Buddhist Monasticism
Robert A. F. Thurman
Amherst, Massachusetts
December 28, 1984

Prince Siddhartha renounced the world at the age of twenty-nine, just after the birth of his son and on the eve of his own coronation. His radical break with his native social cosmos still seems spectacular today, and a common conclusion is that Buddhism is essentially "other-worldly," in the phrase of the great Max Weber. (1) While appreciating the spiritual vision and yogic virtuosity of the Buddhists, scholars, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern, insiders and outsiders, tend to ignore altogether Buddhism's vast contribution to civilization on the planetary and millennial scale.
We cannot evaluate precisely the spiritual contribution of the Buddha if we neglect the import of the story that he was predicted to be either a World-Conqueror or a perfect Buddha. In the eyes of his contemporaries, his choice of the latter path was in order to have not a lesser but a greater impact on our planet. In Indian myth, a Chakravartin or World-Conqueror is a political Messiah who creates world peace for his own generation. The Buddha, or Jina, Enlightened Conqueror, was a spiritual and social Messiah whose whole life was dedicated to save the entire world from suffering, to bring permanent peace to all. His conquest was not political and military in nature, though it had immediate social impact. He renounced kingship and the use of force and sought instead to conquer the hearts of humans with his Holy Truth (Saddharma). But he did carefully design a social movement, a powerful, militant, and universalistic movement which expanded gradually and hugely through the centuries and nations of the world. His conquest was aimed not only for his lifetime, nor even for a few generations. It animated a civilizing process -- a taming ethic, a liberating religion, and a humanizing science -- that still operates now, twenty five centuries later (because it is still incomplete, this planet still not fully civilized today). <
The Buddha was a Teacher; he conquered hearts and minds with his Truth or Teaching. But his Teaching could not accomplish its educational aim without an Institution, a new Community founded on his civilizing ethic. Though it embraced laymen and laywomen of all social classes, this Community was monastic at the core. That means that it was a form of society that institutionalized at its center its recognition of the supremacy of the interests of its individuals over its own collective interest. (2) In fact, this monastic social movement was profoundly original in its development and refinement in India alone for many centuries. The Buddha was the genius-inventor who developed a viable monasticism as the institutional engine of his missionary expansion. Buddhist monasticism emerged from his "Axial Age" time in India and swept throughout Asia transforming the landscapes, the cultures, and the politics of all its nations, as well as countless individuals. It is even quite likely that it influence d West Asia, North Africa, and Europe through lending its institutional style to Manicheism and Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity. (3)
In this essay I seek to elucidate the insight into the essence of monasticism as a revolutionary institution, designed by Buddha to embody in an alternative social reality the seeds of the planetary Buddha-land he saw manifested in the future. He was aware that it would be a long time before the planet was civilized enough for the manifest realization of an ethical, esthetic society whose relationships would be openly based on selflessness of wisdom and love. The Buddha designed monasticism as the Jewel of the Community (Samgharatna), a specially protected society within society, to enable individuals from his time onward to establish an extraordinary standard of ethical, religious, and intellectual life oriented to transcendent individual and social fulfillment. He established the first "monastery" in history in the town of Rajagrha, with the encouragement of King Bimbisara of Magadha, and the financial support of a wealthy merchant of that town, Sudatta or Anathapindada. (4)
I am aware that this view of monasticism as a revolutionary institution is not immediately evident to modern people whose image of it has been formed by Protestantism and materialism. A number of writers have evoked a similar vision of the role of Christian monasticism during the difficult ages of European history -- as a bastion and harbinger of spirituality, culture, and even civilization. (5) But no one else that I know in modern times has elaborated such a vision of Buddhist monasticism as a whole, though recent works on specific periods are providing more and more corroborative data. (6) Thus, to fulfill my charge to elucidate the spiritual role of Buddhist monasticism, I cannot merely sketch the outline of a well-established picture of its history. I must provide an argument that will enable the reader to re-examine the historical record for himself from a new perspective. The argument I shall present can be summarized in the following ten theses, which I will unpack in the remainder of the essay: (7)
I. Enlightenment transcends all dichotomies, and is just as powerful in the social realm as it is in personal experience. The core insight of selfless emptiness is simultaneously an embrace of the inexorable relatedness of the selfless individual to all others. Nagarjuna expressed this as "emptiness the womb of compassion" (sunyatakarunagarbham).
II. Buddhahood is thus far more than political Chakravarti Conqueror-hood; it is the complete Truth-conquest of the whole world, the creation of the pure Buddha-land, though the unfolding of the Land appears to take time from the perspective of the unenlightened people trapped in ordinary time or history.
III. The Buddha's' compassion is expressed as the ultimate artistry of transformation of the planet, which unfolds progressively through history as the process of the taming of violence by non-violence, what we all know as the "advance of civilization."
IV. Truth-conquest, or Buddha-land-building, can only proceed nonviolently, since individuals can only be conquered from the inside, from their hearts, by their own free understanding. Their insight itself is what liberates the energy of the general good will that constitutes the perfected land.
V. Hence Perfect Buddha's must carry on their "truth-conquest" by means of education in the liberal sense, which is neither indoctrination nor training. The insight of psychological "selflessness" has been the inexhaustible source of the creative individualism Buddhism has always nurtured. This has also been the liberator of the world-transforming dynamism of the ethical selflessness that has adorned the history of Buddhist societies.
