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BANNER OF THE ARAHANTS

Chapter VIII - 

WESTERNERS IN THE SANGHA

  1. Become a Buddhist
  2. Understand clearly: Why do I wish to go forth to homelessness?
  3. Consider: Can I lead the Holy Life honourably?
  4. Question oneself: Am I free from obstacles to ordination?
  5. Decide: How shall I use my time when I have gone forth?
  6. Practical needs for an applicant
  7. Necessary virtues in an applicant
  8. The Aim of the Holy Life

The Yonakas or Greeks? - Geographical and religious obstructions to the spread of Dhamma  - Pride of empire - the first western Bhikkhus - difficulties of westerners in the Sangha - why become a Bhikkhu (or upasiká) - not for everyone - the Holy Life unnatural? - what causes a person to take up the Holy Life? - faith or confidence - four types of people having faith - advice for those who would like to go forth - the Sangha in western countries?

 

Possibly the first people of western origin recorded to have entered the Sangha are some Bhikkhus whose names have been recorded in the Great Chronicle (Mahavamsa) having also the epithet ‘Yonaka’. This word is the Pali equivalent of Ionic, hence Greek. But one may doubt how much Greek blood was in their veins as ‘yonaka’ was applied to any citizen of the Greek type of city and such cities were found from the Mediterranean to N.W. India. It is possible that a Buddhist centre existed in Alexandria (Egypt) where Indian merchants were known to trade. This would not have lasted through the fanatical Christianization programme following the adoption of that religion by Constantine.

 

Between Egypt and India lay at different times the various countries having Zoroastrianism as their state religion. The powerful priesthood of this religion persecuted other faiths from time to time so that Buddhism could not gain much ground in Persia though numbers of Persians from central Asia became Bhikkhus. Prevented from spreading westwards overland, Buddhism turned north through Central Asia and then east to China and Japan.

 

Even if Buddhism had reached the Mediterranean countries after Constantine’s fateful choice, it could not have become established there since Dhamma cannot be planted or kept going when opposed by brute force. The attitude of the churches, once they gained power was to use compulsion forcing all to baptise or to suffer death, with the destruction of all religious movements which ran counter to them. Heterodoxies were rigorously suppressed and freedom of religion, which had existed, to a very considerable extent in the Roman Empire, became a thing unknown. Men’s minds were drilled to accept certain dogmas - of creation, salvation, and so on, as true and unquestionable. Indeed, it became a sin to question such doctrines in such a narrow and stifling religious climate, which continued, aided by the fire and sword of secular power for 1,700 years or so, the gentle but penetrating truth of the Dhamma had no chance.

 

It was only with the decline of church power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that there was any possibility of eastern thought reaching westwards. By then however, a new obstacle arose in many western minds: pride of empire. People who have empires always look down upon those they conquer but this attitude ensures that nothing can be learnt by the conquerors from the subject population. It is assumed that power to conquer means natural superiority in every respect, such conceit shutting the door against knowledge, which could otherwise be absorbed. But western nations not only felt their weapons superior and therefore their religion too, they also saw themselves as light-bringers to the darkness of backward peoples. Their industries and mass-made products were soon to bring about a Golden Age of peace and prosperity and the ignorant natives of Asia had to play their part too, as cheap labour. Such attitudes as these guaranteed a lack of interest, even a derision of Asian culture. And Buddhism was the religion of the conquered, so what could be learnt from it?

 

Of course there are a few wise men that are interested both in the Pali manuscripts on ola palm leaves from Sri Lanka and Burma, and in other Buddhist Sanskrit writings found in Nepal. Thus a comparison became possible for scholars between the earlier and simpler Pali accounts and the later more embroidered versions found in Sanskrit.

 

One of the first to spread a knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings outside the circle of scholars and their journals was Schopenhauer.[1] It is quite possible that the first westerner known to have became a Bhikkhu, an Austrian whose name could not be traced, had read of the Buddha’s teachings by of the German philosopher. At the time of his ordination, c. 1870 he was employed by the Siamese government. He temporarily ordained as a Bhikkhu at Wat Pichaiyat in Thonburi, during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama Vth).

