13 April 2012

Formalism in the Saṅgha

In the text I will discuss in this essay, it seems as though formalism had already begun to set in to the early bhikkhu saṅgha--indeed what it appears to show is that a monastic saṅgha, as opposed to a wandering ascetic saṅhga, is itself a form of degeneration recognised before the closing of the Canon. Whether this really happened during the lifetime of the Buddha or not we don't really know, but clearly it happened fairly quickly for this story to be canonical. What follows is an abbreviated translation of the Third Instruction Story (Tatityaovāda Sutta. S 16.8; PTS S ii.208) which as the title suggests is the third of three similar stories in which the Buddha asks Kassapa to admonish or instruct (ovāda) the bhikkhus.


In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place. The indeed Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him, and sat to one side. As he sat the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma.

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus speak ill, and are unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions."

"Formerly Kassapa, amongst the elder bhikkhus, there were those who lived in the wilderness (āraññikā ) and spoke in praise (vaṇṇavādina) of living in the wilderness; and they ate only from an alms bowl (piṇḍapātika) and praised living on alms food; and wore robes from rubbish heaps (paṃsukūlika ) and praised wearing such robes; and owned just three robes and praised living with only three robes; and were easily satisfied (appiccha) and praised being easily satisfied; and were contented and praised contentment; and were solitary (pavivittā) and praised solitude; and were individuals (asaṃsaṭṭha ) and spoke in praise of individuality; and exerted themselves (āraddhavīriya) and praised exertion (vīriya-ārambha) ."

"Bhikkhus who possessed such qualities where invited to sit by the elder bhikkhus. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the training'."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their welfare (hitāya) and happiness (sukkha) for a long time."

"But now, Kassapa, the elder bhikkhus are not like that."

"Now he is [thought to be] a bhikkhu who is known, famous, a recipient of the requisites of robes, alms bowl, lodging, medicine and support when ill. Him the elder bhikkhus invite to sit. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood '."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their harm (ahitāya) and unhappiness (dukkha) for a long time."

"Of [the famous recipient of requisites] one speaking rightly might say: 'the celibate practitioner is oppressed by the misfortunes of a celibate practitioner, is overcome by what overcomes a celibate practitioner.'"

Comments on the text and translation

The first thing to note is where this dialogue takes place, i.e. in the kalandakanivāpa near Rājagaha. DOPN says of the kalandakanivāpa: "Here food (nivāpa) was regularly placed for the squirrels [kalandaka]… UdA.60; SnA.ii.419"; the identification of kalandaka as 'squirrel' is difficult to substantiate – c.f. PED s.v. kalanda ‘heap, stack’; BHSD notes variant spellings karandaka-, kalaṇḍaka- and karaṇḍaka-. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Connected Discourses, p.760) has “Bamboo Grove” which may reflect the fact that the kalandakanivāpa was said to be in the Veluvaṇa or Bamboo Grove. CST notes that the Sri Lankan printed canon has instead "sāvatthi, ārāme" in a park near Sāvatthī – which brings to mind Schopen’s article 'If You Can't Remember, How to Make It Up' on the Mūlasarvātivāda-Vinaya rules for assigning a text to a city if one is not specified in the text one has. Schopen (1997).

The phrase "slow to take on" renders the compound: appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina ‘not right handed’ (c.f. padakkhina ‘to the right’). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture where the Latin derived word for left-handed is sinister. In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect. (See Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition).

The new bhikkhus (nava bhikkhu) observing the elder bhikkhus (thera bhikkhu), emulate them and thus they would be on the path to "being like that": tathā hi, or 'thus' with hi linking back to the previous sentence. The commentary glosses tathā as tesu theresu 'amongst these elders', which reinforces the sense of the newer monks becoming like the older monks.

The word ārañña is often erroneously translated as "forest" but in fact it means a place outside of the safety of the village and away from cultivated land, i.e. something more like ‘wilderness’. It is true that ārañña includes the jungle that still existed in the Ganges Plain at the time, but the word has a broader reference.

