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An Historical Sketch

Part 2

In the Mahâ and Culla-vaggas of the Vinaya Pitaka we possess a large collection of regulations purporting to be issued by the Buddha for the guidance of the Order on such subjects as ceremonial, discipline, clothes, food, furniture and medicine. The arrangement is roughly chronological. Gotama starts as a new teacher, without either followers or a code. As disciples multiply the need for regulations and uniformity of life is felt.

Each incident and difficulty that arises is reported to him and he defines the correct practice. One may suspect that many usages represented as originating in the injunctions of the master really grew up gradually. But the documents are ancient; they date from the generations immediately following the Buddha's death, and their account of his activity as an organizer is probably correct in substance.

One of the first reasons which rendered regulations necessary was the popularity of the order and the respect which it enjoyed. King Bimbisâra of Magadha is represented as proclaiming that

"It is not permitted to do anything to those who join the order of the Sakyaputtiya[1]."

Hence robbers[2], debtors, slaves, soldiers anxious to escape service and others who wished for protection against the law or merely to lead an idle life, desired to avail themselves of these immunities. This resulted in the gradual elaboration of a code of discipline which did much to secure that only those actuated by proper motives could enter the order and only those who conducted themselves properly could stay within it.

We find traces of a distinction between those Bhikkhus who were hermits and lived solitary lives in the woods and those who moved about in bands, frequenting rest houses. In the time of the Buddha the wandering life was a reality but later most monks became residents in monasteries. Already in the Vinaya we seem to breathe the atmosphere of large conventual establishments where busy superintendents see to the lodging and discipline of crowds of monks, and to the distribution of the gifts made by pious laymen. But the Buddha himself knew the value of forests and plant life for calming and quickening the mind.

"Here are trees,"

he would say to his disciples at the end of a lecture,

"go and think it out[3]."

In the poetical books of the Tripitaka, especially the collections known as the Songs of the Monks and Nuns, this feeling is still stronger: we are among anchorites who pass their time in solitary meditation in the depths of forests or on mountain tops and have a sense of freedom and a joy in the life of wild things not found in cloisters. These old monkish poems are somewhat wearisome as continuous reading, but their monotonous enthusiasm about the conquest of desire is leavened by a sincere and observant love of nature.

They sing of the scenes in which meditation is pleasant, the flowery banks of streams that flow through reeds and grasses of many colours as well as the mysterious midnight forest when the dew falls and wild beasts howl; they note the plumage of the blue peacock, the flight of the yellow crane and the gliding movements of the water snake. It does not appear that these amiable hermits arrogated any superiority to themselves or that there was any opposition between them and the rest of the brethren. They preferred a form of the religious life which the Buddha would not make compulsory, but it is older than Buddhism and not yet dead in India. The Sangha exercised no hierarchical authority over them and they accepted such simple symbols of union as the observance of Uposatha days.

The character of the Sangha has not materially changed since its constitution took definite shape towards the end of the master's life. It was and is simply a body of people who believe that the higher life cannot be lived in any existing form of society and therefore combine to form a confraternity where they are relieved of care for food and raiment, where they can really take no thought for the morrow and turn the cheek to the smiter. They were not a corporation of priests and they had no political aims. Any free man, unless his parents or the state had a claim on him and unless he suffered from certain diseases, was admitted; he took no vows of obedience and was at any time at liberty to return to the world.

Though the Sangha as founded by the Buddha did not claim, still less exact, anything from the laity, yet it was their duty, their most obvious and easy method of acquiring merit, to honour and support monks, to provide them with food, clothes and lodging and with everything which they might lawfully possess. Strictly speaking a monk does not beg for food nor thank for what he receives. He gives the layman a chance of doing a good deed and the donor, not the recipient, should be thankful.

At first the Buddha admitted converts to the order himself, but he subsequently prescribed two simple ceremonies for admission to the novitiate and to full privileges respectively. They are often described as ordinations but are rather applications from postulants which are granted by a Chapter consisting of at least ten members.

The first, called pabbajjâ or going forth—that is leaving the world—is effected when the would-be novice, duly shorn and robed in yellow, recites the three refuges and the ten precepts[4]. Full membership is obtained by the further ceremony called upasampadâ. The postulant, who must be at least twenty years old, is examined in order to ascertain that he is sui juris and has no disqualifying disease or other impediment.

