The purpose of precepts

A talk to new sangha

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A talk given at Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India, on April 14, 2001.

I feel very happy to talk to the sangha because sangha are the people who are dedicated and devoted to the Dharma. You’ve taken the jump. Being able to leave the home life, dedicate yourself to study, practice, and service, and be willing to undergo hardships to develop spiritually indicates something special. There are many excellent lay scholars and practitioners, but renouncing the pleasures and illusions of cyclic existence and living in pure ethical discipline are particular qualities of monastics.

Cover of Choosing Simplicity.

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I thought to begin by discussing why the Buddha set up the precepts. This is an important topic, and I have personally found it very beneficial. By the way, I highly recommend this book, Choosing Simplicity: A Commentary on the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha, by Venerable Bhikshuni Wu Yin, which goes into this and many other essential topics. She gave these teachings at “Life As a Western Buddhist Nun,” a program for Buddhist nuns in Bodhgaya in 1996. Most of the information in the book is useful for monks and for laypeople too. Ven. Wu Yin gives us the whole flavor of what it means to be a monastic and to value Vinaya.

In the first twelve years after his enlightenment, there were no precepts when the Buddha ordained people. He just said, “Come, O bhikshu,” and they were ordained. In those early years, all the monastics acted well, and nobody messed up terribly. Then, people started making mistakes—big ones and small ones—and word got back to the Buddha. In response, to guide the monastics in a positive direction, the Buddha set up the precepts one by one. Each precept was made in response to a mistake made by an ordained person. He didn’t lay down all the precepts at the beginning. Rather, each time a situation arose when somebody did something inappropriate or improper, the Buddha would establish a precept to regulate the sangha.

Whenever he set up a precept, he talked about ten reasons for doing so, ten advantages of each precept. I recommend going through the list of precepts and contemplating that each one brings these ten advantages:

  • 1. In detail
    • 1.1 To promote harmony within the sangha
      • 1.1.1 To direct the monastics
      • 1.1.2 To make monastics peaceful and happy
      • 1.1.3 To protect monastics
    • 1.2 To transform the society
      • 1.2.1 To inspire those without faith
      • 1.2.2 To advance the practice of those with faith
    • 1.3 To bring about individual liberation
      • 1.3.1 To restrain the restive
      • 1.3.2 To stabilize those with a sense of integrity
      • 1.3.3 To eliminate present defilements
      • 1.3.4 To prevent defilements from arising in the future
  • 2. In general
    • 2.1 The ultimate goal
      • 2.1.1 For the Dharma to be forever sustained

1.1 To promote harmony within the sangha

  • 1.1.1 To direct the monastics

    The advantages fall into three categories: the first is to promote harmony within the sangha, the second is to transform society, and the third is to bring about individual liberation. Promoting harmony within the sangha consists of three advantages, the first of which is to direct the monastics. Each precept directs us, the sangha: it gives us guidance, provides structure to our lives, and establishes helpful limits to our behavior. Each precept concerns our life, so it shows us how to practice, how to live, and how to be.

  • 1.1.2 To make monastics peaceful and happy

    Secondly, each precept makes monastics happy and peaceful. This is something to think about, especially when we don’t like a particular precept. “I don’t like this precept. This one doesn’t make me happy and peaceful! This one makes me agitated. I don’t want this one.” But it’s good to remember, to wait a minute and ask ourselves, “Even if I don’t like a particular precept or have difficulty keeping it, could following it make my mind peaceful or happy?” We look at each precept and investigate what behavior or mental states it’s designed to make us aware of and to regulate. What affliction in our mind is it tapping into? What button is that precept pushing?

    Then we can imagine, “If I were free from that affliction, if I were free from that button, what kind of peace and happiness would exist in my mind?” Thinking like this, we see the precepts aren’t designed to make us miserable by preventing us from doing fun things, but to make our minds peaceful and happy by abandoning activities that make us agitated. That’s why we chose to take ordination! Nobody forced us to take precepts. We chose. Why did we choose to take precepts? Hopefully, we had some awareness that our mind was uncontrolled and needed some guidelines. We knew we needed some structure in our lives and we needed to live ethically. Hopefully, we had that kind of understanding about how our mind functions before we took the precepts, and therefore we saw taking the precepts as a tool and method to pacify our mind and bring peace to our lives.

  • 1.1.3 To protect monastics

    We didn’t become a monk or nun because we liked the clothes or the haircut or because we liked to hang out in McLeod Ganj. We didn’t ordain so we could sit in the front row where everyone can see us! We took the precepts for a different purpose. The third advantage is that precepts protect monastics. They protect us from negative actions as individuals, and they protect us from disharmony in the community. When we all live by the same precepts and we’re all trying to be ethical, kindhearted human beings, there can be genuine harmony in the community.

    Let’s face it—the sangha is not always perfectly harmonious. We’re not all Buddhas, we’re human beings and we have our little tiffs and our quarrels and our stuff going on like everybody else. But when we’re committed to the precepts, then they act as a mirror for us so that we can see what we’re doing that antagonizes others and agitates the situation. In that way, the precepts help us restrain our negative behavior, and they act as guidelines for us. We find that the more we keep the precepts, the better we get along with other people, because the precepts are designed to subdue our negative actions of body and speech. They improve our relationships.

Those are the three reasons that the precepts promote harmony within the sangha.

1.2 To transform the society

  • 1.2.1 To inspire those without faith

    The second heading is they have the advantage of transforming the society. Precepts inspire those without faith and advance the practice of those with faith. How do precepts inspire those without faith? When people in society encounter others who live in precepts, they meet people who are kind and ethical human beings. Naturally, this inspires faith in them. This is a beautiful thing that the sangha can offer to people in the West and the East, especially when we live in community. We offer an image of a group of people whose function in living together is to cultivate their own good qualities and develop ethical discipline.

    That can be a very profound example for society, because why do people usually come together in groups in society? To make money, to have sex, to get more power, to fight their enemies. But we’re not coming together for those reasons. We’re living together and helping each other in a different way, and that can inspire and uplift others. We sangha have our problems, but if people in society see us work out our problems, go through our difficulties with each other, listen to each other, give up clinging to our own opinions in order to live harmoniously with others, that is very good example for others to see. It gives them hope.

  • 1.2.2 To advance the practice of those with faith

    Each precept advances the practices of those with faith, because those who already have faith in the Dharma feel happy and their faith in the Dharma increases when they see people living it out. As monastics, we represent the Dharma, and a lot of people judge the Dharma based on us. We may think this may not be fair, “I’m just one human being full of faults. Why should people say the Dharma works or doesn’t work based on my behavior? That puts too much pressure on me.” But it’s true that, whether we’re lay or ordained, how we act influences other people. We care about others; we want them to have faith and to have happy minds. We want them to be inspired to practice. Since they’re looking to us as people a few steps ahead of them on the path for help, we have some responsibility to act well so that we don’t damage their Dharma practice.

    If someone is new to the Dharma, comes in full of hope, and then sees the monks and nuns down in McLeod at all hours of the day and night, going to the movies and hanging out at the chai shops, eating, gossiping, shouting, and doing kung fu chops, then these people will think that Dharma practice doesn’t help people at all. “Look, these monastics act just like laypeople. They are uncontrolled, loud, and rude just like me. What good will it do me to learn the Dharma and to meditate if these people do that yet they still act this way?” These people won’t have much faith in the Dharma. If we remember this, it will help us modify our own behavior because we care about others.