VI. The educational institution Buddha founded is the Precious Community (Samgharatna), functioning on the moral, spiritual, and intellectual levels as the anchor of the new ethics, new religions, and new sciences.
VII. Monasticism is the core of the new Community, and is an original invention of the Buddha; it is the institutionalization of transcendentalistic individualism, society's acknowledgement that its highest interest is the self-fulfillment of its individuals.
VIII. It is a mediating institution, Centrist in every sense, midway between city and wilderness, priest and hermit, noble and commoner, indirectly providing both social cohesion and mobility.
IX. Its main rival, whose origin lies in the same era, is universalistic, imperialist militarism. Monasticism's greater planetary success over-all (though the tale is not yet ended) may be due to the human spirit's basic soundness, but is also understandable in terms of its natural alliance with mercantilism and the bureaucratic state.
X. Three phases of monasticism can be discerned in every culture in which it has exerted its influence, a) revolutionary, or radically dualistic, b) evolutionary, or educatively nondualistic, c) fruitional, or pervasively nondualistic.
I. This-worldly Impact of Buddhahood
All forms of Buddhism agree fundamentally on the definition of a Buddha as a person who has reached the ultimate in evolution. His attainment satisfies completely all his own personal interests and enables him then effectively to help others with their relative and ultimate concerns. The Discipline (Vinaya) Texts of all the Individual Vehicle (Hinayana) (8) schools show Shakyamuni as a powerful moving force in Ganges Valley society, demonstrating overwhelming competence as a Teacher and organizer of teaching institutions. He is a "tamer" or civilizer of human societies, a founder of a new utopian Community. In the Universal or Messianic Vehicle (Mahayana or Bodhisattvayana) schools, his public competence is called "great compassion" (mahakaruna) and "skill in liberative art" (upayakausalya). And his ultimate success in social development in the public interest is called "perfection of the Buddha-land." As a Bodhisattva, his messianic vow is not to attain Buddhahood until all other beings have attai ned freedom from suffering.
Thus, in theory, a Buddha's enlightenment must be his achievement of a perspective from which all other beings, including his society and his planet, simultaneously achieve freedom and happiness. He cannot leave even a single being behind. The perfect outcome of all evolution must be totally present to the Buddha-mind. Thus, his every word and gesture must be optimal in manifesting that presence to others who have not yet come to see it. His very Body must become a Body of Beatitude (Sambhoga-) and Emanation (Nirmana-kaya), an inexhaustible engine of loving action. And his every social act must proceed according to a calculated causality of effecting the perfect goodness and beauty of the Buddha-land.
In the Individual or Monastic Vehicle (Shravakayana), even without such an explicit doctrine of perfected altruism, there is still evidence of a widespread awareness of a Buddha's society-transforming role. The Buddha's life as a Buddha is openly presented as the evolutionary culmination of a series of lives as royal figures who one after another save their social worlds by astounding acts of generosity, self-sacrifice, and tolerance. Compassion is a central virtue that a Buddha is said to possess even more than a benevolent World-emperor. Siddhartha himself is predicted to become either a Buddha or a "Wheel-turning" World-emperor. He turns down the latter role, that of political messiah of an entire world, by arguing before his father that such a Monarch cannot protect his people from their real enemies; namely, birth, sickness, old age, and death. This has all too often been taken simplistically to imply a total repudiation of life and its value, simply because we do not deem it possible for anyone , even a God, to protect beings from such inevitable sufferings. But it is clear that the Buddhist claim is that a Buddha is a being who has achieved a superior type of monarchy; one that can ultimately protect other beings from suffering. In the Mahaparinibbana and Mahasudassana Suttas (9), the point is made that a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha eclipses the glory of a World-Emperor a million-billion-fold. In Indian myth, a World-Emperor is a person who effortlessly conquers the entire planet. He has the not inconsiderable help of a gigantic magic wheel (a kind of immense flying saucer) that goes around humming powerfully in the air over the capitals of other nations, causing them to submit to him at once. He is invariably a good ruler, benevolent and uncorrupted by power, not a despot, as our modern democratic prejudice would have us think. He has become able to achieve such supreme worldly success because of his vast store of merit from his own previous generosity, morality, and tolerance. He pacif ies all t he continents of the earth, and enjoys a long and pleasant reign over loving subjects, using his complete authority to help them use their social peace and harmony to further their own highest aims. This is the kind of mythic social fulfillment that the Buddha is presented as turning down in his last life in favor of an even greater success. What contribution to one's planet could be greater than this?
Again the usual interpretation -- that he was turning away from altruistic concerns, resigning himself to the hopelessness of the world, seeking an other-worldly triumph -- is too simplistic. It is also too disrespectful, as it amounts to an accusation of selfishness against the greatest figure in Asian history. To critique such a misinterpretation, we must examine the historical record to see if the Buddha enjoys any sort of this-worldly triumph; if there is any other perspective from which he can be seen to exert an even more powerful, more beneficial sway over the destinies of beings on the planet than the greatest political rulers ever managed to do. When we examine this record, we see the progress of civilization itself, the steady "taming" activity of the Samgha Community at work in history, with monasticism at its core.
