Growing the Dharma: History of the Dharma and Sangha

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this installment we complet the chapter on the history of Buddhism. Next week we will look at how the Sasana plays out in its social context, in particular at Folk Buddhism.

Chapter 6. Propogation and Evolution of the Sasana (2/2)


The History of the Dharma Gem

The Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, aside from Awakening, is the exposition of the Dharma. The function of veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to its influence. Perhaps the most complete way to honor the Dharma, available to all from the earliest days, is to actually study, practice and live according to Dharma. In the earliest days oral recitation and memorization of a rather vast scriptural corpus was also indicative of reverence for the Dharma, even while distributing the memorization effort communally over many monks or monasteries, often each specializing in a certain tract. Remnants of this practice are found to this day in the daily devotions of millions of adherents, even after written language has rendered this inefficient purely as means of preservation. In Burma and other lands the practice of memorization is highly valued to this day and many monastics can recite vast amounts of scripture from memory.

Sometimes veneration of the Dharma carries over to the language in which it is preserved. In particular, the Theravadins early on decided to preserve the canonical literature in Pali, the Indic language in which it had come to Sri Lanka and which they assumed must have been the original language of the Buddha, while elsewhere the equivalent literature was largely translated into local vernaculars. Accordingly, the status of Pali grew in stature over the centuries such that it became the original or most perfect human language, and the language spoken by all buddhas of every era. In East Asia, dharanis , certain short texts assumed to have magical or protective qualities, have been preserved over the centuries in original Indic languages transliterated into Chinese characters to capture the sounds but not the meanings of the texts.

A remarkable development within Buddhism is the gradual augmentation and sometimes complete supplanting or of the scriptural corpus in virtually every tradition. Some of these later texts are apocryphal, that is, they purport to be early texts, often words spoken by the Buddha, either in the text themselves or in subsequent tradition. This is the case in the Theravada Abhidhamma and for many Mahayana sutras. Often an origin story has survived alongside newer texts that clarified for an earlier audience why no one seemed to have heard of these texts earlier. Typically these involved preservation by deities, dragons or simply concealment in caves for later rediscovery. The Theravada Abhidharma was delivered by the Buddha in a heavenly realm. The great philosopher-monk Nagarjuna was purported to have special access to ancient secret documents preserved underwater by dragons (nagas) that formed the basis of his system of thought.

The variety of the vast scriptural corpus to which the Chinese were heir must have bewildered the early Buddhists, who would have had little notion of what was early and what was later. As a result distinct schools formed each giving allegiance to a favorite sutra. Of the four major schools in China, the foundational scripture of the Hua Yen School was the voluminous Flower Ornament Sutra, that of the T’ien Tai School was the Lotus Sutra, that of the Ching T’u (Pure Land) School was the Amitabha Sutra, and the Ch’an (Japanese, Zen) school couldn’t make up its mind, apparently vacillating initially between the Lankavatara Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, then declaring itself “a transmission beyond words and letters.”1 And so, veneration of the Dharma began in some schools to mean veneration of a specific text. Particularly prominent in this regard has been the Lotus Sutra which claims in the text itself to be original and which offers little in the way of practice aside from recitation and transcription of the text. Within this text we find the Buddha proclaiming,

“… after the extinction of the Tathagata, if there be any people who hear even a single verse or a single word of the Wonderful Law-Flower Sutra, and by a single thought delight in it, I also predict for them Perfect Enlightenment. Again, let there be any who receive and keep, read and recite, expound and copy even a single verse of the Wonderful Law-Flower Sutra, and look upon this sutra with reverence as if it were the Buddha, and make offering to it in various ways with flowers, perfume, garlands, sandal powder, perfumed unguents, incense for burning, silk canopies, banners, flags, garments, and music, as well as revere it with folded hands, …”2

These devotional practices around the Lotus Sutra entered T’ien Tai Buddhism in China and eventually many of its offshoots in Japan, for instance, in the recitation of the name of the Lotus Sutra in Nichiren Buddhism, including modern Soka Gakkai.

The History of the Sangha

The Monastic Sangha has been historically the most stable element of all in Buddhism in spite of the evolutionary tendencies of its sister gems. The Vinaya in at least three recensions is still preserved and observed to this day in very archaic form throughout Buddhist Asia, except only marginally in Japan, unlike any particular sutta/sutra corpus. The Patimokkha is almost invariant. The wayward Japanese case is instructive of the need for this particular kind of stability, as we will see in later chapters.