    On the other hand, if newcomers see us being kind, working out our difficulties, hanging in there, and being considerate, it “gives them a good visualization,” as Lama Yeshe used to say. Being aware of this makes us more mindful of our precepts.

1.3 To bring about individual liberation

  • 1.3.1 To restrain the restive

    The third broad point is that each precept brings about individual liberation, first by restraining the restive. When the mind is restless, when it’s going here and there, when we’re physically and verbally agitated, the precepts help us. They give us boundaries. We have chosen those boundaries; we’re aware of them. That helps us to recognize, “I might be feeling restless and I might want to go do this and that, but I’ve chosen to have these boundaries. These boundaries help me to contain and direct my energy. So, I have to take a deep breath and let go, look at my own mind and work things out.”

  • 1.3.2 To stabilize those with a sense of integrity

    Second, the precepts stabilize those with a sense of integrity. When we have a sense of integrity, we want to keep good ethical discipline because we respect ourselves. In this case, the precepts help stabilize that virtuous mind of self-respect and integrity. When we have that mental state, we happily regulate and moderate our own mind. We don’t feel confined, forced, or oppressed, but gratefully and with choice, we put our energy in a good direction, in a direction that accords with the precepts.

  • 1.3.3 To eliminate present defilements

    Third, the precepts bring about individual liberation because they eliminate defilements. When our mind is under the influence of a defilement and we bump up against a precept that reminds us we’ve chosen not to do a certain act, then we have to look at our defiled mind. If we’re angry, we have to work it out. If we’re attached, we apply the antidotes. The precepts help us eliminate our defilements because we’ve deliberately made these boundaries about how we want to act and speak. When we bump up against these boundaries, we have to look at the mind that makes us want to go beyond these boundaries. That process of looking inside and saying, “What’s going on inside me? How do I work with this defilement?” is extremely valuable. This is the meaning of practicing the Dharma.

    If we don’t look inward, we will become very unhappy as monastics, because we will see the precepts as external rules to rebel against. If we see the precepts as something imposed by somebody else, we’re going to be incredibly unhappy. But, if we see the precepts as something that we’ve chosen because we know that our own mind needs them, then even when we bump up against them, we’re aware, “Yes, I took the precepts because I know my mind is defiled, and here is a defilement. I’m angry; I want to criticize this person and blame them. Well, my whole life I’ve blamed others for my problems, and it hasn’t worked to alleviate my unhappiness. Maybe I need to look inside and see what’s going on there. What in me makes me want to accuse others of breaking their precepts? What in me makes me want to dump on them and vent my anger? The mental state in me that makes me act in these ways also makes me miserable.” In this way, the precepts eliminate present defilements in our mind.

  • 1.3.4 To prevent defilements from arising in the future

    Fourth, the precepts help prevent defilements from arising in the future because each time we apply an antidote to a defiled state of mind, we are cutting the habit of that mental state. Let’s say we have a lot of attachment and the attached mind arises and says, “I want to go smoke a joint or have a drink or smoke a cigarette.” Maybe you were a smoker before you ordained and that habitual mind of attachment comes up. Then you pause and reflect, “I’ve chosen to stay within the boundary of the precept that prohibits taking intoxicants. It’s attachment that’s afflicting my mind and making me want to smoke. This is the same attachment that prevents me from attaining liberation and enlightenment. I want to do something about this! What are the antidotes to attachment?” Then you remember the teachings, “Thinking about the disadvantages of the thing I’m craving is one antidote. Remembering the impermanence and the transience of the pleasure that I’m going to get from this is another.” Then you sit and meditate on one or more of these antidotes in relationship to the specific intoxicating substance your mind is craving at that moment. In this way, you subdue the attachment that craves that substance , and your mind becomes peaceful again. Instead of being like turbulent water churned up with craving, it’s serene. In this way, you’ve eliminated the present defilement and have also begun to cut the habit of that particular attachment. It will take time to cut it completely, but you’ve taken an important step in that direction, and the habit has been damaged.

    Each of us finds particular precepts difficult to keep. These point out the issues we need to work on in our life, and that’s very helpful. We keep on coming back to some core issues again and again, working on them over time.

    My guess is that celibacy is the most difficult precept for most people to keep. What do you think? Of the four root precepts, which one is the most difficult for you to keep? Killing a human being? Anyone want to go out and kill a human being? I don’t think so. Stealing something that’s going to get you arrested? Is anyone craving to do that? Lying about your spiritual attainments? Well, maybe. Sometimes the mind can arise that would love for people to respect us, think we’re holy, regard us as realized beings so we’d have status and prestige. Maybe we could do that one, but it’s not so likely. But what about emotional and/or sexual relationships? How much do we daydream about these? Which of these four do you find the hardest to abandon—killing human beings, stealing valuables, lying about attainments, or having a sexual relationship?

    Student: Celibacy. The other three are things that we’ve always known to be incorrect whereas we’ve been conditioned to seek out pleasure in the last. By laypeople’s standards, that is something positive. We have a lot of conditioning in this area.

    Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, there’s a lot of conditioning. None of us were conditioned by our parents or society to kill people, but we were conditioned to have a relationship, make a family and have kids. Everybody does it. We see it on TV; we see it all around us. We have to be very aware of this. We have to work with two things: our sexual energy and our emotional dependency, wanting to have that special somebody with whom we are very close, someone who is always there for us, who understands us, smiles at us, appreciates us. We’ve all had relationships before; we’ve read about them and seen them in movies. Our attachment easily arises in this area, and that’s why, in general, of the four root precepts, this is the one we have to work with the most.

    For some people sexual attraction is more prominent, for others emotional attraction is greater. We need to be very frank and honest, to admit we have these kinds of attachment, and to consistently apply the antidotes to them. For sexual attachment, Shantideva’s method of visualizing the inside of the other person’s body is an infallible way to cut attachment. The problem is that we don’t want to do it! When we’re attracted to someone, the last thing we want to do is to imagine what their intestines, kidneys, and pancreas look like. We don’t want to do it because it works. It cuts the attachment, “What do I want to hug that person for? They’re just a bag of yuck!” Definitely when we do the meditation of thinking about the inside of that person’s body, it works. But we’ve got to do it, not to just go on thinking, “Yes, but they’re so beautiful. Yes, he has a liver, but look at his eyes.” We’ve got to think about his liver, the inside of his eyeballs, and his bones.

    Then there’s emotional attachment, just having someone who is our best friend, who understands us, who always supports us, who we can depend on. That’s sticky, too, isn’t it? It takes time and inner strength to learn to handle our own emotions when we’re upset instead of running to our loved one, collapsing into somebody’s arms and saying, “Ohhhh, life is treating me awful,” and waiting for that person to say, “Yes, you’re right, and the world’s wrong.” When someone comforts us, soothes us, tells us how wonderful we are, then we feel loved. Wanting to feel uniquely romantically loved can be a strong emotional habit.