 

Siam was never conquered by any colonial power, so his ordination ceremony was no doubt regarded with favour in the government circles. But in Sri Lanka and Burma (as in Cambodia and Laos) the idea of westerners ‘going native’ to such an extent as to ordain was looked upon with horror.

 

Things have now changed a great deal. No longer do western and semi-Christian countries have empires in the east, so pride of empire has had to be relinquished. And again, many people now have second thoughts about industrialisation and its benefits. They are very doubtful whether the Golden Age will dawn through fast factories, mass-produced articles and the pollution, which is involved. So now a great many young people turn to look at the eastern cultures and see what they have to offer to their hearts and minds starved of spiritual teachings.

 

That people are able to go now to Buddhist countries and find there some institutions which have relevance to their needs is due to the pioneers who from the beginning of this century were courageous and sought Acceptance in the Sangha. We shall not attempt here to give outlines of many of these pioneers, only three of the most famous being mentioned, two British and one German.

 

In order of ordination Allan Bennet was the first (though not the first Englishman in robes). His interest in Dhamma was awakened by reading „The Light of Asia“, Sir Edwin Arnold’s famous poem on the Buddha. So moved was he by this that he went to Sri Lanka in 1901 where he became a samanera with the name Ananda Metteyya. The next year he went to Burma where it appears he was accepted as a Bhikkhu. While studying and practising in Burma he founded „Buddhism“, an illustrated magazine of very high standard, which could hardly be matched in the Buddhist world today. In this organ, which had a worldwide circulation, plans were published for a Buddhist Mission to the West partly financed by generous Burmese lay-supporters, partly by the newly established Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya arrived in Britain in April 1908 and began his work propagating the Dhamma. He experienced great difficulties as at that time Buddhism, even as a word was hardly known to many people. Progress of the mission was not so rapid as had been expected. In the autumn of the same year, he returned to Rangoon and stayed there until 1914, but the Bhikkhu’s health deteriorated due to severe asthma, so he disrobed, returned to Britain and led a more retired life until 1923, the year of his death from that disease. His dying wish was to give his last few pence to a beggar he heard passing beneath his window. He was the author of „The Wisdom of the Aryas“ and „An Outline of Buddhism“, besides many articles on the Dhamma.

 

Next came Anton Gueth who was a Bhikkhu for no less than 53 Rains with the name of Nyanatiloka. He met with Buddhism in Germany and from there made his way to Sri Lanka, though it was in Burma where he became a samanera in 1903 and a Bhikkhu in 1904. Then he returned to Sri Lanka where he established a hermitage upon an island in the midst of a lagoon near to the south coast of the country. He lived an ascetic life quite unafraid of the many snakes that were his neighbours. The villagers nearby took him alms food by boat every day, erected a kuti for him and treated him with great respect. Gradually he became known more widely, specially as westerners came to join the Sangha and took up residence under his guidance.

 

A number of his western pupils have spent all their lives in the Sangha as he did, such as the venerable Vappa Mahathera and Nyanasatta Mahathera. Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera also is well known as a translator, author and founder of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, while the late Nyanamoli Thera’s name will live upon the many books he translated from Pali.

 

Venerable Nyanatiloka Mahathera was a great scholar who wrote and translated very many books, both in English and German.[2] He also contributed to the Sixth Buddhist Council held in Burma. Such was his eminence that the Government of Ceylon made him a distinguished citizen in 1950. After his death in 1957 the government accorded him the honour of a State funeral. His last wish was to be reborn in Sri Lanka and to become a Bhikkhu again.

 

Last to be mentioned hero is J. F. McKechnie whose Bhikkhu name was Sílacára. His first contact with the Dhamma was through a copy of „Buddhism“, the magazine produced in Burma. This interested him so much that he went to Burma in 1906 and there became a Bhikkhu. He studied Pali and helped to produce the magazine, later writing a number of books himself and translating some more from Buddhist works in German. He was the translator also of the first hundred of the Buddha’s Middle Length Discourses in two volumes, which he condensed and tried to put into easily understood English. He disrobed as a result of poor health and returned to England in 1925 to help there with „The British Buddhist“, the magazine of the British Maha Bodhi Society. His death took place in Bury, Lancashire in 1951.                    .

