Disrobing & Kamma

Some time ago, in another thread, a reader offered this comment: "I also remember having read a sutta that says disrobing causes one mental defilements to grow. But I can’t find which sutta."
Q1: does disrobing as a monk possibly cause defilements to grow?
Q2: are there negative kamma effects intrinsic to disrobing?
Q3: are there kamma effects from either encouraging or discouraging a monk to disrobe?
Q4: are there kamma effects from refraining from encouraging or discouraging a monk to disrobe?

Please include citations of sutta or vinaya if possible. While there might be other actions preceding or following disrobing, this thread concerns that act “disrobing” itself.

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It would be unfortunate if a bhikkhu or male human made choices based on unsupported fears or concerns. So i hope that if this ambiguity was not unique, the questions or quote were addressed.

Followup question: is this a topic one monastics cannot discuss?

Is this a topic not appropriate for discussion by anyone?

Is ambiguity likely to be helpful, or harmful, on this issue? (I asked because i see the stress of ignorance and fear from ambiguity as harmful; but that is just an opinion.)

I remember the term ‘defeated’ being used to describe someone who had disrobed. The implication seems to be that it is the defilements of the practitioner - returning to lay-life - that has overwhelmed the defeated monastic. They have been overcome in the inner-jihad!

I met a young man in Fremantle once who had been in robes at ‘Bodhinyana Monastery’. He felt deeply alienated in his new role outside the Bhikkhu-Sangha. He seemed to feel he was in a dangerous situation now that he was in a place where the ‘world’ could overwhelm his sense of wellbeing and tempt him to behave in a way that could lead him astray. It wasn’t clear that he seemed committed to exploring his practice as a lay-practitioner which was unfortunate.

I guess it would depend on the age - the maturity - the education and life experience of practitioners when they make the transition back into lay-life that would contribute to their perception of the new situation.

Having a lot of support and encouragement offered by a close-knit four-fold Sangha may prove useful for people like this undergoing a major change in their lives.

Those who have practiced well in their ordained life and who have developed a deeper understanding of the teachings would probably fair better than those whose practice had not changed them fundamentally.

There would be a variety of reasons why someone would make a transition of this kind. To say it is always the result of some kind of ‘spiritual defeat’ against the forces of Mara seems to be unkind and potentially harmful. It may be used as a kind of psychological ‘threat’ to try and prevent monastics from contemplating disrobing.

Just another bit of ideological baggage we would be better off without in a progressive form of Buddhism.

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I only remember the term “defeat” (I’m admittedly not very much familiar with the vinaya) as being used to refer to monastic expulsion level offences: killing, sex, falsely claiming attainments etc. A monastic that voluntarily disrobes can in principle take monastic vows again in the future (not one who has been subject to expulsion though, at least not in this lifetime). They do in Thailand for those common temporary ordinations anyway. I suppose it’s a bit like honourable or dishonourable discharges in the army! :slight_smile:

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A monk I know has on occasion dis-robed for a period, when sort-of taking a leave of absence to travel, visiting family, leading retreats, giving talks, as a matter of practicality, I think. He’s clearly intent on continuing full renunciation life when returning later to Burma.

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'Dishonourable discharge in the army - I am not sure this is a healthy way of thinking about a life of renunciation. The whole idea of being at war - defeat - seems to appeal to some I suppose.

ONWARD BUDDHIST SOLDIERS MARCHING INTO WAR
On the path of freedom now and evermore!

Be that as it may, but was said firmly tongue in cheek! :slight_smile: I suppose it’s just the difference between voluntarily leaving, being on good terms with everyone, and being chucked out for behaviour unbecoming (and consequently not being allowed to return).

I guess cultural differences are hugely important too (maybe even more than whatever rules are in the Vinaya). Might be seen as a disgrace to the family in some places with re-robing not really an option and much easier and more acceptable in others.

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May compassion manifest in and to all.

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Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the situation for disrobing looks grim…

AN 5.5

“Bhikkhus, any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who gives up the training and reverts to the lower life incurs five reasonable criticisms and grounds for censure in this very life. What five? (1) ‘You did not have faith in cultivating wholesome qualities. (2) You did not have a sense of moral shame in cultivating wholesome qualities. (3) You did not have moral dread in cultivating wholesome qualities. (4) You did not have energy in cultivating wholesome qualities. (5) You did not have wisdom in cultivating wholesome qualities.’ Any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who gives up the training and reverts to the lower life incurs these five reasonable criticisms and grounds for censure in this very life."

