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BANNER OF THE ARAHANTS

Chapter VI - 

THE LIFE OF BHIKKHUS 1

 

The two careers - the town Bhikkhu - waking - alms round - what Bhikkhus eat - morning chanting - classes - invitations to the houses of laypeople - the forenoon meal - education of Bhikkhus - act of the Sangha - work suitable for Bhikkhus - evening chanting - learning in the evening - scholastic tendencies in the different Buddhist countries - the forest Bhikkhu - solitude - an Arahant in recent times - Vinaya practice - 13 Austere practices - meditation - the forest Bhikkhu’s day - the sálá - alms round - the meal and reflections - the latrine - meditation-walk - work during the day - receiving guests - sweeping - cleaning - water-carrying - a bath - drinks - evening meeting - service to Teachers - walking meditation - possessions of a Bhikkhu - living alone - „in no long time“.

 

The accounts of Bhikkhu life in this chapter are based on experiences in Thailand where there are a good number of differences, though unimportant, even between nearby viháras or those in the same group. So there are sure to be some ways in which those accounts differ from the lives of Bhikkhus in Sri Lanka and Burma. But again the variations are not likely to be of major importance.

 

Here only two kinds of Bhikkhu life are described, that of the Bhikkhu who undertakes the work of books and another whose work is meditation. These are the two ‘careers’ approved of by commentarial tradition but one should not understand that they are completely separate. It sometimes happens that a study Bhikkhu decides that he has learnt enough and goes off to practice, while practice Bhikkhus have sometimes to abandon their quest and come to the towns for study. Although this separation is to be regretted and certainly was not the Buddhas intention, it is a fact in Buddhist countries. Some Buddhist authors of the present have also noted how inappropriate is this rigid differentiation[1] but change can come only with change in the pattern of education in the Sangha.

 

Even a century ago the difference between these two sorts of Bhikkhu was not so great. In those days travel in Buddhist countries was by foot or in a boat while very few Bhikkhus, except those who were aged and greatly respected, will have travelled in palanquins. Bhikkhus were not permitted by the Buddha to use horses or elephants for travel. So if a study Bhikkhu from the town wished to travel he had to go by foot and carry with him his own bowl and robes and a few other things. At that time his life closely resembled the forest Bhikkhus who have always travelled in this way. The study Bhikkhu could then get to know the life of forest Bhikkhus from his own experience. Also, cities then were not the sprawling monsters of today. A town Bhikkhu’s vihára would be within ten minutes walk of the city wall and the rice fields or fruit plantations beyond. He might be able to see the country quite easily from his kuti. Things are different nowadays with town viháras surrounded by houses, shops and factories while to get out of the city one must take a bus ride for half an hour at least. So the gap between the two sorts of Bhikkhu life has widened now.

 

It is generally accepted that a town-dweller (gámavási) means a Bhikkhu concerned with book work (ganthadhura) but this is not always so and there have always been a few town-dwelling Bhikkhus who are occupied with meditation, or who manage in spite of their responsibilities to progress far in this direction.

 

The Buddha foresaw that not all Bhikkhus would be capable of living the hard forest life, so he did not allow the five points raised by his cousin the treacherous Bhikkhu Devadatta, one of which was that all Bhikkhus should live all the time in the forest, never in towns and villages. But those places obviously do not offer the best places for meditation, they are not so quiet, they have too many people and all sorts of disturbances may be expected there. So the towns became the places for book-study since this requires a less rigorous life-style and less concentration, while the preservation of books is easy there. Bhikkhus who lived in the forest though sometimes attracted to study, have usually been inspired by their teachers and by the quiet of their surroundings to meditate.

 

First then, the life of a Bhikkhu in the town.[2] Many more variations are possible in his life since much more happens (outside) than with the meditator, where the principal happenings are interior ones.

 

In the morning, say about five o’clock, the Bhikkhu wakes up. After refreshing himself with a wash and attending to the body’s needs he may sit for some time in meditation, or if an examination draws near, open his books and study. Some Bhikkhus occupy this time with some chanting since in every kuti there is a small shrine with a Buddha-image or picture. Apart from this the total furniture in many kutis consists only of a desk, chair and some bookcases. Some small sitting rugs with cushions behind them allow comfortable relaxation and entertainment of other Bhikkhus. Many viháras do not have a bell for rising or any assembly in the early morning. It thus depends on the energy of the individual Bhikkhu when he gets up and what he does thereafter.

