Bhikkhu Bodhi on the Three Reflections of a Renunciant

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi | June 5, 2020

 Photo by Dave Getzschman

Three Reflections of a Renunciant | Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

by The Fourth Messenger Podcast

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In the Anguttara Nikāya, Book of Tens, Sutta 101, the Buddha says there are three themes that should be frequently reflected upon by one who has gone forth into the homeless life. These are also the first three of the ten themes that should be reflected upon by one who has gone forth in the Dasadhamma Sutta (AN 10.108), but the first three form a distinct set. 

The first is: “Vevaṇṇiy’amhi ajjhūpagato` ti pabbajitena abhinham paccavekkhitabbam. This means, literally, “‘I have entered upon a classless condition’: this is something that should be frequently reflected upon by one who has gone forth into the homeless life.” In the Buddha’s time, society was divided into four social classes. These were called vanna in Pāli, or varna in Sanskrit: the brahmins, the priestly caste; the kshatriyas, the administrative or governing class; the vaishyas, the mercantile, business and cultivating class; and the shudras, the workers, the laboring class. Below these were those who performed the lowest jobs in society, the outcasts, considered even lower than the working class. In the Buddha’s time everybody within society belonged to one of the four varnas, unless one was an outcast. In Indian society people were extremely conscious of their class position in society, which entailed distinct privileges, duties, and claims regarding food, marriage, financial obligations, and social relations with the other classes. But when one goes forth into the homeless life, one gives up all these social obligations and one becomes simply a homeless one. One has entered upon a classless condition and is then totally outside the class system. Those who take ordination into the Buddhist order become simply monastic followers of the Buddha, without class distinctions.

In one sutta, the Buddha illustrates this point with a simile. When the waters of the four major rivers flow down and reach the ocean, they give up their separate identities–as water from the Ganges River, water from the Mahi River, water from the Saraswati River, and water from the Yamuna River–and become known simply as the water of the ocean. Similarly, he says, when people from the four social classes go forth into the homeless life they give up their personal names, their family names, and their class identity, and become known simply as samanas, ascetics, who are followers of Sakyaputta, the son of the Sakyan Clan, that is, the Buddha. 

In American society we do not have quite the same kind of rigid class system as India had, but we use many other ways to distinguish people into different types. Some have university degrees; some have been scientists, businessmen, professors, manual laborers, technicians, artists or musicians, and so forth. Some are in a high income bracket, others in a low income bracket. Some are from Red States, others from Blue States. Some move in these social circles, some move in those social circles. However, when we become Buddhist monks or nuns we give up all these distinguishing marks that might have defined us in lay life, all these characteristics that make us stand out as particular individuals, shaping us as individual selves. We aim to give up these distinguishing characteristics and become simply followers of the Enlightened One. 

We all imitate the appearance of the Buddha. When the Buddha left the palace to become a seeker of truth, he cut off his hair and beard, gave up his princely robes and put on the brown robes of an ascetic. And we too do the same: we shave our heads, shave our faces clean, and exchange our lay clothing for the monastic robes. From the Buddha’s time until the present, there have been many changes in fashion. Every year there are four changes in fashion: fall fashions, winter fashions, spring fashions, and summer fashions. If you are fashion conscious, you need new clothes for each change of season. However, for 2,500 years of Buddhist monastic history, there have been no changes in fashion. It’s always been the same three robes, basically the same cut and color. If you look at a crowd of monks and your son is among them, with a shaved head and brown robes, you have to look very carefully to single him out. It’s no longer the obvious head of hair, the familiar facial features; for they all look pretty much alike. 

As monks, we train ourselves inwardly to eliminate the attachment to those features and qualifications that might single us out as somebody special. In Pali we say that the ideal for a monk is to become akiñcano, which means “a nothing,” a “nobody.” In worldly life the aim is to become somebody special. When I became a monk my parents used to say to me, “What are you? You have to be somebody. You’re a nothing.” I would reply: “I’m not yet a nothing. That’s my ideal but I still have a long way to go before I’m a nothing. In the quarters where I hang out, if I were to say, ‘I’m a nothing’, that would be considered boasting.” 

So we constantly reflect: vevaṇṇiy’amhi ajjhūpagato’ ti, “I have entered into the state of one who is without any claim to special qualities, a state without distinctive marks.” We aim to divest ourselves of any claims to be someone special. Of course, we also try to be someone special in terms of our personal qualities, but we do so without attachment to them, without identification with them. We always try to be low, humble, ordinary, simple Buddhist monks or nuns simply following the example of the Buddha, conforming to the same discipline, maintaining the same appearance. At the same time, however, we also maintain the dignity of those who bear responsibility for sustaining the Buddha’s teaching in the world.

The second theme for reflection: Parapaṭibaddhā me jivikā ti pabbajitena abhiṇhaṃ paccavekkhitabbhaṃ. “‘My very life is bound up with and dependent on others’: this is often to be reflected upon by one who has gone forth into homelessness.” People living in the world try to be self-sufficient, to be independent, to be autonomous, and even to be able to provide for many others. But when one becomes a Buddhist monastic, one deliberately places oneself in a position of dependence on others for one’s basic needs: robes, food, a dwelling place, and medicines. We don’t work at jobs to earn money; we don’t go to shops and buy things for ourselves. We depend on the offerings of others, on their generosity. We deliberately place ourselves in this position because that is expected of one who has gone forth into homelessness. 

