Mar 10, 2006

Mea Culpa

From my inbox

Venerable Ajahn Punnadhammo:

I was hoping to have you answer some questions for me, which are unrelated themselves but have both demanded answering in my mind. I do thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, and check it frequently for updates, but find myself naggingly questioning the appropriateness of a Theravada monk to be commenting on those things which you do. No doubt this has been addressed to you before, and you may have even spoken of the question on your blog in the past, but I am a new reader as of the published Tricycle article on Buddhist Blogs, and am curious to read your response to the issue. I did a few minutes of quick research into the patimokkha, and was quite astonished to see that there are indeed no rules at all which specifically restrict the speech of a Bhikku, but I might point out that in the Nikayas certain topics seem to be looked down upon, though no formal transgression or punishment is detailed.

"Whereas some priests and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue." DN 2

I think I can safely say I have never used this blog to talk about garlands and scents. More seriously, I have two things to say in my defence;

First, as the emailer goes on to say; also provides this useful commentary on the matter - "Conversation that does not deal with the Dhamma, though, is termed "animal talk" (tiracchana-katha) in the Canon, and there are several passages (e.g., Pc. XXI.1; LXXXV.1; Mv.V.6.3-4) that criticize members of the group of six for engaging in animal talk: worldly talk about "kings, robbers, and ministers of state (politics); armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; also philosophical discussions of the past and future (this is how the Sub-commentary to Pacittiya 85 explains 'tales of diversity'), the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not." The Sub-commentary notes, though, that to discuss any of these topics in a way to foster an understanding of the Dhamma — e.g., discussing the impermanence of worldly power — is not considered improper.

I believe that politics can be a proper subject of comment for a bhikkhu provided his effort is directed towards Buddhist virtues such as peace, compassion and contentment with little.

Secondly, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am only human and sometimes I'm in a mood and edge over the line. In general, I don't think it helps one's spiritual life to be overly rigid and narrow. It's all a question of finding the balance (Middle Way.)

And let me add a third; there is a vinaya rule against looking into another monk's bowl to find fault.


P. said...

Cut your own grooves my friend.

e.m. said...

There is a bit of an ambiguity in the English translation: "not talking about" these things doesn't preclude (e.g.) their condemnation. The Buddha doesn't "talk about" fancy carts/carriages, but we have many suttas in which he digresses to indict those who ride around in fancy carts/carriages --or uses the stupidity (and avarica) of those who love such carriages as an illustration of the question of the dhamma at hand.
To use a very direct extention of the example: it is true that monks shouldn't have conversations about fancy cars, but this doesn't mean they shouldn't condemn laypeople/popular culture for worshipping (or wasting money on) fancy cars. The usage of "talking about" is somewhat idiomatic here.
Indeed, in a limited sense, monks are not to "talk about" current affairs and the war; but we have so many suttas in which the Buddha speaks against war, in general or in specific, and uses war as an illustration of another philosophical point, etc.
There seems to be no limit on inveighing against war, or against cars, yet one is not to chatter about such things. Similarly, it may be noted that the Buddha and his followers did give marital advice, but we have a large number of prohibitions against monks "talking about" the state of laypeoples' families and marriages.
It is almost needless to say that the Buddha had a fairly low opinion of garlands and perfumes, or wasting one's time fussing about them; but this is not without reason. I've been to many monasteries where the monks waste a lot of time fussing about (and talking about) flower arrangements --the point is still quite salient today.
Now, I'm going to get back to amassing my hordes of lotus blossoms in the back of my fancy carriage.

Rod the Innocent said...

Watch out for the Sangha Police patrol car!

Anonymous said...

Watch out for the Sangha Police patrol car!

With the flashing saffron lights

Original E-Mailer said...

This post is rather unfair to the letter I had sent, paragraphs are taken out of context. The question really was one of simple curiosity and not one of blunt criticism, and the textual references were included just to show where I was coming from, as I think confusion is understandable after reading those. See this following paragraph not included in the post:

I am by no means perfect in the matter of the 5 precepts myself, thus, in no way do I intend to attempt any form of real criticism or admonishment towards yourself when I bring this about, and thus having conveyed my point sufficiently, will stop right here in await to your response. It simply is a curiosity of mine to ascertain how you have reconciled the general principle of right speech with your blogging activities, or even if you believe any reconciliation is necessary at all.

I also felt that the last stab in the end about not looking into anothers bowl for fault was a little bit of a low blow. I apologize sincerely if my question may have hurt your feelings or put you on the defense, it was by no means my intention to do that. I realize the sensitivity of the question, it having to do your own personal activites, and likely one inparticular you enjoy very much, but I thought that if anyone could take such a question objectively without reacting, it would be a member of the noble order of bhikku's.

I enjoyed e.m.'s response, thank you.

I did enjoy your post as well Ajahn Punnadhammo, and I found it interesting that you used a christian expression as a response. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, or My fault, my most grievous fault Mea Culpa sometimes translated as "I am sinful". And in that light, perhaps I too am at fault, and should have worded my e-mail a bit lighter to not convey such a sense of criticism, I'm sorry. I just felt a little betrayed by the comment at the end of you post, with your having not included the other paragraph from the e-mail.

e.m. said...

I'm glad that my posting did someone some good --the issue is contestable in the Pali to begin with, and genuinely unclear in English translation.

To attempt a general gloss: Monks cannot preach war, and cannot "talk about" war, but they can/should preach against war --and the noun _war_ can be replaced with a long revolving-door of (thus) half-forbidden topics. I would venture to say that this question is more the preoccupation of the first volume of the Diigha N. than of the Vinaya; although the rules on proper speech in the latter are themselves nearly exhaustive.

Very few monks have a detailed knowledge of the Vinaya guidelines for correct speech --and, interestingly, these are contravened by the Buddha in various situations. Technically, no monk is ever supposed to call anyone an idiot (directly or indirectly) in any circumstance; but there are numerous suttas in which just this does indeed come to pass.