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  • [印度]Sumati Gyana:The Advent And Formulation Of Monasticism - The Sangha-The Need For Its Future Rele

    Sumati Gyana


      There has been a mine of propositions to the expressions, the significance and meaning of the community of those that had renounced the life of a house holder. The community of the renunciate, the holy order or, in other words the Sangha, a terminology widely coined by Buddhists worldwide. Some have identified it as a community or cluster of men united in spiritual piety; yet others have even termed it as a federation or institution of men and women living separately, avowed to a lifestyle of celibacy and discipline. The daily activities of such men and women being dedicated to Study, meditation and works on behalf of the community and society at large.

      Monasticism, as the lifestyle of those inhabiting the Sangha are to be precisely understood as, although initially formulated by the Buddha Shakyamuni (the 5th century BC founder of Buddhism), did not remain a prerogative of the Buddhists alone. Rather it was assimilated into other faiths and propagated with equal fervor in different parts of the world*1. Nevertheless, it was the early followers of the Master (Sugata, skrt.) Buddha Shakyamuni, who, following in his foot-steps, took to the life style of the pravrajya, i.e, ‘going forth.’  The etymology of expressions such as the ‘world-renounced ones’ and ‘from home into homelessness’ were and remain the nomenclatures ascribed to this vocation.

      In another sense, this became the precedent for the formulation of the fellowship of the renunciate — consisting of both men and women — united in a consensus to lead a life of ethical training in discipline and meditation.  This could probably be indicated not only as the first ever formal organisation of spiritual postulants, but also the efforts of a spiritual fraternity to create a rudimentary charter to guide their calling, based on a democratic consensus — sometimes claimed as the Asian paradigm to the concept of Democracy.

      When such a movement — which until then was unheard of in the land of its origin — did commence, it was perceived as revolutionary and radical by many. Those who saw it as a new chapter in the history of mendicants praised the unity of purpose. The homogenous yet fragmented nature of the religious followings of various hues in India, would for the first time witness an egalitarian concept of harmony, in the pursuit of a spiritual movement. There were those however, who did accuse the Buddha for dismantling the age old sanctimonious traditions of the family bond — the singular purpose of it being the vested interests and proliferation of the progeny.

      The sole Purpose of the Sangha - The Heart of its Commitment

      The guideline of the Sangha, the fountain-head from which it drew inspiration, is visibly manifest from the maxim laid down by Shakyamuni, who said, “Go forth and wander about for the good of the many (Bahujana, skrt), the happiness of the many (Bahuhitaya, skrt) — in compassion for the world — for the good, the welfare and the happiness of gods and men” *2. Although this adage in its original context may have been an exhortation by the Master, to instill a missionary purpose, the ultimate intention was never implied as a policy of non engagement or isolation.  As it seems to be indicated in his injunction spoken at Vulture’s Peak,(Rajagriha, skrt), which says, “The one who wanders without destination, who remains aloof from both house-holders and monks, the one with few desires, this one I call a Brahmin” *3.

      Although seemingly advocating isolation, the emphasis is nonetheless to be understood within the context of the Master sayings “Adapting to times and places”. As the first exhortation and the later statement made on the Vulture’s peak were spoken under different circumstances to different audiences. This would mean that the master meant isolation as an initial process of healing to those tormented and obsessed with hedonistic lifestyles of orientations. Once a balance or state of equanimity was achieved, such ordained persons were to go forth into the world to heal others.

      That the Sangha had been imbued with a revolutionary vision, is unmistakably transparent from the well-known aphorism “You are your own Protector; you are your-own Refuge.  Therefore control yourself, as a merchant controls a spirited horse”*4.  This would not only indicate the precepts to self-restraint, but also self-determination, taking one’s destiny into one’s own hands.  For, regardless of the many monastic denominations that have arisen, after the passing away (Mahaparinirvana, skrt.) of the Master, the primitive Sangha underwent a series of transformations, from that of a wandering sect of alms men, to that of a settled Order.  The Sangha’s metamorphosis in the final phase of its history in India, into numerous and firmly rooted monastic establishments with some of these achieving international scholastic acclaim, is well documented.

