Theravada Buddhism has managed to keep intact over the centuries the rich and vital interrelationship between lay and monastic communities set forth by the Buddha. Theravada monks and nuns, although renunciants, are not permitted to be recluses. To ensure this the Buddha required that they be totally dependent upon the lay community for their physical support. Monks and nuns cannot handle money and they can only eat or drink that which is offered to them. At the same time, the monastic community provides an important function for the lay community through the example of a way of life lived according to spiritual values, and one where a relationship develops where teaching and spiritual care is often offered. The two communities, each traditionally essential to a balanced society, support and enrich one another.
For the lay community in the West, it is important to understand how the monks and nuns of the Theravada Buddhist Sangha live from day-to-day. In Thailand they are visible each morning, walking through the nearby villages with their alms bowls, receiving offerings of food for their daily meal. The Thai culture is one where the lay community fully acknowledges the dependence of the monastic community for physical needs such as food, cloth, toiletries – all the things we take for granted. Sangha members, because of their vows of renunciation, cannot buy these basic items for themselves. Through the help of generous laypeople the monks and nuns in this tradition are able to continue their lives as samanas (those ‘gone forth’ into the homeless life). The relationship that develops through this commitment to mutual support is a rewarding one, and the spiritual friendship between lay and monastic communities is a precious gift.