The practice of going for alms:
This is so that we'll perform our duties in line with the Buddha's instructions -- pindiyalopa-bhojanam nissaya pabbajja, 'The life gone forth is supported by means of almsfood' -- instructions we received on the day of our ordination. Don't be lazy. Don't forget yourself because of whatever other gifts of food you may receive. Whoever may present them, see them as extraneous. They're not more necessary than the food we get by going for alms with the strength of our own legs -- which is our duty as monks who do their work properly. This is the really appropriate way to gain food in line with the pindiyalopa-bhojanam in the instructions we receive during our ordination. Listen! It's fitting, appropriate, which is why the Buddha taught us to go for alms, something of first-place importance in our pure work as monks.
The Buddha went for alms throughout his career. The few times he didn't were when he was staying in a place where it wasn't appropriate -- as when he was living in the Prileyya Forest, and the elephants looked after him because there were no people around. So there were only a few times when the Buddha made exceptions to this practice. Pubbanhe pindapatanca -- in the five duties of the Buddha -- 'In the morning he would go for alms for the sake of the beings of the world.' Listen to that!
Sayanhe dhamma-desanam: At four in the afternoon he would give instructions to his lay following: kings, generals, financiers, landowners, merchants, and ordinary people in general.
Padose bhikkhu-ovadam: After dark he would exhort the monks. This is the second of his duties as a Buddha.
Addharatte deva-panhanam: After midnight he would answer the questions posed by the various levels of the heavenly beings -- from the lowest up to the highest -- and give them instructions. This is the third of his duties.
Bhabbabhabbe vilokanam: In the last watch of the night he would survey the beings of the world, using his superior intuition to see what beings might be caught in the net of his knowledge whom he should go to teach first -- whoever might be prepared to receive the teaching and whose lives might be in danger, so that he shouldn't wait long before going to teach them. This is the fourth duty.
Pubbanhe pindapatanca: The following morning he would then go out for alms on a regular basis. These are the five duties of the Buddha that he normally wouldn't abandon. He'd abandon them only on special occasions. For example, going for alms: When he was staying in the Prileyya Forest, he couldn't go for alms, so he put that duty aside. But otherwise he viewed going for alms as a necessary duty, which is why we have to teach monks to view going for alms as a right activity, as extremely appropriate work. For monks, there is no work in searching for their livelihood more appropriate than going for alms. No matter who might have the faith to bring gifts of food, no matter how much, we should view it as extraneous gains, a luxury, and not as more necessary than the food gained by going for alms. This is so that we don't forget ourselves and become entangled in that sort of thing.
The Buddha teaches monks not to forget themselves, not to be lazy, because the defilement of laziness is important, and to forget ourselves is no mean vice -- for we tend to become haughty when there are many people respecting us, and especially when they are people of high status. When we have a large following, we tend to throw out our chest and put on airs. Even though we don't have stripes, it's as if we paint them on to be a royal tiger showing off his rank. Since when were they ever a small matter, the defilements of monks? This is why the Buddha taught us to stamp out these ugly defilements in the society of Buddhists and monks by not forgetting ourselves. However many people come to respect us, that's their business. Our business is not to forget our duties. Don't forget that monks' business is monks' business. To forget yourself is none of your business as a monk. Even lay people who are mindful don't forget themselves. They're always even in the way they place themselves in relation to others. We're monks -- meditating monks at that -- which is even more of a delicate matter. It's our business to be mindful of ourselves and to use our discernment to scrutinize events that come to involve us at all times, not to be careless and forgetful in any circumstances. This is how we show our colors as monks who see danger in what is dangerous.
We are members of the Sakyan lineage, the lineage of the Buddha, who was sharper and more intelligent than anyone else in the three levels of the cosmos. For what reason, should we make fools of ourselves over the baits of the world, which fill the earth and aren't anywhere nearly as difficult to find as the Dhamma? To forget ourselves, to swell up with pride because of extraneous gains or the respect of people at large: Is this our proper honor and pride as sons of the Sakyan? It's simply because we see the superlative Dhamma as something lower than these things that we monks don't think or come to our senses enough to fear their danger in the footsteps of our Teacher.