      Preconceived Notions versus Historical Developments

      There has however been hypothetical and scholarly observations present, as to the very body or axiom of the Teachings of the Buddha,  particularly with focus on its core followings, the Sangha.  It has been assumed that the Buddhist advocacy of pacifism to its extreme, and its nihilistic approach to existence, bordering on social disengagement and dependency on patronage, had been the cause of its decline and downfall.

      The aforementioned orientation has reflected on the apostles of the Buddha or, precisely speaking, his monastic community. Such sentiments have even figured in the writings of supposed Buddhist scholars and celebrities, even in recent times.*5 It hence requires the efforts of Buddhists at large, and particularly the conglomerations of  Buddhasasanas — wherever they be — to project the right picture.  To this effect, it would be useful not only to recall some of the historical contributions made by the monastic Diaspora, but also to envision and accentuate the role the respected Sangha could probably play in the future.

      In highlighting the productive and multifarious roles played by the Sangha, the reputed Indian scholar of Buddhism, Doctor Sukumar Dutt, in summarising its historical achievements say’s “It is a long and chequered history : yet not the history of a static institution, but one that shows remarkable dynamism and capacity for progress”*6.  Subscribing to the stated view, though enumerating various fields of mutual developments as a paradigm within the historical Sino-Indian link that was once forged through the prism of Buddhism, the Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says “The extensive contacts that were generated between India and China through Buddhist connections were not confined to the subject matter of Buddhism alone, they had significant effects in other fields as well, including science, mathematics, literature, linguistics, medicine and music.  These links had  also broadened, in a general way, the intellectual horizons of people in the two countries, and even helped to make each of them less insular”*7.

      Buddhism’s advent into China is attributed to two famous monastic figures, the Indian Kumara Jiva (334-413ce) and Chinese Xuanzang (602-664ce). In the words of the Chinese scholar Tan Chung, two eminent Indian Monks, Buddhacinga*8 Fotudeng  (spelt Fo T’u-teng) and Narandrayasas had contributed greatly not only to the development of Buddhism in China, but to the creation of a new Chinese cultural and socio-political order.  In his words, “It was the impressive Indian cultural package to China inclusive of the new religion of Buddhism”*9. In the learned observations of this Chinese author, China was central to the preservation and dissemination of Buddha Dharma, particularly its Mahayana brand.  And, in his observation, the translation of works by eminent Indian monks into the Chinese language, ushered in a new era of acculturation and centripetal force created, that would transform ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity into unity*10.

      Buddhist Monasticism and its Later Developments

      The eminent Buddhist scholar Edward Conze*11 has, however, interestingly noted that “As a spiritual force Buddhism had played itself out, and, that depravity or degeneracy (within the Buddhist fold and its existing Sangha) were not the only reasons for its disappearance in the Indian continent”. In his words, “What had eased was the creative impulse”. “The Buddhists had nothing new to say anymore”. By analogy with what happened in the First and Sixth centuries, a new outburst of creative activity was due in the Eleventh, and was necessary to the rejuvenation of the religion. ‘It failed to take place’ *12.

      Whereas the cultural and literacy heights from early 11th century AD. onwards may have reached their pinnacle on the Tibetan plateau, and credited its spectacular developments in assimilating Buddhism as its own ‘era of Renaissance,’  on the other hand, the attitude of bigotry and power struggles within monks of the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, from the eighteenth century onwards to the first half of the twentieth century, had also brought about a stagnation*13. The conundrum which had arisen in the name of protecting Buddhism and its monastics, from threats of persecution — imagined or otherwise — could be ascribed to the struggle amongst the many Buddhist schools and their attempts to monopoly by establishing a theocratic state.  This concept itself had been foreign within its birthplace, India.  Such had not been its status even during the reign of the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka (268-233BC).

      The incorporation as such was nevertheless evident in the Tibetan continent, since the times of the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1715), whose habitual reliance on violence, according to Edward Conze, “Boded ill for the future”.  When Buddhism became the state religion of Ceylon, Buddhists alone would have the legitimacy to be rulers, as the island of Lanka was held to belong to the Buddha himself! The close connection of the Sangha with the state, foresaw a spirit of nationalism imbued into the Buddhism of Ceylon, around the second century BC. This further made monks prone to political intrigue, according to Conze*14.

