Why Are Most Monasteries Not Allowable?

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Why are most monasteries not allowable for vinaya monks?

Today, I was Skyping my parents which is something we do once or twice a month now.  I feel it is good for them to “see” me as a monk, rather than having them talk to me and visualizing their son from 1999.  That was when I left home and things changed for me.  We had a nice discussion.  We spoke about possibilities for a visit, but I told them that finding a place was difficult, because the monks all use money and whatever they buy with that money becomes unallowable.  I used an analogy for what some Jewish people call Kosher.  Some very strict Jewish people will throw away plates and silverware if both meat and dairy had touched it.  My parents were not like that, but some of the older generations of my family (I have heard) were like that.

I explained it in a more logical way.  We are not supposed to touch money and anything a monk buys with money is also not allowable for him and other fellow monks.  This would not be a problem if it were his telephone, or his robes, a car, or just his own things.  Then it would not affect me.  It would be his choice, his purity, and his unallowable possessions, but it does not work like that.  This can be a problem with 99% of all the monasteries in the USA.  You can probably count the monasteries that do not use money all on one hand and still have some fingers left.  

The monks normally accept the money and then they give a portion of what they collect to the committee (if there is one), or the monastery expenses which they own themselves.  The donor may believe he is donating to the monastery through a monk, but if he never indicates his donation should be used that way,  the money is really the monk’s own possession (unless there is some cultural expectation and understanding).  If the donor says it is for sangha.  Again, it belongs only to the monks who live in the monastery and not the committee.  So when the monks do indeed give the money to the committee, (if there  is one), then the things the monk requests or the repairs to the property become unallowable.  If the building was bought with this money, it is also unallowable.  If the building was repaired with this money, it is also not allowable.  If they refinish the floors, the floor is not allowable to walk on and so on.   It is like me collecting money myself and giving it to my helper (kappiya), and then asking him for a cup of sugar or something.  It is not allowable.  It is like me saying to a monk friend, “I don’t want to touch money, so why don’t you collect the money and buy me things.”  It just is not right and that is why The Buddha made strong and detailed rules forbidding monks from using things that were bought with “monk money.”

There might be some flexibility if the property and donation is really owned by the lay committee, but usually the monks are on the committee themselves.  I live in a government owned University.  For this reason, it is allowable for me to stay here.  There were two times when I was forced to go for alms in the village because the food was made unallowable by monk money and helping with the cooking the night prior.  One time, I was forced to go for alms at 11:00 am, and we must not only finish collecting our food before Noon, but we must finish eating as well!  I call that “extreme sports bowling.”

Normally, I stay in forest vinaya monasteries where money is not accepted.  So when the monks at “normal monasteries”  collect the money, they accept the money for themselves and then choose to give to a committee if there is one.  But as I said before, if I were to give money to a helper of mine and ask him for a cup of sugar, then that sugar or anything else, is not allowable for me, and also my other fellow monks.  This means the same for the water to wash my bowl and body, the electricity to type these notes, etc.  It is not good.  According to my calculation, besides the car and other stuff a monk may buy, a monk who lives in a USA city with a hundred or two ethnic followers (Myanmar, Thai, Laos, Sri Lankan, Cambodian) can save in the bank around $10,000 or more per year.  That is why the USA Embassy is so concerned about monks “visiting” the USA.  They can come back with a truck-load of cash, especially if they are special enough to be invited in the first place.  It becomes a “business” purpose and violates a tourist visa agreement in practicality, yet no monk is really paid for services or dhamma talks they give.  The cash donations are all “gifts.”  Some monks are sincere.  They are saving for building a monastery, or land for one.  I recently spoke to a monk, who bought some land and built a monastery in the USA.  I am trying to figure out if a kuti built by lay people on his unallowable land would be allowable.  What do you think?  When I don’t have a place to stay in my own country even though there are hundreds (yes hundreds) of temples that are of this nature, it makes me want to figure out a way to stay in one.   It gets a little complicated.  This monk seems like a good and well-intentioned monk.  I wish him the best.

When I left Honolulu airport, a homeland security agent asked me how much money I was bringing out of the country.  He was happy to hear that I didn’t touch the stuff and then he showed me a Buddhist tattoo on his arm to show he was “Buddhist friendly.”  “Do your recognize this?” he said as he rolled up his sleeve to show me his Buddha tattoo.  He then told me about one recent monk who was caught with $100,000 cash.  They took the unregistered money away from him and let him go.  Perhaps he was going to build a monastery in his country?  We don’t know.  But in the end, you should go through the proper channels to export $100,000, especially if it is for a noble cause.