Nonetheless, a common change in the monastic role, almost across the board, is the assumption by monastics of priestly functions largely absent in early Buddhism, roughly mediation with deities or mysterious forces through the performance of rites and rituals. For instance, it is very common for monastics to offer blessings, spells of protection, or good luck, to dispel ghosts or evil spirits or to work miracles in most traditions, even while the Buddha clearly intended that such things be left to the Brahmin priests. In the Theravada tradition, which is relatively more orthodox in this regard than most, monastics wield the eleven verses of protection (Pali, parittas), each one specific to offsetting its own type of unfortunate eventuality, from complications in childbirth, through fire, to snakebite. Such functions are only largely absent in early Buddhism, for the Buddha himself seems to have opened the door a crack to priestly functions, through which a crowd of human demands subsequently forced its way. Once, after a monk had died from bite of snake, the Buddha explained that if this monk had developed kindness toward snakes the snake would not have bitten him, and the Buddha even recommended a verse for this purpose, which is recited to this day.3 This is the only verse of protection the Buddha seems to have endorsed in the early scriptures, but the offering of blessings became and remained a secondary monastic function throughout most of Asia.

China provided some direct challenges to monastic deportment of a different kind that required some adaptations. Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home were solidly at the center of Chinese social values. The Monastic Sangha seems to have deflected social criticism on this point through the expedient of tracing ordination lineages, which publicly established a analogy between the layperson’s parental relations and the monastic’s relationship to his or her preceptor/teacher. With a little fudging and creative imagination, family trees reaching all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, became in effect a really big family, such that a new monk or nun not so much left family as swapped family, thus appeasing otherwise bruised Chinese familial sensitivities. Perhaps as a consequence of the emphasis on family lineage, monks seem to have developed closer relationships with their core families, traveling less freely from monastery to monastery. Teachers began to protect their students from the influence of other teachers, introducing strong sectarianism at a local level.

Furthermore, while monastics in India lived, as mandated in the Vinaya, on alms, beggars in China were pariahs. As a result, it seems, monks and nuns in the Land of the Chopstick became more self-sufficient in the new land, relying more on large donations than on small daily alms, often in the form of land grants through which monasteries could earn wealth through renting land to farmers. Often monastics became farmers themselves, forcing modifications of the otherwise cumbersome monastic robes or of their abandonment in certain situations in favor of monastically appropriate work clothing. On the other hand, as monastics became more self-sufficient, monastic discipline was actually tightened in others ways: monastics, now freer to choose their own diet, stopped eating meat altogether in China, and fifty-eight additional precepts were undertaken in a supplementary ordination, the Bodhisattva Precepts.4

The governance of the Monastic Sangha in India, as mandated in the Vinaya, was designed as a consensual democracy operating at the monastery level, with relative freedom from outside interference envisioned. The government in China seems habitually to have interfered in the governance of any nongovernmental organization, relegating it to a place in the authoritarian hierarchy. As monasteries became more integrated into this system, seniority within the Sangha seems to have become more pronounced and reflected in the color, design or quality of the attire of senior monks. Similar changes in monastic governance under government collusion have arisen in other lands as well.

Nonetheless, the monastic institution has remained remarkably archaic right up to the present day. Consider attire for instance. It might make rational sense for modern Buddhist monks to wear uniform modern attire, for instance, saffron-colored double-breasted suits with sleeves and zippers, maybe tasteful epaulettes with little Dharma wheels. Such modern attire would still retain the function of distinguishing monastics from laity or from the clergy of other faiths, and would in addition spare monastics the mortification of being millennia out-of-fashion. Although adaptations to attire occurred by necessity in colder climates, the traditional robe was retained in some form everywhere, albeit sometimes only for use in formal contexts. The lack of central authority in the Sangha in most of the Buddhist world probably played a role in this conservatism, since small local sangha would be disinclined to make such a change without coordination with many other sanghas, knowing that few in the broader community would understand what a locally adopted uniform would mean.