Then he is introduced to the Chapter by "a learned and competent monk" who asks those who are in favour of his admission to signify the same by their silence and those who are not, to speak. If this formula is repeated three times without calling forth objection, the upasampadâ is complete. The newly admitted Bhikkhu must have an Upajjhâya or preceptor on whom he waits as a servant, seeing to his clothes, bath, bed, etc. In return the preceptor gives him spiritual instruction, supervises his conduct and tends him when sick.

The Chapter which had power to accept new monks and regulate discipline consisted of the monks inhabiting a parish or district, whose extent was fixed by the Sangha itself. Its reality as a corporate body was secured by stringent regulations that under no excuse must the Bhikkhus resident in a parish omit to assemble on Uposatha days[5]. The Vinaya[6] represents the initiative for these simple observances as coming not from the Buddha but from King Bimbisâra, who pointed out that the adherents of other schools met on fixed days and that it would be well if his disciples did the same. He assented and ordered that when they met they should recite a formula called Pâtimokkha which is still in use.

It is a confessional service, in which a list of offences is read out and the brethren are asked three times after each item

"Are you pure in this matter?"

Silence indicates a good conscience. Only if a monk has anything to confess does he speak. It is then in the power of the assembly to prescribe some form of expiation. The offender may be rebuked, suspended or even expelled. But he must admit his guilt. Otherwise disciplinary measures are forbidden.

What has been said above[7] about the daily life of the Buddha applies equally to the life of his disciples. Like him they rose early, journeyed or went to beg their only meal until about half-past eleven and spent the heat of the day in retirement and meditation. In the evening followed discussion and instruction. It was forbidden to accept gold and silver but the order might possess parks and monasteries and receive offerings of food and clothes.

The personal possessions allowed to a monk were only the three robes, a girdle, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle and a water strainer[8]. Everything else which might be given to an individual had to be handed over to the confraternity and held in common and the Vinaya shows clearly how a band of wandering monks following their teacher from place to place speedily grew into an influential corporation possessing parks and monasteries near the principal cities.

The life in these establishments attained a high level of comfort according to the standard of the times and the number of restrictive precepts suggests a tendency towards luxury. This was natural, for the laity were taught that their duty was to give and the Order had to decide how much it could properly receive from those pious souls who were only too happy to acquire merit. In the larger Vihâras, for instance at Sâvatthî, there were halls for exercise (that is walking up and down), halls with fires in them, warm baths and store rooms.

The year of the Bhikkhus was divided into two parts. During nine months they might wander about, live in the woods or reside in a monastery. During the remaining three months, known as Vassa[9] or rainy season, residence in a monastery was obligatory. This custom, as mentioned, existed in India before the Buddha's time and the Pitakas represent him as adopting it, chiefly out of deference to public opinion. He did not prescribe any special observances for the period of Vassa, but this was the time when people had most leisure, since it was hard to move about, and also when the monks were brought into continual contact with the inhabitants of a special locality.

So it naturally became regarded as the appropriate season for giving instruction to the laity. The end of the rainy season was marked by a ceremony called Pavâraṇâ, at which the monks asked one another to pardon any offences that might have been committed, and immediately after it came the Kathiṇa ceremony or distribution of robes. Kathiṇa signifies the store of raw cotton cloth presented by the laity and held as common property until distributed to individuals.

It would be tedious to give even an abstract of the regulations contained in the Vinaya. They are almost exclusively concerned with matters of daily life, dwellings, furniture, medicine and so forth, and if we compare them with the statutes of other religious orders, we are struck by the fact that the Buddha makes no provision for work, obedience or worship.

In the western branches of the Christian Church—and to some extent, though less markedly, in the eastern—the theory prevails that "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do" and manual labour is a recognized part of the monastic life. But in India conditions and ideals were different. The resident monk grew out of the wandering teacher or disputant, who was not likely to practise any trade; it was a maxim that religious persons lived on alms, and occupations which we consider harmless, such as agriculture, were held to be unsuitable because such acts as ploughing may destroy animal life.

Probably the Buddha would not have admitted the value of manual labour as a distraction and defence against evil thoughts. No one was more earnestly bent on the conquest of such thoughts, but he wished to extirpate them, not merely to crowd them out. Energy and activity are insisted on again and again, and there is no attempt to discourage mental activity. Reading formed no part of the culture of the time, but a life of travel and new impressions, continual discussion and the war of wits, must have given the Bhikkhus a more stimulating training than was to be had in the contemporary Brahmanic schools.

