It is often heard that the Theravadins say that they do not like the Mahayana because it has too much ritual. I would say that the ritual is more integral to Theravada and more prevalent in it than in Mahayana.
But before continuing, will it be necessary to define what a ritual is?
If an action is performed for a particular purpose, it may be considered necessary and significant. If the same action is carried out regardless of whether it achieves its original objective or not, or if the purpose has become redundant, it can be said to be a ritual.
Based on this definition, the way in which most of Vinaya’s rules are practiced qualifies them to be called rituals.
Take, for example, the rule that forbids a monk to eat anything that has not been formally offered (Pacittiya 40). If a monk walks through an orchard and casually grabs an apple or takes it from the ground, the owner could get upset and get him in trouble. In addition, the owner of the garden could also have a bad impression of the Sangha. Seen that way, this rule could be significant.
But let’s say that a friend invites a monk to his house to eat, he goes and they are the only ones in the house, he prepares the food and he serves it to the monk saying: Hey, it’s your lunch. ‘ When he puts the plate in front of the monk, there is no doubt that the food is for him and only for him, and he can consider that they gave it to him if they put it in his hand or not.
If the monk asks that it be ‘formally offered’ (that is, taken with both hands and put directly into his hand) or if he insists on ‘formally offering’ it, this action would no longer be useful or meaningful, it would be superfluous: In summary, It would have become a mere ritual.
Let’s take another example, the Vassa (the three months of the monsoon in India, the rainy season that made transportation unfeasible in antiquity) and the Kathina (festival of the end of the rainy season). The Sangha began and remained for some centuries mainly as an itinerant organization. During the monsoon in India when traveling was difficult, the monks stayed in one place for three months. At the end of this period before the pilgrimages continued, the laity would offer them new robes and other necessities. During this period, Kathina and Vassa were significant and useful, in fact, they were necessary.
But today the situation has completely changed. In India and even more on the roads of Sri Lanka and Thailand, bridges and transport are as good during the monsoon as they are during the rest of the year. In addition, like ordinary people, today’s monks usually travel from one place to another by car, bus, train, etc.
And yet, the monks still do not travel during the Vassa.
Today, some Theravadin monks live in areas where the months of July to October constitute the dry season. However, they still observe the Vassa.
There are two monsoons a year in Sri Lanka and the monks «observe» the second, but not the first.
Almost no monk today is itinerant, they are often the legal owners of their monasteries and even when they do not usually have full residency rights in a particular temple and can spend their entire lives there. And yet, the Kathina still takes place at the end of the Vassa as if the monks were only temporary visitors.
In other words, observing the Vassa and performing the Kathina have become simple rituals. Now it could be argued and I rightly believe that it is possible and legitimate to give new meaning to previous practices. But if one is going to give Kathina or Vassa new meanings (the main function of the Kathina today seems to be fundraising) is it necessary to insist that every minute detail of these now obsolete practices be followed? A Theravadin would inevitably argue that it is.
One more example Pacittiya 10 and 11 say that a monk should not destroy plants or dig the earth. Like some other rules, these two originate in the beliefs and practices of pre-Buddhist ascetics, in this case the Jains. Jains believed that even plants, rocks, water, sand and earth were lower living entities than other creatures, but conscious anyway. Then tearing a flower or breaking a lump of earth would cause them pain or maybe even kill them. Sekhiya 74 and 75 are based on this same misconception. This means that if a monk eats a fruit that contains fertile seeds it would be killing.
Accordingly, the Vinaya describes a procedure to avoid committing such an offense. Before a monk receives any fruit that contains seeds, a layman must stick a knife in the seeds to kill them, making the fruit «acceptable» to the monk. While doing this, they should say ‘Kappiyam Bhante’, which means ‘This is permissible, Venerable sir’.
This practice of slashing seeds is done in Thailand and Burma, but has fallen completely on hold in Sri Lanka.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu has five pages on this rule and the essence of his comments is this. It is not necessary to go through all this jumble, in the first place, because this procedure is based on a primitive and false animistic belief, and secondly because it would take too long to kill all the seeds, for example, a bunch of grapes or a bowl of oranges All you have to do is symbolically kill the seeds: run a knife over the skin of a grape or an orange while saying that ‘Kappiyam Bhante’ would make the whole group or the whole bowl ‘permissible’.
In other words, although he admits that this procedure is based on a false belief, he insists that one must still do it anyway, although it is only necessary to pretend to do it. A high-ranking and very learned Burmese monk has assured me that the fruit is allowed regardless of whether the seeds are killed as long as the phrase «It is Venerable Lord» is said in Pali. Not in English or Burmese.