II. Truth-Conquest of the Earth
If a Perfect Buddha is so much greater than even a universal monarch, he must then do something more important, more powerful, and more extensive than conquering and bringing peace to the entire world. He must conquer his entire world permanently, and bring everlasting peace to all beings. His conquest must thus be by means of Dharma, or Truth, not by means of mere force. A Perfect Buddha must be a Dharma-Emperor, completely successful in Dharma-vijaya, Truth-Conquest. Shakyamuni can accept Buddhahood then only when his world has become a "Pure Land," and "Buddhafield." But we in history can clearly see that this planet is no Buddha-land. Shariputra, in the Vimalakirti Scripture, (10) thinks to himself this very thing, how inconsistent is Shakyamuni's definition of Buddhahood and its Buddha-land and the reality of this world. Buddha then chides him and miraculously reveals that the land is after all perfect, pure, and beautiful, like a land of jewel bliss. But after a moment, Buddha withdraws his power, and the assembly is back in ordinary perception, ordinary history. This incident shows that the Buddhist tradition is highly aware of the theodicy (or "Buddho-dicy") paradox -- a world must be perfect, for a perfect Buddha to arise in it, and so we are saved; yet, our perception of historical imperfection is also relatively valid, and we must strive to perfect ourselves and the world, even though we know that when we reach our goal we will understand how it has all along already been perfect! In the Buddhist psychology of the path, this paradox cannot easily be solved, nor can it be dismissed. Its liberative impact can be sustained at first by faith. It can be intensified in the interim by critical investigation and one pointed contemplation. And it can be balanced, incorporated, and reconciled ultimately only by intuitive wisdom. Once it has been incorporated, one becomes enlightened, selfless, a holy one.
One discovers that others also have reached that stage, and one joins them as a member of the Community Jewel. This Community is created by the interrelationships of people who live in awareness of the immanence of the Buddha-land. Its focal nodes are called "abodes," (vihara) or monasteries, which are institutions precursor to the universal Buddha-land, functioning for the ordinary society in an ethical/legal, religious/medical, and scientific/educational manner. (11) In sum, Buddhahood must be world-transformative as well as self-transformative, since the ultimate experience of self-fulfillment is an experience of individual selflessness which is simultaneously total interconnectedness with all living beings -- Nagarjuna's famous "emptiness the womb of compassion."
III. Civilization as the Taming of Violence
A Perfect Buddha himself/herself can see the perfection of the transformed, purified world, due to his transcendence of time-objectification. He can show its potential to unenlightened persons for an instant, as in touching the ground with his toe in the Vimalakirti Scripture. (12) And his view of timeless perfection makes possible his precise awareness of timely evolution of living beings, of their inexorable progress into their own enlightened awareness. Thus his personal self-conquest spontaneously unfolds into gradual, historical world-conquest.
The Buddha lived in a time when the combination of tribalistic sacrificialism and incipient imperialistic urbanization was initiating a cycle of violence that has continued up to its present outer limits in the nuclear age. He was the first to teach that "hatred will not cease by hatred; it can only cease by love." He clearly understood that you cannot effectively oppose evil by becoming evil. To stand up to evil with evil is to surrender to evil. Only by overwhelming evil with good is evil conquered. The enemy can only be defeated by love, violence only by non-violence.
So Buddha abandoned all sides of the many conflicts of the day. He became a mendicant, abandoning the upper class identity. He entered a spiritual family, abandoning his racial and national identity. He became propertyless, abandoning the competition for wealth and all identity of ownership. He became viewless, abandoning all ideological identity, and all fanatical dogmatisms. He became selfless, abandoning all personal clamor for recognition. He became lifeless, abandoning all violent claims to air, food, water, and other valuable resources. Thus abandoning all ordinary roles, he created a new role, that of the bhikshu mendicant or monk, the person who lives in the world but not of the world, who connects himself and therefore others to a transcendent reality that puts the demands of relative reality into a better perspective.
He set an Example, gave a Teaching, and founded a Community (13) based on self-conquest through self-transcendence. These three spread throughout the world, reflecting in the lives of numerous successful leaders, holy persons, and beneficial sages. The human community has thrived and grown ever more powerful, in spite of its recurring habit of irrational mutual violence and destruction that have brought it again and again to the brink of extinction. It now stands at its most obvious crisis ever. And it is clearer than ever that the value of self-conquest through self-transcendence, of violence-conquest through non-violence, is not at all unrealistic idealism, but indispensable to life itself. If the planet survives, which the Omniscient Buddhas must have already seen it as doing, then the triumph of civilization as Truth-conquest will be complete, human beings will at last have tamed their hatred and violence, and the Buddha-land will be openly manifest. (14)
IV. Truth-conquest Only Through Others' Understanding
Truth-conquest is by definition not by force, not by doctrine, not by magic, as humans` minds can only be won through their own understanding, not by obedience, not by acceptance, not by passive acquiescence. According to Matrcheta's famous verse, "Buddhas do not wash away sins with water; they do not heal by laying on of hands; they do not transmit their own understanding into others; they introduce to liberation by teaching true Reality."(15)
The Buddha was the first ethical, religious, and philosophical missionary in history. He exhorted his enlightened monks, in a famous passage from the Theravada Discipline;(16) ". You, monks, are freed from all snares, both those of gods and those of men. Walk, monks, on tour for the blessing of the manyfolk, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the blessing, the happiness of gods and men. Let not two of you go by the same way. Monks, teach Dhamma that is lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the ending. Explain with the spirit and the letter the Brahma-conduct completely fulfilled and utterly pure. There are beings with little dust in their eyes who, not hearing Dhamma, are decaying; but if they are learners of Dhamma they will grow..."
