Because the Theravada Vinaya is a moral practice, it is presented primarily as a «do not» collection, this means that a monk who does nothing can qualify to be good.
Significantly, there is no Vinaya rule that requires monks to study Dhamma, to teach it, to do anything practical to help others or even to meditate.
This deficiency was understood long ago in Mahayana and was rectified by developing proactive rules. So, for example, in the Bodhisattavabhumi that was supposed to be an alternative Vinaya Mahayana, not sharing things with others is an offense, such as refusing to teach Dhamma when asked, ignoring people just because they are immoral, adhering to minor rules facing the conflicting needs of others, etc.
A small number of monks have a good or even deep knowledge of Dhamma, many have at least a basic knowledge, although it is quite common to meet those who know little or nothing.
Despite popular perception to the contrary, meditation is very rare in Theravada.
Spiro says: «… and some monks from the village sometimes meditate, and only a handful say yes. Usually, they claim lack of time.
The situation differs little in the large urban monasteries. In Mandalay, according to an official with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, no more than 15 percent of the monks spend some time in meditation. In the rural area of Thailand, according to Ingersoll, no monk meditates. Usually, as in Burma, they say they do not have time.
The anthropologist Jane Bunnag who did a study of monks in a regional Thai city wrote: «Less than a third of my informants in Ayutthaya reported that they practiced meditation, and even these monks only meditated ‘once in a while’ or ‘when they were free’ . When asked about the techniques used, they inevitably responded in very vague terms … Although most monks pretended that one should meditate … it was considered a more appropriate activity for the nuns … for the bhikkhus who were saiyasat ( practitioners of magic) or for those monks who do a thudong (go on pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines).
In Sri Lanka meditation is almost non-existent outside of the small number of special meditation monasteries and even there is by no means universal. The recent growth of interest in meditation among the laity in Sri Lanka is one of the few encouraging religious developments in that country.
Monks who do have a vocation for study or meditation certainly have a wonderful opportunity to do their practice, but they are a small minority.As for the others, the motivation to do anything is small and the temptation to relax and let the laity do merits according to each one of their whims is great. And unfortunately this is what many, many monks do.
One of the services that monks traditionally lent to society was education.This education was limited, but it meant that literacy was widespread among men, particularly in Sri Lanka and Burma.
The Thai and Burmese monks spend hours every day chatting with midwives and ladies, and most of the talks are gossip, not Dhamma. In Sri Lanka, monks prefer to lie on large easy chairs to chew betel and read the newspaper. Even a well-run monastery with an exceptional abbot is sometimes not enough to arouse the interest or enthusiasm of more than a few.
Paul Breiter, who spent years in Wat Pah Pong with Ajahn Chah, wrote that most of the Thai monks were «a group of ordinary Joes whose hearts were not entirely involved in it». Spiro’s observations on Burma apply equally to other Theravadin countries.
«Boredom undoubtedly explains the excessive amount of sleep one sees in monasteries – monks are always taking naps – as well as the clumsiness and apathy that are often found in them. I also suspect that those … who practice alchemy, medicine, exorcism and … politics, do so not only because of the intrinsic interest of the subject, but as an escape from the tedium of monastic life. Similarly, boredom probably explains the great interest shown by monks in visitors.
Others take a different escape route. In a survey of monks in Thailand, anthropologist JC Ingersoll discovered that boredom was the main reason why young men left the Sangha. When Somerset Maugham traveled through Burma, he had an interpreter who had spent time in a monastery during his youth. Maugham asked him what he thought of the monk’s life.‘He shrugged. «There was nothing to do,» he said. «Two hours worked in the morning and there were prayers at night, but all the rest of the day, nothing. I was glad when it was time to go home again. « And those who fall behind their natural youthful exuberance gradually crush under the weight of tradition and have laymen doing everything for them, and in a short time they begin to do what they see the older monks doing: they sleep.
You might think that I do not think it is possible for human beings to sleep so much, until you spend time in a Theravada monastery. The most typical images are those of the Burmese who doze in the chairs while their devotees massage their feet, the Thai monks lying face up snoring at ten in the morning and the sleepy old nayaka hamdarus in Sri Lanka getting out of bed for lunch and return directly when finished.
The English monk Phra Peter recounts a funny incident he witnessed when a younger monk was respecting his superior with the three traditional bows. The first reverence was good, the second was somewhat slower and during the third bow, the monk fell asleep and remained deeply asleep on the floor.
