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A Guide for Laypeople

Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ 1: "When a bhikkhu is sick and especially so in emergency cases, is he allowed to be attended to by female medical staff; e.g., female nurse, woman doctor, especially if the woman doctor is the only doctor/surgeon on duty? How does the Vinaya allow for this?"

FAQ 2: "It has been observed that in the Burmese, Sri Lankan, Tibetan and Mahayana traditions, women are allowed to make an offering directly to the monks. Yet Thai Buddhist monks are not allowed to accept offerings directly from women. Is it because it is against the Vinaya rules or a different interpretation of the rules?"

A 1&2: The Vinaya Rule specifies that if a bhikkhu touches or is touched by a woman, it is an offence — a very serious offence — only if the bhikkhu is "overcome by lust, with altered mind." However, the practicing bhikkhu knows that as his mind changes so quickly, he has to be extremely cautious about involving himself in doubtful situations. It is better to be safe than sorry, even if this may seem over scrupulous. In emergency situations the bhikkhu will have to decide for himself and be sure to take care of his thoughts.

In Thailand it is a tradition (not strictly a rule) that the monk uses a receiving cloth to emphasize that there is no touching. (For more about these questions, see Intimacy — Touching, How to make an Offering, and End Note 85.)

FAQ 3: "What is the rule if an eight precepter unintentionally comes into [direct physical] contact with another lay person or eight precepter or ten precepter or monk or nun of opposite gender?"

A: As with the preceding cases with bhikkhus, there is no fault if there is no wrong intention.

FAQ 4: "It is mentioned in the Vinaya rules that a monk is not allowed to reside under the same roof with a woman. How does that apply to multistoried (condominiums, flats, apartments) and multi compartment buildings (terrace houses), where the flats, terrace houses, share one roof?"

A: This has become a complex question with various interpretations because of modern conditions. The spirit of the rule is very important — avoiding possibilities of intimacy — while the interpretation will depend on the monk and the circumstances. In countries without proper monasteries there will always have to be something of a compromise. (See Staying Together for a discussion of this.)

FAQ 5: "The Vinaya rules disallow monks from touching or handling money. As such, in Buddhist countries monks must have a Kappiya [attendant] to handle money for them. However, if a monk has to travel and does not have a Kappiya, under such circumstances do the Vinaya rules allow him to handle money personally? This is a problem especially in non Buddhist countries."

A: While it may be a problem or inconvenience, the rules are there to protect and remind the monk about dangerous, unskillful actions. If the monk becomes increasingly involved with money there is a tendency for the whole of his bhikkhu life to be compromised — and that would be a far greater problem. Soon after the Final Passing Away of the Lord Buddha this sort of question had already become a major controversy and it is now even more complex under modern conditions.

However, modern conditions also have brought their own assistance to keeping these rules. For instance, a bhikkhu can be given an air ticket and travel around the world (if need be) without having any money or attendant. He will need to be met at the airport and helped in the normal way, but that should be natural if he has been invited to come by the lay group. (He should not really be traveling otherwise.) And, of course, a monk can use postage stamps and telephone cards that add convenience to communicating — when it is appropriate. (See the section on Money, especially the Me.n.daka Allowance.)

FAQ 6: "Is there a Vinaya rule that states that once a person becomes a monk, he is not allowed to disrobe? If he is allowed to disrobe, is there anywhere in the Vinaya that sets the maximum number of times he is allowed to do so. If so, under what circumstances is he allowed to disrobe?"

A: I know of no place in the Vinaya that states a bhikkhu cannot disrobe. If he no longer has any interest in the bhikkhu life, the tendency will be for him to become lax and a bad example for others. His Dhamma friends therefore will try to re fire his enthusiasm. However, if that is not possible, becoming a good layman may be better than being a bad monk. (Nevertheless, in some countries there is a cultural expectation of ordaining for life and a corresponding stigma attached to disrobing.) There is a tradition (but not a rule) about a bhikkhu not re ordaining more than seven times. (See Disrobing.)

FAQ 7: "The Vinaya states that monks are not supposed to eat once the sun has passed its zenith. Still, what happens if they are in countries such as regions of the North or South Poles, e.g., Norway, Alaska, where the sun never sets for six months and for the next six months, there is no sun."

A: I understand that the zenith here means when the sun reaches the highest point in its arc across the sky. In most habitable areas of the globe this arc may be low to the horizon but it should still be possible to follow the rule. And if bhikkhus ever reach the polar regions[1] they will have the Great Standards to guide them. (More specifically, see Meal Time for time limits.)

FAQ 8: "It is stated in the Vinaya that when a lay person offers fruit to a monk, he has to make a cut on one of the fruits to make it permissible for the monk to accept. How did this rule originate? Also, lay people, when offering fruit juices to monks after midday, are not allowed to offer fruit juices from fruits larger than the size of a fist. Is this in the Vinaya and why is it so?"

A: At the time of the Buddha, some lay people complained that the monks destroyed the life in seeds. Therefore lay people can be asked by the monk if it is allowable for him to eat those fruits. In some monasteries (not all) this is done by the lay people cutting them. (See Offering Fruit: Kappiya and End Note 91.)

It is the Commentary to the Vinaya that mentions about great fruits. This practice, however, is not followed in every monastery. (See Fruit Juices.)

FAQ 9: "In Thailand, it has been observed that Thai Buddhist monks are allowed to drink tea, cocoa, coffee (but without milk) after midday. But in some other Buddhist countries like Burma, monks are not allowed to do this. Is this part of the Vinaya rules or is this just tradition, custom, or local practice? If it is in the Vinaya, how do you explain the differences in interpretation?"

A: The fourth of the Recollections of the Bhikkhus Requisites is:

"Properly considering medicinal requisites for curing the sick, I use them: simply to ward off any pains of illness that have arisen, and for the maximum freedom from disease."

