A look at the protocol of the monks use of the offering cloth – in response to a recent talk in Bangkok by a well known Indologist and Pali scholar, who was criticising Buddhism and Buddhists on several fronts.
If you have been around Thai monks at all you will have seen the curious tradition of them receiving things from ladies via an ‘offering cloth’, which is a handkerchief sized orange cloth, or other handy item, spread out before the monk so that he can receive things without any physical contact.
The reason forthis custom between monks and women should be obvious. Every monastic order around the world maintains a degree of separation between the sexes. Particularly celibate orders. In fact, even cub scouts/girl guides, bathrooms and changing rooms in offices or stores, the army …. everywhere there is a degree of separation between the sexes. It is something that all societies agree on . Where there are celibate orders it obvious why the boundaries are clarified and laid out even more formally.
The etiquette with the offering cloth is this: if a female is offering food, clothing or medicine to a monk, he will lay a cloth/bowl or other suitable item in front of him. The lady puts the item on the cloth and it is then ‘offered’ – which means it has formally been given to the Sangha of monks. And of course laymen follow the same protocol with Nuns.
Men also should formally offer food/cloth/medicine to the monks, but can do so by putting directly into the hands of the receiver.
This tradition was seized upon by a (supposedly expert) speaker in Bangkok a few days ago, as a dire sexist travesty.
Naturally the same protocol is followed when men are offering to Buddhist Nuns or Mae Chees- a point ignored by those who love to promote conflict
Things are ‘offered’ in this way so there is no discrepancy between what has been given to the monk and what has not – so that he does not take something on presumption, that the owner might not feel is appropriate. If a layperson touches the offered item after this point, it is then considered ‘unoffered’ and the monk will not take it for his own use.
Much of this is Thai tradition rather than encoded Buddhist vinaya (list of rules for monks). In fact, by the book, you can ‘offer’ something by word, gesture or receptacle (such as a bowl). But in Thailand the culture here likes to make things more clear, so things are only ‘offered’ when put directly into the hands of the receiver.
If on the other hand you are simply passing something to a monk rather than formally offering, such as passing a pen or book, then ladies are asked to put the item down first, and then the monk will pick the item up. If a male, you can pass the item directly into the hands of the monk. Similarly the monk will not pass something directly to a lady, but will place the item down somewhere first. If there is nowhere handy to place things, there is the funny looking ‘drop’ method where the item is dropped into the hands of the receiver – dropped either by the lady or the monk depending on who is passing to who.
There is often a relaxation of the protocol as appropriate, so don’t be surprised if it is not always followed to the letter.
The reason for the separation should be obvious to any sensible person. Men and women are attracted to each other, the whole world over. Just because someone is a monk or a nun does not make them immune to lust. Keeping a clear cut boundary of proper behavior between the sexes is to respect a person’s decision to keep the celibate life. Sometimes Westerners ask why women are not supposed to touch a monk. To which the answer is clear – it is the monk who is not supposed to touch the women!
The speaker several days ago jumped from this simple concept to the term ‘untouchable’as a delibarate ploy to stir controversy, knowing full well that the caste system and the ‘untouchable’ concept in India are rejected by Buddhism. As a self proclaimed ‘life-long academic’ how much research did the speaker present ? How many monks and nuns had he canvassed ? How many monks/nuns do you know who consider the whole of the opposite sex ‘unclean’ or ‘untouchable’ ? Sadly there are always those listeners who get excited by such calculated contention without questioning.
It is very unfortunate that some people who just love conflict, like to declare that women are somehow ‘unclean’ in the eyes of monks, or that they will be somehow tainted by a woman’s touch. Try asking a monk if he considers his mother or sister ritually unclean – what would the answer be based on your experience of Buddhism? Such a view is every bit as ignorant and stupid as it seems. But there are always those who love conflict – if not actually creating it, then buying into it and adding fuel to a stupid misinformation typical of ‘gutter press’ sensationalism.
The offering cloth is simply a protocolkept to maintain a separation between celibates and the opposite sex. It is no judgement of the opposite sex. When a man offers something to a nun he too will be asked to follow the same protocol, by placing the item down first, or by formally offering on a cloth while ladies can offer and pass things directly to nuns (and Mae Chees). Is this a judgement of the Nuns that all males are ‘unclean’? Such a view is as stupid as it sounds, yet bizarrely some people buy into this ‘blame-game’.
To a celibate monastic, male or female, it is not the opposite sex that is a defilement, but lust. When you are living as a celibate, it means you are trying to put aside sexual attraction, difficult as that is for all human beings. It is a powerful urge, and famously the Buddha once taught that if there were 2 such powerful urges then the living of the Holy Life would be impossible. Respecting the degree of separation is a way to respect the person’s choice to live without sexual contact.
The suggestion in this abrasive talk in Bangkok, was that if this protocol was about lust and not a view of females as ‘unclean’, then why is it maintained with young children and older ladies? Again the argument is as stupid as it sounds. Even young girls and older ladies can be attractive – with the advances coming from either direction. And besides, what monk or nun would waive the protocol by considering the person too old, too ugly or too young? And would the nuns be considering men also unclean rather than just maintaining the appropriate degree of separation according to the social norms?
In fact there is often a slackening of the protocol when dealing with family members or in informal situations where there is no obvious issue of sexual attraction. And similarly more care is taken with young and beautiful people both male and female, where things are more likely to be taken out of context.
Thai or Buddhist?
The offering cloth is not strictly a Buddhist tradition so much as it is a Thai tradition. Sri Lankan and Myanmese monks will not usually use the offering cloth in their own countries, though of course they will follow it in Thailand out of respect for the Thai culture. Sadly there will always be people who like to try and highlight ‘faults’ of other cultures, arrogantly asserting their own standards as superior. The rest of us though can move comfortably through different cultural norms without conflict. In Thailand the separation between the sexes and monastics is maintained across the offering cloth to ensure there is no physical contact. It is quite a nice tradition in fact, and is nothing too serious.
In India the cultural norms are again different. There is a suggestion in that culture that menstruation makes women somehow unclean. The origin of this tradition is that evil spirits linger around a menstruating woman in hope of finding a womb to give them rebirth – it is the spirits that are defiled, not the women. But anyway, it would go against everything we know and expect of the peaceful teaching of Buddhism if Buddhists were to buy into such an outlook. Yes there are some issues between the sexes in Buddhism that might be considered somewhat controversial, but we should restrict those discussions to a) a respectful and productive dialogue and b) to the factual issues. Sadly both these boundaries are ignored by some Westerners who just love their conflict at any price.
A much more interesting issue is why monastic traditions of all religions are so down on lust and sex. What is wrong with lust ? What is its effect and what is the result of renouncing it? At what point of contact or action is celibacy breached? All good topics for sensible discussion ….