 

But when it is fully light, perhaps six or half-past, then there is something that must be done - if he wants any breakfast! He puts on his robes over both shoulders as should be done by Bhikkhus when they leave the vihára, and takes his bowl in his hands. His head is uncovered and he walks barefoot as he goes out „among the houses“ to see what generous supporters will offer him[3].

 

When he leaves the vihára gate he does not hurry nor gaze about at the houses and shops. To help his inward calm he may be reciting a passage from one of the Suttas he is learning by heart but in any case the good Bhikkhu gives the impression of being mindful and serene. It is early morning, a time when there is not much traffic and the town is still rather quiet. The Bhikkhu going for his Pindapáta (food lumps dropped into the bowl) shows an example of inner peace, which the Dhamma has given him. The only times he raises his eyes are to look out for traffic and other possible dangers and to mark where laypeople are giving food.

 

It is the custom now in Thailand for a Bhikkhu to walk silently until he sees a house or shop where food is being given, or until he is requested to stop by a layperson that wants ‘to place in the bowl’. This is different from the Buddha-time when the Bhikkhu stopped briefly outside each house and if nothing was forthcoming moved on. Pindapáta is still practised in this way in Sri Lanka. The important thing is that he should do nothing to compel laypeople to give him alms. He may only ask for special foods if he is ill and then it is only proper really to ask laypeople that have invited him to say if he needs something. Normally, he asks for nothing at all but just receives whatever people are happy to offer him. And they offer him the best food they can, at least it will be a portion of the food that they have prepared for themselves and sometimes it is finer foods than they eat usually. The Bhikkhu honours them by passing by their houses and giving them a chance to make good kamma, or merit, by giving generously.

 

The Bhikkhu though does not only go out on pindapáta just to fill his bowl and his belly. Quite often a Bhikkhu has supporters who bring food to him to the monastery, so that it is not necessary for him to find food by wandering to receive it. This is particularly true of senior Bhikkhus, such as abbots, but many still go for pindapáta. But Bhikkhus look upon this as a duty, as something, which should be done. It was the practice of the Buddha and all the Bhikkhus in his days and it has a value far exceeding the collection of food.

 

It is, of course, good exercise for the body and it promotes in the mind many good qualities such as contentment, humility and gratitude. Moreover it is a way of helping other people, for there is the expression in Thai, ‘to go out to protect beings’, which the Bhikkhu does by giving them the chance to place food in his bowl and so support his life for another day.

 

The whole act of placing in the bowl is done in silence. Silently the Bhikkhu stops. The layperson silently raises his hands to his forehead in the gesture of reverence. Making no sound the Bhikkhu takes the cover off his bowl and just as quietly the layperson, whether woman or man, or a group of people, puts the food gently in the bowl. When finished the householder again raises hands to the forehead in the gesture of anjali and the Bhikkhu by this knows that the act of giving is finished and quietly closes his bowl and mindful walks away, usually without a word being spoken. Bhikkhus do not thank the lay donors, some of whom indeed would feel upset if they received thanks. They may sometimes receive a brief blessing like „Sukhi hotu“ - May you be happy, or „Áyu vanno sukham balam“, „Long life and beauty, happiness and strength“, but truly their thanks is in the good kamma that they have made by being generous and supporting one who leads the Holy Life leading to Enlightenment. Some donors would feel like thanking the Bhikkhus for their good example of Dhamma well practised.

 

A Bhikkhu’s pindapáta in town takes him past the houses of both the rich and poor and he collects from all whatever they wish to offer, neither greedy for choice morsels nor scorning poor offerings. Also, he must accept whatever is offered, even if he is a vegetarian and people offer meat or fish, he accepts their offering with gratitude and loving kindness. He can always make merit himself by giving away what he does not want! That leads on to a small diversion, for people always assume that Buddhists are vegetarians when this is not usually the case. A few are through their own choice but this is not because they are upholding some tenet of Buddhism. The Buddha did not want his teaching to become a ‘food religion’ - as many religions tend to become in course of time. He gave importance to what came out of the mouth - the words spoken, but not to what was put into it. As he was a Bhikkhu he ate whatever people gave and taught other Bhikkhus to do the same. This is good for contentment. Laypeople of course can choose their food as they have money but the Buddha said nothing about what they should or should not eat. When they did not kill living beings themselves and so made no evil kammas by killing, they could please themselves with what they ate and what they gave to Bhikkhus.

 

The food is kept separate in the almsbowl by the use of banana leaf wrappings and, these days, by plastic bags and small containers. In this way, curries, sweets, fruit and rice are not all mixed up and only the latter two are usually unwrapped. This differs from the Buddha’s days when everything was placed in the bowl unwrapped and so became a mixture which could be rather repulsive and certainly would be only a medicine for curing hunger.

