Monday, 18 May 2009

Ajahn Brahm on how to deal with misbehaving monks

Ajahn Brahm's reply to a Singaporean Buddhist who wrote him an email with regards to Angie Monksfield's Letter to ST Forum on "Paying Monks Contradicts Buddhist Code"

Thank you for your recent email regarding how to deal with inappropriate behaviour by some monastics. It would be wonderful if all Buddhist monks and nuns were fully enlightened but, of course, that is not the case. When a person becomes a monk or nun, they begin a training: They are not all holy from the time that they first have their head shaved.

So what should the ordinary Buddhist do about their problem? First of all, it would be helpful to learn more about the rules binding on all monks and nuns, from all traditions, that were laid down by the Lord Buddha. When the lay Buddhists know more about these rules, then they will not be so confused. Some of my own short articles on Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, can be found on our website

Secondly, it is recommended to distinguish between misbehaviour that is a serious problem, and misconduct that the monastics will be able to correct by themselves. Serious misbehaviour includes illegal activity, such as fraud, that tarnishes the reputation of Buddhism. In Thailand, a monk is automatically disrobed before he enters the courtroom for his trial. If found innocent, then he may put on his robe again. Such a law is designed to distinguish Buddhism from the behaviour of the monk.

Other serious misbehaviour is sexual intercourse. The very first rule that is binding on monks and nuns from all Buddhist traditions is that one who commits sexual intercourse (with an exception of being a victim of rape) is by that very act no longer a monk or nun. Lay people should be aware of this.

Then there is the misbehaviour of monks and nuns who receive and keep money, have bank accounts and other non-monastic possessions. The Buddha made it clear that this is unacceptable (Nissaggiya Pacittiya 23). Unfortunately, few Buddhist monks and nuns keep this rule these days but, at the very least, they should have few possessions and little money. The very meaning of the word monk implies one who lives simply. A monk on a big salary, with an expensive apartment and substantial savings does not deserve to be called “monk”.

Once the lay Buddhists know the conduct that is expected of a Buddhist monk or nun, then they should speak out at misconduct. It is because people either did not know what a monk or nun is allowed to do, or because they were too timid, that there are now monks on trial in Singapore! Speaking out earlier could have nipped the problem in the bud.

However, you correctly point out that speaking out could cause disharmony and a crisis of faith if done in the wrong way. So, before criticizing the misbehaviour of a monastic:

1. Make sure that you have got your facts correct.
2. Choose the right time and place. For example, it is not advisable to criticize the monastic publicly. It should be done in private, if possible.
3. Be kind when you criticize. Your intention is to help the monastic to be a better person to support Buddhism, so it should be easy to be kind wish such an intention.
4. Put the criticism in context by using the sandwich method. Comment on all that you admire about the monastic first. Then point out the faults. Lastly, emphasize that you still respect the monastic, which is why you have taken the time to speak with him. This way, you do not come across as someone trying to destroy that monk or nun, but someone sincerely wanting to help.
5. Lastly, always remember to criticize the act, not the person. Never say something like “You are a bad monk for committing fraud”. Instead say “Fraud is a bad thing to do”.

If you follow such advice, then we can all protect the peace, wisdom and compassion of Buddhism and help our monks and nuns be better leaders at the same time.

I hope that this helps.

With metta,
Ajahn Brahm

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