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Monday, January 23, 2012

A Buddhist Monk and his Responsibilities


A Buddhist Monk and His Responsibilities

“If you are a real Myanmar, you have been to Bagan. If you are a real Myanmar Buddhist man, you have been in robes, at least once in your life.” These are favorite sayings and in fact, almost every Buddhist male in Myanmar does become a novice or a monk at least once, at least for a week. Other men become and remain monks for their entire lives. Now, the question might arise – what are their aims and responsibilities?
In the Raṭṭhapāla Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya, Ven. Raṭṭhapāla explained the reason to undertake the monastic life to King Koravya thus: “Great king, there are four summaries of the Dhamma that have been taught by the Buddha. What are the four? Life in any world is unstable, it is swept away. This is the first summary of the Dhamma. Life in any world has no shelter and no protector. This is the second summary of the Dhamma. Life in any world has nothing of its own; one has to leave all and pass on. This is the third summary of the Dhamma. Life in any world is incomplete, insatiate, the slave of craving. This is the fourth summary of the Dhamma. Knowing and seeing and hearing them, I went forth from the home life into homelessness.”(Sutta No. 82)

In Theravāda tradition, the process of becoming a novice or a monk begins with requesting thus: “Saṃsāra vaṭṭa dukkhato mocanatthāya etc….would you kindly, Sir, make me a novice or a monk so that I may be free from all suffering of Saṃsāra ….” This clearly shows that the aim of entering the Buddha’s Sāsana should be for the sake of liberation from suffering and the realization of Nibbāna. As a member of the Buddhist Order, a monk has two kinds of responsibility, namely Ganthadhūra and Vipassanādhūra. Ganthadhūra means both learning and teaching the Buddha’s Dhamma and Vipassanādhūra means engaging in insight meditation. These responsibilities may be approached separately or simultaneously depending on one’s inclination.
As for learning and practicing the Buddha’s teachings, there is no distinction between lay people and monks except that monks have the advantage of more time for study and intensive meditation practice. In Myanmar, there are hundreds of centers and monasteries in which novices and monks are learning and teaching the teachings of the Buddha as well as hundreds of meditation centers in which all can practice, monks and lay people alike. At the present-day, some centers are offering both Dhamma-teaching and meditation instructions at the same time. However, most prominent and learned venerable monks (Sayadaws) advise pursuing them separately, with learning first and practicing afterwards. It is argued that learning may be an obstacle to the development of insight; in fact, even reading Buddhist books while meditating may pose a hindrance. If a meditator ponders what he read, his reading can interfere with meditation. Reading is strictly prohibited in some meditation centers in Myanmar.
In the Codes of Discipline, Vinaya, once the Buddha admonished monks thus, “You are not free from the offense despite the fact that you violated a disciplinary rule without knowing it. If you do not know it, you have to ask others or learn.” This demonstrates that learning is extremely important. Practicing the teachings of the Buddha with thorough understanding will certainly bring great benefits.
The Buddha did not praise mere learning without practice. For instance, at the time of the Buddha there was a learned monk called Poṭṭhila who was thoroughly versed in the Tri-Pitakas and had many students. Despite being a scholar-monk, he was not interested in practice, so, he was still just an ordinary person, Puthujjana. The Buddha knew his lack of attainment and called him ‘Moghapurisa’, a good-for-nothing, who did not strive to attain enlightenment. When Venerable Poṭṭhila heard himself so described by the Buddha, he felt deeply ashamed, so he practiced strenuously and soon became an Arahat.
          Learning (Ganthadhūra) is compared to the bank of a dam while practicing insight meditation (Vipassanādhūra) is like water in the dam. Without the bank, there can be no water in the dam but with both present, lotuses may well blossom there. Learning (Ganthadhūra) and insight meditation (Vipassanādhūra) are interrelated and interdependent. When both are undertaken together, the result will be ‘Paṭivedha’, or realization of the Four Noble Truths or Nibbāna, like lotuses blooming in the dam.
          Besides, according to the Siṅgālovāda Sutta of the Dīgha Nikāya, there are yet some more responsibilities a monk should fulfill. They are (1) a monk should restrain his devotees from evil, (2) he should persuade them to do good, (3) he should love them with a kind heart, (4) he should make them hear what they have not heard, (5) he should clarify what they have already heard, and (6) he should point out the path to a heavenly state.
Prompting me to write this short article, a guest to my blog asked me a question. Perhaps he intended to ridicule me when he wrote, “Do you know the meaning of becoming a monk or have you forgotten what you recited just before becoming a novice or a monk— Saṃsāra vaṭṭa dukkhato etc…?.” My answer is that most of us monks engage in one of our two main obligations. I am sincerely grateful for the question, anyway. It is always useful to pause and reflect upon our monastic vocation, so we won’t be distracted by trivia. 
                                                                    Rev. Uttamānanda (University of Peradeniya)
* This article was published in Lankataman Magazine, 2011.

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