      Efforts to centralise Buddhist authority or that of its clergy, or even the creation of the principal of a hegemony or headship, had been ruled out by the Master himself — as is indicated in his injunctions enshrined within the Dhammapada.  Neither could Buddhism or Dharma be the sole prerogative of the monastics.  Sangha as taught by the Buddha was understood to be those who have gained insights into the path of Dharma - considered as the ‘ultimate Sangha’.  Those having received the upasampada or full ordination of the Bhikshu, if present in numbers as much as four, were considered the conventional Sangha. The consideration, here too, has been promulgated based on the primary requirement of  reaching one of the insights in the Buddhist ‘Path and Stages’ *15.

      The presentation of Monks as the sole custodians of religion, expressed with the objective of drawing a line between monks and lay people — the sequestration of the religion for the ordained, in the words of Sukumar Dutt, “Received scant support”. To this the scholar adds that, “Such can be comprehended, from the Founder’s own cannon-reported utterances”*16.

      The Sangha’s Accomplishments and the Need for it to Discover its Place

      When recalling the vast and profound nature of the universal message that the Tathagata had heralded into the lives of his followers, one recollects that he had bequeathed a monumental legacy for all of humanity to build not only on the highest goal to Enlightenment (Sammayak sambuddha, skrt), and the individual Liberation (Nirvana, skrt), but had also taught purpose in living and sublime heights of virtue wherever it spread. The wisdom, compassion and skilful means displayed into adopting all of the highest goals and basic ideals has evoked admiration from all those who have understood  the  sublimity of his message.

      The impact of the teachings of the Buddha is evident when traveling amongst the various countries within the Asian Continent. The characteristic Buddhist munificence is obvious, whether Buddhism is dormant as a living faith in that particular region, or otherwise. Moreover, contemplating on the rich heritage of texts, cultural artefacts and existing monumental wonders — evidence of the architectural prodigy and of scholarship par excellence — the irrevocable imprints of the contribution of the Buddhist legacy to humanity is unmistakable.

      When attributing to a spiritual movement such as the Buddha’s teachings, we cannot forego the human hands and brains too, that were behind the success. In this case, the indisputable inspiration and striving of the Buddhist fraternity — the Buddhasasana – and their social contribution, should not be forgotten or consigned to oblivion. This is to say, that the contribution of the religious fraternity of the dedicated men and women of yore should not be overlooked. For they as the representatives of the standing Sangha of their times have been the outstanding role models and source of inspirations, for all times to come.

      It is probably a manifestation of our unconscious minds to be nostalgic when reliving bygone times, more so, when we say that what we are today is a product of our past. History is pivotal, in so far as we search for our roots to understand our present. Never the-less, it is equally beneficial for the generations to come, that we look to the future. Some Buddhists see an incompatibility between the developments and engagements of the contemporary world and the Buddha’s counseling in assigning value to future lives rather than the present.

      The core message of the concept of Renunciation has often been misinterpreted, especially amongst those Buddhists whose attitudes have been  supercilious and insular. But it is nevertheless an enigma for current day Buddhists to strike the right balances between activities in the world they live in and their avowed vocation to a life of modesty and contemplation.

      As Buddhists, we comprehend and teach to others that all phenomena and Dharma’s lack inherent existence that they appear and disappear due to ‘dependent-arising’ or   interdependent origination (Pratitasamutapada, skrt). Be that as it may, the decline and reappearance of Buddha Dharma in any part of the world, and the challenges faced, are dependent-arising too. This cyclic existence (Samsara,skrt.) and the extinction of all suffering (Nirvana,skrt.) are again dependent-arising and, on that account, today’s World – is the related plane for our Accumulation of Merit (Punyasambhara,skrt) — besides being the source for the second most vital wing, the Accumulation of Wisdom (Jnanasambhara,skrt). The Age of Five Degenerations (Pancha Kasayah,skrt.)*17, said to have already begun with the advent of Buddha Shakyamuni – the Tathagata of the present era — is, on the other hand, equally understood to be a momentous age for the practice of Dharma.

