How Do Monks Live Without Money?

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Introduction

One of my childhood favorite board games made by MAD Magazine. Unlike other games, the object of the game was to lose all of your money.

In the last post, it was mentioned that the majority of Theravāda monks use money even though it is clearly not allowed, is a form of disrespect and defiance to the Buddha wishes and because of the moment to moment accumulation nature of using money or things bought with money, it adds up just like the drops of rain fill rivers which in turn fill up the oceans. The Buddha had also paired the use of money with three other unallowable actions such as sex, use of intoxicants, and wrong livelihood to show how bad the kamma really is. Because of this, it should be very clear that the use of money by monks will almost surely lead to an unhappy destination.

The solution is to not use money. But how is that done?

How does one live without money?

The easiest way to live without money is to join a monastery that is sincere about learning the teachings of the Buddha so they can be put into practice. Sincere monasteries generally follow the 227 rules of the bhikkhu. Why is this? Because morality (sīla-visuddhi) is the first step of the seven stages of purification. If you wanted to become a monk, wouldn’t you want to join a sincere monastery?

How to find such a monastery? If you are new to ordaining, I have an article called “Where to Ordain?” that recommends some places and discusses some monasteries that I feel are suitable for those who are new to Buddhism.

The monks who use money already know which monasteries don’t use money and they are welcome to join at any time. They simply choose to avoid such respected places. It is a choice for them to not follow the rules and they enjoy the “free” life of collecting money, the convenience of it, and the freedom it literally buys. If a monk says he has to use money to survive, he is really saying, he has to use money to enable the free life he lives. It is not just the money rules that are broken either. However, once a monk uses money, most other non-heavy rules are broken as well.

The No Money Culture

So when you join a monastery that does not use money, the culture expects monks to not have any money and a system is already in place that supports this culture. It is that easy. In a perfect world, all monks would be expected to not use money and the donors would know how to properly support them. However, the majority of monks use money and they continue to encourage a give-money-culture by incorrectly teaching lay people that giving money is good. There is not really much merit made when you give alcohol to a homeless person even though that is what he wants. In the same way, it is not wholesome for a monk to handle money.

Proper monasteries provide the four requisites of robes, meals, lodging and basic medicines. It might not be the best quality or what you want, but it is available in one form or another. Actually, some of the best living standards (for monks) exist at monasteries that do not use money. Why? The donors will find it difficult to make donations to individual vinaya monks because those who don’t use money generally do not need many things. If you ask for things, you have to store or carry those things. Money is different. There is no limit to how much money one can have. Because it is difficult to donate to individual monks who do not use money, the donors often make merit by donating to the monastery instead and this results in a nicer place for the monks to live in, sometimes too nice. When monks use money, it actually makes the monastery poor because the donors are trained to give money to monks instead of the monastery itself.

What is not covered in such monasteries are extra items you might feel you need, such as a phone, phone credit, commercially available books, travel expenses, and other nonessential items. You will need a private donor to provide these items. As more and more monks become free from money, a monk can be recognized with a no-money culture that supports it. Famous Express is a bus company that allows vinaya (money free) monks to ride for free.1There are some limitations in routes and number of seats available per month. For local monks, one usually has family that can provide these items. If one is sincere, other monks will also support with their own family or donors, etc. It depends on the size of the monastery. Furthermore, sincere monasteries usually have an office “kappiya” or “helper”, who takes care of the monks’ needs.

Shameful To Ask

The downside to this system of asking for things is that it might be “shameful” to ask for such items. However, that is a main reason for why we have the rule in the first place. If one is shameful to ask for things, he will asks for less. Shopping is a layperson activity. As you know, when you walk into a store with three items in mind, you might end up walking out with ten items. So when a monk gets his courage up to ask for something, he will just request only what he needs. The monk won’t get lost in the store. Because of this, monks generally have less belongings. When I travel, I try to have all of what I own to fit in the allowance for carry-on luggage. It keeps me lean, and also happy.

Shame once overcame the Bodhisatta which prevented him from asking for shoes to travel back to the Himalayas when he was a hermit. Only after twelve years did he get the courage to ask for the shoes. Jataka Book 3.3.3

The king said: “For twelve years you have asked to speak to me in private, and when you have had the opportunity, you have not been able to say a word. I offer you everything, beginning with my kingdom. Do not be afraid, but ask for whatever you please.”

