Questions whilst reading 'What the Buddha never taught'

I am reading the book ‘What the Buddha never taught’ by Tim Ward, about the author’s experience at Wat Pah Nanachat.
One thing he writes is that for Thai lay people Buddhism is much more about making merit by making donations, than about practising meditation themselves and letting go of the self. He is critical of the monks for encouraging this, encouraging the bowing, the donations etc. For example the Ajahn at the time (1985 I think) said that monks should maintain a distance, shouldn’t become too friendly, or the Thais might end up not bowing to them.
One thing the author finds shocking is that the farang monks came from much richer societies, still they depended for their livelihood from very poor Thais. This does not feel right to him.
Another point that the author makes is that Ajahn Chah was apparently kept alive against the instructions he had given when he was still able to speak, just so that the Thais could make donations for making merit. Apparently during that time the Sangha built many more forest monasteries with all that donation money.
I wonder whether these points reflect the situation at Wat Pah Nanachat (at least in the 80s), or if there are good reasons to believe (based on evidence) that Tim Ward’s assessment was wrong?

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People are entitled to having opinions and making them public the way they choose. :man_shrugging:

In the EBTs many invidividuals from wealthy background and family ordained and lived on alms offered by those willing to offer those it does not matter how wealthy or how poor.

In EBTs we have a model for the world in which it is this altruism and sacrifice that will support a prosperous cultivation of the path.

We have Anathapindika, who was for a good while a rich banker of some sort died poor.

And also Visākha who was very generous and altruist made clear it was all that altruism and generosity that gave momentum to her inner cultivation of the path as a lay disciple.

Last but not least, the gradual path ( ānupubbikathā) framework the Buddha would usually follow when teaching to a broader audience would start by the very factor of generosity:

"The Gracious One saw the leper Suppabuddha sat in that assembly, and having seen him, this occurred to him:
“This one here is able to understand the Dhamma”, and having regard to the leper Suppabuddha he related a gradual talk, that is to say:
talk on giving,
talk on virtue,
talk on heaven,
the danger, degradation, and defilement of sensual desires,
and the advantages in renunciation—these he explained.
When the Gracious One knew that the leper Suppabuddha was of ready mind, malleable mind, unhindered mind, uplifted mind, trusting mind, then he explained the Dhamma teaching the Awakened Ones have discovered themselves: suffering, origination, cessation, path.

And in AN5.159 we see the Buddha telling Ananda that the knowing how to expound the gradual teaching framework is requirement one needs to keep in mind when teaching laypeople.



Ok, but I have some difficulty in understanding this concept of altruism.

First and foremost, if one donates to make merit for a future good rebirth, isn’t that an investment rather than selfless generosity?

Second, I have been fascinated by a riddle in the book, I think you can access it on google books or in the free pdf version, in the chapter on the Fan Man rupture; it is about a king donating to a fake monk (someone pretending to be a monk so he can feed his sick wife) thinking he is an arahant. Does the king make the merit of donating to an arahant, or the merit of donating to peasant disguising as a monk to feed his wife?


Only the one performing the generous act can know how truthful are his intentions.

We find in EBTs some sort of Pascal wager in which being generous and virtuous is a safe bet even when one is not 100% sure about rebirth.

On the second question, there is a sutta in which the Buddha says that there is merit in even a bad lay person donating to a bad monk.

Nevertheless, when the donation to someone awakened is foremost in merit no doubt. Check MN142 for that:

The Analysis of Religious Donations (MN142): SuttaCentral



It’s been a long time since I read that book, but if I recall, the author didn’t have any experience with Thai or monastic culture. I think he wasn’t even really serious about Buddhism. So you have to keep in mind his perspective.

No one needs to encourage Thai people in that area to bow to monks or offer food. That’s something that people have been doing for a long, long time.

It makes sense that this wouldn’t feel right to him because he lacked an understanding of Buddhism or Thai culture. The fact that someone was wealthy in lay life is irrelevant. And the lay people were not impoverishing themselves to offer food. If they were then that would be an issue, but I have never heard that to be an issue in these monasteries.

The Buddha taught many ways to collect good karma and offering food to the sangha and showing respect to people worthy of respect are two of them. They may not be the kind of karma that leads directly to liberation, but they are part of the picture. And I think the author was uniquely unqualified to understand the depth of the lay people’s spiritual practice.

Frankly it’s kind of a racist trope that “Asian Buddhists” are bad Buddhist because they only care about collecting merit. Any time you see that it’s a big red flag.


I am unable to understand it. If the merit comes form the feeling of generosity in the heart of the donor, how can that be dependent upon the identity of the recipient?
Also, perhaps it’s my Christian background, but I feel like the book author that poor, unawakened people are much more in need of a donation than a renowned arahant (Ajahn Chah was kept alive in a bungalow worth millions of baht for example). What is wrong with this type of logic?

If you give away X you are poorer than before by an amount X; and apparently the villagers were very poor. Also, I understand from the book that they were also donating money (the book says they built many new forest monasteries in that period) and an American Ajahn (by the chronology it would seem Ajahn Pasanno but he’s not named) was always dropping hints about donating lands to the Sangha.
Have you not found in your experience or readings that part of the Sangha at least takes advantage of this belief in merit making? At least that’s what the author says.

Have a look at MN142.
If it doesn’t make sense to you, it is okay. :slight_smile:

The idea is that people assumed Ajahn Chan was awakened and therefore got inspired to be generous.

The overall poverty of Thai rural population is a much wider issue and has a lot to do with lack of welfare state and development policies. It is not related or in conflict with the Buddhist concept of generosity being a factor of the path and monks not being in position to tell where lay disciple should be depositing their generosity.


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I don’t think Ajahn Pasanno is the monk in the book. At that time he was a Canadian.

