What is the status of the rules about alms food for monastics

What are the rules laid down by the Buddha regarding only being able to eat alms food for Monastics. I’m aware that there are very different ways of dealing with food across traditions. In particular I’m wondering whether there were any provisions made for monastics practising in seclusion, too far from access to lay support - is this an unacceptable way to practice according to the Buddha - ie like a hermit, for periods of time?

Thank you :pray:

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As it’s prohibited to cook food or to eat stored food, a monastic who follows the Vinaya to the letter would only be able to do it by (1) fasting for the duration, (2) having an unordained person staying with him to store food and offer it each day, or (3) have a lay supporter trekking out each day to offer food.

In Thailand some monks who enjoy living in solitude in very remote places, but who are not so strict about Vinaya, will take a supply of food with them (usually Japanese instant noodles and tinned fish), deeming the breach of the above rules too trifling to worry about.

Edit:

And in Sri Lanka some men of a solitary bent will opt to remain sāmaneras, for sāmaneras aren’t subject to the above-mentioned rules.

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Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. Your whole post, actually. :pray:

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I’d just like to add, for the benefit of all the discussions of equality of practice conditions recently, that females are completely capable of being hermits and practicing in seclusion :slight_smile: :pray:

Though I fully realise that as the Bhikkhuni rules are currently written, this is problematic- So just wanting to point out that it is nothing to do with capacity/ability, just conventions. LOL… personally, this is close to my heart as this is my preferred mode of practice :smile:

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Btw - living as a hermit for a bhikkhuni is really not that problematic - as long as the situation is safe. There is one argument I have heard that ‘aranya’ in the true original sense no longer exists (by memory no areas exist outside govt jurisdiction). Maybe Ajahn @Brahmali could clarify -

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It might also be good to keep in mind that the Buddha praised being away from society, not necessarily other humans. So two people could be hermits together. Of course once you get too many people then you become like your own society.

As well, this means that one monastic could go for alms and then share it with their companion in seclusion.

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I know Ayya Tathaaloka once did a 3 year retreat in a hermitage. There are many solitary Hermitages in Korea for Bhikkhunis. Of course Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo also who lived for 12 years in a Himalayan Cave

Actually many yoginis live for decades in incredibly tough conditions meditating in Tibet - I’m sure Tibetan nuns also…though they are not bhikkhunis

In the more distant past there were bhikkhunis living secluded in the forests of Sri Lanka, meditating in caves, alas with the Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka dying out, these Hermitages are now taken over by bhikkhus. … but I visited one with Ayya Tathaaloka in Sri Lanka.

I have a dream of setting up such a Hermitages in NZ. And having at least one bhikkhuni on extended, completely secluded retreat at all times (maybe also to do something in Sri Lanka if conditions come together - and maybe India)

For me, the hermit life - for at least substantial periods of time is something I find deeply inspiring.

Actually, at Pa Auk Monastery in Myanmar there is much of that feeling. At least if one has a kuti bordering and looking out on the forest as I do. And many of the Bhikkhunis and nuns here are fluent in all deeper states of samadhi and profound vipassana.

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Some random thoughts from what little I know of Pali Buddhism, Indian custom, and Chinese Buddhism…on the topic of different traditions, food, regional variation, and some other stuff I was thinking about…

The following rule is found in the bhikkhu pacittiyas (which also applies to bhikkhunis)

Should any bhikkhu chew or consume stored-up staple or non-staple food, it is to be confessed.

For bhikkhunis, cooking grain is a pacittiya.

Should any bhikkhunī, having requested raw grain or having had it requested, having roasted it or having had it roasted, having pounded it or having had it pounded, having cooked it or having had it cooked, then eat it, it is to be confessed.

According to recent research on the Pali commentaries, it’s possible that some recensions of the bhikkhu patimokkha had also previously featured this rule. The vibhanga explains the meaning of grain to cover rice, paddy, barley, wheat, millet, beans and rye. Restrictions on cooking feature in the sikkhamana rules in the late schools.

However, the version of the bhikkhu patimokkha which we have at present, doesn’t have this pacittiya rule. The ruling on monks cooking is found in the Bhesajjakkhandhaka.

“Monks, one should not make use of what is cured indoors, cooked indoors, cooked by oneself. Whoever should make use (of any of these things), there is an offence of wrong-doing.

By way of comparison… if the legalist position looks too strict…when I learned Hindu legal theory, the no.1 reason for leniency with Hindu law is apad-dharma, meaning times of emergency or distress, including famine. Another reason for diversity in Hindu law is regional variation (desha-dharma). In Buddhism, there is definitely a roughly equivalent concept of aapadaa as a reason for leniency with lifestyle issues, which is evidenced in the famine allowances in the Khandakas (although, oddly to me, Aj. Thanissaro says that these have been permanently rescinded…I’m not sure why Aj. Thanissaro holds that opinion).

An example of a famine allowance from the Bhesajjakkhandhaka is:

“Accept (the food), monks, make use of it. I allow you, monks, having eaten and being satisfied, to make use of (food) that is not left over if it grows in a wood, if it grows in a lotus-tank.”