 

His alms round takes him half an hour or a bit longer so that by seven o’clock he should have returned to the vihára with a bowl half full at least. It is rare for a Bhikkhu to get nothing or not enough to eat. If this happens there is usually some arrangement for providing extra food cooked by lay people in the vihára, so he does not have to go hungry. And it is a good Bhikkhu practice when returning from the alms round, especially when one has plenty, to stop another Bhikkhu and give some of the contents of one’s bowl to him. Special delicacies are often reserved by Bhikkhus to be given to their Teachers, the senior Bhikkhus in the vihára. Often he will eat in a group with other Bhikkhus and share his food with them.

 

When he has got back to his kuti perhaps he has a lay pupil or a samanera who will take his bowl respectfully and arrange its contents in small dishes, leaving the rice in the bowl. He may eat from his bowl leaving in it just enough rice for himself and then put in whatever he wishes to eat with it, or more likely he will eat from a plate. As the town Bhikkhu has two meals a day, he does not make his breakfast too heavy, although it is truly for him break fast. He, like all Bhikkhus, has not eaten since before midday on the previous day. The evening is the time when the body should be kept light - for meditation or studies are obstructed by an evening meal. Also, as his food is supplied by others out of the generosity of their hearts, he cannot call upon them for evening food as well. Besides, renunciation of sense-pleasures is part of his training and in many parts of the world the big meal of the day is in the evening, so he renounces this so that he may have a mind that is bright in the evening.

 

His breakfast finished, he may chant a short verse or two rejoicing with the merits of the donors, being glad at the good kamma they have made and extending his loving-kindness to them. Such verses as these may be chanted:

 

            „From all diseases freed, from all grief escaped,
            overcome all enmity and liberated may you be.
            May all distress be averted, may all diseases be destroyed,
            may no dangers be for you may you be happy, living long.
            One of respectful nature who ever the elders honours,
            four qualities for him increase: long life and beauty, happiness and strength“.

 

Then having washed his mouth it will be about time for the bell to strike summoning the Bhikkhus to morning chanting. Bhikkhus and samaneras make their way to the main temple and upon entering prostrate three times, to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, in the direction of the Buddha-image. The most senior Bhikkhu first lights the candles, or lamps and then the incense. Flowers are already arranged there.[4] Then after paying respects to the Triple Gem he leads the Bhikkhus to chant:-

 

            Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammá-sambuddhassa

 

repeated three times. Those words of praise to the Buddha are found in the Suttas and so have now been chanted in his honour for more than twenty-five centuries. ‘Namo’ means homage, honour or reverence and ’tassa’ is ‘to that’. ‘Bhagavato’ is usually rendered exalted or Blessed One but really means something like: The Lord who knows how to teach the Dhamma appropriate to different beings out of compassion for them. This word Bhagavá therefore celebrates the Great Compassion of the Buddha. ‘Arahato’ - the Arahant, one who is free from defilement, therefore stands for the Buddha’s complete Purity. ‘Samma’ - perfect, ‘sambuddhassa’ - to the Buddha (enlightened) by himself; he is perfectly enlightened by his own efforts and his enlightenment or bodhi was not granted him by any other power or person. This stands for the quality of the Buddha’s Wisdom, which is unique among the Teachers of this world.

 

After this the various recollections are chanted. Here are some of them in English translation.

 

Recollection of the Buddha

 

„Indeed the Exalted One is thus: the accomplished destroyer of defilements, a Buddha perfected by himself, complete in clear knowledge and compassionate conduct, supremely good in presence and in destiny, knower of the worlds, incomparable Master of men to be tamed, the Teacher of devas and men, the Awakened and Awakener, the Lord by skilful means apportioning Dhamma.[5]

 

Recollection of the Dhamma

 

„The Dhamma of the Exalted One is perfectly expounded, to be seen here and now, not delayed in time, inviting one to come and see, leading inwards, to be known by each wise man for himself“.

 

Recollection of the Sangha

 

„The Sangha of the Exalted One’s disciples who have practised well, who have practised straightly, who have practised rightly, who have practised dutifully, - that is to say, the four pairs of men, the eight types of persons - that is the Sangha of the Exalted One s disciples, worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, who should be respected, the incomparable field of merit for the world“.[6]

 

Recollection at the time of using the requisites

 

„Reflecting carefully I use this robe only to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun and reptiles, only for the purpose of covering the sexual organs“.

