English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
Of Child Ordination and the Rights of Children
The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon

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 "how so?"

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 adhikaranasamatha exist.

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 exploitation.

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 few wants.

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 group.

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.


Updated: 14-8-2001

Return to "Buddhism around the World"

Top of Page