A Manual of the Dhamma

 Should One Honour Shameless and Immoral Monks?

    “If a person, knowing a monk to be shameless or immoral, offers the four requisites, does this amount to the blessing that says that one should honour worthy persons? Or does it contradict this advice? Kindly let us know the good or bad results with suitable evidence and case histories.”

First one should know the persons worthy of honour as mentioned in the Suttanipāta Commentary. They are 1) the Omniscient Buddha, 2) a Pacceka Buddha, 3) a Noble Disciple, 4) one’s mother, 5) one’s father, 6) one’s elder brother, 7) one’s elder sister, 8) the mother of one’s husband, 9) the father of one’s husband, 10) the elder brother of one’s husband, 11) the elder sister of one’s husband.

This commentary mentions only eleven types who are worthy of honour and respect. The commentary on the Dakkhinavibhanga Sutta further mentions that, for householders who take refuge in the Three Gems, novices, monks, and Noble Ones are worthy of honour and respect. In classifying persons who are worthy of honour we should therefore include the following: 12) an ordinary householder who accepts the three refuges, 13) an ordinary householder who maintains the five precepts, 14) an ordinary novice, 15) an ordinary monk. Thus, fifteen types of worthy persons can be found.

For ordinary novices and monks we can define three further classes: scrupulous (lajjī), shameless (alajjī), and immoral (dussīlo).

Offering almsfood and other requisites to scrupulous novices and monks amounts to the good practice enjoined in the Mangala Sutta as “honouring those worthy of honour.” One may doubt whether offerings to shameless or immoral novices and monks fulfil the Mangala Dhamma or not. The answer is that offerings to shameless novices and monks do amount to honouring those worthy of honour. The only problem to consider is whether we can classify offerings to immoral novices and monks as an auspicious deed. Many lay supporters find themselves in perplexity here. So I should give the answer in detail for clarification and guidance.

In the Visuddhimagga (Vism. 46) it says that every monk, once ordained, bears the burden of more than nine billion Vinaya rules. In the five Vinaya books explaining the Pātimokkha samvara sila, the Omniscient Buddha proclaimed innumerable rules for all monks. So every monk in this dispensation undertakes innumerable precepts and training rules, which he must learn and follow. Once the three refuges and kammavācā recitations have been completed, every monk has accepted the innumerable rules of basic monastic restraint (Pātimokkha samvara sīla).

The Omniscient Buddha’s power of making Vinaya rules and regulations for all monks is based on “Ānadesanā” — his authority or command. So once a layman receives the robes from his preceptor, he automatically transcends a layman’s status and instantly becomes a homeless one. Even at the initial stage of ordination, a candidate is worthy to receive homage and alms from lay donors. This is due to the status received from the mandatory law of the Vinaya. Lay people should show their respect by bowing, though the candidate has not yet undertaken the novice rules and regulations. At the third round of reciting the Three Refuges he automatically undertakes the novice rules and regulations. Then he is a real novice and needs no further taking of precepts as he has undertaken them automatically after the completion of the ordination procedure.

If this fully ordained novice breaks one of ten main rules,1 he destroys the status of the Three Refuges, thereby forsaking all rules of one gone forth. What remains are the asking and taking of the robe, so he has not yet reverted to the status of a layman. He is still a novice according to the Vinaya. However, he is not a true novice of the type mentioned above as he lacks the training rules. If, however, he takes the Three Refuges from the Sangha again, he undertakes the training rules again. Only if he fails to take the Three Refuges from the Sangha can he be classified as immoral, since he falsely claims to be a novice. If he does not take the Three Refuges again, he is an immoral, fallen novice. If he admits his faults, he is not classified as immoral, and he becomes a layman by this act.

Many lay people think that if a novice breaks one of the ten main rules he automatically becomes a layman. This is wrong. If the act of taking up the robes is retained, he cannot be classified as a layman. The matter of disrobing for the transgression is not the responsibility of the preceptors or teachers. The decision rests with the novice concerned. What preceptors and teachers can do is to expel an immoral novice from the Buddha’s dispensation. These explanations are in accordance with the Vinaya text2 and decisions in the commentaries. This explains the nature of an immoral novice.

Besides the ten main disciplines, a novice has to observe ten punishments and seventy-five training rules, which are classified as “offences” or “punishments.” So if a novice transgresses one in this class, no failure of the Three Refuges arises, there is no destruction of the precepts either. What fault he gets here is the breaking of restraint only. This type of offence can be cured by undergoing punishment, after which he regains his purity of restraint as before.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

The principles of Vinaya are subtle. One must think deeply on them before one can pass judgement on a novice or monk.

