This is a difficult post for me to write, and I hope you will not be offended by my thoughts and what I say.
I have accepted Buddha’s teachings ever since I discovered them as a child, when an uncle took me to a temple and gave me a book called “What Buddhists Believe”. Reading the book overnight was a revelation - it answered questions that I had but also confirmed things that I had suspected. But the feeling wasn’t that I was discovering truth for the first time, it was more like being reminded of something I had forgotten and had always known. I suspect it is not the first time I have traversed down this path.
In the 50 odd years since then, I have tried to live a life guided by Buddha’s teachings. I have tried to be kind to others, and contain my cravings, wrong views, desires and anger (not always successfully).
But I have never wanted to join the Sangha or be ordained. The other day, in a different thread, I said I was unwilling to be ordained because I can’t accept the Vinaya rules, particularly as they pertain to bhikkhunis. I feel the rules are created when the status of women was different from today, and I don’t believe they are appropriate today (although I understand there they can be interpreted in a modern context, I believe they fundamentally were created for a different society).
However, I have since reflected on this and believe my reasoning for not willing to be ordained is incorrect. Regardless of the rules and whether they are acceptable to me or not, I would be unwilling to accept the monastic life.
Digging deeper, I think I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of begging for and receiving alms. I understand that in Buddha’s time, this was already accepted practice for ascetics and the tradition survives today in Buddhist countries.
On the surface, it seems innocuous enough. It is a solution to allowing a monk or nun to renounce ordinary life but at the same time have their basic necessities catered for. It enables a lay person to practice generosity and support a spiritual quest indirectly. As I understand it, a Sangha also provides an education to youths and help them along on their journey, whether they stay on or leave. Many families have a tradition of having one child be ordained as they feel it brings merit and fortune to the whole family.
However, I am also concerned that this practice creates a burden on society as a whole and a “debt of kindness” on the recipients. Whilst I won’t go so far as to say this “debt” is a future obligation to be repaid, I am concerned about the long term karmic implications of receiving and depending on generosity.
I do understand monks and nuns do provide a service to society, by giving blessings to those that ask, spiritual guidance, and perform important ceremonies.
However, I do wonder whether these blessings may have a less innocent or beneficial side. As I understand it, some lay people believe giving alms and receiving blessings confer good fortune to them, and may cure illness or ward off evil spirits etc. And that some monks and nuns giving these blessings may be aware of the context or attitude of those receiving the blessings. As we all know, illness and bad fortune isn’t averted by blessings, it is the karmic resultant from past actions. And whilst giving alms may address some of that karmic burden, it’s not a simple balancing scale and it’s not necessarily cause and effect.
So I wonder whether the whole practice is a bit of a lie and deception, and how one deals with that. Does one just close one’s eyes and say it’s all tradition and common practice, so just go with the flow?
I am also aware that receiving a blessing can bring comfort and solace to someone, and this is a real benefit that cannot be ignored. The other day, I sat next to a woman, and we started chatting. Suddenly she said she was a spiritual person and she could sense I was also “spiritually inclined” and that I was an “old soul.” We talked about the importance of progressing on our spiritual journey and awakening. I used very generic words as I was not sure what her beliefs were and I carefully avoided any Buddhist specific terms. She held my hands, and as she did so she started crying, and I can see they were tears of relief and happiness. I was glad I was able to comfort her in some way, but at the same time I wondered whether this was an appropriate thing for me to do. This is not the first time it has happened either, for most of my life I’ve had people comment to me that they see something special or spiritual in me, even as a child.
So I can understand that the benefit the community receives from monks and nuns may be substantial.
However, I also notice that Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand are also some of the poorest and under-developed countries, and that these countries have received more than their fair share of violence, suffering and political upheaval. I can’t help but wonder whether the practice of giving and receiving alms may result in a net deficit to society as a whole. Karma has a way of balancing out in the long run.
If this is true, then the practice of someone from a foreign (non-Buddhist country) being ordained in a Buddhist country may add to that burden, causing even more stress on the society. I understand such a person is simply following their own spirtual path, and I well understand how difficult it is to follow the traditional Buddhist way of life in a non Buddhist country.
What are your thoughts on this issue? I welcome your comments.