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Monasticism: Buddhist Monasticism


The myth of the historical Buddha's life provides the basic model for Buddhist monasticism. Prince Siddhārtha Gautama went, in Buddhist language, on the "Middle Way," a life of moderate asceticism, between lay life and extreme asceticism. His practices were based on the belief in the existence and attainability of a transcendent reality, enlightenment more profoundly real, powerful, and blissful than the world as experienced in a nonenlightened state. The exercise of meditation, learning, ethical conduct, and progress on the path to liberation were thought to be best managed in solitude, or at least in single-gender communities that did not engage society in traditionally accepted, lay-oriented ways.

Buddhists believe that the best way to follow the path to enlightenment is to live a disciplined lifestyle, one conducive to generating awareness of one's mental states and the causally produced nature of all elements of existence. Sexual relations, marriage, procreation, family life, career, and personal concerns are distractions from religious concerns and thus rejected as preconditions for admission to the Buddhist monastic communities. Buddhists monks and nuns who take vows are, in canonical terms, "pleased" (prasādita ) by their vows. Joining the monastic order has a tempering or "cooling" (śītala ) effect on the passions, anger, and delusions of monks and nuns. According to Buddhist doctrine, to be rid of the bonds of habitual thought and behavior is a happy and pleasing thing; monastic life is not supposed to be oppressive or restrictive.

In the monastic literature, whenever the Buddha prohibited an action and instituted a rule, he did so to please his disciples. Buddhist monastic life is considered a liberation from mental and physical bondage and conducive to religious development. In the monastic literary corpus there are many examples of the advantages of monastic life. In one episode from the Pali Vinaya, translated by Isaline B. Horner in The Book of the Discipline, the parents of a young man named Upāli were confused about how to educate, care for, and provide for the best interests of their beloved son:

"By what means could Upāli, after our demise, live at ease and not be in want?" Then it occurred to Upāli's parents: "If Upāli should learn writing his fingers will become painful. If Upāli should learn calculation his breast will become painful. If Upāli should learn money-changing his eyes will become painful. Now if Upāli should go forth among the recluses, the sons of the Śākyans, so would Upāli, after our demise, live at ease and not be in want." (Horner, 19381966, vol. 3, pp. 1011)

When Upāli heard of his parents' plan, he was delighted and encouraged his friends to join him in the Buddhist order. Entry into the monastic order was socially acceptable and advantageous, not a punishment or life-denying exile. Commitment to, or at least proximity to, religious mysteries brought social and political status, and for this reason monks and nuns gained prestige and power in their support communities.

Fully developed Buddhist monasticism likely did not originate during the historical Buddha's lifetime. Still, Buddhist monks and nuns use the example of the Buddha's life story as a behavioral model. Through Buddhist history, in communities of celibate Buddhist men and women there were two ideal modes of behavior, reflecting the origins and historical developments preserved in the Buddha's story. The two are eremitic asceticism, likely taken from the earliest years of the order, and cenobitic community life, in which monks and nuns are engaged with monastic brethren and lay society. Some monks continued the practice of strictly renunciative solitary retreats in sometimes remote areas, affirming the ancient eremitic roots of Buddhism, while others, often from the same monastery, were concerned with active monastery affairs, community academic studies, and ritual practicesa cenobitic lifestyle. Similarly, solitary or group pilgrimage to sacred sites, for example, was an accepted practice for Buddhist monks, as long as the monks stayed within the ethical and behavioral parameters. Both modes of behavior were validated by the life story of the Buddha: the renunciative mode by Siddhārtha leaving his home, family, and birthright; and the active mode of behavior by his activities after his enlightenment, when he returned to public life as a teacher and monastic community developer. This apparent duality of active behavior and renunciative behavior, even in the context of settled monastic life, is one of the characteristics of Buddhist monastic behavior that continues throughout the history of the institution in many if not all its manifestations.

The Spread of Buddhist Monasticism

One of the important factors in the spread and growth of Buddhist monasticism was its adaptability. As long as monks and nuns preserved the basic teachings and social behavior patterns, Buddhism could be translated into any language or culture. That is, as long as monks obeyed the monastic laws and engaged in the ritual and meditative practices, Buddhism could and did appear in manifold forms through history. This flexibility served the Buddhist "conquest" of Asia well and stimulated the growth of a massive religious institution with broad sociological diversity, extensive literature, philosophy, ritual, and considerable political power. Indeed, in addition to places for meditation and worship, monasteries were centers for the study and practice of medicine, for writing and building library collections, for Buddhist arts, for adjudicating community disputes, and in general for serving the needs of host communities. Buddhism was and remains an international religion and was intended for transmission into different languages and cultures.