The Buddha's regulations contain no vow of obedience or recognition of rank other than simple seniority or the relation of teacher to pupil. As time went on various hierarchical expedients were invented in different countries, since the management of large bodies of men necessitates authority in some form, but except in Lamaism this authority has rarely taken the form familiar to us in the Roman and Oriental Churches, where the Bishops and higher clergy assume the right to direct both the belief and conduct of others. In the Sangha, no monk could give orders to another: he who disobeyed the precepts of the order ceased to be a member of it either ipso facto, or if he refused to comply with the expiation prescribed.

Also there was no compulsion, no suppression of discussion, no delegated power to explain or supplement the truth. Hence differences of opinion in the Buddhist Church have largely taken the shape of schools of thought rather than of separate and polemical sects. Dissension indeed has not been absent but of persecution, such as stains the annals of the Christian Church, there is hardly any record. The fact that the Sangha, though nearly five hundred years older than any Christian institution, is still vigorous shows that this noble freedom is not unsuccessful as a practical policy.

The absence of anything that can be called worship or cultus in Gotama's regulations is remarkable. He not merely sets aside the older religious rites, such as prayer and sacrifice; he does not prescribe anything whatever which is in ordinary language a religious act. For the Pâtimokkha, Pavâraṇâ, etc., are not religious ceremonies, but chapters of the order held with an ethical object, and the procedure (the proposal of a resolution and the request for an expression of opinion) is that adopted in modern public meetings, except that assent is signified by silence. It is true that the ceremonial of a religion is not likely to develop during the life of the founder, for pious recollection and recitation of his utterances in the form of scripture are as yet impossible.

Still, if the Buddha had had any belief whatever in the edifying effect of ritual, he would not have failed to institute some ceremony, appealing if not to supernatural beings at least to human emotions. Even the few observances which he did prescribe seem to be the result of suggestion from others and the only inference to be drawn is that he regarded every form of religious observance as entirely superfluous.

At first the Sangha consisted exclusively of men. It was not until about five years after its establishment that the entreaties of the Buddha's fostermother, who had become a widow, and of Ânanda prevailed on him to throw it open to women as well[10] but it would seem that the permission was wrung from him against his judgment. His reluctance was not due to a low estimate of female ability, for he recognized and made use of the influence of women in social and domestic life and he admitted that they were as capable as men of attaining the highest stages of spiritual and intellectual progress.

This is also attested by the Pitakas, for some of the most important and subtle arguments and expositions are put into the mouths of nuns[11]. Indeed the objections raised by the Buddha, though emphatic, are as arguments singularly vague and the eight rules for nuns which he laid down and compared to an embankment built to prevent a flood seem dictated not by the danger of immorality but by the fear that women might aspire to the management of the order and to be the equals or superiors of monks.

So far as we can tell, his fears were not realized. The female branch of the order showed little vigour after its first institution but it does not appear that it was a cause of weakness or corruption. Women were influential in the infancy of Buddhism, but we hear little of the nuns when this first ardour was over. We may surmise that it was partly due to personal devotion to Gotama and also that there was a growing tendency to curtail the independence allowed to women by earlier Aryan usage.

The daughters of Asoka play some part in the narratives of the conversion of Ceylon and Nepal but after the early days of the Church female names are not prominent: subsequently the succession became interrupted and, as nuns can receive ordination only from other nuns and not from monks, it could not be restored. The so-called nuns of the present day are merely religious women corresponding to the sisters of Protestant Churches, but are not ordained members of an order. But the right of women to enjoy the same spiritual privileges as men is not denied in theory and in practice Buddhism has done nothing to support or commend the system of the harem or zenana.

In some Buddhist countries such as Burma and Siam women enjoy almost the same independence as in Europe. In China and Japan their status is not so high, but one period when Buddhism was powerful in Japan (800-1100 A.D.) was marked by the number of female writers and among the Manchus and Tibetans women enjoy considerable freedom and authority.

Those who follow the law of the Buddha but are not members of the Sangha are called Upâsakas[12], that is worshippers or adherents. The word may be conveniently rendered by laymen although the distinction between clergy and laity, as understood in most parts of Europe, does not quite correspond to the distinction between Bhikkhus and Upâsakas. European clergy are often thought of as interpreters of the Deity, and whenever they have had the power they have usually claimed the right to supervise and control the moral or even the political administration of their country.

Something similar may be found in Lamaism, but it forms no part of Gotama's original institution nor of the Buddhist Church as seen to-day in Burma, Siam and Ceylon. The members of the Sangha are not priests or mediators. They have joined a confraternity in order to lead a higher life for which ordinary society has no place. They will teach others, not as those whose duty it is to make the laity conform to their standard but as those who desire to make known the truth.

