23 May 2008

The Mad Monk and the Process of Making the Vinaya

Rasputin, the "mad monk".
About 10 years ago I read Peter Harvey's article on Culpability in the Vinaya, and was taken by the story of the Mad Monk. His name is.... wait for it.... Gagga. I immediately went looking for some etymological link between the name and our English word for someone who is mad, and found that the two are, sadly, totally unrelated. The English "gaga" - meaning mad - comes from French and is thought to be imitative; while the name from the Pāli means "swift flowing" and probably relates to the name of a river.

The case of Gagga provides a very interesting window into the process of making Vinaya rules. Gagga is intermittently mad and unreliable. We know little more than this about him. Due to his bouts of madness he frequently did not answer the summons to the convocation of bhikkhus. Also Gagga was prone to breaking the vinaya rules and not remembering what he did. This lead to the development of two rules.

I should point out that the understanding of madness at this point is relatively sophisticated, and is clearly distinguished from possession by an evil spirit for instance. Madness is characterised in much the same way that we would now - a mad person comes to the wrong conclusions about their experience - confusing the subjective and objective. I'm not going to say any more about definitions of madness because they are so contested and conflicting that no precise definition is satisfactory. There is a tendency in the West to both romanticise madness on the one hand, and to demonize it on the other. We may associate madness with spiritual visions (I'm thinking for instance of William Blake), or with high spirits. Those who have recovered from Madness and written about it, however, talk about it as nightmarish. On the other hand we may think of all mad people as homicidal psychopaths, whereas in fact most mad people are a danger only to themselves.

Also note that the figure of Gagga may not have existed, but may be a cipher for any bhikkhu with madness - he may simply be a story telling device. I discuss him as a person, but keep in mind that there is no other evidence that he lived.

Gaga, then, does not show up for meetings. [Vin. i.123] All fully ordained bhikkhus were (and still are) required to come together regularly to recite the patimokkha and to formally discipline any bhikkhu has broken any of the Vinaya rules. By not turning up when called Gagga was disrupting the life of the Sangha. In this case the Buddha allows the bhikkhus to decide that someone is mad, and to carry on without him.

Gagga also breaks the rules. [Vin II.82] Peter Harvey discusses this aspect in his article. In the first place Gagga is accused of an offence but denies it. The bhikkhus do not accept his denial and go to the Buddha, but the Buddha says they must accept that if he says he cannot remember, that he is telling the truth. This ad-hoc decision is also later codified so that in many places madness is cited as a reason that a bhikkhu is not culpable for his actions. Here we see the movement from ad-hoc to general rule.

I have not followed this up, but the two examples of rule making which centre around Gagga make me think that this process must have been influential in the development of the vinaya. It was not the only process though, for example rules are often made because laypeople complain directly to the Buddha about the behaviour of the bhikkhus.

Apart from the insight that this gives us into how the vinaya developed, I want to note one very interesting point about Gagga. Despite being rather troublesome, as mad people can be, the response in the vinaya is not to expel him. There is no suggestion that Gagga's affliction put him outside the Sangha, even when he has consistently broken the rules. Madness is deemed to be an affliction rather than a moral failing. Someone who is mad, according to the vinaya, cannot be held responsible for their actions while mad. 

At some point I'd like to do a comparison of this attitude to the changing Western attitudes to madness collated by Michel Foucault in his book Madness and Civilisation. I can briefly say that the attitude in the vinaya appears to be different from Western attitudes at any point in our history. In Europe mad people were initially tolerated unless they became disruptive when they might be driven out of town. With the valorisation of reason in the Renaissance, madness was seen as moral failure. Lazar houses standing empty with the drastic reduction in leprosy began to be filled with the mad. Freud led a change in attitude to madness - from a moral failure to medical condition. These days the "chemical imbalance" theory is beginning to give way to a genetic paradigm. In other words, and this is what seemed to attract Foucault to the subject, the way we understand madness and treat the mad reflects the currents in wider society. The attitude to madness in the Pāli canon may well afford us insights into early Buddhist society - at least the idealised form of it that is represented in canonical texts.

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