AN 5.4

“Bhikkhus, possessing five qualities, a bhikkhu is deposited in hell as if brought there. What five? Here, a bhikkhu is devoid of faith, morally shameless, morally reckless, lazy, and unwise. Possessing these five qualities, a bhikkhu is deposited in hell as if brought there."

I’ve put the suttas out of order to show the logic. If you disrobed, it can be said that you didn’t have the five qualities mentioned in 5.5 and a bhikkhu who doesn’t have the five qualities is deposited in hell according to 5.4

Here is letter 47 from Ñanavira’s Clearing the Path:

(Thag. 407)
I shall use the knife—what use is this life to me?
How can one such as I meet his death having put aside
the training (i.e. disrobed)?

And the Buddha himself warns (in the Mahàsuññata Sutta—M. 122:
iii,109-18) that one who becomes a layman after following a teacher
may fall into the hells when he dies. There is no doubt at all that,
whatever public opinion may think, a bhikkhu is probably worse
advised to disrobe than to end his life—that is, of course, if he is gen-
uinely practising the Buddha’s Teaching. It is hard for laymen (and
even, these days, for the majority of bhikkhus, I fear) to understand
that when a bhikkhu devotes his entire life to one single aim, there
may come a time when he can no longer turn back—lay life has
become incomprehensible to him. If he cannot reach his goal there is
only one thing for him to do—to die (perhaps you are not aware that
the Buddha has said that ‘death’ for a bhikkhu means a return to lay
life—Opamma Samy. 11: ii,271).
There is in my present situation (since the nervous disorder that I
have had for the past year consists of an abnormal, persistent, some-
times fairly acute, erotic stimulation) a particularly strong temptation
to return to the state of a layman; and I have not the slightest inten-
tion of giving in to it. This erotic stimulation can be overcome by suc-
cessful samatha practice (mental concentration), but my chronic
amœbiasis makes this particularly difficult for me. So for me it is sim-
ply a question of how long I can stand the strain. (I do not think you
would think the better of me for disrobing under these conditions.)

Here is the passage he is referring to from MN 122:

And how is there a peril for a spiritual practitioner? It’s when when a Realized One arises in the world, perfected, a fully awakened Buddha, accomplished in knowledge and conduct, holy, knower of the world, supreme guide for those who wish to train, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, blessed. He frequents a secluded lodging—a wilderness, the root of a tree, a hill, a ravine, a mountain cave, a charnel ground, a forest, the open air, a heap of straw. While meditating withdrawn, he’s visited by a stream of brahmins and householders of the city and country. When this happens, he doesn’t enjoy stupefaction, fall into greed, and return to indulgence. But a disciple of this teacher, emulating their teacher’s fostering of seclusion, frequents a secluded lodging—a wilderness, the root of a tree, a hill, a ravine, a mountain cave, a charnel ground, a forest, the open air, a heap of straw. While meditating withdrawn, they’re visited by a stream of brahmins and householders of the city and country. When this happens, they enjoy stupefaction, fall into greed, and return to indulgence. This spiritual practitioner is said to be imperiled by the spiritual practitioner’s peril. They’re ruined by bad, unskillful qualities that are corrupted, leading to future lives, hurtful, resulting in suffering and future rebirth, old age, and death. That’s how there is a peril for the spiritual practitioner.

I disrobed after quite a number of years due to chronic health problems. These suttas are motivating me to reordain as soon as possible if I ever fix my issues. I keep sila as pure as possible but my mindfulness has definitely lost that lucid quality that i had as a monk and I’m not able to meditate anymore both due to health problems and lack of continuity. So sometimes I listen to music or play computer games just to stay remotely sane. I keep away from girls, that would be real game over… I read the suttas almost every day but they make me depressed ocasionally since I’m not able to practice the meditation aspect of the path. Also, talking to ordinary people or even ‘spiritual’ people from other traditions is depressing since they just don’t get the Dhamma.

