Donning the Robes

13 July 2003 was a day that Ong Chin Cheong had been waiting for since he joined SBS as a postulant in May 2002. Now, a year later, he receives ordination as a sāmaṇera (novice) in a short but moving ceremony, after which the abbot, Ven Aggaccita, delivered this Dhamma talk.

Today is an historic occasion. The first samanera ordination in SBS has just been completed. We have found that Postulant Ong has been patient and has endured postulant training here well enough to stay for more than a year with us. Furthermore, he has gone through a radical transformation within this past year. I am sure many of you would have noticed so much more clarity on his face and especially on his head. It is a happy occasion for all of us here for two reasons:
• It is a boon to the Sāsanā (Buddha’s Dispensation) to have a new member. We hope that here he will receive holistic training in an ancient tradition through a new media.
• We are happy that Mrs Ong has given her son to the Sasana and has thus become a Sasana heir.

Sasana Heirs
I wrote about Sasana heirs in a previous issue of Sasanarakkha. King Asoka, the famous emperor of India, was a brutal conqueror who changed radically after meeting an inspiring samanera. He -became a righteous king (dhammika rāja), advocating non-violence. The Asoka edicts and inscriptions on stupas that he erected bear testimony to his propagation of the Dhamma in many ways. He contributed requisites and built monasteries and stupas. He also practised religious tolerance and did not use force to convert his subjects to Buddhism.

King Asoka one day approached the Sanghathera (most senior monk of the Community) and asked, “Since I’ve given so much support to the Sasana, can I be called a Sasana heir?” When told that he did not qualify, he asked how he could become one. The answer was, “Only if one can give up one’s child to the Sasana and allow him to become a monk.”

How does giving one’s child to the Sasana make one an heir? What does one inherit?

We have a present day example in Ven Kumara’s parents. He tried very hard and it took some time for him to get his parents’ permission to become a monk. He tried various ways to bring his parents closer to Buddhism by bringing them to talks, discussions and temple activities. Finally, they gave their blessings to him. Since then, they have become more knowledgeable Buddhists, attending retreats and getting more involved in temple affairs. Parents, with a child who has become a monk, will -visit the temple more often, as compared to being just “Wesak Day Buddhists”. They will be drawn closer to the Dhamma. In the same way, Mrs Ong is now in closer contact with the Dhamma and probably is giving piṇḍapāta (alms food) correctly for the first time.

Sasana Opportunists
Let’s come back to the story of King Asoka. Due to his lavish support, many people became monks for ignoble and opportunistic reasons. They became monks not because they were interested in the pure and holy life of a celibate striving for liberation from saṃsāra (round of birth and death). Rather, they wanted the easy life that King Asoka had, through his generous patronage, made possible for monks.

Even during the Buddha’s time there were already such opportunistic people. A group of 17 young children were sent by their parents to be ordained as monks at a very young age because their parents thought that the Sakyaputtiyas (‘Sons of the Sakyans’ — an epithet for Buddhist monks) were well taken care of, receiving good food and having comfortable lodgings. They would thus have an easy life without having to learn a skill and work for a living.

At that time there was no distinction between a samanera and a bhikkhu (monk). However, being young, they could not endure hunger, having to wait till daybreak for their meal. They cried, refusing to be consoled. When the Buddha heard of this, he passed an initial rule that no one less than 15 years of age could be ordained. Thus even during the Buddha’s time, “bogus” monks such as we see today in the pasar malam (night market), existed.

Asoka’s unrivalled support for Buddhism prompted members of other religious sects to join the Sangha for an easy life. As their numbers increased, they posed a threat to the Sangha. Consequently, the Third Buddhist Council was convened and senior monks asked for the expulsion of such “bogus” monks.

You Are What You Pronounce
I have chosen the name, Ven Balacitta, for our new samanera. ‘Bala’ means ‘strong’ or ‘powerful’. ‘Citta’ is the mind. But in Pali (a language in which Gotama Buddha’s teachings are preserved) one has to be careful with the pronunciation, as ‘Bāla’ pronounced with the long ‘a’ means ‘foolish’ or ‘immature’. As he is learning Pali, I tell him, “You are what you pronounce.”
Although he has a newly shaven head and new robes, it may not make much difference in his lifestyle as he has been living the life of a monastic for more than a year. However, besides the ten rules of training for a samanera, there are many other rules. He has to learn how to wear the robes, behave like a monk, go for pindapata and so on.

Upholders of the Sasana
Just as there are some who renounce to take advantage of the circumstances of the well-supported Sangha, there are others who do so because of their faith in the Dhamma. Their primary objective is to make use of the opportunity as “homeless ones” to dedicate their lives to the study, practice and propagation of the Dhamma, without the responsibilities of worldly life.

