What Are the Factors of Saṅghikadāna?

“What are the factors of offerings made to the whole Saṅgha (Saṅghikadāna)? How can we perform this type of donation?”

The Dakkhiṇāvibhaṅga Sutta of the Majjhimanikāya mentions seven types of Saṅghikadāna:

  1. Offerings to both Saṅghas headed by the Buddha.
  2. After the parinibbāna of the Buddha, offerings to both Saṅghas.
  3. Offerings to the Bhikkhu Saṅgha only.
  4. Offering to the Bhikkhuṇī Saṅgha only.
  5. Offerings to selected bhikkhus and bhikkhuṇīs as the Saṅgha’s representatives.
  6. Offerings to selected bhikkhus as the Saṅgha’s representatives.
  7. Offerings to selected bhikkhuṇīs as the Saṅgha’s representatives.

When making such offerings, one should focus one’s mind on giving to the Saṅgha. So the Buddha classified seven kinds of Saṅgha. This Saṅghikadāna brings the greatest benefits for all. Before making the offerings, the donor should meditate on the nine virtues of the Saṅgha. He or she should banish the idea of personal references or personal attitudes towards any individual monk, regarding the whole Saṅgha as the recipient.

How is this attitude possible? A donor must not choose individual monks according to personal preference. He or she must suppress any likes and dislikes. The intention to offer to the Saṅgha must focus on the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Saṅgha. Avoiding personal preferences, one should regard any monk as the representative of the Saṅgha. One should reflect thus: “He is a son of the Buddha, a representative of the Saṅgha, and therefore represents all the virtues of the Buddha’s first five disciples, the sixty Arahants who were the first missionaries, the one thousand Arahants of the Uruvela Forest, and other Arahants like Venerable Sāriputta, Moggallāna, and Mahākassapa.” Thus the supporter concentrates his mind on the virtues of the whole Saṅgha and, in this way, donates Saṅghikadāna.

The Commentary says, “Even in offering to immoral monks who only wear the robes around their necks, if one focuses the mind on the Saṅgha, it amounts to offering to the eighty great Arahants lead by the Venerable Sāriputta and Moggallāna.” The good results one gets are the same. This is possible because the Noble Saṅgha, the true sons of the Buddha, by their powerful virtues, permeate influences and honour even today. The offering is beneficial not because of the monks’ immoral nature, but because of the purity of the Saṅgha.

Thus, a donor must focus his mind on the purity and power of the Buddha’s Noble Saṅgha. So even when offering to immoral monks, such good influences and benefits prevail if the mind is skilfully directed. So offering robes to immoral monks, amounts to offerings made to Arahants, past and present, who have completely eradicated the defilements. This Dhamma support gives Saṅghikadāna the greatest benefits. In offering food, dwellings, etc., the donor must pay regard to the Saṅgha only. So he becomes a supporter of the Saṅgha — all the greatest disciples of the Buddha.

In making offerings to the Buddha image, although the Buddha had passed away, the act amounts to the same nature and result. So building Buddha images, pagodas, etc., gives the title “Supporter of the Buddha.” The mind should be directed towards the support and offerings to the Omniscient Buddha himself who has passed away. So the title “Supporter of the Buddha” does not mean the image, but the Buddha himself.

With the devotional mind on the Buddha himself one can now set one’s attitude correctly in making Saṅghikadāna even to ordinary monks. For example, take the case of those who have many children. Although some children may die, other children remain, so when the parents die, the remaining children inherit their property. Likewise, all types of monks today inherit the Dhamma nature of the past noble sons of the Buddha. They act as recipients, representatives, and heirs. So in the acts of offering and sharing of merits, one must hold the Saṅgha in mind and dedicate the offering to the Saṅgha as a whole (Saṅghagatā). The cultivation of this crucial “Saṅghagatā citta” is vital. While one invites some monks, and physically offers donations to them, one focuses the mind on the Saṅgha, which is “Saṅghagatā” decision. One must, of course, offer food to a particular monk, but the attitude should be on the Saṅgha. Present-day monks will use the property or take the food very respectfully if they know that it is Saṅghikadāna. Improper use makes them serious offenders as it taints the whole Saṅgha.