The Sangha has almost everywhere retained the authority as the holder of the unblemished Dharma. However in a few instances that role has been extended to others. There have occasionally appeared outstanding lay teachers, for instance, in recent times Dipa Ma, a laywoman famed as a meditation instructor, even to monks. In Tibet an academic degree conferred along with the title geshe created a new class of authorities. This degree is traditionally only conferred to monks, but a monk who disrobes continues to hold the degree, thereby representing a lay geshe. Sometime tulkus, reborn lamas, chose not to enter the Sangha, yet retained the authority they had earned in their previous lives as teachers and monks. In modern times academic degrees carry a certain degree of authority and in the West the preponderance of Buddhist teachers are so far non-monastics.

The Sangha has perhaps evolved furthest in Japan, largely as a result of government interference at different points in its history. The result is that the Sangha had been by the mid-twentieth century almost completely replaced by a priesthood, a non-renunciate clergy largely specializing in rites and rituals, even in the once particularly monastically oriented Zen school. This also affected Korea to a limited extent during Japanese colonial rule.5

A pervasive factor in the history of the Monastic Sangha is the sometimes less than ideal excellence of the Monastic Sangha. Early accounts of monastic behavior in the Vinaya show that this has been the case since the time of the Buddha. The following account describes the infamous Group of Six:6

Now at that time, unscrupulous monks … were in residence at Kitagiri. They indulged in the following kinds of bad habits: they planted … small flowing trees, … , they plucked them …, they tied them up into (garlands) …. These take or send garlands … to wives of reputable families, to daughters …, to girls …, to daughters-in-law …, to female slaves of reputable families. … These eat from one dish together with wives … female slaves of reputable families. They drink from one beaker; they sit down on one seat; they share one couch; they share one mat; they share one coverlet; they share one mat and coverlet. The eat at the wrong time; they drink intoxicants; they wear garlands, perfumes and cosmetics; they dance and sing and play musical instruments, and they sport. They dance when she dances, they play musical instruments when she dances, they sing when she dances; they dance when she sings …, they dance when she plays musical instruments … they dance when she sports … they sport when she sports. They play on a chequered board for gambling; they play on a draught-board; they play with imagining such boards in the air; they play a game of keeping stepping on to diagrams … they play at blowing through toy-pipes made of leaves; they play with a toy plough; they play at turning somersaults …

Virtually every rule in the Vinaya was reportedly developed in response to monastic misbehavior of one kind or another.7

Any human institution is subject to degradation, where at least some of its members will inevitably fall short of, or even subvert, the mission with which the institution is charged. This is true, for instance, for government and for academia, for journalism and for health care. The Monastic Sangha, even as the historically most durable institution on the planet, has rarely if ever been exceptional in this regard. For often people ordain with mixed intentions: In many lands, for instance, there is economic security or educational opportunity consequential to becoming a monastic, or simply social status. As a result there will often be monastics with poor discipline, little interest in spiritual attainment and little capacity for inspiring the laity or sustaining the Sasana, alongside those sincere and inevitably more adept monastics of pure and noble intention.

Fortunately there is a kind of thermostat that provides a check on the degradation of monastic excellence: With decreased purity comes a decrease in the inspiration experienced by the laity. With a decrease in inspiration, support for monastics decreases. With decreased support, wayward monks of mixed intentions leave the Sangha or fail to enter it in the first place. With the loss of wayward monks the purity of the Sangha increases as the adepts remain undaunted. With increased purity …, and so on. Unfortunately this this thermostat seems to allow too much swing in excellence and has brought forth the intervention of devout kings and other government authorities at certain times. This apparently first happened under King Ashoka, who was reported to have overseen the forced expulsion of many monastics in an effort to purify the Sangha, many of whom had perhaps entered during a period of his own perhaps all-too-enthusiastic support.8

The History of the Goal and of the Path

We’ve noted an impressive historical shift in the contents of the scriptural corpus in almost every Buddhist tradition. The Abhidharmas in their various forms have hybrid origins, involving propagation, evolution and cross-fertilization. Their core certainly arose very early in an attempt to catalog and systematize the Buddha’s conceptual vocabulary. Beyond this, in India, a trend toward highly analytical philosophical and often speculative analysis infected many traditions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Although the Abhidharmas have early roots, scholars place the real effort in each case after the time of Emperor Ashoka, with quite distinct results in different sects. Although the Theravadin Abhidharma makes no reference to its own origin, the later commentarial tradition attributes it directly to the Buddha, who is said to have taught it a heavenly realm. Some sects refused to participate in the Abhidharma project altogether, including a Sautrantika (Sutta Only) sect that branched off of the Sarvastivada.