Let us give an example. During the time of British rule in Burma, the government conferred administrative powers on Township Officers. These officers, after appointment, could try particular cases, pass judgement according to specific rules, and prescribe suitable punishments. If they committed some offences themselves, these officers must, according to government servant conduct rules, lose their offices, while other offences resulted in suspension of duties only. These latter offences could be cured by the payment of fines. The nature of each office, its powers, types of offences and appropriate punishments were published in the Civil Service Act. According to this Act, a Township Officer automatically assumed powers conferred by the Government at his appointment. Regulations that would lead to his dismissal from office only applied when he committed specific offences. When he was dismissed, all his powers disappeared. Some misdeeds, however, caused him to pay fines, but did not lead to his dismissal; so he retained his office and still tried the cases of others. The powers conferred when assuming office, remained intact, though he himself suffered fine-paying punishment for some wrongful acts. This example is to clarify the different types of offences committed by a novice or monk.

In the Vinaya rules two main categories can be seen.

1. Samādana sīla — One takes vows and makes a determination to observe the numerous precepts. This is called “undertaking morality.” It includes the rules undertaken implicitly by performing the ordination ceremony.

2. Samvara sīla — The life of a novice or monk carries a moral duty of restraint. This is called “morality of restraint.” The restraint of the senses from sensuality is a duty of voluntary moral endeavour.

Once a novice takes the three refuges in the proper way, he automatically fulfils “undertaking morality” with this formal act. However, “morality of restraint” needs the effort to observe a precept when a chance to break it occurs. For this type of morality, a novice must cultivate the confidence and will to practise the teaching. Then he must refrain from breaking a particular rule if a chance to break it occurs.

As mentioned already, there are two types of purification or punishment for a novice. If he breaks a rule deserving expulsion, he automatically forsakes the Three Refuges, and all precepts that he had undertaken are thereby given up. Not a single training rule remains intact. If he transgresses a rule that calls for punishment or purification, he retains the virtue of taking the Three Refuges, and he still observes the precepts. Even breaking of a precept in this case does not destroy his undertaking. He retains the novice’s precepts and status. He has only broken and defiled his restraint, not his undertaking. So if he observes the prescribed punishment for purification, his purity of restraint is re-established.

In the case of a monk’s precepts, he receives them all as soon as the fourth kammavācā recitation is completed in the ordination hall. He automatically undertakes the monks’ precepts by following the ordination procedure. As for the purity of restraint, it is the same as for a novice. He must train himself in the morality of restraint.

If a monk breaks one of the four rules of defeat, all the precepts he has undertaken are automatically lost. Not a single precept or discipline remains with him. However, if he breaks any rules other than those of defeat, he has only broken and defiled his restraint of those particular rules — his undertaking of the bhikkhus’ training remains intact. This is the power of the Vinaya.

Thus a clear distinction must be made between breaking his undertaking of the bhikkhus’ training, and the breaking of his restraint. Only then can one clearly know whether a novice or a monk is shameless or immoral. This is a fundamental distinction according to the Vinaya.

Due to the establishment of the Vinaya by the command of the Omniscient Buddha, a monk undertakes more than nine billion precepts on completion of the ordination ceremony. Even if he becomes shameless immediately, since he is still a monk because of the remaining training rules, he is worthy of respect and offerings from the laity. He is clearly an honourable monk who can receive the worship and respect of the laity.

To determine whether a monk becomes immoral, depraved, and fallen, numerous points should be analysed. The rules in this regard are very subtle. The Omniscient Buddha’s Vinaya prohibitions and regulations are based on his incomparable power and boundless compassion, so they are profound and subtle. They are full of surprises too. Great is the nature and scope of the Vinaya discipline, which is very profound.

The Profundity of the Vinaya

How deep and subtle the Vinaya is can be understood from the following examples. A lay person, even after eradicating all mental defilements and becoming an Arahant, has to pay respect to and worship an ordinary monk who still has all the mental defilements. This is because a monk enjoys that status by having followed the Vinaya procedure. An ordinary monk must not bow to an Arahant lay person as his own status is higher. The Arahant is still a lay person, while the other is a monk. If the two are compared on the basis of mental purity, this injunction seems unreasonable.

