Inequality and the origins of spiritual specialists

I’m afraid I did a bad job of expressing what I meant if it appears that I attempted to accuse any renunciant of being a ‘‘lazy freeloader’’ (which I think we should actually sometimes emphasize in order to balance out our performance obsessed societies).
Rather, what I was trying to get at was how it is okay for someone (renunciant or other) to reap the benefits of a final product but somehow be exempt of how that product was acquired. Put another way, it is like saying that my investments went up but I am not responsible for the arms deals which were at the source of my gains. One may say, for example, that it is okay to eat meat if the animal was killed not just to fulfill the needs of a particular renunciant (or kill insects in the process of harvest). The fact remains that the act has to be accomplished in order for the fruit (be that in the general sense, including all forms of food) to be obtained.
So my real question is, how can this logic hold? How can one get a free pass from the killing of some sort of living being when that killing is necessary for food to be obtained? Then comes the question that the worlding must take the blame for the violence of the act while the renunciant gets off free. I apologize if this line of questioning has offended anyone. It was not my intention. I simply can’t grasp the nuances of self interest involved. It is like the distinction between good desire and bad desire. Forgive me once more, but I find this type of reasoning rather sketchy. It still boils down to one’s personal interest being sought out in order to be fulfilled. It can be a diamond ring …or it can be nibbana or final liberation. In either case, I’m still looking out for number one.

1 Like

Yes, you can either look after yourself (and others) the best that you can by practicing the noble eightfold path. Or you can send you tax dollars to develop and sell weapons to foreign countries. I still thinking stopping rebirth is the best thing one can do for others, who want to remain in it. For those who want to leave it themselves, teaching it to others, is the best possible thing.

with metta

Thank you for this, misunderstandings happen so easily, and it is very important in a conversation to sort them out, especially when it is on an online forum like this and our counterpart is nothing but words on a screen!

I think I am getting the point you are making.

I had the experience that in some Thai tradition monasteries there is the custom that a layperson when offering food to the monastics has to pierce with a knife into any fruit. When asking for the meaning of this it was explained to me that according to their vinaya monastics are not allowed to kill living beings, even plants, and a fruit may have seeds in it that could potentially germinate and make new plats, and by eating the fruit the monastic would “kill” these potential plants. Therefore a layperson had to symbolically do the “killing” instead before the monastics eat the fruit.

At that time I was keeping 5 precepts for many years already which includes not to kill living beings, and it didn’t make sense to me that I should break my precepts so that other’s don’t have to break theirs. When expressing this doubt I was told that this is what laypeople are expected to do for monastics; and as another example I was told the story of another monastery that had been infested by vermin, and one of the lay supporters at some point had decided to take on the kamma and kill all the vermin in order for the monastery to be able to subsist. This was pictured as the ideal behaviour of a committed lay supporter.

Meanwhile I know that this explanation doesn’t represent in any way what is stated in the vinaya, and I have been staying in other monasteries where this custom isn’t observed at all. But probably this is just the point you are after: The idea that laypeople have to do the bad deeds like killing so that the monastics don’t have to.

This is of course not the purpose of the renunciate life. Taking on some precepts does in the first place mean that I want to follow these guidelines, and not that others have to “keep” my precepts for me! If people want to support monastics I think this is a great thing, and it should be done because they appreciate what the monastics are doing in one way or another, not because they feel they “have to”. Ideally they are just happy to share their food with the monastics, and it shouldn’t give them the feeling they have to do something bad in order to accomplish this. Rather like inviting guests and cooking for them.

One other aspect of the fact of not cooking is that monastics are supposed to be content with any food they are given and give up preferences concerning food. They spend as little time and energy as possible with external duties (of course they have to keep their monastery, robes etc. in order) and dedicate themselves as much as possible to their spiritual development. And this isn’t a selfish thing to do! For if they want to become competent teachers they need to practise what they are teaching! Otherwise it won’t work.