The Buddha thus felt that his Teaching was universally applicable to all humans. He had a missionary fervor to spread it far and wide. Yet his Dhamma could not be taken up by merely adopting a belief system. It was not only religious, but also ethical and philosophical. One had to change one's way of life and one's inner understanding as well as one's emotional habits. Especially this last had to come from within each individual, and could not result from any sort of coercion. Therefore, the missionary militancy of the Buddhists was never violent; there was never a Buddhist crusade or holy war. They operated even trans-nationally on the social and cultural level and not on the political one.
V. The Buddha's Mission Primarily Educational
Therefore, the Buddha sought to conquer the world by means of education, by the True Dharma, which has both scriptural and practical forms. The Scriptural (agama) Dharma consists of the Discipline (vinaya), the Discourse (sutra), and the Clear Science (abhidharma) Collections (pitaka). The Practical (adhigama) Dharma consists of the Ethical (sila), Psychological/Religions (citta/samadhi), and Intellectual/Scientific (prajna) Higher Educations (adhisiksa). (17) This traditional unpacking of the concept "Dharma" shows how the Buddha's mission involves the spread of a whole pattern of culture and civilization, not just the propagation of a religious ideology or belief system. And it also shows how the Dharma cannot spread at all as merely an external phenomenon, a set of texts, or symbols, or buildings, but must be incorporated in practice by individual people in their actions, in their emotional patterns, and in their levels of understanding. Such internalized incorporation can only come through gra dual and systematic education. (18)
VI. Community (Samgha) Centered on the Monasteries (Vihara)
The Buddha was confronted with great difficulties in seeking to teach a new pattern of ethics, a new religion, and new sciences. The laws were under the control of the kings, their armies, and police. The brahmins controlled religious orthodoxy, and kept it within a very strictly defined circle. They also controlled the sciences of the day, although theirs was a magical, ritual control of the forces of nature and society rather than a rational attempt to unravel the mysteries of causation. Clearly, in such circumstances, the Buddha needed to found a "school," an academy. Socrates and Confucius tried to do this at about the same time, with very little success. Buddha could have settled for an ashrama, an ascetics' retreat in the wilderness -- indeed he had been offered the leadership of several, even before attaining enlightenment. But the price of such comfortable retirement would have been to abandon the enterprise of transforming the larger society, as such retreats could never accommodate lar ge numbers of aspirants from all walks of society.
So the Buddha gradually evolved the institutional form of the urban, or perhaps suburban, monastery. This was to found a new Community (Samgha) within the existing social world (loka). The boundary between them was an experiential or at least ritual death, a change of identity so drastic as to involve a psychic death and rebirth. The monk or nun had to abandon race, caste, family, name, property, occupation, clothing, adornment, hair, and even genetic involvement through sexuality. The seriousness of this boundary was essential to insulate the monastic heart of the new Community from the powerful demands of the larger social whole. The monks and nuns soon thereby came under the protection of the religious awe already felt in India for the renunciant ascetic. And yet they were in constant proximity with the laity, going to town every day for food, and then preaching for the donors.
In the new Community, the insiders could cultivate a new way of relating to one another, without violence, exploitation, roughness. As each was seeking transcendent liberation, there was a new consideration for the individual, a new sensitivity towards others as ends in themselves, a new respect for freedom, personal attainment, and wisdom. They could put the Buddha's psychological methods of self-cultivation into practice to free themselves from debilitating negative notions and passions, and enjoy the happiness of the positive emotions. And they, including women and members of the lower castes, could follow the penetrating philosophical teachings of the Buddha. They could criticize conventional notions imbibed from the culture of the times and attain liberative and transformative insight into the nature of the self and of reality. Thus, the new Community served as ethical proving ground for a future Buddha-land society, as psychological asylum and meditative retreat, and as philosophical schoo l, research laboratory, and cultural center.
This new institution was fundamentally the footing, the grounding point for the Buddha's realized vision of a Buddha-land society, which he could also see would spread out from there through the world only gradually through history. It thus became a fountain of goodness (by systematic restraint of evil), a haven of peace (by concentration of mind and cultivation of positive emotion), and center of learning, understanding, and knowledge (through systematic inquiry into the true nature of reality).
VII. Relations with the Wider World
An interesting fact about the new Community is that it was not constructed in a single organizing moment. The Buddha had been trained to be a king, to run a society, looking after all its members. He was extremely aware that the rules of the new Community and its patterns of connection to the old society must evolve naturally. Slowly, more and more people began to share his vision and feel the need for a new pattern of living, while the outsiders got more and more used to having these saintly and eccentric "enlightened" folk in their midst. Indeed, the new was very closely tied to the old -- the old society had to feed the new people, provide space for them, and allow their own relatives, employees, and subjects the freedom to join the new Community.
The Buddha did not limit the new movement just to the monks and nuns, though they clearly provided the core energy. The Community was composed of four types of persons; lay men and women, renunciant men and women. The monastic renunciants were Buddha's key soldiers in his campaign of world Truth-conquest.
