Uposatha Day, New Moon, February 10, 2013
This is the next chapter of my eBook on Buddhist Religiosity. I am doing well so far in producing a chapter a week, and I am about half-way through. These are probably long for popular blog tastes (parse: popular tastes in blogs, not tastes in popular blogs). Sorry. The chapter numbering has been reworked; you were probably expecting Chapter 3. I have decided to insert a chapter before this one, on Salvation in Buddhism, but it is not yet written.
Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community.
The sun that shines on the Buddhist community is the Buddha. The water that nourishes it is the Dhamma. The soil in which it is planted is the Sangha. The lifeblood of the community is generosity, its most eminent members are Noble Ones, it greatest quality is harmony, its foremost entitlement is the opportunity for Buddhist practice and study, and its primary support is monastic discipline. The Buddha designed the Buddhist community, the Parisa. But he did this by organizing not the prevailing laity, but rather the monks and nuns, confident that the behavior of the laity would fall into place with no formal obligation, with no command structure and with no threat of excommunication held over the laity. The responsibilities of the parisa are taken on willingly conditioned by the embedding the Sangha within.
To understand how this works, let’s start with the better defined monastic Sangha. The logic of all this is rarely clarified.
Whereas we find the sublime in the Dhamma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha (here meaning the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastics, the roots of the Parisa) is an institution, as well as a collection of monks and nuns. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones, saints, the finest in admirable friends, now and in the years to come. Its founding charter provides the optimal training conditions for the practice that produces Noble Ones, it also sustains a wholesome and inspiring influence on the broader Buddhist community, and it ensures the future integrity of the practice and understanding of the Dhammavinaya.
The Sangha has striking parallels with science as an institution, the disciplined community of scientists organized largely within or as universities and research institutions. Each, the Buddhist community and the scientific community, is a complex system responsible for many things: for training its members, for authorizing its teachers, for maintaining the integrity of its tradition against many many misguided and popular notions, for upholding pure standards whereby its results can be assessed, for encouraging the growth, prosperity and longevity of its functions, for rewarding patience where results are not immediately forthcoming, for maintaining harmony among its members, for nurturing a positive perception in the public eye, and for many other similar functions. Just as scientific discipline is intrinsic to to the practice and perpetuation of Science, and Science as we know it would collapse without it, Vinaya is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of Buddhism and Buddhism in all its depth cannot exist without it or something quite like it. Both institutions are conservative and remarkably unchanged over the centuries. From these parallels I will draw helpful analogies to better understand the function of the Sangha in terms of that of the perhaps more familiar scientific institution.
It is not often enough told that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monumental achievement. Consider this: The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence! And it is still entirely recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice and function after 100 generations! It was there as great empires, the Roman, Mongolian, Muslim and British, arose and grew, it was there as each of those empires collapsed. From India it extended its civilizing reach to Ceylon and Southeast Asia and into Indonesia, into Central Asia where it followed the Silk Road eastward into China and East Asia and westward as far as the Mediterranean. In modern times it has begun to board airplanes and to sprinkle down on North America, Europe, Australia, South America and even Africa. Buddhism has never penetrated new lands without it, nor established itself without establishing a Sangha.
Yet in spite of its robustness the Sangha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local communities (sanghas) of monks and nuns, its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last?
This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present in ascetic practices, gave it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. And this genius is the very same person who composed the Dhamma, among the most sophisticated and skillfully expounded philosophical, psychological and religious products of the human mind, and the very same person who attained complete Awakening without a teacher to light the way, the threefold genius we call the Buddha.
The Functions of the Discipline
The Buddha consistently called the body of his teachings not “Dhamma,” not “Sasana,” and certainly not “Buddhism,” but rather “Dhammavinaya,” the Teachings and Discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying,
“Whatever Dharma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone,” (“Mahaparanibbana Sutta,” DN16)
The Vinaya is fundamentally about community. Although it defines the monastic life, the fastest vehicle to Nirvana, it actually contains virtually no discussion of morality (blamelessness or benefit), or of the attainment of higher mental states through renunciation; instead these are topics of the Suttas, of Dhamma. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout its focus is on their responsibility to the Buddhist community including the lay community. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burn brightly, through which it spreads to attract new adherents and through which it retains its integrity as it is passed on to new generations.