And easy as is the transition from this attitude to the other, it must be admitted that Buddhism has rarely laid itself open to the charge of interfering in politics or of seeking temporal authority. Rather may it be accused of a tendency to indolence. In some cases elementary education is in the hands of the monks and their monasteries serve the purpose of village schools. Elsewhere they are harmless recluses whom the unsympathetic critic may pity as useless but can hardly condemn as ambitious or interfering. This is not however altogether true of Tibet and the Far East.

It is sometimes said that the only real Buddhists are the members of the Sangha and there is some truth in this, particularly in China, where one cannot count as a Buddhist every one who occasionally attends a Buddhist service. But on the other hand Gotama accorded to the laity a definite and honourable position and in the Pitakas they notify their conversion by a special formula. They cannot indeed lead the perfect life but they can ensure birth in happy states and a good layman may even attain nirvana on his death-bed.

But though the pious householder

"takes his refuge in the law and in the order of monks"

from whom he learns the law, yet these monks make no attempt to supervise or even to judge his life. The only punishment which the Order inflicts, to turn down the bowl and refuse to accept alms from guilty hands, is reserved for those who have tried to injure it and is not inflicted on notorious evil livers. It is the business of a monk to spread true knowledge and good feeling around him without enquiring into the thoughts and deeds of those who do not spontaneously seek his counsel. Indeed it may be said that in Burma it is the laity who supervise the monks rather than vice versa.

Those Bhikkhus who fall short of the accepted standard, especially in chastity, are compelled by popular opinion to leave the monastery or village where they have misbehaved. This reminds us of the criticisms of laymen reported in the Vinaya and the deference which the Buddha paid to them.

The ethical character of Buddhism and its superiority to other Indian systems are shown in the precepts which it lays down for laymen. Ceremony and doctrine have hardly any place in this code, but it enjoins good conduct and morality: moderation in pleasures and consideration for others.

Only five commandments are essential for a good life but they are perhaps more comprehensive and harder to keep than the Decalogue, for they prescribe abstinence from the five sins of taking life, drinking intoxicants, lying, stealing and unchastity. It is meritorious to observe in addition three other precepts, namely, to use no garlands or perfumes: to sleep on a mat spread on the ground and not to eat after midday. Pious laymen keep all these eight precepts, at least on Uposatha days, and often make a vow to observe them for some special period.

The nearer a layman can approximate to the life of a monk the better for his spiritual health, but still the aims and ideals, and consequently the methods, of the lay and religious life are different. The Bhikkhu is not of this world, he has cut himself loose from its ties, pleasures and passions; he strives not for heaven but for arhatship. But the layman, though he may profitably think of nirvana and final happiness, may also rightly aspire to be born in some temporary heaven. The law merely bids him be a kind, temperate, prudent man of the world.

It is only when he speaks to the monks that the Buddha really speaks to his own and gives his own thoughts: only for them are the high selfless aspirations, the austere counsels of perfection and the promises of bliss and something beyond bliss. But the lay morality is excellent in its own sphere—the good respectable life—and its teaching is most earnest and natural in those departments where the hard unsentimental precepts of the higher code jar on western minds. Whereas the monk severs all family ties and is fettered by no domestic affection, this is the field which the layman can cultivate with most profit.

It was against his judgment that the Buddha admitted women to his order and in bidding his monks beware of them he said many hard things. But for women in the household life the Pitakas show an appreciation and respect which is illustrated by the position held by women in Buddhist countries from the devout and capable matron Visâkhâ down to the women of Burma in the present day. The Buddha even praised the ancients because they married for love and did not buy their wives[13].

The right life of a layman is described in several suttas[14] and in all of them, though almsgiving, religious conversation and hearing the law are commended, the main emphasis is on such social virtues as pleasant speech, kindness, temperance, consideration for others and affection.

The most complete of these discourses, the Sigâlovâda-sutta[15], relates how the Buddha when starting one morning to beg alms in Râjagaha saw the householder Sigâla bowing down with clasped hands and saluting the four quarters, the nadir and the zenith. The object of the ceremony was to avert any evil which might come from these six points.

The Buddha told him that this was not the right way to protect oneself: a man should regard his parents as the east, his teachers as the south, his wife and children as the west, his friends as the north, his servants as the nadir and monks and Brahmans as the zenith. By fulfilling his duty to these six classes a man protects himself from all evil which may come from the six points.