So if we want competent teachers who are able to teach also the deeper aspects of the Dhamma and of life on the noble eightfold path—by talk or just by example—we will have to “feed” a few monastics, maybe…

Probably there are still more aspects to it. If some of those who have more experience with monastic life could add something this would be great!


Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—one of the most important sociological works of the 20th century—might give us a clue:

According to the new Protestant religions, an individual was religiously compelled to follow a secular vocation (German: Beruf) with as much zeal as possible. A person living according to this world view was more likely to accumulate money.

The new religions (in particular, Calvinism and other more austere Protestant sects) effectively forbade wastefully using hard earned money and identified the purchase of luxuries as a sin. Donations to an individual’s church or congregation were limited due to the rejection by certain Protestant sects of icons. Finally, donation of money to the poor or to charity was generally frowned on as it was seen as furthering beggary. This social condition was perceived as laziness, burdening their fellow man, and an affront to God; by not working, one failed to glorify God.

The manner in which this paradox was resolved, Weber argued, was the investment of this money, which gave an extreme boost to nascent capitalism.

Later, Weber wrote about the sociocultural impact of Hinduism and Buddhism (The Religion of India)—many of his remarks still remain valid.


Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply you said that ! As sabbamitta said above, this medium with a bunch of text on a screen is not easy to navigate. :slight_smile:

I had this sutta in mind when I mentioned that asceticism can be viewed in various ways:

I have met one person who ran a hotel in a town which was predominantly Buddhist and he was lamenting about how he had to give all that he earned in a month to the main monastery just because he was bound to do so by social conventions. It was a rather rich monastery and he narrated how the monks would announce some ritual or festival and say: So tomorrow, we need mutton for all the monks who chant…

That was one encounter in which I saw that there was not much goodwill going around as far as supporting monks was concerned - lay people were just tired. But, the very same person had earlier invited me to his hotel when he saw me walking around in the sun, trying to find some place to stay, and allowed me to wash myself in his hotel for free. And then gave me a cup of tea and food. :slight_smile:

I think that if it’s done voluntarily, the act of giving does purify the mind…


If nibbana is the highest happiness, it follows that one of the best things one can possibly do is to help someone to attain it. One way to help is by material support. Also, by keeping the sangha alive, the door is also kept open for longer, allowing more people to attain the highest happiness.

For anyone wishing to do something good, why not feed monastics? It seems like a great way to help create happiness in the world :slight_smile:


I remember watching a series on T.V. with a philosophical theme called: Status Anxiety. Among many other interesting observations it looked at how Christianity was commonly practiced in the U.K. - with parish churches and cake-stalls to raise money for charity etc. It then looked at Christianity in the U.S.A. with its televangelism and: how God can make you rich if you believe in the saving grace of Lord Jesus - and pray for wealth and material success. I believe it is the rampant materialism - in the culture - that transformed Christianity in this way and not the other way around.


Could we say that spiritual specialists or professionals have been replaced by mental health specialists and professionals in the modern world? Could we also say that it is this group of specialists and professionals that makes use of meditation, relaxation techniques, mindfulness training, counselling and inner inquiry etc. It may be these professional replacements of spiritual teachers and practitioners that are helping to re-spiritualize the modern world?

What caused the steady-decline of spiritual professionals in Europe?

“The connection is that two came first: Renaissance and Reformation. Then the next two happened, Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. They did not occur [at the] same time, some parts of Europe were slower than others. Changes came fastest in England and Germany, slower in Spain and Italy. France was sort of in-between. The Renaissance and Reformation happened in Europe between 1450 and 1600 or so. It was caused by a breakdown in control by the Catholic Church, which controlled not only Kings, but learning in important educational centers. When anyone went against Catholic dogma, or ideas, or offended the Pope, it often meant they’d be accused of heresay, even [put to]death. Only when people found “protectors”, or supporters could they begin to think about science, and make improvements. For example, for nearly a thousand years, no paintings could be made of anything, that did not have a religious image. Painters had to honor God, with their gifts. When wealthy merchants wanted their own portraits painted, it was taking a great risk.” - Yahoo answers

I guess what is happening in the powerful countries in todays world is the continuation of these social and cultural changes that started when Christianity started to lose its all-pervasive influence and enormous political power. Hopefully, Buddhism can play an important and growing role in filling the spiritual void with teachings that speak-to the people of today in a language they can understand and appreciate. The modern world needs all the help it can get!