Many of the old-school hermits in the Jatakas live this way…e.g. on lotus roots, although bhikkhus don’t normally do it this way. It’s more like paccekabuddha stuff. Presumably, after the arising of a Buddha, people become generous, so there is no reason to live off roots and berries, etc, in a difficult manner which harms plants. And these hermits always have to go into town to get vinegar and salt anyway, which sometimes still gets them into trouble…

Unfortunately, the concept of regional variation (desha-dharma) has been much less developed in Buddhism than in Indian dharmasastra (i.e the paveni potthaka, or books of [brahmanic] tradition) in general. I do not know how Jains feel about it. Besides the obvious example of the rules of Avanti, I can think of one example of a kind of “jurisprudence of the regions” in the Mangala Sutta commentary, which gives two meanings of a good place to live, with one being in a place with bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, and the second being in the Madhyama Pradesha of India. The gist maybe being that no place will ever have the standards of the Madhyama Pradesha, which is the land of the Buddhas. The largest cultural challenge that Buddhism has faced so far has been entering China, which developed other standards, like Baizhang’s Code of Pure Conduct (which requires work, such as farming and cooking), to work around the lack of a jurisprudence of regional diversity. Additionally, Mahayana has a working ethic of intention in relation to many vinaya matters, and in more recent centuries, the bodhisattva vows, such as the Brahmajala Vows, have been upgraded in Chinese Buddhism to pratically require many things which are not allowed in Sravakayana on the basis of intention. There have always been minority voices in Chinese Buddhism, like Indian-trained Yijing, however, who argued for minimal adaptation. He was reluctant to admit even slight changes, but in the end, as a vinaya master, he allowed sensible changes like the wearing of warm clothing, on the basis that “enlightenment is for everyone”. I have a soft spot for Yijing.

That being said, even the Pali commentarial tradition acknowledges that there are hermits who have many different types of livelihood, there is a nice list, in example, in the Sutta Nipata commentary. Even authors like Ven. Rerukane Chandavimala Thero have said that we should judge each other less harshly, as nobody is really a bad person unless they break a parajika (I’m paraphrasing loosely).

But personally, aside from the vinaya, the reason why the Madhyama Pradesha has developed the standard of not cooking is because it is the region of the Buddhas and what the Buddhas know. For example, an arahant doesn’t store up goods for enjoyment (AN9.7), and seeking out tasty food is one of the future dangers in the Anagata-bhayani Sutta (AN5.8). Because living for one day is the peak of renunciation and our rules come from heartland of the samanas, we have these high ideals, which are also found in the suttas in the Samannaphala Sutta:

"He abstains from accepting uncooked grain… raw meat… women and girls… male and female slaves… goats and sheep… fowl and pigs… elephants, cattle, steeds, and mares… fields and property.

Interestingly, the origin story for the not-storing food rule featured an arahant, Ven. Beḷaṭṭhasīsa, Ven. Ānanda’s preceptor, who presumably kept leftovers out of frugality and not greed.

I’m not a vinaya teacher so I can’t tell you whether being a hermit and cooking is acceptable or not. I can only give a little history and comparative jurisprudence. Alms mendicancy is clearly normative, and the normal thing to do is just to live in a place with support… however, the Khandakas do say you don’t have to guppy (kappiyam karohi/ritually murder) the fruit for no other reason that living in a place without supporters to help. In my monastic life, I have both cooked and not cooked (thank you lockdown), and cooking isn’t without its benefits, although it’s definitely not my normal thing!

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He cites “Mv.VI.32.2” which you can find on SuttaCentral here

Yeah but how do you get from the words, “these things I object to from this day forth” to a permanent, absolutist prohibition on cooking that basically makes the only acceptable vinaya position into “refuse to cook or willingly accept death”? In the 7th cent, Yijing had remarked about Indians…that they believe in the next life without undervaluing this life. AFAIK, vinaya is for living people, not for dead people.

The Theravada commentarial tradition…runs the “willingly accept death” line just a little more often than I am comfortable with.

It depends on how you define it. Usually araññā is defined by the distance to the nearest house. A typical distance would be 500 bow lengths, or approximately 800 metres. But since araññā literally means “not of the king”, that is, the wilderness, some people have argued that only land not controlled by a government is an araññā.

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I’m all about the hermit’s life too. Doing more study into SD3 I too believe it’s possible for Bhikkhunis but not everyone will agree.

Ven. Ñāṇadīpa’s biography is a lovely account of the hermit’s life and worth reading if you haven’t already. He lived entirely on alms food but would fast 1 or 2 days a week to allow himself more solitude. On other days he would walk down to the local village to collect food.

I don’t see why there couldn’t be a ‘community of hermits’ with a central food collection area where dayakas could drop food and monastics could just come down from their huts collect food and return for ‘their days abiding’. During vasa Dhammasara works similar to this with 2 monastics looking after the grounds, 3 lay/anagarikas looking after the kitchen and the rest of the monastery just coming down to chant the blessing and collect their meal. This suits my hermit ways well enough.

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