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Chapter IV 

The Sangha and the Spread of Buddhism


Wandering Bhikkhus and the Rains - Residence - support of Bhikkhus - merchants and kings -  Bhikkhus never ‘missionaries’ - qualities for spreading Dhamma - the learned and the meditative - Reciters - lost discourses - reasons for the First Council - its work - the Baskets of Vinaya and Sutta analysed - the Abhidhamma - the minor rules - Purana and the variant traditions - 2nd Council and lax Vinaya - Schism created by the Great Assembly - their wrong views and corruption of their texts - Emperor Asoka and the 3rd Council - the attitude of one successful Bhikkhu who spread Dhamma.


In the Buddha time most Bhikkhus wandered. For most of the year they travelled by themselves or in larger or smaller groups around a Teacher-monk (ácariya). They might stop in a place they found suitable for their practice for a few months or intermittently even for years. In some cases people might invite them to stay and guarantee their alms food and other simple needs. These people would have huts and a meeting-hall erected, these small buildings being the beginnings of Buddhist monasteries. There are many stories in the Dhammapada Commentary[1], which picture such wandering Bhikkhus and their friendly reception by villagers who were not always Buddhists.


During the Rains, the monsoon from July to October, the Buddha laid down a rule that Bhikkhus were to stay in one place and this period is now called the Rains-residence. It is observed by all Bhikkhus (samaneras as well) as a time for the intensification of meditation practice, or for greater efforts to study. Generally Bhikkhus gather round well-known Teachers to be instructed and exhorted by them for these three lunar months. Lay people also have the chance to learn Dhamma at this time, perhaps becoming Buddhists if they had not already Gone for Refuge to the Triple Gem, while at the end of the Rains some or all of the Bhikkhus would move on.


Wandering is one way in which Dhamma was spread throughout India and beyond by Bhikkhus. They do not have many possessions, unlike householders who must have a lot of things, so they can come and go easily. The Buddha compared the Bhikkhu to a swan, a bird that is plain and unadorned but capable of flying very far and strongly. The layperson is compared to the peacock, beautiful but burdened by its beauty and therefore slow and unable to fly long distances. It is for this reason that Dhamma was spread far and wide mostly by Bhikkhus. It is very rare to read of a layman or woman propagating the Dhamma in distant lands for usually they would have their families to look after. Of course, there have always been learned lay Buddhists, and those who have been able to practise meditation deeply, but they have rarely travelled far. Their influence was usually limited to their own towns or villages where they would be foremost among the supporters of the local Teacher-monks and leaders of the lay Buddhist community.


But the Bhikkhus did not have the burden of family and possessions. They could come and go freely after their first five years. (After the Acceptance-ceremony a Bhikkhu must stay with a Teacher-monk for at least five years). There were Teachers to go and learn with, holy shrines to revere, invitations of lay people to accept, new monasteries to establish - many reasons for travel. So the Dhamma spread in these ways. It was never a methodical effort at ‘conversion’ because it is not the aim of Buddhism to convert everyone. Such an idea was not considered possible by the Buddha for he recognised that people have many and various opinions. Their views will never be one, however hard organisations, religious or political, try to coerce them into it..


Dhamma is for those who want to understand, who want to know why there is suffering (dukkha) in this world and all worlds and what can be done about it. For the Buddha’s teaching was simply and directly just this: „Dukkha and its Cessation“. If one is really interested in its cessation, or at least in lessening it, then the teachings of the Buddha based on the subtle cause-effect relations in the mind, will be very appealing. Belief and dogmas are not at all important - clear understanding is what is needed without a clutter of views and opinions. The Dhamma then ‘spreads’ to those who are ready to investigate themselves fearlessly. It is like one candle held against another, the light of one causes light to come into existence on the other, Dhamma is present in the heart of every person but is more or less obscured by the defiling passions of greed, aversion and the views which arise upon them.


A Bhikkhu should have no money. This means that if he travels in the present time it will be either on foot or with tickets bought by supporters. In the Buddha-time his travel had to be on foot and even down to the last century and the beginning of this one, in Thailand for instance, this was the case.