In the past, says the text, bhikkhus "wore robes from rubbish heaps" The word here is paṃsukūlika:paṃsu means 'dirt, rubbish'; kūla however means 'slope, bank' usually with reference to a river' (PED), and in this context suggests a 'heap'. So the brief meaning would be 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps' however The Dīgha Nikāya commentary glosses paṃsukūlāni as pathaviyaṃ chaḍḍita-nantakāni 'rags discarded on the ground' (DA 2.356) which suggests we should understand the word paṃsukūlika as 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps [for clothing]'.

There are two terms used to describe the bhikkhu leading a solitary life: pavivitta and asaṃsaṭṭhā. The word pavivittā suggests that they lived alone, and apart. The other word asaṃsaṭṭhā could be a simple synonym but I take the opportunity to draw out something else. It is a pp. from saṃ√sṛj 'living in groups, mixed with' (Pāli saṃsaṭṭheti? c.f. noun saṃsagga ‘contact, association’. Here I’m assuming that the negative prefix gives the word a positive force rather than being a simple negation: that the bhikkhus were once individuals rather than simply members of a group; as opposed to saying that the bhikkhus did not socialise or live in groups which is implied by pavivitta. I any case the two together emphasise aloneness.

The last quality discussed is put in two related ways: āraddha-vīriya with 'energy engaged' and vīriya-ārambha 'making a effort'. Both āraddha and ārambha are from ā√rabh 'to begin, understand', PED lists viriyaṃ ārabhati 'to make a effort'. The form of the past participle āraddha is affected by Bartholomae’s Law affecting the adding of the past participle suffix –ta to a voiced aspirated consonant so that bha + ta goes though several hypothetical stages to produce the form in use: bhta > btha > bdha > ddha.

Having observed the elder bhikkhus the new bhikkhues tend to become like them (tathattāya) This is the dative case of tathatta, an abstract noun from tatha 'thus', meaning 'the state of being thus'; The commentary explains: tathattāyāti tathābhāvāya, āraññikādibhāvāyāti attho - 'to being like that' means 'to become thus' i.e. to 'primarily becoming a wilderness dweller'. Compare the word tathāgata which is literally 'one who is thus' or 'one who is like that'.

My phrase "this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood" translates sabrahmacāri-kāma. Sa- is a prefix meaning 'with, together' and is connected with Latin simul as in English words like similar and simultaneous; cārin (cari- in compounds) is a possessive from cāra 'action, behaviour, faring' and a brahmacārin is literally 'one who behaves like Brahmā' (i.e. like God) and originally the word referred to an unmarried (and therefore celibate) student of the Vedas who by convention stayed aloof from the world. Buddhists took over this characteristically Brahmanical term to mean a celibate Buddhist practitioner, i.e. a bhikkhu. The word bhikkhu means 'a beggar', and perhaps this other term brahmacārin had a more positive connotation. Often in a Buddhist words with brahma- have the connotation of ‘holy, divine’ so a brahmacārin is sometimes referred to in English as someone who practices the holy life, though I think the loading with Theistic symbolism makes this unhelpful. So sabrahmacāri- means 'with those who live as celibate monks'. Finally kāma means love or desire. Compare also the related to the word dhammacārin ‘a dhamma-farer’, ‘one who lives by the dhamma’. Members of the Triratna Order are referred to (if only by each other) using the Sanskrit equivalent dharmacārin (masculine dharmacārī; feminine dharmacāriṇī).

Note the subtle change in emphasis here: the āraññikā is said to ‘love the training’ (sikkhā-kāma), where as the famous monk (yasassin) the recipient of donations (lābhin) is said to be ‘one who loves the brotherhood’ (sabrahmacāri-kāma). The implication is that he does not love the training, and he is not one who is pavivattā or asaṃsaṭṭḥā, solitary and individual, but is a gregarious group member (na pavivttā; na saṃsaṭṭhā).


