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Using "Beggar" for "Bhikkhu"

Summary: This term is not disrespectful to the bhikkhus, other's attitude towards beggars is. 'Beggar' is the meaning of 'Bhikkhu'; it's disrespectful to the Buddha to try and worm out of that; the spirit of the word and the 'role' of the Bhikkhu is that of the beggar — the king or god who goes out among the people dressed as a beggar, but behaving perfectly, to see what they really think of him and to gauge the standards they are using to measure.


"I begs!
Its the only honest way to make a living."
— some homeless beggar round 67th St. NYC, 70s


From a dialog on the previous forum:

A: I found the rendering of Bhikkhu as "Beggar" quite unfamiliar and jarring, because as I understand the monastic discipline (and I have a little monastic experience) although bhikkhus live dependent on alms, they do not beg. So jarring did I find your rendering that I did not even read the passages you had so rendered as addressed to the Saṅgha. I formed a picture of street beggars in my visual imagination.[1] I find that I am happiest either to leave 'bhikkhu' untranslated (simply importing it as a loan word) or to render it with monks. If the dependence on alms is, however, what you want to stress, why not 'mendicants'?[2] Just a thought from one who is very sensitive to language and its nuances.

First, let me say that I am not the only one, nor the first, to use the term "Beggar" for "Bhikkhu."[3] I believe Buddhaghosa goes into the meaning of the term and takes pains to say that although the term means (among numerous other things) one who "begs" that that is not to be understood to be the case with Gotama's Bhikkhus.

I have chosen to use the word not with the intent of stressing the Bhikkhus' dependence on gifts, but with the idea of pointing out where, precisely, in the structure of society, such a group would be found today if anyone were to actually follow the Dhamma to the letter. (And that perhaps society's attitude toward this group is the thing that needs to be changed.) To be sure we have Buddhist "Monks" here today, but, without any intent at denigrating their intentions, I believe you will find that the foundation of their presence here and elsewhere in the West is based on the collection and handling of money (to be clear, I am not saying that Buddhist monks are here making money! Only that it has been necessary for them to handle money to survive here). This is not the Old Way, and as hard as this may sound, represents to me a lack of courage and commitment and a lack of effort to live on kamma. It is putting prosthelytizing foremost, and this is an error in technique that represents 'thirst' and as such is a bad example.

Secondly, my use of the term was rationalized in a previous discussion, where I pointed out that what is in back of the idea of becoming a homeless one is not only the giving up of worldly possessions (certainly not for the security of worldly possessions as more or less guaranteed by the monastic system now in place), but the view from the position of one without possessions.

Thirdly, although "shock" per se was not my intent, "provocation" certainly was. I believe the monastic system in place at this time is not a reflection of the original intent. (If I believed differently, I would have become a Bhikkhu decades ago.) I am of the belief that the original intent of the system is much closer to that which we see in (I may have the term wrong) the "extraordinary" men of your own Australian aboriginal culture, or that of the Men of Power of the South American natives, or the Wise man, Witch Doctors, Shaman of other cultures around the world. That what we see and have today that we call Buddhism is for the most part the result of the numerous compromises made for the sake of soft late comers to the Saṇgha.

Beggars were called Beggars in much the same way Black males for a time here were calling each other "Nigger." It hardens them to abuse. Being hardened to abuse, they are in greater control of their anger when abused.



Ol'Begga Ols with 'es Ol' Beggas Bowl

Scorn not The Beggar
and His Bowl
for In The Eyes of God
We are Beggars, All!


We see much angst among today's Bhikkhus and their followers concerning being thought of as Beggars. But this stands the original intent on its head!

At least one original intent was that the Bhikkhus, by adopting the "occupation" of Beggar, would cause the people to think twice about thinking badly of beggars, for in the eyes of god, we are beggars, all.




I have long imagined God sitting up there hearing appamāda drifting up to him in the form of the sounds 'alpa me ga!" near'nuf the only sounds he ever hears come up from these parts, I betcha.



I get spam

I Hear Ya

I get spam,
I see ads on every website I visit,

and Pop-up ads,

and Pop-under ads,

And Every program I buy comes with ads for its newsletter filled with ads,
Ads fill the newspapers,
My mail is filled with ads,
Every charity sends out ads,

they ask for money,

they ask for food,

they ask for our very blood!

Every educational institution sends out ads,
Banks send out ads,
Every food we eat is advertised,
The government spends millions of dollars advertising the army, navy, marines, airforce and itself,
Politicians spend millions advertising themselves,
The postoffice advertises on TV,
The telephone company advertises in the Post Office,
The Police Benevolent association calls up using menacing tones to try and frighten people into buying window stickers that advertise the Police Benevolent Association,
Lawyers advertise,
Doctors advertise,
Dentists advertise,
Gardners advertise by stuffing cards and flyers into crannies in my mailbox — why should they be any different?
Books come with ads,
TV programming is ads with ads,
In the movie industry they call it product placement.