      No matter how we look at the current situations of the world, the here and now evokes a grim picture of deterioration or a portent of an imminent religious or political Armageddon. The fast pace of changing trends in the world, with globalisation and consumerism becoming the dominant characteristics, and the changing political, scientific and technological scenarios, to some may appear to sound the death-knell for Buddhism. But despite all this, Buddha Dharma at large and the Sangha as an institution have left their hallmarks on History, with characteristic resilience and adaptability. In the true spirit of Dharma, it will be — as it has always been — the capacity to live according to the Teachings, rather than the mere multiplication of the followers and conventional trappings, that is important.

      A Function for now and for Posterity

      If we see a role for the Sangha in the Third Millennium, both now and forever, as following in the footsteps of the Tathagata in catering to diverse temperaments, then the virtuous Sangha are bound to be those endowed with vision and courage. There cannot be room for complacency, for parasitical lifestyles, sanctimonious propriety or sectarian bias, in an age which is already rife with contentions. It is hence not only appropriate but understandable that monastics should be relied upon as torch-bearers or role models of the Teachings. Unfortunately, Buddhist Historical annals of the diverse Sangha Communities in various places, have not always escaped controversy. Even today, with the popularity and spread of Buddhism in many countries, contentions keep arising. In some cases this seems to be the doing of a few and, unfortunately, that of also involving the hands of certain celebrities and important persons.

      The lust for political power, high status and the limelight; the mania for monumental buildings, for patrons and disciples; an attitude of self conceit, disdain towards adversaries, the ‘holier-than-thou’ complex, enhanced by sectarianism and parochialism that perceives threats to one’s interests; scholarly pride, monastic in-fighting and ecclesiastical and hierarchical obsessions — all these bring dishonour to the Buddhasasana and are the anathema to the dissemination of Dharma, for all times. The present situation calls for all those in the Holy Sangha to confront squarely such issues as these. It is the sacred task of the Sangha — whatever the lineage of vinaya or tradition of practice — to not only live in harmony, but to foster it in building a fellowship — wherever it is required.

      The most appropriate assignments for Sangha members have always been, as are necessarily, those without remuneration. Such monastics have been the guiding lights not only to spiritual learning but even to diverse fields of academic knowledge. They were necessarily authorities in their fields, representing their respective nations and cultures. Today, monastics need demonstrate the ideals of equanimity, dedication and their political non-affiliation. The Sangha of monks and nuns such as these, endowed with expertise and integrity, are best suited to play the roles of ‘Cultural Ambassadors’ and ‘Peace Messengers’, besides their conventional roles as Preceptors (Gurus,skrt).

      Monastics, in the fashion of their forbearers, can promote culture, art, medicine and music. The Shaolin monks of China are an outstanding example of pragmatic creativity. The martial arts of Shaolin, without deviating from the principle of non-violence, provided protection for the weak and oppressed. There is no denying that it provided revenue to the film industry and entertainment to millions. Can we term it sinful or degenerate, that large numbers of non-Buddhist tourists enjoy visiting Buddhist sites throughout Asia, and that the respective Governments earn income to upgrade the infrastructures of these places, while also providing employment for local people ?

      In the sphere of culture, there is no reason why monastics should leave stones unturned. Music, dance and drama are essential aspects of culture. Tibetan monks perform ceremonial dances known as Cham in Tibetan (nicknamed ‘Lama Dancing’). Even if venerable monks and nuns are going to frown at their brethren performing, considering such proposals frivolous and contrary to the Vinaya (monastic rules), they should not ban others from doing this or take on the role of moral policing. In the care of others, medical knowledge has great potential, for the depressed, the abused and the handicapped, monastics can show the way to others, becoming proficient as doctors, psychologists and counselors.

