Priesthood: Buddhist Priesthood

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The English word priest is frequently used by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike to refer to the Buddhist holy men of various Asian cultures. The use of the term is due more to the concomitant presence of Roman Catholic priests in Asia during the early periods of colonial history than to Buddhistic understandings of the religious vocation per se.

Normatively, Buddhist holy men are fundamentally more concerned with cultivating wisdom (prajñā ), mental concentration (samādhi ), and ethical virtue (śīla) in pursuit of personal spiritual attainment than with the performance of mediating ritual acts for the religious or material bene-fit of the laity. Moreover, it is clear from studies of the early Buddhist scriptures that early Buddhism was originally antagonistic to the performance of rites as a means for spiritual advancement. In one sūtra (Sayuttanikāya, 4.218220), for example, the Buddha ridicules ritualistic practices of Brahman priests who, by the recitation of mantra s (magical incantations), believe that they are assisting the dead by empowering their progress through a heavenly afterlife sojourn. In contrast to this practice, the Buddha specifically identifies the power of performing moral actions in this lifetime to determine the quality of life in the next.

Furthermore, clear distinctions between Buddhist holy men and priestly ritual specialists are found in the religious vocabularies of most Buddhist peoples. In Tibet, Buddhist holy men are known as blama s, while local priests involved in the manipulation of occult powers are known as Bonpos, or adherents of the indigenous Bon religion. In Sri Lanka, kapurala s (priests) officiate at devalaya s (shrines to gods) where they chant their yatika (entreaties) to the deva s (gods) on behalf of lay petitioners. This practice is in contrast to that of Buddhist bhikkhu s (monks), who formally do not become involved with the supernatural powers attributed to deities.

Thus, in virtually every Buddhist culture, Buddhist holy men have been more clearly associated with the cultivation of spiritual qualities within than with the orchestration of divine powers operative at various levels of the external cosmos. Indeed, the Sanskrit and Pali terms used for Buddhist clerics are, respectively, bhiku and bhikkhu, which literally mean "beggar" or "mendicant," and do not connote a priestly role as such.

Origin of Ministerial Aspects of Buddhist Priesthood

In early Buddhist literature, however, the Buddha is depicted as a compassionate teacher who foresaw the need for a priestly or ministerial dimension of Buddhist mendicancy. While this priestly dimension was not expressed through the clerical performance of rites, it is nevertheless evident in the Buddha's injunctions to "wander for the benefit of the many," to become a "field of merit" (puyaksetra) for the laity, and to preach dharma (law, order, truth) to those seeking understanding. When these injunctions are understood in relation to the altruistic ethic of dāna (the perfection of giving) and the metaphysical centrality of anātman (non-self, selflessness), the basis for a mediating priestly role of service within the context of the Buddhist religious vocation becomes evident.

The priestly dimension of the Buddhist religious vocation assumed greater degrees of importance and specificity as the tradition spread beyond India to East and Southeast Asia. In the process of acculturation, Buddhist holy men actually assumed many of the responsibilities and functions of ritual specialists indigenous to those areas. Today, it is not uncommon to find Buddhist holy men in Tibet who are experts in exorcism, or monks in Sri Lanka who are highly proficient in astrology, or Buddhists in China who played roles similar to Daoist priests in performing funeral rites for the dead. In both Theravāda (Way of the Elders) and Mahāyāna (Great Vehicle) traditions, Buddhist holy men have become ritual specialists who serve the laity through popular ritual practices whenever specific needs arise. They also minister to the needs of the laity in nonritualized ways.

The Buddhist Priest in China, Japan, and the TheravĀda Countries

Chinese religion has been characterized from ancient times to the present by an exceedingly deep reverence for ancestors. It is the duty of the living to remember and venerate their deceased kin. In light of the fact that renunciation of social and family ties is incumbent upon Buddhist holy men, Buddhism came under severe criticism, especially from Confucian quarters, during its early history in China. To mollify critical Chinese, Buddhists quite consciously popularized the legend of Mulien (Maudgalyāyana), one of the Buddha's closest disciples, who, according to tradition, dramatically and heroically attempted to save his deceased mother, who had been reborn in hell due to her inadvertent consumption of meat. Buddhist apologists stressed that Mulien endured many forms of torture and in the process suffered vicariously for his mother in a variety of miserable hells. At the moment of his greatest need, however, he was succored by the Buddha, who announced the happy news that his mother could be saved if a body of monks would come together and perform a mass for her soul. This legend became the basis for the widespread practice of Buddhist monks offering masses for the dead of their lay sup-porters.