The first type, offering to both Saṅghas headed by the Buddha, can be attained by offering to the Buddha and his followers by declaring “Buddhappamukhassa ubhatosaṅghassadema.” The attitude must be correct. Now that the Buddha has attained parinibbāna, to perform this first type of Saṅghikadāna, one must place a Buddha’s image containing holy relics, with a begging bowl, in a suitable place. Then after making offerings to the Buddha’s image, food and requisites must be offered to bhikkhus and bhikkhuṇīs. Images with relics to represent the Buddha are used to maintain the highest honour and respect among the donors. This is a special case. Ordinary Buddha images can take the place of the Buddha though there may be no true relics present. The attitude, if noble, produces the same result.

As regards the second type of Saṅghikadāna, the meaning should be clear and no further explanation is necessary.

The third type of Saṅghikadāna can be obtained by offerings made in front of a Buddha’s image with holy relics. The procedure is the same.

As regard the offerings for the Bhikkhuṇī Saṅgha, today it is impossible as no bhikkhuṇīs exists.

The above four types of Saṅghikadāna are always performed by inviting monks in general for alms. The invitation must be made with the Saṅgha in mind.

Regarding the fifth, sixth and seventh types of Saṅghikadāna, they are classed under the main type called“Uddissaka Saṅghikadāna” The cases are as follows. A donor has insufficient means to feed hundreds of monks in a monastery. Hence he asks the chief monk to send a few monks for his alms-giving in the house. The chief monk then selects representatives of the monastery. The donor must neither choose nor select monks; neither can he name them. The term “Uddissaka — selected,” means selection made by the chief monk to represent the whole Saṅgha.

In this “Uddissaka Saṅghikadāna” if a lay-supporter fails to purify his mind or maintains the wrong attitude many evils arise if he or she thinks in terms of names, status, or persons. In the Commentary it is explained thus:

“A person thinks, ‘I will offer Saṅghikadāna,’ and makes well-prepared food. Then he goes to the monastery and asks for a monk to receive alms. Choosing by lots, the Sayādaw sends a novice. Seeing this young novice as a recipient the donor is disappointed, as he was expecting a Mahāthera. So his confidence is destroyed by his wrong mental attitude. If his confidence wavers he cannot attain this noblest almsgiving called ‘Saṅghikadāna’ even if is pleased at getting a Mahāthera. In both cases, due to his wrong attitude, he fails to maintain the idea of ‘Donation to the Saṅgha,’ which is the noblest intention.” In ancient times, the Sayādaws, due to frequent invitations for Saṅghikadāna, prepared a list of monks to be sent by lot, irrespective of age and status.

If a donor asks for an elderly monk, the Sayādaw must not agree with this request. He must send a monk or monks by ballot, selected according to a list already prepared. So one may get a novice although one has asked for a Mahāthera. Anyhow one’s intention of donating to the Saṅgha must not be shaken, whatever the nature of a monk or a novice may be.

To give Saṅghikadāna the donor must cultivate the thought of ‘donation to the Saṅgha’ to the highest degree. Motive alone counts whatever the situation is. Just as Venerable Sāriputta and Moggallāna, with the eighty great Arahants, are worthy of receiving food and shelter, the present-day Saṅgha obtains the same privileges due to the power of the Saṅgha. Even if one gets a novice for offering almsfood, one should keep in mind that the Saṅgha is the recipient, not the novice. This novice is a means to an end, not the end itself. Considered in this light, one should not have any personal preferences in the matter of Saṅghikadāna. Only then is this unique Saṅghikadāna attained.

A weak person with a wrong motive will find this type of donation the most difficult thing in the world. He or she fails to maintain the idea of donation to the Saṅgha when his or her wishes are thwarted. One must not feel either regret or joy in getting a particular monk. With clear intention and firm determination one must not look at “faces” or the “world.” If these disciplines are present then one obtains the rare opportunity of offering “Saṅghikadāna.” It is very difficult to perform this kind of meritorious deed, as the mind is tricky.

