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. Last week we began discussion of the ten-point mission statement of the monastic sangha as spoken by the Buddha and how it is implemented. For illustration I have been drawing parallels with the discipline of the modern scientific community. Let’s conclude our enumeration of these ten points, then look at the lay role in the Buddhist community.
Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (2/2).
“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 Dharmic questions arise. They thereby constrain popular speculative views of Dharma with a firm anchor in the practice and understanding of the Noble Ones.
Although most people do not have 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 before they devolve into pure fantasy.
“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 no other religion has been able to penetrate foreign cultures without military conquest as naturally as Buddhism. This has been possible because the integrity of the authentic Dharma is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Buddhism might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance, even in its native culture, but the anchor of the Sangha is difficult to budge. This theme will be developed further in Chapters Seven and Eight.
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. Something as refined as Science might otherwise easily 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 almost a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.1 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 Dharma 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 books or listen to his Dharma talks, how well he avoids that most disquieting of words “renunciation.” Such a change would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put its essential functions under outside less adept 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 were self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, “Venerable Siegfried,” 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 quick flash of unprecedented popularity. Influence over casual seekers would grow for a time, but fewer and fewer people would be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma. Fostering of discipline is critical.
The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved in a uniform document 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 how to regulate it, 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 less adept 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 Himmelgruber, BA.” 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 early 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 one that has endured the longest.
The Shape of the Lay Community.
The Third Gem has a distinct advantage over Gem One and Gem Two: immediate living presence. It ennobles the Community 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 Dharma.
The Noble Ones in particular are the most qualified teachers, the adepts, the most admirable friends who impart the Dharma both verbally and bodily, through explanation and by 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. There has generally been the assumption that the Sangha stands apart qualitatively. This is the excellence it should try to maintain.
Relatively few in the general population will have the time, energy or inclination to enter the Dharma deeply. Indeed the understanding of the typical lay Buddhist has been very limited, it has often been subject to misunderstandings, it has generally regarded Nirvana as a place and monks as wielders of magical powers. 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 and therefore closest to the sun. It has generally been a working assumption that the laity is also much more concerned than monastics with the more excessive devotional practices. The Buddha, for instance, before his death when asked by Ananda what to do with his body, replied that it was no concern for the monks,
“For there are, Ananda, wise nobles, wise brahmans, and wise householders who are devoted to the Tathagata, and it is they who will render the honor to the body of the Tathagata.”2
Nonetheless, the Buddha stated that the Dharma is not held in a tight fist; there is nothing esoteric in the teachings; they are open to all. As the laity opens its heart to the Third Gem and rubs shoulders with individual adepts, the teachings flow in more freely. The lay Buddhist benefits as the adepts clarify and correct his views upon request, or proactively when greed, hate and delusion become manifest. 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 Nirvana, there are kind and friendly helping hands available to explain the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening in detail and to clarify step by step the highly sophisticated teachings to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. With work the lay devotee can become quite adept himself but will likely avail himself of the ever-present opportunity to join the Sangha in order to pursue the Path more fully with the full and enthusiastic support of his generous neighbors.
Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. It members 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 the village! 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. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (Pali, dāna), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist Community, producing 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 early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the Community.
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 Community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, spins off Noble Ones and thereby serves the Community. 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 Buddhist Community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.
It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha 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 actually has more coercive power: 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, monasteries3 can be very happy places in which to practice fundamental Buddhist values, along with selfless veneration. Monasteries encourage community involvement, require no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provids a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They 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.
1The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001).
2Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.
3… like the one I am very fortunate to live in …