The Overturned Alms Bowl: When One is Unworthy to Serve

By Ittoku
Buddhistdoor Global | 2010-05-01 |
“The bowl may be overturned for a lay follower endowed with (any of) eight qualities: He/she strives for the monks' material loss, strives for the monks’ detriment, strives for the monks' non-residence, insults and reviles monks, causes monks to split from monks, speaks in dispraise of the Buddha, speaks in dispraise of the Dhamma, speaks in dispraise of the Sa?gha. I allow that the bowl be overturned for a lay follower endowed with (any of) these eight qualities.” (Cv. V.20.3)
I have always been fascinated by the history of Buddhism and its ramifications for the present: in other words, the causes that demand an “effect” or answer from Buddhist laypeople and clergy alike. The history of Buddhism is not free from politics, despite the former’s transcendence of the latter. From the moment kings, traders and merchants patronized the Buddha, along with influential socialites like courtesans and nobles, the tradition he founded discovered not only the need but the inevitability of engaging with the larger world and its society. Furthermore, it is clear that the monastic lawyers and editors of the Vinaya were geniuses in enforcing the otherworldly sanctity of the clerical fold, but at the same time forcing them to interact with laypeople for the sake of alms and donations.
But what happens when those very laypeople contravene or violate the basic rules of conduct and morality laid down by basic Buddhist morality, or treat the sa?gha as detailed in the quote above? What does it mean to overturn the alms bowl, which has happened several times in history, most recently in the so-called “Saffron Revolution” of 2007 in Burma?
A Buddhist is an individual who has faith in the principle of karma, moral causality and personal responsibility. But some tend to have an absent or skewed understanding of the fruits and results of good and bad actions. Their actions result in great suffering for others. Patta-nikkujjana-kamma is the final resort taken by the otherwise apolitical repository of sanctity (the Community) against those who become unworthy to even offer them food. It denotes a monastic community’s refusal to accept offerings from a particular person, and thus having nothing to do with them.
The procedure follows something like this: the Community meets and agrees to the statement, which through voting and proclaiming, explains the person's wrongdoing and announces that the community is overturning its bowl to him or her. The local Community then informs other Communities that they, too, are not to accept alms or offerings from the household of that person, who are also to be informed about it. If they change their current wrongdoings, the sa?gha can decide to turn its bowl upright again.
Outwardly there is nothing intimidating about it – monks are simply overturning their bowls – but in a Buddhist society, or for those who understand the implications, it is a serious condemnation indeed: it exposes the fallacy of a political leader’s claim to be a supporter of Buddhism and, furthermore, deprives them of a source of spiritual legitimization. Since the genius of the Vinaya is to force the monks to live in relation with lay society through alms, accepting food and requisites from a particular interest group or faction can be said to be an indirect endorsement. But when passive endorsement of an immoral faction becomes intolerable for the monks, they will initiate patta-nikkujjana-kamma. It is true that the religious duties of the sa?gha take priority over politically charged interventions. But it is the monks’ very act of doing the latter rather than the former that highlights the seriousness of particular leaders’ violations of morality. It is a statement that recognizes that  performing the conventional rituals which do not threaten the status quo and help to legitimize the regime, are no longer satisfactory or even desirable.
So most importantly, patta-nikkujjana-kamma is a moral statement. Its silence speaks: “As monks, we depend on others to feed us. But even if we were to starve, we would not accept your feeding us. You are not worthy to even prostrate before us. Your crimes against other people are that grave.”
It is a declaration that when a person is unworthy to serve, moral grievances must be addressed before one can be worthy to give and serve the Community. And so I emphasize, overturning the bowl is not primarily a political statement, despite some writers’ attempts to construe it as such. It is fundamentally a moral declaration, a verdict against an individual or force that has gone too far. It is the peaceful voice of a usually detached monk forced to seek justice. The establishment or institution of the Buddhist temple or monastery (vih?ra) remains in the world for the benefit of others, and as long as it is in the world it will need to benefit others.


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