Showing posts with label Vinaya. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vinaya. Show all posts

25 February 2011

Gesundheit! Making Accommodations with Custom.

One of the main critiques of traditional Buddhism put forward by Western Buddhists is against superstition. Western Buddhists promote such ideas as: Buddhism is a rational religion; there is coherence between science and Buddhism; Buddhists are naturally atheist; and Buddhism does not require blind faith. That is we say that Buddhism doesn't have the same problems with science that Christianity does, but still offers a solution to the question of 'what is a good life?', and an alternative approach to death which is not nihilistic.

The rebranding of Buddhism in the English speaking world began in Britain in the 1830s. It was helped along by the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859. Edwin Arnold's best selling humanist retelling of the Buddha's life, The Light of Asia, was published in 1879. [1] It's no coincidence that bodhi (literally 'understanding, awakening') is translated as Enlightenment (upper-case E), since the Victorian translators of Buddhism were the intellectual descendants of the European Enlightenment and wanted to explicitly align the two movements. Of course we also have a fair number of Romantics who were appalled at the idea of explaining everything (or anything), and took flight into the realms of the sentiment and imagination where science could not, and would not, then follow. (It can now, but that is another story!)

One consequence of this has been a certain amount of confusion when confronted by traditional Buddhism which appears to be a lot more superstitious and, frankly, theistic than one has been lead to believe it ought to be. Some of us Westerners have been prompted to wonder out loud, with no apparent irony, how traditional Buddhists could be getting Buddhism so wrong. There has been a tendency to see any cultural form which is less than austerely rational as a 'corruption' of the original supremely rational Buddhism. For some reason Theravāda scholastic orthodoxy became the poster child for this rationality, despite a pre-scientific worldview, and well into the 20th century the entire edifice of Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhism was seen as a 'later corruption'. The irony is that while we are contemptuous of Asians who have allowed Buddhism to change to meet their changing needs, we are engaged in exactly the same project.

This attitude is a complex stew including ingredients such as Imperialist and Colonialist superiority delusions (aka orientalism; or racism); generalisations from the Protestant critiques of the Roman Catholic Church (and in particular Protestant historical narratives based on the rise, corruption and fall of the Roman Empire); and the fear that with the death of God (pronounced by Nietzsche in 1882) that everything would be permitted, and morality would collapse. Most of these Victorian themes are still unresolved and active, often unconsciously, in British public discourse about religion. Again, there is also an important and influential Romantic trend in Western Buddhism which positively glories in the irrational and superstition, but I won't deal with that now.

A passage from the Vinaya (Vin ii.139) shows that this confrontation with superstition is not a new concern for Buddhists. However the Vinaya seems to have allowed quite a lot of latitude to bhikkhus when dealing with ordinary people. The passage involves "the group of six bhikkhus", a gang of miscreants whose (mis)behaviour leads to many new rules being laid down. At the time they were apparently learning and teaching metaphysics (lokāyata) and worldly knowledge (tiracchānavijjā). The PED suggests that lokāyata means: "what pertains to the ordinary view (of the world), common or popular philosophy", or as Rhys Davids puts it elsewhere: "name of a branch of Brahman learning, probably nature-lore'; later worked into a quasi system of casuistry, sophistry." [2] The word also occurs in Sanskrit and Monier-Williams defines it as 'materialism'. Tiracchānavijjā is literally 'animal knowledge', a tiracchāna is something which 'goes horizontally' i.e. an animal; but the dictionary suggests that tiracchānavijjā means "a low art, a pseudo-science". I take the general drift of the passage to be saying that the 'group of six' monks had become interested in the popular beliefs and practices of the local people, or perhaps had not abandoned their ancestral religion.