    But, when we’re a monk or a nun, we need to work with this emotional dependence. Sure, we all get upset; we all have ups and downs. Sometimes we go to the senior monks and nuns when we feel miserable and that’s fine. But this is a different kind of relationship. Seeking guidance from a Dharma friend, especially from a senior sangha member, is not the sticky, emotional dependency that we get into in lay life. A real Dharma friend will help us work with our own emotions and to apply the antidotes. We have to be emotionally aware and work with whatever comes up, not stuff the negative emotions down and pretend that they aren’t there. We have to learn how to work with them effectively and creatively and transform them.

    For me, emotional dependency on someone special was the hardest thing for me. I’ve worked on it for years and know that I’ll continue to do so my whole life until I realize emptiness. Sometimes it’s more of an issue and other times it isn’t, but the precepts encourage me to keep working on this. The process of being aware of and working on this has made me a lot stronger and clearer, and I’ve definitely seen improvement. The attachment isn’t nearly as strong as years ago.

2.1 The ultimate goal

  • 2.1.1 For the Dharma to be forever sustained

    The tenth advantage, which is the ultimate goal, is to sustain the Dharma forever. I find this interesting; when I first heard it I thought, “Why didn’t the Buddha say that the ultimate goal is for me to become enlightened?” Then, I realized that Dharma practice is not just about me being enlightened. Dharma practice is about sustaining the Dharma so that others have access to it. We sustain the Dharma through our own practice, by realizing it and generating bodhisattva qualities in ourselves. We also sustain the Dharma by sharing it with other people. The Vinaya lineage especially needs to be preserved and passed on to others, so that ordination can act as the basis of people’s practice for generations to come and so that monastics can continue to preserve the body of the Buddha’s teachings. The Dharma must be sustained internally as well as externally.

    Understanding this is important because oftentimes we Westerners come to the Dharma with the unconscious attitude, “What can I get out of Dharma? What’s it going to do for me? How can it help me with my problems and my unhappiness? It’s fair enough that we begin Dharma practice with that attitude, because we have problems and are seeking a remedy. But, after practicing awhile, we begin to see that the purpose isn’t just for ourselves. We have access to the precious teachings because other people kept them alive for twenty-six centuries, because millions of others practiced the Dharma over the last 2,600 years, because they put in the effort and generated the realizations—the doctrine of insight—and because they sustained the verbal doctrine—the Buddha’s words and scriptures.

    Because they did that, the Dharma still exists in the world. I just came along, bumped into it, and received so much benefit. We begin to see, “I received so much benefit because of the kindness of others. Thus I also want to help preserve the Dharma so that other people will receive benefit from it.” This understanding energizes us to assume responsibility for actualizing the teachings and creating the structures so that the Dharma will continue to exist and other people can benefit. If we just think about what we can get from the Dharma and not what we can give of the Dharma, then the transmission of the teachings will not be here for others. Nor will it be here for us should we be born as a human being in our future lives. So, preserving and sustaining the Dharma forever is very important.

The six harmonies

I’d like to speak about the sangha community. The Buddha wanted us to live together in community for a reason. He gave guidelines for how to make community life beneficial for the members individually as well as collectively. In this regard, he spoke of six areas in which the sangha should work to be harmonious:

  1. Harmony in the body: living together peacefully
  2. Harmony in oral communication: avoiding disputes
  3. Harmony in the mind: appreciating and supporting each other
  4. Harmony in the precepts: observing the same precepts
  5. Harmony in views: sharing the same beliefs
  6. Harmony in welfare: enjoying benefits equally

1. Physical Harmony

Harmony in the body or physical harmony means we live together peacefully and with mutual respect. We don’t physically harm each other, nor do we disturb others with our physical behavior. When we live together, we follow the schedule, rather than do our own trip whenever we want to. Elders who have had much experience with living in community and training juniors set up a schedule that will help the community and the individuals. It may not be exactly the schedule we would like, but giving up our own self-centered preferences to live harmoniously with others is part of our practice.

We arrive at events on time. We enter a room and sit down quietly. We close doors gently. We clean up after ourselves. We return things that we borrow and put things back in their place after we use them. We help serve other members of the community. Many of these things are common manners, but you’d be surprised how often we overlook them and the amount of difficulty such behavior can provoke in a community.

2. Verbal Harmony

Verbal harmony means developing good communication skills and avoiding disputes. And when disputes do arise, we resolve them. Most of our disputes are oral. Speech is very powerful. We should change the rhyme we learned as children to “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words hurt more than you can ever know.” How can we avoid disputes and resolve the ones that do occur? Let’s look at that part in ourselves that likes to quarrel and get a rise out of someone else. Let’s observe that part of ourselves that wants to get our own way and that part of ourselves that blames other people when we’re unhappy. To try to create harmony in the community, rather than dump our aggravation and frustration on others by saying that it’s their fault, we have to look at our own mind and ask, “What are my buttons? What are my issues?”

One of the benefits of living in community is that our own issues are right in front of us, because we live with others who we would probably never live with otherwise. From the outside, people look at monastics and say, “How come you all dress the same, you all have the same haircut? You must all think the same, because you follow the same religion.” Is that true? No way! We monastics have such different personalities and ways of doing things. In lay life, if we don’t get along with someone, we go home and our family is there. They love and support us, so it’s ok. But, in a monastery we live with others who we would never work with, let alone marry! We go to puja with them, share a room with them, work with them. We can never get away from them.

So, when people say someone gets ordained to escape from problems, I say, “I wish it were so easy!” Instead, we enter a community, and someone wipes the dishes in a way we don’t like. We can’t stand it! All of a sudden how people wipe the dishes becomes incredibly important and we think, “I’ve got to teach them how to wipe the dishes correctly, because otherwise they’ll spread germs and everyone will get sick. I’ll give everybody lessons on how to wipe the dishes, and everyone better do it my way because I’m right!” What happens then? We get into quarrels because someone says, “I don’t like your way of wiping dishes. It’s wrong. You should do it this way instead.” Offended, we replay, “What do you mean my way of wiping the dishes is wrong?” and it goes on from there, doesn’t it? There we are.

That’s why living together is so helpful for transforming our mind, because we’re right in front of all of this stuff and we can’t run away from it or pretend it isn’t there. Speech is powerful, and we can immediately see that our uncontrolled speech makes others miserable. In addition, when we’ve hurt others’ feelings or denigrated them, we don’t feel great afterwards either. Not only are we unhappy with ourselves after we’ve dumped our frustration on somebody, but he or she doesn’t like us and will avoid us in the future. In addition, we’re embarrassed because others in the community saw us lose it. So, after a while we automatically start to think, “Maybe I have to do something with my speech.” This is when we really engage in practice. We start observing how we speak to others, why we say what we do. We begin to check if we are careful to express what we mean. We notice our negative habits of speech that provoke disharmony: only when we recognize them can we start to change them.

Each of us has his or her own negative habits of speech. We may exaggerate a lot. We don’t mean to lie—well, sometimes we do—but many times we just exaggerate. We tell the story in a certain way, consciously emphasizing some details and overlooking others. Some of us have distorted a story so that we look pure and the other person doesn’t look so good.

Others of us talk behind people’s backs. I have a problem and am angry at somebody, so I go and tell my friend, “So-and-so did this and that! Can you believe it?!” I let you know how awful she is, and since you’re my friend, then you’ll say, “Oh you’re right Chodron and she’s wrong.” I may not be consciously thinking to turn you against her or to win you over to my side, but that’s the effect of my speech. And if I look closer, I may see that, in fact, I do want you to shun the person I’m mad at.