I have a huge sense of samvega, spiritual urgency, and do see disrobing as a defeat in battle regardless of the cause. I don’t understand the monks who disrobe so casually… The chance may not come again for a long, long time. Simile of the turtle and yoke and the simile of the stick are apt here. I hope that sharing my experience may help someone…

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Without offering a personal opinion on what dissatisfied monastics should do regarding disrobing or staying in the order, the EBTs seem pretty clear that a monastic should not disrobe, that to do so is a bad decision, and that lifelong struggle in the Holy Life even if full of pain, sorrow, and tears is preferable. It’s a pretty hardcore message:

And who is the person who goes against the stream? It’s a person who doesn’t take part in sensual pleasures or do bad deeds. They live the full and pure spiritual life in pain and sadness, weeping, with tearful faces. This is called a person who goes against the stream. - AN4.5

“Bhikkhus, any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who gives up the training and reverts to the lower life incurs five reasonable criticisms and grounds for censure in this very life. What five? (1) ‘You did not have faith in cultivating wholesome qualities. (2) You did not have a sense of moral shame in cultivating wholesome qualities. (3) You did not have moral dread in cultivating wholesome qualities. (4) You did not have energy in cultivating wholesome qualities. (5) You did not have wisdom in cultivating wholesome qualities.’ Any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who gives up the training and reverts to the lower life incurs these five reasonable criticisms and grounds for censure in this very life.
“Bhikkhus, any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who lives the complete and pure spiritual life, even with pain and dejection, weeping with a tearful face, gains five reasonable grounds for praise in this very life. What five? (1) ‘You have had faith in cultivating wholesome qualities. (2) You have had a sense of moral shame in cultivating wholesome qualities. (3) You have had moral dread in cultivating wholesome qualities. (4) You have had energy in cultivating wholesome qualities. (5) You have had wisdom in cultivating wholesome qualities.’ Any bhikkhu or bhikkhunī who lives the complete and pure spiritual life, even with pain and dejection, weeping with a tearful face, gains these five reasonable grounds for praise in this very life.” - AN5.5

For it is death in the training of the noble one to reject the training and return to a lesser life. - MN 105

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It sounds like a heavy doom indeed.

“I shall use the knife—what use is this life to me?
How can one such as I meet his death having put aside
the training (i.e. disrobed)?” - (Thag. 407)

Better to stick a knife in a vital organ than become a lay-practitioner full of metta with a generous :heartbeat: - really?

I guess it’s less messy than leaving orthodox Islam where the ex-follower must be put to death. This so-called Buddhist pattern of conditioning seems to induce suicidal tendencies in the zealot if they contemplate a change in their way of life. The former gets bad press - understandably - but the latter passes under the radar. I guess it’s a bit like kamakazi pilots. Better to die in the battle than face defeat by the enemy.

Let’s hope they ain’t tilting at windmills*?

Be vigilant and kind with the unconscious mind and don’t turn your existence into a battlefield.

Appreciate your ‘precious’ human life and don’t turn yourself into a problem - kindness is the best policy. This is the way to jhanas and awakening - don’t miss the forest for the trees.


*"Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.”

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.” - Miguel de Cervantes

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Correct- what is this but a conceit, a drama where you are the victorious hero. Quiet steady practice is required not major drama!

The Buddha said suicide is wrong if someone hasn’t completed the training and there was still more to do. Running off to the jungle without a teacher or kalyanamitta is dangerous unless a person’s abilities to stay ‘grounded’ is very good. Suppressing cravings rather than seeing the ignorance behind them, isn’t the path. Samatha can be very good at suppressing cravings and aversion but on its own doesn’t lead to understanding what requires investigation into. As for disrobing I saw a film of a monk who disrobed to mindfully be aware of what he was missing in lay life, but afterwards ordained once again as the ‘benefits’ he envisioned in that environment weren’t relevant to overcoming suffering. There are suttas in the therigatha about a nun who disrobed several times and returned. I don’t get the overall impression that it is overwhelmingly ‘bad’ as it has been made out to be in this thread - it’s just an admonition and nowadays not a problem at all. They are just happy to have anyone ordaining at all. :slight_smile:

With metta

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So all those taking temporary ordination are doing something unskillful?

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I find the interpretation of how disrobing in general is bad according to AN 5.4 and AN 5.5 not helpful. If someone disrobes because of some other reasons beside lacking the five qualities that are mentioned in those two discourses, does that mean they deserve to be criticised and/or condemned to hell? I personally don’t think so. I believe that you have to take other discourses into account as well when you consider what’s good and bad. Some situations aren’t just black and white.

I believe that first and foremost, any action to be considered good or bad must first come from intention (AN 6.63/MA 111):
“It is choice that I call deeds.” Venerable Sujato’s translation
“It is volition or intention, monks, that I call kamma,” Venerable Bodhi’s translation.

