Buddhist Rules and Culture
The Vinaya, the First Basket of early Buddhist teachings is the Code for Monks and Nuns, the rules, regulations, policies and procedures by which the monastic Sangha lives. Although this is intended to be studied and followed only by those who have taken monastic vows I have gotten interested in the ways that they shape the broader Buddhist culture, Purisa and Sangha alike. There is no doubt that they were intended to do exactly this.
One example of this is the regulation prohibiting a monk from touching a woman, that is, “engage in bodily contact with a woman, in holding her hand, in holding a lock of her hair or in caressing any of her limbs” when “overcome by lust, with an altered mind.” (Sanghadisesa 2). Although this was enacted after a particularly ill-behaved monk did exactly this but totally unsolicited and unwelcome, the letter of the rule is violated through the mere coincidence of lustful intent and touch, which can arise together in an instant, and carries the harsh implication of a Sanghadisesa. Naturally great care is taken around this rule.
Although only a monk can violate this rule (there is a symmetrical rule for bhikkhunis), in Burma laywomen comply with this rule in a way that makes it easy for the monk not to violate. A Burmese Buddhist woman would never even think of touching a monk. If a monk needs to pass through a restricted space Burmese women are very quick to provide ample space and will alert others who might have their back turned. Burmese take great care that a monk is not seated next to a woman, for instance when a group is traveling in a car. Last week a couple of women undertook to make my bed here in Calgary after having washed the sheets, and I happened to notice them looking perplexed after having pulled the bottom sheet tight at three corners but unable to reach the far corner bordering on two walls. One of them ran into the other room and returned with her husband who climbed on the bed to perform the fourth stretch. I realized that in the minds of the women it would have been a violation of the monk’s space to climb on the bed, even his absence. This is how a monk’s rule not only invokes lay compliance, but evolves into a set of cultural norms about lay behavior.
A Burmese woman has no problem handing something to a monk as an offering as long as fingers do not touch, and sometimes they might inadvertently. In Thailand however a woman will place what is to be offered on a cloth lying on a table or other surface so that the monk can then receive it by pulling the cloth toward him. This goes far beyond the letter of the relevant rule but seems to have evolved as an embellishment to a cultural norm around a monastic rule. Someone recently reported that Thich Nhat Hanh seemed to have no inhibition about holding hands during a mindfulness walk and sure enough when I checked there he was on Youtube holding hands with a little girl. Technically this does not violate the letter of the precept unless lust arises in Thay’s 85-year-old heart, and is more typical of the looser way in which Buddhists in Mahayana cultures tend to observe precepts or are willing to adjust them to circumstances.
Just as in some cultures many rules are interpreted in a manner stricter than the letter of the rule, often rules are interpreted more lax manner. Burmese routinely make small cash contributions to monks for the purchase of unanticipated requirements, taking care to place such a donation in an envelope. The Vinaya makes clear that a monk cannot receive money in any manner even if “wrapped in a wad of blankets,” but cash may be given to a lay steward on the monk’s behalf who they can use it to purchase material goods to offer to the monk. Furthermore regulations regarding transportation and clothing have been adjusted throughout the Buddhist world according to modern circumstances. Eating of meat is permitted in the original Vinaya, except that if a monk “sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it.” Since the purpose of this qualification seems to be not to implicate a monk in the killing of animals, but to allow him to accept what is offered graciously when lay people wish to share what they have already prepared for themselves, it seems that the an appropriate understanding of this in the modern era of refrigeration and mass distribution of meat would seem to be, “that if he “sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed or purchased for him, he may not eat it..” After all, when a chicken is taken from a supermarket shelf another must be killed to replace it. However this is a rare understanding in Theravada countries. In East Asian Mahayana countries a stricter understanding has prevailed for many centuries: Monks don’t eat meat and they are not offered meat.
In the non-Buddhist West such rules have of course no cultural recognition whatever. The monk is on his own. The most immediate challenge to an Asian monk up arriving in, oh, say, Austin, Texas or in Calgary, Alberta, is as one Burmese monk once put it to me with great distress in his voice, “American women like to … hug!” The challenge for the monk is to avoid the coincidence of lust and touch. If he is not quick enough to avoid the latter he might need quick and very complete control of the senses. Actually technically this will not result in a violation if the monk stands there like a wet fish because in that case he is not complicit as an agent in the action. But that will make of him a disappointing hugging partner indeed. (Western men should take similar care not to hug Buddhist nuns.)
The greatest impact of the monastic rules for a Buddhist culture at large undoubtedly comes in connection with offerings of requisites, particularly food, to monks and nuns. Monastic rules remove every right to a livelihood, to any participation in the exchange economy, to growing or cooking one’s own food or even to storing offered food for the next day. For a monk to follow these rules requires very attentive compliance on the part of the laity; the monk is totally dependent on the laity and totally helpless without its kind offerings. Very rich cultural traditions have grown around this relationship and indeed it places the practice of generosity (dana) right at the center of the Buddhist community, a practice monks enjoy as well and that spills into all areas of the life of a Buddhist community.