Then, I recognize, “Of the four negative acts of speech; that’s divisive speech. Oops! I’m making others feel distant from each other in an attempt to find solace for my anger. That’s not so cool for others and it also doesn’t free me from my bad feeling. Hummm, maybe I have to look at my anger.”

Some of us have the habit of teasing other people about their sensitive points, or we ridicule others or shout at them. We say a lot of cruel things that hurt others’ feelings. We’re not like the previous person who goes and complains about someone to a third party. Rather, we tell the person in front of us what a jerk they are. Living in community, we notice our behavior and then have to do something about it.

Some of us talk all the time. It’s a silent retreat, but we feel that silence is for everybody else but us, so we talk because what we have to say is very important. We must say, “Why don’t you line your shoes up straight?” I have to talk during silent retreat because there’s this very important thing I have to tell everybody.

Others like joking all the time, so whether it’s appropriate or not, we crack jokes and make others laugh. Or we are very loud and walk into the room saying, “Hi everybody, here I am,” and draw attention to ourselves. Many of our verbal habits can disturb others.

When we practice to live together with harmony in oral communication, we start to see all these things. That’s very good. We shouldn’t get upset when we see these but instead recognize, “Great! I’m seeing my junk. Now I have a chance to do something about it. I have a chance to correct it.”

When we live together in community, we get to know each other very well because we see each other first thing in the morning and at all other times of the day. Some people are grumpy in the morning, some are grumpy in the afternoon, some of us are grumpy in the evening. When we live together, we see each other often—when we’re in a good mood, when we’re in a bad mood, when we’re sick, when we’re healthy, after somebody has praised us, after somebody has criticized us—so we get to know each other extremely well. That helps us drop our airs and our images. Either we let go, or we cling to our images and deny that people see our faults. A good quality to develop is to be able to acknowledge, “Yes, I do get grumpy when I’m tired. I live with these people and they know that about me. I have no excuses and can’t blame anyone else. I accept this fault in myself and am working on it. My friends know this.”

When we’re willing to be transparent and acknowledge our faults to ourselves and to everybody else, something inside of us relaxes. We stop feeling like we have to look like a perfect nun or monk. We stop feeling we’re a square peg that has to get into a round hole. We just admit, “I have a lot of rough edges and the community is the sandpaper that wears them down. When I acknowledge my junk, I let go of attachment to reputation, and it helps me work on these things.” Transparency creates a special kind of closeness with each other. When we live together we become very close. Even the people in the community that we don’t like so much, we still feel close to them because we know them well and share a common experience. We go through ups and downs together and stop trying to hide ourselves from others. This creates a special bond, don’t you think?

3. Mental harmony

The third harmony is harmony in the mind, which means appreciating and supporting each other. It’s so important that sangha members appreciate and support each other. Why? Because when we appreciate and support other sangha, we’re appreciating and supporting the part in ourselves that practices the Dharma. We can look at another person and say, “Wow, that person has firm ethical integrity. I rejoice.” Or, “This person has faith in the Three Jewels,” “So-and-so genuinely wants to work on themselves,” “This person’s practice is going well. I know because I’ve seen them change.” When we do this, we’re rejoicing in their virtue, rather than having the painful mind that compares ourselves to others, competes with them, or judges them. When we can appreciate good qualities in others, we are able to appreciate those same qualities in ourselves. When we appreciate that others can be monastics and not be perfect, we appreciate that we can be a monastic and not be perfect and that there’s still something good in what we’re doing.

It’s especially important that Western sangha respect each other. Many Westerners have the attitude, “If you’re Tibetan, you’re holy, but if you’re Western, you grew up with Mickey Mouse like me, so you don’t know much.” When we consciously or subconsciously think like this, we are implicitly feeling, “I don’t know much and can’t practice because I’m a Westerner.” But, if we respect other Western practitioners, we respect and encourage our own potential as well. This is very important so that we have the confidence to practice the path continually.

Last year I was asked to give a talk to the sangha, and somebody asked how we can encourage laypeople to respect the sangha more. I said that we have to respect the sangha more! Especially as Westerners, if we respect each other, then we’re setting an example. If we only respect Tibetans and in particular, Tibetan males, then how are we going to respect ourselves? If we don’t respect ourselves, our culture, our potential, then how can others?

We’re not seeking respect. That’s not the issue. Other people’s respect does not get us to enlightenment. They can respect us up, down, and across and we can still get reborn in the lower realms. The point is that we learn to respect the good qualities in ourselves and in others.

4. Harmony in the precepts

The fourth harmony is harmony in the precepts, which means that we have voluntarily chosen to live together and observe the same precepts. It’s not that I keep some precepts and you keep other precepts. It’s not that you should keep this precept, but I don’t need to. No, we all keep the precepts together. That creates harmony in the community.

5. Harmony in views

Fifth is harmony in views. We share the same views, the same beliefs, and the same refuge in the Three Jewels. We’re all trying to generate the determination to be free, bodhicitta, and the wisdom realizing emptiness. We have the same worldview, a similar understanding of karma and its effects, suffering, its origins, its cessation, and the path to that. We have the same views, the same aspirations, and that makes a community very harmonious and close in a special way. If we come into the sangha community and say, “Buddhism is very nice, but everybody should study psychology which is more important than Buddhism,” then we’re not going to be very harmonious living in that community. Psychology has benefits, but the basic view that we share as monastics is our refuge and our aspiration for enlightenment. We have to make sure that we stick to what we chose to do and not think, “Now that I’m a monastic, I’ll study Hinduism or psychology as my principal interest.” That won’t work if we’re going to be harmonious in our views.

Within our similar views, we certainly have a divergence of opinions. That’s what debate is about. We discuss and debate. I’m not saying that we should make ourselves believe something we don’t believe. That doesn’t do any good. But, because of our similar aspiration for enlightenment, we’re trying to generate the correct view. Thus we have heated debate about that correct view so that we can refine our discernment of it.

6. Harmony in welfare

The sixth is harmony in welfare. That is, we enjoy the benefits—the resources offered to the community—equally. In the Western sangha, this has been quite difficult until now. Each of us is responsible for supporting ourselves, and as a result there are rich monastics and poor monastics because some people have savings while others don’t; some receive money from their family while others don’t; some receive offerings from teaching, while others don’t. Personally, I don’t think this way is right. It’s not how the Buddha set up the monastic system. He didn’t make it so we each have our own benefactor and those with wealthy benefactors fly around the world to attend many teachings, while those who don’t have a benefactor go to work in a Dharma center cleaning the floors. That’s not how the Buddha set up the sangha. I think we need to try to share resources more equally among the sangha.

It’s very nice that Tushita lets the monastics stay here on a dana basis. When I was first ordained, we were charged the same amount as everyone else, and that made it very difficult. But, ideally we should not have private property (except for the thirteen items allowed in the Vinaya) and private money. We monastics should share money equally. Of course, that depends on living in a community, which many Western sangha do not wish to do.