This meant that he had to be able to rely upon his bowl as the way of obtaining alms food. He could of course, accept invitations from householders when they wanted to make merit but mostly he would maintain his body on the offerings which lay people were happy to make him. This method worked well enough in India. (Even today it is still possible for a Bhikkhu to get alms food there). But it is not a method, which would succeed very well once Bhikkhus get out of the sphere of Indian culture. Among people who had no traditions of supporting wandering religious, a Bhikkhu’s alms bowl was likely to be as clean on his return from the alms round as when he set out! And there are other factors, which will affect the Bhikkhu. Alms round are possible in reasonably warm climates but it would become rather difficult in England say, in midwinter! When you consider that a Bhikkhu should go on alms round barefoot and with no covering on his head, it becomes obvious that in some seasons or weathers Bhikkhus could not get their support in this way. Yet they have no money, neither can they cultivate their own food, nor cut or pick any vegetable or fruit nor cook their own food, for the Buddha in the Vinaya has intentionally made them completely dependent upon lay supporters. (Samaneras or novices cannot possess money but they can do all the other things mentioned. Once a Bhikkhu may travel with a samanera who can help with food, or with a layman who can aid him with both money and food).


So a Bhikkhu who ventures outside the Indian sub-continent must have some other arrangements for support. He could not take along a fund of money; and set himself up in a new place until he had enough supporters there, as missionaries of other religions. No, if he was going to travel into Central Asia, or to the lands of South-east Asia he had to have an invitation.


Invitations in the early times of Buddhism came frequently from merchants. They usually travelled in great caravans, even of hundreds of carts or pack-animals or in fleets of ships, some of their journeys lasting longer than a year. If a merchant had faith in the Buddha’s teachings, before he set out on his long and often perilous journey, he would go to his Teacher-monk and make offerings to all the Bhikkhus in that monastery and no doubt request their blessings upon his venture. He would be happy too if he could find a monastery or two along his route where he could pay his respects to the Triple Gem - the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and set out again, his confidence renewed. But it is more than likely that he would reach towns so far distant that nobody had ever heard of the Buddha, let alone finding a Buddhist monastery there. Then before his long homeward journey he would not be able to hear the wise words of a good Teacher nor the sound of all the Bhikkhus chanting the Buddha’s discourses. Perhaps while slowly making his way back he would decide, along with other like-minded friends, to invite a Teacher monk and some Bhikkhus to accompany them on their next journey and to establish them in a monastery which they would build and finance. When this had been done, at first support would come only from the fund provided by those merchants and administered by some local trading partners, but soon some of the people of that place would become interested and want to know what the Bhikkhus taught. So the Dhamma spread …


Sometimes too, invitations came from kings, for Bhikkhus were bearers of the high Buddhist culture. Small outlying states and even great empires through their kings and nobles received the blessings of this culture founded upon the Buddha’s teachings. Even where Bhikkhus did not go at the invitation of the king, it was often the king and his court that became firm Buddhists before other people, as in Sri Lanka. This is because the Dhamma, can be understood - at least intellectually, best by those whose minds are developed through education.


Bhikkhus were never missionaries - nor are they now, in the sense that this word is used in Western religion. Wherever they have gone, either they would set support anyway as we have seen, or they have gone by invitation. An invitation means that one is welcome, that support is guaranteed and that the Dhamma will be listened to respectfully and probably practised well too. So a Bhikkhu does not impose anything. He harms no one - as the Buddha says in the Dhammapada:


            „As the bee to a flower goes
            and having gotten its nourishment
            harms neither colour nor scent,
            so in a village should the muni fare“.             (Dhp. 49) 


A muni is a wise man, one who is silent, as a Bhikkhu is, when collecting alms food - no one comes to grief through the gentle conduct of the Bhikkhu.


Bhikkhus who take the Dhamma with them to far countries are called Emissaries of Dhamma, in Pali language Dhammadúta. The Buddha said that a Bhikkhu is fit to be a Dhamma­dúta when he has eight qualities:


  1. He is one who has listened (to much Dhamma-Vinaya),

  2. and leads others to listen (he is able to teach them),

  3. he is learned (having reflected upon what he has heard),

  4. and remembers (what he has learned),

  5. he is one who understands (the letter and spirit of Dhamma-Vinaya),

  6. and leads others to understand,

  7. he is skilled in what is beneficial and not beneficial (for the practice of Dhamma),

  8. and he does not make trouble“ (between Bhikkhus or lay people).