„Reflecting carefully I use this alms food: not for pleasure, not for indulgence, not for personal charm, not for beautification but only for maintaining this body so that it endures, for keeping it unharmed, for supporting the Holy Life; so that former feelings (of hunger) are removed and new feelings (from overeating) do not arise; then there will be for me a lack of bodily obstacles, and living comfortably.

„Reflecting carefully I use this lodging: only to ward off cold, to ward off heat, to ward off the touch of gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, sun and reptiles, only for the purpose of removing the dangers from weather and for living in seclusion“.

„Reflecting carefully I use these requisites for illness - medicines and utensils: only to ward off painful feelings that have arisen, for the maximum freedom from disease“.

 

Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection

 

  1. I am of the nature to decay; I have not got beyond decay.

  2. I am of the nature to be diseased; I have not got beyond disease.

  3. I am of the nature to die; I have not got beyond death.

  4. All that is mine, dear and delightful, will change and vanish.

  5. I am the owner of my kamma; the heir to my kamma; born of my kamma; related to my kamma; abide supported by my kamma. Whatever kamma I shall do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir“.[7]

 

These are some of the recollections, which are chanted at this time; the selection varies from one vihára to another. A section from some famous work expounding the Dhamma or Vinaya may also be read by one of the Bhikkhus while the rest listen, their hands held reverently at the level of the heart. At the end, the novices may recite their Ten Precepts.[8]

 

What happens after this Morning Chanting depends on the status, of the Bhikkhu. The youngest (in Rains) together with the samaneras, will go to Dhamma or Pali classes for about one and a half hours from nine until half past ten. More senior Bhikkhus will be their teachers. The most senior Bhikkhus, such as the abbot and other leading Theras, may also teach but usually special subjects and not regularly. Their time is very full with invitations and appointments. Many people come to see them and they are invited frequently to go to people’s houses and to other viháras, sometimes far distant.

 

Regarding invitations to peoples’ houses, some Bhikkhus will have been absent from Morning Chanting as they had invitations for breakfast. Usually this moans that they would not have gone for pindapáta. If the house is far away, the owner will send a car or cars for them but if near the Bhikkhus walk there. Before they enter the house water is poured over their feet, which are then wiped, often done by the layman inviting them. Inside a number of cushions have been set out against a wall and a clean white cloth is sometimes spread over them. The most senior Bhikkhu sits (preferably with his right side, the side showing respect) nearest the Buddha image in front of which candles, incense and flowers are arranged.

 

When the Bhikkhus are seated, the family pays its respects to them with the triple prostration and the layman lights the candles and incense. Then they request the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts from the most senior Bhikkhu. This is followed by the chanting of auspicious discourses, passages and stanzas that are selected according to the occasion. Upon the conclusion of the chanting the laypeople prostrate again and then serve the Bhikkhus with breakfast. This may be in their bowls or on plates and sometimes laypeople provide more food for the Bhikkhus to take back to their viháras for the forenoon meal. In some houses gifts of necessities are given to the Bhikkhus who before they go chant the verses of rejoicing in the donors’ merits. A short talk on Dhamma may also be given. The Bhikkhus then return to the vihára. What has been said here applies equally to an invitation to the forenoon meal.

 

But we shall suppose that the Bhikkhu whose day we are following has no such invitation and so returns after his classes feeling hot and in need therefore of a wash or shower. In towns, modern viháras have showers but the traditional bathroom has large pitchers or tanks of water out of which water is scooped and splashed over oneself. The lower robe is kept on and gets washed in the process while another dry one is put on over it and the wet one lowered to the floor.

 

Refreshed from his bath the Bhikkhu goes to wherever the food is served. In part this may be the leftovers from his pindapáta, but there may not be much of this if he has young pupils! Then in some viháras arrangements are made to supply food cooked in the market to the Bhikkhus, a fund supported by laypeople paying for this. In other places and this is the case with many Bhikkhus, a lay-supporter will send a tiffin-carrier full of food for the Bhikkhus’ second meal. It is called the forenoon meal as it must be finished before midday after which Bhikkhus do not eat. Apart from this there is nothing special to say about this meal. Sometimes laypeople take food to the vihára and invite a number of the Bhikkhus there, or even all of them. This is often done on birthdays or other special celebrations.

 

In hot countries and hot seasons it is advisable to take a rest at this time, so from noon until about one o’clock the vihára is rather quiet. Then the time comes for more classes between one and two for three or four hours in the afternoon. Each vihára organises its own programme of instruction though some textbooks may be common to all.