The Mulasarvastivada Vinayavastu ("Foundation of the Discipline") (18) begins rather surprisingly with a long account of the wars conducted between the King of Anga and King Mahapadma of Magadha, a few years before the birth of the Buddha. The Magadhans lose rather badly and end up paying a tribute to the Anga King, as the Bodhisattva looks on from Tushita Heaven. Then the Bodhisattva enters the womb of Mayadevi in his six-tusked white elephant form, and simultaneously four princes are conceived in four of the major Gangetic kingdoms, Bimbisara as the son of Mahapadma. Even in this Individual Vehicle Buddhist myth, there is already a clear sense of the messianic destiny at work in the Buddha life. The myth presents the whole country is taken over through a kind of supernatural infiltration via reincarnation. Bimbisara soon grows up and learns about the humiliating tribute to the Anga King. He leads out his five hundred princely playmates and destroys the Angan army, kills the King, and adds Anga to the Magadhan empire. Thus, when he becomes the foremost royal patron of the Buddha and his Community, he is already the most powerful King of central India. Whatever the status of these myths, the operative impact is the same. The Buddhist Community understood its existence, function, and destiny as inextricably intertwined with the social history of the time.
In the Theravada Vinaya, (19) the Buddha at one point refuses to dictate the Pratimoksha Sutra ("Rule for Individual Liberation) in a single sitting, ahead of time, as it were. He says to Shariputra that he must wait, that the Lord will know the right time. "The Teacher does not make known the course of education for disciples or appoint the Rule of Individual Liberation until some conditions causing contamination appear here in the Community." The Rule is not then yet needed because at that early stage all the monks are already changed in consciousness, already holy in their own internal wills, and need no Rule. Actually, most stories agree that the Rule is not formally recited as a whole until King Bimbisara requests the Buddhist monks to recite the central covenant of their Community.
Thus, the Rule of the Discipline emerges from the life of the Community within the wider society, each of the hundreds of rulings arising from a particular incident, being the judgment with attendant reasoning given by the Buddha in that particular case. All of the rulings are given from an explicitly multifocal perspective, in terms of their impact on the individual, on the rest of the Community, and on the relations of the Community with the world, allowance being made for the future as well as for the present. The Buddha always recites ten reasons when he gives a ruling: "For this reason, monks, I will make known the course of education for the monks, founded on ten reasons: for the excellence of the Community, for the comfort of the Community, for the restraint of evil-minded men, for the ease of well-behaved monks, for the control of the contaminations in the here and now, for the combating of the contaminants in future worlds, for the benefit of outsiders, for the increase in the number of in siders, for establishing the Dhamma, indeed, for following the rules of discipline..."(20)
VIII. The Mediating Function of Monasticism
In establishing the social roles of Buddhist monks and nuns, the Buddha developed new social model persons, the monks occupying a niche midway between the pre-existing hermit-ascetics (shramana) and Brahmin priests (brahmana), and the nuns being completely new departures, as there were no female ascetics or priests. Sometimes the Buddha referred to himself and his monks as "ascetics" (shramana), but spent considerable effort in re-defining the role in terms of inner mental effort, purity, and understanding, criticizing those who simply observed spectacular mortifications. He considered the Indian tradition of using asceticism in order to obtain power and/or pleasure through rebirth among the gods to be merely another form of entrapment in the life cycle of samsara. The Buddha less often referred to his monks as "priests" (brahmana), and gave many rulings in the Discipline to distinguish them from priests, not allowing them to tell fortunes, perform rituals of baptism, marriage, funeral rites, and so forth, not allowing them to develop priest -client relations with the laity. Still, in a famous chapter of the Dhammapada, he re-defined the meaning of Brahmana-priest to fit the enlightened monk or nun of his Community, that is as one who is pure by motive, word, and deed, and not just one born the child of a Brahmana. (21)
It is long been commonplace to credit the Buddha with having discovered a "middle way" between hedonism and asceticism. It is more unusual to recognize that the middle way resulted in a middle social type, a renunciant who represented a middle way between ascetic and priest. In the same vein, we can better appreciate the newly developed Buddhist Monastery (Vihara) as an institution midway between the traditional rural ascetics' "retreat" (ashrama) and city priests' temple compound (gurukula, or gurudvara). These monasteries were usually in the suburbs, in groves or gardens on the outskirts of the cities, midway between the downtowns and the wildernesses.
The mendicant Community served a number of mediating functions, incidental to its main functions as retreat center, school, and research academy, but probably quite important for its rapid and successful spread throughout northern India. It was the first institution to grant access to any sort of education to members of the castes who were outside the "twice-born" elite of the Vedic religion, actually the majority of the population. It was the first institution that was "trans-national," in that Buddhist monks and nuns at one end of the "Sixteen Countries" that constituted central India were theoretically more closely related to monks and nuns at the other end than they were to the non-Buddhists of their own countries. And it was the first institution that was trans-sexual, in that both males and females were free to join the Community, although within it there was careful segregation of the sexes as well as a certain amount of hierarchy of monks as superior in status to nuns. In spite of this, th e "Songs" of the early Sisters of the Community graphically express the tremendous relief these women felt due to their liberation from their very confining social situation, as well as due to the more transcendental liberation some of them achieved. Thus, the monastic institution and the Community became an important avenue of social mobility as well as a mechanism of social cohesion. It is perhaps for this reason that the most important of the rising new classes of Indian society of those times, the mercantile classes, some of whom came from the lower rungs of the Vedic hierarchy and some from the outsider castes, found a number of their needs and aspirations satisfied by the Community and were its most important backers.