Even if one gets a young novice or an immoral monk, one must treat him just like one would treat the Venerable Sāriputta or Venerable Moggallāna. The correct attitude must be placed on the Noble Saṅgha only. So every respect and honour must be paid to him. Any prejudice or partiality must be removed. If complete impartiality is lacking, the donor’s mind fails to focus on the Noble Ones like Venerable Sāriputta. His mind remains with the present young novice or shameless monk to whom he has to offer food. His mind is limited to such a person and the limitless range of mind becomes tainted and its purity destroyed.

In this context, the Commentary gives an interesting account from ancient times. Once a rich man, wanting to offer Saṅghikadāna for his monastery, asked for a monk from the Sayādaw. Though an immoral monk was sent, he paid respect and honour to this depraved monk and sincerely made offerings to the monastery with his mind fixed on the “Saṅgha.” He presented ceiling cloths, curtains, and carpets. Then he treated the immoral monk just like one would treat a Buddha. He always paid respects to him. When others blamed him, he replied that although an immoral monk was the recipient, he offered his donation to the Saṅgha only. He explained that he was not approving of the bad actions of the immoral monk as his mind was fixed on the Noble Saṅgha. He donated it to the Saṅgha, though an immoral monk had to accept it. Thus right motive and right understanding amount to “Saṅghikadāna” — the greatest donation of all.

In the Tipiṭaka, it is stated: “If, with a pure, devoted mind, one pays respect to the Noble Saṅgha even if one offers food to an immoral monk, one is actually offering food to the Buddha. So the act is the noblest one.”

Although it is not mentioned in the question, I give a graded list of persons worthy to receive alms, as given in the text. An animal, an immoral lay person, a moral lay person, hermits with jhāna outside the Buddha’s dispensation, Noble Ones,¹⁸ Paccekabuddhas and Omniscient Buddhas — a total of fourteen types of individual. Moral lay persons means those who live outside the Buddha’s dispensation, who are moral. Those with morality in this dispensation are included under those striving to become Noble Ones, in this dispensation.

The Commentary states: “A lay person possessing morality is liable to attain Stream-winning if he practises the Noble Path. So he is practising rightly (supaṭipanno), and worthy of honour and respect. If one offers food to a man professing Three Refuges, with a pure mind, one gets immeasurable benefits due to this qualification. Many powerful benefits arise for him. If one honours a person who keeps five precepts by offering food, this is the best among donation to lay persons, and brings limitless benefits. If a person keeping ten precepts is offered alms, the donor gets even more benefits. As for offerings made to a Stream-winner, this is supreme among donation performed by ordinary persons. The point to note is that those lay persons with five precepts who have confidence in the Three Gems are in line to become Stream-winners. Therefore such a lay person is a well-behaved person worthy of respect and honour.” This is the explanation of the Commentary. Following this line of thinking and behaving, one can appreciate the value of donation giving to ordinary monks and novices whatever the state of their morality.

The texts mention that persons outside the Buddha’s dispensation (non-refuge taking persons) can be classified as immoral lay persons, and as moral lay persons. In this respect classes of lay people, novices, and monks inside the dispensation are not mentioned. In the Commentary, classification is made for the persons inside the dispensation on similar lines. So it is clear that scrupulous monks and novices are worthy of respect and honour.

However, the question is “Can shameless or immoral novices and monks be classified under the fourteen categories mentioned already?” Teachers hold different opinions. However, in the Milindapañha a sound decision is made when the king asks: “What is the difference in virtue between an immoral layman and an immoral monk?”