Until we are in a situation where we do not have private money and are supported by the community, we should help each other. If you’re a monastic who happens to have more finances, help some of the others who don’t. I say that because I was one of the poor monastics and was very grateful for the help extended by other monastics. One time when I lived in France, Lama Yeshe was teaching in Italy, and the center was charging sangha to attend the teachings. I didn’t have enough money for the fees, let alone for the train ticket there. Lama Yeshe is one of my gurus, and I didn’t have enough money to go to his teaching! One Dutch nun kindly offered me some money so I could go to the teaching. I remember this with much appreciation. It was over twenty years ago but I’m still aware that due to her kindness I was able to attend those important teachings.

The system shouldn’t be as it is, with monastics being charged to attend teachings at Dharma centers and with there being different classes of monastic—rich and poor. But at the moment it is like that, so until we get ourselves together in communities, we should try to help each other.

When offerings are distributed, everybody should get the same amount. In the Tibetan system, this isn’t always done. If you’re sitting on the stage and have a title, you usually get double or triple the amount than everyone else. The way the Buddha set it up in Vinaya is that everybody gets the same amount of offerings. If something is distributed, it doesn’t matter whether you’re highly realized or not, whether you’ve been ordained a long time or a short time. Whoever you are, you share equally in the offering. I’m saying this so that in case you’re ever making offerings, this is how they should be distributed. It creates harmony in the community because no one is privileged. Everyone is equal.

Gen Lobsang Gyatso, who used to be the principal at the Dialectic School, was exemplary in this regard. As the principal, he could have had the monks cook him special food that was better than what everyone else was eating. He could have better quality clothes and special this and that. But he ate the same dal-bhat (rice and dal) that all the other monks at the school did. He lived in the same unheated rooms like the other monks did. He was a very good example of a monk who lived simply and did not take the perks that he could have.

The harmony of sharing equally creates a special energy in a sangha. Other sangha are very precious for us in our practice. The deepest part of ourselves is our spiritual yearning and aspiration, isn’t it? That’s why we got ordained. So few people in the world understand this. Very often, our family can’t even understand it. So when we meet other people who understand that part of us, let’s recognize how precious those people are. That’s the value of being around other monastics. Whether we like them or don’t, whether we get along or don’t, under the surface we have a common passion for the spiritual path. Thus we can trust each other on that level and help each other.

Those of us who chose as adults to be monastics are aware of our spiritual yearning. If you’re put in a monastery at a young age, you’re not so aware of that part of yourself. But those who were ordained as adults got ordained for a reason. We chose it. That’s something we can cherish in each other and support in each other. It creates a very good feeling.

As we grow old together as monastics, we get to know each other very well. Many of the senior Western monastics have known each other for well over twenty years. If you ever got us together and had us tell stories about what we were like, you’d be amazed. We were quite a crew, let me tell you! But we’ve been the same group of people practicing together all these years, going through all the ups and downs. There’s something very nice about it. It’s great to see old Dharma friends. We’re scattered all around the world, but when we bump into each other at an airport or a Dharma teaching, a closeness is there because we know and appreciate something special about that person: their spiritual aspirations.

We sit in ordination order, so we sit near the same people year after year. Once, I was sitting in a teaching thinking that I don’t like the nun on my left because of blah blah blah, and I don’t like the nun on my right because of blah blah blah. One day it hit me that I’m going to be sitting next to this one and that one until the day I die, so I’d better do something with my mind because there is no way I’ll be able to avoid them. We’re glued together in ordination.

Geshe Tegchok used to say to us, “You look up the line of sangha and find fault with each person, ‘This one gets up late and that one eats too much. That one doesn’t close the door quietly,’ and you look down the line and find fault with each person, ‘That one is bad tempered, and this one has too much attachment. That one is always late for puja.’ You find something to criticize about everyone. Does that attitude make you happy? What kind of karma do you create with it?”

When we recognize that we’re going to be sitting with these people until we die, and maybe even in the next life too, then we realize we have to find a way to get along with them. We can’t make them change to be what we want them to be. We have to get along with them by changing the way we look at them, or by approaching them and discussing the situation so we can work it out.

As I worked on my mind, my view of people changed. Later, when I went to another sangha gathering, I was still sitting between the same two people, but I thought, “This one can translate Tibetan. I can’t even speak Tibetan and she’s able to translate. That’s fantastic. She knows much more than I do and she teaches. Great! And the one on the other side is very artistic, and she has offered much service to our teacher.” I was able to see some good qualities in these people. Changing our attitudes so we can get along with people is a big part of our practice.

Despite the quarrels I’d had with one of them, she came to talk to me once when she was having some difficulties in another area. I was touched and thought, “Wow, we’ve been through a lot together and she knows that she can trust me.”

There’s the story about a layperson saying to another sangha member, “What’s with this nun? She’s been ordained a long time, and she’s still so bad tempered. How can you be a nun and be so disagreeable?” The other sangha member replied, “You should have seen what she was like before!” So, we see others grow and change and work with their stuff, and they see us work with your stuff and progress too. Dharma works when we practice it.

Question and answer session

There’s time for some questions.

Question: To live in the harmony that you described, it’s best to live in one place, and right now many of us don’t have this opportunity. It is easy to keep running away from our attachment and the difficulties we have with others. When will we have monastic communities in the West?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): When we set them up. No one else is going to do it for us. If we expect our teacher or somebody else to do it for us, forget it! We have to set up monastic communities. We have to work together to do what it takes to set up a community—many communities, actually. We’re going to need different kind of communities for different people, because not everyone wants to do things in the same way. Some want to study more; some want to meditate more; some want to do more public service.

We need to work together to form the communities. It takes a certain amount of self-sacrifice to do that, because when we start something, we have to do many things that we may not find so interesting or spiritually inspiring. I know this from experience. We’ve just decided to begin Sravasti Abbey at Liberation Park, and over the last few months, I’ve had to write articles of incorporation, which is boring, to write bylaws, which is even more boring, to apply for an IRS tax exempt status, to talk about options on land. My parents thought they would never hear their daughter ask a question about real estate! My parents know about real estate and as a kid, I was disinterested and tuned it out completely. Now I’m asking, “Mom and Dad, what’s an option on land? What do you do to get one?”

If you want to start a community you have to learn about zoning, architecture, and heating. You have to think how to create a place that is going to be the kind of community you want to live in. Many of us don’t want to do all this work. We’d rather sit at the holy feet of our guru and get as many teachings as possible and then meditate. If we have to work in a Dharma center, we will do a little bit. We think, “Leave me alone so I can go study about bodhicitta! I’m working for the benefit of all sentient beings. Stop bugging me and asking me to do all this work!” Some people get really into their Dharma practice in the name of being a dedicated practitioner, and then say, “I don’t want to do the leg work. I don’t want to do the boring work or the manual work, because I want to practice Dharma.”

When we’re first ordained we need to get good Dharma education. We need to train well and cultivate a monastic’s mind. But we must avoid becoming fixated on “my Dharma practice” and “my enlightenment.” We have to be willing to work hard and set up communities so that the Dharma can be sustained for future generations. No one else is going to do this for us.

We have to prepare ourselves to take on responsibility. When we’re a new monk or nun, we can’t start a community because we don’t yet know what being a monk or nun means. We have to learn the Vinaya and the Dharma. We have to train and practice, and at the same time, reach out and help to the extent that we can. Our ability to help will increase over the years.