Finally, the Buddha's time was a time when the kings of the sixteen main states were vying with one another for imperial domination of all of India. One of the reasons they might also have supported the Community would have to do with its great popularity for the merchants. In other respects, the kings' support is somewhat mysterious, as at first glance it might seem that the Community worked against their immediate interests. In any case, the kings' acceptance and support of monasticism marked the birth of functioning social individualism in Indian civilization, in that such monasticism institutionalized the primacy of the individual's life-purpose over the collective's purposes.
IX. The Monastic Community as Liberation Army
When Socrates became too popular among the young men of Athens, he was put to death by the king for "corrupting the youth." The Duke of Lu and other petty rulers of Axial Age China were not enthusiastic to let Confucius spread his ethical and philosophical ideas too widely in their kingdoms. Yet the Buddha's Community, with its monastic core, had by comparison a phenomenal success, spreading throughout all the north Indian kingdoms until in the time of Ashoka, two and one half centuries after Buddha, it had become an "establishment" in India.
Conventional wisdom would have one expect kings to dislike monasticism. When monasticism flourishes, large numbers of capable young potential soldiers tend to seek salvation rather than serve their countries. Although individual monks renounce property, the pious take pleasure in donating lands and treasures to the monasteries, and soon substantial land-holdings and revenues go off the royal tax-rolls. A significant part of the labor force can become tied up in "other-worldly" pursuits and diminish the ranks of farmers, artisans, and other sorts of producers.
Given these facts, further corroborated by the fact that monasticism of whatever form could not get started in West Asia and East Asia until more than seven centuries after Buddha's time, what is the reason that it flourished so strongly in Buddha's and Ashoka's India? The obvious drawbacks to monasticism from the royal perspective must not have been decisive; there must have been a surplus of recruits, land, and treasure. It must have provided a safety valve of liberationist energies, perhaps safer for the polity than having idle malcontents. It must have provided a contemporary, effective source of legitimation being universalistic in bent and less tribalistic than the Brahmin traditions with their regional ritual lineages. It was the religious wave among the all-important powerful merchants, who financed royal adventures. Finally, it must have provided a special meaningfulness to the kings themselves in terms of providing a cosmic scheme within which their persons, deeds, and reigns were mean ingful, a scheme more believable than that of the Vedic kingly ritual.
An important point here is that of course those kings who supported Buddhism did not at all have to give up their mundane ambitions. On the contrary, they perceived the Community and its charismatic leadership to be assets to their reigns, as conferring distinctly this-worldly blessings upon them in exchange for their support. Ajatashatru, at first a patricide and enemy of Shakyamuni (incited by the ever-jealous Devadatta), sent his minister to the Buddha for counsel on his invasion plans of a neighboring republic, during the very days the Buddha was preparing for his Parinirvana. The Magadhan Kings, the foremost supporters of the Community, were the ones eventually to win the imperial title.
There is a key connection between militarism and monasticism. Shakyamuni himself was trained in all the royal arts, including the art of raising, training, maintaining, deploying, and successfully using an army. Many aspects of his monastic Community relate directly to the military practices of ancient India. His was an anti-army, in a sense, an army of ascetic, transcendence- seeking spiritual soldiers, seeking to conquer the entire world of living beings by the holy Truth of selflessness. Shakyamuni's campaign was extremely long-range, of course, and victory could be measured only by the number of souls who turned their own wills inward to achieve self-conquest. But until it went underground at the time of the barbarian invasions at the end of the first millennium, his army certainly conquered culturally most of Asia. What happened to it subsequently is a subtle question, precisely because of his non-violent strategy of going underground in response to violent opposition.
In sum, the phenomenal success of monasticism, eventually Eurasia-wide, can be understood as the progressive Truth-conquest of the world. As an institution it can be compared to its archrival of universalizing institutions, the conquering army, perhaps its perfect reflection. The institution with which it found a natural alliance was the mercantile class, eventually the mercantile, bureaucratic state. When we analyze the role the Community played in the edicts of Ashoka, we can clearly see the ethical and educational contribution it made to the task an emperor faces after concluding his expansive conquests; the maintenance of a peaceful, self-balancing order, based on the cheapest and most effective of all means of social control, a sensible, coherent, hence easily internalizable ethic. (22)
X. Monasticism and the Millennium
To bring this elucidation of the inner principles of monasticism down to the present day, we need to track its impact through the great planetary movements of the second millennium into the unprecedented phenomenon known as modernity. Historically, the progress of monasticism in its drive to civilize human societies can be analyzed into three phases, which I calla) transcendentalist dualism, b) immanentalist, revolutionary nondualism, and c) fruitional nondualism. I associate these phases with Monastic (Nikaya) Buddhism, Messianic (Mahayana) Buddhism, and Apocalyptic (Vajrayana) Buddhism, respectively, and with their archetypal heroes, Saint (Arhat), Bodhisattva, and Great adept (Mahasiddha), respectively.