“O king, an immoral monk has greater virtues than an immoral layman in ten ways. They are inconceivable in an immoral layman while an immoral monk possesses them in full. What are they? An immoral monk possesses ten virtues:

  1. He pays respect to the Omniscient Buddha.
  2. He pays respect to the Dhamma.
  3. He pays respect to the Noble Saṅgha.
  4. He pays respect to his companions in the holy life.
  5. He hears and learns the Tipiṭaka and its Commentaries.
  6. Although he has broken the rules and lives without morality, when he enters an assembly of monks he instantly takes the sign and behaviour of modest monks.
  7. He guards his deeds and words due to fear of peoples’ criticism and blame.
  8. His mind inclines towards to concentration and insight from the position of a lay disciple. He yearns for the state of a good layman.
  9. He is still classified as monk.
  10. When he does immoral acts he perform them in secret. This means he has shame in his mind.

Not one of these good qualities exists in an immoral layman, so an immoral monk is more honourable than an immoral layman.”

We have already mentioned the Singhalese king, Saddhātissa who, could pay respects to an immoral monk due to his insight. He could see the noble quality — fear of criticism and blame — in that immoral monk. That unique quality, as mentioned in the Milindapañha, is the seventh reason that he is worthy of respect. Another virtue he saw in the immoral monk was the tenth one — doing evil deeds furtively due to moral shame and fear. If a person can detect and appreciate at least these two virtues of an immoral monk he is called a wise man. With wisdom he knows the power of these great virtues, even in a bad person.

If an immoral monk still claims to be a monk, in the technical sense he is a monk because unless he relinquishes the robe he cannot be classed as a layman. He is not a novice either. His status remains above the position of a layman or novice. The power of the Vinaya has to be stressed repeatedly, otherwise many will underestimate it.

The questioners ask a supplementary question, “If alms is given to an immoral monk, can it achieve great, beneficial results for the donor?” It should be noted that for a donor, an immoral monk can be worthy of receiving gifts by ten purities known as “Dakkhiṇavisuddhi,” giving great benefits for benefactors.

  1. An immoral monk wears robes, and carries a begging bowl, which are sacred symbols expressing the determination and intention to destroy defilements.
  2. In the style of hermit and monk he behaves in several ways correctly.
  3. He is still within the protection of the Saṅgha.
  4. He still retains the Three Refuges.
  5. He still lives in a monastery where concentration and insight are practised diligently.
  6. He seeks refuge in the Saṅgha.
  7. He practises and teaches the Dhamma to others.
  8. He relies on the Tipiṭaka as a light of wisdom. His mind is inclined towards the Dhamma.
  9. He believes that the Buddha is the highest and the noblest person in the three worlds.
  10. He observes some Uposatha and ethical precepts.

So these honourable and pure things help a donor to obtain great benefits when gifts are offered to him. Giving alms to him brings immense benefits for a donor, not because of his serious fault, but because of the ten purities. After all, he still retains a monk’s status. If an immoral monk returns to lay life by confession and declaration, he forsakes his monk status and becomes a layman.

Several cases can be cited regarding the importance of a skilful attitude and motive. A laywoman, seeing a very bad monk, failed to show respect and honour to him. She did not offer almsfood as usual. So a teacher instructed her as follows: “Lay disciple, in this encounter with the dispensation your eyes now see a monk. This alone is an auspicious, and rare event. Consider the series of lives in which the dispensation does not exist, where no true monks can be seen with the physical eyes. It is a rare chance you have now having seen a monk in robes, going for almsround. Why create hatred, greed, and delusion at this noble sight, which is a rare opportunity. This “seeing of a monk” is greater merit than achieving kingship, lordship, or rulership. It is greater than the glory and power of Sakka, king of the gods. Even the greatest brahmā cannot get this unique opportunity when there is no dispensation. Seeing the “form” and robe of a monk only once has a greater glory and power them seeing Brahmā. In this infinite saṃsāra, encounter with the Buddha’s dispensation is very rare. It is an auspicious event just to see a monk.”

