During our Dharma talk discussion about money last Tuesday night, one of the sangha members asked why the Buddha made the rule that the persons taking refuge with the Buddha—noble disciples, now called Buddhist monks—could not own or acquire wealth. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to answer this question completely, so this article is a more in-depth response.
The Buddha’s rule for anyone joining his order was that a disciple-to-be must relinquish all worldly possessions (not just wealth). A noble disciple essentially became “homeless.” He or she was allowed to own only a robe and a begging bowl. No more, no less.
It’s important, first of all, to understand the culture during the Buddha’s era. There were over a hundred different religions in India at that time, and the people were heavily steeped in the religious underpinnings of their culture. People who chose the holy life as their path often became wandering ascetics with only their robes and a bowl.
The ascetics left their homes and spent their days praying, meditating, and performing various prescribed practices. Such devotees did not have the time or energy to work for food as well. Householders or noblemen who respected the ascetics’ commitment to their spiritual paths saw it as an honor to feed these homeless wanderers. And sometimes the wandering ascetics gave them the benefit of a spiritual teaching.
The Buddha himself left his home, family, and life as a wealthy prince to become a wandering ascetic, with only a robe and a bowl in his possession. That was the path of the holy life at that time. So it was in keeping with the times that the Buddha continued this expectation of those who took refuge with him.
But there was more to the practice of asceticism than merely following tradition. The Buddha taught that forfeiting wealth and possessions can create both practical and spiritual benefits:
- The disciple’s mind becomes clearer and calmer if it’s not preoccupied with attaining and retaining possessions. No things to worry about.
- The mind suffers less greed and craving when it becomes accustomed to a life without the need to acquire.
- The constant traveling of a wandering ascetic is not burdened with possessions to haul around.
- The ascetics’ practice of begging for alms gives householders the opportunity to practice generosity.
- Generosity to the ascetics improves karma.
- In receiving alms, the disciples could practice gratitude.
These rules made sense 2500 years ago in that particular culture. I can’t state with certainty all the reasons ordained monks continue this tradition. I assume they hope to continue the noble practices for the reasons listed above, with the emphasis being upon lessening the strength of the “Greedy” or “Wanting” Mind.
I’ve heard Jack Kornfield talk about the time when he returned to the States as a Buddhist monk. He donned his robe and attempted to go on alms rounds with his food bowl in a major US city. Apparently, it didn’t go over very well. He was often either shunned or ignored. So I don’t think we in contemporary Western society would benefit in the manner the early disciples did by begging for alms.
I’ve heard it said that people without money are typically preoccupied with wanting more money and planning how to get it. Meanwhile, people with money are oftentimes preoccupied with wanting to hold on to it as wells as acquire more. From a spiritual perspective, owning nice things is not in itself “bad,” nor is being homeless. The key is to be okay with whatever we have and to do whatever is necessary to live this life without wanting or greed taking over our minds.
Although becoming a homeless “holy” person in our society may not always be a viable option, simplifying our lives and learning to work skillfully with the “Wanting Mind” is a wonderful opportunity we lay people (householders) can experience every day.