Forgive my ignorance, but I’m not clear about the modern model of renunciant and monastic and how it really was in the time of the Buddha. The Buddha left home and went into homelessness, moving around a lot. It’s obvious that he and his followers would settle in certain places and had huts and structures. If a person leaves home, gives up everything and goes to live in a permanent, self sustaining monastery, is it moving from one home to another?

1 Like

I guess the distinction is between ‘grihasta’s’ (householders) and those who did not ‘personally’ own a house and property. The Buddha was the potential heir of the property owned by his wealthy father. However, he gave up personal wealth and property to live simply - content with little. So, being homeless does not mean you need to live on the street - thats a different kind of homelessness. You can still live in a house but you don’t own it personally and you share everything you don’t need. You need the four-requisites - a bowl and a toothbrush - and that’s about it!

There is a practice of austerity that some monastics undertake where they may sleep under trees or in caves etc. Even then, they can receive the help of others and be provided with a place to stay but they don’t stick around for long.

“Now there are disciples of mine who live on a cupful or half a cupful of food, a bilva fruit’s or half a bilva fruit’s quantity of food, while I sometimes eat the full contents of my almsbowl or even more. […]
Now there are disciples of mine who are refuse-rag wearers, wearers of coarse robes; they collect rags from the charnel ground, rubbish heaps, or shops, make them into patched robes, and wear them. But I sometimes wear robes given by householders, robes so fine that pumpkin hair is coarse in comparison. […]
Now there are disciples of mine who are tree-root dwellers and open-air dwellers, who do not use a roof for eight months of the year, while I sometimes live in gabled mansions plastered within and without, protected against the wind, secured by door bolts, with shuttered windows. […]
Now there are disciples of mine who are forest dwellers, dwellers in remote resting places, who live withdrawn in remote jungle-thicket resting places and return to the midst of the Sangha once each half-month for the recitation of the Pātimokkha. But I sometimes live surrounded by bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs, by men and women lay followers, by kings and kings’ ministers, by other sectarians and their disciples.” - MN 77


Perhaps the Buddha initially went into homelessness as a wandering ascetic and later lived as more of a monastic?

The Buddha tried extreme ascetic practices - he lived with the four-ascetics in the deer-park before his awakening. He then discontinued practicing in that way as it was not helping him to see more clearly - to come out of suffering. After his awakening he went back to teach the four-ascetics and they all woke-up. All well that ends well!

My firm opinion is that the traditional religions have been largely replaced in Europe, are actively being repressed in the United States or are likely to be in very harsh competition in Oriental coutnries with what I sometimes call ‘lay religions’ or ‘secular religions’. These secular religions are different from being non-religious at all or supporting secular state (I am a Buddhist and avid supporter of secular state at the same time, for example). Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, Neo-Marxism are examples of secular religions. The current Western political system seems to be operating among other things on the basis of a rather poorly defined but still quite robust Western secular religion with left-wing overtones descending from the Puritanic and Lutheran Christianity. It is not necessarily the ideology / religion of the majority population, but it is dominating the social discourse in the media and important political venues. It largely tolerates the traditional religions as long as they confine themselves to charity and social services, but quite visciously opposes them when they have something to say that is ideologically (i.e. doctrinally) incompatible with the lay religion.