“Great king,” he said, “will you give me what I want?” [3.54] “Yes, venerable sir, I will.” “Great king, when I go on my journey, I must have a pair of single-soled shoes and a parasol of leaves.”

“Have you not been able, sir, for twelve years to ask for such a trifle as this?”

“That is so, Great king.”

https://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/English-Texts/Jataka/323.htm

The Art of Attraction

Sincere monasteries attract educated foreigner residents and educated foreigner or local donors. This also gives better support for the monastery. Smart people usually know it is bad for monks to use money and they avoid such places like the plague. Intelligent donors also know that there is less merit to be made when supporting monks or monasteries that do not follow basic morality. These types of people are seeking the proper dhamma teachings which are also put into practice. While it is true that textual learning monasteries have less support than meditation monasteries, the learning monasteries that do not touch money have support and some of the donors are also very wealthy. Learning Monasteries that are free from money are fairly new in the past 20 years, but they are growing and are very strong. Mahavihara for instance has over 1,600 monks at a single branch monastery. There are a few Pa-Auk learning-only monasteries with hundreds of monks at each monastery too.

Which Monasteries Don’t Use Money?

While I can get into trouble for making an official list of monasteries that do not use money, it is no secret that I lived at Pa-Auk Forest Monasteries in Myanmar and Na-Uyana related (Galduwa) monasteries in Sri Lanka. I have also visited the learning monasteries of Mahavihara, Pa-Auk University POL and Varanasi monasteries in Myanmar which also have good reputations for following the rules. When I went to Thailand, I visited Wat Khao Sanamchai in Hua Hin and also Wat Prathat Nong Sam Muen.2There are about 12 Thai monasteries which are related to each other but do not have an “organization”. “They know each other,” is pretty much it for the organization. There are also 40 monasteries in Cambodia that I have never visited, but I have met several monks from that tradition in both Thailand and Myanmar. A new learning monastery called International Institute of Theravada was started in Sri Lanka by a friend of mine. Lastly, I have also been to some of the Thai Forest Tradition monasteries. The Thai Forest Tradition does not use money, but many of the granular details are left out due to the rejection of many commentaries rules.3Not all commentary rules are rejected, but they do pick and choose which ones to follow. The Dhamma-focus is a little different too. I have been to other places, but since the majority of the monks use money, there is no need to mention these monasteries in a negative light. Since 98% of monasteries use money as a standard practice, the list above is pretty much all there is.

If you don’t use money, you will want to join a monastery that does not use money because it is always best to be with like minded people, where the culture supports proper money-free monk life, and the monastery and shared items are allowable. It makes things worry-free and harmonious, leaving time to do meditation or study when at a meditation or study monastery.

Personal Donors

The monasteries provide the bulk of the support, but the monk will still need personal donors. At first, this is usually one’s own family, especially if one is local. If one is a foreigner, it is common to get a Dhamma Father or Dhamma Mother to sponsor the newly ordained monk. Usually there is a waiting list to be such a person. They usually sponsor the bowl and the robes for the ordination too. It is an honor, but Pa-Auk usually does not have this system. After the ordination, the monk is invited by the sponsor for whatever they need (within reason).

It is not proper for a monk to ask for something from a lay person who has not invited him to do so. If a monk does this, he has committed a serious offense. The items are not allowable for any monk because this is a form of wrong livelihood, and anything obtained by wrong livelihood is not allowable forever.

Invitations

Some donors might wonder why monks do not ask for things from them. It could be that the monks were never invited, or if they were invited, they were invited incorrectly, temporally, or in a limited way. A monk might verify if that is the intention of the donor if he feels there was confusion, or he might just remain silent and walk away. Below is a list of examples where a monk may or may not ask for something.

The first invitation below is for a one time occurrence when the donor visits. If he does not need anything at that moment from that store, then he cannot ask again.

I’m going to the store before I visit you. Is there anything you need?

The next one is an offer only for books and food. The monk may only ask for food and books, but there is no time limit, because the donor asks to be informed when there is a future need.

I want to offer books and food to you, please let me know when you need these.

This last invitation has no time limit for its validity and there are no limitations for what the monk can ask for. However, it should be a needed item.

If there is ever anything you need, please let me know. I will support you according to my ability.

Sometimes a monk cannot really justify asking for something he might not need, but it will make his life better. It is debatable if he needs it or not and the monk might opt not to ask. For instance, a six year old phone might be laggy and not run certain apps he needs. One monk I know has a very wealthy sister who supplies sangha with many items. Nevertheless, he was using a very old phone that was running Android 4.4. After a while he just could not run several Buddhist Apps on his phone. At that point, he asked his sister for a new phone and felt comfortable about it. Family, related by blood up to seven generations do not need any invitations.