These masses were also popularized by disseminating the mythologies of two bodhisattva s (enlightened ones): Kitigarbha (Chin., Dizang; Jpn., Jizō), who vowed to delay his own entry into nirvāa until he saved all suffering souls dwelling in the many hells; and Avalokiteśvara (Chin., Guanyin; Jpn., Kannon), who wandered through the hells of the damned preaching dharma for their eternal benefit. Masses for the dead were held to transfer to Kitigarbha the positive karmic power derived from sacrificial and moral actions in order to assist him in his salvific endeavors, and/or to call upon Avalokiteśvara to bring the suffering of the damned to an end.

In modern Japan, the chanting of scriptures on behalf of the dead remains one of the preeminent responsibilities of the Buddhist holy man. In this manner, Buddhist clerics share priestly duties regarding primary rites of passage with Shintō priests, who are generally called upon to officiate at birth or naming ceremonies and weddings. When priestly duties are seen in this fashion, it is apparent that Buddhist clerics share a complementary role with priests of other religious traditions. In Japan, the ritual responsibility of caring for the dead has fallen to Buddhist clerics, while their Shintō counterparts ritually assist the living during occasions of social transition.

The ritual care of the dead also forms an important part of the priestly role of Buddhist monks in the Theravāda countries of Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Following the death of kin, families assemble for commemoration rites on the seventh day, after three months, and after one year. At these times monks are invited by the family to receive alms (daa), to preach (baa), or to chant sacred scriptures (Pali, paritta; Sinh., pirit ). Karmic merit derived from these religious acts is then transferred to the departed. The subsequent anniversary dates of family deaths are annually commemorated in this manner, and it is not unusual for a given family to undertake a daa (almsgiving) on the behalf of various departed family members several times a year. Accordingly, all departed family members of the preceding generation are continuously "assisted."

The basic religious reason for the continued care of the departed is rooted in the fundamental concept of karmic retribution and rebirth. In traditional Buddhist cultures, the ultimate path to nirvāa is one that spans many lifetimes, and it is incumbent upon family members to assist their departed kin in progressing to this ultimate goal. The specific role of the Buddhist monk in these rites is pivotal. On the one hand, his presence constitutes a worthy object for the performance of meritorious actions, inasmuch as he symbolizes the virtues of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sagha (or sangha ; the Buddhist order). On the other hand, his sermons invariably focus on the central reality for Buddhists that all conditioned life in sasāra (repeated cycles of birth, suffering, and death) is temporary, subject to change, and compounded; that whatever is subject to uprising is also subject to decay and whatever is subject to birth is also subject to death. It is the monk's calling to make known this message.

Aside from rites pertaining to the dead, the most evident priestly role in the lives of Theravāda Buddhist monks involves the performance of paritta, the chanting of specially selected Buddhist suttas in Pali, which when recited are believed to be infused with protective sacral power. The chanting of these suttas usually lasts for the duration of a night but in some cases may last for as long as a week or a month, depending upon the specific purpose. The chanting is performed by a number of monks seated under a mandapa, a specially constructed canopy. During the chants each monk holds a sacred thread that has been placed in a water vessel. The specific texts are believed to be buddhavacana (words of the Buddha), and chanting them therefore charges the sacred thread with power that protects and sanctifies one and that cultivates prosperity and peace. At the conclusion of the chanting the thread is tied around the wrists of all who are present, monks and laity alike, an action symbolizing the distribution of sacral power.

Paritta ceremonies may be held on any occasion that signifies a new beginning or that needs to be considered auspicious. In Sri Lanka, the chanting of pirit precedes the opening of parliament, the building of personal residences, campaigns for an end to political strife, or the Kahina ceremony, in which new robes are given to members of the sagha (a monastic Buddhist community) at the end of the vassa, the rain-retreat season. Studies of paritta indicate that its chief purpose is to establish conditions under which the individual, family, village, or state can carry out required duties favorably. Of all the priestly roles performed by Buddhist monks, the chanting of paritta best epitomizes sacerdotal responsibilities, for it is within this ritual context that the monk most dramatically performs the task of mediating sacred power. By articulating the words of the Buddha through chant, he magically diffuses sacred power for the benefit of the faithful.

Buddhist Priests and the Laity

Buddhist monks have also traditionally filled the roles of spiritual advisers and teachers of the laity. In ancient times eminent monks in traditional Asian cultures were selected by the royalty to educate the elite youth. In medieval Southeast Asia, virtually all adolescent males donned the yellow robes of the bhikkhu for at least one rain-retreat season to be taught the essentials of Buddhist life. This practice still continues in Thailand and Burma. In modern Sri Lanka, monks spend most of their poya (full moon) days educating the laity about Buddhist precepts and meditation. It is also not uncommon for monks and "nuns" (strictly speaking, the bhikkhunī sagha has been defunct since the tenth century ce) to counsel laity regarding personal or family problems.

