Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 6

Ajahn Khemadhammo at Wat Pah Nanachat

Allow me to give a short expla­na­tion of the monks’ discipline:

A per­son who is ordained in the Bud­dhist reli­gion is oblig­ed to observe the code of dis­ci­pline (vinaya)—the two hun­dred and twen­ty-sev­en rules. The monks must observe a great num­ber of rules, more than the legal claus­es issued by Thailand’s four­teenth prime min­is­ter, Thanin Kraivichi­an. If a monk trans­gress­es one of these rules he falls into an ‘offence’ (āpat­ti). Monas­tic offences can be clas­si­fied into three main groups:

  1. Grave offences: if a monk vio­lates these rules, he imme­di­ate­ly falls away from the state of being a monk, regard­less whether some­one else is aware of this offence or not. From the instant after the offence, this per­son becomes a bald-head­ed rogue wear­ing a saf­fron robe. He has no right to call him­self a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the saf­fron for­est. The Bud­dha referred to such a per­son as a ‘shame­less ascetic’ (ala­jjī) or a ‘crown­less palm.’ He has no chance to pros­per in the Bud­dhist reli­gion. These offences include: A) to engage in sex­u­al inter­course with a human being or an ani­mal; B) to steal some­thing with a val­ue of five ‘māsakas’ or more (a māsa­ka equals rough­ly the val­ue of one baht). [Trans­la­tor: there are debates over the exact val­ue of five māsa­ka. One guide­line to use is that for this to be an offence, the val­ue of the stolen object must be such that, as it states in the orig­i­nal: ‘Kings would ban­ish him, say­ing: “You are a thief”!’]; C) to boast about super­hu­man attain­ments: to delib­er­ate­ly and false­ly claim to pos­sess excep­tion­al spir­i­tu­al pow­ers or attain­ments, which one in truth does not pos­sess; D) to kill anoth­er human being.
  2. Mod­er­ate­ly seri­ous offences: if a monk trans­gress­es one of these rules, he is still con­sid­ered a monk, but he must live under pro­ba­tion (parivāsa) and per­form a penance (mānat­ta). He is penal­ized and ostra­cized accord­ing to sang­ha pro­ce­dures, the details of which I won’t go into here. An exam­ple of such an offence is the delib­er­ate emis­sion of semen (which in the ‘mas­sage par­lours’ is called ‘going to the roy­al park’). After a monk has passed through this chas­tise­ment he is restored to purity.
  3. Minor offences: this group con­tains many rules, includ­ing those hav­ing to do with polite deco­rum and with eat­ing. If a monk trans­gress­es one of these rules all he needs to do to set­tle this mat­ter is to con­fess the offence to anoth­er monk and vow not to trans­gress this rule in the future. Take for exam­ple eat­ing after mid­day, which I men­tioned in an ear­li­er chap­ter. Accord­ing to the Vinaya this is a minor offence clas­si­fied as an offence of expi­a­tion (pācit­tiya). Trans­gress­ing this rule is there­fore not a mat­ter of life and death.

In the case of Luang Poo Non (men­tioned in the last chap­ter), he had no inten­tion to trans­gress a rule. He was an ancient monk who tran­scend­ed time and was not attached to any­thing. He ate food sim­ply to keep his body alive. He was tru­ly beyond reproach (pāpa-mut­ta). If you ask me, I believe that Luang Poo had attained a high stage of enlightenment.

Although eat­ing food in the evening is a minor offence, the laypeo­ple con­sid­er it a very impor­tant mat­ter: it is a ‘mun­dane offence’ (loka-vaj­ja), that is, it is con­duct crit­i­cized by the gen­er­al pub­lic. Monks in Thai­land there­fore don’t often trans­gress this rule. Hav­ing said this, in some parts of Thai­land the laypeo­ple don’t mind. In the North, for exam­ple, the laypeo­ple even pre­pare and offer sup­per to the monks when they vis­it their homes in the evening. The monks do not cause a loss of faith in the laypeo­ple; when they have sat­is­fied their hunger they return to the monastery and con­fess their sins.

At Wat Bahn Huay, how­ev­er, the rules gov­ern­ing food were held very strict­ly. If a monk or novice was caught eat­ing food in the evening the pun­ish­ment imposed would be to car­ry water, mop the kutis, sweep the monastery court­yard, and to clean the monks’ rooms. If some­one walked by one had to call out: ‘I ate in the evening!’ The humil­i­a­tion would last for a long time. And if one was a novice, besides the penal­ties imposed above, one also had to taste the sting of Luang Por’s cane.

Only I escaped pun­ish­ment from eat­ing in the after­noon. The abbot didn’t cane me on the day of my ordi­na­tion when I ate a sticky-rice cake because he knew that it was unin­ten­tion­al, that I wasn’t aware that this was an offence. And the sec­ond (and final) time I ate in the after­noon as a novice I also mirac­u­lous­ly escaped from punishment.

The sto­ry is as fol­lows: there were three friends who ordained as monks: Ven­er­a­bles Dtu, Sila, and Boon­nah. Inti­mate friends tend to share the same activ­i­ties. There was a rumour, how­ev­er, that these three ven­er­a­ble sirs were reg­u­lar­ly sneak­ing off to eat food in the evenings. This news I received from Nane Boonkay, whom I didn’t gen­er­al­ly trust. When­ev­er he whis­pered this news to me I would tell him off.

It hap­pened one day, how­ev­er, that I saw these three jump over the monastery fence and take a short­cut lead­ing to the back of the adjoin­ing school. They were act­ing sus­pi­cious­ly so I adopt­ed the per­son­al­i­ty of Sher­lock Holmes and shad­owed them. The three hid behind a large bush, pro­ceed­ed to pull out a pack­et of sticky rice and pick­led fish from their robes, and tucked right in. I slow­ly crept clos­er to them to get a bet­ter look, but care­less­ly stepped on a dry twig—‘crack.’ One of the three quick­ly sprang for­ward and dragged me into their circle.

Well done, stu­pid Tad­pole,’ Ven. Dtu said with stress in his voice. ‘You came to find fault with us and to inform Luang Por, right?’

No.’ I couldn’t think of any­thing else to say.

No? Well, look here!’ Ven. Dtu shout­ed while rap­ping my head with his knuckles—whack—so that I had to rub my head. He then forced me to hand him the food, leav­ing the rest of us com­plete­ly bewildered.

What are you doing, Dtu?’ asked Ven. Sila.

I am mak­ing Tad­pole offer the food!’

What?! Eat­ing food in the evening is already wrong. It doesn’t make a hell of a dif­fer­ence to force a novice to offer it,’ laughed Ven. Sila.

Ven. Dtu didn’t let up. ‘Well, we’ll only be guilty of eat­ing in the evening—not of eat­ing unof­fered food.’

I say we do this….’ said Ven. Boon­nah, who had been qui­et up to now. ‘Let’s have this delin­quent novice eat as well. That way he won’t tell Luang Por!’

The oth­er two nod­ded in agreement.

And this pick­led fish was the most deli­cious I had ever had.


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