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The Buddha-s Philosophy of Personal Relations

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 93: The Buddha's Philosophy of Personal Relations

Friends, Yesterday, as you may remember, we considered the Buddha's philosophy of Right Speech and we studied the Buddhist philosophy of Right Speech in relation to a verse from one of the most famous Buddhist texts, an anthology of verses selected from the scriptures, called the Dhammapada. This Dhammapada, as I explained, was the first Buddhist text to be translated into a European language, in this case Latin, from the original Pali. Now this evening we are going to take up an allied subject, we're going to take up for consideration what we may call the Buddha's philosophy of personal relations, and to illustrate the Buddha's philosophy of personal relations we're going to extract another verse from the Dhammapada and base our explanation, base our exposition, on that. You may remember that our verse yesterday came from the chapter of the thousands, the Sarvagasa, and our verse this evening comes from another chapter called the Pupavaga, which means the chapter of flowers, because each verse mentions, either by way of illustration, or in some other way, a flower of some kind or another, or just flowers in general.

Our verse this evening - the translation incidentally is that of Buddhadata, but later on I shall make one or two emendations our verse this evening reads as follows: 'As the bee takes honey from the flower, leaving its colour and fragrance unharmed, so let the monk go about the village.' Let me read that again so that it really sinks in.

'As the bee takes honey from the flower, leaving its colour and fragrance unharmed, so let the monk go about the village.' Now, we find in the Buddhist scriptures, including the Dhammapada, a number of very beautiful illustrations, metaphors, similes, parables and these are very often drawn from some aspect or another of Indian life: social life, family life, nature and so on. And so it is we find with this verse. This verse conjures up, we may say, a picture very familiar to anyone who has lived very long either in India or in South East Asia, whether Ceylon, or Burma, Thailand, and so on. And the picture is of the monk going for alms in the village. I know I have myself seen this sight many and many a time, and in fact in my own wandering days when I was walking about India, going around on foot from place to place, I had myself this sort of experience which is described here. But I'm going to try and describe it this evening as it were objectively, as though I was seeing, as though I was watching somebody. You usually find in the East, whether it's India, or whether it's Ceylon or Burma, the monks go out for alms very very early in the morning. In India there's no such thing traditionally as lunch, there's no such thing as the midday meal.

People usually eat at about 9 or 9.30. They have what we would call lunch. It's a very very big meal, consisting mainly of rice, and then, in the villages at least, they go off to work in the fields and they don't come back until 5 or 6 in the evening when they eat again. So if the monk wants to fill his bowl or his bag, he has to go out very very early in the morning. So usually not long after dawn you see the monk leaving the monastery and moving very very quietly, very silently along the streets, which might be still deserted, and just going from house to house. The Buddhist custom at least is that when the monk goes to a house for alms he just stands at the door with his begging bowl. He's not supposed to say anything and he's not supposed to ask for anything. He's supposed, in the course of his alms collection tour, as it's called, he's supposed `to remain all the time completely silent. So he just stands at the door and people are usually on the look out for monks coming in this way, so it may be that a little child runs inside and says 'Oh Mummy, the monk is standing outside.' So the mother says, 'all right, ask him to wait,' and she quickly gets together a few spoonfuls of rice, a few spoonfuls of curry, and then goes and puts them in the monk's bowl, and the monk then usually recites a little verse of blessing in Pali, and then he moves on to the next hut, stands again at the door in the same way. And in this way he goes from door to door, from hut to hut, until he has collected enough food, by the way his one meal if he eats only once a day, or for the whole day, enough to last him for the whole day if he intends eating more than once.

So this is the traditional system. One doesn't take the whole meal from any one house; one takes a little from this house and a little from that, and in India even today Hindu Sadhus follow this custom, and it is called matu curri biksha, which means collecting alms just like the bee collects honey. Just as the bee takes a little pollen from this flower and a little pollen from that to make its honey, in the same way the monk takes a little food from one house, a little food from another, and so on, until he has enough. So this is the traditional system. Just as the bee takes what he needs, or what it needs, from the flower, namely the pollen, the honey, in the same way the monk takes, or doesn't even take, accepts whatever he needs to sustain life as he moves from hut to hut, from door to door, and this, as I say, is the traditional system. It's still observed in many parts of the Buddhist world, and certainly observed in India by Hindu Sadhus and sometimes by Buddhist monks as well.

Now traditionally, according to the Buddhist custom, the monk, the bhikshu, is entitled to expect from the lay supporters four things: these are called the four requisites. First of all, of course, there is food. You can't get along without that. Secondly clothing, especially in the form of the saffron robe. Thirdly shelter, either in the form of a temporary hut, or a monastery, or some such arrangement, and fourthly and lastly medicine. When the monk is ordained he is told that these are the four basic things, these are the four essentials and these you have a right to expect and accept from the lay people, but not anything more than this. These are called the four essentials or the four requisites. In other words the idea is, or the principle is, that the monk or the one devoted to the religious life should accept from others, from the lay supporters or the lay devotees, only what is necessary to keep him going so that he can practise his meditations, so that he can teach, and so that he can progress in the direction of enlightenment. So this is the tradition and this is the custom: that the monk accepts from the laity only these four essential things, and accepts them, collects them if you like. So it's like the bee collects pollen to be made into honey from the flowers, just these four things: food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. In modern times of course, I must tell you, a few things have been added, and this is inevitable after 2500 years of Buddhist history. You start off with four things, but it's inevitable, as I say, that a few things should have been added, and the most important thing which has been added in modern times has been books, and these, it is taken for granted, the monk also regards as a sort of fundamental requisite.

But in many parts of the Buddhist world the monk still does lead a very very simple life. In many parts of the Buddhist world you find monks taking one, or at the most two meals a day, living in very simple cottages or even huts, find them just making do with the minimum of clothing, which of course is very easy in a tropical country, and very simple medicines. Traditionally - this is just a point of interest - the monk is supposed to make use of medicine made out of gall-nuts and cow's urine, which is, you may think, a little bizarre, but there is some scientific sense. in it because you can make a sort of ammonia out of cow's urine and this is very good for a number of different medical purposes.

I do remember once when I was staying in Benares about twenty years ago, I happened to fall sick, and one of my correspondents, a monk, a very orthodox Buddhist monk in Ceylon, he wrote to me a very vigorous letter in which he said if you take cow's urine you'll never be sick again in your life! But I didn't take cow's urine; I recovered, and I have been able to keep fairly healthy ever since.

So this is the traditional position, the traditional custom, that the monk accepts from the lay supporters only the basic requisites of life, only those things which suffice to keep him going so that he can get on with his work, preach and teach, meditate, write if he wants to, and so on.

Now, the question which people very often ask, especially in the West, is, well, this is very good, this is a beautiful arrangement from the point of view of the monk: he gets his food, he gets his clothing, he gets his shelter, maybe a beautiful monastery, he gets medicine when he is sick, everything is provided for him so that he can quietly get on either with his studies or with meditations or his literary work or his preaching, but the question which people like to put is, 'What does he do in return? He gets all this, but what does he give? What does he give in return? What does he do in return?' Now the traditional answer to this is that the monk does not do anything in return, absolutely nothing at all. this is the first thing to be understood. He gets all this, he gets food, clothing, he gets accommodation, he gets medicine, he gets books, whatever else may be necessary, but he does absolutely nothing in return, and nobody expects anything in return, and he doesn't have the idea that he should give anything in return.

Now this requires a bit of pondering.

Some time ago, a couple of years ago in fact I think, at Brighton, at a Buddhist meeting, I was asked a question. One of the lay members, one of the lay supporters ...

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