The first phase covers roughly the first five to seven hundred years in India, during which Shakyamuni and his successors worked to establish the original institution. This institution, as described above, was based on a world/transcendence dualism, borrowed techniques of organization and structure from the ascetics and the military, and exerted a revolutionary transformative pressure on the old society by systematically encouraging a powerful individualistic transcendentalism. In Buddhism's subsequent interactions with other cultures, this initial phase of establishing an "extra-worldly" institutional space on the new land, as it were, was always a slow and difficult process. Well documented in China were the Confucian critiques and the Buddhist defenses of the idea of monasticism, the creation of a sphere theoretically outside the Emperor's control. In Tibet and Japan, sponsoring monarchs had an easy time making public shrines for ritual purposes associated with the new religion, but it took ce nturies for the more conservative forces in the cultures to accept the idea of an unproductive, free, potentially subversive monastic space. Today in the West, while there are many lay Buddhist organizations, genuine monasticism (i.e. with celibacy, poverty, and political immunity at its core) is just barely beginning to be understood as necessary, and still could not be said to have taken firm hold, after more than a century.
This phase terminates automatically when it has succeeded in its goals, when its socio-ethical, cultural-educational, and scientific-ideological goals have been achieved. "Achievement" here means that the larger society has become more civilized, gentler, "tamed," with a better tolerance for individualism, and it is no longer so totally essential for the seeker of enlightenment to withdraw into monastic seclusion. Once this situation prevails, the monastic centers develop a more aggressive relationship to the larger society, reaching out into it more directly to intervene more openly in the affairs, thoughts, and customs of the lay community. They thus become more "immanentalist" in their approach to social transformation, developing a stronger interest in lay education. In India this phase can be correlated with the rise of the Universal Vehicle or Mahayana, and spread of the Bodhisattva ethic. The monasteries began to serve the entire society in an educational sense, becoming the core of the l argest universities on the planet during the first millennium. Buddhism's messianic program could afford to come out in the open, as it were.
Previous western scholarship, which was pre-disposed to interpret Asian history as a record of error, decline, and decay, has considered the Mahayana to have arisen from a "failure" or "decadence" of the Monastic Vehicle. If we look at it without such a predisposition (without an ingrained supposition about the superiority of the West), it seems clear that the Universal Vehicle arose in response to the needs of a gentler, more civilized society. As Buddhism spread through Inner and East Asia, this second phase acted in concert with the earlier phase in some of the new cultures. The second phase preserved the first phase monastic core intact at its center -- Messianic Buddhism never considered Monastic Buddhism institutionally obsolete, even though sometimes individual Bodhisattvas may have chided individual monks for narrow-mindedness, philosophical crudeness, and so forth. The great monastic universities of first millennium C.E. India were the archetypal institutions of this second phase, institutions that still existed in Tibet and Mongolia into this century. Their heirs still flourish in Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Chinese fringe nations, South Korea, and Japan, in the form of the numerous Buddhist colleges and universities of those nations.
The final, fruitional, nondualistic phase is most difficult to discuss, for the obvious reason that it has almost nowhere yet come into existence. The civilizing process of humanity is still so far from complete. In Pala dynasty India, and to a lesser extent, T'ang dynasty China, the two greatest alluvial civilizations reached a zenith of civilization around the monastic university core. The Bodhisattva missionaries of the time transcended individual reliance on any institution and created the style of the Great adept (Mahasiddha). They spread the missionary outreach into previously inaccessible realms -- the lowest realms within Indian society, those of the uneducated and the outcaste, and the outlying barbarian areas of Southeast, Inner, and East Asia. They used the esoteric lore of the Tantras, as well as unconventional, iconoclastic approaches like Ch'an, Great Perfection, and Great Seal. (23) Their movement outward from the centers of civilization into the fringe realms such as Tibet, Indone sia, and Japan was fortunately timed, for the second millennium brought great barbarian invasions into the civilized areas, Turkic Muslims in India, Mongols in China, and eventually Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British into both areas.
Only in Kamakura Japan, Phagmodruba Tibet, and certain Mongolian nations was monasticism allowed to develop further. It reached its high point of fruitional possibility in the Dalai Lama era of Tibet, consolidated in the 17th century. (24) The social dualisms of the earlier phases ended with the monastery taking complete responsibility for the world, producing a government, a bureaucracy, and a complete culture. This represented a fascinatingly exact mirror opposite of what was happening in the same centuries with European, Christian monasticism. There, the Reformation collapsed the social dualism of medieval Europe into the unified secularized social universe of the Protestant industrial culture of Northern Europe. (25) In both Switzerland and Tibet, the monastic quest for a truly gentle, ethical civilization realized opposite types of millennial fruition; the former by dissolving the monastery into the world, into the corporations, universities, government bureaucracies, hospitals and so forth, secular institutions that cared for the individual, and the latter by dissolving the world into the monastery, having its monks and nuns assume all those responsibilities in a systematic, rationalized way. In this light, the current moment of history is especially interesting in that these social mirror images have finally come into close confrontation. (26)
And the conclusion to this tale of the civilizing program of monasticism begun twenty five hundred years ago will be written in the actions of people and nations in the next decades. R. B. Fuller used to describe our prospects as "utopia or oblivion," and I think the phrase felicitous. (27) In the face of our mutually genocidal threat of nuclear obliteration, we will finally tame our negative passions and realize a heavenly peace on earth; or we will remain wild and savage, and create a hell on earth. Many Buddhist monastics today are refugees, some in heavenly retreats as His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his Himalayan headquarters, some in the hellish din of camps of holocaust survivors, as in the Cambodian camps in the Thai borders. In the midst of all their apparent institutional self-obliteration, they exude a quiet optimism that wells up from the foundations of their Jewel of a Community, which, as I have tried to elucidate, stands on the Buddha's seeing beyond the holocausts to the Buddha- land destiny of this planet.