The first example of Buddhism's adaptability to its cultural environment is in India itself. Buddhism was a new innovation that adapted as India grew and developed. The early Buddhist Vinaya collections record the growth and evolution in an Indian cultural context. In the first years of Buddhism, like their Upaniad-motivated brethren, Buddha's followers were strictly eremitic, following an extreme ascetic lifestyle. The Vinaya monastic literature records that early monks and nuns wandered from place to place, even through the rainy season. These Buddhist wandering mendicants practiced firm renunciation of worldly concerns. With the success of Buddha's system, however, problems developed because of the sheer numbers of converts. Farmers began to complain about crops destroyed by Buddhists wandering in the monsoon, poorly nourished and weak monks and nuns began to develop illnesses, and the large numbers were difficult to manage. Buddha therefore instructed his communities to set up shelters and temporary residences (ārāma ) for the duration of the monsoon season. Two sections of the Vinaya deal with the realities of feeding, housing, and occupying itinerant Buddhist monks and nuns during the four-month Indian monsoon season.

The new residences soon increased in size, quantity, and quality, thanks in part to continuing donations of buildings and land by the lay populations and political authorities. Buddhist authorities were soon faced with the problems of retreat conduct, and they needed an effective method to propagate the teachings during the retreat time, when monks and nuns did not wander. The earliest solutions for the communities were the Poadha (the twice-monthly rules [prātimoka] recitation ceremony) and, eventually, regular collective meetings for group rituals, practice, and instruction. The recitation meetings were not a Buddhist innovation; other Indian religious groups kept the ancient Vedic tradition of meeting on the days of the full and new moon, a practice common to religions of that era, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. It was nonetheless one of the significant steps in the development of collective Buddhist monastic practice and a demonstration of the order's adaptability to local conditions.

The corpus of Indian Buddhist ritual practices and philosophies grew as the order spread and encountered different environments, languages, and social structures. Buddhist monasteries maintained the fundamental teachings and moderate ascetic lifestyle, but Buddhists soon elaborated on the basic doctrines and accommodated new ritual practices current in its own and in new host cultures. Buddhist monasteries became centers for the production of an extensive literary corpus that was often translated into new host languages and subsequently expanded. Though restricted at various times by adverse sociological, economic, and political conditions, Buddhist monasteries were centers for teaching and learning, for medical study and practice, and for elaboration of Buddhist doctrines and associated rituals.

With regional developments in India and gradually elsewhere, first in tropical Śrī Lakā and Southeast Asia and later in high-altitude Northwest India, disputes over points of doctrine and monastic discipline arose. These controversies and resolutions were sometimes recorded in detail and sometimes not, with the result that there is a huge body of often fragmented information about early Buddhist monasticism recorded and transmitted out of its original contexts. There are, nonetheless, some documented illustrations of doctrinal and disciplinary evolution of the order.

The process of institutional development can be seen in recorded events. After Buddha's death in the fourth century bce, his disciples held a meeting at Rājagha, which is historically regarded as the First Council. It is plausible that the faithful would hold a meeting after the death of Buddha to formalize the doctrines and the ethical rules and to eulogize the late Buddha. According to the tradition, after the death of the great teacher the disciples gathered to collect and preserve his teachings. Other meetings followed the First Council. The number of these councils is, however, uncertain, and it is probable that there were many more such meetings than are recorded in the standard histories. The point is that there were general meetings at which the doctrinal and disciplinary teachings were reviewed, codified, and sometimes modified to meet the exigencies of changing conditions. While there were obviously developments of major significance resulting in schisms in the community and the development of historical sects, little of the data in the accounts of the early Buddhist conventions and institutions can be confirmed. All of the specifics of the First, Second, and later Councilsthe dates, the places, the topics, the resolutions, the participantsare subject to questions. The interest in the councils lie in what philosophical, ethical, and social questions they raised and how those were resolved to support the evolution of the doctrine and spread of the community.

After the first meeting on the occasion of Buddha's death, there were councils at Vaiśālī and later at Pāaliputra (Patna). There was eventually a division in the Buddhist monastic order (between Mahāsāghika and Sthavira), but the divisive issues are not well understood. These meetings were either concerned with ten points of monastic discipline or with five points of doctrine attributed to one Mahādeva. The list of ten points includes rather trivial matters, and it is probable that these were in themselves indicators of larger issues.