The important event in this text comes when the Buddha sneezes while delivering a discourse, and is then loudly interrupted by a number of monks calling out:
jīvatu, bhante, bhagavā; jīvatu sugato

May the Bhagavan live, Sir; may the Sugata live!
This - jīvatu: the verb √jīv 'to live' in the third person imperative - is the Pāli equivalent of saying bless you or gesundheit (= good health). The Buddha asks the bhikkhus: "When 'life' (jīva) is said to one who has sneezed, is that a this reason he might live or die?" They answer "no". He then forbids the monks from saying jīvatu. However this causes the bhikkhus problems because the householders continue saying jīvatu when the bhikkhus sneeze, and are angry when the bhikkhus do not respond in the traditional way. So the Buddha tells them:
Gihī, bhikkhave, maṅgalikā. Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, gihīnaṃ ‘jīvatha bhante’ti vuccamānena ‘ciraṃ jīvā’ti vattu’nti

Monks, householders are superstitious. When a householder says 'live Sir' (jivatha bhante) to you, I allow you to respond with 'long life' (ciraṃ jīvā). [3]
Here the Pāli word maṅgalika means 'superstitious, looking out for lucky signs', from maṅgala 'lucky, auspicious, prosperous' (c.f. the word omen). The text seems to suggest that lokāyata and tiracchānavijja are synonymous with maṅgalika. Also in this vein is a short sutta in the Aṅguttara-nikāya where the Buddha makes a distinction between householders generally, and lay disciples (upasaka/uapsikā), saying that an exemplary lay disciple "is not eager for protective charms & ceremonies". [4] We see here the concern, visible throughout the Vinaya, to keep the behaviour of the bhikkhus distinct from householders (gihī).

This superstitious attitude also seems to be addressed by the Buddha in the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta, a very well known text from the Sutta-nipāta collection. Although this sutta is spoken to a deva, it includes supporting one's parents, cherishing one's wife and children, and having a peaceful occupation as examples of mahāmaṅgalaṃ (literally 'big luck') 'the highest blessings' or perhaps 'highest performance, great happiness or blessing' (following Saddhatissa's translation notes). Clearly the concerns of the text are those of householders. In the light of Vinaya reading above, we might see the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta as saying these things are 'good luck' rather than 'highest blessing', i.e as a re-contextualisation of the idea of what constitutes luck.

I think this demonstrates one way that the Buddha, or at least the early Buddhists, handled superstition. Direct opposition was unlikely to be very effective, since it was deeply embedded in the culture. For those of us who commit ourselves to Buddhism, it is vital that we examine our beliefs; the conditioning that we have received from family, peers and society, and begin to unravel it in order to free our minds from those limitations. But there's not much mileage in demanding this from people who do not share our commitment. We could rail against superstition, and where we see it as definitely harmful we probably should speak out against it, but on the whole the main thing for Buddhists is dealing with our own belief structures. Buddhism is something we take on for ourselves - e.g. upasampadā the word often translated as 'higher ordination' really just means 'undertaken, taken on'.

Sometimes it's more important to be polite than to be right.



  1. On this subject see: Almond, Philip C. (1988) The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Dialogues of the Buddha, p.166f. Online:
  3. Vin ii.139. ('Live long and prosper' would be ciraṃ jivatu vaḍḍhatu ca)
  4. AN 5.175. See also Thanissaro Access to Insight.

Since writing this I discovered the following in The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan:
"Buddhist studies pioneer Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1834-1922) first translated bodhi as "Enlightenment" and explicitly compared the Buddha with the philosophers of the European Enlightenment" (1882. Lectures of the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by some Points in the History of Buddhism. Hibbert Lectures. New York: Putnam. p.30)

02 April 2010

A Lecture on the theme of Illness

Antiochus and Stratonice
I first came across this story from the vinaya (Vin i.301) and Sangharakshita's book A Guide to the Buddhist Path, and then later a fuller version in his talk: "A Case of Dysentery". I've always found it extremely moving. This is no allegory, and it is not ambiguous. Quite simply the Buddha requires that members of his community care for each other, most especially when they are ill. To not do so is a wrongdoing (dukkaṭa) - wrongdoing here is quite a literal translation. The text speaks for itself, so rather than saying much more, I'll simply give you my translation and add one or two comments at the end. 

