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Chapter V - 



Brief history of Theravada - anonymity of Great Teachers - specialisation of Bhikkhus - ‘the works of books’ and practice - popular Buddhism - ordination for custom or merit - Rains-Bhikkhus - disrobing - ritualism - why do people go to viháras? - why go to see Bhikkhus? - why Bhikkhus go to the houses of laypeople - wrong livelihood - the government of the Sangha - divisions in the Sangha - in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other countries - buildings in a town vihára - in a forest vihára - some popular devotional verses.


Theravada Buddhism gradually dwindled in northern India with the onslaught of anti-Buddhist activities by many brahmins intent on upholding the views and rituals of their religion. Other Buddhist schools also displaced the original tradition perhaps because they believed in sugaring the slightly bitter pill of the Four Noble Truths with sweet confections of bhaktic devotion, or else serving up complicated dishes of the Bodhisatta’s path through aeons of striving. Had the Sásana remained entire with numerous Arahants to adorn it, like jewels in a golden crown, there is no way that it could have declined.


In south India, Theraváda remained strong for many hundreds of years[1] aided by its firm establishment, in Sri Lanka. From these two bases Bhikkhus were invited to go to the Golden Land to reform the Buddhism, which had taken root there. This was not always Theraváda and the purity and good conduct of the Bhikkhus from Sri Lanka caused people to love them so that various sects, corrupting the Buddha-word, dwindled away. Theraváda spread through Burma due to the influence of those Bhikkhus and across into the Siamese kingdoms of Sukhotai and Ayudhya. Sinhalese-style Buddhism also spread up the Isthmus of Kra from Nakorn Sri Dhammaraj where there is still a great stupa in Sinhalese form. From Siam it reached Cambodia at the time when the Khmer Empire was going into decline and so replaced the costly cults of imperially sponsored Maháyána with a popularly based teaching. Theraváda in Laos, or the various princely states which now compose Laos, also originated in Siam but its spread was late, about 400 years ago. Thais, even those now within China, turned to Theraváda Buddhism which continues its spread in a small way within the borders of the present Buddhist states wherever there are hill-tribes or other ethnic minorities.


In brief this is the history of Theraváda Buddhism from the time of the Emperor Asoka down to the present. To some extent also, this was the history of the Sangha though in some periods and some countries our knowledge is meagre. We have the names of a few prominent Bhikkhu-scholars and their Pali compositions but little or nothing of their lives. As to the other side of Theravada, the Teachers of meditation and how and where they taught, usually we do not even have their names. The latter write books only rarely and so their fame was limited to their own days, to the times of their disciples and then gradually forgotten. This of course, was in the great tradition of anonymity established by the Buddha himself. He did not instruct his Arahant disciples to record his own life, the early events of which he seldom mentioned, let alone write an account of it himself. The Arahants in the Buddha-time and later also did not set down their own biographies. If we know anything about them it is because their own disciples, or the disciples of their disciples, thought it worthwhile to record the few events remaining in their minds. No doubt those who are Enlightened and so have no longer any view of ‘self’ or ‘soul’ find it uninteresting to record events from their own lives. It is for this reason that in the Buddhist countries of South and South-east Asia, few names are known of great spiritual masters even two or three hundred years ago. This anonymity has also been made more absolute by the steady turn of the wheel of change, such factors as tropical climates and insects and, of course, war.


So now we come to the present time. We should examine one important question: Is the purpose of becoming a Bhikkhu now the same as it was in the Buddha’s days? We have seen in Chapter IV that even then there was specialisation in the Sangha. Some made strong renunciation efforts in the forests by themselves or with a Teacher or a few companions. They aimed at and often attained the end of the Holy Life. They were Arahants of whom it was often said: „Birth is exhausted, the Holy Life has been lived out, what was to be done is done, there is no more of this to come“. They numbered thousands and thousands in the days of the Buddha but the numbers of Bhikkhus who were not Arahants and whose aim was not directly Arahantship, was greater yet. Their aims were various, some of them approved for Bhikkhus and some not.