Indeed, a probable cause of the early schism in Buddhism was a controversy between the majority Mahāsā-ghikas and the Sthaviras over expansion of the Vinaya. The Sthaviras evidently saw a need to expand the Vinaya to meet changing conditions. The Mahāsāghikas disagreed and were accused of laxity in discipline, which led to the sectarian dispute.

The early schism in Buddhist monasticism is alternatively attributed to five issues of doctrine called the "heresies of Mahādeva." The five points, which may have been issues of the Third Council, clearly involve points of doctrine, including the status of an enlightened being (arhat ), but their importance and any significant outcomes are unclear. The sequence, chronology, specific philosophical positions, and importance of the specific points are uncertain, but nonetheless the matters involved monastic life. Later sectarian disputes and divisions likewise were over matters of the inviolability of received scriptures, doctrine, and discipline. The main point is that, as Buddhist monasticism developed, there were disruptive forces in the community. These, however, did not impede the growth of Buddhism; they instead signal how Buddhism adapted to different conditions and ideologies and grew larger as a result.

The early councils and schisms were followed by modifications in later times and other places. Mahāyāna Buddhism developed soon after the early schisms, and new theories, rituals, literature, and engagement with lay society were accommodated by and institutionalized in Buddhist monasteries. Monasticism flourished in Northwest India under the Kūāa kings, and as time went on Buddhist monasticism spread along the central Asian trade routes into China, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Through all of its manifestations it adapted to local cultures and environments and at the same time preserved its basic doctrinal message and its moderate ascetic lifestyle.

Buddhist Monasticism and Politics

A key factor in the historical success of the Buddhist monastic institution was its ability to function together with political authorities. Even though monks and monasteries were outside of temporal society and did not recognize conventional social and political authority structures, relationships between monasteries and governments were often symbiotic. Buddhist monasteries enjoyed the extensive support and protection of political authorities, and in turn monasteries offered religious services, education, and public legitimization. Monasteries were often civic institutions and served the needs of local communities, generating considerable political influence. It was in a government's best interest to support and be validated by these institutions, and many of the most famous monasteries were built during the major dynastic periods throughout Asia.

The monastic literature includes accounts of imperial support for Indian Buddhist monasteries even during the Buddha's lifetime. The story of Anāthapiika tells of support by wealthy merchants and kings, King Bimbisāra in particular, who donated the Jeta Grove near Rājagha in Māgadha to the Buddha and his community of followers. In her translation of the Vinaya, Horner reports that "[t]he householder Anāthapiika had dwelling places made, he had cells made, porches, attendance halls, fire halls, huts for what is allowable, privies, places for pacing, wells, halls at the wells, bathing halls, lotus ponds, etc. [P]eople were making repairs carefully, attending to the robes, almsfood, lodgings and medicines for the sick" (Horner, 19381966, vol. 5, pp. 222223). Such lavish support brought merit to the wealthy and royal classes. Royal support also brought the kings legitimacy and provided lay and monastic communities education, medical and hospice care, and religious services.

Royal and wealthy lay political support is evident throughout Buddhist history. Monasteries spread with official support in Māgadha, Bihar, Śrī Lakā, and Southeast Asia in the early years after Buddha's death. India was experiencing new growth and had close contacts with Persia and Bactria, Central Asia, and locales even further. In India monasticism survived and grew with local political support, especially under the Mauryan king Aśoka (c. 269236 bce). According to the legend, this king was particularly aggressive in his conquest of the Indian subcontinent and subsequently converted to Buddhism. After his conversion he was an avid supporter of religion, especially Buddhist monastic institutions. Buddhism, and specifically the interests of Buddhist monasteries, became factors in national policymaking. As a result, monasteries grew in number and in strength in India, in the far northwest as far as the Greek colonies, to the north in the Himalayas, and in Southeast Asia.

After the fall of the Mauryas, Buddhism continued to develop with government support from central Asian kingdoms. There was a succession of kings, including the Buddhist supporter King Milinda (r. 160140 bce). The short-lived Śuga (187151 bce) and Kāva (151106 bce) dynasties sponsored a great deal of construction of stupas, temples, and Buddhist institutions. The Kūāa dynasty was the next major dynasty to officially endorse and sponsor Buddhist institutions. The first of the major transmissions of Buddhist monasticism to China began during the Kūāa dynasty. Their kings sponsored Buddhist monasteries that stretched from Afghanistan into Samarkand and through modern Pakistan. The kingdom included all of northern India and was influential in Khotan, Yarkand, Kashgar, and further east. Kaiska, the best known of the Kūāa kings, supported Buddhist monasticism. In these times there was extensive growth of Buddhist ritual, Mahāyāna philosophy, sūtra literature, and institutional expansion.