(OP p.47)

There is an allowance in the Paali texts that medicinal tonics can be taken in the afternoon while lifetime medicines may be consumed any time they are needed. (See Lifetime Medicines.)

There are different interpretations and practices about how ill a bhikkhu has to be for it to be allowable to take such medicines. Some bhikkhus will not take anything other than pure water, while some will over stretch the Rule to even drinking medicinal food drinks (e.g., Ovaltine) in the afternoon. Some bhikkhus will consider tea leaves allowable (as herbs) while some will see it as food or as a stimulant (caffeine) and therefore not appropriate. Also, the ordinary rural villagers of South East Asia (until very recently) would have had no tea or coffee to drink, so such items could be considered quite a luxury. It will depend on local conditions and interpretations, which are allowed for in the Vinaya through the Great Standards. (See also Lifetime Medicines.)

FAQ 10: "Can a monk retain property that he had as a lay person? Also, can a monk receive property that has been passed to him as inheritance? Is a monk also allowed to accept property donated to him by lay devotees and which has been transferred to his name? What is the Vinayas stance on this? Does the Vinaya also allow for monks to sell/transact property that has been donated to them in order to buy, for instance, another piece of land in an area that is more suitable for spiritual activities?"

A: This is a complicated question. If there is a steward who does the arranging for the bhikkhu in the proper manner then certain things would be allowable. (See What does a Bhikkhu Possess.) However, there are very strict guidelines about this. (Please see the various rules about Bhikkhus and Wealth.)

Practically speaking, bhikkhus in Thailand are not ordered to renounce all their property, etc., when they receive ordination. (As mentioned elsewhere, the majority of bhikkhus in Thailand will return to lay life within a certain period.) Bhikkhus who are serious about dedicating their life to the Holy Life will obviously take the Lord Buddha as their example and like Him renounce all that is worldly.

There are specific rules, not covered in this work, about Community land and property, and the different ways they are managed. (However, see also Wrongly Received Gifts.)

FAQ 11: "Does the Vinaya state that monks cannot take nuns and lay people as their teachers? If this is so, what is the reason for this?"

A: The taking of a Teacher (aacariya) by a bhikkhu and living in dependence (nissaya) on him can only be between bhikkhus. (See Becoming a Bhikkhu; End Note 24 on the qualities of a Teacher.) And even according to the bhikkhuniis own Rule, in the time of the Lord Buddha, she was not allowed to teach bhikkhus. However, this does not mean that a bhikkhu cannot learn from others.

FAQ 12: "Are monks allowed to own and/or drive vehicles? Is this allowed by the Vinaya? If it does not go against the Vinaya, would it still be socially acceptable, given the monks spiritual status in society?"

A: There is a specific rule against bhikkhus owning vehicles. Obviously, motor vehicles were not available in the Buddhas time and most travel would have been on foot. However, there was the case:

"...when the group of six bhikkhus went in a vehicle yoked with cows and bulls, they were criticized by the lay people. The Buddha then established a fault of Wrong doing for a bhikkhu to travel in a vehicle; later illness was exempted from this guideline...

"Traveling in a vehicle in the Buddhas time was an extravagance. A strict application of this training in Thailand is not allowing bhikkhus to drive or own vehicles, and (officially) not to ride on motorcycles."

(HS ch.17)

Bhikkhus were allowed to use ferry boats, etc. (In Thailand, bhikkhus from riverside monasteries will go on alms round by boat.)

FAQ 13: "Does the Vinaya permit monks to practice herbal, traditional or ayurvedic medicine?"

A: In Thailand, I understand that one cannot be officially registered as a herbal doctor while still a bhikkhu. While providing medicines for ones fellow monks is very much allowable, it is definitely wrong that a monk dispenses medicine for reward. (See Wrong Livelihood and End Note 115.)

FAQ 14: "When a monk commits a paaraajika offence, do the lay people have the right to ask him to disrobe? What is the usual procedure as stated in the Vinaya? What happens when a monk has been proven to have committed a paaraajika offence, yet refuses to disrobe in spite of demands from lay devotees and there is no Sangha Council to enforce the demands, as is the case in non Buddhist countries? Under such circumstances, what do the lay people do?"

A: If a bhikkhu commits a paaraajika offence he is defeated and no longer a bhikkhu even if he is wearing robes. The Community of bhikkhus will have nothing to do with him and will expel him. (See Disrobing and End Note 31.) However, if the accused bhikkhu does not admit to the offence and it cannot be proved, the results of kamma must be allowed to run their own course. Buddhism has never engaged in violent witch hunts. (See Strictness and Blaming Others.) And for how lay people dealt with stubborn monks in the Buddhas time, see Disputes.

FAQ 15: "What questions should one ask a monk when offerings of requisites are made; and to what extent is a monk limited (and why) when making his reply; and when is it all right to ask details of preferences and specifications; and how to find out what is appropriate if the robed person finds it difficult or is unable to mention what is required?"

A: Generally, the right practicing bhikkhu will be a person of few wants for he is trying to go to the ending of all desire. However, there may be certain things he may need but may not mention until he is sure that the donors are completely sincere in their invitation. If the donor makes specific suggestions, the bhikkhu may refuse, he may accept, or he may remain silent — and such silence may very well be a positive response (as it was in the Lord Buddhas time). Therefore, as the donor gets to know the bhikkhu he or she will become more sensitive about what is needed and what is appropriate — and be able to interpret any silence in the right way. (See the section on Invitation and Beginners Question 12 above.)

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Footnotes and references:


Someone has calculated that at this time the most distant Theravaadin bhikkhus are in Iceland to the North and New Zealand to the South.

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