One goes forth into homelessness to devote one’s life to the purification of the mind, to the understanding of the Dhamma, to the realization of truth. Yet this quest for truth and liberation is not a self-centered quest; it’s a quest that opens us to the world. We who have gone forth invite the people of the world to join us on this quest for enlightenment, we give them the opportunity to participate in this quest, and we do so by giving them the opportunity to contribute the material means to support us as we wholeheartedly seek to purify our hearts and penetrate the truth of the Dhamma. 

Thus one symbol of the monastic life is the almsbowl. It is a symbol that represents the nature of our life as Buddhist monastics. It might seem that living by an almsbowl means that you’re a beggar living off the hard work of others. But when we understand the situation through the eye of Dhamma, we see that it is the monastic person standing at the door with the almsbowl in hand who is providing the gift to the person who has the opportunity to offer alms. In Asian Buddhist culture, when a monastic person goes on almsround, that person is extending the charisma of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the spiritual power of the Dhamma to the whole society. Simply by walking silently from door-to-door collecting almsfood, he is letting the spiritual energy of the Dhamma pervade the whole world. It’s through this act of going for alms, walking from door-to-door slowly and mindfully, that the monk or the nun is giving the householder the opportunity to share in this collective work of walking the way towards the goal of enlightenment and liberation. 

The monastic person has fully dedicated his or her life to this task. The layperson is still bound by the responsibilities of household life, but by walking for alms, by putting oneself into a position of dependence, a monastic person gives the householder an opportunity to share in that journey towards enlightenment. This gives the householder an opportunity to send down the wholesome roots of saddhā, of faith, to practice dāna, generosity, to develop the mind of relinquishment, to generate the roots of merit that will bring happiness and joy in this life and benefits and spiritual progress in many future lives. So when we live in dependence on others, we do not become helpless dependent parasites; rather, this is our way of opening to and benefiting the world, and those who help the monastics in their lives by providing them with their requisites gain many benefits in return. They’re also participating in this work of liberation, developing the wholesome, virtuous qualities that will flow through their own minds, bringing joy and happiness, bringing peace and wisdom.

The third reflection recommended for those who have entered on the homeless life is: Añño me ākappo karaṇīyo ti. “‘My manner must be different from others’: this is something which should be often reflected upon by one who has gone forth in the homeless life.” When we go forth into the homeless life, we take on a great responsibility. By wearing these robes and having a shaved head we inevitably stand out in a crowd. When we go into an airport, eyes fasten on us, “Who is that strange person?” If we are walking down the street, eyes fasten on us, “Why is this one dressed differently than others?” If we are in a subway the eyes fix on us, “Why is this one different from others?” So the monastic person dresses differently, and therefore looks different. Some people will realize: “This one is a Buddhist monk.” Or if it’s a woman, they will know: “That’s a Buddhist nun.” And they’ll take that person as representing the Buddha’s teaching. They may know little about Buddhism, but they base their assessment of Buddhism on what they can observe in the conduct of this person. 

People are prone to rush to quick judgments, and so we have this responsibility in our behavior, our appearance, our manner, of representing Buddhism properly, with dignity, with poise, with inner collectedness. Our behavior, our manner, our appearance, must be on a level with the inherent greatness and grandeur of the Buddha’s teaching itself. So whether we’re alone or out in the world among those who are not Buddhists, we have to maintain a high standard of proper deportment, of proper conduct. 

That is one reason why we have a very extensive code of monastic discipline, the Vinaya, which lays down many rules of conduct. Some of these rules are concerned with the basic principles of ethical training, principles that pertain to the essence of the monastic life. But many rules are not concerned with the essence of the training but with maintaining proper deportment when one moves in society. For example, one doesn’t go running down the street, because if one runs one looks undignified. If one has to move quickly, one should walk briskly, but not too quickly, keeping a moderate pace so that one never loses one’s self-composure and inner dignity. When one walks, one shouldn’t swing the arms back and forth but keeps one’s arms at one’s side. We don’t look around at all the interesting sights—at what’s for display in the shop windows–but we display the appearance of one who is self-possessed and has control over the sense faculties. So our mode of deportment, our mode of bearing, should display the characteristics of a samana, that is, of one who has dedicated his or her life to developing mindfulness and inner peace.

These three themes taught by the Buddha will be good starting points for reflection for all of us, even for householders who wish to understand the monastic training. So one who has gone forth should first reflect: “I have entered upon a classless state,” which we can take to mean a state where I give up any special claims to distinctness, to being somebody special. Instead, I should aim at being akiñcano, a person who is “nobody special,” who makes no claims to stand out based on extrinsic worldly qualities; of course, one should strive to perfect the excellent qualities distinctive of a monastic person. Second, one should reflect: “My very life is dependent upon others.” By making myself dependent upon others I am opening my life to others, and enabling others to advance in generosity and in goodness. 

By doing so, however, my conduct, my deportment, must be different, must be distinctive, must have the dignity that is commensurate with the greatness of the Buddha’s teaching, so that when I go out into the world, I go forth as a representative of the Buddha’s Dhamma. Thus the third reflection, “My manner must be different from others.” Those who see me should think that this is a peaceful person, a self-composed person, a person with inner dignity. This can inspire others and, in fact, has inspired many others to draw close to the Dhamma. Such conduct can arouse curiosity about the Buddha’s teaching and lead them along the way to enlightenment and liberation. 

This article is based on a talk given by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi at an ordination ceremony held at Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, in April 2007.