If some people who have to disrobe because of their health or other urgent situations, or those who want to disrobe because they still enjoy sensual desires, if they are virtuous, then I don’t see how that’s a problem. Even if you return to lay life, if you practise according to the Noble Eightfold Path, or are purified according to SN 55.7/SA 1044 then how can you accumulate demerit?

@Peter_Durham I think that temporary ordination is not something that is unskillful, especially when the intention to ordain is only temporary from the beginning, you live and practise according to the monastic rules (especially if you are faithful, conscientious, prudent, energetic, and wise according to AN 5.4), and that you ordain specifically to learn what’s it like to live a holy life.

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I’d be wary of saying that any individual practicioner is making bad kamma or not. People’s situations, obstacles and motives are highly complex and also it’s not good to judge people. For some a period in lay life may be just the thing they need to progress, for others it might be deadly. I think that the above suttas are describing a general pattern. If you disrobe, you are reinforcing the habitual tendency of quitting the dhamma. That could cause you to disrobe in a future life too.

The way I think it works is, you are not being punished for disrobing, but as long as a person stays in samsara, the chances of falling into the vicious cycle of unwholesome rebirths increases, and once there it’s hard to get out. We get conditioned by the people that surround us. In the monastic life we are mostly surrounded by other people who hold (hopefully) right views. But once on the outside, we are surrounded by mostly materialist culture, or people from other religions, or those with a mishmash of unexamined spiritual views, and all this has an influence on our mind, whether we see it or not. Human tendency is to be liked by others so we tend to conform to the views of whatever company we keep, otherwise it won’t work, there is too much friction. So we might downplay aspects of the dhamma gradually in order not to be seen as uptight or whatever, and gradually we move away from the dhamma.

We could say that temporary ordinations have a wholesome effect on some Buddhist societies, such as Thailand. People are exposed to monastic life and subsequently have a greater respect for long term monks, but in the vinaya, there is a distinction between motive and intention. Your motive might be to make merit for your parents for example, but it’s only a modifying force on kamma, not it’s determinant. It’s the intention to disrobe that is the kamma.

One drawback of temporary ordination may be that the dhamma is seen casually, as something that will always be around, but that’s just not the case. Or just another experience to have, such as ticking off a bucket list. If a person ordains because the expectation is that they are not fit for marriage unless they have been a monk, such as in Thai society, then in a way they are using the dhamma as something to be endured for a while, in order to obtain sensual pleasures.

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I find the interpretation of how disrobing in general is bad according to AN 5.4 and AN 5.5 not helpful

I’m wary of considering any teaching of the Buddha as not helpful. But as you point out, it needs to be seen in a proper context, and I wish the above suttas had a bit more information. Still, it’s suttas such as this that make us uncomfortable that need to be considered with extra dilligence. For example, this is an actual situation for me, not just theory, and the above two suttas are motivating me to get back as soon as possible. I discussed this topic with a friend of mine who also disrobed, and he didn’t even want me to read the suttas to him. He also said that he won’t reordain again.

Another quite heavy handed sutta, aimed at those who disrobe and engage in sexuality, I don’t see the Buddha giving much leeway here:

4.7. To Tissametteyya on the Disadvantages of Sex
Tissa
Attached to sexual intercourse:
Sir, tell its disadvantages,
having heard your Teaching then,
secluded we will train ourselves.
Buddha
Attached to sexual intercourse,
forgetful of the Teaching then,
wrong things that person practices,
and does what is not Noble.
Who formerly fared on alone
but now in sex indulges,
“Low” they say’s that common worldly one,
like vehicle swerving off the track.
That one who had renown and fame—
that, for sure, diminishes,
having seen this, train yourself,
renouncing sexual intercourse.
Overcome by (lustful) thoughts,
that one broods as a beggar does,
and hearing reproach of others, then
such a person is depressed.
For yourself creating “arms”
of others reprimanding words,
so with great entanglement
sinks down into untruthfulness.
Well-known as “one who’s wise”
when vowing to the single life,
but later then engaged in sex
will be “a fool defiled”.
The disadvantage having known,
the sage, at start and afterwards,
should stablish fast the single life,
having no recourse to sex.
So train yourself in solitude,
for that’s the life of Noble Ones,
but not conceive oneself as “best”—
them near indeed to Nirvāṇa.
The sage who’s rid of sense-desires,
who to them’s indifferent,
who’s crossed the flood, is envied then,
by those enmeshed with pleasures of sense.

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@Trindolex I never said that I consider any teaching of the Buddha unhelpful. I clearly said “the interpretation”.