 

Westerners entering the Sangha have still to face a number of difficulties in Buddhist countries. If their confidence in the Triple Gem is not strong enough these difficulties will soon find their weaknesses. Among them are such things as differences of climate; a trouble, which can only be overcome by patience, and of food, where contentment with what one gets, is needed. Another unwanted experience is that of the tropical diseases which afflict some aspirants. On such trouble as these the Buddha’s Discourse on All the Troubles may be consulted in the Appendix. Language is another problem and it is essential to master the tongue spoken by one’s Teachers as soon as possible. Other changes affect some people who cannot adapt to the religious and cultural environments of the Buddhist people to whom they go to learn. It is one thing to read a few Buddhist books, often not the words of the Buddha but various ideas of modern authors, but it is another to be in Buddhist surroundings and to have to discipline oneself accordingly. Nuns will have to face more difficulties, which have been outlined in the last chapter.

 

One difference between many eastern Buddhists and westerners, which can be a cause of difficulty, is the way that they approach Dhamma. For the Buddhist born in a Buddhist environment and brought up in this, Buddhism is largely coloured with many traditional practices, ceremonies and festivals. Many Buddhists do not ask questions (although this changes as a more western-educated youth grows up) and are inclined to accept the words of Teachers as true. This is not to say that everyone is undiscriminating but rather that faith outweighs wisdom in many cases. Such an attitude is found among Bhikkhus too though it may be less common in the Sangha. The westerner, by contrast, has no traditional Buddhist background but often discovers the Dhamma as the result of a personal search. He wants to know ‘why’? Westerners who enter the Sangha have sometimes a too critical attitude, which is founded on superiority-conceit. It is right to inquire but this should be done with humility and at the right time. Both total scepsis and blind faith are extremes, the one leading quickly out of the robes and out of Buddhism; the other leading one knows not where. To overcome these difficulties, confidence should be developed by the sceptical questioner and wisdom by the traditional follower.

 

The question my be asked: ‘Well, why become a Bhikkhu (or an upásiká)?’ The argument runs like this - ’If it is so difficult and there is the possibility of ruining one’s health, well just stay here at home and practise Dhamma’. This has to be the course of action for those who are tied down to worldly responsibilities of family and so on. But if one is free of these burdens then learning the Dhamma ‘at home’, even if there happens to be a small Buddhist centre nearby, is only a very second-best. In western countries usually one can go to only one Teacher and so misses the great variety of Teachers and their Teachings found in the East. But it is more likely that no Bhikkhus are found near home and one’s practice must be based upon books and intelligent guesswork, which is no substitute for a Teacher’s presence. Where there is a Buddhist Society this can be helpful, depending on who runs it and what their understanding of Dhamma is like but it is not uncommon for unguided Buddhist groups to be more a source of confusion than enlightenment! Again, round about most westerners there is a culture, materialistic and based on defilements, opposed to Buddhist aims, which are then made more difficult to realise. (This is not to say that Buddhist Countries are paradise where Enlightenment will fall into one’s lap!) But by learning thoroughly the language of the country one goes to and by living with Teachers and talking to them, appreciation of Dhamma is broadened and deepened in a way that cannot come about if one is a stay-at-home. The west has hardly any really great Teachers in Buddhist tradition and for the guidance of Enlightened minds one has still to travel to the East. The effort and sacrifice may be great but the results can be greater still, depending on one’s own reaction to the presence of Teachers. The best results are never attained without effort. Of course, it all depends how far one wishes to go but generally it is true to say that little effort towards training oneself means little result. And training, oneself alone has a severe limitation: there is no one to tell one how to deal with defilements, or to point out the blind spots in one’s conduct. Teachers, when one has humility, have compassion for one and guide one through the tangles of inner defilement and outer misbehaviour. So there is certainly some reason for seeking them out rather than going it alone.

 

If one finds a Teacher who has good Dhamma then one thing is necessary so that the Dhamma can enter one’s own heart: stay with him long, years will be better than months!

 

Then of course, for the easiest practise of Dhamma, ordaining as a Bhikkhu or a nun is the best thing to do. Laypeople have to fight on two fronts - the material, to keep themselves alive and the spiritual, against the defilements invading the mind. Those who have robes on, being supported by faithful laypeople, have only to fight the defilements. They have all their days and nights to do this. And they are protected by their Vinaya against situations, which make Dhamma practice difficult or impossible.