 

The variations of a Bhikkhu’s schedule, which can take place in the afternoon, are more numerous than in the morning. He can, for example, go to one of the Bhikkhu colleges for higher education if his studies are advanced enough. There he learns not only Buddhist subjects but also some other worldly knowledge which may be useful to him. Here there is a difference of opinion between those who want Bhikkhus to learn only Pali language, the Dhamma and Vinaya with such related subjects as the life of the Buddha and Buddhist history and those who think that modern education is important for the Bhikkhu. The arguments for both sides run like this. Traditionalists say that the Buddha condemned worldly talk (literally animal-talk) and worldly knowledge while he praised those who were deeply learned, in the Three Baskets for example. Their argument is that Bhikkhus should not burden their minds with much worldly knowledge because it will only lead them to worldliness and bad conduct. A Bhikkhu has no need, they say, of any of the subjects between algebra and zoology. He will be well equipped if he knows his Discipline well, and the Discourses thoroughly. If in addition he has studied the Commentaries and the Abhidhamma, it will be enough for his own development, also for helping others. Bhikkhus who get their heads stuffed full of worldly subjects which do not show the way to renunciation, neglect both Dhamma and Vinaya and so are easily tempted by worldly pleasures to disrobe. Then their supporters who have kept them supplied with requisites for years are disappointed and become disillusioned with Bhikkhus generally so that the Saddhamma is corroded in this way.

 

Not true,[9] say the modernists. Bhikkhus these days should have adequate knowledge of the world. They should learn psychology, philosophy, also the basic sciences. And they need as well knowledge of modern languages, which will help them to, spread the Buddhadhamma. Bhikkhus who know only Pali and Sanskrit and the Buddhist literatures in them will be as fossilised as dinosaurs in the present time. What relevance will they have to a modern man coping with so many new problems and how can he talk to them for they will hardly talk the same language.

 

As often in such disputes, both sides are right - and in some ways too extreme. The traditionalists are certainly right when they press for a curriculum of Buddhist languages and studies. It is unfortunately correct to say that worldly subjects lead to an increase of worldliness. And the behaviour of bhikkhus does suffer because of this and they do disrobe more quickly since they are not supported by the strength of Dhamma-Vinaya. But they go too far if they argue against modern language studies.

 

Modernists are surely correct when they argue that modern languages, psychology and philosophy are proper for the Bhikkhu to study, for these subjects do have some bearing both on communication with others and with Dhamma. But if they assert that it is necessary for Bhikkhus to have the same kind of secondary schooling (or university education) as lay people then they go too far also. A Bhikkhu does not need many of the things taught in schools - they will not help him nor can he use them to teach Dhamma. They are just distractions wasting energy and time which might have gone into his proper studies. He has the time to specialise in a way, which laypeople can rarely do: he can become master of the Buddha-word. With that unique knowledge of Dhamma he is in a better position to help himself, and others, than one with only a smattering of this and that. Certainly Dhamma is relevant now, so the Bhikkhu learned in it is not a ‘dinosaur’. Much will depend on how he learns the Dhamma, whether in a practical way or in some stylised and antiquated fashion. So the debate goes on …

 

Bhikkhus may also have invitations to a formal act of the Sangha, at this time, perhaps an Acceptance ceremony, or to the fortnightly recitation of the Bhikkhus 227 fundamental rules, a code called Patimokkha[10]. Other matters arise more rarely, such as the consecration of a new boundary (síma). The afternoon may also be the time when donors come and a chanting ceremony is arranged for them. In some viháras (in Thailand) where there are crematoria, a Bhikkhu may be invited to chant or give a sermon in the presence of the family of the deceased to whom the merits are dedicated. Visits by leading Theras (senior Bhikkhus) may also provide variety from the usual classes.

 

When classes end it will be that good time of the day which is called ‘the cool’. It is not evening or twilight, which is very brief in the tropics but the sun, is low and a cooling breeze blows. It is time for another bath and probably a cold drink. These days in the towns there are all sorts of cold bottled drinks, which if they are fruit juices, or simulate fruit juices, are allowable for Bhikkhus in the afternoon and evening. They can only take fruit juices, which are strained and clear of fruit particles, otherwise it would be equivalent to eating fruit! Also, various infusions may be drunk at this time - any kind of tea, or coffee but this must contain no milk, which is counted as a food.

 

There is no objection to these mild stimulants. Bhikkhus, of course, may not have any kind of alcoholic beverage as this would run counter to the aim of the Holy Life which is to clear the mind of all defilements.

