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Religion - Ethnic and Universal

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by Sangharakshita

... especially on the day of the Full Moon, and they would chant together whatever little verses and sayings they had memorised, they would sit in meditation, and that was their Full Moon day celebration. So in this way, in the Buddha's day, you had these little bands of wanderers, or individual wanderers also, just going about from place to place, and living in this very simple, this very unpretentious sort of way. But of monastic life, as we have known it in the West, there was nothing at all. There wasn't even at this stage any specifically monastic dress. All that the wanderers used to do was to take ordinary Indian lay dress, which was two single pieces of cloth - one to put round the waist and the other over the shoulder - and they discoloured them, with brown earth so that they weren't of any use to anyone else. And they would just go around in this way.

Now, as I have mentioned, they used to spend the rainy season retreat, a period of some three or four months, in one place. Now what happened after the Buddha's death was this. Certain wanderers used to get into the habit of returning to the same spot for the rainy season retreat every year. They would wander around, maybe many hundreds of miles, but by the time the rainy season came round again they would come back to the same spot, the same cave, or the same little hut in someone's garden. And they would get into the habit of spending every rainy season there, for a number of years in succession. Then after that another development took place. Some of the wanderers stopped wandering. Some of them apparently felt: What's the use of wandering about all the time? Why not stay in this little hut, not just during the rainy season, why not stay all the time? So during this stage of development, you get the wanderers settling down in the huts, the caves, the other little shelters, and staying there all the year round.

Lecture 78 - Religion: Ethnic and Universal - Page 2 - Once they were staying there all the year round, what happened? They found that the temporary shed or hut was no longer enough. So they started putting up buildings, permanent buildings, and as more and more people came they needed bigger and bigger buildings. So they started enlisting the support of the kings and other wealthy people, and obtaining grants of land, and in this way something more closely resembling what we, in the West, call monasticism developed. Not only that, we find that during this period 100, 200, 300 years after the death of the Buddha, the spiritual life itself became more and more identified not so much with the life of the lay community, not even so much with the life of the wanderers, but identified with monastic life in this coenobitical sense. And then again we find that as the centuries went by, there was a tendency for the monasteries, the mahaviharas as they were called, to become bigger and bigger and bigger, and eventually from sheltering just 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 monks, they came to shelter thousands of monks, all living together in enormous monastic institutions. The biggest of them all and the grandest of them all was at Nalanda in Bihar. And here, at its heyday, we find 14,000 monks living together, not exactly under one roof, but in one great complex of monastic buildings. We know very much about monastic life in Nalanda during the early Buddhist Middle Ages because the great Chinese pilgrim Huen Chan (???) visited Nalanda, studied at Nalanda, became a professor at Nalanda, in the 6th century. He wrote, rather he dictated memoirs, giving a very detailed, very vivid picture of the monastic life of Nalanda and the academic life of Nalanda during his stay. So in this way we see that hundreds of years after the Buddha's death, certainly by the 2nd or 3rd century of the Christian era, monastic life, Buddhist monastic life in India had become very, very highly centralised. There weren't lots of little hermitages and monasteries dotted all over the country. There tended to be just a few very, very big ones containing practically all the monks. Whoever became seriously interested in Buddhism in India, especially during the later period, tended to become a monk. And whoever became a monk joined a big monastery. So we see that in this way Buddhism itself became centralised in these large monastic institutions which were, of course, dependent upon royal patronage. And this meant that, inasmuch as the monks were all centralised, in the big monasteries which were patronised and supported by the kings, the monks and the monastic life generally became more and more cut off from the life of the people. And we shall see the consequences of this in just a minute.