This omnipresent laziness is a logical consequence of Vinaya’s notion that monks should do everything possible for them. Almost all his needs are met by others, without him doing, or being allowed to do so, nothing by himself. As we have seen, he does not work; he does not earn his own bread; Even if you want, you can not even serve your tea, let alone take care of your garden or repair your monastery. Everything you need should be given to you by others; everything he wants must be provided by others.Furthermore, the others must not only provide for the monk, but in fact they provide for him and, as we have seen, abundantly.
The almost complete absence of physical exercise along with the rich diet is probably the reason for the abnormally high incidence of diabetes among the oldest monks in Sri Lanka. A study published in 2002 showed that the main cause of death among Thai monks were diseases related to smoking.Having little else to do, they take their time sleeping, chatting and jumping in Klongtips.
Even monks who are interested in meditation or study can not update their minds with spells of physical exercise; Vinaya and the desire of the public to pamper the monks and gain merit make this very difficult.
The abbot of the beautiful Hindagala Vihara learned that a western monk used to walk every afternoon around the campus a distance of about four miles round trip. The abbot insisted very kindly that the driver would take him back or offer him the fare so he could return by bus. He could never understand why the monk should want to walk when he had an alternative.
Tibetan monks mold butter offerings and carve printing blocks, Chinese monks run vegetarian restaurants and practice tai chi, Zen monks calligraphy and take care of their gardens. Many Theravadine monks do absolutely nothing.
The only meaning Theravada gives the body is as an object of filth and disgust. The Greek or Hindu concept of developing the whole person, physical, mental and spiritual, has never been appreciated in Theravada and the end result is disastrous. Either by friends or by enemies, the evaluation of the Theravadin monks has often been the same: pleasant, gentle, smiling and completely inert.
Desperate, Anagarika Dharmapala cried; «If only the monks moved, Buddhism would not be called the religion of pessimism.»
As for his efforts to involve the monks in Buddhist education in Sri Lanka, Henry Olcott gasped in frustration; «I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a long time for this help to come from the Buddhist bhikkhus … at least I could not, during an intimate relationship of twenty-two years, awaken their zeal.» David Maurice, a devout Buddhist who lived in Burma for years wrote : «I spent time in the Burmese monasteries and I would swear I was really in East Africa; Everyone seems to be suffering from Sleep Illness. «
Perhaps an exception to this is to some monks in Laos and Lao-speaking areas of less Thailander in north-eastern Thailand. Monks sometimes do strenuous physical work. Until recently, this region was remote, very poor and known for producing a small but influential number of exceptional monks who meditated. Could there be a connection between difficulties and work, on the one hand, and spirituality, on the other?
Despite the great amount of free time the Theravadin monks have, it is amazing how little they seem to do something affective to promote the Dhamma.
In 1991, in Singapore, there were five temples and fifteen temples in the house attended by Thai monks or Singaporean monks ordained and trained in Thailand, forty-three monks in total. It was clear that the main activities in each of these establishments was what can be called Thai magic: lucky charms, four-sided jibs, divination, black magic, protective amulets, etc.
One of the temples had what was called ‘Lucky Buddha’ in which it is supposed to be able to predict auspicious numbers. The temple is very popular with punters before the Sunday afternoon races.
Another temple, on Racecourse Rd, seemed to be a marketplace rather than a place of religion. Among the postcards and gewgaws for sale in the main hall of the sanctuary you find key chains with slightly pornographic images.
If you ask each abbot if they or one of the monks below them meditated and several refused to answer, but most said no and several said it was difficult to meditate in the city, most simply smiled.
When asking the abbots if they did charitable activities, four answered affirmatively saying that sometimes they gave cash to the visiting monks or to the organized damages where the monks were fed. A monk, feeling what I was referring to, insisted that he regularly sent money to Thailand to help the poor. When I asked for details, he smiled, made a mistake and changed the subject.
Only two places had more than songs and ceremonies where monks are given food and money that could be described as Dhamma activities. These consisted of regular talks and discussions about Buddhism. The interesting thing was that these activities were organized in their entirety by a small group of lay people. No monk helped to organize the talks, attended them or delivered them. In both cases, the laity said that the abbot allowed them to use their facilities and that if they did not organize the talks, nobody else would. It is quite possible that a survey of Thai temples in Malaysia and perhaps in any major Thai city shows a similar pattern.