 

Some free time may follow this but young Bhikkhus and samaneras have the duty to look after their teachers, the Theras. So there may be cleaning, robe washing and darning to do besides their own chores. A note on work may not be out of place here. A Bhikkhu really should be one with few duties if he is to succeed in the Holy Life. This does not mean he should be lazy or neglect to serve his Teachers and help his fellow-Bhikkhus. But it does mean that he should not undertake work, which will burden him unnecessarily. The Buddha when laying down the Vinaya has ruled out certain occupations so that Bhikkhus cannot engage in farming or gardening (as monks of other religions do) nor in mercantile activities. The Buddha often showed how the Brahmins, originally the priests of Vedic religion, had changed their ways and he did not intend Bhikkhus to deteriorate in the same way. Here is an extract from a discourse in verses about the way Brahmins had been transformed.

 

            „Whoever among men lives minding cows, Vasettha,
            you must know as farmer, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives by many crafts, Vasettha,
            you must know as craftsman, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives by a trade, Vasettha,
            you must know as tradesman, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives by serving others, Vasettha,
            you must know as servant, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives taking things, Vasettha,
            you must know as robber, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives by archery, Vasettha,
            you must know as warrior, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men lives as a priest, Vasettha,
            you must know as ritualist, not as brahmin.
 
            Whoever among men owns town and country, Vasettha,
            you must know as rájah, not as brahmin.
                                                (Sutta-Nipata 612-619)

 

Bhikkhus should only undertake those kinds of work, which they can manage easily, provided they are permissible. The Buddha sometimes finds Bhikkhus at work repairing kutis and viháras. But commended bhikkhus who repaired their own kutis and today one what the Buddha would have said to Bhikkhus who were artists, or totally engaged in social service can be surmised when we consider that these works are not directly connected with Dhamma-Vinaya, learning or practice.

 

In the early evening, the time varying in the individual viháras, the bell will be rung again for the evening chanting. The period of 45 minutes or an hour will not differ greatly from that in the morning as regards the content of the chanting though some of the longer discourses of the Buddha may be recited at this time. While chanting, the mind should be fixed upon the meaning of what is being said, so that distraction is avoided. For the town Bhikkhus who practise little or no meditation this chanting can concentrate and purify the mind to some extent. And if one knows the meaning of the Pali well, with a concentrated mind deep faith is stimulated and rapture pervades one’s body. The range of chants in the evening time is very wide. From among them here is a set of four traditional verses, possibly originally from Sri Lanka, which are extremely beautiful in Pali, in praise of the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

 

            Seated serene at the Sacred Bodhi’s root
            having conquered Mara and his serried hosts,
            attained to Sambodhi, with Wisdom that is Infinite,
            Highest in the universe, that Buddha I revere.
 
            Eight-factored Noble Path for people everywhere,
            for those seeking Freedom, the Way that is straight,
            this Dhamma fine and subtle making for peace,
            leading out of dukkha, that Dhamma I revere.
 
            Right worthy of gifts is the Sangha purified,
            with pacified senses, all mental stains removed,
            one quality alone with which all powers won:
            gone beyond desire, that Sangha I revere.
 
            Thus indeed the Highest which is the Triple Gem
            should be venerated as revered by me,
            and then by the power of this vast amount of merit,
            very beneficial, may danger be destroyed.

 

The closing chant will be a set of verses dedicating the good kammas made by the Bhikkhus for the good and happiness of all living beings. They ‘share’ in this good kamma by rejoicing with the doers of those actions, and thus make good kamma themselves. Here is a translation of a Pali composition of Prince Mongkut (later to become King Rama IV) when he was Lord Abbot of Wat Bovoranives Vihára in Bangkok:

 

            Wherever there are devas who dwell in this vihára,
            the stupa, the temple, the Bodhi-tree enclosure,
 
            may they be honoured by this gift of Dhamma
            and may they bring safety to all in this vihára.
 
            Senior Bhikkhus, new ones and those of middle standing,
            attendants and great donors, all the lay people,
 
            villages and countries, towns and principalities,
            all living beings - may they be happy!
 
            Those born from a womb, beings egg-begotten,
            born out of moisture, or spontaneously arising,
 
            may they rely on the excellent Dhamma
            outguiding beyond and destroying all dukkha.
 
            May True Dhamma long stand fast, and the people upholding Dhamma.
            In concord may the Sangha live for benefits and happiness.
            May True Dhamma guard me well and all the Dhamma practicers.
            And may we all attain to growth in Dhamma declared by the Noble Ones.