Among those whose aims accorded with the Dhamma were the reciter-bhikkhus, though sometimes too they would take up meditation practice when their learning was complete and they had passed it on to others. These reciters were the ancestors of the Bhikkhus engaged in scriptural study who are so numerous in Buddhist countries now. The pattern of development went something like this: In the Commentaries, the Sasana, the Buddha’s whole range of teachings, his instructions or religion, was divided into the Dhamma of thorough learning (pariyatti), the Dhamma of practice (patipatti) and the Dhamma of penetration (pativedha). These three are logically parts of a whole process. One goes to a Teacher and learns thoroughly, which means both learning by heart and reflection upon his teachings. Then one begins to practise according to those instructions, words and thoughts being turned to the Dhamma and then disappearing in meditation, until finally the Truth of Dhamma is penetrated in this very mind and body. For example, a Teacher would give a talk on impermanence, which his disciples would remember, more or less, according to their memories. Then they practised meditation in which change in mind and body is seen to be continuous. Finally some of them were liberated by persistent meditation from the view ‘I am’ and the notions of permanence, which trail along with it; they then flowed along with impermanence knowing it all the time, without any fear. These three stages are one explanation of why the Buddha’s teachings are said to be „good in the beginning, good in the middle and good at the end“.


Some Bhikkhus quite early on must have found learning more to their liking than intensive practice, which still means that they could be good Bhikkhus imbued with loving kindness and keeping strictly to the Vinaya. Other Bhikkhus, however, found a meditation Teacher quickly after their Acceptance, and practised under his guidance caring little or nothing for the study of texts. In the Commentaries these two types have crystallised as ‘the work of books’ and ‘the work of insight’ and are regarded there, as down to the present day in Buddhist countries, as quite distinct. They are even attributed in the Commentaries to the days of the Buddha, a strange anachronism since there were then no books to study!


Thorough learning of oral texts developed into ‘the work of books’ because of the Sangha’s decision at the Fourth Council (in Ceylon, about 85 BC)[2] to write down the Three Baskets, the Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma, on palm leaves rather than continue the oral repetition of them. When they had been written down then other works explaining them could also be written and so began the production of Commentaries, sub-commentaries and works of all kinds, which continue to be produced in the Pali language down to our own days.


Another cause for the increased importance of books was that in moving the centre of Theravada from the Gangetic valley to Sri Lanka, the language of Pali had to be learnt. In its home it was the peoples’ language, perhaps a lingua franca over a wide area, but it was not intelligible without study to people in Sri Lanka. So Pali became a ‘dead’ language, a unique one since it has only the Buddha’s words enshrined in it, with the advantage over a living tongue of not changing in words or concepts, so that the exact meaning of the Buddha can be ascertained by anyone who learns Pali well.


Also, during the early centuries of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese Bhikkhus decided that study was more important than meditation practice (an attitude which persists down to the present in Sri Lanka[3]). This attitude is stressed in some places in the Pali Commentaries but runs counter to the Buddha’s own teachings: He did not arrive at Enlightenment by studying texts; only by practice, especially of meditation, did he reach the final attainment. In the Suttas, no encouragement is given to study divorced from practice. To give an example, we have the Buddha’s words in Dhammapada, (verses 19-20 quoted below) spoken about two Bhikkhus, one of whom became a scholar and famous teacher of texts with many pupils. The other got a subject of meditation and retired to the forest, after strenuous efforts attaining Arahantship. They met after a number of years and the scholar, proud of his learning, decided to tax the Arahant with his lack of scriptural knowledge. The Buddha seeing how much harm he would bring on himself by doing so went and questioned both of them on Dhamma. The scholar could explain only according to the texts and only some way but the Arahant could clarify subtle points of Dhamma dealing with attainment. These were the Buddha’s words on that occasion:


            „Though often reciting sacred texts
            the heedless man’s no practicer,
            as cowherd counting others’ kine -
            in samanaship he has no share.
            Though little reciting sacred texts
            according to Dhamma he practises,
            rid of delusion, lust and hate,
            in wisdom perfect, a heart well-freed,
            one who clings not here or hereafter -
            in samanaship he has a share“.


(A samana in these verses, means one who makes himself peaceful in mind, speech and body).