Faith and Means

The monk can only ask the donor for items based on the donor’s faith and his financial ability. It does not matter what the donor says or wishes, the monk cannot go beyond these two factors. If communication lags for 10 years then the monk should not call up an old donor and say, “Hey do you remember that random invitation you said 10 years ago? Well now I need a toothbrush.” Or if someone is not very wealthy, you should not ask for a new PA system for the monastery, or a monastery van. This would go beyond the means of the donor. If there are large monasteries, there are often large donors who let their means known to the chief monks. In my years as a monk, I have seen some very large donations go to the monasteries by single individuals.

As a bee gathers nectar from the flower and flies away without harming the flower’s beauty or its fragrance, just so the sage goes on his alms round in the village.

Dhammapada Verse 49

A monk should be very careful not to ask too much from the donors and to pay careful attention not only to the invitation, but the ongoing faith and ability of the donor. He should also be passive with his requests. If he goes beyond those factors, he can not only be left without a donor, but he can cause that donor to lose faith in Buddhism for a lifetime (or more). One time a monk was disturbed by a flock of birds and told his troubles to the Buddha.

‘Do you want that flock of birds to stay away?’
‘Yes, Sir.’
‘Well then, go back to that forest grove. In the first part of the night, call out three times and say,
“Listen to me, good birds. I want a feather from anyone roosting in this forest grove. Each one of you must give me a feather.”
And in the middle and last part of the night do the same thing.’

The monk returned to that forest grove and did as instructed.
That flock of birds thought,
‘The monk is asking for a feather; he wants a feather,’
and they left that grove and never returned.

Pārājikapāḷi mm_Para 345

Furthermore, it is very rare, but a donor might offer beyond his means as a village or group leader. This might happen with a village leader or a person who wants to create a large donation, like a cettiya or a new monastery and wishes the monk to guide him. In this case, a monk can request beyond the individual’s capabilities.

Requisite Slips and Kappiyas

Now that you know about different invitations and donors, there is another method of donation. This is where a donor gives “allowable requisites” to a monastery helper. An invitation paper is then given to the monk. The donor gets a receipt and the helper also has a copy. The paper will say something like this.

Joe Schmoe has given the office $50 USD in allowable requisites for your needs. Please ask anyone in the office when you need something.

A blank requisite slip at Pa-Auk Office

In this way, a donor can make a donation specifically for a monk’s needs. If a monk needs a special item not offered to general the sangha, he can ask someone in the office for it. If he needs a bus ticket, a special blood test, a phone cable, or whatever, he can ask for this in the office. This method is very useful, but there are downsides to this. If a monk is popular, he might end up getting many of these slips. While one might refuse a toothbrush after he already has 5, or donate his extra to the monastery, this rarely happens with personal requisites. There is really no limit to how many requisites a monk can have because it is just a paper and it works similar to Amazon gift cards, but it is more like Office Gift Cards. The monk can shop around, pick special brands, and even complain about things just as if he were buying himself. The office becomes more of a no-questions asked helper and there is no limit to the buying. Because of this, things can get closer to using money and it can be a poison for sangha even though it is allowable.

U Khin Zaw is the helper who buys items for the monks at Pa-Auk Main Branch. I saw many things being bought that appeared to be beyond “essential” and so one day I asked him, “Do you think that requisite accounts are the poison for sangha?” He quickly answered “Yes”, without hesitation. If anyone knows what monks are doing with requisites, he would be one of them.

All that said, the monks do have to trouble themselves by asking for things with another person. They are not going shopping themselves and they must trust the helper who is holding the donor’s money. There is a big difference between this and the monk holding the money himself.

I personally prefer to request items from personal donors directly rather than send the same donors to the office and then request there. If I have medical needs, I use the office. If I have random things I need, I prefer to ask a personal donor. Shame is a wholesome mental factor. I feel it is best this way, but others may feel another way is better. The main thing is that the rules are to be followed.

A monk who handles money has the opportunity to buy anything he wants without any questions. He can buy his own food for an evening snack. He can go to a restaurant and eat. There might even be a special monk table, but he is expected to pay. The monk can even buy alcohol and unfortunately, some monks do that too.

