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Buddhist Service Obligations?

A Reader recently called in and asked:

Mike called in on the voicemail line and asked essentially, ‚ÄúChristians have a heavy obligation to help others; it’s a big part of the Christian faith. I was in Thailand, and I got the impression that the monks there were‚Ķ selfish. I wouldn’t mind sitting around all day in a temple trying to reach personal enlightenment, enjoying myself with no responsibilities towards anyone else.

What are the Buddhist obligations towards service to others?”

There was more to his message than that, you can hear it in this week’s upcoming podcast, but that was the basic question. Phone in your questions at 937-660-4949.

And my Response:

Remember, monks in a monastery have no possessions of their own beyond a few very basic items. They have no wealth to give away, they have no ‚Äústuff‚Äù to sell. They live entirely on the donations of others and yes, the hard work they put into surviving. Sometimes they do sell things that they construct or craft, but the making of those items is still a form of work like anything else. With so little actual cash laying around, monks cannot afford to send money to starving children overseas or that sort of thing. However, they wouldn’t hesitate to share the food from their fields to help starving children in the region if they can.

In a traditional monastery, the majority of young monks spend the majority of their day…working. Either in the fields or building or other sorts of manual labor to support the monastery. Young monks often learn some kind of “Trade” that will help them support the monastery during their time there, such as cooking, cleaning, woodworking, farming, laundry, or something else. Some of the monks may “hang around town” with begging bowls, but not usually the majority. The oldest monks fulfill their obligations by teaching others.

Monks are also the elite of Buddhism. They have sacrificed family, possessions, comfort, and the things we love in the west in order to meditate and achieve enlightenment. Meditating for 10 hours a day isn’t fun and games; they have a specific goal they want to reach. The Buddhist laypeople in the East realize this and do what they can to support the monks, not necessarily the other way around. Anyone can become a monk, and in some places, everyone spends a number of months in a monastery, but few choose to stay. It’s a hard life. New recruits to the monastery must often work 18 hour days for three to six months before they can even begin the process of ordination.

The laypeople support the monk’s physical needs; the monks support the laypeople’s spiritual needs. It’s a system that has worked well in the East for thousands of years. With modern economic systems, however, things are starting to change. The whole idea of living on the region’s donations, whether it be money, food, or supplies, does not work well here in America, and the same problems are starting to crop up overseas as well.

I’d welcome other’s thougts on this as well.

7 comments to Buddhist Service Obligations?

  • Colin MacKenzie

    This is an interesting point, and something i’ve thought alot about myself.

    However in a nutshell,

    Thai monks being Theravadan are more inclined to devote their time to personal enlightenemnt as that is the primary objective of their beliefs in attaining Nirvana,
    They are setting an example to others of what can be achieved and as you said the local lay people understand this and respect their commitment.
    They attempt to reach Nirvana with the intent of others following their example.

    In Mahayana, the objective is more to help others, and by doing so reach Nirvana.

    I initially found this aspect of Thervadan Buddhism selfish, but on reflection it comes down to a simple difference:

    I go and hopefully you can follow me now I have shown the way.


    I help you to reach my level, and we all go together.

    Neither way is better (In my humble opinion) it is a personal or cultural preference.

    I hope my explanation helps in some way.


  • Monks, in all traditions, perform an essential spiritual task.

    What is important to remember is the critique which sees Monasticism as useless, unproductive, producing bone-idle men, is offered from a particular tradition within a Protestant, Capitalist work ethic frame of reference. Within that tradition, the criticism may be valid. Outside it, it must be deemed offensive, if not inapplicable.

    No Catholic would view Monasticism as not central to Catholicism. Likewise, Buddhist must revere the relationship of Monastacism to the Sangha.

    I’m interested to know if the criticism of the Thai monks was due to them absorbing other values. It could also be true that administratively the Monasteries in many States do not meet classical expectations (a point that Schapiro made in relation to Burmese monastries during the 60s)and if this is so, then it maynot be issues stricly to do with meditation for long hours (in Burma, Schapiro said Monks seldom did that); but bad organisation, which ultimately may have something to do with contemporary State politics in Thailand itself.