Even though those Bhikkhus in the Fourth Council, most of whom are likely to have been from among the reciters, laid more stress on learning, the tradition of practice continued. Doubtless the Teachers of meditation who may have been Noble Ones, even Arahants, smiled to themselves at decisions like this: „Even if there would be a hundred or a thousand Bhikkhus arousing themselves to insight, if there would be no study of the doctrine, then there could be no realisation of the Noble Path[4].“ The practising Bhikkhus were little esteemed by those who wrote the books in Sri Lanka, but wise lay disciples, will have looked at it differently. The help that lay people can get from a scholar and from one on the path to Enlightenment by practice, is different. The first gives the Buddha’s words and the commentarial explanations and perhaps some illustrations of his own but the meditation Teacher though he rarely quotes the Buddha and hardly ever the Commentaries yet offers advice from his own experiences. There is no question at all as to who keeps the Buddhasasana alive: it is those who have realised its truth through practice and penetration. Great Enlightened Teachers of the present day emphasise that one should come back to study after one has done this, when the Buddha’s words will have such profundity, as they could not have to the unenlightened, and be such a great help to formulating Dhamma and teaching it.


The venerable Ananda when asked why the Buddha’s teachings would decline,[5] replied that it was when people no longer practised the four foundations of mindfulness.[6] And these are the key to successful meditation. Fortunately, there are still a good number of Bhikkhus who engage in effort, mindfulness and meditation, in all Buddhist countries, especially Burma and Thailand. Certainly the proportion of Bhikkhus engaging in practice is much smaller now than was the case in the Buddha-time, while those who study are numerous.


Another factor, which has affected this change, is the popularisation of Buddhism. In Thailand, over 90% of the people are Buddhists. But this does not mean, as some idealists imagine, that they all practise meditation every day (and how different things would be then!) For many people Buddhism is a vital part of their lives but it consists o their own mixture. This will be composed of Buddhist festivals, occasions of making merit in their own homes and at the monasteries having their sons ordained as novices or Bhikkhus, and consulting Bhikkhus they know well on how to protect themselves against various dangers, also enquiring about what is likely to happen through astrology. Among these things, only making merit (by supporting the Sangha) and ordinations go back to the Buddha’s time. Other features have been added later as people desired them. The Sangha is composed of the people and some remain monks for life, but others stay in the Sangha for periods ranging from days to many years and then leave to become householders again whenever they wish to do so. They bring with them superstitions from lay society, which may be dispelled by their Bhikkhu practice, but may not be. This situation could be illustrated by picturing the most highly dedicated (always few in number) in the innermost of several concentric circles, while around them in ever increasing numbers, as one moves outwards, are the other classes of people. Where this is the case - and all human beings have the same basic characteristics - study is bound to appeal to a greater number, meditation to fewer.


Again, in Buddhist countries now, becoming a novice or a Bhikkhu may be for yet other reasons, such as custom and merit making for people who have died. It is a custom in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma for a young man to become a Bhikkhu for one Rains residence. Sometimes it is done for less than this but occasionally the Rains Bhikkhus, as they are called in Thailand, stay on in the Sangha because they find the life to their liking. This custom has both good and bad effects on the Sangha. The good effects are that Buddhist knowledge and conduct are carried back into lay society when the Rains-Bhikkhu disrobes. Also, there is little feeling of strangeness about the Sangha among laymen, for they have been in the Sangha themselves. On the negative side is the worldly influence brought by the Rains-Bhikkhus into the monasteries, a worldliness that if there are many of them, easily rubs off onto the more permanent inhabitants. Also, much time and energy must be expended on these temporary monks, which could otherwise go into deeper learning or into more practice.


It is also a custom to make merit for a dead relative or for some other loved and respected person (such as the king) by becoming a Bhikkhu for a few weeks or months and dedicating all one’s good kammas or merits to the dead person. One might indeed help them provided that something good is practised but this custom too can be debased when the ordination alone, just dressing as a Bhikkhu, is considered to be sufficient.


