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The Economy of Gifts by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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  • Antony Woods
    According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with lay people. They live
    Message 1 of 2 , Dec 30, 2005
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      "According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not
      allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with lay
      people. They live entirely in an economy of gifts. Lay supporters
      provide gifts of material requisites for the monastics, while the
      monastics provide their supporters with the gift of the teaching.
      Ideally — and to a great extent in actual practice — this is an
      exchange that comes from the heart, something totally voluntary.
      There are many stories in the texts that emphasize the point that
      returns in this economy — it might also be called an economy of
      merit — depend not on the material value of the object given, but on
      the purity of heart of the donor and recipient. You give what is
      appropriate to the occasion and to your means, when and wherever your
      heart feels inspired. For the monastics, this means that you teach,
      out of compassion, what should be taught, regardless of whether it
      will sell. For the laity, this means that you give what you have to
      spare and feel inclined to share. There is no price for the
      teachings, nor even a "suggested donation." Anyone who regards the
      act of teaching or the act of giving requisites as a repayment for a
      particular favor is ridiculed as mercenary. Instead, you give because
      giving is good for the heart and because the survival of the Dhamma
      as a living principle depends on daily acts of generosity.

      The primary symbol of this economy is the alms bowl. If you are a
      monastic, it represents your dependence on others, your need to
      accept generosity no matter what form it takes. You may not get what
      you want in the bowl, but you realize that you always get what you
      need, even if it's a hard-earned lesson in doing without. One of my
      students in Thailand once went to the mountains in the northern part
      of the country to practice in solitude. His hillside shack was an
      ideal place to meditate, but he had to depend on a nearby hilltribe
      village for alms, and the diet was mostly plain rice with some
      occasional boiled vegetables. After two months on this diet, his
      meditation theme became the conflict in his mind over whether he
      should go or stay. One rainy morning, as he was on his alms round, he
      came to a shack just as the morning rice was ready. The wife of the
      house called out, asking him to wait while she got some rice from the
      pot. As he was waiting there in the pouring rain, he couldn't help
      grumbling inwardly about the fact that there would be nothing to go
      with the rice. It so happened that the woman had an infant son who
      was sitting near the kitchen fire, crying from hunger. So as she
      scooped some rice out of the pot, she stuck a small lump of rice in
      his mouth. Immediately, the boy stopped crying and began to grin. My
      student saw this, and it was like a light bulb turning on in his
      head. "Here you are, complaining about what people are giving you for
      free," he told himself. "You're no match for a little kid. If he can
      be happy with just a lump of rice, why can't you?" As a result, the
      lesson that came with his scoop of rice that day gave my student the
      strength he needed to stay on in the mountains for another three

      For a monastic the bowl also represents the opportunity you give
      others to practice the Dhamma in accordance with their means. In
      Thailand, this is reflected in one of the idioms used to describe
      going for alms: proad sat, doing a favor for living beings. There
      were times on my alms round in rural Thailand when, as I walked past
      a tiny grass shack, someone would come running out to put rice in my
      bowl. Years earlier, as lay person, my reaction on seeing such a
      bare, tiny shack would have been to want to give monetary help to
      them. But now I was on the receiving end of their generosity. In my
      new position I may have been doing less for them in material terms
      than I could have done as a lay person, but at least I was giving
      them the opportunity to have the dignity that comes with being a

      For the donors, the monk's alms bowl becomes a symbol of the good
      they have done. On several occasions in Thailand people would tell me
      that they had dreamed of a monk standing before them, opening the lid
      to his bowl. The details would differ as to what the dreamer saw in
      the bowl, but in each case the interpretation of the dream was the
      same: the dreamer's merit was about to bear fruit in an especially
      positive way.

      The alms round itself is also a gift that goes both ways. On the one
      hand, daily contact with lay donors reminds the monastics that their
      practice is not just an individual matter, but a concern of the
      entire community. They are indebted to others for the right and
      opportunity to practice, and should do their best to practice
      diligently as a way of repaying that debt. At the same time, the
      opportunity to walk through a village early in the morning, passing
      by the houses of the rich and poor, the happy and unhappy, gives
      plenty of opportunities to reflect on the human condition and the
      need to find a way out of the grinding cycle of death and rebirth.