That bhikkhus changed from being freelance solitary wanderers to collective and settled monks should come as no surprise. That early Buddhists saw this as problematic may do. This is because the winners write history and Buddhist history has been, until recently, written by settled collectivists of the kind described above: concerned primarily with getting their requisites. This text must give us pause in considering the idea that cenobitical renunciants are the ideal Buddhists or that they are the preservers of the original tradition of the Buddha. Their own texts, mostly conserved with great care, show us that this is simply not true.

The problems facing the brahmacārin can be overwhelming and defeat the brahmacārin so that they up trying to make the best of saṃsāra. They try to get as comfortable as possible, and they exploit the lay community to achieve this. At worst it is an outright scam.

Following the publication of Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, we became aware that Buddhist society was not originally two-tiered, but threefold with what Ray calls forest-renunciants, settled monastics and lay people all playing important roles in maintaining Buddhism as a way of living. The renunciants (often called bodhisattvas in early Mahāyāna texts like the Ugraparipṛccha - see Nattier) were the full time practitioners, and as the Tatityaovāda Sutta shows they were considered to be the true bhikkhus. Those less committed, or less able bhikkhus, provided the support for the bodhisattvas, and interfaced with the public, especially wealthy patrons. This function was clearly looked down upon at some time, or in some quarters before the closing of the Canon. The positive contribution they made was in setting up systems to preserve texts, and distribute the enormous wealth that soon began to accumulate in monasteries. They also acted as a kind of police force for the saṅgha, since as the Vinaya itself shows the monks were a wayward lot. But without the cutting edge of intensive meditation practice the settled monastics became worldly bald men in elaborate robes (they edged women out of the picture as much as possible). The acts of the saṅgha became mere formalism.

The Triratna Buddhist Order response to this comes on many levels. A Buddhist is not defined by membership of some group or allegiance to certain doctrines, but by the act of going for refuge. We set aside the monk/lay divide and say that commitment to practice takes precedence over lifestyle or haircut. We are all committed to practising the Dharma. To some extent each member of the Order takes on each of the three roles at different times: each of us aims to spend most of our time on Dharma practice of some kind, including right-livelihood work. For some this involves living with a family, for others living in a single-sex community or alone. All of us aim to spend some time on retreat each year, and preferably some time on solitary retreat. Obviously people have different temperaments and aptitudes, but we all contribute to a community that supports practice rather than the accumulation of assets.

The old way of concentrating resources on supporting a load of free loaders is not going to work in the West. Monasticism is and will probably remain a minority sport. Monastics, who are genuinely full-time practitioners and supported to be so, add depth to a practice community, as do those who can sustain intense solitary practice. But becoming a monk will never be a career option as it is in Asia. If we reach 1% of the Buddhist population living in full-time retreat for longish periods of time that would seem plenty. (Tibet got to 25% of the adult male population which was outrageous).

Our Western culture is in dire need of Buddhist techniques for paying attention, calming down, developing positivity and emotional robustness, and the bulk of our resources should be focussed on trying to meet that need. With some basic calm and good will we might be able to start making progress on deeper transformation - but chances are our neighbours on planet earth will need help with the basics before that. Human beings are one species. We have only one planet to live on, which we share with other forms of life. There's no realistic way to talk about being free when one's neighbours are enslaved. We must all be free, or no one is.



  • Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom.
  • Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Ray, Reginald A. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values & Orientations. Oxford University Press.
  • Schopen, Gregory. (1997) 'If you can’t Remember, How to Make it up, Some Monastic Rules for Redacting Canonical Texts.' in Kieffer-Pülz, P & Hartman, J. (Eds.) Baudhavidyāsudhākaḥ. Studies in Honour of Heinz Bechert. Swisttal-Oldendorf: Indica-et-Tibetica-Verl.
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