During our Dharma talk discussion last Tuesday night concerning money, one of the sangha members asked why the Buddha made the rule that the persons taking refuge with the Buddha – noble disciples, now called Buddhist monks, could not own or acquire wealth?
Unfortunately, I did not have the time to answer this question completely, so this writing is a more in-depth response to that question.
The Buddha’s rule for anyone joining his order was that this person had to relinquish ALL worldly possessions (not just wealth) as part of his or her process. A noble disciple became “homeless”. He or she was allowed to own only a robe and a begging bowl. No more, no less.
I think it’s important for us to first understand the culture during the Buddha’s era. There were hundreds of different religions in India at that time, and the people were heavily steeped in the religious underpinnings of their culture. People who chose the Holy life as their path and contribution often became wandering ascetics (with only their robes and a bowl). They left their homes, and spent their time during their days praying, meditating, or doing whatever prescribed practices they were led to perform. Such devotees did not have the time and energy to work for food. Householders who chose the different life as a layperson or noble person who respected the ascetics’ commitment to their spiritual path saw it as an honor to feed these homeless wanderers. In turn, these wandering ascetics often gave the householders the benefit of a spiritual teaching, or even just their presence for a short while.
The Buddha, himself, left his home and life as a wealthy prince to become a wandering ascetic, with only a robe and a bowl in his possession. That was the path of the holy life. So, it makes sense that the Buddha would continue this expectation of those who took refuge with him.
To break it down further, there were many logical benefits for noble disciples to forfeit their wealth and worldly possessions. For example, the Buddha found that:
- Your mind can be clearer and calmer if it is not preoccupied with taking care of its wealth and possessions. No things to worry about.
- You can wander around from village to village without having to carry a large pack around.
- Your mind will have less greed and wanting when you learn to live without the need to acquire.
- The Noble Disciples’ begging, gave the householders an opportunity to practice generosity.
- Receiving alms food from householders allowed the noble disciples to practice gratitude in receiving.
Of course, these rules made sense over 2500 years ago in that particular culture. I am not sure why ordained monks continue with these rules today. I assume to carry on the tradition that the Buddha set out, as well as to lessen the input for Greedy or Wanting Mind to become a hindrance.
Jack Kornfield talks about the time when he returned to the States as a monk, attempting to beg with his bowl and robe in a major US city and being shunned and treated poorly by Americans. I don’t think we would do very well attempting to go on alms rounds in the USA.
During my last move, I got rid of so much superfluous stuff. Even still, while packing and moving, I longed to own less.
I’ve heard it said that people without money are typically preoccupied with wanting more money and planning how to get more of it, while people with money are oftentimes preoccupied with wanting to hold on to it, and/or with getting more. . . Owning nice things and having nice homes is certainly not bad, while being a homeless beggar is not, as well. The key here is to be okay with whatever we have, and do whatever we have to do, to live this life without the wanting-greed taking over our minds.
Although becoming a homeless “holy” person in our society may not always be a viable option, simplifying our lives and learning to work skillfully with the “Wanting Mind” is a wonderful opportunity we lay people (householders) have every day!