Planning and Arranging

The main difference between surviving with money and without money is the planning that needs to happen before journeys are made. When I was at ITBMU, the gatekeeper was also a helper. We could take a taxi back to the University and simply tell the taxi driver to work it out with the gate keeper after we tell the gatekeeper the agreed price before we got into the car. Monks are not allowed to negotiate prices. If a taxi price is too high, the monk will send the taxi away and then find another taxi. We also had “preferred taxi drivers” too who worked with the donors. In some cases, this preferred taxi driver was also a helper for meals during travel or items needed at a store. Travel is the most common activity where planning is essential, but modern conveniences and phones make things easier to arrange.

A monk can always use his bowl to get what he needs. The monk can passively stand with is bowl in front of a bus station or pharmacy in any Buddhist country. Even in Kaua’i, Hawai’i, USA, I have stood in front of a supermarket with the permission of the shopping plaza owner. It is not so difficult but it might take some time. Therefore, one needs to plan in advance.

Me collecting alms food at Big Save, Hanalei (with permission from the plaza owners). A friend shot this and thought I might like to have it. No kappiya. No money. No Buddhist Country. Only trusting in Kindness. It takes about 90 minutes to get my meal this way.

Modern Conveniences

While many monks say, “During the Buddha’s time, you didn’t need to use money, but now-a-days we need to use money.” I’m not sure what they are thinking when they say that. I believe this is an empty excuse. Modern times pretty much means there are more things to buy and have greed for. If it is difficult today, it is because there are stronger currents of greed. Travel was surely difficult 2600 years ago. You could not just hop on a plane or even a bus and be at your destination in a few hours or a single day. A twenty mile journey was a big deal. I’m sorry to say, but it was surely more difficult during the time of the Buddha. If there was anything that made things easier during the time of the Buddha, it was the lack of money use during his time, or at least the first 20 years of his Enlightenment. In the good old days, the perception of a monk automatically included “One who does not touch money…a renunciate.”

Things are now easier in modern times for travel and logistics. Transactions can be handled remotely by the donor directly. It is easy for a donor to buy a bus ticket and then send me a picture of the ticket. I have shown a photo-ticket before entering the bus and there were no questions asked because my seat was reserved. Air Tickets are even easier in the Internet Age. As I said before, one bus company gives free tickets.

When I was in Hawai’i, I had a donor send Subway sandwiches via an app on his phone. A simple phone call and a five minute wait was all that was needed. There are many food apps, ride hailing services and food delivery apps. You need to test the apps and see if they work for monks. The first time I used Subway, we did a pilot test to get a soda. It worked. Thereafter, we arranged meals there.

One time I was going to Seattle Airport during a time when my donor would be asleep. A small Google search showed which restaurants were available at the airport 24 hours. McDonald’s was available inside so we tried a McDonald’s App on my own phone using the donor’s user account (and being invited to use it). However, I did not feel comfortable pressing the “Buy” button. As a pilot test, I went to a local McDonald’s and tried to order a milkshake during a time when I was not really in need. I tried to ask the lady in the store to press the “buy” button, but it was against policy and a little odd for them. Perhaps I was a scammer? The app idea did not work, so we did not use it. Technology makes things very easy, sometimes too easy.

Ye Have Faith

This picture went viral on Facebook in 2015 when I was in Bagan. It was also reported in the national newspaper.
It says, “This monk does not use money, like or share.”

Sometimes, nothing can be arranged and one is off on an adventure. Above is a famous picture of me floating on the internet. This picture became viral with 40,000+ likes because I went for alms without a helper and did not touch money. I arrived at a village a little before 11:00 am and I had to not only collect the food by noon, but I also had to eat it before that time too! The usual thing happened, a lady offered money, I refused the money, and then I was taken care of properly. After I refused the money the lady started to worry and then followed behind me as I went up this very small street. She was shouting to her neighbors that a monk was collecting food. If you are from Myanmar, you know the familiar phrase they say when monks are coming for their meal. Ironically, this particular meal actually was one of the easiest and most complete meals I had gotten from collecting alms. When I sat down to eat at a pagoda, a vendor seemed to have already heard about what I did and asked to take my picture which went viral. Some monks study their whole lives trying to get proper Buddhist degrees so they can be recognized while all I did was refuse a twenty-five cent donation and eat the alternative.