The sagha is a refuge not only for the laity but for its own members as well. An especially poignant petition made by aspiring monks during the process of their ordination rite (upasampadā) illustrates how Buddhist monks serve as priests for one another: "I ask the sagha, reverend sirs, for the upasampadā ordination: Might the sagha, reverend sirs, draw me out of compassion for me" (Vinaya Piaka, 4.122). The life of the Buddhist holy man has normatively been characterized by compassion, and it is out of compassion that he offers his own services to the wider community of faithful adherents.

It is precisely this ethic of compassion that serves as the motivating force for new forms of priestly expression now emerging in Buddhist societies. In more traditional societies, the Buddhist holy man performed a variety of ritual tasks for the benefit of the laity in addition to cultivating the spirituality necessary for advancing along the path to eventual nirvāa. However, modernization and the influence of other religious traditions, especially Christianity, have affected the Buddhist clergy in significant ways. It is now not uncommon to find sagha social services in Therāvada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka. In Japan, weekend meditation retreats take place in the center of bustling commercial metropolises and are advertised in local papers as therapeutically worthwhile within the high-intensity pace of the Japanese lifestyle. In virtually all Buddhist countries, temples and monasteries organize pilgrimages to famous historical shrines and sacred places. While these new forms of Buddhist priesthood have yet to endure the test of tradition, they bear witness to the vitality of Buddhist clerics endeavoring to work for the welfare of the many.

While it is clear that Buddhist monks have performed important priestly duties within the context of most Buddhist communities throughout those regions of Asia where Buddhism has become culturally and socially dominant, it is also the case that many Buddhist laymen and laywomen have assumed professional priestly vocations as well. Moreover, these lay priests and priestesses understand the purpose of their ritual perfomances within the context of a prevailing Buddhist worldview, so they do not see themselves in competition with the sacerdotal work of Buddhist monks. Rather, as in the case with Japanese Shintō or Chinese Daoist priests, their ritual transactions are regarded as complementary to the work of monks, a kind of division of spiritual labor.

In Sinhala regions of Buddhist Sri Lanka, for example, Buddhist laymen known as kapurala s, ritual specialists tending to the shrines of various of gods (many of whom are of Hindu origins, such as Viu, Skanda, the goddess Pattini), assert that the efficacious nature of their ritual observances performed on behalf of lay petitioners is fully consonant with the teachings of the Buddha. When kapurala s ritually facilitate entreaties of devotees for this-worldly help in order to help assuage existential conditions of suffering (dukkha ), they are quite aware that the first of the Buddha's four noble truths is that human existence is characterized by the experience of dukkha. Therefore, from their perspectives, any divine help that can be enlisted from supernatural sources to alleviate the fundamental condition of suffering in the world is, perforce, a contribution to the basic aims of the Buddhist religion.

The gods ritually served by kapurala s are also deemed to be aspiring bodhisattva s, relatively advanced on their own paths to buddhahood. According to popular conceptions rooted in medieval Sinhala Buddhist poetry and folk ballads, the gods are said to have received their warrants to exercise their divine powers in the world as a result of the Buddha's own sanction. Gods have gained their powerful positions, it is believed, because throughout their own long careers of rebirth in sasāra they have cultivated a morally wholesome consciousness that has been expressed through altruistic and compassionate actions, actions that are karmicly fortuitous. They are not understood as saviors who can assist devotees with the ultimate attainment of nirvāa, but rather as powerful sources of potential this-worldly assistance who may intercede on behalf of devotees when called upon in times of suffering or trouble.

It is not uncommon for devotees to petition a deity's help through priestly intermediaries in matters of family planning, health, marriage prospects, business and political matters, and, in some cases, exorcism. A growing number of priestesses in Sri Lanka, who attribute their powers to their ecstatic encounters with various gods, function as mediums for their clients to communicate with the recently deceased. Other priests and priestesses, who claim special affinities with lesser deities deemed not as fully advanced on the path to becoming bodhisattva s, may engage in sorcery.

The ability of these lay Buddhist priestly intermediaries to function successfully on behalf of devotees is dependent upon the perfomance and observance of their own regimens of purity, including dietary prohibitions and ritual ablutions, designed to resist the contagion of pollution (kili ). Priests and priestesses are also forbidden from performing rituals if a death has occurred within their immediate families or if a priestess is experiencing menstruation. Many priests and priestesses also assert that their continuing powers to function as effective intermediaries are dependent upon the living of a moral life that is deemed pleasing to the gods.

See Also

Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Ritual Uses of Books.


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