Growing the Dharma: the Buddhist Community

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this chapter we look at the Buddhist community as it is constituted in the earliest texts and generally lived to this day. The primary source of the Buddha’s teachings on community is the Vinaya, the monastic code. Next week we will conclude with those aspects of the monastic code that represent the monastic obligation to the Sasana and the role of the laity.

Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (1/2).

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

A monastic is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that same hand (not to mention cute as a puppy in his fluffy robes and with his bald head). Like a house pet, a monastic lives a simple life, needs and possesses little: He does not have a motorboat on the lake, nor a puppy he is working to put through college. He is a deliberate renunciate with a lifestyle that leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the accumulation of stuff, the quest for personal advantage, nor the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that he settles, if the mind remains steady, into a state of quiet contentment, a fertile field of practice.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but does the same for the lay donor as well. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service the monastic receives a gift. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human affairs. This is an economy of gifts1 that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dana, generosity.

The Buddha imagines a Buddhist Community of laity and monastics and he brought this community to light by organizing the Monastic Sangha. His idea seems to have been that the presence of the Monastic Sangha would shape the entire community, the laity taking on its roles voluntarily without formal obligations enforced by some kind of command structure or threats of excommunication.

The Monastic Sangha

Whereas we find the sublime in the Dharma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha (in this chapter taken to mean, unless otherwise specified, the monastic order) is an institution. 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 Sasana.

The Sangha has striking parallels with science as an institution, the disciplined community of scientists organized largely within universities and research institutions. Each, the monastic 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 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. Just as scientific discipline is intrinsic 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 the Buddha-Sasana, and Buddhism in all its depth would collapse without it or something quite like it. Both institutions are conservative exhibiting little change 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 pointed that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monumental achievement. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet!2

What is more, the Sangha 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, Arab, Lithuanian and British, arose and grew, it was still 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 nor established itself without 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 revealed the Dharma, 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 most consistently called the body of his teachings not “Dharma,” not “Sasana,” and certainly not “Buddhism,” but rather “Dharma-Vinaya,” the Teachings and Discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying to the surrounding monks,

“Whatever Dharma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone,”3

The Vinaya is fundamentally about community and about the monastic life style, the life in accord with the Dharma and thereby the most direct path to attainment. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout it emphasizes their responsibility to the Buddhist lay community. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burns 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 describes the mission of the Vinaya in ten points:4

“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 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 Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. The nuns and monks are the designated full-time caretakers of the Dharma. 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. This is a critical point. Its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dharma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In most cases it entails rigorous training in Dharma, meditation and Vinaya. Concentrated in this life among the renunciates, the Dharma burns most brightly.5

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 appears 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,6 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 many rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented with monastic behavior.7 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 in order 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!8 Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for livelihood, ensuring among other things that the Dharma will not 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, harmony of the Sangha, harmony between 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 on the other hand 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 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, as long as it follows the discipline faithfully, 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 and 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 psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so 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, in the Buddha’s teachings, on traditionally priestly functions, such as predicting the future, healing or appealing to the mercy of deities. The Buddha created an order of renunciates, role models and teachers, not of priests.

Virtually all of the progress one (lay or monastic) 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 obligations like debt and car ownership, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or imbibing liberally, needy emotions of lust, greed, envy, pride, avarice, aversive emotions of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, denial and confusion, the distortion of self-view and having to be somebody. 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 ripe 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 other forms of constraint and encouragement.

1Thanissaro (1997, 1999).

2Gombrich (2009), p. 2, makes this claim.

3Mahaparanibbana Sutta, DN 16.

4Vinaya III.20; A v 70. Horner …, Thanissaro (2007, p. 5).

5Conze (1959, p. 53) writes in stronger terms that, “The monks are the Buddhist elite. They are the only Buddhists in the proper sense of the word. The life of a householder is almost incompatible with the higher levels of spiritual life. This has been a conviction common to all Buddhists at all times.”

6I’ll will consider later why historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

7The origin stories of individual rules found in the Vinaya reveal this.

8Ariyesako (1999) provides an accessible overview of the monastic regulations.


One Response to “Growing the Dharma: the Buddhist Community”

  1. John Tohkubbi Says:

    This chapter deals with the very life force of the Buddha’s dispensation. Without the community of monastics and the supportiveness of the laity, there really is no Buddhism. I don’t think that the point of the mutual dependency here can be stressed enough. Indeed merit is generated and shared while both the laity and monastics follow Buddha’s teaching and practice the path of the dharma together. Amazing indeed is the fact of the Sangha persisting as long as it has and essentially unchanged and preserved. No other human legacy is as supreme as the Dharma and the Monastic Sangha.

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