 

The life of a Bhikkhu or upásiká is of course not for everyone (An old chestnut is the question, ‘But what would happen if everyone became monks and nuns?’ - as if this is ever a possibility!) Many people in the Buddha-time and since then have even attained the Paths and Fruits by steady practice while leading the household life. Does this not contradict what was said above about renunciation? No, because those who can practise to levels of attainment as householders must have made much good kamma in the past. They have striven already, even if they do not remember doing so, but the numbers of such people are few. It is more common to be impeded by household life when on a spiritual path, than helped by it. Of course, one should never assume that one is a person of great merits who does not need to give up anything - for this would look rather like a conceit!

 

Other people say that the chaste life is unnatural, using analogies such as, ‘We have eyes so we are meant to see - and all the other organs including those of sex, so who are meant to use them’. This kind of statement suffers from an assumption: that someone means us to act in some way rather than another. This is assuming the existence of a God and a plan that he has for the world. Buddhism shows that such assumptions are founded upon a misinterpretation of the evidence. There is no Creator and so no plan.[3] There are other objections too, which come out more strongly when people say, ‘I have a stomach and so I eat, lungs and so I breathe, sex organs and so I have intercourse’. But here of course, eating and breathing are necessary for the life of the body while sex certainly is not. Further, breathing is an automatic function and in no way connected with greed, while eating is not automatic and often involving kamma linked to greed, but sex is also a deliberate action (=kamma) and always rooted in greed (= lust, desire). Kamma rooted in lust or desire is not good kamma and its fruits are to strengthen craving for existence, for more life - and more death. So if one wants to make great efforts at Dhamma-practice in this existence the Holy Life is the most ‘natural’ one to adopt. It favours becoming rid of defilements; it is near to or goes naturally towards renunciation and to Nibbána.

 

What are the factors, which cause people to take up the Holy Life in the Buddha’s teachings? The prime causes are two, one of which is experienced by all living beings while the other is only strong in some of them. The first of these experienced by all is dukkha,[4] unsatisfactoriness, pain, anguish, all kinds of unwanted mental and physical experiences whether gross or subtle. But not everyone has the second causal factor-wisdom (paññá), the understanding of how dukkha arises, of what conditions its existence. When a wise person reads the Four Noble Truth - (1) Dukkha (its existence), (2) Causal Arising (by way of craving - ignorance), (3) Cessation (by removal of craving = Nibbána), (4) the Path to this cessation (the Noble Eightfold Path), they realise that much of their dukkha is made by themselves and if they change their course in life, they can find peace and happiness. So dukkha impels people with wisdom (paññá) to practice Dhamma.

 

If people have not seen much dukkha in this life, or they have seen it but not known that anything could be done about it, they are unlikely to be interested in the Buddha’s teachings. Dukkha, the Buddha, said, should be thoroughly known. This means that one should know it as such whenever it occurs, and as it is of various forms gross and subtle, not all of it will be obvious from the beginning. The subtle dukkha, of reliance upon this impermanent world (including mind-body) for instance, is only thoroughly known in the higher levels of insight meditation. This Buddhist teaching contrasts with the attitude of most people to dukkha - to try to ignore it constantly.

 

When people have dukkha - everyone has but it is being really piled up in the west now - and wisdom too that appreciates the Noble Truths, then confidence (saddhá) is born. Confidence means trust in the Buddha who has discovered the way out of dukkhas through his Enlightenment; in Dhamma as that Way which leads out of dukkha towards Nibbána; and in the Sangha of Noble One who by following the Way have got rid of the causes of dukkha in themselves and reached to Enlightenment. These three factors then, dukkha, wisdom and confidence are the prime causes for westerners ordaining.

 

A Pali Commentary lists four types of people who have confidence. (I do not use the word ‘faith’ as in Buddhist contexts real saddhá is always allied to wisdom or understanding - paññá. Only the fourth type possesses true saddhá as we shall see.

 

The first type of person gains faith through seeing something magnificent or beautiful. Such a person is said to ‘measure by seeing’. What they see may be a religious procession full of colour and pageantry, priests robed gorgeously, mighty cathedrals - or of course, great Buddha-images covered with gold. They are impressed by what they see.

