Are Buddhist monks allowed to use money? The short answer is that monks are definitely not allowed to even touch money for all traditions; Theravāda, Mahayāna, and Tibetan. However, it is very common for monks to not only accept money from lay people without shame, but they even encourage lay people to offer the money. Nevertheless, it is still a rule and there are heavy consequences if this becomes a lifetime habit and a wrong mode of livelihood. In the Theravāda, you are likely to find less than 2% of monks who follow such rules. While 2% seems like very little there might be over 5,000 monks who follow such rules world wide.1Thailand and Sri Lanka might be around 5%. However since there are 300,000 monks in Myanmar which dwarfs all totals from all other countries, this number probably goes down to around 2% since Myanmar is 1% or less
Which Rules Say Monks Cannot Use Money?
Before a monk becomes a full monk, he is ordained as a novice monk (sāmaṇera). With this interim ordination, he is given the chance to practice the ten general rules of a bhikkhu without all of the details of the 227 rules, and the thousands of subvariations attached to those rules. There are only a mere 10 rules that one needs to take in order to become a sāmaṇera in all three traditions. The rules are listed below:
- Refrain from killing living things.
- Refrain from stealing.
- Refrain from unchastity (This precept is very broad as Abrahmacariya).
- Refrain from lying.
- Refrain from taking intoxicants.
- Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon).
- Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs (performances).
- Refrain from wearing perfumes, cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
- Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
- Refrain from accepting money (literally gold and silver, but explained as anything that is used for commerce or trade).
The Ten Precepts are sometimes considered a summary of the most important precepts of the monastic monks and nuns of Theravada Buddhism.https://www.dhammawiki.com/index.php/10_precepts
These training rules are observed by novice monks and nuns. They are derived from the 8 precepts by splitting the precept concerning entertainments into two parts and by adding one rule prohibiting the handling of money.
A fully ordained monk (bhikkhu) observes the 227 rules of the bhikkhu Patimokkha; a fully ordained nun (bhikkhuni) would observe the 311 rules of the bhikkhuni Patimokkha.
As you can see, it is the tenth rule where one is expected not to use money. Originally that word in the Pāḷi is actually gold and silver, but the commentaries explain that it is anything used in business or trade, even shells:
jātarūparajatapaṭiggahaṇā veramaṇī.Mv. Sikkhāpadakathā
Abstention from receiving gold, silver, or money.”
The novice follows the single rule on money in order to prepare for the more complex rules related to money after he fully ordains as bhikkhu. The rules regarding money are NP 10, NP 18, NP 19, NP 20. The most direct rule is NP 18 which is nearly the same as the rule above, but spelled out in more detail.
583. ‘‘Yo pana bhikkhu jātarūparajataṃ uggaṇheyya vā uggaṇhāpeyya vā upanikkhittaṃ vā sādiyeyya, nissaggiyaṃ pācittiya’’nti.
‘If a monk takes money, has someone else take, or consents to gold and silver being deposited for him, he commits an offense entailing relinquishment and confession.’”NP 18
Story to the rule NP 18
The story of the rule comes from a family that wanted to give meat to a monk. However during the previous night, their child cried for meat and they needed to give it to the child instead. When they saw the monk, they told him the story and then asked what they could buy him with one coin. He said that it would be better to give him the coin instead of buying something for him. It was later told to the Buddha. The Buddha called the monk a fool for destroying the faith of lay people. What happens to your faith when you see monks in a shop buying their own food? Most of the story is given below:
What can we get you for a kahāpaṇa?”
“Are you giving up a kahāpaṇa coin for me?”
“Then just give me that kahāpaṇa.”
After giving a kahāpaṇa to Upananda, that man complained and criticized him, “The Sakyan monastics accept money just as we do.”
(The Buddha was told about this and summoned the bhikkhu involved and said,)
“saccaṃ kira tvaṃ, upananda, rūpiyaṃ paṭiggahesī”ti?
“Is it true, Upananda, that you did this?”
“It’s true, Sir.”
Vigarahi buddho bhagavā …pe…
The Buddha rebuked him …
kathañhi nāma tvaṃ, moghapurisa, rūpiyaṃ paṭiggahessasi.
“Foolish man, how could you accept money?
Netaṃ, moghapurisa, appasannānaṃ vā pasādāya …pe…
This will affect people’s confidence …” …
evañca pana, bhikkhave, imaṃ sikkhāpadaṃ uddiseyyātha—
“And, monks, this training rule should be recited like this:
“Yo pana bhikkhu jātarūparajataṃ uggaṇheyya vā uggaṇhāpeyya vā upanikkhittaṃ vā sādiyeyya, nissaggiyaṃ pācittiyan”ti.Story to NP18
‘If a monk takes, has someone else take, or consents to gold and silver being deposited for him, he commits an offense entailing relinquishment and confession.’”
The other rules are NP10, NP19, NP20.
