Are Buddhist monks suppose to do social activities?

I spoke to one of my friends ( she said that she is an atheist but spiritual) and she said that the problem with Buddhist monks is that they do not engage in looking after the disadvantaged people such as homeless. She compares Christians who run hospital, orphanages and various charitable institutions.

My argument was that these are the responsibility of the lay people but not the monks. Monks job is to teach the true Dhamma and they expect lay people to follow them. If we all follow true Dhamma there is no need to do special social engagement. The best example what I have seen is Japan.

She asked me why we don’t see this in Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka. My thought is that many Sri Lankan’s do not follow the true Dhamma.
What is Buddha’s instuction to monk about this issue?

The Christian desert fathers also didn’t engage in charitable giving and care. Contemplative monastics in all traditions renounce the world and separate themselves from it, to seek nibbana, union with God, or whatever the summum bonum is conceived to be in their tradition. The charitable outreach and social engagement is conducted by other religious orders and lay groups within the religion, not by the most austere monastics.

Has anyone ever done a comparison of lay charitable giving and civic organizations in the Buddhist world as opposed to the Christian world? I recall that when Venerable Bodhi established Buddhist Global Relief, he described some dismay at the fact that such an organization did not already exist.

In the very early Buddhist texts and tradition there is certainly much emphasis on a spirit of equality, and an openness and kindly spirit of of unbounded love directed toward all beings including all peoples and classes of peoples, without regard to caste or economic station in life. The early poems and narratives and tales are filled with inspiring accounts of people from lowly levels of society finding fellowship and relief among the Buddhist community.

But I sometimes have the impression that the later, Hinduized reinterpretations of Buddhist kamma, merit and dana submerged much of that open, charitable and egalitarian attitude, and replaced it with a social-spiritual class system. We sometimes encounter the idea that the poor deserve their suffering because of some unknown past rottenness they intentionally performed in a previous lifetime. And along with this, we sometimes find the idea that because of that bad kamma, the poor are an unworthy objects of giving, and one should reserve one’s giving only for the exalted and worthy members of the sangha, whose merit will then rub off on the giver.

I don’t know how prevalent these attitudes are, or if my characterization instead represents only a western stereotype of Theravada Buddhism, but I have personally encountered this attitude more than a few times.

This seems somewhat different from the Christian attitude expressed in such familiar Gospel teachings as “blessed are the poor” and “Whatsoever one does to the least of my brothers, that one does unto me.” My wife is from Puerto Rico, and my experience has been that in the Catholic cultures of Latin America, the idea of seeing Christ in all beings, including the lowliest and most outcast people, is a very important part of religious moral teaching.

Nevertheless, the warrant for similar attitudes can be found in EBT teachings about the Buddha’s willingness to teach and associate with lepers, prostitutes, the deformed, the disadvantaged and the poor, and in his uncompromised endorsement of boundless and universal metta, and deliberate inversion of the Brahminical conception of an “outcast”. It sometimes seems to me that these other-directed core early teachings and sentiments are lost under all the obsessively individualistic meditation cults, self-help nostrums, doctrinal sparring, ostentatious merit-making and cravings for future states of existence dominating contemporary “Buddhism” - a reconstruction of the teachings that the Buddha himself did not establish.


Sunita the Outcast
Theragatha 12.2

In a lowly family I was born,
poor, with next to no food.
My work was degrading:
I gathered the spoiled,
the withered flowers from shrines
and threw them away.
People found me disgusting,
despised me, disparaged me.
Lowering my heart,
I showed reverence to many.

Then I saw the One Self-awakened,
arrayed with a squadron of monks,
the Great Hero, entering the city,
supreme, of the Magadhans.
Throwing down my carrying pole,
I approached him to do reverence.
He — the supreme man — stood still
out of sympathy
for me.
After paying homage
to the feet of the teacher,
I stood to one side
& requested the Going Forth from him,
supreme among all living beings.
The compassionate Teacher,
sympathetic to all the world, said:
"Come, monk."
That was my formal Acceptance.

Alone, I stayed in the wilds,
I followed the Teacher’s words,
just as he, the Conqueror, had taught me.

In the first watch of the night,
I recollected previous lives;
in the middle watch,
purified the divine eye;
in the last,
burst the mass of darkness.

Then, as night was ending
& the sun returning,
Indra & Brahma came to pay homage to me,
hands palm-to-palm at their hearts:
“Homage to you, O thoroughbred of men,
Homage to you, O man supreme,
whose fermentations are ended.
You, dear sir, are worthy of offerings.”

Seeing me, arrayed with a squadron of devas,
the Teacher smiled & said:
“Through austerity, celibacy,
restraint, & self-control:
That’s how one is a brahman.
He is a brahman supreme.”