All this has changed considerably the attitude to disrobing, that is, to reverting to lay status. In the Buddha’s days most Bhikkhus ordained for life and could live happily all their days in robes because they practised the work of insight-meditation. (Even now, in Sri Lanka it is common for Bhikkhus to remain all their lives in the Sangha but as most of them are engaged in study the result is not always so happy). Lay life was called by the Buddha the low state and often he spoke strongly about not reverting to the low state. Certainly he allowed disrobing by Bhikkhus knowing that some would find the Holy Life impossible after some time but he exhorted those like venerable Nanda[7] who thought of doing so to practise more intensively instead. In most Theravada countries now, excluding Sri Lanka, disrobing carries no blame, indeed in Thailand the young man who has been a Rains-Bhikkhu and returned to his home is still called, in the countryside, ‘dit’, an abbreviation for ‘pandita’, a wise man.


With the increased emphasis on study went a corresponding increase of ritual. This grew up in the Buddha’s teachings, in its purest forms the most unritualistic of paths, firstly due to the more devotee-type of Bhikkhus and second, to the pressure exerted by lay people who wanted ceremonies to mark the principal events of life: birth, marriage and death. Indeed, something had to be provided, for if Buddhist ways of doing things were not available then the laity could turn, in India, to the brahmins and elsewhere to other pre-Buddhist priests.


But Bhikkhus have managed fairly successfully not to become priests. The Dhamma, of course, supplies no basis for a Buddhist priest, in the sense of a mediator between God and man. As no Creator exists, no mediator priest is necessary. We have seen already that Bhikkhus cannot marry people, well, nor can they guarantee them passage to a good future life. That depends on the kammas made by them while alive and in the last moment of consciousness at death. But Bhikkhus are invited at such occasions and requested to chant traditional verses and discourses of the Buddha which are thought to promote harmonious vibrations and to set up a good wholesome environment. This is particularly true when the Bhikkhus who do the chanting are pure-hearted and practising well.


Of course, ritual has its advantages as well as its dangers. The simple rituals of Theravada usually have a basis in the Dhamma. For instance, people offer flowers to a figure of the Buddha and while doing so repeat: „These flowers, bright and beautiful, fragrant and good-smelling, handsome and well-formed, soon indeed discoloured, ill-smelling and ugly they become. This very body, beautiful, fragrant and well-formed, soon indeed discoloured, ill-smelling and ugly it becomes“. If mindfulness is not strong while doing this or the act becomes mechanical then its value is lost but when done with awareness and concentration, it is a short contemplation of impermanence. Repeated many times with devotion in the course of a life it could lead to the attainment of insight. The dangers have been spoken of already and can be seen easily by critical eyes. It is such dangers of ritualism which are the frequent target of westerners in the East. But it is unfortunate that such criticism is often made without considering the state of mind from which it has sprung - and this is nearly always unwholesome.


We have already touched on some of the relationships, which exist between Bhikkhus and laypeople. Some other features should be considered here as well. For instance, what do people go to a temple monastery for? The temple building, to be described below, will be visited more or less frequently to make offerings of flowers, incense and lights, followed by the triple prostration and perhaps chanting in Pali well-known verses or passages recollecting the virtues of the Triple Gem.[8] Such a visit to the temple is often a personal or family devotion with just one person or a small group participating. The reason for the visit could be the birth of a child, some fortunate business circumstances, or the death anniversary of a beloved relative. Buddhist temples and shrines are usually open and anyone may make his devotions at any time. On the other hand, the occasion for such visits could be on the Uposatha days when many people go to the temple, undertake the Eight Precepts and probably spend a whole day and night there in the practice of Dhamma.[9] People may go to the temple, which is in the monastery grounds, but they may not meet any of the Bhikkhus who are resident there.


If they go to see Bhikkhus, what is the purpose of their visit? Usually they take with them a small gift, perhaps some incense, or candles and flowers to give to the Bhikkhu they will visit. They may also take with them, if it is during the morning when Bhikkhus eat, cooked food for one particular Bhikkhu or for distribution to many. Even in the afternoon or evening food may be taken to the monastery as an offering though it is not accepted by the Bhikkhus then but put aside for the next day when a lay attendant will prepare it. Lay people may request Bhikkhus to chant at the time of their visit or upon some future occasion, such as an invitation to their houses. This is made for all sorts of anniversaries or celebrations, in fact any time is a good time to help support the Sangha and so make good kamma, or merit. These invitations will include either a breakfast or a forenoon meal and the number of Bhikkhus invited may vary from one to several dozen.


