- Of Child Ordination and
the Rights of Children
- The Associated Newspapers
Colombo -- At the
outset, I must state that I appreciate Dr. Obeysekere bringing out into the open a topic,
which would be regarded in many circles as taboo but is worth 'airing'.
Dr. Obeysekere says in his article,
"my concern here is with the whole problem of child monks because this seems to be a
violation of both the letter and the spirit of Theravada Vinaya ..."
But I would like to ask the question
The rule that a boy has to be fifteen
years to "go forth" (pabbaja, which is different from upasampada or higher
ordination) was qualified by another rule, which Obeysekere cites, viz., "I allow
you, monks, to let a youth of less than fifteen years of age and who is a scarer of crows
to "go forth". (Vin. 1.79) Obeysekere says that unlike the former rule, the
latter "is so vague that it simply cannot be applied to our times". I do not
agree. The Vinaya atthakatha (commentary) 1003, explains the word uttepeti as "having
taken a clod of earth in his left hand, he is able, sitting down and having made the
crow's fly up (kake uddapetva) to eat a meal put down in front of (him)'. It has a simple
explanation unlike some dark, mysterious and incomprehensible element in a Gothic Tale. It
must surely mean that the boy can look after himself and does not need a "baby
sitter", so to speak.
In this connection, I remember a radio
feature recorded by the late Lala Adittiya in the 1970's, which described how a farmer in
Sri Lanka had employed children to chase away birds from a field of ripening grain. The
actualities recorded on tape included the noise made by children clapping their hands
together and shouting. This is a fairly common sight even today in rural areas, I am told.
Lala certainly witnessed that scene in Haputale in the 70's. Does this not indicate that
we have here an example of a practice that existed in the Buddha's time which still exists
in our part of the world?
Another Vinaya rule was laid down with
regard to children "going forth" when king Suddhodhana expressed a parent's and
a grand parent's heartfelt sorrow at a child or grand child renouncing household life. The
Buddha, taking his words into consideration, formulated the following rule: "Monks, a
child who has not his parents consent should not be allowed to go forth ..." So then,
this is the criterion with regard to a child's pabbaja. The parents' consent is vital. The
rule does not specify a particular age but it is a direct outcome of king Suddhodana's
request with regard to Rahula's "going forth" at 7 years. (Vin. 1.83)
It is most enlightening to see what
prompted that formulation of the exception to the earlier quoted rule of not allowing boys
under fifteen to "go forth". It is stated in the story connected to the rule
that a family, which was supporting Ven. Ananda, died of malaria and only two young boys
survived. These two boys on seeing monks going on their alms round ran up to the monks
only to be told to go away. Whereupon they began to cry. Ven. Ananda, ever compassionate
as always, having observed this scene and being deeply concerned that "they should
not be lost, "kena nu kho upayena ime daraka na vinasseyyun ti" (now by what
means might these boys not be lost?) reported the matter to the Buddha who then inquired
"But, Ananda, can they even chase crows?" On receiving the answer to the
affirmative, he then gave permission to let them "go forth" and formulated the
exception to the earlier rule. We see then that the motive originated in compassion for
the two-orphaned boys. This, then, is what should be taken in to account.
As a young socio-anthropologist told me
"Giving a child to a temple is a coping mechanism of the poor Buddhists of Sri Lanka,
Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. By letting children "go forth", parents also hope
that the child will grow up in a disciplined, spiritually refined environment and to a
great extent their expectations are met.
From the child's point of view, senior
monks are often lenient with young Samanera monks. They are allowed to play with other
little boys of the village, within the temple premises. Vinaya rules, which apply to
Samanera monks, consist of only ten whereas for fully ordained monks there are 220.
Upbringing in a very poor family falls
short of the ideal, for parents are too pre-occupied with the material aspect of the
survival of their, too often, large families and neglect the "bringing up"
process of the child. In a temple environment, a child is benefited by having not only
food, clothing and shelter but a certain degree of discipline, guidance and education
also. Even Obeysekere admits in his article "... in general village monks are morally
responsible human beings".
I would like to quote a few statistics,
which reveal a very grim picture of the ills which poverty breeds in our country. The
following figures are not certified but have been roughly estimated by Child Rights groups
and organisations working in this field. It is said one hundred thousand children are
employed as domestic labour. Thirty to fifty thousand comprise sexually abused children
and of these five thousand are acknowledged to being sold into sexual activity. 51% of
Colombo's population live in shanty towns which are cess pools of vice - drug addiction,
alcoholism, child abuse and prostitution. Compared to this sordid scenario, a Buddhist
monastery must seem like a haven.
Of course, prospective Samanera monks do
not come always from the "poorest of the poor". During the Buddha's time, the
Sangha was an elitist organization. Its members were drawn from the upper classes and even
royalty, though the poor and downtrodden were not debarred from entering the Sangha. It
was so even in Sri Lanka.
The socio-anthropologist I spoke to does
not think that the "going forth" of children should be politicised but families
allowed to give children to the temple, as is the age-old custom. It is preferable if the
child is of an age to decide for himself whether he would like to enter the monastic life
or not but she thinks it is far better than the alternative of a child having to enter the
labour market which would kill his childhood and blight his future as an adult.
