Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bhikkhuvagga: Monks

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about monks, the sangha and finding teachers. We’ve had the ordination of bikkhunis in Australia bunching up some panties in Thailand; others perplexed that their teachers seem to be less than perfect; and many discussions about the nature and direction of the Western sangha. And so I come to chapter 25 in the Dhammapada (only one more to go after this!), and with this background in mind, I look at the Bhikkhuvagga – or Monks – with an eye toward what it can tell me about Buddhism and the Sangha in the here and now.

And my conclusion is that it tells me nothing and everything.

On the one hand, the Bhikkhuvagga presents these idyllic descriptions of monks and a monk’s life.

“Hands restrained,
feet restrained
speech restrained,
supremely restrained —
delighting in what is inward,
content, centered, alone:
he’s what they call
a monk.

A monk restrained in his speaking,
giving counsel unruffled,
declaring the message & meaning:
sweet is his speech.

Dhamma his dwelling,
Dhamma his delight,
a monk pondering Dhamma,
calling Dhamma to mind,
does not fall away
from true Dhamma.”

Verses like these portray some serene individual that doesn’t get angry or even mildly perturbed, so when we encounter a monk who is a human being – and most are I think – the picture doesn’t quite fit. I can remember when I first observed my teacher smoking. I have to admit, I was disappointed! This guy’s a monk and he smokes Winstons! But where is the real problem here? It’s not with him, it’s with me, with my expectations about what a monk is and how a monk should behave. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a monk is not dwelling in the delight of Dhamma just because I perceive the monk is not living up to my own expectations. But because I have these preconceived ideas, I suddenly turn into the Sangha police and start issuing Dhamma tickets!

It’s the last verse, however, that portrays for me everything about monks.

“A young monk who strives
in the Awakened One’s teaching,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.”

That image, of a moon set free from a could, is common in the Tipitika. And what I really like about this verse is that what it portrays, someone who lives the Dhamma and brings light to the world, is something that any of us can achieve. Whether we take vows or simply live good lives, we can bring joy to others. We can blow away the clouds over someone’s life, as well as our own. And that’s the beauty of Buddhism for me.

It sort of reminds me of the old story about the man and the starfish. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. A man is walking along the beach and he observes ahead of him someone stooping occasionally and throwing something out to the sea. As he gets closer, he realizes that the man is picking up starfish exposed on the beach from the receding tide and he’s throwing them back to the sea. The man witnessing this asks the other, “Why are you doing this? There are hundreds of starfish on this beach, you can’t possibly save them all. How can this matter?”

The other man just smiled, stooped down to pluck another starfish from the beach and toss it back to the ocean. He then said, “It mattered to that one.”

Just by being positive and striving to live the Dhamma in as much of what I do, I can be like that young monk and brighten a little part of the world.

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