2. A second reason for the disappearance of Buddhism from India: dependence on and eventual failure of royal patronage. The individual wanderer, wandering about collecting his food every day, could depend on the individual householder. He could just go to one single person's house, and he would get enough for the day, and that was that. Then even when small hermitages or viharas were established in the vicinity of a little village or town, they could depend for support on the village community. They weren't too much for the village community to manage, to support. But suppose one wanted to build, to establish and develop a very large monastery, then to whom could one turn for support? One couldn't appeal for funds over the radio or through the newspapers because there were no such things in those days. So to whom could one turn? Only to the king, it was only the king who had enough money to support ventures of this kind. So we find that from the very beginning in India, Buddhism tended to seek, to enlist the support of the kings.

Now we find that very often they succeeded brilliantly and there were names of certain kings who were very distinguished in this respect, celebrated for the very munificent support they gave Buddhism, especially in the way of endowing and maintaining huge monasteries. We remember in this connection the names of Asoka, of Kaniska, of Harsha and so on.

And sometimes we find that Buddhism succeeded in gaining the support of whole dynasties, the Gupta dynasty and the Pala dynasty in North-eastern India, and the Sattavahanas in the South in the Deccan.

Though this support was not always exclusive. Many kings supported Buddhism but supported other religions as well. And of course the example of the king was followed by lesser folk. Whatever the king does, of course everybody else does. So if he supports Buddhism, then other less wealthy people also would tend to support it. Now unfortunately this strength of Buddhism was also its weakness. You had these enormous monastic institutions, supported by royal patronage, but kings are fickle creatures. Put not your trust in princes. And sometimes the kings changed their religion, they switched over, very often for entirely political reasons, and they became sometimes violent Shiva-ites or fanatical Jains, didn't support Buddhism, even started persecuting it. Or sometimes, unfortunately, a Buddhist dynasty just died out, just dwindled away. But what happened, in either case, was that support was withdrawn and Buddhism, in the sense of monastic Buddhism, suffered.

3. Third factor: the hostility of the Brahmins. Now who were these Brahmins? Some of you may not know.

The Brahmins were the hereditary priesthood of orthodox Hinduism. And, of course, the Brahmins and Brahminism were in existence in India long before the time of the Buddha. The Brahmins traditionally claimed a monopoly of religious knowledge. They specialised, as it were, in religion. That was their profession. And they claimed also the exclusive right to teach, whether religious subjects or even secular subjects, what we would call arts and sciences. You couldn't be a religious teacher unless you were a Brahmin. The Brahmins were very strong on this. It was one of the things on which they criticised the Lecture 78 - Religion: Ethnic and Universal - Page 3 - Buddha, that being a Ksatriya, a warrior, he dared to teach religion, which they thought was all wrong.

And the Brahmins had very strong notions indeed about their own superiority to the rest of mankind. We find them claiming, for instance, that they, the Brahmins, were born at the very beginning of things, at the dawn of creation, out of the head of Brahma, Brahma being the personal god; whereas the Ksatriyas, the fighters, were born from his shoulders, the Vaisyas or traders were born from his thighs, and the Sudras, the workers - that is the vast majority - from his feet. And we find that throughout the history of India, the Brahmins have always been a very proud, a very exclusive, a very haughty and a very powerful body of men indeed. They have always claimed social precedence and a deciding voice in all political affairs. In Ancient India the Brahmins also considered themselves above the law, a Brahmin could not really be punished, and certainly a Brahmin could not be put to death by anybody regardless of the crime he committed. This law was in force in Nepal until quite recent times. During my own visit there some years ago, it was still in force.

Now it is not surprising that these Brahmins, the hereditary priesthood of orthodox Hinduism, were rather hostile to the Buddha because the Buddha didn't like the caste system, didn't agree with the caste system, didn't agree that some were superior by birth and others inferior by birth. The Buddha taught very clearly, very unmistakably that a man's worth depended not on his birth but on his deeds, his actions, on his character, on his spiritual attainments. So the Brahmins were not very happy, on the whole, with the Buddha or with his teaching. Sometimes they used to come to him, wherever he was sitting - under a tree or in a cave - with tricky questions. ...

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