 

In the second case, it is not seeing but hearing which is the basis for the arising of faith. People hear divine singing, or chanting, without knowing its meaning, or they recite a mantra, usually a meaningless word or collection of words, in the company of others, becoming, carried away by the sound in any case. Their faith is established in this way.

 

The third group of people gain faith through appreciation of rough, coarse or common things. They ‘measure by coarseness’. What does this mean? This means gaining faith through seeing an ascetic or monk who uses such things. It is based on the thought ‘I love and use beautiful things but this ascetic is content with coarse things. Therefore he must be holy’. In an Indian setting it applies to admiration and confidence on seeing a dusty, bearded ascetic with patched robes, or none at all. In Buddhist countries it is also found as when town-dwelling laypeople admire a forest-dwelling Bhikkhu with his dull-coloured robes and other evidence of asceticism.

 

It is rather obvious that none of these criteria are really safe for the development of confidence. One can see or hear things, which will lead one’s understanding astray. What use is a religion, which encourages one’s faith with gorgeous ritual and divine music but approves of persecution and power politics? One may be equally mistaken with the signs of coarseness in an ascetic’s articles. Perhaps he is a hypocrite displaying such marks to win admiration or he may be just a dullard who does not care that his things are rough. All three fail through lack of wisdom, of that understanding, which, in this case, arises after thinking in terms of cause and effect.

 

So the fourth sort of person has faith, or better call it confidence, because he has used his wisdom. When he encounters religious splendours of eye and ear he is not taken in by them, such things he knows are all conditioned and imply no standard for truth. And he is not deceived by plainness or coarseness but asks why - is it for show or is it because of contentment and lack of desire for beautiful things. He ‘measures by wisdom’ and uses his mind to test and ask questions. And he is not satisfied with a teaching if he is told that such questions should not be asked, or that they have no answers, which we can understand. He believes only after repeated questioning, not being satisfied until his questions are answered with complete clarity. His understanding of the conditional arising and passing away of all things not only satisfies the intellect but is supported by practice of the Dhamma, particularly meditation. He is not satisfied if assumptions are presented to him for his belief, such assumptions as a Creator or an eternal soul, because such concepts can never be incontrovertibly demonstrated and do not agree with either sense-experience or with the evidence of meditation when investigated in the light of the Three Characteristics[5] - Impermanence, dukkha and non-self, of all living beings. Such a person does not have to keep his faith apart from the conditionality which rules in the empirical world, indeed his wisdom (paññá) derived from observing conditionality, supports his faith in the Triple Gem; while that faith balances his wisdom so that the latter is not just intellectual knowledge. This type of person will be a good Buddhist since both intellectually pleased with the clarity of Dhamma and emotionally satisfied with the good results, which come from practice.

 

A person like this may want to take up the Dhamma, full-time, to give mind and body to the study and practice of the Dhamma. What should such a person do? What follows is the text, in revised form, of a little booklet published in Bangkok[6] for the information of people writing to find out about ordination and what is entailed by this step.

 

1.      Become a Buddhist

2.      Understand clearly: Why do I wish to go forth to homelessness?

3.      Consider: Can I lead the Holy Life honourably?

4.      Question oneself: Am I free from obstacles to ordination?

5.      Decide: How shall I use my time when I have gone forth?

6.      Practical needs for an applicant.

7.      Necessary virtues in an applicant,

8.      the Aim of the Holy Life.

 

(1) Become a Buddhist

 

One may think it unnecessary to start with this point as one might assume that everyone who wished to go forth was a Buddhist already. However, this is not always the case and there have been some people who though not really Buddhists but holding to their own views, still wish to be ordained. So what is a Buddhist? A Buddhist is one whose ideals are embodied in the Triple Gem, the most precious things in this world:

 

            The Buddha as the Enlightened Teacher.

            The Dhamma as the Path of practice leading to Enlightenment.

            The Sangha as those who have attained Enlightenment by practising that Path.

