Story of the Buddha - Edith Holland

The Brotherhood of Monks

The Buddhist Order of Monks is the oldest religious brotherhood in the world; it was founded by the Buddha about 2500 years ago, and continues to exist at the present day. There is one great difference between the Buddhist monks and those of Christian orders. The vows taken by a Buddhist on entering the Brotherhood are not binding for life. If a man finds he is not fitted to be a monk, he may, at any time, leave his monastery and return to the world; it is, however, considered a great disgrace to be dismissed for breaking any of the rules of the Order. Many take vows for a few months or any short period, especially during the season of Lent, and in some Buddhist countries there are few men who have not been monks at some time of their lives.

The aim of the Buddhist in becoming a monk is to free his mind from earthly longings and attain that calm which is the result of seeing things as they really are and understanding their true value. The Buddha taught that none can enter the path, whose final goal is the Peace of Nirvana, until he has ceased to crave for the pleasures excitements of the world. And this very few can do without renouncing the world and leading the homeless life.

In shaving his head and putting on the yellow robes a man cuts himself off from the world and turns the stream of his life into a new channel. Outward observances are of no value in themselves. The Buddha tells us that "It is not by dirt, by fasting, or by sleeping on the bare ground, that men become pure." Still less do these things atone for sins committed. The Hindu may think that he can escape punishment for sill by offering sacrifices to the gods, but the follower of the Buddha believes that nothing can interfere with the universal Law of cause and effect. Suffering, in some form, is the inevitable result of sin—pain must as surely follow a wrong act "as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage." Nothing can release a man from the penalty of sin. "Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, not if we enter into the clefts of the mountains, is there known a spot in the whole world, where a man might be freed from an evil deed." Punishment must overtake him, sooner or later, either in this present or in some future life or in hell The Buddhists, however, do not believe an punishment to be eternal; and when a being has paid the just debt of his evil deeds he may still work out his salvation.

It is to this task, the working out of hi salvation, that the monk applies himself when, he has renounced all the comforts and pleasures of life. The ceremony of admission into the Buddhist Brotherhood is very solemn and impressive; it was instituted in early days, and has remained practically unchanged for the last two thousand years. The candidate, or man about to be received into the Order, must appear before an assembly of not less than ten monks, who judge as to whether he is a fit person to be admitted. The ceremony of ordination usually takes place in a long open hall, of which the roof is supported by pillars. At one end of the hall is seated the elder of the monks, and the others sit cross-legged on mats, in two rows down the length of the hall. Then the candidate, wearing his ordinary dress and carrying the yellow robes on his arm, walks up to the elder, and, kneeling before him, begs three times for admission to the Brotherhood. He then retires to put on the yellow robes for the first time. When the candidate returns, dressed as a monk, he kneels down and repeats the form of words known as the 'Three Refuges':

"I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the Doctrine. I go for refuge to the Brotherhood."

This is said three times, after which the new monk vows to observe the Ten Precepts, or Commandments, repeating each one separately.

"I take the vow not to destroy life." This is the first commandment; a good Buddhist will not hurt or kill any living creature, for the Buddha has said, "He who, seeking his own happiness, punishes or kills beings who also long for happiness, will not find happiness after death." The second commandment forbids stealing of any kind. The third enjoins purity of life. The fourth forbids lies or any false speaking—we read in the collection of scripture verses, "Let no one speak falsely to another in the hall of justice . . . let him avoid all untruth." The fifth commandment condemns the use of intoxicating drinks, which leads men into sin—"Through intoxication the stupid commit sins and make other people intoxicated."

These five precepts should be observed by all Buddhists, whether laymen or monks, the remaining five refer specially to the monks, being commands against eating food at for bidden times, going to plays and entertainments, wearing ornaments, sleeping on soft beds, and receiving gold and silver, which no monk is allowed to possess.

After the repetition of the Ten Precepts the ceremony of ordination ends, and the new monk is a novice, or beginner. He cannot be a fully ordained monk until he is over twenty years of age.

The novice, on entering his new life, becomes the pupil of an older monk, who acts toward him like a father toward his son. And the novice, on his side, attends on the daily want; of his spiritual father. It is his duty to rise before daybreak, and, when he has washed himself, to clean the house and sweep round the bo-tree, which is planted near every monastery in remembrance of the sacred Bo-tree under which Gotama obtained enlightenment. When these duties have been performed: and the drinking water for the day has been fetched and filtered, the novice sits down to meditate. By meditation we mean fixing the mind steadily on a given subject, banishing all other thoughts. Meditation on some sacred subject is the form of prayer that is practised in the religion of the Buddha.

