Buddhism, Bhikkhus, and Wealth

Over the years I have heard many excuses and  reasons  about wealthy monks and monks having money, both in Thailand and America. Lickily Bhikkhu Ariyesako explains things clearly in  “The Bhikkhus’ Rules,A Guide for Laypeople

There are many other important rules covering how bhikkhus deal with wealth and money.[102] (It is also the tenth of the Ten Precepts for a novice (saama.nera) or dasasiila matanun [see End Note 4].) These came to be set down because donations coming from a lay devotee’s faith in Dhamma might, on mis-occasion, lead to the corrupting of the bhikkhu-life. Although these rules might seem relatively straightforward, there are various interpretations and ways of actual practice. And the practice often does not coincide with the theory. Yet it certainly remains a very important aspect of Vinaya, guarding against forgetfulness of the real way to happiness:

“Bhikkhus, in abandoning the use of money, make real their abandonment of worldly pursuits and show others by example that the struggle for wealth is not the true way to find happiness.” (BMC p.215)

MONEY  

The rule about a bhikkhu not accepting money came to be made when Ven. Upananda went to visit his regular supporters on alms round. The meat that had been set aside for him that morning had instead been given to the family’s hungry son. The householder wished to give something else to make up for it and asked what he could offer to the value of a kahaapanacoin. Ven. Upananda inquired if he was making a gift of a kahaapana coin to him, and then took the money away. Lay people were disgusted with this, saying, “Just as we lay people accept money, so too do these Buddhist monks!.”

This Rule has been variously translated:

“Should any bhikkhu take gold and silver, or have it taken, or consent to its being deposited (near him), it is to be forfeited and confessed.”(Nis. Paac. 18; BMC p.214)

“Should any bhikkhu pick up, or cause to be picked up or consent to the deposit of gold or silver, this entails Confession with Forfeiture.” (Nis. Paac. 18; Paat. 1966 Ed. p.42)

“A monk, who accepts gold or money or gets another to accept for him, or acquiesces in its being put near him, commits [an offence requiring Confession with Forfeiture.]” (Nis. Paac. 18; BBC p.116)

“If a bhikkhu himself receives gold and silver (money) or gets someone else to receive it, or if he is glad about money that is being kept for him, it is [an offence of Confession with Forfeiture.]”(Nis. Paac. 18; Nv p.11)

◊ Note that there are some subtle differences in the way that the rule is translated, especially in the last example.

According to the Commentary, there is ‘no consent’ if a bhikkhu refuses to accept the money: by word — telling the donor that it is not proper to receive money; by deed — gesturing to that effect; by thought — thinking that this is not proper. There may be a problem in communicating this to the donors without causing them offence and without the bhikkhu falling into offence himself.[103]

Many of the rules concerning money, etc., are those of Confession with Forfeiture(Nissaggiya Paacittiya). This means that the money or articles that are wrongly acquired have to be forfeited. Furthermore, it is specified that they cannot be forfeited to a single monk but must be given up to the Community — who must then follow a strict procedure for disposing of those gains.

In practice, this rule is understood by various bhikkhus in different ways. This ranges from some monks who seek to circumvent the rule completely by saying that “paper-money is just paper” and therefore not ‘gold and silver’ (jaataruupa-rajata) and so falls outside the rule; to the following more strict opinions:

The Paali term jaataruupa is defined as ‘gold of any sort’ and, while rajata is also ‘silver’ in other contexts, here it is defined as maasaka (coins) of different materials (copper, wood, lac) whatever is used in business, i.e., money.