Here is how the Buddha itemizes the aims of the Vinaya in ten points:
- The excellence of the Sangha,
- The comfort of the Sangha,
- The curbing of the impudent,
- The comfort of well-behaved monastics,
- The restraint of effluents related to the present life,
- The prevention of effluents related to the next life,
- The arousing of faith in the faithless,
- The increase of the faithful,
- The establishment of the true Dharma,and
- The fostering of Discipline.
The following is a very brief overview of the main features of the Discipline organized according to the aims they respectively support.
“The excellence of the Sangha.” The Sangha must be excellent because it sustains something quite sophisticated and precious, the living Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha as they manifest in the lives of people, both monastic and lay. The nuns and monks are the designated full-time caretakers of the Dhamma. The Vinaya ensures the conditions for deep practice and study and for harmony within the Sangha.
Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. Its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dhamma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dhamma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In this life among the renunciates the Dhamma burns most brightly.
By way of analogy the scientific community must be excellent because it sustains something sophisticated and productive of rapid progress in understanding the nature of our universe. Science concentrates people of exceptional training into a persistent stimulating and highly cooperative if not always harmonious community. Excellence also entails that its membership be exclusive, in this case ensured through years of intense education, evaluation and training, culminating in apprenticeship under a senior research scientist to qualify as competent to conduct independent research.
“The comfort of the Sangha.” The Sangha seems to be planned as the ideal society writ small. The excellence of the Sangha makes that feasible. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality, is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical.
At the same time the Sangha is embedded in and dependent on a greater society whose values may be often contrary but with which it must harmonize. Accordingly it takes care to conform, or at least provide the perception of conforming to the expectations of the wider society and certainly its standards of etiquette. It is worth noting that a preponderance of rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns were originally recommended or inspired by lay people discontented with monastic behavior. Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception and not reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, nuns pay respects to monks but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha is specifically not to be confused with ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and under no circumstances with the laity who have a distinct role.
As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns receive complete material support from the lay community. This affords them the leisure of practice, study and good works. Remarkably the Buddha not only makes receipt of this support mandatory (they cannot for instance grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then sharpens this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially food for which the ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered! Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dhamma talks for food. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world. It means, for instance, that the Dhamma will never become a commercial product, manipulated for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results.
The scientific community similarly receives material support, through professorships, research grants, etc, from the broader society, both to sustain its much higher living standards and to offset the costs of research equipment, publication, travel and so forth that its functions entail. This permits its members engage in nearly full-time research, training and teaching, fulfilling the functions of the community. The assumption of academic freedom and the institution of tenure gives the scientific community a high degree of insularity from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability. It also means scientists can engage patiently in long-term research with no pressure to produce identifiable results.
“The curbing of the impudent” and “The comfort of well-behaved monastics.” The Sangha maintains high standards of behavior to ensure ethical conduct, conduct befitting the role of renunciate (celibacy, a nominal personal footprint, etc.), harmony of the Sangha, harmony beween Sangha and laity, preservation of the reputation of the Sangha, reaching group decisions and restraint of self-gratifying behavior.
Regulations are enforced primarily through simple personal acknowledgment of infractions with the intention to do better next time. The Sangha has no forms of corporal punishment and implements justice largely on an honor system. More serious matters are enforced through peer pressure, through expulsion or moving impudent members to the uneasy fringes of the community for periods of time, but only upon admission of guilt. For a very small set of very serious offenses the wayward monk or nun is from that very instant no longer of the Sangha. If one manages to hide such an offense one is simply a berobed lay person successfully impersonating a monk or nun.
Those whose behavior is unblemished garner a great deal of respect.
Scientific communities also maintain high ethical standards, albeit in quite different realms having to do with potential falsification of data and plagiarism, disharmonious and unproductive discourse and debate and with ensuring productive evaluation of results and theoretical proposals, scientific standards and methods and peer evaluation. Such communities are largely self-regulating, generally at the institutional level with relatively little centralization of authority. Governance is often in a local university administration, but similar standards of professional conduct are generally recognized and enforced throughout the world scientific community. Institutions share common practices for expelling members or to move them to the fringes of communal activities through hiring, funding and tenure decisions. Pursuit of professional reputation is typically a strong determinant of the behavior of scientists.
“The restraint of effluents related to the present life” and “The prevention of effluents related to the next life.” These two aims alone among the ten refer to the results of actual practice toward Awakening. Effluents are unwholesome tendencies and views, the taints from which the human character is purified on the Path. The Sangha functions in this regard by securing for itself the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root. Into its stead flow wisdom and compassion. Liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness these burst here and there into various stages of Awakening. In this way the Sangha so effectively produces Noble Ones from among its ranks.
