Bad people usually have to disguise their true character and intentions from those they want to cheat, but for the monk Theravadin this usually is not necessary. Only wearing the yellow robe is all that is needed to put the critical faculties of people to sleep.
The woman who had originally invited this monk to the West distanced herself from him after having made a pass, but by then it did not matter anymore. She, of course, would never say anything and had already attracted many others who were delighted to worship him, raise money for him and carry out his orders.
It would be easy to criticize monks like this and see them as a weakening of Theravada.
They are just as victims as the devotees they exploit. They corrupt Theravada, but only because Theravada himself has corrupted them.
There can be no doubt that enough men enter the monastic life with good intentions and that even young people who are dragged into the Sangha could, with the right influence, become true monks.
But slowly and inexorably even good monks have their egos inflated by constant adulation. They are lulled in indolence by swarms of devotees who wait for them hand and foot, their attempts to live in austerity are undermined by the mountains of gifts they receive and their integrity is eroded by the admiration and admiration that greets every word and every action no matter how common. The problem is not really with the monks, but with the system, although it is true that the monks keep the system running.