We have seen many Facebook selfies of politically active monks with their bowls turned upside down. What does this mean and is that proper?
The answer is: What you see on Facebook is not proper for monks or nuns. What you see on the news with monks and nuns as protesters is not proper. Overturning a bowl is an official Buddhist act, but what you have seen on Facebook and on the news are not official acts of overturning a bowl. These monks or nuns are doing this purely to be political. The Buddha has specifically mentioned that “talks of kings” should not be engaged in. What more could be said about participating in political protests?
“Bhikkhus, do not engage in the various kinds of pointless talk, that is, talk about kings, thieves, and ministers of state; talk about armies, dangers, and wars;Saṁyutta Nikāya
Connected Discourses on the Truths
56.10. Pointless Talk (Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
What is an Overturned Bowl (Pattaṃ Nikkujjati)?
An overturned bowl is a legal transaction called vinayakamma that monks say inside a special building similar to an official courthouse which is called a sīma.
Overturning the bowl is a symbolic phrase signifying the refusal to accept offerings from a particular person.The Buddhist Monastic Code II, p348
The Community may choose to overturn its bowl to a lay person endowed with any one of the following eight qualities: He/she
- strives for the bhikkhus’ material loss,
- strives for the bhikkhus’ detriment,
- strives for the bhikkhus’ non-residence (i.e., so that they can’t live in a
- certain place),
- insults and reviles bhikkhus,
- causes bhikkhus to split from bhikkhus;
- speaks in dispraise of the Buddha,
- speaks in dispraise of the Dhamma,
- speaks in dispraise of the Saṅgha.
The origin story for this transaction is when a layman name Vaḍḍha falsely accused a monk for committing sexual intercourse. This particular monk was fully enlightened since age 7, and when this was investigated the monk proclaimed “not even in dreams”. After the vinayakamma to overturn the bowl was finished, venerable Ānanda told Vaḍḍha what had been done to him. This official act was so strong that Vaḍḍha fainted right on the spot. After he recovered he apologized for his wrong doing and his apology was accepted. The bowl was then officially turned upright and the community of monks were allowed to accept alms from Vaḍḍha again.
A more practical usage of overturning a bowl would be for a monastery attendant who unfairly overcharges for Saṅgha donations for the purpose of personal profit and kickbacks, or someone who even steals from the monks. Our windows in our meditation huts (kuṭi) have bars over them to prevent theft… because theft is sure to happen if we don’t have bars. Such people should have their “bowls overturned”
The purpose of such vinayakamma is to protect the Saṅgha, so wisdom must be applied. The purpose of overturning a bowl is to protect Saṅgha using discrete methods so one can mend his ways without losing face. Doing public actions against political leaders will only cause further retribution towards Saṅgha and has been proven so in the past. Furthermore, during the time of the Buddha, documented in various suttas, there were very fierce kings who had long and detailed methods on how to torture people. Governments were not fair 2600 years ago with tolerance as the only course of action. The best and useful methods now and back then is to keep the Dhamma alive and teach it to the kings.
Overturning the bowl is an official act carried out in a sīma to officially reject offerings from a person due to extremely adverse actions or speech against the community of monks. Such proclamations should not be casually done for the purpose of gaining Facebook likes, support, political asylum, or pats on the back. Monks have better things to do, like meditation, study/teaching, and work. Therefore it is counterproductive to parade on the streets or take selfies with an overturned bowls. It also is not proper for the Buddhist Rules and procedures. An overturned bowl is an official vinaya act and doing such attention-getting politics belittles the Buddhist Rules. We just don’t do such transactions anymore, even to our own monks. We let people come to the Dhamma and change that way. Monastics are to teach the Dhamma. If people accept the Dhamma, it is good for them. If a donor does not want to give or acts inappropriately, we skip their house quietly. This is the way.