Putting One’s Money Where One’s Mouth Is

Putting money where one’s mouth basically means showing due support for what we advocate. Also interpreted as “stop giving lip service and take some real actions.”

Yesterday, Puay Khim commented to me that there is an interesting debate going on in some online forum about how it is wasteful or pointless or both to have a stupa cast in gold. The theme here is that Buddhism should focus on its teachings and not so much on devotional aspects that they become the main focus. Such views are commonly upheld by a strata of Buddhists who are supposedly the intellects. They are inclined towards Buddhism because of its teachings and see little value in devotional practises like chanting, prostrations or having Buddha statues or stupas built.

Some even go on to suggest that monks should likewise focus on 1) study and practise of the teachings in suttas (Sanskrit: sutras) and 2) meditation, and not spend much time, if at all, on prayer ceremonies and the likes. They reckon that since the Buddha and his monks in earlier days did pretty much that, monks in present day should do likewise.

All these are fine and good, and for the most part, right. In my stay and study in Fa Yun Monastery for 3~4 years, that’s what we ever do: Study of the sutras and meditate. We don’t conduct elaborate prayers nor do we fund raise. Our primary interaction with lay people were through the occasional visitors who happen to see our signboard along highway 64 in Taos, New Mexico, US. Others include visits by our lay supporters who only come over like once or twice a year. We do have daily prayer chanting sessions but it’s part of our daily practice and not so much of an event. Interestingly enough, we regularly receive donations from kind donors, both monthly from Taiwan and on an adhoc basis from Americans or US based Chinese who know about us. Not everyone can fully comprehend or accept our lifestyle of near seclusion and simplicity, but enough people deem it worthwhile for them to support us. We get by.

The United States is officially a secular country, with a secular constitution and a separation between state and religion. Americans are, however, predominantly Christians. In this manner, Buddhist monasteries do not get special concessions or free access to utilities and the likes. As non-profit organisations, Buddhist monasteries such as Fa Yun Monastery do get tax exemptions in certain areas. The bills however still need to be paid. Fortunately, with the support of kind donors, we get by.

Singapore is similar to US in that it is also a secular (state) country. While non-profit organisations do get certain tax concessions, religious people as a whole do not necessarily enjoy any special treatment. Electricity, water and gas do not come free, and someone’s got to pay the property tax. In recent years, land provisions allow only 30 year leases on new articles of land for religious usage in certain parts of Singapore. This mean that the money spent on the land asset dwindles down (or amortize as it is known in the accounting world) to zero after 30 years. Compare this with Buddha’s time where the king himself would offer plots of land for the sole usage of monks to reside in and it seem like there’s a huge divide here. Now, note that we are not here to scrutinize or judge the government’s allocation of land use or its policies; we’ll leave that to the politicians and economists. Rather, we are trying to identify the differences between the conditions that monks in Singapore are facing compared to Buddha’s time.

Besides apparent social differences, the kind of support given by the lay supporters also differ. While it may be arguable what good a stupa cast in gold can do for one’s peace and happiness or wisdom, it is undeniable that the devotees who willingly donated for its construction genuinely believed in what it stood for, if not at least they believed sufficiently in whatever peace, happiness, and wisdom it may confer unto them. The point here is not so much whether what they believe in is justified or not, but
that they were not just casual commentators or paying lip service to a belief. They honoured their belief in gold. Try beating that.

Sure, intellects and the likes can go on about the rhetorics of how they are blinded by their belief, but the fact is that their contribution supports their beliefs. If there are those intellects who believe that monks should concentrate on the study and practise of the teachings in the sutta and meditation, then they should support accordingly. Without the appropriate support from the lay community, these monks will either have to move to other countries that support them or garner support from those who do.

So, I say, it’s about time to put one’s money where one’s mouth is. Go on and show your support to the cause that you believe in. There are monks in Singapore who are earnest about the practise.

Footnote:

This is not a solicitation for funds, but a reply to intellects who frown on devotional practises.

The author is a resident monk in Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery and gives Dharma classes and Meditation classes to a variety of audiences. While he does not actively practise or advocate devotional practises, he does not dismiss the positive effect it has on people and for the right audience, he sometimes even recommends such practises as a start, before moving them onto sutta study and meditation.