The difference here is really that in traditional Buddhist societies—at least in the Theravada world—the temple normally played all these roles. People could stay there, no-one would be turned away. You could always get something to eat. You could do a few chores, sweep, help out in the kitchen. You could listen to the teachings, get advice and support, make contacts in the local communities. These are things that we, as monastics, see and participate in every day.

So there aren’t dedicated organizations that feed the starving, but there is food in every temple. You don’t see it, but it is going on. What Buddhists have been weak on is adapting this village level model to a modern context, especially on the global level. There are plenty of good things going on, especially in Mahayana circles, but it’s still not nearly enough.


I think Buddhist Global Relief founded by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is one of the example of modern Buddhist social organization, but I’m not certain whether Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is involved in the organization or just as a initiator/advisor.

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Yes, Bikkhu Bodhi is very much active.
That is my preferred Charity as well.
Only 5% for the administration. It is not bad considering some organizations spent almost 80% in administration.


Great! I hope many Buddhist monks follow his step, but do Vinaya rules support monks to be active in the social activitie? I heard many Buddhist said it is impossible for monks to be active in social activities because of the rules, cmiiw…

The question is why would you choose to enter into homelessness and still involves in any social activities ? That’s doesn’t make sense if you want to wholeheartedly spend all your time to free your self from samsara !? The two contradict each other !


Oh in Burma, I’d say that the great majority of monks are doing nothing but social work, only a tiny minority have ever meditated!! We’re talking orphanages, boarding schools, medical centers and hospitals, even infrastructure projects like providing roads, drinking water, electricity, and waste disposal systems. This is a somewhat recent development in Burma though, before that the monk was still a mendicant, at the exact other end of the “giving” process!

Mahayana are doing excellent social work in Malaysia as far as I saw myself. I’m surprised at the complaints here! It seems to me that every-monastic-body is turning to social work now! Soon enough I guess the begging poor mendicant will be totally a thing of the past! (Especially when unemployment becomes illegal right after all the newborn babies get microchiped!!). And then some will complain still about the absence of the ‘true’ renunciate recluse!

The real question is, though, is it really a good thing for religious organisations to undertake social work?! Has it been? The question is, is it true that charity work undermines the efforts done by secular “professional” NGOs that seek to empower marginalised communities rather than just cover some of their basic needs? Is institutional or organisational charity a good idea and practice?

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Yes, are we taking over government jobs and demolishing the systems in the future ?

"Dammma Danam Sabba Danam jinati"
I rather see monks spent time in teaching true Dhamma like the monks and nuns in this forum.

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I think it should be 80/20 rule.
80% of the time teaching and developing your skills 20% social work.
Mind you, if you can make one person understand it is better than helping 100 homeless.
The reason being the person who learns true Dhamma will help thousands of people.

I don’t mean Buddhist monks should be 100% active in social works, but they should balance it with their works in studying, teaching, and practicing Dhamma, like Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi who has done excellent works in propagating Dhamma (translating the 4 Nikayas into English) and have done a lot of meditations too, beside his social works…

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I agree with @seniya’s comment, above. Something that has motivated me to some degree has been a desire to inject a bit of Buddhism back into activities in Thailand, where Buddhism is part of the fabric of the culture and society there, but that many Christian NGOs have dominated the social work scene for many years and have converted many Hill Tribe people to Christianity.

I don’t have an angry objection to Christian NGOs evangelizing in Thailand; these groups have done a great job fundraising through American churches, and have built hospitals, schools and orphanages in northern Thailand’s neediest areas. But I will admit that it galls me a little that so many are losing out on an opportunity to be exposed to the Dhamma, and to have their root culture and traditions expanded, versus being displaced by Christian evangelism. Still, I have provided items such as medical equipment to Free Burma Rangers, for example, for their Burma field training hospital, simply because they are doing such amazing things in Burma and northern Thailand to help a desperately underserved population or refugees. We meet in clandestine fashion, exchange the items, and then their couriers cross into Burma with the items. It’s cool stuff, and they’ve been very cool with engaging with me in coffee shops with my shaved head, eyebrowless whiteclothed self. One of the FBR doctors that I met with and I had a two hour conversation on themes of compassion and good works common to Christianity and Buddhism.

So, personally I have really applauded and supported Bhikkhu Bodhi and BGR. I think he sets the standard for how a Theravada monastic might combine meditation, study and active engagement. I do feel the world needs the Dhamma now more than ever, and if it means some monastics leaving the wat to teach, to speak out, or to walk in favor of social causes, I really support that. I feel that these activities breathe life into the practice, energize the Dhamma, and attract people to the Dhamma that might otherwise not be exposed to it.


Are all NGO’s Christian missionaries?
I always wonder the motives of NGO’s.

This is what happens in Sri Lanka too. There is a systematic effort to convert many Buddhists.