      Monastics who have vast economical resources or material benefits, from donations of votaries, are in a position to help the needy or divert their resources to meaningful projects. During the reign of Satavahanas (100-170 AD) in South Western India, it seems that Buddhism had become identified with commerce and manufacturing*18. Today, the Indian Ministry of Tourism and the national Air Carrier, Indian Airlines, and the incumbent Prime Minister since 2014 Narendra Modi are all set to exploit the Buddhist Tourist circuit in India. Buddhism is no longer a living tradition in the country of its birth, but Governments in India do believe in capitalising on the Buddhist Tourist boom, to provide revenue and employment. The same may be said for other countries with Buddhist monuments and relics and, this can be viewed as a Buddhist contribution in places where it does not serve as a part of the belief.

      The rejuvenation of Buddha Dharma or the Sangha community is all about enhancing its creativity and bringing it closer to its essence. The revival of Buddhism is definitely not about the increase in numbers or Buddhist monuments, as noted earlier. One often witnesses the sentiments of more traditional Buddhists and their expressions of dismay at the pace of developments in modern society. It may not have occurred to them that ‘Adapting to times’ — in the words of the Master – calls for innovation.

      1 The 6th century revival of Taoism witnessed the Taoist incorporation of the Buddhist model of Monasticism.  The Sufis, an off-shoot of Islam, formed the Rifaite and Mawlawite brotherhood in the 12th century.  St. Pachomius (c.292-c.346) founded the first organised community at Tabennisi in Egypt.

      2 Mahavagga, 1,11,1

      3 Cited in the Pali version of ‘Dhammapada,' verse 404, Edited and translated by Naradathera (Colombo: Vajirarama, 1963), P304. Tibetan  translation with English (Dharma Publishing, California), p.197,verse

      4 ‘Dhammapada,' Tibetan translation from the original Pali, into English (Dharma publishing, California), p.187, verse,21.

      5 The late Pope John Paul II, (1920-2005) although celebrated as the most widely traveled and dynamic Roman Catholic Head in Papal history, nevertheless echoed the anti-Buddhist sentiment , in a book penned by himself.

      6 ‘Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India,' published by Motilal Banarasidass, by Dutt, Sukumar, p.24.

      7 ‘The Argumentative Indian’, published by the Penguin Group, 2005, Sen, Amartya, p.165-166

      8 The career of this Indian master, respectfully addressed to as ‘the Great Monk’ (Da Heshang) began from AD 310 until his death in AD 348.

      9 ‘India and China: A saga of sharing a historical heritage,' by Tan Chung, as an article contributed to ‘History of science, philosophy and culture in Indian civilisation,' volume III part 2, on ‘India’s interaction with China, Central and West Asia,' p 152-153.

      10 Ibid, p. 135-6.

      11 (1904-79) Author of many Buddhist writings and translations from the sacred Buddhist Wisdom literature.

      12 ‘A short history of Buddhism,' Conze, Edward, published by Research Press, India, p.108-9.

      13 Large monk bodies within the Gelugpa Seats in Lhasa, dominated the Administration of Government, opposing any innovation which threatened their particular religious interests.‘Cultural History of Tibet,' by Snellgrove and Richardson, p.230.

      14 ‘A Short History of Buddhism,' Conze, Edward, published by Research Press, India p.138, 39.

      15 Dungkar’s ‘Great Encyclopaedia,' by Dungkar Lobsang Thinley, volume I, P, 604.

      16 ‘Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India’, published by, Motilal Banarsidass, by Dutt, Sukumar, p.23

      17. 1. The degeneration of Life (Ayuh Kasaya,skrt.), 2. The degeneration of Delusions (Klesha Kasaya,skrt.), 3.The degeneration of Persons (Sattva Kasaya,skrt.), 4. The degeneration of Times (Kalpa Kasaya,skrt.), 5. The degeneration of View (Drishti Kasaya,skrt).18. Monastic establishments became the focus of inland trade. While traders engaged in diverse businesses became donors to monasteries, they also had a shared vested interest in the booming commerce and so in the establishment which made that possible. ‘A History of India’ by John Keay, Ormia Books Ltd., Glasgow, p.127

      Written on the 23rd of August, 2015, in Athens, Greece. Readapted and revised for presentation to The 4th World Buddhist Forum, in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China.


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