First Responsibility
The first responsibility of members of the Sangha is to observe the precepts. Then they have to study the Dhamma. During the time of the Buddha, there were no books so they had to listen to the teacher and learn by heart the teachings of the Buddha. The teachings were then explained to them after which they had to practise them. Memorising 227 (major) rules (for bhikkhus) is one thing; internalising them is another. That is why during the Buddha’s time it took 5 years for a bhikkhu to become independent.

There are many study monasteries in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka where mostly theory is taught. This can produce great scholars, but if one does not put theory into practice, it is not befitting of a member of the Sangha.

Thus after learning the theory, a monk has to put into practice what he has learnt of monastic rules and regulations. As with any community, the Sangha needs to abide by rules in order to have law and order. It is because the rules have been laid down in such detail that the Sangha became one of the oldest existing monastic orders, if not the oldest.

Once, before monastic rules were laid down, Ven Sariputta asked the Buddha, “Why did the Sasanas of some Buddhas last a short time?” The Buddha said that some Buddhas taught the DhammaVinaya (Doctrine and Discipline) in brief. They did not lay down many rules. Instead, they read a person’s mind and then taught him according to his individual disposition for him to get enlightened quickly. As a result when the Master passed away and there was no one to consult, there were disagreements as to what was correct. This soon caused splits among the monastic community.

Our Lord Gotama Buddha laid down rules and regulations in meticulous detail. Hence, his Sasana has lasted so long. However, Buddhism today has so many different traditions, sects and denominations. What would it be if rules had not been spelled out in such detail?

One of the primary objectives of SBS is to try to revive this traditional lifestyle of study and practice. The Vinaya is concerned with the precepts of a monk. Buddhists believe that the amount of merits one makes depends on the virtue of the giver and that of the recipient. Thus if a monk is virtuous and observes his precepts then the dāna (offering) given to him will bear great fruits. This is the first and most basic level at which he can repay his supporters.

Fulfilling the Basic Responsibility
If he meditates to attain concentration and insight into the true nature of reality, he progresses deeper and deeper into spiritual maturity; then the dana given to him will bear even greater fruits.

When one receives, one ought to give something in return. It is the same in the relationship between the Sangha and lay community. Monastics need to study and practise. Lay people give them the support to enable them to do so. In return the Sangha has to give them the opportunity to reap the good fruits of sila (moral virtue), samādhi (mental concentration) and paññā (wisdom).

In my Sunday talks in TIMS, I have told the stories of Asoka and Ven Sariputta and the benefits of meeting a monk. Asoka met a samanera who changed him into a good Buddhist. Sariputta, then not yet a monk, became a sotāpanna (stream-enterer) when he met Ven Assaji, an arahant (fully liberated one), who just recited a short stanza of the Buddha’s teachings to him.

Thus a monk who has purity of conduct and spiritual attainment has already fulfilled his responsibility as a member of the Sangha. He can give his supporters the opportunity to create merits when they offer dana to him. They will then reap the benefits such as prosperity in this life and rebirth as a deva (deity) in the next. This is the fundamental duty of a monk.

Additional Responsibilities
In addition to this, he can do more. Looking at the spiritual needs of people as a whole, we realise that besides the importance of having well practised and knowledgeable monks, there is also a need for monks to chant and to perform rites and rituals. This is in high demand, as rites and rituals are necessary in society. However, practising monks do not like to perform rituals or do chanting.
As such, we need different types of monks:
• Those who perform rituals
• Those who study theory so that when we go astray they possess the knowledge to set things right
• Those who practise, as they are living embodiments of the Dhamma
• Those who teach, of which there are two types:
– Those who teach monks
– Those who teach lay people, again of which there are two types :
• monks who teach meditation
• monks who teach people how to apply basic Buddhist principles in daily life.

Conclusion: Buddhism for All
Different people have different inclinations and interests. So, we should not be biased and support, for example, only practising monks who stay in the forest; neither should we support only teaching monks because we feel that practising monks do not contribute to society. We should look at Buddhism from a wide perspective and cover all facets of it. That is why Buddhism is so wonderful. It can be practised at so many levels of spiritual maturity and it appeals to people with different interests.

In SBS we understand this well and aspire to train not only one type of monks. We provide holistic training and give opportunities for the development of individual talents and capabilities. Some, after the basic course, may want to go to the forest to practise while some, after a stretch of practice, may want to propagate the teachings. Others may want to do Pali studies to access the actual teachings of Buddhism. We will give support and guidance to all of them. We welcome people of different inclinations to come and join us so that we can help perpetuate the Buddha’s teachings in a holistic way that benefits all levels of society.

Although we have only one samanera, I feel that on this historic occasion, it is relevant for me to lay the groundwork for all future residents of SBS who wish to participate in our training programme. There are quite a few lined up and I hope to see them in the very near future.

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