Monastics are allowed by their vows to do almost nothing for themselves. They are permitted no livelihood, nor trade. They are isolated from the conventional exchange economy. Their material needs are offered entirely by the laity. Monastics are proscribed except in exceptional circumstances from asking for anything, they do not beg, contrary to folk opinion, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special powers or talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew for themselves robes, but these must be limited in size and quality. They also curtail frivolous speech, shows and entertainments and self-beautification, observe limits on what they can own or store, and do not eat after noon. Of course curtailing sexual activity is foundational to monasticism, obviating the most direct route to entanglement in samsara.
On the other hand there are almost no restrictions on what a monastic can do for others: on teaching, pastoral care, good works, advice, even physical labor, as long as it is not compensated. Interestingly the restrictions on the monastics’ aid to others bear on traditionally priestly functions, such as predicting the future, healing or interceding with deities and other otherworldly powers.
Virtually all of the progress one is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up, physically or mentally: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like debt and car ownership, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or imbibing, needy emotions of lust, greed, envy, pride, avarice, aversive emotions of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, and distortions of self-view, having to be somebody and confusion. The Buddhist Path entails a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. The power of the monastic life is in setting high standards of physical renunciation and offering virtually no channel for the practical expression of the afflictive mental factors that refuse to let go and generally assault for a time even the most dedicated monastic heart. Within the monastic container meditation and study quickly develop and plump fruit.
The analogous discipline of science develops a different kind of quality in its practitioners: talent for research. It implements policies that provide very high standards for assessing its quality, for publicizing results and for allocating research funding and employment where future results prove most promising. Through continuous discourse at conferences, in published journals and in informal contexts, research results are continually refined and reevaluated cooperatively within the community to improve their quality. Peer review, and standards for hiring professors, granting tenure, awarding research grants, etc. also provide another forms of constraint and encouragement.
“The arousing of faith in the faithless” and “The increase of the faithful.” Where there are Noble Ones trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The Noble Ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life and tend to curtail samsaric tendencies. They are the adepts, consulted as authorities to which folk Buddhists will defer when Dhammic questions arise. They thereby constrain popular speculative views of Dhamma with a firm anchor in the practice and understanding of the Noble Ones.
Although most people do not enjoy first-hand access to scientists, the volume and continuous production of results gives Science much of its reputation and influence in the world, most particularly in the production of technology, including the wonderful gadgets that now fill our homes, cars and pockets, along with broad published outreach in popular media. Scientists are popularly regarded as the experts to whom others defer, thereby providing popular speculative views of science with an anchor in scientific research.
“The establishment of the true Dharma.” Buddhism has been noted as the first world religion. It has proved remarkable in its robustness, especially considering that hardly any other religions has been able to penetrate foreign cultures without military conquest. This has been possible because the integrity of the Core Dhamma is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and is is actively involved in its own education. It is not hard to imagine that something as refined as Buddhism might degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance even in its native culture, but the anchor of the Sangha is difficult to budge.
The integrity of scientific results is similarly preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, does strong collaborative work, is well supported and that is actively involved in its own education. It is not hard to imagine how something as refined as Science might degrade into superstition, magic or wild speculation from which it arose in the first place, but it doesn’t, even though the oddest notions about the domain of science are rampant outside of the firmly planted scientific community.
“The fostering of Discipline.” Monastic discipline is probably the most archaic element of Buddhism. While scriptures vary throughout the Buddhist world, particularly with the proliferation of the later Mahayana Sutras, the Vinaya in slightly varying versions is a constant throughout Buddhist Asia, except for Japan due to a long history of government interference. The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and ordain nuns and monks who will maintain the discipline. As long as the discipline is maintained there will be arahants in the world, as well as the lesser Noble Ones. As long as there are Noble Ones in the world the Dhamma also will not go too far astray.
Imagine by way of illustration that the Buddhist Sangha as a whole decided that from now on the support of a monk will depend on his popularity among the laity, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts, how many people read his Dharma talks, how well he avoids the unnerving word “renunciation.” This change would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put essential functions under outside influence. It would also compromise the restraint of effluents, because it would force the monk into the self-centered and perhaps competitive behavior of actively seeking approval of others as a matter of livelihood.
Imagine additionally that members of the Sangha are self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, “Venerable Schmoe,” with no commitment to the renunciate life. This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to imagine how Buddhism would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Influence over casual seekers would grow for a time, but fewer and fewer people will be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dhamma. Fostering of discipline is critical.