When I went to the USA in 2006 and 2009, I went for alms, but I also had a backup at a supermarket that held some requisites placed there from my father so we could supplement our meal, if collecting traditional alms didn’t work. We ended up using that “supplement” nearly everyday for main the course for our meals. Because we were taken care of with a backup at the supermarket, the universe did not provide for us. When I went to Hawai’i in 2015, I asked my senior friend if we could hold off on pre-arranging backups until we went hungry for 3 days. We had both tried fasting before, and we thought it was worth a try. He not only agreed to this, but he traveled to Hawai’i with no means to go back until return the ticket was valid in nearly six months time. We got food everyday and never went hungry for a single day in Hawai’i. We never need to arrange a backup plan.

You can watch a video of me describing my experience of going for alms in America with nobody knowing I was coming. You can read this story called Miracle on Three or Four Streets, or Ticket to Ride. It seems as though I’m always taken care of. I feel so blessed and I wish other monks had the same faith to acquire this same feeling (and support).

Trusting Helpers

When one uses helpers, there is certainly a level of trust that needs to be present. It is true that helpers can “disappear” with large amounts of money. It does not happen often, but when it is a large amount of money, the scar is big and lasts a long time for trust to be reestablished. It is their own kamma though and not a reason to stop a proper life of morality. Theft-by-helper is not something reserved for modern times either. Tracking of such low-life-thieves is easier today than ever before. However, monks are not allowed to call the police on such people who are considered the new owners of the money!

Lay people are robbed in New York City all of the time, but that does not mean one should not go to NYC. There can also be a level of mistrust for the prices when a helper buys something for the monk or monastery. Again, it is the kamma of the helper to make merit or make demerit. Many times, the monk loses touch of the real world prices as inflation rises over time. In the end, for good or bad, the “machine” works, and monks get what they need. When one donates or uses the donations, he should keep that in mind.

Oh Ye Of Little Faith

Monks who say it is impossible to live without money usually have never really tried to live without money. If they did, they will see it does take some arranging, but it is very possible and totally rewarding to live in such a way. I lived without money in Hawai’i, USA for 2 years. My friend was a helper for me, but I would only see him a couple times per week. We lived at different places and he had a full time job as a taxi driver. It was surely possible in a nonBuddhist country, what more could be said about Myanmar and other Buddhist countries? By living in Hawai’i without a full time kappiya, or monastery, I’m able to prove that it can be done, but it was not that easy.

Normally monks go for alms in groups as a sangha. The problem is that if monks have money, they will feel uncomfortable going for alms alone and collecting food from random people. A monk might feel guilty about a donor who drops her own lunch meant for her workday in his bowl even though he may have $500 stuffed under his mattress, or inside his wallet. When I was at ITBMU I used to go for Faith Alms on the weekends. Faith Alms is when I would only eat what I got on the alms round and I would not eat any of the university or monastery food. I would have faith that I would get alms. This really solidified my belief that monks can surely go anywhere in Myanmar or any other Buddhist Country and be properly supported. If one needs a bus ticket, you can go to the bus station with a bowl and then refuse money offerings until someone asks what you need. It will happen for sure. It might take time, but it will happen. If a monk has money, trying to get a bus ticket in this way will make him feel uncomfortable, and I think it should make him feel uncomfortable. If a monk does not have money and gets what he needs merely with his bowl, it will also inspire the local Myanmar people who donate. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen the elated faces of joy when I refused money. It is just something they just never see in Myanmar. All of those people were happy, but I can only count 2 or 3 times in 20+ years that someone was not happy. As you know, you cannot make everyone happy.

I have personally offered to support some monks in exchange for them to follow the rules. I have offered to replace all of their books, computers, phones, etc. with allowable items. However, they all refused. In the end they wish this way of life on themselves and they know it is bad to handle money. Of the 227 rules, there are two rules that says we cannot eat or sleep with monks who believe that one can breaking the monk rules and still make progress. While many monks break the rules, they are not that blind. If they do recognize that breaking rules are bad, then we can still eat with them and sleep in the same lodgings.4 Pācittiyā 68 & 69 are related. Pācittiyā 70 is for novice monks. I do however know one monk who refused my offer to replace all of this belongings but later relinquished his unallowable items on his own. He is grateful for my initial challenge which stuck in his mind for a long time until he changed his ways.

It should be noted that monks who have money also have donors. The material support is already there. All of the excuses of needing to buy books or travel tickets are all spoken in vain. They have donors, but they just need to teach them the proper rules and how to give properly. They can even send their family and donors to this article right here.

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