And of course it has its own religious professionals. Politicians, ideologists, college professors, social activists (not all of the above, of course, but quite a large percentage still). These people are all sitting pretty on piles of mone, especially when compared to what your average Catholic priest earned even a century ago. In that sense, not that many things changed snce the inequality rose to new levels in our brave new world.


Do you care to elaborate?

Who is repressing the Christians in the States? Gays? Women?

I don’t think this holds up to water, or, at the very worst, plays into the oppression-narratives of a Religious Right that is still incredibly powerful in the US.


To say that Xians are being suppressed in the US is ludicrous. Protestant work ethics are still Protestant Xian ethics. This is the opposite of religious repression: a law was recently massaged to allow for more religious money in federal politics.

Separation of church and state is not a Xian value, and it’s not a rural US value, and politics reflect this.

Of course not. repressing may be too harsh a word, I admit. Maybe, their is a growing tendency to diminish the role of religion in public life in the US. Statistical research shows that younger Americans are less religious. I am pretty sure that people in colleges are even less religious, moreover the intellectual climate that is en vogue in many of these universities has a very difficul relationship with religious faith or people who are serious about their religion and let it define their political position. Wait for forty more years, and I think that the U.S. middle class will be way less religious than it is in Europe, where I can’t even tell other people at my university I am a religious person because that would kinda spoil my reputation.

It is interesting however, that you called the ideology of the Religious Right an oppression narrative and maybe assumed that I could possibly believe the religious faith is attacked by gays or women. That is that whenever we start talking about doctrinal points, the position of the Religious Right is oppressive, i.e. wrong (although it is far from established that oppression is wrong per se), and we can even define where it is wrong: gay rigths and gender equality. For the record, I don’t think gays are sinners and gay families are an abomination, and I don’t think that women should only care about Kinder-Küche-Kirche, in many respects I don’t like the ideas that the Religious Right represent. Still, I think that these views are inherent in some religions, and if people take their faith seriously they have the right to stay true to their convictions. At the same time, us calling their convictions oppressive narratives is very much like Christianity calling Paganism a false religion or a Pope calling Protestantism a heresy and is already the first step in us trying to repress or diminish the influence of at least this form of traditional religion. It is not a conspiracy, it is not a conscious effort to eradicate all religion Pol Pot-style, it is just a natural outgrowth of our reaction to particular religious opinions on particular topics. It is as much a cultural shift as converting to Christianity in the Late Roman Empire that happened over the course of several generations albeit with much less overt political support.

Oh, come on, you want to say that the U.S. society is just as religious or more religious than it was fifty years ago? Really? We are not talking about Masonic conspiracies or a faith suppressing commitee issuing seret orders to politicians here in Europe or overseas in the US. It is a cultural change, which is neither bad nor good, it just exists: traditional religions are gradually becoming less and less influential in the Western societies and for an increasing amount of people they are replaced with neo-religions or quasi-religions or ideological religions. True non-religiosity or anti-religiosity with an agnostic bent always was a rare animal.


Religious people have no one to blame but themselves if they lose adherents because their ideas don’t evolve to keep abreast of the intellectual progress in their societies.

I said

To say that Xians are being suppressed in the US is ludicrous.

And, that’s true.

That’s all. I’m not sure why your missile defense system was engaged… you’ve claimed that religiosity in the US is dropping in favor of secularization, but if you look at actual data (and not university anecdotes) you’re not going to find support for your claims. Roughly 25% of United Statesians claim “no religion”, and this is a slow increase over time, but the leap to “Xian repression” is …ludicrous.

Kinda off-topic, anyway…

I am pretty sure that what @Coemgenu (correct me if I’m wrong) meant by “oppression narratives” was a view (held by some of the “religious right”) that they themselves are being oppressed, and/or persecuted by other populations, or even society at large. Members of the religious right may well be oppressing others, but this is a somewhat separate issue.

I think it is just one mre case when we don’t get each other’s way of expressing ourselves. It’s okay, I begin adjusting to it :grinning:

1 Like