My main point is that the author is not a reliable narrator.

But that does not mean they are impoverished. And it certainly doesn’t mean that that gift is the cause if they are. In fact, a monastery like that would probably be a net economic benefit to the community if we are talking about pure material factors.

I have no idea what kind of monasteries were being built, but many forest monasteries in Thailand are built mostly from the materials that would be gathered by clearing the land.

Are there corrupt monks who abuse the generosity of the lay community? Of course. Do I think this author is in a good position to know about that in this situation? No.


Regarding generosity we shouldn’t confuse ‘giving’ with ‘giving food’. Today, monasteries get (and need) many more donations than simply food. Land has to be acquired, buildings built, properties maintained etc. The romantic idea of idealistic meditators in the forests living off white rice is certainly inaccurate.

I don’t know why to see it as a red flag. Asian Buddhism is complex, but it’s no secret either that ancestor worship in Thai Buddhism or merit making are important aspects there and are negligible among Westeners.

Making merit is encouraged already in the suttas. Donations are explicitly treated as a great investment for future rebirth - not exclusively, but often enough.


From what I have witnessed most of the money backing new constructions in forest monasteries in Thailand come from wealthy individuals from Bangkok and groups of disciples from Bangkok and abroad.

In the big scheme what these people donate should only limit the amount they spend in their own vices and entertainment.

Local villagers usually provide alms only, and no one is expected to give more than a spoon or portion of cooked rice and some vegetables stir-fried with egg! :sweat_smile:



Ok. Since you call donations an investment, do you agree that it is not generosity? How can an investment be generosity?

If you believe that by donating your favorite food to a monk will get you to be reborn in a Deva realm where you’ll be fed that food, then the giving is the result of a calculation to get a future return. How is it different from investment in the stock market as Warren Buffett has described it ? He said ‘Investing is an activity in which consumption today is foregone in an attempt to allow greater consumption at a later date.’ In the case of lay people making merit, the future date is their next life.
So I don’t understand why a capitalist is considered greedy, and a lay disciple generous. Aren’t they both acting based on the calculation that their action today (foregoing some consumption) with give them a greater good tomorrow?

He spent some months at Wat Pah Nanachat as Pahkow. You can also tell from the way he writes that he is very intelligent so I trust he understood some of the situations he observed there. But my reason for writing this post is to find out whether he got things wrong and if so what specifically he got wrong; i.e. which are specifically the false statements in his narrative.

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‘Giving generously’ doesn’t mean ‘out of generosity’ :slight_smile:

Because the benefactor is the Sangha.

Again, investment-giving is not regarded the highest form of giving when the suttas compare several types of giving, but I think during the transmission process there was ample opportunity to make it very easy for also mildly dedicated laity to stick to Buddhism.

If you say ‘a donation only counts for good rebirth if you really look for liberation and give altruistically’ then part of laity will turn to ritualistic religions like Brahmanism where (in some streams) donations count no matter what. When a religion wants to expand it needs to be as inclusive as possible without compromising fundamental principles. And I think it’s fair to assume that the doctrines related to liberation were more important for monastic teachers than the purity of mind of the donating laity.

Ok so you believe that this is for the benefit of the laity (and not for the Sangha who will get more donations, like Tim Ward suggests). I wonder whether there’s a way of testing who is right; as far as I understand monks say they are doing a favor to the laity by being a field of merit for them. People like Ward talk instead of exploitation. I guess it depends ultimately on one’s beliefs.

Concerning the question of wanting Buddhism to expand, I thought proselytizing was not part of Theravada Buddhism and that monks were teaching only to those who explicitly went to their wat to request teachings (against, from the book, which says that monks could not spread the Dhamma outside the wat).

This is a common misconception, propagated mostly to make Buddhism seem less dangerous as it was spread to the west. Remember that other religions, such as ISKON, new to the west were quite in people’s faces. There is no blanket prohibition (in the Vinaya or Suttas) against spreading the Buddha’s teachings. Some countries, such as Malaysia, may have those rules, but they would apply to Christians as well. And some monastic communities may follow their own rules around it or have other on-the-ground reasons for keeping a low profile.

The argument I have heard in favor of requiring an invitation to preach is that the Buddha was invited by Brahma Sahampati to preach. In fact in the Thai forest tradition a lay person will recite Sahampati’s verse before a sermon is given. (someone please correct me if I am wrong.) But that is just a tradition. So the author would have learned that tradition.

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Well, because it’s rarely in the context of pointing out that westerners should be doing more to collect merit in the ways that Asian Buddhists are. I say red flag, because one need to be aware that it often is trying to promote the idea that Buddhism as practiced in Asia is corrupt and that westerners are practicing a more pure form. That’s all.


Hm, didn’t I say the opposite? I think who mostly benefits is the religious organisation as a whole. I wouldn’t call it exploitation, I think this is simply how religions operate, a structure that emerges, maybe necessarily with time. Or, to put it differently, religious movements without such factors of cohesion are more likely to disappear.

Maybe proselytizing is not the best term. But an emerging spiritual movement in such a competitive environment as North India was in the 5th century BC has to be convincing, relate to and debate other soteriological paths.

My own conclusion is that the historical Buddha did less of it, but certainly his followers did, and in a way had to.

I remember staying in Colombo and at 5am each morning the loudspeakers of the neighboring mosque, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple started blasting full volume to outperform each other: acoustic bare-knuckle competition :slight_smile:


This article may be of benefit to the conversation. The Economy of Gifts, by Ajahn Thanissaro


The Buddha himself was accused of impoverishing families by bringing a large group of monks living on alms to a region dealing with famine.

He responded that he could recall 90 eons of past lives but not even one instance when giving alms caused poverty. Sn 42.9

[Edited to correct a typo]