                                    (Numerical Collection, Book of the Eights, Discourse 16)


Among the qualities listed above, a Dhammadúta Bhikkhu should be one who has great learning, which in the Buddha-time did not mean from books as there were no religious books then and the art of writing was used only for business transactions and possibly for secular poetry. Such a Bhikkhu learnt by heart from his Teacher a certain section of the Buddha’s discourses.


We have a picture of such 3 young Bhikkhu in venerable Sona Kutikanna who spent a night, at the Buddha’s invitation, in the Buddha’s kuti (hut). When they had meditated most of the night and the dawn gladdened the sky, the Buddha asked him to recite some Dhamma. „He recited all the sixteen Octets[2], intoning them. When he had finished, the Blessed One approved, saying: ‘Good, good, Bhikkhu. You have learnt the sixteen Octets well; you know them and remember them well. You have a fine voice, incisive and without faults, which makes the meaning clear’.“ (Udána, V. 6).


Even before the First Council the discourses of the Buddha were classified for easy memorisation but it seems that their general order was not as we have them now. The first method of classification was probably the Teacher’s Ninefold Instruction, a list of different types of discourses often mentioned by the Buddha: Prose discourse, Song, Exegesis, Verse, Inspired Utterance, Saying, Birth-story, Wonderful event, Question and Answer.


Young Bhikkhus, then, would learn part of the Buddha-word by heart, usually specialising in one particular section so that they became experts on Dhamma (or Vinaya). This kind of Bhikkhu had to recite some part of his learning every day in order to keep it fresh in his mind. And because chanting out loud during the day or night would disturb those Bhikkhus who were developing their minds through meditation, senior Bhikkhus, like venerable Dabba Mallaputta, who were in charge of allotting lodgings to newly arrived Bhikkhus, were careful to segregate the different types of Bhikkhus. „He allocated lodgings in the same place to Bhikkhus who knew the Suttas, saying, ‘They will be able to chant over the Suttas to one another’. He allocated lodgings in the same place to Bhikkhus versed in the Vinaya rules, saying, ‘They will decide upon the Vinaya with one another’. He allocated lodgings in the same place to the Dhamma-preaching Bhikkhus, saying, ‘They will discuss the Dhamma with one another’. He allocated lodgings in the same place to meditative Bhikkhus, saying, ‘They will not disturb one another’. He allocated lodgings in the same place to the Bhikkhus who lived indulging in low talk and playing about, saying, ‘These revered ones will live according to their pleasure’.“ (A nice touch, this last sentence!) (Basket of Discipline, Bhikkhu’s Analysis, Sanghadisesa VIII).


It seems that even from this time, when the Buddha was still alive, that some rivalry existed between the scholars and the meditators. Here is a discourse given by venerable Maha-Cunda, a famous Arahant disciple.[3] (Words in brackets are commentarial).


Thus have I heard. Once the venerable Maha-Cunda lived at Sahajáti among the Ceti people and there he addressed the Bhikkhus, saying;


‘Venerable Sirs, there are Bhikkhus who are keen on Dhamma (the preachers and those with an intellectual approach) and they disparage those Bhikkhus who are meditators, saying, „Look at those Bhikkhus! They think, We are meditators, we are meditators!’ And so they meditate and meditate, meditating up and down, to and fro! What then do they meditate and why do they meditate?“ Thereby neither these Bhikkhus keen on Dhamma will be pleased nor the meditators. (By acting in that way) their life will not be conducive to the welfare and happiness of the people nor to the benefit of the multitude; it will not be for the welfare and happiness of gods and men.


