How Buddhist Communities Accrue Them
Almost everybody would agree, Buddhist or not, that the practice of generosity is a good idea, and also that the world could use all the generosity it can get. The impulse toward generosity comes naturally, is found even in children and even feels good, but as we live our complex and befogged lives of mixed intention, we often fail to focus our energy in the required direction, except significantly within families, small circles of friends or sometimes within small local communities. Buddhist practice generally involves focusing energy repeatedly in a particular way as a means to establish increasingly wholesome patterns of behavior and thought. The Buddhist practice in the economy of gifts is stimulated by the very structure of the traditional Buddhist community. It is not generally appreciated that it is in accord with the Buddha’s design that the dynamics of the Buddhist community adheres closely to an economy of gifts, and as such generates a pool of karmic dividends in a reservoir of spiritual well-being for the members of that community.
The roots of the Buddha’s design are found in the generous lay support of ascetics in India since before the time of the Buddha to the present day, enabled by the paucity of the ascetics’ needs, especially in contrast to those of the Brahmin priests. The Buddha’s own awakening was made possible by alms generously provided by laypeople (highlighted in the story of the milkmaid Sujatā prior to his awakening) and lay alms remained his support for the rest of his life (highlighted in the story of his insistence on taking his alms bowl onto the streets of his home town of Kapilavattu to the dismay of his aristocratic father). At the same time he himself gave generously and tirelessly to others through his teachings. The Buddha, in organizing the monastic order, tweaked this lightly spinning vortex of mutual support between lay and monastic by constraining monastic behavior in certain ways. Although the monastic Sangha stands as perhaps the most durable human institution on the planet, the Buddha never organized the lay community, so the desired conduct of the laity could only be determined in response to that of the monastics. Here is how the Buddha composed the monastic code in order to cultivate a general economy of gifts within the Buddhist community.
First, the Buddha required that monastics live entirely within the economy of gifts. A monk can give, he can receive, but he cannot participate in a transaction of exchange (nor of theft, for that matter). A nun can give a Dhamma talk or teach a class for a group of laypeople, but cannot receive compensation for that offering. A monastic conducts no business, handles no money, but is permitted small equivalent exchanges of requisites with other monastics, such as an alms bowl for an alms bowl. This requires that any association that the laity have with monastics occurs within an economy of gifts.
Second, the Buddha removed almost every opportunity for monastics to do anything for themselves, even while there are few restrictions on what they can do for others. For instance, monastics cannot grow their own food or cook for themselves. They have no trade or livelihood. Furthermore, monastics are proscribed, except in exceptional circumstances, from asking for anything, that is, they do not beg, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one, or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so these must be limited in size and quality. The escalation the vulnerability of the monastics in this way requires much additional involvement of the laity in the economy of gifts to meet and even anticipate of the needs of monastics.
Third, the Buddha put an expiration stamp on alms. Monastics cannot store food for tomorrow that is given today, except in the case of a small list of tonics, which can be retained for seven days. This ensures that dependence is a daily matter, except for those particularly accomplished in fasting. This also, in spite of the Buddha’s praise of solitude, increases the opportunities for offering teachings to laity. The expiration stamp ratchets up the vulnerability of monastics even more and brings laypeople into the economy of gifts on a more regular basis.
Finally, the Buddha insisted that even monks whose practice potentially allows them to fast for days enter the village daily for alms anyway. This all but closed the aforementioned loophole to ensure every opportunity for meeting of lay and monastic within the economy of gifts..
It seems clear that at least one purpose of these tweaks is to add spin to the pivotal vortex of mutual support between monastic and lay, to make it routine and necessary and to keep it without coersion. Generosity is the lifeblood of the Buddhist community and this lay-monastic vortex is its beating heart. The consequences for lay practice are quite striking, for a monk appears much like a house pet: of simple life and needs, yet helpless, vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, and of therapeutic value to that kind hand, but a also source of Dhamma. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift; you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service, the monastic receives a gift. In either case, delight, a feeling of peace in the heart mark the transaction, and mutual affection and a glowing sense of gratitude emerge. Such is the economy of gifts at its brightest.
Most importantly this vortex gives the practice of generosity a focus. The monastics sustain a perpetual economy of gifts, and as long as the laity interacts with them, they enter into that economy of gifts. The laity may make this interaction a daily practice, for instance, for the Burmese housewife who routinely prepares rice and curry each morning without fail to offer to monks as they come by on alms round. Moreover, like most practices, the practice of generosity also generalizes quickly. Just as a practice of kindness to insects that one might otherwise dislike will inspire kindness to humans, and just as the practice mindfulness of the breath will inspire mindfulness of step, roadway, doorknob and intention, the practice of generosity generalizes to the community at large, from feeding each other at community events, to support of the sasana in every way, to feeding and housing participants in meditation retreats, to care for the underprivileged or those in temporary need, ever enlarging the scope of the economy of gifts. Monasteries become community and training centers where the priceless Dharma is offered without a price, all needs are freely provided for all. In this way generosity, the nourishing lifeblood of the Buddhist community, flows outward from the lay-monastic vortex, as each participant gives to whatever or whomever gladdens the heart and karmic dividends accrue.
This economic dynamics has other practical benefits. It extends to the monastics a unique opportunity for progress on the Path, not only through the accrual of karmic dividends but also through the enjoyment of a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world that the economy of exchange would demand, including from the need for livelihood as a teacher or as anything else. This ensures in turn that the Dharma will not become a commercial product, tweaked for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results. This is much like the insularity afforded academics from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability through academic freedom and tenure.
Quite significantly, the pulsating economy of gifts invites the participation of all members of the community in the care of the sasana, the monastery and the community, and does this without the hierarchy or coercion that mark many social structures. Monastics are at the heart of the Buddhist community (along with the most devout laypeople), but not at the head. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. Gifts, on the other hand, are like votes in determining the direction of the community or the sasana. For instance, dissatisfaction with the behavior of monastics can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the purity of the monastic Sangha.
The foregoing description of the dynamics of the Buddhist community may appear a bit glorified. To many in the western context, where Buddhist centers typically have an economy that is a cross between a Protestant church and a yoga studio, it may be entirely unfamiliar. In fact it is the living reality of the best of the Buddhist communities in Asian traditions, and should seem at least familiar for almost all. I have no illusions that its dynamics can sweep aside the exchange economy in which most of the laity spend most of the time, nor that that is particularly desirable, since the exchange economy does have a kind of efficiency. But the special qualities of the economy of gifts teach us that the exchange economy should not dominate our culture as thoroughly as it does.
Traditional Buddhist communities provide very uplifting contexts in which to learn and practice fundamental Buddhist values. Life in a dominant economy of gifts naturally leads to karmic dividends, beginning with delight and a feeling of peace in the heart, affection and gratitude Every act of generosity nurtures one’s inclination toward generosity, makes one kinder, more saintly, less self-centered and therefore of more peaceful and happier disposition. As a monk myself, I am privileged to be consistently in the heart of this context. Buddhist communities encourage participation and provide a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They also open into an opportunity to rub shoulders with people of spiritual attainment, to benefit from their wisdom and advice and to begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening.