Is it proper for lay people to receive gifts from monasteries?According to the vinaya, the rules for monks and nuns, any item that has been offered to the monastery by the faithful “from everywhere,” cannot be used as a personal gift to others or for personal purposes, regardless of whom the item is given to, and for whatever reason. Such an action violates the precept against stealing, and is considered stealing “things for all monastics as a whole everywhere,” or at least “things for monastics locally.” The so-called “things for all monastics as a whole everywhere” are items belonging to all monastics no matter where they are, while “things for monastics locally” are things which belong to all residing monastics in a specific monastery. For a monastic, stealing things belonging to “monastics locally” is worse than stealing personal items. Monastics, therefore, should not take or use shared items for personal purposes, and certainly should not give any shared items to lay people.
When a monastic, hoping to solicit more support and offerings from laypeople, gives gifts to them, whether it is a personal or shared item in the monastery, he or she violates the precept against “contaminating others” (Skt. kula-dusaka); this means that a monastic with a polluted mind who gives a gift to a lay person, also contaminates that person.
There are two circumstances in which a lay person may receive gifts from monastics. First, in hardship and sickness, a lay person may accept things and aid from monastics. One kind of aid that may be given is material or monetary; the other is spiritual assistance in the form of Dharma. Since one can accept the Dharma, they can certainly accept material support as well, to overcome hardship. Then, they in turn may make offerings to the Three Jewels and help others. In the history of Chinese Buddhism, this kind of philanthropy and activity was quite common.
Next, lay people who work in the monastery and also support a family should be paid accordingly. Volunteers committed to serve the monastery but who find it inconvenient to bring food in to cook for themselves, can certainly receive food and overnight lodging from the monastery. Some great Chinese masters in the past especially reminded us that workers in the monastery should be offered better food and even higher wages. That’s because life in monasteries usually tends to be plain and hard, workers might not be used to the simple diet, causing them to be unhappy and resentful. As for surplus items in the monastery, if there’s no specific target to be given to, or when they cannot be sold, they may be given to lay people who would happily accept the gift to avoid it being wasted or discarded.
The way of life in the monasteries of India and China was quite different: Because of the alms-begging tradition in India, there was no kitchen in monasteries and therefore no cooking. In China, monasteries have always been stocked with food, and monastics cook for themselves. Especially when there is a Dharma assembly or services, participants would also have meals in the monastery. As distinct from monasteries in India, in countries where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced, such as China, Korea, Japan, etc., it was quite common for lay people to eat in the monastery when attending Dharma assemblies or services. This custom has its practical reason. In the beginning, lay people might have gotten together to cook meals for themselves in the monastery; later, monasteries took over the cooking, but the expenses still came from lay followers.
All this is to make it convenient for lay followers; it is also one of the ways to make Buddhism more accessible to the community. But if the monastery’s only function is to provide meals for the people without teaching Dharma or conducting Buddha activities, the temple would become just a popular vegetarian restaurant. Then, it would have misplaced its priority, like putting the cart before the horse.