“At present the term would include coins and paper currency, but not checks, credit cards, bank drafts, or promissory notes, as these — on their own and without further identification of the persons carrying them — do not function as true currency.” (BMC p.215)

“The term jaataruupa-rajata refers firstly to personal adornments (of gold and silver), secondly to ingots, thirdly to ruupiya, which are for buying and selling, referring not only to gold and silver but anything which can be used in this way. All the above-mentioned things are included in this term. The phrase, ‘be glad at the money kept for him’ [as in translation above] suggests that if it is only cittuppaada (the coming into existence of a thought), he would not [fall into an offence,] so it must refer to the action of receiving it and holding the right over it.” (Paat. 1969 Ed. p.158)

“For Laypeople: A lay-person should never offer money directly to a bhikkhu… even if it is placed inside an envelope or together with other requisites. They should either deposit the money with the monastery steward, put it in a donation-box or into the monastery bank account. They may then state their invitation to the bhikkhu(s) regarding the kind or amount of requisite(s). In Thailand, for example, knowledgeable lay-people would deposit money with the steward and offer to the bhikkhu(s) an invitation note mentioning the details of the offering.” (HS ch.14)

CHECKS, CREDIT CARDS, ETC.  

◊ Under modern conditions things other than cash also have to be considered. What about bhikkhus using checks or even postage stamps or ‘phone cards’?[104] What is included in the rule and where does one draw the line? Different communities will understand these rules in slightly different ways — although probably all will find ordinary postage stamps acceptable! It seems that although credit cards and checks do not quite function in the same way as cash and therefore may not break that rule about accepting money (Nis. Paac. 18), they would still fall under another offence. (See below: Buying and Selling and Barter or Trade.) Some modern opinions:

“At present the term [‘gold and silver’] would include coins and paper currency, but not checks, credit cards, bank drafts, or promissory notes, as these — on their own and without further identification of the persons carrying them — do not function as true currency.” (BMC p.215)

“Checks, credit cards and travelers checks are not the same as money because [they are not] commonly negotiable, something that one can take into almost any shop and, without any further ‘ink-work’ or paperwork, exchange it for whatever one desires…[therefore] there is no offence for receiving or holding these things. However, using checks, credit cards and travelers checks or things similar would come under ‘buying and selling’ and the offences listed under [Confession with Forfeiture] 19 and 20 would be likely to arise.” (AB)

“The offence [Nis. Paac. 20] is committed when the bhikkhu hands the signed credit card receipt — or has it handed — to the seller…” (BMC p.230)

THE ME.N.DAKA ALLOWANCE  

◊ While money is an important commodity in the world — greed and selfishness are the actual ‘root of evil’ — bhikkhus should not be concerned with it. Therefore this again offers an essential role for lay people. The bhikkhu stores no food but receives help from lay people who do; the bhikkhu stores no money but receives support from lay people who do. In fact this relationship is shown in this next allowance from the Buddha’s time when bhikkhus were journeying along a difficult way. Food was difficult to find and He therefore allowed them to seek provisions. He also made another allowance, saying:

“There are people of conviction and confidence, bhikkhus, who place gold and silver in the hand of stewards, saying, ‘Give the master whatever is allowable.’ I allow you, bhikkhus to accept whatever is allowable coming from that. But in no way at all do I say that money is to be accepted or sought for.” (BMC p.198)

“People who have good faith in bhikkhus may entrust money (lit., silver and gold) into the hand of a [steward] and order him to purchase allowable things for bhikkhus. Bhikkhus may be glad at the allowable things bought by the steward with that money. This is not regarded as being glad at that money. This is called the [Me.n.daka Allowance.] Bhikkhus should not request suitable things from the steward in excess of the money deposited with him.” (EV,II,p.135)

A BHIKKHU’S STEWARD  

This is a rule which explains more about the relationship between the bhikkhu and the steward who is taking care of funds for him.

In the original story, Ven. Upananda’s steward had received some money from a chief minister so that when Ven. Upananda needed a robe he could be supplied with one. Ven. Upananda eventually asked for a robe on the day when the steward had an important meeting that everyone was obliged to attend or be penalized. Ven. Upananda refused to wait and forced the steward to get the robe immediately so that the steward came late to the meeting and suffered a penalty fine. Everyone there agreed that, ‘these monks are impatient and difficult to serve.’ Therefore the Buddha set down this rule:

“If someone sends money (valuables) for the purpose of buying a robe for a bhikkhu and he (whoever brings the money) wants to know who is acting as the bhikkhu’s attendant (veyyaavaccakara), and if the bhikkhu wants the robe he should indicate someone connected with the monastery or an upasaka (lay devotee) saying: “This person is the attendant of all the bhikkhus.” When he (who brings the money) has instructed the attendant and told the bhikkhu: “If you want a robe, tell the attendant,” then later that bhikkhu should go and find the attendant, he may tell him: “I need a robe.” If he does not get it, he may ask up to three times in all. If he still does not get the robe he may go and stand where the attendant can see him, up to six times. If he does not get it and he asks more than three times or stands more than six times, and then gets it, it is [an offence of Confession with Forfeiture.]

