Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Asian Version of the Dharma Money Issue

I was recently asked by a Christian person whether or not there was a similarity between asking for indulgences that the Catholic Church of yore used to have and, in Asia, the practice of offering money in Buddhist temples followed by a chant/offering of incense.  The Christian used to think it was similar.

I was at a loss for words temporarily (other than to say, well, you'd have to deeply understand karma and interdependence), mostly because the topic at hand wasn't the topic of this blog post; it was a tangent to a more important topic.  I wasn't exactly satisfied with my answer...of course a better answer came to me later:

  • When one offers money at a temple, like everything else at a temple, one just does it, and does it wholeheartedly.  In effect, the act of offering at a temple is the offering of one's own life itself at that moment.  In that sense, it's more like the Christian communion in reverse than the other way around.

  • Typically, though people often come to the temple indeed for some reason such as a sick relative, what they say isn't an "I'd like to get something" prayer of course; it's an invocation of the form "Homage to X."  It's declarative.

  • I was however not off-base with the words karma and interdependence.  Most Buddhist chants when they aren't declarative, are in the 2nd person, but the identity of the 2nd person is not of course, separate from the chanter.  In Buddhism, of course, there is the principle of no-self.  So who is invoking what to whom, or who could possibly be trying to get something from whom?

  • Of course, there is the money for services thing, but that's not wholly unreasonable, I'd point out. Temples have to operate on budgets too.

There, that's better.


Jeff said...

They're essentially identical. The #1 Buddhist practice in both premodern and contemporary times has been paying monks to chant sutras on behalf of your deceased parents so that they will be released from naraka (hellish realms of temporary but quite long and gruesome punishment due to karmic infractions). This is the economic backbone of Buddhism, without it the religion would probably have died out long ago. It is "get-out-of-hell" chants that have helped fund all the other Dharma activities that we in the West tend to prefer.

red shift said...

If the dhammapada has any bearing on it, the monks asking for cash as a condition of mind-to-mind transmission may find themselves in great need of "get out of hell" chants. Of course, who reads the dhammapada. Advanced practitioners need to be more focused on how to fund their IRAs.

Mumon K said...

I think what red shift said is apt.

Seriously I've never thought of the act of giving money at a temple as anything that would get me anything, but rather as something that would provide for others.

Any attempt to put this into a quid pro quo relation is simply misinformed.

red shift said...

In the original sangha, monks were vital because without full time study of opaque languages and scriptures, it would be literally impossible to transmit the dharma from one generation to the next. Not everyone had the vocation or skills for this, and it was a select profession, valued by society, and compensated meagerly in so far as monks -- as renunciants -- lived on one meal a day and few luxuries or guarantees. It was a great offense to Gautama that some priests lived well and took advantage of others labor, and he said so repeatedly.

Just as the luxuries Gautama enjoyed as a prince are no greater than one enjoys in the average middle class home in America, the laity of our time have unprecedented access to the Internet, both time and ability to read dense texts, a broad education and knowledge of the world, and various means of interacting with the sangha that have changed so radically they would be unrecognizable for the laity of Gautama's day.

So I find it worth considering to what degree running a temple and keeping the endless specialties of ritual and so on are in any way related to the real spiritual needs of the contemporary Buddhist. This is a radical idea to suggest doing away with reliance upon the ordained monks, and shifting toward an egalitarian (perhaps more taoist) model, but I do feel there is a great deal of mind-to-mind transmission going on right here, for example, and elsewhere, in many places, with earnest and enlightened laity who have been deeply meaningful and helpful in my practice as a Buddhist.

So I wonder why some monks, many of whom don't seem to mind radical changes in how they are "compensated" to keep up with the times, are so reluctant to embrace the idea that the needs of and aptitudes of the contemporary sangha have changed so radically that perhaps other old ways also no longer apply.