 

To these Gems or Treasures a Buddhist goes for Refuge finding is them an incomparable security from the limitless variety of dukkha, which can be experienced in the world. From the manifold sufferings and fearfulness of the world with its cycle of birth, decay, disease and death, its instability and insecurity, a Buddhist goes for Refuge to Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha which are all aspects of Enlightenment and ultimately, through practice, to be found in his own heart. Without a good understanding of what the Triple Gem is, at first gained by study, no one can go for Refuge sincerely. And without this faith grounded on understanding, practice of the Dhamma is not possible nor will one possess one need to sustain one in the homeless life. One should be able to say, without any reservation of one’s own views, theistic, pan-religious, or whatever they may have been - throwing them all away: „To the Buddha I go for refuge. To the Dhamma I go for refuge. To the Sangha I go for refuge“.

 

(2) Understand clearly: Why do I wish to go forth to homelessness?

 

Having become a Buddhist one should then ask oneself this question to understand clearly whether one’s motives for desiring ordination are correct or not. Some wrong reasons for this include such aims as: wishing to learn magic or gain supernormal powers, wanting a life of idleness or wanting to escape from personal difficulties or family responsibilities which should not be evaded, desiring fame or craving to become a Teacher after only a few months of ordination, desiring the respect shown by laypeople to those following the Holy Life, and so on. Right motivation includes: wishing to lead the Holy (chaste) Life as a way to go beyond the unsatisfactory world, seeing that such a life is free from worldly cares and gives one the chance to practise Dhamma fully devoting all one’s time to the Triple Gem. Wrong reasons are based on the mental defilements of greed, pride, fear and so on, while the correct reasons arise from excellent qualities such as renunciation, wisdom, devotion and humility. The homeless life requires learning and steady practice for many years under the guidance of good Dhamma-teachers. Only when one has attained great practical experience of the Dhamma will it be the time to teach others.

 

(3) Consider: Can I lead the Holy Life honourably?

 

When one knows that the reasons for undertaking the homeless life are straightforward then one should ask a further question about one’s abilities to keep to the Discipline (Vinaya). Whatever code of rules one undertakes (Bhikkhus have 227, nuns 8 or 10), one should be able to keep them pure. These rules are to help one practise the Dhamma, a fact which can be understood from the name of those rules collectively: the Vinaya, meaning that which leads out of worldly sufferings towards peace of mind and purity of heart. Therefore one has the right attitude when one determines to keep all the training-rules carefully, not dropping those, which impede one’s, own comfort and convenience. From such effort to keep all the training-rules pure one becomes very careful of all nations of mind, speech and body. This awareness or mindfulness is the keystone in the arch of Buddhist training and unless it is developed in the homeless life one will give up the quest for Dhamma. The person with the right attitude understands the value of this awareness and is diligent in practice of the training-rules but does not expect to be free from all faults and failings, Whenever one falls into offences against those rules, then they should be confessed promptly so that the heart having been opened in this way, there is no burden of guilt but the restoration of purity. After ordination one wears robes which are symbols of striving in the Holy Life and devotion to the Triple Gem. The good person determines to be worthy of them.

 

(4) Question oneself: Am I free from obstacles to ordination?

 

There are five obstacles to ordination as a Bhikkhu: That person is not a male, is not yet 20 years old (from conception), lacks organs or limbs so that he is not a complete man, has committed very serious crimes such as murder or has committed the most serious offences against the Vinaya, such as the four defeating offences when previously ordained as a Bhikkhu. Also one has been a Bhikkhu in the past but held wrong views and gone over to and got ordination in another religion. With any of those five obstacles Bhikkhu ordination is not possible. Further, during the ceremony of Acceptance (ordination as a Bhikkhu) the aspirant will be asked those questions[7]: „Are you afflicted with diseases like these - leprosy, boils, eczema, consumption, epilepsy? Are you a human being? … a man? … a free man? Are you without debt? Are you exempt from government service? Have you the permission of your parents? Are you fully 20 years old? (Under this age one may be ordained as a samanera or novice). Are your robes and bowl complete?“ (This is arranged by supporters at the temple where the ordination will take place). To the questions about diseases he must be able to reply truthfully, „No, venerable sir“. To all the others with truth he must reply, „Yes, venerable sir“. If these questions cannot be answered in this way then he is not free from obstacles to ordination. The man who is free from them can be ordained a Bhikkhu. In the case of a woman who wants to become an upásiká or nun, she is required to have shaved her head, put on the nun’s robes and be able to keep the Eight (or Ten) Precepts, the taking of which constitute her ordination. She will also require the necessary support for her life as upásiká (see 6).