Sakkaro purisam hanti -- 'Homage kills a man.' Fish die because they are tempted by bait. If we monks don't die because of things like this, what does make us die? Consider this carefully. Did the Buddha give this teaching to stupid fish or to those of us monks who are moving toward the hook at the moment? Be aware of the fact that the outside is bait, but inside the bait is the hook. If you don't want to meet with disaster, be careful not to bite the hook.
Eating from the bowl: This is a very important activity, but we don't see its importance. Ordinarily, we who have ordained in the religion have no vessel for our food more appropriate than our bowl. Even monogrammed plates and gold platters aren't more appropriate than the bowl. Only the bowl is appropriate for monks when they eat. Nothing else is better or more fitting. We each have only one bowl and put everything in there together. The Buddha has already set us a solid example.
Or is it that when food gets mixed together like that, it'll spoil our digestion -- as most people say, and we've already heard many times. If that's the case, then when it all gets mixed in the stomach, won't it spoil our digestion? How many stomachs do we have in our belly? How many vessels are in there for us to put our separate sorts of food in? This one for desserts, this one for meat dishes, this one for spicy curry, this one for hot curry: Are there any? Are there different vessels for putting our separate sorts of food in, to keep our digestion from spoiling? We simply see that when food is mixed in the bowl, it'll spoil our digestion, but not when it's mixed in the stomach. This view -- fearing that our digestion will be spoiled -- is for the sake of promoting our tongues and stomachs, not for promoting the mind and the Dhamma through our various practices.
If there is anything toxic in the food -- whether or not it's mixed in the bowl -- then when it's eaten, it can spoil our digestion, with no relation to whether or not it's mixed together, because the toxicity lies with the things that are toxic, and not with the mixing together. When it's eaten, it's toxic. But if the food isn't toxic, then when it's mixed it isn't toxic, so where will it get any toxicity? The food is beneficial, without any harm or toxicity mixed in. When it's placed together in the bowl, it's still food. When it's eaten and goes to the stomach, it's a benefit to the body.
So we as monks and meditators should be observant of the differences between Dhamma and not-Dhamma, which are always effacing each other. For example: Eating food from the bowl spoils your digestion. Eating outside of the bowl improves your digestion and fattens the defilements -- but the Dhamma grovels and can't get up because not-Dhamma has kept stomping on it in this way without mercy from every side all along.
Actually, when food is mixed in the bowl, it's an excellent sermon. Before eating, we contemplate. While eating, we contemplate the incongruity of food and we're bound to get unusual tactics for training the mind from the food that is mixed together -- because we don't eat for enjoyment, for beautification, for pride, or for recklessness. We eat enough to keep the body going, to practice the holy life so as to take the defilements and the mental effluents -- poisons that are buried deep, cluttering the heart -- and wash them away by contemplating them aptly, using these ascetic practices as our tools.
Refusing food that is brought afterwards: This too is to prevent us from being greedy and forgetting ourselves. Even when there's a lot of food -- more than enough -- greed, you know, has no land of enough. That's good. This is good. The more food there is, the wider our mouth, the longer our tongue, the bigger our stomach. These are always overtaking the Dhamma without let-up. This is sweet. That's aromatic. This is rich -- everything keeps on being good. There's no brake on our wheels -- no mindfulness -- at all. Actually, the word 'good' here is a title conferred by defilement to erase our contentment with little, our fewness of wants as meditators, without our realizing it. This is why we tend to be carried away by the lullaby of the defilements' word 'good.'