When they are visiting the monastery lay people may also ask questions about Dhamma, or about how to apply the Dhamma to the problems and difficulties they have to face in life. They may also request a formal sermon to be delivered on an anniversary either in the temple or in their homes. Again, they may go to an abbot with money donations for repair work or new construction in his or other monasteries. He will not accept the donation directly but have a layman, called a steward (veyyavaccakára), look after it and give a receipt for it. To some Bhikkhus who are known to have healing abilities, laypeople may take those who are afflicted mentally or physically and ask him to use his powers and sometimes knowledge of herbs, too, to cure them. At other times, when in danger or sorrow, people may go to ask the blessing of a Bhikkhu which he will give in a number of ways, from a sprinkling with water to the gift of small Buddha-images or sections of Buddhist scripture, to hang round the neck.


As a contrast, with this there are the most devoted lay people who will go to a monastery and under the guidance of the meditation Teacher there, stay as long as they can do meditation all the day and much of the night. They would retire, of course, to those monasteries, which specialise in meditation practice, very often far away in the forest, on a mountain or clustered round a group of caves.


These are just some of the many reasons why lay people go to temples and monasteries.


When we consider the reverse, why Bhikkhus go to the houses of laypeople, some points have been mentioned above. The commonest reason is the Bhikkhu’s alms round which may be early in the morning as in Thailand and Burma or later as in Sri Lanka.[10] The Bhikkhu is silent, walking barefoot silently, never asking for anything and passing by quietly the houses and shops where nothing is given. When he is offered food, he opens his bowl silently and when the donor have finished giving, in silence he goes on his way to collect just enough to keep the body going. On the alms round, to be seen every morning throughout Buddhist countries (except Sri Lanka where it is now uncommon), Bhikkhus do not usually enter peoples’ houses as the food is given at the doorstep. At the time of invitation, however, Bhikkhus enter and are seated in duo order on the seats, which have been prepared for them. As honoured guests they are offered something to drink - tea or fruit juices and then the family may request the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts, which they will repeat after the senior most Bhikkhu. After this follows the auspicious chanting, varied according to the occasion. A meal may be offered when this has finished and afterwards a short sermon and then some verses called anumodaná - rejoicing  with the merits of the donors, are chanted. Gifts of necessities may be offered to the Bhikkhus before these last verses, or money for their support, may be placed in the hands of their attendant and the Bhikkhus informed of this.


In Buddhist countries now, indeed since the days of the Buddha, there are Bhikkhus who engage themselves in ways, which the Buddha did not approve. They should be mentioned here so that readers, if they go, or have been, in Buddhist lands, may not be surprised. Commonest; among offenders are those Bhikkhus who do little or nothing except wear their robes and eat two meals a day. Another Buddhist tradition has called them „rice bags and clothe-hangers“, an apt name indeed. When the number of Bhikkhus who do little except chat pleasantly with relatives or friends becomes great then Buddhism is sure to be in trouble. Among the graver departures from the Buddha’s intentions are those Bhikkhus who become famous as possessors of real or supposed powers which they exploit; as the Thai expression puts it ‘they want it loud’ - that is, their own reputations. They dispense holy water, Buddha-amulets and the like and, while they may lighten the burdens of others to some extent, they certainly make their own karmic burdens heavier! Such Bhikkhus can become quite wealthy but not in Dhamma.


Others achieve fame through astrology - of which the Buddha sceptically said (in a previous life when a Bodhisatta) „What will the stars do!“ In teaching Bhikkhus he called such knowledge „low science“. Some have reputations for being able to cast out demons and spirits and are known in Thailand as ‘ghost-doctors’. To help people in this way is of course unobjectionable but it can be dangerous for those who wield power since conceit increases easily in the unenlightened mind. Then there are Bhikkhus who have medical knowledge of herbs and different sorts of treatment such as massage.


But their knowledge is not systematic and will be derived from their Teachers or from what they have gathered going through life. A greater or lesser admixture of magical elements also makes their treatments uncertain in results. The Buddha advised Bhikkhus to treat other members of the Sangha and near relatives only, thus avoiding awkward situations, which could arise if a Bhikkhu’s prescriptions turned out ineffective, or worse, killed the patient. However, in past times when there were no trained doctors, a Bhikkhu faced with a plea for medical assistance would very likely act upon compassion rather than the Vinaya, the rules of which are to prevent him from becoming a regular doctor with an income.