The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved as a uniform text and not so deliberately studied as the Buddhist Vinaya is. Yet working scientists and university administrators seem to have an implicit sense of what discipline entails and are very sensitive to any assault on its integrity as a community. These various elements of scientific discipline are for the most part very old, implicitly understood by working scientists, and show every sign of enduring into the future.
Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that from now on the merit, publication or funding of research will depend on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his research results, or if he can write a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under outside influence, popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review.
Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, “Professor Schmoe, PhD. This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how serious Science would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Scientific understanding would also be compromised when unqualified researchers publish results with little feedback from perhaps better qualified members of the scientific community, and when they ignore the important but mundane or complex work of research in favor of what sells. In the end Science would be largely discredited. Luckily this scenario is unlikely to play itself out fully, because scientists have a sense of the discipline their community requires.
I have written of the Sangha in ideal terms and limited discussion to the original Sangha, but I realize that it like all human institutions to date, including the scientific, it is faulty and inevitably subject to falling short of its own standards, and yet the Sangha always recovers. It is easy to be cynical about institutions and governance in general, and about the Sangha in particular because the latter is expected to uphold pristine standards indeed. Yet institutions at the same time are necessary to coordinate and preserve. Dismissing institutions or governance out of hand is like the tsunami survivor proclaiming, “That’s it, I’ve had it with water!” or the tornado survivor gasping, “No more air for me.” Like institutions water or air can get unruly, but without them what would you drink or breathe? In fact the Vinaya is a massive attempt to correct as a matter of training even the smallest unruliness or tiniest impropriety as far at the Buddha could discern it. The Buddha was raised a prince and likely trained in politics and even warfare; he would have had some insight into such matters. In fact he produced the institution with the best track record ever to date.
The Shape of the Lay Community.
The Third Gem has a distinct advantages over Gem One and Gem Two: immediate living presence. It ennobles the Parisa to have monks, nuns and particularly Noble Ones in its midst. These are the Sangha, under both inclusive and exclusive definitions, those disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma.
The Noble Ones in particular are the teachers, the adepts, the most admirable friends who impart the Dhamma both verbally and bodily, through explanation and through example. What they explain is very deep, very sophisticated and very difficult to grasp without equally deep practice. Sangha members individually gain reputations for their teaching or humanitarian work, for their inspiring meditation practice or for their scrupulous observance of monastic discipline.
As the laity opens its heart to the Third Gem and to the individual adepts, the teachings flow in more freely. However relatively few in the general population will have the time, energy or inclination to go deeply, the understanding of the folk Buddhist remains very limited, it is often subject to misunderstandings, they think that Nibbana is a place and that all monks have magical powers. All the while, however, they know there are adepts who can clarify and correct when needed. This is much the same with science: Relatively few people develop deep scientific knowledge, the armchair scientists are subject to misunderstandings, they wonder how rocket ships avoid bumping into all the orbits out there and why it is cold at the North Pole, the highest point on earth close to the sun according to the map. Yet they know there are adepts who can clarify and correct such things if needed. Adepts are great to have around.
If the lay devotee should find the time, energy and aspiration to go deeply, to begin to ascend the stem that reaches toward Nibbana, there is a kind and friendly helping hand available to explain the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening and clarify step by step the highly sophisticated teachings to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. If the devotee wishes, he might take advantage of the highly recommended opportunity to ordain and pursue the Path as a member of the Sangha, with the full and enthusiastic support of his neighbors.
Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. They are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in town! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole community.
The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the Living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. In a very real sense monastics are like house pets. Their needs are modest but constant, and recall that the Buddha’s regulations actually make them unnaturally constant. People find great joy in feeding and clothing monks and nuns, so adorable in their fluffy robes and shaved skulls. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (dana), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist community. It has been written that the Buddhist community has an Economy of Gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The communal life around the monastics, later around the monasteries, which would commonly become at the same time community centers for the Parisa, this is the principle that prevails.
Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the community and in upholding the sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay Parisa is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, produces the adapts and thereby serve the Parisa. The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The Parisa supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together. What authority the Sangha holds is only conveyed as wisdom or knowledge and conduct; it has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity’s authorityactually can become coercive: Dissatisfaction with the monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.
Because generosity is such a joyful condition monasteries like the one I happen to live in are very happy places in which to practice this fundamental Buddhist value, along with selfless veneration. It encourages community involvement, requires no sophisticated knowledge and provides a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. It also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter out of control.