  • Lonnie

    You can also see the shift in the West. The Catholic church used to have numerous contemplative and mendicant orders. You just don’t see them any more. Are there even any mendicant orders functioning as such? I have heard that many of the contemplative monasteries have close for lack of fund (and members). I always have to remind myself that much of the good works done by the churches in the west are done by the organization, not the individual clergy. I have heard of many Theravadic monks/leaders who teach and help others on The Path.( Ajahn Chah comes to mind). I believe it is the responsibility of an enlightened leader/government to aid the poor and afflicted. I think the compassion of the religious orders steps in when the leadership of the people fail. I think in the end the West will change Buddhism in two ways. First, since there is no inherent tradition all sect will be on equal footing and allow individuals to choose. In Thailand you would have to really work to find a Zen master I would assume. Just as the Catholic church has/had many different orders to meat different personal needs (Benedictine contemplatives, Jesuit scholars/teachers, Franciscans ect). All Buddhism leads to the same end. Some may start with Theravada scholastisism and a deep study of the Pali canon, but may move to Zen or Tibetan mysticism. I think it is a wonder gift all in all to have that opportunity never seen in the ancient world. Second There will be new version offered that are unique to the West. There is much criticism of western Buddhism by more traditional skeptics. But I would be willing to be the same process occurred with the introduction to China and Tibet. That process took hundreds of years to sort out. Buddhism has only really come to the west in the last 50-75 years. We are much to impatient! Time will tell.

    This is just my 2 cents form someone just starting out on this journey.


  • Lonnie,

    Nice response and sensitively observed. The last bit- on the arrival of a new tradition in a novice country- is accurate.

    It raises the issue of what influnece will a generally spiritually absent group of societies (the “West”)can bring to classical buddhism? China of course was fertile ground for a broadly dynamic influence: Taoism, Confusianism. A blending of ideas can produce a creative stimulus as in the process of chan (zen) buddhism.

    But those factors do not appear to be prsent in the West, as you indicate with the decline of the Catholic monastic orders.

    Just thought from a curious heart.

  • Lonnie


    You make a good point about the “spiritual absences” of the west. An optimist would say there was a an empty bowl waiting to be filled with The Buddha’s teaching. I am a little more of a pessimist and think that there is a layer of clear plastic wrap over the bowl, it looks empty, but nothing can get it. I see that wrap as the hyper-individualism we see in the west. People fail to see the advantage, fun, joy and sense of belonging an individual gets by working in a group. I wonder if it is easier for those form the eastern cultures that are still more community oriented to let go of Self? Interesting question for Brian to explore. Think part of this individualism has to do with the collapse of most of the community ties that come with the unlimited mobility we now have. I spent 14 years in the military and have to say it was among the happiest times in my life. Why? Because you were part of a large group with common goals working as a selfless group. Leave aside for your thought what those goals might be, I am dealing with the concept. You could get the same feeling from the Peace Corps or community organizing or being a Franciscan helping the poor in South America.

    As I said I have just started this journey. I am looking for a tradition that I can settle into like a good zafu. The Theravada is monastic centric and more focused on the individual seeking. I really like Mahayana idea of the Bodhisattva but do not feel comfortable with the “religious” trappings of Tibetan Buddhism, All practices have great universal ideas. It is just the cultural trappings that do not appeal to me. I am not a Tibetan or a Thai. My cultural affinity is western. I think scholastic modality of Theravada appeals to the Greek academic side of the western cultures combined with the Mahayana worldly inclusiveness of the bodhisattva. That is where I would like to go.

    I do not know if this is just ramblings. I am still sorting out ideas.


  • Lonnie, I think your contrast of Theravada and Tibetan match my own thoughts exactly.

    I believe something of a fusion between the two would be just what’s needed for the west. That will happen; Buddhism has split and evolved many times since the days of the Buddha, and it will continue to do so. Unfortunately, as you said in a previous post, it may take a very long time to do so.

    I suspect your thoughts on individualism vs. group identity isn’t limited to Buddhism. I think it’s probably apparent to Christian churches as well. How many of us know Christians who haven’t been to church in years? I know back in my own “Christian period,” I went every Sunday. It was great; we sang songs, took classes, prayed together, and once in a while had a social event. The community aspect of it all was great, and helped keep the “meaning” of the faith in mind. I do miss that.

    I think we all realize the value of joining a church or sangha, but our individualism leads us to believe that it’s not really necessary to do so. Making a choice like Zen makes individualism even more justifiable.

    And I also agree that we’ll be seeing some of these ideas covered again in the Daily Buddhism real soon now 😉

  • Minerva

    To be honest my first instinct is to address the christian generalization. I know lots of wonderful christians who do want to help other people but i do not believe there is an obligation let alone a heavy obligation within christianity to help others. I was christian for the majority of my life and i’m also a theologeon and have done research on this.

    Also through my studies i’ve noticed that in all actuality buddhism puts more of an obligation on helping others.Since in buddhism we believe in no-self and the interconnectedness of all beings we have to help eachother since you are me and i am you and …i don’t know the lyrics to that beatles song.

    Christians don’t share this belief, not to say because they don’t believe the same things they’re wrong – of course not. I mean obviously theres more than one answer to this question that religion in general tries to solve, theres a great deal more grey area than ‘right and wrong’.

    It just hit me a little funny that Mike said this so naturally i had to add my two cents.