The Mahayana movement represented a displacement of most of the canonical corpora by new sutras as they came on line. Gombrich (1990) suggests that this was facilitated by the circumstance that Buddhist texts were now appearing commonly in hard-copy rather than oral form, which offered opportunities for new or obscure texts to “go viral,” in modern parlance, unfettered by the editorial influence of communal recitation, though “viral” here would describe, given the technology of the time, dissemination in a matter of centuries rather than of hours or days. This process began in India and continued in Central Asia where Buddhism probably through cross-fertilization among the various religious traditions traveling the Silk Road, and in China. The themes characteristic of the Mahayana included compassion, emptiness, the bodhisattva ideal, rich mythological embellishment, and an elevated notion of buddhahood. Many of these themes had been anticipated but not fully developed in the early suttas or by the early sects. Moreover, their mythical bodhisattvas and fantastic imagery provided many with a good read. Although the early discourses of the Buddha were available in Chinese translation, in the Land of the Chopstick the study of the Mahayana sutras largely eclipsed that of the early discourses.

Although the Mahayana sutras were new and not early, that does not necessarily mean they were not, in our terms, authentic. Many of them developed and clarified very sophisticated and subtle core themes introduced in early Buddhism, with great skill. Some clear shifts in the content of the Dharma can be discerned in various schools, particularly in the Mahayana. Each must be assessed on its own merits.

The most dominant theme to characterize the Mahayana is the bodhisattva ideal. Early Buddhism embeds the life of the practitioner in a greater epic story, a path toward personal Awakening, toward becoming an arahant, a path that spans many lives of sincere practice. In the Mahayana the storyline took a bit different form: The Path now lead toward becoming a buddha, conceived as a far more exalted state. Entering the path toward buddhahood one becomes a bodhisattva, which is what the Buddha is called in his previous lives as represented in the early Jataka stories. As a bodhisattva one’s primary concern is the well-being of others to the extent that one works for the Awakening of others as much as for one’s own Awakening.

The Mahayana is also described as being more lay-oriented than Theravada, early Buddhism or other pre-Mahayana sects. The bodhisattva ideal might have helped make lay practice more respectful, given that the Buddha lived most of his previous human lives, according to the Jataka tales, as a layman, yet was presumably making respectful progress toward buddhahood. This is not to say that Mahayana is a movement against monastic authority as many have suggested. First, monastics have generally thrived in the Mahayana. Second, it is widely agreed among scholars today that monastics were the driving force of the Mahayana.9 Rather, Mahayana has developed a wide range of distinct schools suitable for a wide range of aspirations, many of which are oriented exclusively toward clearly intermediate soteriological goals, short of full awakening. For instance, alongside the Ch’an (Zen) school, which has consistently held to full Awakening as the end-all and be-all of Buddhism, we have the hugely popular Pure Land school that narrows of the goal of a very devotional form of practice to a felicitous rebirth into a particular heavenly realm (the Pure Land).

Buddhism has always provided for intermediate goals, since few of us are ever of perfect aspiration. However, these options have some distinct features in the Mahayana tradition. First, whole formally distinct schools are defined around these intermediate goals. For instance, we find Pure Land Buddhism independently promoted in Sung China, primarily by White Lotus Societies generally under lay leadership. Second, the mechanisms for achieving these intermediate goals in these schools are often not fully envisioned in Early Buddhism. Rebirth in the Pure Land ensues through appeal to the power of the vow of Amitabha, a Buddha who presides over the heavenly Pure Land and whose past reserve of good karma is readily shared with those who exhibit sufficient devotion to Amitabha. This dependence on an external agent for salvation contrasts rather markedly with the Buddha’s early teachings. Third, goal of Awakening is rarely entirely dismissed, rather simply put aside as unattainable in this life. The Pure Land has most often in its history allied itself, and shared its monastics, with schools that are more clearly oriented toward Awakening, for instance in the common modern syncretism of Pure Land with Ch’an in Chinese temples.10 Finally, the idea that the present is a degenerate age in which we all are no longer capable of Awakening, is often used as a justification for the need for the intermediate school.11

Has the Sasana Upheld the True Dharma?