As for whether the Dhamma is good or not, that's another matter entirely. If the food is sweet, we know. If it's aromatic, we know. If the mind is attached to the flavor, we have to try to know. To be careful. To thwart the defilement that wants to get a lot and eat a lot. The Dhamma has us take just enough, or just a little, in keeping with the Dhamma; to eat just enough for the body, or just a little, without being greedy for food or other items of consumption. We eat just enough to keep going. We aren't stuffed and lethargic, aiming more at our beds than at the persistent effort to abandon defilement.
We monks, when we eat a lot and have a lot of extraneous gains, get fat and strong, but the mind forgets itself and doesn't feel like meditating. This is good for nothing at all. We simply have food fattening the body, without any Dhamma to fatten the mind. The mind that used to have Dhamma to some extent gets thinner and more emaciated day by day. If it's never had any Dhamma -- such as the Dhamma of concentration -- the situation is even worse. It has no goals at all. The ascetic practices thus have to put a brake on our greed for food so that the mind can have a chance to follow the Dhamma. The defilements won't have to be fattened, the body will be light, the mind will be still and light while making its effort -- more easily stilled than when the belly is stuffed tight with food. This is something really embarrassing in meditating monks: the way we take our stomachs, instead of the Dhamma, to show off to the world.
Living in the forest: How does it differ from living in villages? It has to differ, which is why the Buddha taught us to live there. And living in an ordinary forest vs. living in a lonely forest: How does this feel to the person living there? For a person aiming at the Dhamma, there's a big difference between living in a forest and living in a lonely forest, including the effort required to make the mind quiet. In a lonely forest, the mind becomes still easily because we aren't complacent. We're watchful over ourselves. Wherever we're mindful and alert, that's the effort of practice. Defilement is afraid of people who are mindful and alert, who are always watchful over themselves. It's not afraid of complacent people. The Buddha thus opened the way, using the ascetic practices, for us to take victory over defilement. This is the way that will stamp out defilement. It's not the case that he opened the way through the ascetic practices for defilement to stomp all over the heart.
All the ascetic practices, for those who follow them, are ways of subduing defilement. For example, living under the shade of a tree, in appropriate forests and mountains: The Buddha and his Noble Disciples all came into being in purity from these things, so we as meditators should reflect on this. We shouldn't forget ourselves. However many material gains we may receive, we shouldn't forget ourselves because of them, for that's not the way of those who follow in the footsteps of the Buddha and his Noble Disciples.
No matter how many people come to respect us, that's their business. We in practicing the Dhamma should beware of that sort of thing, because it's a concern and a distraction, an inconvenience in the practice. We shouldn't get involved in anything but the contact between the heart and the Dhamma at all times. That's what's appropriate for us. If the mind becomes a world of rebirth, it'll outstrip the worldliness of the world to the point where it has no limits or bounds. The more people come to respect us -- and our defilements as monks and human beings are always ready to welcome this -- the more pride we feel, the more we forget ourselves. We swell up more than a river overflowing its banks, because this is a matter of defilement, not of the Dhamma. Matters of the Dhamma have to be even. They require us to be mindful at all times and not to forget ourselves. This is the path followed by those who have practiced to lift themselves beyond suffering and stress. Those of us who want to gain release like them have to practice like them -- or like students who have teachers. We shouldn't practice haphazardly, claiming to be smart and not listening to anyone. That's the path of practice taking us up on the chopping block with the onions and garlic, not the path taking us to the paths, fruitions, and nibbana.
These are things I have felt ever since I was a young monk, and so I've been able to hold to them as good lessons all along. There were times when I saw people coming to show respect to my teachers, and it gave rise to a strange sort of feeling in my heart -- the feeling that I'd like to have them respect me in the same way -- but at the same time I knew that the mind was base and was giving rise to an obscene desire, so I didn't encourage it. I kept blocking it and was always conscious of my own fault in feeling that way.