NP10 deals with “robe funds” and covers the rules about how many times a monk is allowed to use a helper (kappiya). It also explains that kappiyas should not be pointed out unless a lay person asks the monk in a proper way. In modern days, this would prohibit monastery websites written by monks that have “How to Donate” information that points to a lay person’s bank account, etc.
NP 19 covers monetary exchange while NP 20 covers trading. As you can see there are many angles covered for this simple rule of not using money.
These rules are rules of forfeiture and confession rules. Not only is the money not allowed for monks to touch, or use, but the items that are bought with this money are also not allowed. These items must be forfeited along with a confession. Unless that is done, the monk accumulates countless kammic consequences during the time of possession, especially when using such items, like an unallowable phone or computer, etc. bought with his own money.
Why does it affect all of saṅgha and not just the offender?
Perhaps you have donated food to the community (saṅgha) of monks before. When doing so, you simply donate one tray of food to a single monk and he then puts it on the table for all other monks to take from. It is considered “offered” for all of the monks in the monastery once a single monk properly accepts the food tray. In this way, just as a monk can make food allowable for all of saṅgha, a monk can make something unallowable for all monks. If a monk has unallowable items because of purchases made with his own money, then these items are also unallowable. By holding all monks responsible for a single monk’s actions, it prevents the community of monks from appointing a monk to accept money on their behalf to make things allowable. If you look at the original NP 18 rule again, it also covers even a lay person to accept money on a monk’s behalf. If it is not allowed for a lay person to accept money and offer things with it, then what more could be said about a fellow bhikkhu? It is true that there are lay committees who accept money, but the monk needs to be very careful not to get involved with donations of money. This is covered in NP10. There are protocols of speech that one must use when dealing with helpers and connecting them with donors. There is only a thin line between the two and when it is crossed, the whole donation can be made unallowable for the whole of saṅgha.
Resident monks who use money often give a small portion of their gains back to the monastery, or they build an entirely new monastery from such gains. If you do the math, 98% of monks use money and therefore, the majority of the monasteries in the world are not allowable.
Diversion of Gains
A monk who knowingly takes something meant for one purpose and diverting it to himself can result in an offense of defeat (pārājika). If this happens, the monk is automatically disrobed without a trial. If he continues to wear robes, he is still not a monk. There are times when large amounts of money are given to the community of monks. If the monk takes just a little percentage illegally for himself, larger than $100, he can easily be defeated.
Giving Cash Without Specification
However, there are some loopholes that you might not know about. If you give cash to a monk thinking it is for the monastery, but you do not specifically say it is for the monastery, that monk is able to do with that money as he chooses. He can buy a new phone, computer, or even a new car with that money. Most monks drive their own cars in the United States. If you give cash and it is not specified, it is legally his to do as he chooses despite what you mentally thought would happen. The monk might be quite honest and do this, thinking it is for him even though you did not want it for himself. Therefore, if you are one who gives cash to monks, it is best to say what it is for when giving. However, giving cash to a monk is not allowed and it is unwholesome. It is best to ask, “Is there a person who looks after your needs?” If he says, “No” you might volunteer to be that person.
Giving Cash For Saṅgha
If during the cash-giving process you say, “This is for Saṅgha.”, that is different from saying, “This is for the General Fund of the Monastery.” When you give to Saṅgha, you are not giving to the monastery. You are giving to the group of monks for them to share with each other individually. Let’s suppose there are 4 monks in the monastery. A donation of $1000 that is specified as “For Saṅgha” can be split 4 ways for personal use between the 4 monks. None of that money needs to go to the monastery to pay for electricity or construction, etc. If the receiving monk does not share with the other monks, he is defeated and disrobed. Because it is standard to say, “Bhikkhu Saṅghassa demi” (I give to the Saṅgha) for most donations, there could easily be problems where it gets split between monks rather than building a pagoda. While personal checks usually have a specific purpose written on them, bank account transfers might not specify the intended purpose. This is where big misuse can arise. Do not assume a bank account number is specific to a monastery. In Asia, it is often a personal bank account number.
A Buddhist philanthropist once told me about Bleeding Pagodas. This is when a monastery or monk has a very large project that somehow never gets finished. While one might suspect that the monk siphons money out of the project, it might be more likely that the lay people just donate small donations of cash into the monk’s hands without specifying, “This is for the pagoda.” In this case, the majority of the money is legally his to do with as he chooses. It might seem like he is stealing, but he believes it is his if nothing is specified.
