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Mendicancy



INTRO | TRAINING | VINAYA | CHANTING | TEACHERS | MENDICANCY

 

 


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East & West

Mendicancy, living on alms, is a vital component in sustaining the holy life. Monks and nuns freely choose to relinquish worldly wealth, not through aversion or any moral criticism of the world but more through a recognition of its limitations. The basic assumption for the religious seeker is that there is more to this life than the material - there is the spiritual. This aspect of being is more subtle than the physical dimension and when one's energy is taken up working, shopping, eating, playing, building, etc. then it is more difficult to cultivate an understanding of this spiritual dimension. To develop this understanding one needs to step aside from complexity and move towards simplicity. The higher material standard one requires in this life, the more difficult this 'stepping aside' is and the less time one has to give to it.
To maximise the time available, ordained mendicants take a vow of poverty and effectively relinquish power over much of their material circumstance. Buddhist mendicants are technically homeless and in Asia spend many months of the year wandering. With general emphasis on the material, and a lack of familiarity with the mendicant lifestyle in the West - and the cold, wetter weather - it means that mendicants tend to live in monasteries. To this degree mendicant = monastic.

How does it work?
The presence of monastics in any situation is usually the result of an invitation. Say, an individual or a group has some interest in Buddhism and want to have monks present - this leads to an invitation. It is usually quite specific: 'come round for a cup of tea', 'come and bless our house', 'please take up residence here', (not necessarily in that order) - and the monks will respond accordingly. Implicit in any invitation is the agreement to provide for the monks' needs and, because these needs are quite simple, making appropriate provisions is not that difficult. The outcome of this principle of invitation is that those who want monks provide for their needs and those that don't or are indifferent aren't called on to contribute in any way. One very practical result of this is that monks don't proselytise or solicit.
A very simple summary of the relationship established is that lay people offer material requisites and monastics will offer spiritual sustenance. This 'sustenance' can be thought of in many ways but one expectation is that monks will give talks, teach, lead retreats and perform other 'good works'. The danger here is that for the monastic to do these things means giving up the time gained by taking up the renunciant life. It is a matter of finding a balance point. This will likely vary among individuals and it is important that expectations are discussed and made clear at the point of invitation
to avoid possible confusion at some later date.

Faith:
Establishing and sustaining the mendicant lifestyle - from both the point of view of the donors and the monastic - assumes faith in the Buddha's enlightenment - that there is indeed Truth to be realised - that transcendence of the conditioned is possible. Although Buddhism is often viewed as a 'practical', sensible religion, this faith has to be present to a certain degree. Without faith in the transcendent aspect of the teachings the practice becomes nothing more than a useful psychology or a tidy lifestyle. It does include elements of both these but the Buddha was very clear: 'I teach suffering, its cause and its cessation'. Along with the faith that this Truth exists there is often an appreciation of beings who wish to give time and effort to investigate it. This process of investigation can take many forms and, for lay supporters, there also needs to be faith in the individual or the tradition that they belong to. There is much of mutual benefit to be gained when the relationship is properly honoured.

Letting go:
Truth (in big letters) is often veiled behind various mental confusions and misperceptions and the seeing of it is not so easy. Because we start not knowing quite what Truth is there has to be an ongoing relinquishment of what Truth isn't. We attach to a great variety of things thinking that they will lead us to peace/ happiness - but they don't. So what to do? Because of the support offered by the lay community, monastic life can be reduced to very simple elements - food, clothing, shelter and medicine - so there is the opportunity to strip away a great many of these things that Truth isn't. There is a lot of emphasis on silence and solitude which, combined with material simplicity, gives monks and nuns the time and space to directly investigate their inner world. The results of this work are often insights into what obstructs a vision of Truth, rather than a vision of the truth itself. Ideally, once these things have been seen, they can be let go of. The difficulty is that many of the things we are attached to are quite firmly stuck in the mind/ body; they have become a habit, part of our 'normal', familiar selves. Sometimes we need to observe ourselves putting our hand in the fire many times before we can truly appreciate the value of letting go of being that close to fire. Mindfulness is the primary tool in this work and it is strengthened by meditation.



alms gathering

Renunciation:
The third Zen Patriarch suggested that: 'The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences'. Appreciating the truth of this and realising it are two different things and a mendicant lifestyle is a great opportunity for practising this renunciation. The things that we are attached to - those things that we prefer - are not always so obvious. It is often only when what we prefer is denied us that we get a clear perspective on the degree of attachment. Like the cigarette smoker who could easily give up - tomorrow - if they had to. Take away their cigs and see just how attached they are. The renunciation required in a monastic situation means that a great many things are 'taken away' and degrees of addiction soon become apparent.
If there is any strong preferences around hair these soon manifest when there isn't any. Women often find it more difficult to shave their heads than men.
People often have many preferences around food which become apparent when living on what is offered and that there is only one meal a day.
Monastic clothing is fairly standard and quite simple, so, if you don't like brown or have strong elements of identity with certain fashions then the discomfort that comes from holding to these preferences will soon appear.
Entertainment, 'interesting', distracting, and absorbing activities are not so common in a monastery. No TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, videos, games, shows, etc.
Take away all these things and what are you left with? Just the body and the mind - kind of naked and exposed. What is its nature? How is it when it is unsupported by all the usual props? This is all part of the investigation and the depth to which one can explore is very much supported by the mendicant lifestyle.

INTRO | TRAINING | VINAYA | CHANTING | TEACHERS | MENDICANCY