“If after asking and standing the full amount he does not get the robe he must go and tell whoever brought the money saying: “That which you brought did not become available to me,” and he should also tell him to ask for his money back in case it should be lost.” (Nis. Paac. 10; Nv pp.9-10)

Or in Summary:

“When a fund has been set up with a steward indicated by a bhikkhu: Obtaining an article from the fund as a result of having prompted the steward more than the allowable number of times is [an offence of Confession with Forfeiture.]” (Nis. Paac. 10; BMC p.206)

◊ The ‘robe-price’ remains the donor’s money but in the keeping of the bhikkhu’s steward.[105] In practice, the ‘robe-price’ may be used for other allowable requisites.[106] It is important for donors to check about the way of practice of the particular bhikkhu(s) to whom they want to make an offering. Bhikkhus who follow the Rule strictly will behave differently from those who are more relaxed. The former will be very careful with their speech concerning the acceptance of money and the intending donor has to make allowance for such indirect talk.[107]

BUYING AND SELLING  

In the Buddha’s time, the ‘group-of-six’ bhikkhus engaged in buying and selling using money. Lay people seeing this, and thinking all bhikkhus did the same, started to complain saying, ‘How can these Buddhist monks buy and sell using money, they are behaving just like lay people who enjoy the pleasures of the senses.’ The rule was then set down:

“If a bhikkhu engages in buying and selling with money (meaning whatever is used as money), it is [an offence of Confession with Forfeiture.]”(Nis. Paac. 19; Nv p.11)

“Obtaining gold or money through trade is [an offence of Confession with Forfeiture.]” (Summary of Nis. Paac. 19; BMC p.225)

◊ Note that there the different interpretation in the above translations.

According to the texts[108] this would include investing money for a monetary return or even changing money into another currency. (For the intricacies of this see BMC p.213-230)

BARTER OR TRADE  

The rule about bhikkhus and bartering originated in the Buddha’s time like this:

Through fine sewing and dyeing, Ven. Upananda was skilled at turning rags into attractive-looking robes. A wandering ascetic wanted one such robe and offered to trade his own costly, quality robe for the beautifully turned out rag-robe of Ven. Upananda. Ven. Upananda asked him if he was really sure and then they agreed to the exchange. But later the wandering ascetic changed his mind and went to Ven. Upananda to get his good-quality robe back. Ven. Upananda refused to give it back. The wandering ascetic became angry and said that even lay people returned unsatisfactory bartered goods. Therefore, this ruling was made:

“Should any bhikkhu engage in various types of trade, (the article obtained) must be forfeited and confessed.” (Nis. Paac. 20; BMC p.225)

‘UNTOUCHABLE’ THINGS?  

In the Buddha’s time a bhikkhu went to bathe in the river and found a purse of money lost by a brahman. The owner returned and, to escape having to pay the customary reward, pretended that some of the money was suspiciously missing. The rule (Paac. 84) therefore prohibits a bhikkhu from picking up lost valuables.

However, there is an exception to this rule. The qualification is that if the bhikkhu finds valuables in the monastery or in the place where he dwells, he is required (and falls into an offence if he fails) to pick them up and keep them safe for the owner. This shows that it is not the object as such that is the problem — as if ‘by not touching it one is free of it’ — but the care one must take that one’s greed and attachment are not drawn in to contaminate the object, and that one is not the victim of other people’s greed.

The Commentary also prohibits bhikkhus from touching unsuitable objects, which includes gold, silver, and valuable things

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