Very clearly, this and other similar practices are nothing but meaningless rituals, empty and stupid. They have nothing to do with morality, discipline or the transformation of the mind, and in the case just mentioned, they do not even intend to fulfill their declared purpose. In fact, it could be argued that insisting on performing this ritual would be an example of silabhataparamasa, the second of the Ten Shackles.
The ritualistic tendency of Theravada goes beyond the practice of Vinaya; in fact, it seems to infest almost every aspect of the tradition, from morality to meditation, from the Dana (alms) to devotion.
At the time of the Buddha, one became a monk by a radical change of attitude that led to the renunciation of the world. In the Theravada, by participating in a ritual and exhibiting certain external characteristics, one becomes a monk. Candidates for the monk usually keep their personal assets, loyalties and ties and, nevertheless, are considered monks, provided they have undergone the proper ordination ceremony.
They are not obliged to give up anything, in fact, they are not even asked to do so, but the greatest care is taken that the ordination ceremony is carried out correctly. In Sri Lanka there is uncertainty about the pronunciation of a Pali letter, so part of the ordination ceremony is repeated twice, one using the pronunciation and the other using the other, because the ceremony is considered invalid if the words are not said correctly.
A silly mani or a maichi could have genuinely renounced everything and be more disciplined, sincere and virtuous than the monks in the nearby monastery. But she would never be considered a member of the Sangha because she would not have submitted to the ordination ceremony and, therefore, could not legitimately have the external characteristics of a monastic. According to the Milindapanha, an immoral monk is superior to a secular layman and the gifts given to him will continue to have great merit. Why is this? Because such a monk has the mark of a monk (shaved head, etc.) and because when he is in the company of others he acts as if he were virtuous (Mil.257).
It could not be clearer.
A monk is one who has undergone a particular ritual and sees and acts like a monk, regardless of how he is inside. If he has genuinely renounced the world and is so wise and virtuous so much the better, but the defining factor of his monarchy is having gone through the ritual. It is hardly necessary to mention here that the Buddha took the exact opposite opinion about what a monk did. See for example Dhammapada 142, 264, 266, etc.
When reading his experiences in Thailand, the English monk Phra Peter mentions that most of the food that he and other monks receive in rounds of begging is discarded. «Even after my two children have eaten all the food they need for the day, there are three or four full bags, plus a considerable amount of rice. All this is discarded. Every day. When that amount of food is multiplied by the number of monks and novices who leave in binderbhat, it must add a large amount of food wasted daily … In addition to being a useless waste, food is often offered by poor people and can be given to monks better food than they eat.
I thought at first, people probably expect monks to eat it. Or did the bindabaht simply become a symbolic gesture more concerned with «doing merit» than feeding the monks?
Phra Peter asked the students in the class she was teaching to express their opinion on this matter. «To my surprise, there was general agreement among the students that the monks should accept as much food as the people would like to offer, although most would be discarded. The students said that donors used to be fully aware that the monk could not eat all the food, but that the point was in giving, not in receiving. They agreed that the monk should show Metta and allow people to «make merit».
Thus, the suspicions of Phra Peter were confirmed, going round, like many Theravadin practices, it is mainly a «symbolic gesture», a ritual. The opinion of the informants of Phra Peter, with which the majority of Thais would agree, illustrates how even the practice of metta has been ritualized. One ‘shows metta’ by taking food from people that you do not need and can not pay and then throwing them away.
A theravadin monk, educating the poor to use their scarce resources more intelligently would be considered a secular act that had nothing to do with metta.
For the ancient Mahāyāna monks, the almsgiving was not a ritual, it was a way to obtain sustenance and an opportunity to develop compassion. The Ratnarasi Sutra says that a monk who follows pindapata should think so. «Those people are busy, they are not obligated to give me anything. It’s a wonder they’ve noticed me at all. How much more they give alms! «So one should go begging without worrying.
For all the beings that come into his view, men, women, children and even animals, he has love and compassion … Whether the alms he gets is poor or good, we should look at all four sides and ask; «What poor creature is there in this town, town or city with whom I can share my alms»? If you see some poor creature, you must give him some of his alms.
If he does not see such creatures, he should ask; «Is there any poor creature that I have not seen? For them I will separate a first part of my alms. «‘Even if a Thai or Burmese monk in pindapata wanted to share the things they gave him with a hungry or homeless person he met on his way, he could not do so without risking a strong disapproval. Your donors would be very angry if they knew that the offerings they gave were given to someone who was not another monk or a temple child.
In addition, even a very hungry person would be reluctant to accept the monk’s food offer. The Theravada teaches that it is extremely bad karma to accept something from a monk and this is a notion that ordinary people take very seriously.
In Sri Lanka a monk used to have a small hermitage on the side of a steep hill and anyone who walked to see him usually came sweating. He always offered them a glass of water, but most of the time they refused to do it and said, «Paw nedha.» «It’s a sin, right?»