 

(5) Decide: How shall I use my time when I have gone forth?

 

A Bhikkhu is supported by the offerings of faithful laypeople and does not work for money. He is able therefore, to give all his time to the Dhamma, learning and practising it so that he is worthy of lay support, not idling or wasting his time. To spend a fruitful life in the Sangha one must have good ‘roots’ in the Dhamma. When the roots are weak the tree is easily blown down, such a Bhikkhu quickly disrobes and returns to lay life. The roots that one must have are either in the path of book-study and the practice of the Vinaya in the town viháras, or in the path of meditation in forest viháras where strict discipline, the austere practices and meditation are the basis of life. Which way one takes depends upon one’s characters. In the first he must be able, very largely, to plan his own studies though there are some classes now for non-Thai Bhikkhus. However, knowledge of Thai[8] is indispensable for easy communication with Teachers. Along with this language, Pali should be learnt if one wishes to know the Buddha’s words in his original tongue. Although there are many translations of the Buddha-word in English, older renderings are often unreliable and misleading. There is plenty of room for improved translations of the Buddha’s words. If one’s aim is meditation, only knowledge of Thai, and Pali technical terms used in the Dhamma, will be needed. A Bhikkhu will certainly get help from his Teachers but this will still leave him with a great deal of time to fill. There is no rigid timetable that one has to follow so that self-discipline is very important. The few fixed events in a Bhikkhu’s day are alms round, one meal or two finished by noon, chanting in Pali in the temple once or twice a day, sweeping and cleaning, with perhaps a class or Dhamma-talk from the Teacher in the afternoon or evening. As it is rare to get the chance for ordination a man or woman who is so fortunate to be free from all obstacles should use the time for study or practice diligently and to the greatest advantage.

 

(6) Practical needs for an applicant

 

Obviously an applicant for ordination must have the means to get to the country and the vihára where ordination will take place. But he or she must also have enough money to pay for a return ticket in case, before or after ordination, one decides not to continue in the homeless life. It will be a great advantage to have contacted the venerable abbot of a vihára before arriving so that he may have some idea about oneself and the advisability or otherwise of going-forth. Addresses may be had from the World Fellowship of Buddhists, Headquarters, 33 Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok 11, Thailand, or from the Buddhist Publication Society, P.O. Box 61, Kandy, Sri Lanka. When contact has been made, a brief biography of oneself with details of education and a recent photograph are usually appreciated. On arrival at the vihára one should be prepared to stay there as a lay person (keeping the Eight Precepts) for a month or so while Teachers observe one’s conduct. If it is decided that the ordination should go ahead then during this time the Pali ordination procedure should also be learnt. A man will require at least enough money to support himself for this period, buying perhaps his two meals, toilet requisites, and providing for any travelling that he may undertake to other viháras. A woman, unless she has a definite supporter, will require just enough to keep herself in food and other necessities while she is in robes, at least for the first few years. She will probably get support after that when she has shown her firm intention to continue in the Holy Life. During this preliminary period one should wear clothes which are easily washable and in good repair. White is a colour favoured in Buddhist tradition for women wishing to go forth, while bright colours are inappropriate.

 

(7) Necessary virtues in an applicant

 

Success in the Holy Life is possible when a person has, or makes efforts to develop certain good qualities. Faith in the Triple Gem has already been mentioned but though an applicant has this, yet if he or she is given to harshness, not much can be expected. So loving kindness in deeds and words is very important. A Buddhist is gentle and concerned not to harm other living beings; especially this is the mark of one in robes. Along with gentleness must go humility, that mildness of character, which welcomes instruction. If one supposes that one knows it all, which is just pride and conceit, and then one does not want to be told what to do or how it should be done. Humility opens the mind’s door to knowledge, while conceit slams it shut. With humility, patience is necessary too. It is not likely that the aims of the Holy Life can be quickly achieved and patience is necessary for that. The mind has been defiled for a long time and it must take some while to cleanse and purify it. Though the ancient accounts of the Buddha’s discourses speak of people becoming Arahants (Enlightened) in „no long time“ one should remember that commentaries tell us that this sometimes meant as long as twelve years. Patience too is needed to deal with various obstacles, which may break the smooth course of the Holy Life. The Buddha has praised this quality most highly. Persevering effort should go along with patience. It is not enough to be patient, effort also is needed, a steady effort, not one of erratic leaps with indifference in-between. Effort is needed to cultivate all aspects of the Buddha’s way in oneself, to change oneself from the ordinary ways of the world to act according to Dhamma, in mind, speech and body. These virtues are opposed to the defilements and while the latter mean only lead to more sufferings, the former are the basis for steady growth in the Dhamma.