The incidence of child abuse (if any) in
Buddhist monasteries is not known. There are no statistics. Of course, a Samanera monk can
leave the Order any time if he finds the temple atmosphere unpleasant. He is not trapped
in a hopeless situation.
Dr. Obeysekera observes that with regard
to child abuse in monasteries, "one ought to have institutional safeguards ..."
As a matter of fact, there are very comprehensive Vinaya rules that cover every
conceivable type of activity, which contravenes or is detrimental to the Brahmacariya life
of the monastery. They range from major Parajika offences, the result of which is
expulsion from the Order, to Sanghadisesa offences which are very grave and which
necessitate the convening of a special assembly of the Sangha for the purpose of deciding
what action should be taken. There are also 92 Pacittiya rules of lesser magnitude for
which punishments and penalties are prescribed. There are 75 Sekhya rules and several
other rules, which need not be mentioned here. The Vinaya machinery exists and the rules
are framed in a very legalistic manner. Even producers for instituting action, known as
To my mind, the answer to child abuse,
which may or may not exist in Buddhist monasteries, is not closing the doors to young
prospective monks and allowing only senior citizens to enter its portals to lead the good
life but to urge the Sangha to activate the already existing Vinaya machinery (if it is
not being done) and to hold the fortnightly Patimokkha regularly in all monasteries or
each monastic community within its sima, if that ceremony has fallen into disuse.
If a monk's conduct is not what it should
be, lay supporters have every right ot criticize him, as it has been recorded in the
Vinaya texts. The Vinaya rules have much to do with conduct which should accord well with
what is expected of monks by the wider society.
Another point I would like to mention is
that it is because of the kind of materialist society we live in that we tend to look upon
monastic life as something weird for a child or suitable only for the "poorest of the
poor". If the custom of children "going forth" were not existing, scholarly
disciplined monks of the calibre of Ven. Balangoda Ananda Metteyya, Ven. Talalle
Dhammananda, Ven. Madihe Pannasiha, Ven. Rerukane Chandavimala, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri
Sumangala and a host of such monks would have been probably lost to us. Ven. Dr.
Kamburupitiye Vanaratana has pointed out in an interview published in the book .....Take
Sinhala ........ written by Ven. Itthapane Dhammalankara Thera that the present system of
recruiting Samanera monks is not satisfactory, as very often the candidate's suitability
is not gone into. During his time this was done. The Ven. Thera himself had to wait 8
months in the temple until he was considered suitably qualified to become a novice monk. A
basic educational background and a good knowledge of the Sinhala language and literature
were thought essential.
I do not think that the venerable
prelates mentioned above were particularly unhappy in their temple environments as
children. In fact, the close reverential tie a novice monk develops for his upajjhaya
(preceptor) monk, I am told, is very much akin to the father-son relationship in a lay
family. At Vin. 1.45 it is laid down in detail the duties of a preceptor monk towards his
pupil-monk and vice versa. The following excerpt will give an idea:
"Monks, I allow a preceptor. The
preceptor, monks, should arouse in the one who shares his cell the attitude of a son; the
one who shares his cell should arouse in the preceptor the attitude of a father ..."
Thus the letter and the spirit of the Vinaya obviate any kind of child abuse or child
The bond that exists between the
preceptor monk and his pupil monk is very strong. It has kept the continuity of the
monastic tradition going on from generation to generation. When the senior monk advances
in years, it is his pupil who looks after him like a loving child with gratitude for the
long hours of teaching and training bestowed on him, not only with regard to the pupil
monk's studies but the moulding of his character as well. The strong family feeling in a
monastic community cannot be stressed enough. It must be mentioned here that moulding the
character of a young Samanera monk is much easier than moulding the character of a 15 year
old in today's context with the kind of evils and sensory attractions there in the
society. Television and other media certainly do not promote the life of contentment with
It should also be mentioned that Samanera
monks who are given a Pirivena education do have to study Pali, Sanskrit and Buddhism
besides other subjects. Very often, they specialize in Buddhist studies at university and
at Post Graduate level. Many of them may leave the robes after receiving a university
education but the individual is all the richer for having spent time in a temple.
Something of the refining and disciplining atmosphere does rub off on him. To counter
balance those who disrobe, there is always a handful that will remain. The custom of
recruiting children for the Sangha on a selective basis will ensure that remaining
balance, whereas if the custom is discouraged it might be tantamount to dealing a fatal
blow to the monastic establishment itself.
The view that abandoning household life
is best suited to senior citizens was a way of thinking that existed also in the Brahmanic
tradition of the four stations in life called the catur asrama dharma. But Buddhism made
renunciation valid even for a young adult. Perceiving the cause of dukkha and consequently
wishing to practise the path leading out of it cannot be circumscribed to a particular age
Materialism has somewhat veiled these
perceptions but the wellsprings of Buddhism in this country have not dried up completely
yet. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of our neighbouring Buddhist countries and have
temporary ordination of youths. Let us try and see how the good aspects of our monastic
institution may be preserved instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water.