Then, venerable sirs, there are meditative Bhikkhus who disparage the Bhikkhus who are keen on Dhamma, saying: „Look at those Bhikkhus! They think, ‘We are Dhamma-experts, we are Dhamma-experts!’ And therefore they are conceited, puffed up and vain; they are talkative and voluble. They are devoid of mindfulness and thoughtful awareness, and they lack concentration; their thoughts wander and their senses are uncontrolled. What then makes them Dhamma-experts, why and how are they Dhamma-experts?“ Thereby neither these meditating Bhikkhus will be pleased nor those keen on Dhamma. By acting in that way … it will not be for the welfare and happiness of gods and men.


There are Dhamma-experts who praise only Bhikkhus who are also Dhamma-experts but not those who are meditators … And there are meditators who praise only those Bhikkhus who are also meditators but not those who are Dhamma experts. Acting thus … it will not be for the welfare and happiness of gods and men.


Therefore, venerable sirs, you should train yourselves thus: ‘Though we ourselves are Dhamma-experts we shall also praise those Bhikkhus who meditate. And why? Rare in the world are such outstanding men who have personal experience of the Deathless Element (Nibbána).


And (the other Bhikkhus too) should train themselves thus: Though we ourselves are meditators we shall also praise those Bhikkhus who are Dhamma experts. And why? Rare in the world are such outstanding men who can by their wisdom clearly understand a difficult subject“. (Numerical Collection, Book of the Sixes, Discourse 46).


We shall have more to say about these two classes of Bhikkhus in Chapter V, and their ways of life in Chapter VI.


Bhikkhus who learnt the Buddha’s discourses (or Vinaya) by heart were called ‘bhánakas’ or reciters. They would usually be present when the Buddha spoke, committing his words to memory while he was speaking. If there were no reciter-bhikkhus present then the foremost among them, venerable Ananda who was also the Buddha’s attendant, would request the Buddha to repeat his teaching so that it could be preserved. The Buddha made the memorising of his discourses easier (though this may have been a general feature of teaching in the age before books), by repetition of key phrases and the harmonious grouping of words.


It may be partly for this reason that the Buddha often spoke in verse. The idea of a religious teacher speaking verse instead of prose is not familiar now in the West (though many of the Old Testament Prophets did so). But this is not strange because in his youth as a prince his education would have included poetics, the ability to compose extemporaneous verse being valued highly. No doubt there were other reasons too for speaking in verse: it could be more forceful than prose even acting as a shock or it could inspire deep faith. Besides this, much teaching could be compressed into a short discourse. A large number of such verse discourses have been preserved, the most important collection of which is the Sutta-Nipáta (The Book of Discourses) in the Minor Collection.


To return now to the reciter-bhikkhus who later that day would meet and chant that teaching together so that variations due to individual memories could not obscure the Buddha’s words. That discourse would then be added to one of the nine sections mentioned above. In this way the great collections of what are now called the Case of Discipline and the Basket of Discourses in the Pali Canon, were built up through the forty-five years of the Buddha’s teaching.


Some material has certainly been lost, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was never recorded. We hear of discourses delivered by the Buddha, which have not come down to us. For instance, after the first discourse when venerable Añña-Kondaññá was already a Bhikkhu and a Stream-winner, the text of the Vinaya relates: „Then the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the Bhikkhus with talk on Dhamma“. But who do not know what that talk consisted of, though it was probably an amplification of the headings in the First Discourse. Again, in the case of the venerable Yasa’s mother and former wife, we read: „He gave them progressive instruction, that is to say, talk on giving, on virtue, on the heavens; he explained the dangers, the vanity and the defilement in sensual pleasures, and the advantages of renunciation. When he saw that the minds of Yasa’s mother and former wife were ready, receptive, free of hindrance, eager and trustful, he expounded to them the teaching peculiar to the Buddhas: Dukkha its causal arising, its cessation, the path to its cessation“. (Vinaya Pitaka Mahávagga Kh. I) Although there are many discourses extant upon subjects like giving and the rest, we do not know the precise content of this talk which resulted in the two ladies becoming Stream-winners.


However, the reciter-bhikkhus were marvellously diligent for it is due to them that we have today the Discipline (Vinaya), and the Discourses (Sutta), which were divided, in the First Council, into the five Collections (nikáya).


