Life in the Saffron Forest: Chapter 6

Ajahn Khemadhammo at Wat Pah Nanachat

Allow me to give a short explanation of the monks’ discipline:

A person who is ordained in the Buddhist religion is obliged to observe the code of discipline (vinaya)—the two hundred and twenty-seven rules. The monks must observe a great number of rules, more than the legal clauses issued by Thailand’s fourteenth prime minister, Thanin Kraivichian. If a monk transgresses one of these rules he falls into an ‘offence’ (āpatti). Monastic offences can be classified into three main groups:

  1. Grave offences: if a monk violates these rules, he immediately falls away from the state of being a monk, regardless whether someone else is aware of this offence or not. From the instant after the offence, this person becomes a bald-headed rogue wearing a saffron robe. He has no right to call himself a representative of the saffron forest. The Buddha referred to such a person as a ‘shameless ascetic’ (alajjī) or a ‘crownless palm.’ He has no chance to prosper in the Buddhist religion. These offences include: A) to engage in sexual intercourse with a human being or an animal; B) to steal something with a value of five ‘māsakas’ or more (a māsaka equals roughly the value of one baht). [Translator: there are debates over the exact value of five māsaka. One guideline to use is that for this to be an offence, the value of the stolen object must be such that, as it states in the original: ‘Kings would banish him, saying: “You are a thief”!’]; C) to boast about superhuman attainments: to deliberately and falsely claim to possess exceptional spiritual powers or attainments, which one in truth does not possess; D) to kill another human being.
  2. Moderately serious offences: if a monk transgresses one of these rules, he is still considered a monk, but he must live under probation (parivāsa) and perform a penance (mānatta). He is penalized and ostracized according to sangha procedures, the details of which I won’t go into here. An example of such an offence is the deliberate emission of semen (which in the ‘massage parlours’ is called ‘going to the royal park’). After a monk has passed through this chastisement he is restored to purity.
  3. Minor offences: this group contains many rules, including those having to do with polite decorum and with eating. If a monk transgresses one of these rules all he needs to do to settle this matter is to confess the offence to another monk and vow not to transgress this rule in the future. Take for example eating after midday, which I mentioned in an earlier chapter. According to the Vinaya this is a minor offence classified as an offence of expiation (pācittiya). Transgressing this rule is therefore not a matter of life and death.

In the case of Luang Poo Non (mentioned in the last chapter), he had no intention to transgress a rule. He was an ancient monk who transcended time and was not attached to anything. He ate food simply to keep his body alive. He was truly beyond reproach (pāpa-mutta). If you ask me, I believe that Luang Poo had attained a high stage of enlightenment.

Although eating food in the evening is a minor offence, the laypeople consider it a very important matter: it is a ‘mundane offence’ (loka-vajja), that is, it is conduct criticized by the general public. Monks in Thailand therefore don’t often transgress this rule. Having said this, in some parts of Thailand the laypeople don’t mind. In the North, for example, the laypeople even prepare and offer supper to the monks when they visit their homes in the evening. The monks do not cause a loss of faith in the laypeople; when they have satisfied their hunger they return to the monastery and confess their sins.

At Wat Bahn Huay, however, the rules governing food were held very strictly. If a monk or novice was caught eating food in the evening the punishment imposed would be to carry water, mop the kutis, sweep the monastery courtyard, and to clean the monks’ rooms. If someone walked by one had to call out: ‘I ate in the evening!’ The humiliation would last for a long time. And if one was a novice, besides the penalties imposed above, one also had to taste the sting of Luang Por’s cane.

Only I escaped punishment from eating in the afternoon. The abbot didn’t cane me on the day of my ordination when I ate a sticky-rice cake because he knew that it was unintentional, that I wasn’t aware that this was an offence. And the second (and final) time I ate in the afternoon as a novice I also miraculously escaped from punishment.

The story is as follows: there were three friends who ordained as monks: Venerables Dtu, Sila, and Boonnah. Intimate friends tend to share the same activities. There was a rumour, however, that these three venerable sirs were regularly sneaking off to eat food in the evenings. This news I received from Nane Boonkay, whom I didn’t generally trust. Whenever he whispered this news to me I would tell him off.

It happened one day, however, that I saw these three jump over the monastery fence and take a shortcut leading to the back of the adjoining school. They were acting suspiciously so I adopted the personality of Sherlock Holmes and shadowed them. The three hid behind a large bush, proceeded to pull out a packet of sticky rice and pickled fish from their robes, and tucked right in. I slowly crept closer to them to get a better look, but carelessly stepped on a dry twig—‘crack.’ One of the three quickly sprang forward and dragged me into their circle.

‘Well done, stupid Tadpole,’ Ven. Dtu said with stress in his voice. ‘You came to find fault with us and to inform Luang Por, right?’

‘No.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

‘No? Well, look here!’ Ven. Dtu shouted while rapping my head with his knuckles—whack—so that I had to rub my head. He then forced me to hand him the food, leaving the rest of us completely bewildered.

‘What are you doing, Dtu?’ asked Ven. Sila.

‘I am making Tadpole offer the food!’

‘What?! Eating food in the evening is already wrong. It doesn’t make a hell of a difference to force a novice to offer it,’ laughed Ven. Sila.

Ven. Dtu didn’t let up. ‘Well, we’ll only be guilty of eating in the evening—not of eating unoffered food.’

‘I say we do this….’ said Ven. Boonnah, who had been quiet up to now. ‘Let’s have this delinquent novice eat as well. That way he won’t tell Luang Por!’

The other two nodded in agreement.

And this pickled fish was the most delicious I had ever had.


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