Bhikkhus who become landowners or politicians also follow improper ways of livelihood. Landowning, indeed any property, cannot be held by individual Bhikkhus but must belong to the Sangha. And while it is proper for the Bhikkhus who shoulder the ‘work of books’ to be concerned about the well being of laypeople, it goes too far when they ally themselves with this or that political party. In fact, such support only calls down obloquy on their heads when party-leaders do not live up to their programme or are unsuccessful in their attempts at government. Politics and parties, with all the strife that usually accompanies them, are for lay Buddhists to take an interest in. In Thailand, Bhikkhus have no vote and are expected to keep out of political matters. If they wish to engage in politics, which is the layman’s world, then they disrobe and become laymen. Sri Lanka with the difficult heritage left by colonialism does have Bhikkhus who have attached themselves to various parties. In Burma, too, some Bhikkhus became too interested in politics until this was discouraged by the present government.


The two approved ways of Bhikkhu livelihood will form the subject of the next chapter.


It is obvious that since there are Bhikkhus whose practice is not so good, some measure of government must exist in the Sangha. There are also various matters to be organised, which require some kind of administrative structure. The Buddha laid down that seniority among Bhikkhus, that is, how many ‘Rains’ they have passed in the Sangha, was to be the reason for paying respects. Thus the senior most Bhikkhu would be the one whom all others revered as their leader. This works well when he is learned, a meditation master or both, but what if he is just „old in vein“ while younger Bhikkhus have more virtues than he has? This difficulty has been solved by the creation of ‘abbots’ of Viháras. They are appointed and elected (in Thailand) on the basis of their merits and the preferences of both Bhikkhus and leading lay people. They hold that post, ‘Lord of the ávása’, as long as they wish or until they die but though they have this position of rank and title too, still they must pay respect to Bhikkhus with no such appointments or learning as they have but who are senior in ordination.


Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have hierarchies similar in character, with the country divided into provinces, counties and districts, each division having an abbot appointed as the ‘Chief of the Sangha’. From among the highest-ranking abbots in the capitals a council is formed and from among its members the King (in Thailand) appoints the most senior to be Sangharaja, literally the ‘Ruler of the Sangha’. This Council meets frequently to discuss matters of importance for the Sangha; also to take action when necessary about infractions of the Vinaya.


Sri Lanka and Burma do not have such a systematic method of Sangha government. In fact, in the three countries first mentioned, the abbot still has a largo measure of autonomy but this is still greater in Burma and Sri Lanka. There are no kings (rájá) in these countries now so there are no Sangha-rajas though this office did exist in the past. Differences in the Sangha, which have been smoothed over better in Thailand, with its Sangha administration and Sangharaja, have caused more dissension in the other two main countries of Theraváda. This has made different groups in the Sangha more prominent.

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[1]See, ‘Buddhism in South India’, Wheel 124-125, B.P.S.

[2]The Fifth Council was held in Burma in the reign of King Mindon-min, C.E. 1871, when the text of the Tipitaka was inscribed upon 729 marble slabs to be seen in Mandalay. The Sixth Great Council was international and held in Burma to mark the 2500th year of the Buddhist Era (1956).

[3]See, „The Heritage of the Bhikkhu“, Walpola Rahula, pp. 26-27.

[4]Ibid, pp. 26-27 quoting Anguttara Commentary.

[5]See, „The Splendour of Enlightenment“, Ch. XVI, Mahamakut Press.

[6]See, „The Heart of Buddhist Meditation“, Ven, Nyanaponika Thera, Rider and Co., London, p. 141 (-Related Collection, 47, 22-23).

[7]For his story see, „The Life of the Buddha“, B.P.S. Kandy, and „Buddhist Legends“, Vol. I p. 217.

[8]See Ch. VI and „Pali Chanting with Translations“, Mahamakut Press.

[9]See, „Lay Buddhist Practice“, Wheel 206-207, B.P.S.

[10]See, „The Bleesings of Pindapáta“ (The Almsround), Wheel No. 73 and the accounts in Ch. VI.