And then the Buddha said, “Get out of my face, monks.”

Or an analysis of Lay Responsibility

Earlier today I picked up my copy of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Majjhima Nikaya and saw an index card jutting out from within the pages. I flipped to the proper place and found MN 67, the Catuma Sutta, and remembered I had set it aside because I wanted to talk about it here.

There isn’t a satisfactory translation available online, so let me summarize: The Buddha is residing near the city of Catuma when he overhears a group of monks being particularly noisy. He calls the monks before him and dismisses them, telling them to leave because they are too loud.

As the group of monks is leaving, the local villagers see them walking away with their heads hung low. Some of these villagers then go before the Buddha and implore him to allow the monks to return, so that they can live near the Buddha and be trained properly. The Brahma Sahampati shows up and makes a similar plea to add a divine component – the Buddha relents, lets the monks return, and then gives a more formal teaching on some of the dangers of the monastic life.

What I love about this sutta is the way it depicts the relationship between the lay and monastic communities, and how it speaks to certain responsibilities that modern communities somewhat neglect.

One of the lay responsibilities that shows up especially in Vinaya literature is that of keeping the monks in line. Or, to put it in a less vulgar and accusatory way, so many of the monastic rules are formulated not for the sake of training the monks, but instead of allow the lay community to have confidence in the Sangha.

While I am not going to speak out against having reverence for the Sangha, it is nice to think of respect as something precious and valued, and not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps you would see fewer “buddhist” teachers up to seriously shady business if this kind of respect had a few more strings attached.

But, what I love about the Catuma Sutta is that it takes this concept and turns it on its ear: the lay community is standing up to the Buddha on behalf of the scallywag monks.

In the narrative of the Catuma Sutta there is this wonderful suggestion that the lay community acknowledges that the noisy monks are flawed, but it is because of that flaw that they seek to protect them. All too often great monks are viewed as naturally occuring – that they sprint from lotus blossoms fully formed with perfectly memorized chanting and golden disks floating behind their faces. In the sutta we see the lay community not pretending that the Sangha is perfect, but instead being dedicated to the hope that the Sangha can be perfected, and convinced of the benefit that it could bring to all.

Pretty special Sutta, huh?

3 Replies to “And then the Buddha said, “Get out of my face, monks.””

  1. That is quite a special sutta! They even stood up to the big guy himself! I like how it shows the relationship between Sangha and lay community to be active and mutually supportive.

  2. It’s also interesting in that the Buddha was not the infallible Perfectly Enlightened Being that some Buddhists worship as a god, but a fallible human teacher who could sometimes have his behaviour corrected by lay people.

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