Not everyone likes to be a leader or has to be one. A good leader is only as effective as his or her followers. So if we aren’t the one to start a monastic community, we can be supportive. Leaders and supporters are dependent on each other. It’s not that the leaders are important and the supporters aren’t. If you’re a leader and the supporters don’t support you, what can you do? Nothing, except twiddle your thumbs and dream. So even if we can’t initiate projects ourselves, we can contribute, support, and help those who do to set up a community.

One of the most difficult things about establishing or living in a community is that we need to work with the others there. Sometimes we’d prefer to meditate on compassion for all sentient beings, but not have to actually be with them. They can be so troublesome, sometimes, can’t they? They don’t agree with our ideas; they have other ways of doing things!

Many people would love to live in a community, but they’d like others to do the hard work of establishing it and running it. Many of us come to a community with the idea “What can this community do for me?” instead of “What can I do for this community?” Remember JFK said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” It’s the same with the sangha community. We need to go in with the wish and energy to contribute, instead of a consumer mentality of what we can get out of the community.

Question: Among older sangha like you, is that mindset to take responsibility and help new sangha and future generations of sangha beginning to spread because those of us who are new don’t know anything?

VTC: It depends on the individual. Many people are busy with other projects—teaching at a center, traveling and teaching at centers or leading retreats. They want to put their energy into these valuable projects, and there is a great need to help the laypeople. But there are a lot of Dharma centers now, and there aren’t many monasteries. The Dharma centers for laypeople in the West are well established, and there are so many of them. I think that now it’s time for us to have some monasteries also.

Question: Do people in the Dharma centers feel the need for having Western sangha?

VTC: Yes. They want Western sangha to teach courses, lead meditations, and work in the centers. But unfortunately, not all laypeople want to support the sangha so that we can receive the education and training that are important to have before going to work in a center. There’s such a demand for sangha that often new sangha, who aren’t well-grounded in the Dharma, let alone in monastic life, are sent to teach or work in centers. Sometimes the pressure and expectations on these new sangha are too great, and they wind up disrobing, which is unfortunate. If people could have a more long-term perspective, they’d realize that it’s better to let someone train, study, and practice at the beginning. Then, that person will have the ability to assume a role of responsibility.

Question: We recently had the preordination course, and there was a lot of discussion about support for the sangha, the relationship between students and teachers, and sangha’s hesitation to ask laypeople in the centers for support. It seems like the teachings given to the laypeople don’t emphasize the importance of supporting the sangha who are in training. Conditions need to be put in place for positive results to come about.

VTC: The laypeople need to be educated about the benefit of supporting the sangha. Most lamas don’t often say this, or if they do, they stress supporting the Tibetan monasteries, not the Western sangha. That’s where their loyalty is; that’s where their community is. They often think that if you’re a Westerner you must have money, so the Western sangha doesn’t need benefactors. That is far from the truth.

Laypeople need to be educated on how the Buddha set up the relationship of monastics and laypeople. It’s one of mutual interdependence: the sangha help by giving teachings and the laypeople help by giving material support. That way everybody benefits and everybody practices together. Sometimes Western sangha are embarrassed to teach this because laypeople might mistakenly think they’re saying, “Give me something,” when that’s not what you mean at all. Therefore I think it’s very helpful when senior lay students who know how things should be say that to newcomers and remind older students as well.

In addition, the sangha needs to act properly in order to deserve the offerings and the respect of the laypeople. I’ve sometimes see newly ordained people act arrogantly and have many false expectations. They have the attitude, “I’m ordained now, so you should move aside so that I can sit in front. You should bring me tea. You should do this and that for me.” If someone goes into a Dharma center with a pompous attitude, laypeople are not going to react positively, and for good reason.

Question: We seem to be in a double bind in that people don’t have adequate training before they’re ordained and then we’re not creating the causes to be supported once we are ordained. Somehow that cycle has got to be changed.

VTC: The new monastics need to learn to be humble and appreciative, not demanding or arrogant. Laypeople need to learn the value of supporting those who are practicing in this way, because they will be the ones who will become teachers later. Or even if they don’t teach, they will lead retreats or give spiritual counseling to others. In any case, they will become good examples of people leading ethical lives.

When we ordain, we give something up, don’t we? We give up financial security. We give up having the best quality things. We give up the emotional security and sexual pleasure of romantic relationships. We give up having children to love us and care for us when we’re old. If, in our hearts, we truly give these things up, then people will think, “This person has given something up for the Dharma. They sincerely want to practice. I want to make sure they have enough food so they can do that.”

But if sangha don’t live simply, if they go to the cinema, if they frequently are seen going shopping, then why should the laypeople support us? As renounced beings, we sangha should live simply. We don’t need TVs, we don’t need five sets of robes. We just need a change of clothes. We shouldn’t be listening to music, reading lots of magazines, or surfing the Web for the latest interesting thing. We don’t need our own car. We should have just what we need to live in the place where we live. We don’t need wall decorations and knickknacks; we don’t need to decorate our room with photographs of our family, souvenirs from trips, artwork, and collector’s items. We don’t need a toaster and a blender and a microwave and an electric frying pan and the newest gadget in our kitchen. We have what we need to cook and that’s it. We don’t need the best or fanciest things.

Simplicity can be very comfortable and rewarding. It’s not deprivation. It’s an uncluttering of our life that allows us to do what is important—our spiritual practice—without many hindrances.

Question: Don’t many of the Chinese monastics have their own cars? Did you notice this when you were in Taiwan for your ordination?

VTC: The monastics who live in communities don’t have their own cars. The monastery as a whole may have a vehicle that is used for monastery business, not for private trips here and there.

The Chinese Buddhists have a one- or two-month program in which they train candidates before they are ordained. It’s excellent. It’s very disciplined and hard—at least the one I attended was—but it is very worthwhile. In it, they instruct us to live simply. They don’t speak well of the monastics who live on their own, drive their own car, do funeral services and collect a lot of money from it. Rather, they encourage people to study and practice, and then to serve the community they live in as well as the lay community.

Question: What if you live in a town that doesn’t have good public transportation?

VTC: I live in Seattle, which doesn’t have good public transportation, and I don’t have a car. I don’t want a car. Where do I need to go? I go to the Dharma center, which is a little over a mile away. I walk there before class, and someone gives me a ride home. Sometimes I need to go to the post office, which is a half hour walk each way. The supermarket is a ten-minute walk. One of the laypeople helps out and does the grocery shopping for me, but if I run out of something, I walk to the supermarket. Where else do I need to go? There’s a public library a half hour’s walk away. I walk in the rain; it’s not impossible. I just put on a jacket and take an umbrella. If another group invites me to teach, they provide transportation. I don’t go to movies. I don’t go out to eat unless someone invites me. I don’t have a job so I don’t go to work. I have no need or desire for a car.

I stay at home and write on the computer. If people want counseling, they come to see me. I get exercise by walking in the park nearby or by walking to the Dharma center. I’m happy with that.

If we have a car, then we have car payments and insurance. Then we’re driving here and there, and other people ask us to do errands for them. If we have a car, it’s easy for the consumer mind to jump in thinking, “I could use this, and I need that.” Or “I’m here so I’ll just go ahead and get that. It’s only something little.” Then we basically end up living like a layperson. No wonder the laypeople don’t respect the sangha. They say, “Your place looks just like mine. You have a car. You have a middle-class lifestyle and do everything I do. Why should I support you?”