There is a vast difference between a lay Arahant and an ordinary monk. The former has personally achieved nibbāna so his heart is always pure, while the latter’s heart contains many defilements, so he is not free from the suffering of the lower realms. Yet a lay Arahant has to pay respect to a monk who is just an ordinary person. In the matter of status in the Buddha’s dispensation, an ordinary monk, being a member of the Sangha, is nobler than an Arahant who is just a lay person. Why does a lay Arahant have to worship an ordinary monk? It is due to the Vinaya proclaimed with the supreme authority of the Omniscient Buddha. One can therefore realise that the power of Vinaya is imponderable and boundless in scope and extent. The Buddha’s supreme power, immeasurable wholesome kamma, and omniscience manifest themselves in laying down these unique Vinaya rules. They have effects for every monk in the Buddha’s dispensation.

Another case should be mentioned in this connection. A junior monk by one hour [or one minute] must show respect to a senior. A junior monk who is an Arahant must pay respect to and worship a senior monk, who is still just an ordinary person. However senior she may be, an Arahant nun must worship a monk who is an ordinary person. Thus a Noble One of sixty rains must revere an ordinary monk. Why? These disciplines and modes of conduct are proclaimed by the Omniscient Buddha with his full authority, which is incomparable. They are known as “ānāpaññatti” — rules made by the supreme authority and boundless compassion of the Buddha.

This power that prevails in the Vinaya, and all other Dhamma powers of the Buddha are unique. The Vinaya and Dhamma take the place of the Buddha after his demise, as he declared in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta: “Ānanda, after I pass away the Dhamma and Vinaya I have proclaimed and prescribed will be your teachers.”

These prophetic words of the Buddha are profound, and their scope is boundless. So each of the millions of precepts undertaken by a monk during his ordination represents the Buddha himself. The prophetic words of the Buddha dwell in an ordained monk, whoever he may be.

A bhikkhu in this dispensation means a fully ordained monk who has fulfilled five factors: purity of the ordination procedure, purity of the group of monks, purity of the four formal recitations of kammavaca, purity of robes and bowl, and being a qualified candidate for full ordination. Once the ceremonies of taking the three refuges and formal recitations have been done, he instantly receives and undertakes the precepts. So we can say that nine billion Buddhas dwell in his person by the power of the Buddha and efficacy of the Vinaya. He is like a pagoda where the Buddha’s relics are enshrined.

Everyone should know that a pagoda, even if it is made of mud or sand, is a sacred object of worship because the Buddha’s relics are enshrined there. Due respect must be paid to the relics enshrined therein, which represent the Buddha, even if the pagoda is made of unworthy materials. If disrespect is shown even to this type of pagoda, one accumulates unwholesome kamma.

Even if the precincts of a pagoda are littered with dust, garbage, excrement, etc., the pagoda itself remains worthy of deep respect. So everyone should bow their heads in showing due respect to the relics, which are certainly worthy of honour. If one shows disrespect on seeing a pagoda with all sorts of rubbish nearby, one accumulates unwholesome kamma.

Similarly, an ordinary monk possesses millions of Buddhas in his person, though his mind is littered with thousands of mental defilements, like garbage near a pagoda. As long as a single Vinaya precept still exists in his person, he is entitled to be worshipped by a lay Arahant. The innumerable Vinaya precepts that exist in his person represent countless Buddhas. Though he is not free from Vinaya faults, he is like a pagoda. So a lay Arahant must revere him for this reason.

If devotees consider this matter carefully, they will realise the countless Vinaya rules observed by an ordinary monk. Moreover, they will appreciate and revere the power of the Buddha, who is fully entitled to proclaim Vinaya rules and regulations, and appropriate procedures for their purification. The commanding power of the Omniscient Buddha shows its greatest effects in the Sangha established by him. The power of the Vinaya is very profound, and is hard to understand by an ordinary devotee or uneducated layman. No one can fully fathom the significance of the Vinaya’s power.

Those laymen who have not yet realised nibbāna, should examine themselves to appreciate their own characteristics and status. If they reflect wisely they will willingly pay due respects to monks, even if they are shameless. All monks ordained properly in the Sangha under the authority of the Omniscient Buddha are entitled to receive worship and respect from the laity. So an intelligent layman will pay respect, give almsfood, and show deference, even to a shameless monk. As always, vigilance is essential for the profundity of the Buddha’s rules and their wide-ranging effects to be realised.

Even in an immoral monk, part of the Vinaya’s power and its effects still exist, though he has destroyed his undertaking of the precepts by committing an offence of defeat. If a scrupulous monk accuses him of defeat without proof, or at least circumstantial evidence, it is just like accusing an innocent monk. So one who accuses an immoral monk falls into a serious offence requiring a formal meeting of the Sangha. The Vinaya text and its commentary explain this in detail.