 

When this has finished then may follow a few moments of silence before all the Bhikkhus, pay homage to the Buddha-image and disperse to their kutis. Now there is no timetable and each Bhikkhu spends his time as he likes. Some will have clerical work to do, especially typing documents for the vihára’s administration or the texts of books to be published. Others may spend some time with visitors, perhaps relatives who have come to visit and sit out on the Bhikkhu’s veranda. Bhikkhus who take up the ‘work of books’ have examinations to pass, so some will be poring over their texts while some in traditional fashion will be learning Suttas by heart. A few may be learning or retaining in their minds by repetition, the Patimokkha (the 227 Fundamental Rules), which cannot be read out of a book at each fortnightly meeting but must be recited from memory. Such a Bhikkhu has to recite part of his text every day and his mindfulness must be strong, otherwise forgetfulness will show in his mistakes while chanting. There are still some Bhikkhus who learn whole sections of the Suttas by heart, sometimes all the suttas and most rarely all of the Three Baskets. This is a prodigious feat of memory, which perpetuates the most ancient traditions of the Buddha’s days. There are still some Bhikkhus in Burma who have accomplished this task. This is a time too when a Bhikkhu can visit his Bhikkhu friends in that vihára and discuss matters with them.

 

Before sleep some Bhikkhus may spend a short time in meditation, chanting, or both, in front of their own shrines. The mind should be clear and calm before lying down mindful. One cannot say that Bhikkhus ‘go to bed’ because often they have no bed and in a tropical country, almost no bedding. A mat on the floor is sufficient in the hot weather with a hard pillow and most likely a mosquito-net. Keeping the lower robe on, a Bhikkhu lies down mindful on his right side, in the posture seen in recumbent Buddha-images and draws his upper robe over himself. In colder weather a thin mattress may be used and a blanket or quilt. As he goes to sleep he has in mind rising promptly in the morning and not submitting to sloth.

 

This is one ordinary day in the life of a study-Bhikkhu, but if all the possible variations were described this chapter would never come to an end! This tradition of study is followed by the majority of Bhikkhus though the degree of proficiency they reach obviously will vary. Some pass only the preliminary examinations as do many of the Bhikkhus in the village viháras while some become great scholars producing original works on Vinaya or Dhamma, either in Pali or in their own languages. In each Buddhist country there is a great range of literature interesting to lay people and written in the vernacular, the Buddhist novels published in Thailand being an example of such books.

 

But the scholastic traditions in the three main Theravada countries are not quite the same. A Thai story has it that an embassy was sent from Ayudhya, capital of Siam, to the King of Sri Lanka requesting a copy of the Three Baskets. That king honoured the Three Baskets by dispatching them each in a separate ship. These became separated on their voyage so that the Vinaya-Pitaka landed in the Mon country (now lower Burma), the Sutta-Pitaka reached Siam safely, while the Abhidhamma-Pitaka landed on the shores of Burma. This is meant to account for Mon Bhikkhus’ strictness in Vinaya, the interest in Suttas in Thailand and the love of Abhidhamma in Burma. Adapting this somewhat, one could say that Vinaya is stressed in Thailand, Suttas studied widely in Sri Lanka while certainly the Abhidhamma is most prized in Burma. But like all such generalisations it should not be understood that the remaining parts of the Three Baskets are neglected in any Buddhist country.

 

Forest Bhikkhu life[11] differs from the above account in many ways. One thing stands out, it is much less gregarious and a Bhikkhu has more time for his own practice. Indeed the Buddha praised solitude for those who want to practise Dhamma. Physical solitude is quite easily achieved. Then one should have besides solitude of mind - the completely one-pointed mind able to go deep into meditation, which is not so easy. Finally one should be without any ‘assets’ - belongings, possessions, even this mind and body should not belong or should not be grasped as ‘myself’. This solitariness from assets is equivalent to the enlightened state, to being an Arahant, and this requires great renunciation efforts if it is to be attained.

 

So the forest Bhikkhu’s life when well-lived requires great effort and determination. But it is rare to find a Buddhist who without the support of a meditation Master can go to the forest and live a life of striving by himself. Most forest Bhikkhus, especially while they are still developing their meditation practice, stay with a Teacher who can guide them.

 

In Thailand the foremost exponent in modern times of the forest Bhikkhu life was the Venerable Phra Acharn Mun (Bhuridatta Maháthera).[12] He was one of the rare Bhikkhus who without much guidance steadfastly practised the Dhamma in the seclusion of caves and forests full of wild animals until he reached Arahantship. Out of compassion for people embroiled in sufferings he taught great numbers of Bhikkhus, samaneras, nuns and lay devotees. Many who heard his inspiring and eloquent discourses realised great benefits, either while they were sitting there or later through the Dhamma that they were encouraged to practise.