Offenses and Kamma
All money is actually unallowable for monks. All items bought with the money are unallowable (for life). When I say “legally his”, that means, he is not guilty of stealing but the offense and kamma of using money remains. The monk cannot make progress in meditation for as long as he has an offense that is not resolved. It should be noted that some offenses last only a short amount of time while others are ongoing. Let’s say a monk lies. His offense lasts only for that time he told the lie. It is one single offense. He might resolve the offense by confessing and then he is “pure” again (although the bad kamma still always remains). Another example might be a monk who eats in the afternoon or evening. During the 20 minutes of eating, the monk is continually making repeated new offenses and kamma. He is continually accumulating bad kamma for 20 minutes. He can confess, and then he is “pure”. However, the bad accumulated kamma remains. Nothing can remove the results of bad kamma as long as one is still roaming saṃsāra, even if one is enlightened.2However, the Enlightened are no longer bound to the kamma that will lead to lower births once they attain the first Fruition.
With money, there is an offense every moment one holds the money, or uses the money. If he buys a pen, there is an offense for every moment he owns the pen, holds the pen, uses the pen. The ink from that pen also makes the “clean” paper unallowable. If a monk buys a nail, and that nail gets used to hang a picture on the wall of a monastery building, the whole wall and the whole monastery building becomes unallowable. While a nail seems like splitting hairs, it is all the same for any renovation which is more likely. Over time, the walls will be painted, the floors refinished, etc. It is usually something like that rather than a nail. If the monk confesses, while the items still remain as unallowable, his confession is never complete. He is not “pure”, plus he is still accumulating bad kamma. It might not be a lot of kamma, but because it happens continuously, it adds up just like the drops of rain fill the rivers, streams and flow into the oceans.
If 98% of the monks use money, none of this kamma or purity really matters to them…or not enough to make them stop. All monks who use a monastery that was made unallowable with nails, repairs, renovations or even full property purchases will get an offense for using the monastery. This is one of the reasons why monks who follow all of the 227 bhikkhu rules rarely live together with those who do not care about the Buddha’s rules for bhikkhus. One case where cohabitation is possible is the International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University I went to in 2016. Because the university was owned by the government, the buildings were allowable even if a monk hung a picture with a nail he bought. When I went to America, I lived in tents rather than living in unallowable monasteries. Nearly all of the monasteries in America besides a select few are not allowable. It would have been far easier to visit any of the 200-300 Theravāda monasteries in the USA than to live in a tent. There are at least four or five such unallowable Theravāda monasteries in Hawai’i, but they are all useless to me. That was why I lived in a tent. When you support such unallowable monasteries, you are supporting places that are only suitable for monks who do not care about the rules.
What did the Buddha think of using money?
Evamevaṃ kho, bhikkhave, cattārome samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ upakkilesā, yehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhā eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā na tapanti na bhāsanti na virocanti.
In the same way, these four things corrupt ascetics and brahmins, so they don’t shine and glow and radiate.
1. There are some ascetics and brahmins who drink liquor, not avoiding drinking liquor…
2. There are some ascetics and brahmins who have sex, not avoiding sex…
3. Santi, bhikkhave, eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā jātarūparajataṃ sādiyanti, jātarūparajatapaṭiggahaṇā appaṭiviratā…
There are some ascetics and brahmins who accept gold and money, not avoiding receiving gold and money…
4. There are some ascetics and brahmins who make a living the wrong way, not avoiding wrong livelihood…AN 4 Upakkilesasuttaṃ
Ime kho, bhikkhave, cattāro samaṇabrāhmaṇānaṃ upakkilesā, yehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhā eke samaṇabrāhmaṇā na tapanti na bhāsanti na virocantīti.
These are four things that corrupt ascetics and brahmins, so they don’t shine and glow and radiate.
It should be noted with the above quote that besides using money, the other three corruptions are pretty much guaranteed ways to go to the lower realms. Money is grouped into this list, so that we can see the results of using money and items bought with money. Even though a monk may confess and relinquish such unallowable items, he must be careful because the kamma still exists. Because using money creates extended and prolong kamma as long as it is possessed and used, its results are powerful. Because those who are Enlightened cannot commit acts which result in rebirth into lower realms, it is impossible for an Enlightened bhikkhu to break the rules of money on such an intentional ongoing level.
The Buddha further said this:
‘‘sāpattikassa, bhikkhave, nirayaṃ vā vadāmi tiracchānayoniṃ vā’’tiVinayapiṭake Sāratthadīpanī-ṭīkā (tatiyo bhāgo) mm_Para 222
“A monk who has an offense, I say will go to the hell or animal (peta/ghost) realms”.
It should be very clear that monks are not allowed to use money. Furthermore, monks should not benefit from items that were bought by monks in an unallowable way. Lay people are allowed to use money and there is no problem with that. However, when one takes on a certain vocation, there are certain responsibilities that must be carried out. A doctor must take proper care of his patients. A public defender must defend his client to the best of his ability even if he does not like him. There are certain restraints as well. A boss should never seek romantic dates with his subordinates. A lay meditation teacher must never seek romantic dates with his students. Lastly, monks should not use money and they should follow and agree to the 227 rules and the commentary explanations. Out of all 227 rules, using money is considered one of the ten basic rules a beginner should follow.