Then he expounded in order the mutual duties of

  1. parents and children,
  2. pupils and teachers,
  3. husband and wife,
  4. friends,
  5. master and servant,
  6. laity and clergy.

The precepts which follow show how much common sense and good feeling Gotama could bring to bear on the affairs of every-day life when he gave them his attention and the whole classification of reciprocal obligations recalls the five relationships of Chinese morality, three of which are identical with Gotama's divisions, namely parents and children, husband and wife, and friends. But national characteristics make themselves obvious in the differences. Gotama says nothing about politics or loyalty; the Chinese list, which opens with the mutual duties of sovereigns and subjects, is silent respecting the church and clergy.

The Sangha is an Indian institution and invites comparison with that remarkable feature of Indian social life, the Brahman caste. At first sight the two seem mutually opposed, for the one is a hereditary though intellectual aristocracy, claiming the possession of incommunicable knowledge and power, the other a corporation open to all who choose to renounce the world and lead a good life. And this antithesis contains historical truth: the Sangha, like the similar orders of the Jains and other Kshatriya sects, was in its origin a protest against the exclusiveness and ritualism of the Brahmans.

Yet compared with anything to be found in other countries the two bodies have something in common. For instance it is a meritorious act to feed either Brahmans or Bhikkhus. Europeans are inclined to call both of them priests, but this is inaccurate for a Bhikkhu rarely deserves the title [16] and nowadays Brahmans are not necessarily priests nor priests Brahmans. But in India there is an old and widespread idea that he who devotes himself to a religious and intellectual life (and the two spheres, though they do not coincide, overlap more than in Europe) should be not only respected but supported by the rest of the world.

He is not a professional man in the sense that lawyers, doctors and clergymen are, but rather an aristocrat. Though from the earliest times the nobles of India have had a full share of pride and self-confidence, the average Hindu has always believed in another kind of upper class, entered in some sects by birth, in others by merit, but in general a well-defined body, the conduct of whose members does not fail to command respect.

The do ut des principle is certainly not wanting, but the holy man is honoured not so much because he will make an immediate return by imparting some instruction or performing some ceremony but because to honour him is a good act which, like other good acts, will sooner or later find its reward. The Buddha is not represented as blaming the respect paid to Brahmans but as saying that Brahmans must deserve it.

Birth and plaited hair do not make a true Brahman any more than a shaven head makes a Bhikkhu, but he who has renounced the world, who is pure in thought, word and deed, who follows the eight-fold path, and perfects himself in knowledge, he is the true Brahman[17]. Men of such aspirations are commoner in India than elsewhere and more than elsewhere they form a class, which is defined by each sect for itself. But in all sects it is an essential part of piety to offer respect and gifts to this religious aristocracy.

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- Footnotes:


Mahâv. I. 42.


But converted robbers were occasionally admitted, e.g. Angulimâla.


Sam. Nik. IV. XXXV., Maj. Nik. 8 ad fin. On the value attached by mystics in all countries to trees and flowers, see Underhill, Mysticism, p. 231.


They are abstinence from (1) destroying life, (2) stealing, (3) impurity, (4) lying, (5) intoxicants, (6) eating at forbidden times, (7) dancing, music and theatres, (8) garlands, perfumes, ornaments, (9) high or large beds, (10) accepting gold or silver.


These are practically equivalent to Sundays, being the new moon, full moon and the eighth days from the new and full moon. In Tibet however the 14th, 15th, 29th and 30th of each month are observed.


Mahâvag. II. 1-2.


Chap. VIII. Sec. 3.


Required not so much to purify water as to prevent the accidental destruction of insects.


It might begin either the day after the full moon of Asâlha (June-July) or a month later. In either case the period was three months. Mahâvag. III. 2.


Cullavag. X. 1.


See the papers by Mrs Bode in J.R.A.S. 1893, pp. 517-66 and 763-98, and Mrs Rhys Davids in Ninth Congress of Orientalists, vol. I. p. 344.


Feminine Upâsikâ.


Sutta-Nipâta, 289.


E.g. Mahâmangala and Dhammika-Sutta in Sut. Nip. II. 4 and 14.


Dig. Nik. 31.


It may seem superfluous to insist on this, yet Warren in his Buddhism in Translations uniformly renders Bhikkhu by priest.


The same idea occurs in the Upanishads, e.g. Brih.-Âr. Up. IV. 4. 23, "he becomes a true Brahman."

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