Cop shows and movies advertise the cops,
Lawyer shows advertise the lawyers and cops,
Survivor advertises tourism,
Discovery shows advertise the scientists,
Animal Programs advertise wildlife conservation,
Public Television has ads and tells us it does not accept advertising,
Cooking shows advertise cookware and cooking schools and restaurants and tourism and foods and restaurants,
Reality programs advertise actor/singer/dancer/spokesperson/model wannabes,
I get ads through my fax at all times of the day and night,
I get telephone solicitations all day long,
I get ads in my telephone bill,

and gas and electric bill,
and water bill,
and credit card bill.

And of course there are billboards
and signs all over the great outdoors.

Here today (USA Friday, March 21, 2003 3:13 PM) this mighty power is making war with a tiny good-for-nothing country for the primary purpose of advertising its military hardware.
The war-room briefings are just commentaries explaining the virtues of the military hardware our military is selling.


Odds are you too are in the ad business in one way or another.


I know I am.


Are you really going to argue with me that we are beggars all?

But still the beggar on the street is despised by those not remembering:

"Should you, beggars, happen to see one who has fallen on hard times, someone hard to look at, you can say:
"Such is such as such as I
in this long inconstant time gone bye."

"How come?

"Out of reach of the mind,
beggars, is the start of one's run-around,
not known is the beginning point of beings reigned in by blindness, bridled by thirst,
rolled-up in this our run'n-round.[4]



The other day (today being: Sunday, March 30, 2003 6:58 AM) on CNN there was a feature on the Dalhi Lama. This fellow looks like a very good sort however much he is far too involved in the world to be demonstrating in his person the role of representative of Buddhism that has come to him. But this is the connection here:

Suppose one were (as he is) interested in tackling the problem of inequity in the world in a way which was congruent with the goals of the system?

Just imagine what the reaction of those who despise the homeless would be were it to be widely known that among them, dressed no differently[5] and supported no differently ... one who simply walked from place to place, accepting in his bowl what was placed there,[6] sleeping where there was just sufficient shelter to keep out of the rain ... was the Dalhi Lama.

Then suppose it was known that not only he lived in such a manner, but thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of his followers did so also.

Would this not force the people to reconsider their behavior when it came to homeless beggars? (OK, some will never change, but would it not give those whose attitude was not solidly formed, people who were behaving badly towards the poor simply because that's what everyone else does, an opportunity to reconsider?)

And in this lifestyle the idea of 'giving up', 'letting go' of the world would be something that was a true thing both in word and deed. A living lesson in the Dhamma for every one to see whether or not they had any direct contact with a bhikkhu.

That is the intent behind the idea of the 'Bhikkhu', say I.

And one other note: Did I mention this? Sakka, the King of the Gods, when he revisits the world, usually comes here in the guise of an old, raggedy beggar.


[1] Exactly what I would have hoped! See: Dhammatalk: Uposatha: Keep on Trucking

[2] That seems a little "slick" to me, as the definition of mendicant is really "beggar."
OED: [ad. L. mendicant-em, f. mendicare to beg, f. mendicus beggar. Cf. mendiant, mendinant.]
A. adj. Begging; given to or characterized by begging. Also, characteristic of a beggar.
spec. Applied to those religious orders which lived entirely on alms. B. n. A beggar; one who lives by begging.
Where the reference is to religious orders that live by "begging" the reference contains too many overtones to Christian Friars for my taste. Additionally, in the end, the intent of these Christian Friars is precisely the same as the Buddhist Bhikkhu, but has retained the idea of association with the begging class more closely.
I prefer to cut to the chase, as they say.

[3] Rhys Davids' explanation of his translation of 'bhikkhu' in Buddhist Suttas, 1.1,note 9:
The word translated 'brethren' throughout is in the original bhikkhū, a word most difficult to render adequately by any word which would not, to Christians and in Europe, connote something different from the Buddhist idea. A bhikkhu, literally 'beggar,' was a disciple who had joined Gotama's order; but the word refers to their renunciation of worldly things, rather than to their consequent mendicancy; and they did not really beg in our modern sense of the word. Hardy has 'priests;' I have elsewhere used (monks' and sometimes 'beggars' and 'members of the order.' This last is, I think, the best rendering; but it is too long for constant repetition, as in this passage, and too complex to be a really good version of bhikkhu. The members of the order were not priests, for they had no priestly powers. They were not monks, for they took no vow of obedience, and could leave the order (and constantly did so and do so still) whenever they chose. They were not beggars, for they had none of the mental and moral qualities associated with that word. 'Brethren' connotes very much the position in which they stood to one another; but I wish there were a better word to use in rendering bhikkhu.

[4] [SN 2.15.11]Saṃyutta-Nikāya, Nidana-vaggo, Anamatagga-samyuttam II. 1: Duggatam

[5] The beautiful robes we see on the Bhikkhus today were originally deliberately made worthless if they happened to be made of good quality cloth — they were torn apart and re-sewn, and died to have the look of cast off rags that had been out in the sun too long.

[6] If one is to insist on the distinction between "the bhikkhu" and "the beggar," as being between one who begs (literally) and one who receives gifts, I would like to contribute my personal observation of numerous "beggars" in New York City who either did not need to beg because of the generosity of the people, or who were too proud to beg and earned their living rummaging through the garbage ... something actually praised by the Buddha, that is, scrap-eating.




See also: On Using 'Beggar' for 'Bhikkhu' Again. Discussion in the on-going forum.

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