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‚Ä¶ 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?‚Äù
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‚Ä¶working. Either in the fields or building or other sorts of manual labor to support the monastery. Young monks often learn some kind of ‚ÄúTrade‚Äù 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 ‚Äúhang around town‚Äù 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.