Considering these facts in the Vinaya Pitaka, one should appreciate the Vinaya’s power that still prevails in an immoral monk. Therefore, in dealing with an immoral monk, one must consider only the power of the Vinaya, focusing on the ordination procedure he has undergone. If these facts and powers of the Vinaya are known and understood, a lay person will be able to obtain the auspicious blessing of honouring the worthy as taught in the Mangala Sutta. One should focus one’s mind only on the marvellous power and significance of the Vinaya that prevails among the monks, even in the person of an immoral monk.

This is correct. An immoral monk still retains the powerful influences of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha even after his downfall. So these three sacred authorities become objects of worship in an immoral monk. Devotees should concentrate on these worthy things only. This proper relationship between the laity and monks accords with other teachings of the Buddha. Therein he exhorts the laity to honour the Dhamma by revering the wise, intelligent, and learned monks as they represent the knowledge of Dhamma, though they may lack some purity in their conduct. So a wise devotee objectively focuses his mind only on the monk’s learning and nothing else.

The case of lay people who do not know that a monk is immoral is interesting. Thinking him to be a scrupulous monk, they offer almsfood and pay him sincere respect. The object of their worship and respect is morality, yet this monk has no morality whatsoever. In this case they obtain suitable merits for their respectful attitude and reverential acts, though the monk, being without morality, cannot symbolise a scrupulous monk at all. So there is no “receiver”, as it were. Even in this case one should not hastily judge such offerings and respect as totally useless.

The reasons for this caution can be known from ancient precedents, like the case of King Saddhātissa in ancient Sri Lanka. Cases like this provide guidance for good deeds by the laity.

The Wisdom of King Saddhātissa

Once, King Saddhātissa, knowing a monk to be shameless, controlled his mind and reformed his attitude to perform the act of reverence to this shameless monk. One day he went round the royal city sitting on his elephant. It happened that a shameless monk was fishing in the royal pond when the king and his retinue arrived at that place. As soon as he saw the royal procession, he dropped his hook and line, came up to the bank and sat quietly under a tree. Seeing this behaviour, the king wanted to offer almsfood to the shameless monk. On returning to his palace, before taking his meal, he ordered fine food to be sent to the shameless monk, because he remembered the changed behaviour at the time of his encounter.

When the ministers arrived near the pond to offer the royal food, the shameless monk was fishing again. As soon as the king and his retinue had left, he resumed his fishing. Seeing this, the ministers’ devotion and confidence disappeared. As they saw this evil behaviour in the first place they did not want to offer the almsfood. Knowing that the ministers had seen him, the monk instantly dropped his hook and line and sat quietly under a tree. The ministers had seen that he was shameless and so did not offer the royal almsfood to him. They returned to the palace and reported the matter to the king. The king asked whether they had offered the royal almsfood, they replied that they did not do so as the monk was shameless.

Then the king questioned them about the behaviour of the shameless monk when he saw them approaching. The ministers replied that he instantly dropped his fishing tackle and sat quietly under a tree. The king remarked that the monk had forsaken his shameless behaviour and shown moral shame and dread at that time. These great virtues, moral shame and dread, are two of the seven states possessed by all good persons, and are treasured by the wise. The king asked the ministers the cost of a royal breakfast. After the ministers reported the cost of the food, he said that moral shame, dread, and remorse were more valuable, and were worthy of respect as they were true riches within the heart. He again ordered them to offer the royal food to the shameless monk in view of these essential good factors found in him at one time or another. The ministers then offered the royal food with due respect and honour. They had changed their attitude.

King Saddhātissa, being intelligent and wise, possessed the powers of confidence and wisdom, so he could show respect even to a shameless monk. Somehow he sought and found a few virtues in a shameless monk and his mind was focused on these select noble states, which he revered. By instantly showing shame and dread this shameless monk showed the characteristics of a good monk, thus becoming worthy to receive the royal almsfood. Although the recipient was shameless, the noble attitude and concentration on a few noble virtues raised the king’s offering in status to the blessing of honouring the worthy. The king’s wholesome attitude was a great blessing. Seeking virtues even in a shameless monk he follows this injunction from the Mangala Sutta.



  1. Not to be confused with the novice’s ten precepts. (ed.)
  2. “I allow you, monks, to expel a novice with [any of] ten faults. He kills living beings, steals, is unchaste, tells lies, drinks intoxicants, criticises the Buddha, Dhamma, or Sangha, holds a wrong view, or seduces a nun.” (Vin. i. 85).

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