Translating languages can be a tricky endeavour. Words have so many associations within the culture of one language that the corresponding literal translation may not even have the same meaning in another. Harder still is when the language we are translating is 2000 years old and currently not spoken as a vernacular. There are many words in the pali language of early buddhism where translations into english or other european languages have skewed our understanding of that tradition. One such word is the buddhist term bhiksu, or what has been translated into english as ‘monk’. The proper meaning of this pali word is, in fact, ‘beggar’. In western terms, our understanding and placement of monk and beggar within our society have very different connotations.
So if we translate the word correctly we see that the first followers of Siddhatha Gotama, the buddha, were required to own nothing except the rags on their back, a bowl for alms and maybe medicine if required for illness. For their very survival they were dependent on others; not just their own fellow bhiksus but also the householders, farmers and merchants of the society they lived in. They had no money or shelter. Never for a moment could they forget that they relied on others for their survival. It was an ongoing lesson for these renunciants on the interdependent nature of their relationships.
Let’s not be simplistic though – not everyone chooses the life of the beggar. How a person ends up in that role has many reasons but it is revealing to look at our attitudes to those who either choose this role freely or who have arrived there through misfortune.
How willing are we to give?
In our 21st century world we often consider the ‘destitute’ at best with pity and at worst with aversion. Dependency is often seen as weakness and for some, supporting dependency a greater weakness. What, though, if the figure in the image above were a bhiksu, having donned the mud dyed robes of the holy life, a serious practitioner of the dhamma, one who has left behind the security of a householders life? Or what if they were mentally ill, a drug dependent drop-out or just a ‘slacker’?
Would we give more willingly or walk past like we do any other beggar?
Often our willingness to give is coloured by our preconceptions. Here are a few – The welfare state will look after these people. This person has created their own destitution. They will spend the money on their own demise. I cannot afford to give…and so on. These are simple rationalisation and may well be correct in some cases but completely miss an important part of giving; the effect it has on the giver.
To give without conditions is training in generosity. We cannot nurture this positive trait without putting it into action. Any opportunity should be a cause for consideration. The beggar gives us a chance to move away from the bondage of greed. To go back to the bhiksus of 400 BCE India and a true understanding of their role, they placed themselves within their own society to allow the people around them have the opportunity to be generous. This benefited the bhiksu as part of their spiritual practise but it was also their gift to the people around them.
The clay begging bowl of 2500 years ago or the paper coffee cup of today, can be a powerful symbol of non-attachment. Both the receiver and the giver need to let go of pre-conceived ideas of I, me or mine – we need to give without attachment and also receive without attachment. This was one of the more radical messages of the buddha and one that we should heed today…