If we live simply, if we live in a community where people can see us studying, practicing, and keeping pure ethical discipline, then they will want to support us. Our life style will be something that inspires them and that they respect.

A community can have a communally owned car. It’s not one person’s personal property and is used for activities that benefit the community. It can’t be used on impulse by one individual who is dissatisfied and wants to go into town to buy something in order to distract themselves.

The various Buddhist traditions have different views on whether or not sangha can drive. In the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tibetan tradition, monastics can drive. In the Theravada tradition, they don’t drive. I don’t drive because I don’t want to take the chance of accidentally harming another sentient being in a car accident. Also, I don’t drive because I don’t want the hassle of having and maintaining a car—making car payments and buying insurance and so forth. And, I don’t need a car.

As ordained people, we shouldn’t be out after dark anyway unless we’re going to teach or lead a meditation. If we’re going to do a Dharma activity like that, the people we’re teaching can give us a ride.

Question: Could you say more about having money? I have money, and I find it difficult to know where to draw the line about spending it. What’s a monastic mind about when to go get a package of biscuits?

VTC: Technically speaking, we’re not supposed to handle money. It’s one of our precepts. If we don’t handle money, then that can help dampen our craving for biscuits because we know we can’t just go to town and get some.

However, nowadays, it’s pretty difficult not to handle money. Thus, the question becomes, “How do we handle money wisely?” One way is, if we live in a community, we don’t have our own cash on hand. If we go shopping, we’re buying things for the community and using community money. Thus we have to be responsible because we’re spending the sangha’s money. We can’t go out and buy whatever our whims tell us to. Whatever money gets spent, it’s spent for the community. Hopefully, laypeople can help with shopping and driving.

If you live on your own, spending money is self regulatory. You have to set parameters and stick to them. One idea is to make a list of what you need at the store and then buy just that. Don’t buy anything that isn’t on your list. That cuts down on indulging the craving that arises from seeing things in the store.

I have an advantage. I hate shopping. When I was a little kid, my mom would want to take me shopping to buy things and I hated shopping. I find it boring and confusing. There are so many things to choose from in the West, so the mind starts to operate overtime wondering, “What will make me most happy? This? That? How can I get the most pleasure?” For me, that mental state trying to eke out the most happiness makes me confused. So if I need a pair of socks, I ask a layperson who has previously volunteered to help me to please get some socks. Whatever they get me, I wear. Giving up some of our choices helps us to practice being content with whatever we have.

We can ask ourselves what we need within the remembrance that we chose to live a life of simplicity as the Buddha advised. We can have the things we need, and we should keep our body healthy. Let’s not go on an some ascetic trip—that wasn’t the Buddha’s way either. Whenever someone at Kopan would be super-ascetic, Lama Yeshe would scold them. On the other hand, we don’t need the best bed, the softest quilt, lots of shoes, furniture, or the latest digital gadgets. We can have just what we need. As long as it’s functional, it doesn’t need to be beautiful and attractive. If we’re doing the shopping, we get what is functional and practical. If someone gives us the item, we use that. When people give us things we don’t need, we give them away. We don’t stockpile them. It doesn’t seem right to know that people are starving in the world when a monastic, who has chosen to cultivate compassion, has a closet stuffed with things they don’t use or need.

Regarding getting a package of biscuits, if I’m craving them, I’ll get a package and then offer it on the altar. Or I’ll get two packages and offer one and eat one.

The point is, we eat what we need to eat, we have what we need to live, but we don’t need luxury and excess. If we live simply and are satisfied, think of what an example that becomes to people in the West who are searching for happiness from external things. People there have so much stuff and they’re still not happy. When they see people who live simply and are happy, it makes them stop and think. We can give lots of Dharma talks about how sense pleasures don’t bring happiness, but our actions speak louder than all these words. If we’re a happy person, that tells people that Dharma works.

I feel that the place where I’m currently living is a bit too luxurious for what I need. The Dharma center supports me as their resident teacher, so they pay the rent on the apartment. In my eyes, the furniture and other things in the apartment belong to the center, and they are letting me use it. I don’t see it as “mine.” There’s a microwave because a person insisted on getting me one even though I said I didn’t want it. The next year the same person wanted to get me a television, and I absolutely refused! What do I need a television for? Our monastic precepts prohibit listening to music or watching entertainment. Why did the Buddha prohibit these? Because they agitate our mind. I see that very clearly when I examine my own experience. Music and entertainment don’t bring happiness, they just make me distracted and agitated. In addition, they take up time that we could be using to study, practice, or offer service. If someone wants to watch entertainment or listen to music, I think it’s better for them to remain a layperson. But we got ordained because we want to do away with those distractions. We want to use our life for a higher purpose.

Another method that helps me live simply is to give away anything that I haven’t used in a year. If I’ve gone through all four seasons and haven’t used something, then I don’t really need it, and it’s time to give it away. Sometimes the right person to give something to isn’t there, so I keep the article until someone is there. For example, if I have an extra shamtab, I have to wait until I see another sangha member it would fit to give it away.

As sangha, we shouldn’t have any lay clothes. When we get ordained we should give away all of our lay clothes. There’s no need for us to travel in lay clothes. Some people say, “I have to wear lay clothes because others stare at me if I wear robes.” I disagree. I’ve traveled over the world wearing my robes—Mainland China, the former soviet republics, Israel, Latin America, the USA, and so on. Sometimes people stare at me, but it’s no big deal. Other times, people come up and ask me if I know the Dalai Lama, and we have a conversation on spiritual practice. Once in a while, when I’m walking in the park or down a street, someone will compliment me on my nice “outfit” or say how nice I look with that hairdo! They’re not being facetious, they’re sincere. I say “Thank you,” and if they want to talk, I stop to chat with them.

The only time I didn’t wear my robes was the first time I went to see my parents after ordination. Lama told me not to because my mother would have started crying in the airport. So that was wise. The only other time was when I entered the Beijing airport. I thought it might not be too cool to show up in Tibetan robes. However, I changed into my robes once I was in the country.

When the occasional person stares at me, I smile back, and they relax. When others see we’re friendly, even if we dress in unusual clothes, they will be friendly back. Now it’s much easier to travel in robes than in 1977 when I was ordained. His Holiness has traveled to so many places, and now people recognize the robes. One time, I got off a plane in a US city, and the flight personnel at the gate said “Tashi delek” to me!

I don’t wear my zen when traveling because it falls off. Instead I wear a maroon jacket or sweater. I have a Chinese style jacket. The Chinese style robes are much more practical because the jackets have pockets. You actually have a place to put your tissue and Chapstick. Ven. Wu Yen made several of these jackets in maroon and gave them to Western bhikshunis. In teaching, I don’t wear sleeves, but in the city, it’s more convenient to wear a jacket. Also, I feel more comfortable being covered up. Our jackets and sweaters should be simple. No trim. No fancy this or that.

Question: In the monastic community you’re beginning, how will the monastics be supported? What will you do until there is an adequate number of lay supporters?

