Sometimes, convinced that certain ideas I’ve had for years are my own—that is, are results of my own mentations or insight—I have been somewhat chastened, when re-reading a book I’d read long ago, to come across one or more of ‘my’ ideas there! They were not mine at all, and never had been; I had merely picked up and absorbed them from somewhere else. I now realize, however, that these ideas, whatever they were, must have impressed me so much, struck me with such force, gelled, had made so much sense to me, that they had become an integral part of me to such an extent that there was no space between us. But isn’t this what teachers and writers attempt and hope to bring about by their words: a transmission of some knowledge or information that will deeply touch the recipient?

Perhaps there are no original ideas; maybe they have all been conceived before at some time or other. Why should we always want to claim things as our own, and make something egoistical of it? Is it not enough for an idea to strike one and bring about some transformation? If learning about life becomes sufficiently important to us, we might discover that we are living in a treasure-house of wisdom and always have been; the world’s accumulated wisdom is available to us all, to make use of in whatever way we see fit.

The subject I am about to comment on is not one that I’ve picked up from someone else, but is something fairly obvious, which I’ve thought about for some years already. And recently, when I read Sangharakshita’s little book concerning his ordination as a monk—Forty-three Years Ago—I found the same idea expressed there, and will take the liberty of reproducing it here (indeed, I would recommend the whole book to anyone because, like all Sangharakshita’s books, it has a rare depth of objective perception and provides the reader with many good and solid points to ponder on). But before I do so, let me say that my purpose is not to criticize for the sake of criticizing but to criticize constructively; I feel there is great need for some critical thought on this matter, as the whole thing has gotten quite out of hand, and I’ve said and written before that Buddhism has become too monkocentric—that is, the monks have taken over the central place when only Dharma, in the sense of Truth, merits this. Many people have become ‘monk-addicts’ (with just a little help from the monks), and feel that they cannot do anything without monks, who, of course, must always be on a pedestal; monks have, in fact, become like the brahmin priests of the Buddha’s time, and so we have come full-circle.

Sangharakshita says, on page 35: "During my fourteen years as a bhikkhu (monk) in India, I came to the conclusion that the extreme veneration shown to bhikkhus by the Theravadin laity is really quite a bad thing for them. I am not saying that respect itself is a bad thing. Neither am I saying that the showing of respect to others is bad for one. On the contrary, I believe parents, teachers, elders, and the truly great ought to be shown more respect than is customary nowadays. What I am saying is that the kind of veneration shown by the Theravadin laity to bhikkhus by prostrating before them, seating them on a higher level, serving them on bended knees, and giving even the juniormost of them precedence over the highest lay dignitaries, has a negative rather than a positive psychological effect on them. The effect is somewhat less negative in the case of a few of the more conscientious bhikkhus, for whom such veneration acts as an incentive so to live as to deserve veneration. In the case of the majority the effect is very bad indeed, serving as it does to reinforce their sense of the superiority of the bhikkhu over the layman, and giving them, in some instances, a quite inflated idea of their own importance and even of their own spiritual attainments. Indeed, bhikkhus of long standing may have become so accustomed to being treated with the kind of veneration I have described, that they are unable to imagine being treated in any other way and unable to relate to the laity except on the basis of such veneration. Should Western converts to Buddhism, for example, happen to treat them with no more than ordinary politeness, they are liable to become uneasy, disconcerted, or even annoyed. ‘These people have no faith’, they have been known to remark on such occasions, by ‘faith’ meaning faith in the superiority of bhikkhus.

"In making this criticism, as I am afraid it is, I am referring specifically to Theravadin bhikkhus. I am not referring to those Chinese or Tibetan monks who follow one or another version of the Sravastivadin Vinaya, a Vinaya [a system of discipline or training] which is in substantial agreement with its Theravadin counterpart. Tibetan monks, in particular, are far less concerned to insist on the difference between the monk and the layman. They have no hesitation, for example, in returning the salutations of the laity, which Theravadin bhikkhus rarely if ever do. The reason for this difference may be that Tibetan monks are psychologically and spiritually more sure of themselves, or it may be that in Tibet the veneration that in Theravadin countries is shown to bhikkhus is (or was) directed towards the tulkus or ‘incarnate lamas’. Most likely the main reason is that the monk and layman alike accept the Bodhisattva ideal, which has been described as the ‘Presiding Idea’ of Tibetan Buddhism. Whatever the reason for it may be, the difference undoubtedly exists, Theravadin bhikkhus being not only more concerned to insist on the superiority of the monk but also more concerned that the layman should give practical recognition to that superiority by supporting the monk and venerating him. Often, one of the first things to be taught by Theravadin bhikkhus working in India and the West is ‘how to pay proper respect to bhikkhus’".