Then the teacher asked the laywoman how much the food cost, and how could one estimate the value of seeing the monk’s robe. Even if she had asked for such an encounter by giving one hundred kyats, it is impossible for the monk to come daily. Even hundreds of thousands of kyats could not offer this rare opportunity of seeing the robe. Hence this immoral monk is giving her the greatest benefit by showing the robe before her eyes so that the importance of the Buddha’s dispensation can be realised. The laywoman should therefore show gratitude and honour to the immoral monk. From that day onwards, due to this wise instruction, she devotedly offered almsfood to this monk too. Her confidence became clear and strong. This skilful attitude is mentioned in the Milindapañha as “Anavajja­kavaca­dharaṇatāyapi dakkhinaṃ visodheti — he helps to purify the gift by wearing the robe of the blameless ones.” (Miln. 257)

Another case stresses the fact that even seeing the monk’s robes is a rare opportunity. One day a hunter saw a monk’s robe in a grove. Since a monk’s robe is a symbol of Arahantship, he felt great joy, inspiration, and reverence, so he worshipped it. After his death, he was reborn in a celestial realm due to this merit. This meritorious act, with right contemplation, is called “Cīvarapūja”, reverence for the robe. It also means “paying honour to those worthy of honour.” This deity became a human being during the time of the Buddha, entered the Saṅgha, and attained Arahantship.

Among the ten virtues of an immoral monk, some create suffering and grave dangers for a wayward monk if he does not immediately return to lay life. However, for a clear-sighted lay person, who makes skilful donation with the purity of the giver, all ten virtues become causes for meritorious thoughts, speech, and deeds. For ignorant and uncultured lay persons, these ten virtues in an immoral monk become causes for demeritorious thoughts, words, and deeds repeatedly.

One may ask, “Why does the Buddha teach us that if alms are given to an immoral monk, only small benefits can be achieved?” In teaching the fourteen grades of persons, the progressive beneficial results are clear. A scrupulous monk is just like good soil. This can be seen by studying numerous stories in the Dhammapada. It clearly shows that less benefits result from offering alms to an immoral monk. Much greater benefit accrues from giving alms to a scrupulous monk.

Anyhow, one must use clear-sighted evaluation, seeking or regarding all aspects in performing charity. The Buddha gives many guidelines for different situations and conditions that might face a donor. In the Dakkhiṇā­vibhaṅga Sutta (M. iii. 253), fourteen grades of alms recipients are enumerated. First giving food and shelter to animals brings benefits of one hundred times. Giving alms to an immoral person brings benefits a thousand times. Giving alms to a moral person brings benefits a hundred thousand times. Giving alms to a non-Buddhist who is free from lust [through attaining jhāna] brings benefits millions of times. The benefits from giving alms to a well-behaved person who is striving for the attainment of Stream-winning are immeasurable, so what can be said of giving alms to a Stream-winner? Then one gets even greater benefits from giving alms to one striving for Once-returning, a Once-returner, one striving for Non-returning, a Non-returner, one striving for Arahantship, an Arahant, a Paccekabuddha, and an Omniscient Buddha. Thus giving alms to the Buddha achieves the greatest immeasurable benefits.

Regarding immeasurable benefits, the term “immeasurable” has a range of meanings. The grains of sand in one town are immeasurable. The grains of sand in the world are also immeasurable. So the term “immeasurable benefits” has a wide range of meanings.

In the progressive list of fourteen types of recipients, gifts offered to each type have less benefit than the next. The results depend on the virtue of the recipient. Compared with the results of giving alms to a shameless person, giving to a scrupulous person produces more benefit. So persons of the highest moral conduct will provide the donor with the highest benefits. Gifts to the Omniscient Buddha give the best results of all. Comparisons should be made according to the virtue and wisdom possessed by recipients. Today the chance of offering almsfood to Noble Ones is very rare. The chance to offer alms to ordinary monks is relatively common. Given the present situation, offering of alms to ordinary scrupulous monks must be regarded as almsgiving with great fruit and benefit. This is the rational and practical way to classify persons today.

The above is a general remark only. The Arahant is highly praised by the Buddha. Only the best moral monk, the Arahant, gives the best results. So in this context an ordinary scrupulous monk cannot produce both great results and great benefits. Only giving alms to Arahants produces these two features. Hence the words of the Buddha must be interpreted according to their context.

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