This brings us to the time after the Buddha had passed away or as Buddhists say, after the Great Parinibbána. Many Bhikkhus were no doubt concerned that the Dhamma-Vinaya should last long. Some time before this, after the Jain teacher Nigantha Nátaputta (or Mahávíra) had died, his disciples quarrelled over his teaching and different parties formed. It was to prevent this that venerable Sáriputta spoke, in the Buddha’s presence, the Recital Discourse (Sangíti Sutta) in which important teachings are classified in groups from one to ten.


Already, just after the Parinibbána, the Bhikkhu Subhadda who had gone forth in his old age, said to the other Bhikkhus: „Enough friends, do not sorrow, do not lament. We are well rid of the Great Samana (an epithet of the Buddha). We have been frustrated by his saying, ‘This is allowed to you; this is not allowed to you’. But now we shall do as we like and we shall not do as we do not like“. This was cause enough for venerable Mahá-Kassapa to say at a meeting of the Sangha: „Now friends, let us rehearse the Dhamma-Vinaya. Already wrong teachings and wrong discipline have been courted and right teachings and right discipline have been flouted. And already upholders of wrong teachings and wrong discipline are strong while upholders of right teachings and right discipline are weak“. So it was agreed that a Sangha of five hundred Arahants should stay in Rájagaha for that Rains-residence and systematically recite the Buddha’s teachings.


The leader of the Sangha in this great assembly was venerable Mahá-Kassapa, possibly the most senior of the Buddha’s disciples still alive, while the authority for the Vinaya, was venerable Upáli and that for Dhamma, venerable Ananda. The account as we have it says that venerable Maha-Kassapa asked questions about the rules of the Pátimokkha in the order we now have them and then about the Suttas, beginning with the Collection of Long Discourses, in the order we have them now. If nothing has been omitted from the account of this Council (which is very brief), then it must be that the Vinaya was put in its final order during the days of the Buddha - likewise the Suttas were ordered into the five Collections then. This seems unlikely. As the account of the first Council suggests that this classification was complete it may rather be a retrospective view of what happened, perhaps added at the time of the Second Council, one hundred years later. Of course, this is surmise.


It is more probable that at this great assembly, the rules, allowances, prohibitions and legal procedures were collected and the Vinaya codified. The old word-by-word Commentary would have been added, or at least received the approval of all the venerable Arahants and those portions of the Analysis (Vibhanga) which systematically clarify when a Bhikkhu has committed an offence and when he has not, would probably have been settled and ‘incorporated’ into the Vinaya. These parts may not be even as old as this but certainly they did not come from the mouth of the Buddha.


In the case of the Discourses, it is likely that they were previously arranged as the Teacher’s Ninefold Instruction This may not have proved a convenient classification and certainly would not have been as systematic as that of the Five Collections. The re-sorting of this great mass of material into these Collections may then have been the main work of this Council. It will certainly have been necessary as some of the Discourses were known only to a very few Bhikkhus and lay people. Without any use of writing this was a stupendous achievement. The reciter-bhikkhus would not only have to chant the Discourses known to them at the Council, but then to re-order them in their memories in the sequence decided upon. It is difficult for us to imagine how this could have been accomplished. Perhaps the summaries of the different collections were written down at this time as a check and guide to their order. Some of the small books in the Minor Collection could well be the material memorised by particular groups of Bhikkhus - such books as the Sutta-Nipáta, Udána and Itivuttaka. The Dhammapada[4], a collection of 423 verses spoken by the Buddha, might be the personal compilation of a great Arahant, which has been incorporated as it stands.


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[1]See, „Buddhist Legends“ Vol. I p. 146f, and „Minor Readings and Illustrator“ p. 267f.

[2]The Atthaka-Vagga (Chapter on the Eights) in Sutta-Nipáta. See the new translation to be issued by P.T.S. This passage is from „The Life of the Buddha“, translated by Ven. Nyanamoli, B.P.S.

[3]Translated by venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera in „Anguttara Nikaya, An Anthology, Part II“, Wheel 208-211, B.P.S.

[4]The most translated book of Buddhist scriptures. See the author’s translation: „The Path of Truth“, Mahamakut Press, Bangkok.