 

Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera died in Buddhist Era 2492 (1949) and among the ashes at his cremation were found the crystalline ‘relics’ (sarírika-dhátu) which confirmed the fact that he was indeed an Arahant. His life with its descriptions of how he practised, what he attained and the Dhamma he taught, as recorded by his disciple, the Venerable Phra Acharn Mahá Boowa Nánasampanno, should be read by all Buddhists as an encouragement to practise and attain as much as possible in this life.

 

A number of his disciples are still alive and are now Teachers themselves. What follows here is a description of the life of a Bhikkhu in one of the forest viháras established by them. There are three important aspects of practice in these forest viháras: keeping strictly to the Vinaya, undertaking some of the thirteen austere practices allowed by the Buddha and the actual mindfulness and meditation. A few words on each of those are necessary to appreciate the forest Bhikkhu’s life.

 

Something has already been said about the Vinaya as laid down in books. In practice it is the way of restraining all one’s actions of body and speech so that no evil is done. It is the ‘leading out’ (vinaya) of troubles and sufferings, which are the results of evil kammas. Even in small matters, there is the right and the wrong way of doing them and this ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are based on Vinaya and mindfulness. For instance, a Bhikkhu puts something down on the floor making a lot of noise. The Teacher will reprove him for that because according to Vinaya all possessions, indeed all things that a Bhikkhu handles, should be carefully preserved and not damaged through negligence. Regarded from the viewpoint of mindfulness his action shows that he was unmindful and so not practising Dhamma. The way of doing everything is important and should agree with the Vinaya tradition. A Bhikkhu who thought he knew of a better way to do things but one, which conflicted with Vinaya, would be thought conceited. If he went against the Teacher’s instructions again and again, he might be told to leave the vihára or would just be ignored by the Teacher and other Bhikkhus until he either left of his own accord or changed his ways.

 

The Vinaya is a reasonable code and its rules all have their reasons and although in general this is to restrain body and speech actions, since these actions are born in the mind, it aids the restraint of greed, aversion and delusion, the three roots of evil from which all defilements spring. The Vinaya alone cannot root out these sources of evil but must be backed up by mindfulness and meditation and strengthened by the austere practices. The reasonableness of the Vinaya rules may not always be apparent but then we must remember that they were framed by the Perfectly Enlightened One whose understanding was rather greater than our own! However to give an example of rules which can be easily comprehended some of the regulations about food. Not only is a Bhikkhu forbidden to dig the ground and to cut or break living plants - and thus he is kept out of agriculture, but also he is unable to buy his own food (as strictly he has no money), or to cook his own meals. Buying one’s own food and cooking it gives greed a chance - what one likes and does not like. But when it is obtained by the alms bowl, or through the offerings of laypeople that have come to the vihára, greed has much less chance while restraint becomes easier. Careful practice of the Vinaya is therefore the basis of the forest Bhikkhu’s life.

 

The forest tradition is also where the austere practices are used. We have read already that the Buddha disapproved of both the extremes of sensual indulgence and of bodily mortification, while he taught a Middle Way. Of course, this middle should not be understood as a compromise but as ways and means transcending extremes. The austere practices described below may seem extreme to some people but then they were not intended for all Buddhists, not even for all Bhikkhus. They were never made compulsory by the Buddha but were aids to individual training to be used by those Bhikkhus who found them helpful.  


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[1]See „The Heritage of the Bhikkhu“, Walpola Rahula, p. 29f.

[2]For another account, see „Buddhism“ by Richard A. Gard, published by George Brazillel Inc., New York.

[3]For a fuller account see „The Blessings of Pindapáta“ Wheel No. 73.

[4]For an explanation of the significance of these offerings, see „Lay Buddhist Practice“ Wheel No. 206-207. B.P.S. Kandy.

[5]For stories illustrating these qualities see Ch. XII „The Splendour of Enlightenment“. Mahamakut Press, Bangkok.

[6]For these three reflections explained in detail, see „Path of Purification“. Ch. VII pp. 206-240.

[7]For more on Buddhist chanting, see „Lay Buddhist Practice“ Wheel 206-207 and „Pali Chanting with Translations“.

[8]See Appendix II.

[9]For a modernist view see „The Heritage of the Bhikkhu“ by Walpola Rahula., p. 95f.

[10]See „The Patimokkha“, Mahamakut Press.

[11]See also the account in „With Robes and Bowl“, Wheel 83 /84

[12]A full and inspiring account of his life is in „Phra Acharn Mun: Meditation Master“, Mahamakut Press, Phra Sumeru Road, Bangkok, for free distribution.