 

(8) The Aim of the Holy Life

 

This may be divided into one’s immediate aims and the ultimate aim. The immediate aims, which are in accordance with Dhamma, include becoming a better-disciplined person with the Vinaya as one’s support, or gaining more knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings through study of the Dhamma. To remove the troubles and difficulties in one’s character can be also an aim, which will be realised as one progresses in the attainment of Nibbána, the Ultimate aim. The Buddha frequently urged those who had gone forth not to rest content with the lower aims but with energy to press on to the attainment of higher goals, until Nibbána was reached. That this is the ultimate aim should not be forgotten while one is in training, or after that, though the world of the senses makes it easy to do so. Although there is a fast express line direct to Nibbána, it is easier to get shunted of this to some quiet siding where effort is no longer needed! The effort needed to conquer sloth and other dull mental states and the restraint necessary to guard one’s actions from the defilements, bring happiness to those who lead the Holy Life, as the Buddha has said:

 

            „By yourself incite yourself!
            By yourself restrain yourself!
            Thus mindful and self-guarded too,
            Happily, Bhikkhu, you will live.

                                                (Dhp. 379)

 

This is the end of the small booklet from Thailand and nearly the end of our book upon the Sangha. One thing remains to be said: While the Sangha flourishes the Buddha’s teachings will spread for the happiness and benefit of mankind. But if the Sangha should not survive, either in the prisons of communism or in the madhouses of western materialism, then the disappearance of Buddhism will shortly follow. The position of the Sangha in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Asia is unsure. Already Cambodia and Laos have communist governments and communism, a product of western intolerance, has not so far shown much favour to any kind of religious order. The future, then, in Asia is uncertain. It is also uncertain whether Theravada will put down viable roots in the various western countries in which it now has small centres. If it is to do so this will largely depend upon western Bhikkhus and nuns from those countries. This is not to say that the efforts of venerable Bhikkhus from Asia are unappreciated because they have been the pioneers in establishing the viháras that exist now in western countries. But they do have difficulties with both language and cultural background, which are very different in their countries to conditions in western lands.

 

As my revered Teacher, venerable Somdet Phra Nyanasangvorn, Lord Abbot of Wat Bovoranives Vihára in Bangkok, has said in a letter concerning the recently established Buddhist vihára, Wat Buddharangsee, in Sydney, “According to my opinion to construct a temple is much easier than to form a native Sangha in that temple, doing their proper work, stable and well established. In the West in general and Australia particularly, we must try to form the Sangha from among the people native to those countries and there should be Bhikkhus from those countries who spend all their lives in the Sangha. There is no need for a great number of such ‘long-as-life-lasts’ Bhikkhus for too many may be a cause of criticism from the majority of people“. If the Dhamma is practised well the venerable Somdet’s vision will be realised. As he ends his letter-

 

            „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“.  

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[1]See “Schopenhauer and Buddhism“, ‘Wheel’ 144-146 B.P.S.

[2]See the list of his works in the back of his invaluable „The Word of the Buddha“, an aathology on the Four Noble Truths, B.P.S. Kandy.

[3]See, „Buddhism and the God-idea“ Wheel 47, B.P.S. For those who want something more substantial there is, „A Buddhist Critique of the Christian Connception of God“, by Gunapala Dharmasiri, Lakehouse Publications.

[4]See, „The Three Basic Facts of Existence - II - Sufferingg“, Wheel 191-193, B.P.S.

[5]See, „The Basic Facts of Existenc“, B.P.S.

[6]„Brief Advice to those wishing to Go Forth from home to homelessness“ (by the present writer), Mahamakut Press.

[7]See, Appendix II.

[8](Or the language of whatever country one goes to for training).