During the Gupta dynasty (320580 ce), Buddhist monasticism was supported by the royal courts and by craft guilds. Monasteries were well endowed and became centers of learning and religious practice, and often of community life. Some of the most famous monastic scholars lived in the Gupta period, and monasteries were built throughout India on a grand scale with much political and social support. Religion and politics became so closely related in this period that kings who sponsored building projects often took on nearly divine status. Monasteries also increased their wealth and political power. Some of the most renowned Buddhist monasteries in history were built in the Gupta period. Nālandā Monastery in Bihar, for example, was known throughout classical Asia and was a source of doctrine and monasticism for important Southeast Asian communities.

During the division of India into small kingdoms in the Pāla era (6501250), Buddhist monasteries consolidated into larger monastic institutions because of a lack of pan-Indian institutionalized support structures and because of the destruction of major Gupta monastic centers by invading armies. Nonetheless, monasticism became the vehicle for the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, China, and Japan, and to new monastic sites in Cambodia, Pagan, Burma, Java, and elsewhere. Pāla era kings especially established and legitimized their imperial rule by resorting to Buddhist religious models and extensive support of Buddhist monasteries. The practice of religiously legitimizing kingship continued in Tibet and Southeast Asia, notably in the Qing dynasty (16441911) during the reign of the Qianlong emperor in the late eighteenth century. As a result, monastic institutions increased, for example, in Tibet and Mongolia, where thousands of new Buddhist monasteries were built in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

Because Buddhist monasteries enjoyed popular support and often wielded political power, Buddhism was sometimes criticized and even persecuted or regulated by lay authorities. In Tang China (618907); Buddhism was persecuted, powerful Buddhist monasteries were secularized in Meiji Japan (18681912); and monasteries were targeted in Tibet in the modern period under Chinese rule. Monasteries often accumulated so much influence that they threatened the integrity and credibility of lay governments and were thus a threat to established lay political authority.

Monasticism, and its special relationship with political authority, was present in all of its support cultures. The Buddhist community's moderate asceticism and Middle Way doctrines were transmitted intact into an enormous variety of cultures, preserving monasticism as the constant, the vehicle and foundation necessary to reestablish itself in a foreign environment. Its survival and prosperity often depended on local political authorities, and it did indeed survive and prosper.

Buddhist Monasticism and Economics

The Buddhist order was founded and based on metaphysical principles, but its functions were based on the truth of conventional operations in the world. Accordingly, Buddhist monks and monasteries accepted donations of cash, land, and material of all kinds, and they sometimes became rich and powerful. In spite of the injunctions against individual monks owning money, the monastic literature allows the collective ownership of donated and community wealth. Some monks managed their own finances, and in some places a special lay office was established at monasteries to handle donations and finances for monks. Permanent endowments of land and tax rights; endowments of properties with guaranteed long-term agricultural, pastoral, or other income; rights to impose corvée; and constant donations from the lay communities made some monks and monasteries extremely wealthy.

Monasteries were given land, buildings, novice sponsorship, and donations by political authorities and wealthy businesspersons as a matter of routine. Wealthy persons often willed their properties to monasteries or individual monks further increasing monastic holdings. Local laypeople offered food and materials appropriate to their means. Monasteries and monks had other sources of income, depending on the wealth and circumstances of their support communities. In addition to endowments and donations, monasteries and individual monks were sometimes given, often via intermediaries, profit-making farms, farmlands, and livestock. In Tibet and elsewhere, for example, monasteries received regular payments from profits and percentages of commodities produced or sold. Some monasteries lent money and land rights, receiving interest income and payment in kind. The understanding or basic principal at work here was that monastic income, donated and entrepreneurial, was to be used for religious purposes, even if personal and institutional interests coincided. Scholarship has shown that the monastery and individual monks were involved in a broad range of economic activities and that some monasteries and monks became wealthy.

Monasticism and Law

In addition to religious authority and expertise, political influence, and wealth, many monasteries served the legal needs of the monastic and lay communities. The Buddhist order had a fully developed internal legal system. The monastic law codes divide offenses according to severity and include detailed definitions and case examples for what constitutes each kind of transgression. In addition to internal monastic law codes, Buddhist canonical law was often a validating instrument for lay law. For example, Burmese monastic leaders produced, implemented, and preserved a fully developed lay legal system based on Buddhist law. Monastic law codes were a source of law and legal authority in Southeast Asian cultures and elsewhere, affirming the Buddhist monastic commitment to engagement in worldly matters. Direct involvement in lay legal matters on all social levels shows further that monasteries and lay political, social, economic, and legal institutions interacted closely in symbiotic relationships.