The trees once domesticated for their sweet, plump and nutritious fruit but long entrusted to nature might eventually produce fruit scrawny, sour and barely digestible. Flowers once domesticated for their fragrance and brilliant blossoms but then allowed to grow wild where abundant water, sun and god soil are lacking, could be expected to evolve into more scraggly forms, perhaps soon no longer to represent flowering plants at all. If the plant-genetic metaphor recruited to understand propagation and variation in Buddhism is apt, one might would the merciless process of natural selection likewise to degrade the pristine values, practices and understandings of Buddhism, when the Sasana has been let loose in an arbitrary culture, for instance, a culture that sees no virtue in renunciation or in which patience and harmlessness are denigrated. What does this metaphor suggest about Buddhism’s chance of survival in a capricious and often hostile folk-cultural environment?

Indeed, with all of the changes sweeping back and forth through Buddhism – the swapping out of old scriptures and swapping in of new, the expanding levels of devotion to a founder increasingly deified then sometimes displaced, the blending in of folk culture and folk religion, preoccupation with an elaborate mythology, priests running around blessing people – one might expect Buddhism variously to have morphed into paganism, witchcraft, devil worship, a force in the battle of Good vs. Evil, philosophical speculation or New Age sagecraft, and certainly not to be capable of upholding the integrity of the extremely sophisticated and therefore fragile understandings and remarkably high standards that otherwise characterize Buddhism. The question for us is: How far has Buddhism evolved in the wild from its original intent? Far enough to lose its early functional authenticity?

What we discover in Buddhist history are the following:

First, the Sasana is malleable. It has taken on new practices and understandings through cross-fertilization from new cultural influences, sometimes forming hybrids that might as well be classified as Tantric Hinduism or Taoism as well as Buddhism. It has encouraged innovation from within. It seems quite willing to absorb the wacky along with the sublime.

Second, alongside its liberalism the Sasana seems to have some very conservative or orthodox elements that rarely budge. In particular it has preserved the primary elements of the flower of the authentic early Sasana remarkably well in almost every tradition. These include trust in, and veneration for, the Triple Gem and the distinguished role and mission of the monastic Sangha. It includes even certain small functional elements such as gestures of respect that one would expect to have preferred equivalences in new cultures.

Third, the particular goal of Awakening, or at least more generally of mental development specifically in that direction, is repeatedly articulated in diverse traditions. Even traditions that eschew practice toward the goal of Awakening tacitly recognize the significance of that goal. Moreover, many diverse traditions claim to have produced a series of Awakened beings or at least of Noble Ones who have attained preliminary levels of Awakening. Although it is difficult to evaluate these claims directly, it is reasonable to assume that the time and energy devoted towards these attainments would hardly have persisted over the centuries if these claims were not true.

Fourth, the Path of practice is repeatedly recognizable at least in broad outline. One can often distinctly recognize each of the factors of the early Noble Eightfold Path or some equivalent practice, or at least the primary three trainings of virtue, cultivation of mind and wisdom. Nonetheless, recognition of these equivalences is often an art that also requires direct experience with more than one tradition. Consider, for instance, how virtue and mindfulness practice get folded together in the ritualization of everyday conduct in Ch’an Buddhism. However, it is reasonable to assume that if a tradition is producing a series of Noble or Awakened Ones, the authenticity of its Path has been upheld.

Where does this resilience come from? To answer these questions we need to consider the dynamics of the Sasana in its social or cultural context. This will be the task of the next two chapters. This will also allow us to understand that authenticity resides not in strict adherence to a particular version of Dharma as much as in a healthy Sasana.

1Incidentally, the Diamond Sutra is the earliest known dated book ever to be mechanically printed.

2Kato, et al. (1975), pp. 186-7.

3Ahi Sutta, AN 4.67. This particular case might, for all I know, have to do with snake psychology than with the manipulation of more mysterious forces. Just an attitude of kindness seems to manifest in a difference in one’s relations with people and other mammals, in any case.


5Richard Jaffe’s (2001) book Neither Monk nor Layman provides a gripping account of this development.

6Suttavibhanga, abridged from Horner 2006, vol. 1, pp. 314-318.

7This particular passage is the beginning of the origin story for Sandhadisesa 13, the rule on the corrupting of families.

8This is the account provided in the classical Mahavamsa. See, for instance, Strong (1983), p. 23, Dutt (1978), p. 237.


10This will be discussed further in subsequent chapters.





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