VTC: In Sravasti Abbey at Liberation Park, the community will support the resident monastics. When I lived at Dorje Pamo Monastery in France in the early ’80s, the nuns had to pay to live there. We started the community in a horse stable. The nuns had their choice of troughs! How is a monastic supposed to keep her vows if she has come up with enough money to pay to live at the monastery? It’s very difficult. At Sravasti Abbey, we will request lay supporters to donate to the monastic community, not to individuals. In that way everyone will share the resources equally, as the Buddha wanted, and we’ll avoid having rich monastics and poor ones. The lay people will support the community, and the community will support the individual resident monastics. Then, instead of everyone feeling they have to fend for themselves, they will have a feeling of care and responsibility for the community as a whole.

The Abbey is not going to be a crash pad for monastics. It’s not going to be, “I’m ordained so I deserve to live there. Give me a room and feed me.” We want to have a community, not an assembly of individuals. When people come to the Abbey, it will be because they want to live in a community and they want monastic training. They want to live together, they want to learn together, and they care about the community. Laypeople who are thinking of ordaining can come and stay for a while to see if the community suits them and if they suit the community. It’s similar with people who are already ordained. They will live there on a trial basis for a year before becoming a resident monastic. Everyone will share the work of the community and follow the daily schedule. As I said, it isn’t a crash pad where people can do whatever they like.

Monastics should be able to practice without worrying about money. Thinking about how to support oneself is a distraction from practice, and it’s a tragedy when monastics can’t attend teachings because they don’t have the money to travel or to pay the fees. Traditionally, Dharma teachings have been given freely, without charges, and people have made offerings to teachers and sangha. Personally, I’d like us to continue that system in the West. If certain people find that not possible and charge to attend teachings, then at least they should allow the sangha to attend free.

Question: What do you think about monastics working in service professions. Isn’t that kind of a compromise, whereby they offer service but also earn money to live?

VTC: I feel very strongly that monastics should not work at a job. If we want to do service work in the broader community, we should volunteer. I want my life to be one of generosity where I work or teach without asking for a salary, and people will offer what they wish. I don’t want to start thinking, “If I take the job in the hospice, I get paid more than if I work in a school.” Or “I work long hours in the nursing home, they should give me a raise.” I don’t want my mind to become involved in such thoughts. I also don’t want to put on lay clothes. I got ordained so I could live as a nun, so I’m going to do that. I don’t want to live like a layperson.

Sometimes someone will ask me to give a talk, and they don’t know what dana (generosity) is, so they “pay” me by sending a check, and that’s fine. I don’t tell them how much to give. Their school or institute may have a fixed policy regarding honorariums. I’ll give a talk there whether they give me an honorarium or not.

When I was ordained, I made a determination never to go out and get a job no matter how poor I was. Sometimes I’ve been very poor, but I’ve never gone out to work at a job. I felt that if I did that, it would be extremely difficult to keep my precepts. If I put on lay clothes, then I want this nice dress, and I have to grow my hair a bit longer so that I fit in at the workplace. Then I start thinking about how my hair and clothes look. Then there’s this good-looking guy at the place where I work. I’m the only monastic in this city; robes isolate me from others, and I’m lonely. So I might as well disrobe and go off with this guy. And that’s what happens to most people who go out and get jobs, especially new sangha.

Since there are not communities that support monastics at the moment, I advise people who do not have savings to work for a while and save their money before they ordain. Or they should arrange some means of support with friends and family being their benefactors. But, my experience has been that when people go out and work, they can’t keep their precepts for very long. Of course, there are a few exceptions, but generally this is the case.

Why do sangha go out and work? Because they’re not living in a Dharma community or a monastery, they’re living on their own. If you live on your own, you have to pay rent. Therefore, you have to get a job. Then you have to buy the proper kind of clothing to wear to work and you have to get a car to get there. In the evening you’re tired, so you want to watch TV, so you need to buy a TV. Pretty soon, you wind up living like a layperson. There aren’t any or many Dharma people around you to support your practice. So, even if it has drawbacks, I think we should live in a Dharma center where there are other people practicing. Hopefully, there will be a few other monks and nuns there and you can practice and discuss the Dharma with them. Then, as a group, you can request the center’s resident teacher for teachings on Vinaya, the monastic precepts, and monastic rituals.

Hospice work is wonderful, but I think it’s better if you do it as a volunteer, unless there is a specific benefit that others receive by your working as an employee. If someone wants to give you money for that, fine, but that’s not the main reason why you’re doing the work.

It’s similar with teaching the Dharma. If we’re asked to teach, we do it for free. We don’t choose where we go to teach according to how much dana the people there will give us. We go to a place to teach because the people there invited us and they sincerely want to learn the Dharma.

Question: I think that when you have to work, you can still think, “Ok, I got some money from this, and in addition to supporting myself, I can use it for other people and other purposes.” In that way, you’re not taking it only for yourself.

VTC: Yes, that’s better than selfishly keeping the money. However, the question still remains: As a monastic, why aren’t we living with other Dharma people? Why are we living on our own, alone in a city? How are we going to sustain our practice if we’re working at a job with colleagues who have worldly values?

Question: I think it’s better to ask people to help us or be our benefactor.

VTC: It is better to be supported. If we are, then it’s essential that we keep our precepts well and act in a responsible manner. We must use others’ money wisely, otherwise it’s a ticket to the lower realms. If we spend their money frivolously, we are betraying the sincerity and faith with which they offered it.

Question: Going a little further, what about reviving some of the traditions that have disappeared in the Tibetan tradition such as alms rounds? Some Western Theravada monastics went to England. They keep their precepts strictly and thus went out on alms rounds. It proved to be successful. Could we reincorporate some of these Vinaya traditions in the West?

VTC: I think that depends on the monastic community and the individuals in it. It also depends on the people in the area where you live. The Theravada community in California has been there some years, and in the last year they’ve started to go into the town on alms. First they went to places where the people knew them and knew they were coming that day. Other people in the town saw them and gradually got to know them. Now those people, many of whom aren’t Buddhist, give food when they go for alms. They don’t do it every day, maybe once a week or once every other week. It might be possible for us to do that. Or, people could cook and bring food to the monastery. Or they could bring raw ingredients to the monastery. That also creates a nice kind of contact between lay and monastics. We can create some sort of process through which we re-establish the mutual dependency of monastics and laypeople.

Question: One of our teachers in the preordination course has the same resolve you do about not working or wearing lay clothes. He knows that if he doesn’t have any food, the options are to either be hungry or go out and beg with the bowl. We don’t even get a bowl any more. We need to know we have that option. It’s not forbidden.

VTC: No, it’s not forbidden. Nevertheless, this is a culturally sensitive area. For example, in Chinese culture, if you go out and ask for food, you’re regarded as a lousy good-for-nothing. Therefore, in the Chinese tradition monastics don’t go on alms round because people would criticize the sangha for being beggars. There is this attitude in Western culture, too. We have to find an appropriate way to go on alms. For example, we invite the people in the town to the monastery so that they can see what we do. That breaks down barriers and establishes a good relationship with the broader community in which we live. They will know that we live a life of simplicity. Then, later, we can tell them that alms round is an ancient custom that is part of our spiritual practice.

I’m happy to have had this opportunity to discuss the Dharma and Vinaya with you. We are pioneers in bringing the Vinaya to the West, so we need to learn it well and help and support each other in our practice. All of you entered monastic life with a sincere motivation. Come back to this motivation again and again; cultivate it so it increases and becomes firm. Then you will be happy as a monastic, and your life will benefit many sentient beings.

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