(Concerning the returning of salutations: I have just read the Dalai Lama’s book, FREEDOM IN EXILE, and on page 214, this is what he said on the matter of monks returning the greetings of lay-people: " .... there are certain rules of etiquette to be observed in Thailand which I found distinctly difficult. According to Thai custom, the laity should always show respect for the Sangha, as Buddhist monasticism is properly known. However, it is considered entirely wrong for a monk to acknowledge such reverence, even when a person prostrates him or herself. I found this extremely hard to get used to. Under normal circumstances, I always try to return greetings. And whilst I did my best to restrain myself, I often found my hands behaving independently!" Upon his third visit to Thailand, the Dalai Lama decided to ignore this Thai custom, and saluted people whenever they saluted him; he said that while doing so, he could feel the eyes of Thai monks looking at him disapprovingly.

The reason why Theravadin monks do not return the greetings of the laity is because they say the laity are saluting the robe as a symbol and not the wearer of it. Yes, it’s good to keep this in mind, as it helps to check the arising of pride; pride easily arises when this is forgotten. But, since even Theravadins acknowledge that everyone has the capacity or potential to become enlightened, when or if a monk returns people’s respectful greetings, he could do so with the thought that they are saluting the enlightenment-principle in him and he in them; it would be much nearer to the friendliness, compassion and humility as taught by the Buddha. It depends what is in one’s mind when one does it).

Such respect is based upon custom rather than upon understanding, and is bestowed instead of being earned. Moreover, respect of this nature can be, and often is, more intoxicating than whiskey. Several times, I have known people who were friendly, humble and easy-going as laymen but not long after ordaining as monks have changed and become aloof, proud, and condescending, ordering lay-people around, treating them like servants, and referring to others as their disciples; it is not nice to see, and is surely a loss. In such cases, I think to myself that they have not undergone proper toilet-training and have forgotten or failed to understand that no matter how high, famous, rich or powerful a person might be, he still has to use the toilet every day, like everyone else; he cannot pay or delegate someone—an employee, servant, disciple, friend, child or slave—to do it for him. If they were concerned about Dharma, they would understand that a toilet is an ‘enlightenment room’, not just in the sense that whoever goes in comes out somewhat lighter physically, but in the sense that what goes on there is a rather shameful bodily function, reminding us that, though we like to gather together to eat and enjoy the food, we perform the other end of the process alone and in private.

A toilet is a good place to meditate and remind ourselves that when we’ve got our head in the clouds, our butt is still on the seat. Following up this natural lead might well produce or give rise to some enlightenment of the spiritual kind. And so, toilet-training is not just something we undergo as infants, but something that everyone, regardless of age, needs to practice regularly.

Many people use the time spent in the toilet to ponder on things, and many inspired ideas come from there. Others smoke there, read books or magazines, dream, fantasize, pick their nose, and so on. What a versatile room is the toilet!

Monks should keep it in mind that if they disrobe—as they may freely do anytime—people will no longer respect them as they did before; they would still be basically the same persons and might continue to live virtuous lives, but the form would have changed, and the form is very important to most people. Actually, we pay too much attention to the form and not enough—not nearly enough—to the essence, and thereby deprive ourselves of so much.

There is absolutely nothing that a monk can do that a lay-person (I feel uncomfortable about this word; it has derogatory overtones; a ‘lay-man’ or family-person is also a human-being, is he not?) cannot do, if he wants to, and I am speaking from experience, with authority, as I’ve seen things from both sides of the fence. If I were not a monk, I could say exactly the same things that I say as a monk, but few people would listen; by saying them as a monk, they somehow have a greater impact, greater weight; it’s silly, but so, and means that people respect persons and appearance instead of what is true; as I just said above: sadly, the form is more important than the essence. Were it the other way around, people would not be afraid to investigate and question things; there would be no ‘sacred cows’—no taboos—and everything would be out in the open.

Observing the state of things in many temples, we might be excused for thinking that pride, rather than humility, is one of the results or effects of living as a monk; it is so widespread—so widespread, in fact, that when one has the good fortune to meet a humble monk, it is remarkable and refreshing. I regret having to say this, and I’ve not said it from malice; it is a shame to say it, and I only wish it were not true. But there are some people out there who are ready for, and who deserve, something more than just the name-and-form of things, and it is for such people that I write and speak. There is a price for everything, I know, and I am ready to accept the consequences of speaking so—and there probably will be consequences; no-one can please everyone, and if we try to, we might end up by pleasing no-one, and also losing our integrity. Evam: So.

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