In addition to a place not being allowable.  There can be problems when a donor at a normal monastery eventually tries to give a visiting vinaya monk money and he refuses to accept it.  A vinaya monk can be a big “monkey wrench” in the whole donation machine they have developed.  If people learn that money is not allowable, and that one should only give allowable gifts to monks, then it would not make the visiting monk so popular would it?  That is why we usually do not go to such places as a primary reason.  We can remain peaceful and retain harmony if we are not living together.  It sounds like an oxymoron, but that is a truth.  I think some married people know this truth.  I told my parents that sometimes we prefer to stay at Mahayana monasteries because, even though they touch money (and they are also not allowed to do so in theory), their rules do not affect our rules.  This is one of the benefits of them being a different sect.  So sometimes, we stay in such places and we can retain our purity.  But that can get uncomfortable if they know that we think their rules do not affect our rules.

My father said in today’s conversation, “Isn’t it better to live with a monk who does not follow the rules than to live with regular lay people?”  I said, “Yes, it is better to live with a monk who does not follow the rules rather than live alone or with regular people.  However, that was the main reason to  bring my own compatible monks to the USA and live in a house together in 2006, and 2008.”  I told him there was actually a monastery only 20 minutes from my parent’s house that uses money all along, but my way was the preferred method.  Bringing another monk is expensive and very difficult to get a visa.  It was a very complex and I canceled a visit when my friend got refused by the USA Embassy for the visa.  (but later accepted on the 2nd try).  I think my father finally started to understand why I insisted on bringing a monk to travel with me.  The fact that he phrased the question the way he did, shows that he understands.  Sometimes it takes 16 years.

My parents and I Skype each other early in the Myanmar mornings, because the internet is strong during those times.  As I was hanging up the “phone”  (Skype), the time was approaching for me to go out and  collect my alms food.  I said to them.  “OK.. time is running out.. I need to go out and beg for my food.”  We both smiled.  I think they understand my way a little more and my humorous descriptions for  “going for alms”.

Today, I went for alms and I did not feel I got enough rice, so I took a jagged way to another village and then to a market area.  Part of me likes that fact that alms is “never a sure thing”, which is helpful for my monk life.  Part of me does not like that for obvious reasons.  I have been at this market area a few times now, but still, the people don’t really know me yet.  A man put two samosas in my bowl and then a lady stopped me and had a bunch of bills rolled up into a packet to place on my bowl, something that is usually considered a trophy “find” for a monk.  It is like chocolate for a girl, but I was on a strict diet of only “edible food.”  I think that is what alms bowls are meant for.   I then said my favorite phrase, “Paison makhine-boo… Vini”, which means, “I don’t deal with money because it is bad, and it is a vinaya rule that monks should follow.”   While some people insist that we should accept the money to be polite, I politely say what I say.  I wish I had a wearable camera to show you her mouth change from a quick frown and then open up with a smile of joy when I explained why I was refusing.  The smile was quick but I saw it all in slow motion as she did it and then she said, “Demah Payah” which meant she understood.

Most people who try to give me money have this reaction.  Trust me, it is polite and useful to refuse and explain why.  it teaches them about the fundamentals of a monk’s life too (or the way it should be).  It inspires people to see a monk who does not touch money and that is why the Buddha made it a rule.  it is as simple as that.  A beggar wants money.   That is why I can and say with some meaning but humor… “Bye mom, I need to go out and beg for food.”  When I say a phrase like that, it is something different from what we are all used to and recently, through our phone calls, my parents are starting to get used to it.

Picture Credit:
By ProhibitOnions at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by ProhibitOnions., Public Domain, Link

4 thoughts on “Why Are Most Monasteries Not Allowable?”

  1. How different is it when a monk comes, the lay Buddhist organization organized collection for their monastery and then transfer to the lay people maintaining the monastery directly without the monk touching the money. So that should be ok right?

  2. Hello Bhante! Wat Metta near San Diego, where Thanissaro Bhikkhu stays, is strict about monks not accepting or dealing with money, and generally about keeping to the Vinaya. I don’t know if there are monks on the commitees there, but I suspect not. May you reap the merit from your strict adherence to the Vinaya.

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