When I really began to practice, I knew even more clearly that that was a wrong notion, that to think in that way wasn't right at all. It was like the toad trying to compare himself to the ox. My teacher's status was that of a teacher. My status was that of a toad lurking underground. How could I try to compare myself with him if I didn't want to burst like the toad in Aesop's fable? That fable is a very good lesson for those who practice properly for the sake of release.
The practice of visiting the cemetery: Why visit the cemetery? We people have to see evidence with our own eyes if we're going to come to our senses. Visiting cemeteries is for the sake of seeing human death. Cemeteries in the past weren't like they are today. Unburied bodies were scattered all over the place -- old bodies and new, scattered around like logs. When you saw them, you'd see clear evidence with your own eyes.
The Buddha gave instructions on how to visit a cemetery. Go from the upwind side, he said, not from the downwind side. Don't begin by looking at new corpse. Look at the old ones first. Keep contemplating the theme of your meditation and gradually move on until you know that the mind has enough mindfulness and discernment to contemplate a new corpse. Only then should you move on to a new corpse -- because a new corpse still has regular features. If the person who just died had beautiful features, it might cause desire to flare up, and you'd end up with an out-of-the-ordinary meditation theme, which is why you have to be careful.
The Buddha taught stage by stage, to visit the cemetery at intervals or in steps, and to contemplate it at intervals in keeping with your capabilities. He wouldn't have you go storming right in, for that wouldn't be fitting. He taught all the steps. Don't be in a hurry to contemplate a corpse that hasn't fallen apart or been bitten, a corpse that is still new and hasn't swollen or grown foul. Don't be in a hurry to approach such a corpse. And be especially careful with a corpse of the opposite sex -- that's what he said -- until the mind is capable enough in its contemplation. Then you can contemplate anything.
Once we've contemplated death outside until we gain clear evidence, we then turn inward to contemplate the death in our own body until we catch on to the principle within the mind. Then the external cemetery gradually becomes unnecessary, because we've caught on to the principle within ourselves and don't need to rely on anything outside. We contemplate our body to see it as a cemetery just like the external cemetery, both while it's alive and after it dies. We can compare each aspect with the outside, and the mind gradually runs out of problems of its own accord.
The practice of not lying down: This is simply a way of training ourselves to make a great effort. It doesn't mean that we take not-lying-down as a constant practice. We may resolve, for example, not to lie down tonight as our ascetic practice. This is a practice to be observed on occasion -- or you might resolve not to lie down for two or three nights running, depending on the resolution you make.

The practice of living in whatever dwelling is assigned to one: This is another ascetic practice. They're all ways of getting monks to subdue the defilement of forgetting oneself.
A monk who observes the ascetic practices well, who is solid in his observance of them, is one who is solid in his practice, truly intent on the Dhamma, truly intent on subduing defilement. He's not a person ordained to do nothing or who forgets himself. All thirteen ascetic practices are tools for subduing the defilements of those who follow them. There's nothing about them that anyone can criticize -- except for Devadatta and his gang.
A monk who doesn't observe any of these practices is an empty monk who forgets himself, who has nothing but the outside status of a monk. He wraps himself in a yellow robe, calls himself venerable -- and becomes haughty as a result. Even more so when he's given ecclesiastical rank: If the heart is taken with that sort of thing, it'll have to get excited over its shadow, without any need for backup music to get it going. The mind gets itself going through the power of the clay on its head, thinking that it has a crest. Since when has this defilement ever been willing to yield to anyone?

People of this sort forget all the affairs of monks and become part of the world -- going even further than the world. Rank is given for the sake of encouraging good practice and conduct, but if the mind becomes haughty, rank becomes a way of destroying oneself, killing oneself with various assumptions. The King bestows ranks and names, this and that, and we assume them to be a crest. Actually, they're just a bit of clay stuck on our head, not a natural crest. If you want a natural crest, then follow the practice well. What could be finer than to be 'venerable' in line with the principles of nature? The word 'venerable' means excellent, so why be enthralled with dolls and clay?