The Pāli title of this passage is Gilāna-vatthu-kathā 'A lecture on the theme of illness', hence my title.

Lecture on the Theme of Illness

Once there was a monk who was afflicted with dysentery. He lay on the ground covered in his own shit and piss. The Lord was out on walkabout with Ānanda as his sidekick, when he approached the dwelling of that monk. He saw the monk lying in his own filth and went up to him.

"Monk", he asked, "what is wrong with you".

"I have dysentery Lord".

"Is there no one to care for you?"

"There is not Lord."

"But why not?"

"I don't do anything for the other monks, so they do not care for me," he told the Lord.

Then the Lord asked Ānanda to go and fetch some water so they could bathe the monk. Ānanda agreed and soon returned with water. The Lord sprinkled water over the monk, and Ānanda washed him. Then, with the Lord at his head and Ananda at his feet, they lifted him up and put him to bed.

Then the Lord called the monks together and questioned them.

"Monks", he asked, "is there a sick monk in that dwelling there?"

"There is Lord" they replied.

"And what illness does he suffer from?" asked the Lord.

"He has dysentery, Sir."

"Is there no want to care for him?"

"No, Sir."

"Why is that?"

"Well, he is useless, Sir. He does nothing for us, so we don't care for him", the monks explained.

"Monks," said the Lord, "you have no mother and no father to care for you. If you don't care for each other, then who will care for you? If you would care for me, then tend to the sick."

He went on to say: "If a preceptor is present then they should care for you until you are well, and remain with you until you are on your feet again. Or if an instructor is present; or a fellow practitioner; or a pupil; or someone with the same preceptor, or the same instructor, they should care for you until you are well and remain with you until you are on your feet again. If none of these are present then you should be cared for by the community. If you are not cared for it is an offence of wrongdoing."

My translation is a mix this time - at times I go for modern idiom, at times I'm more conservative. The Pāli is not very fancy, and only gives the bare bones. I've tried not to elaborate on it too much, though I think it could stand a dramatic retelling.

The passage continues on to describe the ideal kind of patient and the ideal kind of nurse. There is a full translation on the Access to Insight website. Bhikkhu Thanissaro his chosen to entitle the passage in Pāli Kucchivikara-vatthu (lit 'on the theme of dysentery') and in English 'The Monk with Dysentery'. In his reference to this text Ven. Thanissaro has "Mv [i.e. Mahāvagga] 8.26.1-8; PTS: Horner vol. 4, pp. 431-34" - normally the abbreviation PTS points to the Pali Text Society's Pāli version, but in this case it refers to the Miss Horner's English translation (which mixed up the order of the texts making Mv vol 4.). The correct citation should be: PTS Vin i.301.

One small point to make here is that though there is a clear ecclesiastical hierarchy in the milieu of the Vinaya, no one is exempted from caring by their status within that hierarchy. You may be a preceptor or an instructor, but you are no less responsible for caring for the members of the spiritual community than the juniors. Perhaps we may say that the preceptor or instructor has a greater responsibility, because not only must they participate in caring, they must set an example for the others. The great danger of more senior members of the spiritual community being seen not upholding the values and virtues of the community, is that it can be used as a rationalisation for laziness, or otherwise ignoble behaviour on the part of others. Of course there is no excuse for ignoble behaviour, but we are apt to find rationalisations.

Sangharakshita gave a talk on this passage in 1982 as part of a series on incidents from the Pāli Canon. It's available from A Case of Dysentry [sic]. There is also an edited transcript of the talk (with correctly spelt title). An extract from this talk forms the section entitled 'Unfailing Mutual Kindness' in Sangharakshita's excellent introduction to Buddhism: A Guide to the Buddhist Path, p.121f. Note that Sangharakshita relied on the translations from 'Some Sayings of the Buddha', translated by F.L. Woodward (Buddhist Society, London, 1973), which now seem very dated.

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.