      For the donors, the alms round is a reminder that the monetary
      economy is not the only way to happiness. It helps to keep a society
      sane when there are monastics infiltrating the towns every morning,
      embodying an ethos very different from the dominant monetary economy.
      The gently subversive quality of this custom helps people to keep
      their values straight.

      Above all, the economy of gifts symbolized by the alms bowl and the
      alms round allows for specialization, a division of labor, from which
      both sides benefit. Those who are willing can give up many of the
      privileges of home life and in return receive the free time, the
      basic support, and the communal training needed to devote themselves
      fully to Dhamma practice. Those who stay at home can benefit from
      having full-time Dhamma practitioners around on a daily basis. I have
      always found it ironic that the modern world honors specialization in
      almost every area — even in things like running, jumping, and
      throwing a ball — but not in the Dhamma, where it is denounced
      as "dualism," "elitism," or worse. The Buddha began the monastic
      order on the first day of his teaching career because he saw the
      benefits that come with specialization. Without it, the practice
      tends to become limited and diluted, negotiated into the demands of
      the monetary economy. The Dhamma becomes limited to what will sell
      and what will fit into a schedule dictated by the demands of family
      and job. In this sort of situation, everyone ends up poorer in things
      of the heart.

      The fact that tangible goods run only one way in the economy of gifts
      means that the exchange is open to all sorts of abuses. This is why
      there are so many rules in the monastic code to keep the monastics
      from taking unfair advantage of the generosity of lay donors. There
      are rules against asking for donations in inappropriate
      circumstances, from making claims as to one's spiritual attainments,
      and even from covering up the good foods in one's bowl with rice, in
      hopes that donors will then feel inclined to provide something more
      substantial. Most of the rules, in fact, were instituted at the
      request of lay supporters or in response to their complaints. They
      had made their investment in the merit economy and were interested in
      protecting their investment. This observation applies not only to
      ancient India, but also to the modern-day West. On their first
      contact with the Sangha, most people tend to see little reason for
      the disciplinary rules, and regard them as quaint holdovers from
      ancient Indian prejudices. When, however, they come to see the rules
      in the context of the economy of gifts and begin to participate in
      that economy themselves, they also tend to become avid advocates of
      the rules and active protectors of "their" monastics. The arrangement
      may limit the freedom of the monastics in certain ways, but it means
      that the lay supporters take an active interest not only in what the
      monastic teaches, but also in how the monastic lives — a useful
      safeguard to make sure that teachers walk their talk. This, again,
      insures that the practice remains a communal concern. As the Buddha

      Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with
      the requisites of robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicine. And you,
      monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma
      admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, and admirable in
      the end, as you expound the holy life both in its particulars and in
      its essence, entirely complete, surpassingly pure. In this way the
      holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing
      over the flood, for making a right end to suffering and stress.

      — Iti 107

      Periodically, throughout the history of Buddhism, the economy of
      gifts has broken down, usually when one side or the other gets
      fixated on the tangible side of the exchange and forgets the
      qualities of the heart that are its reason for being. And
      periodically it has been revived when people are sensitive to its
      rewards in terms of the living Dhamma. By its very nature, the
      economy of gifts is something of a hothouse creation that requires
      careful nurture and a sensitive discernment of its benefits. I find
      it amazing that such an economy has lasted for more than 2,600 years.
      It will never be more than an alternative to the dominant monetary
      economy, largely because its rewards are so intangible and require so
      much patience, trust, and discipline in order to be appreciated.
      Those who demand immediate return for specific services and goods
      will always require a monetary system. Sincere Buddhist lay people,
      however, have the chance to play an amphibious role, engaging in the
      monetary economy in order to maintain their livelihood, and
      contributing to the economy of gifts whenever they feel so inclined.
      In this way they can maintain direct contact with teachers, insuring
      the best possible instruction for their own practice, in an
      atmosphere where mutual compassion and concern are the medium of
      exchange; and purity of heart, the bottom line.
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