As time went on, Buddhist monasticism was fully integrated into societies in Southeast Asia and in Tang and, especially, Song China. Chinese monasteries interacted closely with government and influenced legal guidelines in politics, business, and lay life. In Tibet, monasteries were often seats of religious and lay power. The Tibetan practice of combining religious and lay authority put political and legal power in the hands of monastic leaders. There are many examples of religious authorities adjudicating lay disputes over civil and criminal law in addition to laws for monastic behavior.

Women in Buddhist Monasticism

The history of women in Buddhist monasticism is varied. Patriarchal societies and gender values took their toll on women's institutions. Though according to mainstream doctrine women can be enlightened, in the canonical versions of Buddhist monastic literature women are often cast in unflattering roles. The number of vows nuns must keep is larger than that for men, and there are specific rules that establish the subordinate status of nuns. There are some early literary collections, the Therīgātha hymns, and later writings, but there were few women writers. Women most often did not have access to monastic education. In many countries, moreover, women's ordination lineages did not survive. In modern Tibet and in parts of Southeast Asia, for example, there are no unbroken lineages of full ordination from nun to nun, and nuns are able to take only a brief list of vows.

However, it is also true that women in Asian Buddhist cultures had extensive and important roles in local communities in addition to positive, historical human and divine role models. The status of women varied, depending on specific cultural contexts, economies, and historical periods. There were successes for Buddhist women, including women's ordination lineages. For example, modern scholarship gives evidence of well-established and well-endowed nunneries in India in the Gupta dynasty, though these went into decline in the following centuries. In China, women's ordination lineages were preserved intact.

When women's monasteries were in decline, women reestablished monastic life as they were able. In Tibet, for example, where there was no lineage for full ordination, there were nonetheless many nunneries. Women did not have the educational opportunities that were available for men, but they were able to engage in Buddhist meditations and rituals in celibate monastic institutions. In Tibet there were traditions of women pilgrims, ascetics, and even community leaders and teachers who were recognized by the community at large. Thus, whereas women's monasticism was not preserved in Tibet according to ancient Indian models, there were still vibrant women's communities throughout Tibetan history. Educational standards and facilities were not as developed as in men's monasteries, but women built and maintained strong traditions of meditation, ritual, and community solidarity. Indeed, in twentieth-century Amdo, Northeast Tibet (modern Gansu province), the greater Labrang Monastery community supported women's monasteries even without full ordination.

See Also

Priesthood, article on Buddhist Priesthood; Sagha, overview article.


Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York, 2002. This work includes much data on the context of monasticism in Pāla India.

French, Rebecca Redwood. The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995. A description of lay and monastic law in Tibet.

Heirman, Ann. "Some Remarks for the Rise of the Bhikunīsagha and on the Ordination Ceremony for Bhikunīs according to the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 20, no. 2 (1997): 3386.

Henry, Patrick G., and Donald K. Swearer. For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism. Minneapolis, 1989. A study of the functions of monastic life in society.

Holt, John Clifford. Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka. Delhi, 1981. A study of Buddhist doctrines and monastic codes.

Horner, Isaline B., trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-pitaka). 6 vols. London, 19381966. A translation of the Pali Vinaya.

Huxley, Andrew. "How Buddhist Is Theravāda Buddhist Law? A Survey of Legal Literature in Pāli-land." Buddhist Forum 1 (1990): 4185.

Huxley, Andrew. "Buddhist Case Law on Theft: The Vinītavatthu on the Second Pārājika." Journal of Buddhist Ethics 6 (1999) 313330.

Huxley, Andrew. "Buddhist Law as Religious System?" In Religion, Law, and Tradition: Comparative Studies in Religious Law, edited by Andrew Huxley, pp. 127148. London, 2002.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated from the French by Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain, 1988. A dated but useful reference for the history of the Buddhist order.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu, 1997. This and other writings by Schopen are authoritative studies on social, economic, and doctrinal issues in Indian Buddhist monasticism.

Von Hinuber, Oskar. "Buddhist Law according to the Theravāda-Vinaya: A Survey of Theory and Practice." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 18, no. 1 (1995): 745.

Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. A canonical account of early monastic life.

Yifa. The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annoted Translation and Study of the Chanyuan qinggui. Honolulu, 2002.

Zysk, Kenneth. Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery. Oxford, 1991.

Paul K. Nietupski (2005)

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