Buddhist monks are allowed only one meal in the day, and this must be taken between sunrise and noon. So, while it is yet early, the novice follows his superior to the village for the daily round of begging. Silently the monks stand with their alms-bowls at the doors of the houses, for they may not ask for anything; silently they go on their way, uttering no complaint against those who give them nothing. The people in Buddhist countries love and honour the monks and consider it a privilege to supply them with food—even the very poorest put by a small portion of rice or a little fruit in readiness for the monks' daily visit. But only food or the actual necessaries of life may be given, for no monk is allowed to possess money. In fact, his possessions are limited to eight articles which are considered necessaries. These are the following: an alms-bowl, a razor, a needle, a water-strainer, three robes and a girdle. The three robes are the yellow beggar robes often mentioned before. They consist of three pieces of coarse cotton cloth, dyed a dull orange colour; two of these pieces are used as undergarments, the third is worn something like a Roman toga, with one end thrown over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm free.

Buddhist monks lead very simple and self-denying lives, but they do not, like the holy men of the Hindus, undergo severe fasts and penances. For the Buddha forbade his followers to practise these, having himself proved their uselessness. A monk passes his time studying the sacred books, copying them out, learning portions by heart, and meditating on the great truths contained in them; in teaching the young, for schools are attached to many of the monasteries, and in the discharge of his simple daily duties. Of ceremony or ritual there is little to be attended to—flowers are offered at the shrine, where the image of the Buddha is seated in an attitude of calm contemplation, a symbol of the Great Peace which is the goal of all true Buddhists.

You must not suppose that the Buddhists worship these images. They reverence the Buddha as the perfection of manhood, the Great Teacher, who learnt the Truth and taught it to mankind, but they do not regard him as in any way more than human. To the shrines of the Buddha, which are usually built in the shade of large trees, men and women bring their offerings of flowers. Silently they sit and meditate on the beautiful and holy life of him who showed them the way to Peace. Sometimes the monks read portions of the sacred books to the assembled people, but, in those countries where the simple faith of the Buddha prevails, there are no regular services like those of Christian churches.

Twice in the month, at the new and full moon, all the monks of a district meet together for Confession. The elder of the brethren, after reading a portion of the Scriptures, asks the assembled monks if they have any sins to confess. If all are silent the question is put a second and a third time; and the monk who, having a sin on his conscience, does not confess it on the third repetition of the question, is guilty of telling an intentional lie.

You have already heard of the Buddhist Sisterhood, which was founded by Pajapati, the Buddha's aunt and foster-mother. The sisters, or nuns, live together in communities, and are under the same rules as the monks. They are taught to look up to the monks as their superiors; and are instructed by them, and confess their sins to them. The sisters, like the monks, are always free to return to the world if they wish to do so, and you must not imagine them in any way like cloistered nuns. In the early days of Buddhism the Sisterhood flourished in many towns and villages; some of the sisters became teachers of the Doctrine, and even preached to the people, for Indian women of that time enjoyed much more freedom than is allowed to the Hindu woman of the present day.

Though the monks lived mostly among men, wandering from place to place to preach the truths which the Buddha had taught them, yet there were many who lived in the great forests as hermits. Indeed, a solitary life was often adopted for a time as the best means of attaining that indifference to worldly things, which is the first lesson to be learnt by the brethren of the yellow robe.

Living in the great solitudes of the Indian jungle, these lonely monks were in close touch with Nature, and learned to love and understand her as the dwellers of a busy town can never do. With no shelter but a large tree or a mountain cave, they roamed through the jungle, free and fearless as the elephant or the rhinoceros, for he who has conquered himself knows no fear. In forest glade, or wind-swept mountain height, these wanderers found freedom and joy; how deep was their love of Nature we learn from the poems, or psalms, which many of them have left us. The blossoms can the margin of the stream, the pale grey cranes rising at evening from the marshes and sailing on broad wings into the glow of sunset, the cool winds that stir the trees at sundown, the white moonbeams lighting the dim pathways of the jungle—such things as these filled the lonely watchers with a quiet joy. "They move about in peace on mountains and in forests; they are happy in finding happiness, and leave sorrow behind. . . ." Nor was it only in the softer moods of Nature that these hermits delighted, for they tell of the joy that thrilled them when the storm-clouds swept across the sky, when the lightning flashed and "the thunder-clouds in heaven beat the drum."

Thus, face to face with Nature, the monk learns his lesson—learns so to school his mind that, "like a rock it remains without being moved, in the midst of passions without passion, in the midst of anger without anger. Then is his task accomplished—" What was to be done, has been done "—cool as the snowy peaks of Himalaya is his mind who has extinguished the fires of earthly passions.

The monks are held in great reverence by the people of Buddhist countries on account of their pure, unworldly lives. Every gift bestowed on these holy men is thought to benefit the giver and bring him nearer to an understanding of the Buddha's doctrines. Though all Buddhists do not see the truth clearly enough to let go their hold on worldly pleasures, yet they regard the life of a monk as the highest state. For in a world where nothing is fixed, where change is ever at wort transforming and destroying—what is there for man to cling to but that which alone is changeless—the Peace of Nirvana. But the Buddha's teaching is hard to realise, and it is only after living many lives and enduring many sorrows, that man perceives the fleeting nature of all that he strives to attain. "Day and night this life is passing away; what subject of rejoicing is there in so brief a thing?"