1. Weber gave this verdict both in his Religions of India and his brilliant shorter essay, On the Social Psychology of the World Religions. See my discussion in "Buddhist Social Activism," Eastern Buddhist, New Series, Vol. XVI No. 1, spring 1983, pp.28 - 30, n. 10.
2. This definition of monasticism may startle those who think of the Buddhist anatma as "lack of individuality" rather than simply "selflessness." I have refuted this conflation of Buddhist spiritual individualism with Brahmin mystical monism in previous essays, especially "The Emptiness that is Compassion: An Essay on Buddhist Ethics," Religious Traditions, Vol.4 No.2, October-November 1981.
3. This speculation has been made by various scholars over the years, though no one yet has given serious study to the hypothesis. My hunch about it comes from the seven century priority of Buddhist monasticism, the long coexistence in the Bactria-Iran area, as evidenced by Mani's third century claim of descent from both Buddha, Zoroaster, and Christ, and the strong tradition of Indian cultural influence on the Hellenic world through Alexandria. Deciding who influenced whom is less important than understanding the essential similarity of social aims of the two forms of monasticism.
4. This early "Abode"(Vihara) in the Prince Jeta's garden only gradually became structured into an organized monastery. The space for the new Community was incredibly costly, as the donor had to cover almost its entire surface with gold coins. This is an excellent symbol of the difficulty a society has in allowing part of its space to be turned over to the quest of ultimate freedom.
5. Jean Decarreaux, Monks and Civilization, Doubleday, New York, 1964. Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Fordham University Press, New York, 1982. Thomas Merton's numerous works.
6. The well known works of Holmes Welch (The Practice of Chinese Buddhism), Martin Colcutt (Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan), S.J. Tambiah (World Conqueror, World Renouncer), M. Mendelson (Sangha and State in Burma), R.J. Miller (Monasteries and Culture Change in Inner Mongolia), L. M. Joshi (Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India), and R. Gunawardana (Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka).
7. Some of these theses have been developed by me in essays, including those mentioned op. cit., with "The Politics of Enlightenment," Lindisfarne Letters, Winter 1977, "Human Rights and Human Responsibilities," Human Rights and World Religions, Columbia Press (forthcoming), "Beyond Buddhism and Christianity," Buddhist Christian Studies, U. of Hawaii, 1984.
8. I use the pair "Individual Vehicle"/"Universal Vehicle" for early Monastic Buddhism as a whole and later Messianic Buddhism as a whole in contrast to each other. This gives us a non-derogatory descriptive term corresponding to the unfortunate original "Hinayana," which must be overcome in interests of ecumenism.
9. See Rhys-David, Pali Suttas, Dover, 1973.
10. See my translation, The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, Penn State University Press, 1976, Chapter 1.
11. These non-"religious" functions of Buddhist monasteries have been hard for modern scholars to discern, as one of the phenomena of modernity is the reduction of religious institutions to a very narrow range of functions, indeed, as social services previously rendered by them have been taken over by various secular agencies, i.e. schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.
12. Op. cit.
13. The standard Buddhist "Three Jewels" (Triratna), Buddha, Dharma, and Samgha.
14. It seems necessary to evoke such perspectives to show the type of millennial anticipation that animates Buddhist monasticism (although such progressivity in history is supposed to be foreign to Buddhism and the "Eastern mind").
15. A verse commonly quoted by Tibetan authors.
16. (The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-pitaka) (of the Theravada, translated in five volumes by I.B. Horner) I, 20-21; in Conze, Horner, Snellgrove, and Waley, Buddhist Texts through the Ages, p.33.
17. In this respect, it is interesting that the Buddha was celebrated as the discoverer of causation and cessation, rather than as the recipient of some religious revelation. The Skt. shiksha is usually translated "training," to distinguish it from the modern, supposedly "secular," "education." The Central Government of India, however, still uses Shiksha for its Ministry of Education, and the kind of growth the Buddha sought to foster certainly fits with the kind of inner unfolding we seek for our students in liberal education.
18. I am only familiar with the Tibetan version, Kanjur, Vol.m 'Dul-ba ka.
19. I.B. Horner, The Book of the Discipline, Vol. I.
20. Op. cit.
21. I. Babbitt, Dhammapada.
22. See my "Politics of Enlightenment" essay, mentioned n. 7 above.
23. The similarities between the Tantric Siddhas of late first millennium India and the Ch'an masers (Such as Bodhidharma, Hui Neng, Ma Tzu, Huang Po)and the Tantric Siddhas of late first millennium East Asia (such as Amoghavajra, Hui Ko, Kukai, etc.) have been noticed by a few scholars, such as Tucci, Blofeld, and Govinda, but are not widely recognized. They are in fact quite important in coming to a sensible revision of interpretation of that period of Indian history, supposed to be decadent, while the contemporaneous period in East Asia is supposed to be a renaissance.
24. The great achievement of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso (617-1682) in completing the construction of a fully monasticized society in the 1640s and '50's has only just begun to be understood. See F. Michael's Rule by Incarnation (Westview, 1982).
25. I refer of course to Weber's well-known thesis elaborated in The Protestant Ethic an the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904.
26. I elaborate this perspective on the two alternative "modernities" in my Politics of Enlightenment, (forthcoming).
27. R. B. Fuller, Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity, Bantam, 1969.