Sangha

This essay is updated from the chapter “The Buddhist Community” in my book A pdf_24x18Culture of Awakening: the life and times of the Buddha-Sasana.

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.

IMG_1240A 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 kitten 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 indeed.

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 gifts,[1] one that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dāna, Pali for generosity.

The Buddha imagined a harmonious 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 entirely voluntarily, in particular 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 is an institution. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones now and in the years to come.[2] 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, as we will see, it ensures the future authenticity of the Sasana.[3]

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. Both institutions are conservative, exhibiting relatively little change over the centuries, even while their products can be highly innovative. From these parallels I will draw helpful analogies to better understand the function of the Sangha in terms of the (presumably, for most readers) more familiar scientific institution.

It is not often enough stated that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monu-mental achievement. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who in-vented monastic life,”[4] that is who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet![5]

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, Mayan 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 the 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, with 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 and observed among the ascetics of his time, clearly articulated for 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 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 doctrine and discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying to the surrounding monks,

“… what I have taught and explained to you as Dharma and discipline will, at my passing, be your teacher,”[6]

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 higher attainments. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout it emphasizes the responsibility of the Sangha to the lay community, and the expectation of support of the Sangha by the 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 the Buddha‘s mission statement for the Sangha in ten points:[7]

“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.”

Let’s try to understand the functions of monastic discipline point by point in terms of this mission statement, and to recognize, as a means of further elucidation, their close counterparts in the discipline of science.

“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. Although membership is an opportunity offered in principle to all, 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.[8]

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 acquire the competence to conduct independent research.

“The comfort of the Sangha”

The Sangha appears to have been 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,[9] 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, perhaps most, rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented in one way or another with the behavior of some monastics.[10] Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception, that is, not necessarily reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, laypeople pay respects to monastics but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha serves to distinguish them from ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and from the laity, who have a distinct role.

As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns depend completely on 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 (monastics cannot, for instance, grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then redoubles this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially of food, for which ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered![11] Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food or blessings for money. 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, tweaked 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 analogously 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” / “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 decisions as a group 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. 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 lay person in robes who is successfully impersonating a monk or nun. Those, on the other hand, whose behavior is unblemished garner a great deal of respect, generally among Sangha and laity alike.

Scientific communities also maintain high ethical standards, albeit in quite different realms having primarily to do with potential falsification of data and plagiarism, with disharmonious and unproductive discourse and debate, and with productive evaluation of results and theoretical proposals, scientific standards and methods by peers. 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, as distinct from monastics.

“The restraint of effluents related to the present life” / “The prevention of effluents … to the next life”

These two aims, alone among the ten, refer to the results of actual monastic 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, except in the mind. Into its stead flow the wisdom and compassion that, liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness, burst here and there into various stages of Awakening. In this way the Sangha, as long as it follows the discipline scrupulously, produces relatively effectively 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, that is, they do not beg, 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, they observe limits on what they can own or store, and they do not eat after noon. Of course curtailing sexual activity is foundational to monasticism, obviating the most reliable and well-worn 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 for the most part apply to traditional 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 and/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.

“The arousing of faith in the faithless” / “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 melt samsaric tendencies. They are 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 popular published outreach in the media. Scientists are popularly regarded as the experts to whom others defer, thereby countering popular speculative views of science with the solid anchor of scientific research, inhibiting the former from devolving into pure fantasy.

“The establishment of the true Dharma”

Buddhism has been noted as the first world religion. It has proved remarkable in its resilience, 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 training. 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 Six and Seven.

The integrity of scientific results is similarly preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, engages strong collaborative research, is well supported and is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Science might otherwise easily degrade into the 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 regulations of the Vinaya are nearly a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.[12] The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and who 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 his 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-than-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 Bo Bo,” 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 short time, but fewer and fewer people would be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma in the long term. The fostering of discipline is critical to the resilience of the Sasana.

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 have an implicit common 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, salary and the ability to publish or fund research will depend entirely on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps measured in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his results, with special credit for writing a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under less-than-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. It would represent a race to the bottom.

Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, “Professor Bob, 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 important aspects 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.

References

Ariyesako, Bhikkhu, 1999, “The Bhikkhus’ Rules: a Guide for Laypeople,” on-line at accesstoinsight.org.

Cintita, Bhikkhu Dinsmore, 2012, “What Did the Buddha Think of Women?,” essay available on-line at https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com.

Conze, Edward, 1959, Buddhism: its Essence and Development, Harper.

Gombrich, Richard, 2006, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge.

Gombrich, Richard, 2009, What the Buddha Taught, Equinox.

Horner, I.B., 2006, Book of the Discipline, Part I, Pali Text Society: Lancaster.

Jaffe, Richard, 2001, Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism, Princeton University Press.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1997, “The Economy of Gifts,” on line essay at accesstoinsight.org.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2007, The Buddhist Monastic Code I, II, Metta Forest Monastery.

Walshe, Maurice, 1996, The Long Discourses of the Buddha (= DN), Wisdom Publications: Boston.

Endnotes

  1. Thanissaro (1997, 2009).

2. Noble Ones (ariya) have attained at least the first level of awakening, stream entry.

3. The Sasana is the playing out of the Buddha’s teaching in time and space, that is, from an historical and social perspective.

4. Gombrich (2006), p. 19.

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

6. Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, DN 16, Walshe (1996), p. 260.

7. Translation is by Thanissaro (2007), p. 5. See also Horner (2006) , pp.37-8.

8 .Conze (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.”

9 .See Cintita (2012). Historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

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

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

12. The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001) and the discussion in later chapters.

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