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How to Become a Thai Monk: 227 Rules, part 4 Posted by on Oct 6, 2013 in Culture

[This article is a continuation of a series of articles on becoming a Thai Buddhist monk.]

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image: iPhone wielding monk

Now that you’ve learned about the 227 written rules, let’s now go over the many unwritten rules.

Is it ok for a monk to wear shoes? Use a phone? Own an iPhone? Drive a car? Eat steak at Sizzler, use a computer, use Facebook, shake hands with a woman, use money, etc.?

If you ask any Thai person, the answer is a clear ‘NO’. Although monks today usually wear shoes, they cannot while collecting alms. They are looked down upon for using iPhones (in Thailand, but not in the US). Thai law forbids monks from having a driver’s license (although some monks drive in the US). The list goes on.

But none of these actions actually violate any of the 227 rules for being a monk. Not even a little. Let me explain . . .

In modern society things are much more complicated than during Buddha’s life 2600 years ago. Buddha never said monks can’t have an iPhone, drive a motorcycle, or eat steak at Sizzler. And while the rules for monks can apply to many modern situations, there are issues that arise when the rules are taken too literally. Just as an example, the modern world is dependent on electronic technology for communication – email, cell phones, websites, instant chat software, etc. Is it a good idea to ban monks from using modern communication technology? What if a monk needs to contact a follower, or a follower needs to contact a monk – should cellphones be banned for that use?

Another example involves monks using Facebook. My first thought was, ‘no’, clearly a violation. But then you should ask yourself, a violation of what rule? Buddha didn’t ban monks from using Facebook! Some monks say they don’t use Facebook because girls post provocative pictures of themselves, and because it invites inappropriate discussions that do violate the monk rules. Addiction to Facebook could happen, and that goes against the Buddhist philosophy of attachments. But other monks use it to post pictures of temple events and festivities, and Buddhist teachings. Should we throw out the baby with the bathwater?

If Buddha were alive today, he’d say take the ‘middle path’. Don’t refuse to use a phone, and don’t get the most expensive name brand. Buddha would say to just buy what you need. That might mean a basic $30 cell phone. If we were to write ‘use a basic cell phone of no more than $30’ as a rule, would it still make sense 2000 years into the future? How much is $30 worth in 2000 years, anyway?

In the Thai media, and only just recently in the English-language Thai media, there are occasional reports of mis-behaving monks. Some break the most important 4 rules I’ve mentioned previously in which case it’s clear-cut. But sometimes you hear about monks wearing brand-name sunglasses, driving a Mercedes around the temple, eating at a fancy steak restaurant, etc. Buddha never banned any of this, and all is actually allowed in the 227 rules. So why the scandal?

The reason is the unwritten rules society applies to monks, that monks must be above materialistic things, be pure, and above human failings. Monks must be perfect in the eyes of the society that the monk is in. Clearly, this is dependent on the country and local culture. For example, a monk in Thailand can eat meat, but a monk in Vietnam must be vegetarian only. A monk in Thailand can’t do any strenuous exercises and must always be peaceful, but a monk in China can practice martial arts! In the US, Thais here hold a less traditional standard on the monks. Many of those Thais grew up or have lived in the US for so long their beliefs are less tied to the old traditions.

What we are seeing here is cultural norms and rules being applied to monkhood. No, Buddha never said you couldn’t do this and that, but your culture expects you to follow those rules regardless. And the cultural rules of India 2600 years ago no longer make sense, so modern culture lets monks violate them.

Religions and traditional customs/beliefs around the world are similarly struggling to adapt to modern life, and Buddhism is no exception. Fortunately Buddhism is a pro-science and anti-extremist, and is in my opinion capable of change.

 

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Comments:

  1. Mogharājā Sāmaṇera:

    I agree with most of what you’re saying, but you were mistaken about there being no rule forbidding monks from driving vehicles.

    From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Buddhist Monastic Code (part 2):

    “There are rules forbidding a bhikkhu from riding in a vehicle unless he is ill, in which case he may ride in a handcart or a cart yoked with a bull. In modern times, ill is interpreted here as meaning too weak to reach one’s destination on foot in the time available, and the allowance for a cart yoked with a bull is extended to cover motorized vehicles such as automobiles, airplanes, and trucks, but not to motorcycles or bicycles, as the riding position in the latter cases is more like riding on an animal’s back. There is also a rule allowing a bhikkhu to ride in a sedan-chair, although the origin story to that rule suggests that the allowance is intended specifically for a bhikkhu too ill to ride in a vehicle. In discussing these rules, the Commentary states that the sedan-chair may be carried by women or men, and the vehicle may be driven by a woman or a man (although see the discussion under Pc 67 in BMC1). Even then, though, the Commentary does not extend permission for the bhikkhu to drive the vehicle himself. Thus it is improper for a bhikkhu to drive a motorized vehicle of any sort.”