First of all I would like to say that I am a practitioner in the Theravada tradition, quite engaged since a few years. But I also have a natural kind of “free spirit” which doesn’t believe easily, or I should say doesn’t believe at all... In general I can have faith for some time, but until the mind begins to know what is happening, then investigation starts… So these days, since a few months actually, I have been looking into the historical aspect of my tradition, and here are some extracts from one of my readings. The chosen passages are about the origin and development of the monastic regulations, the Vinaya (for those interested in getting to know more about the context in India in the 6th century B.C. I recommend “Buddhist India”, by T.H. Rhys Davis).
Now the study in question and the extracts are from “Early Buddhist Monachism”, by Sukumar Dutt. An historian whose theory is that it took something like 150 years to establish the monastic code.
(In Chapter III : The Sangha and the Patimokkha)
The Parivrajaka, the “wandering man of religion”, was absolved by his vow of renunciation from all social and domestic ties. But even for a professed recluse and solitary, the deep-seated gregarious instinct of man is perhaps difficult to abjure. So among primitive Parivrajakas, sects and parties formed themselves. Groups called Sanghas and Ganas, each recognizing the leadership of a spiritual head, abounded among them. The story of Sanjaya as related in Mahavagga (1, 23), is an illustration of this point [Sanjaya was the teacher of 250 disciples, including Sariputta and Mogallana before they went under the Buddha’s guidance].
Among the Parivrajakas, as it appears from this, there were founders and leaders of sects who had organised bodies of followers recognizing their leadership. Six of them are frequently referred to in the Pali books as Sanghi Gani Ganacariyo (See Samannaphala sutta). One who had left the household state would seek to be a convert to a sect-leader, a Ganacariya (udissa pabbajito), recognizing him as his master (Sattha) and accepting his doctrines (Dhammam).
Like other great teachers of his time, the Buddha was the founder of a sect in the Parivrajaka community. Many of his followers were formally initiated into this sect, recognizing the Buddha as their Sattha and accepting his Dhamma by the rite called Upasampada [the “ehi bhikkhu” formula in the suttas]. The Pali scriptures represent him accompanied in his peregrinations with a great multitude of them, and this body of followers is styled by the leader himself as Catuddisa Bhikkhu Sangha (Bhikkhu Sangha of the Four Quarters).
In the Vinayapitaka, however, the “Sangha of Bhikkhus of the Four Quarters” is called by outsiders Sakyaputtiya Samanas. The Buddha himself was called Sakyaputta. But in what relation he stood to these Sakyaputtiya Samanas, the original body of his followers, is somewhat uncertain. We are confronted with the inevitable question whether they constituted a mere Sect (“a religious following; adherence to a particular teacher or faith” Oxford New English Dictionary), a Gana or Sangha in its original sectarian sense, or an Order (“a body or society of persons living by common consent under the same religious, moral or social regulation or discipline; a monastic society or fraternity” Oxford New English Dictionary).
In other words, the question is: was there merely a community of faith and spiritual allegiance among them, or was there any external bond of union, e.g. a distinguishing sign, or the common observance of distinctive rites, or any special body of regula, etc.? The distinction between a Sect and an Order is of the broadest, and the loose use of these two terms has often led to some confusion regarding the character of the original body of the Buddha’s followers.
The Sakyaputtiya Samanas constituted, as we have seen, one of the several Sanghas or Ganas into which the Parivrajaka community of northern India of the sixth century B.C. was divided. In the Buddhist Sangha there was no doubt the bound of a common Dhamma, a body of cardinal doctrines, categorized later in the Nikayas, summed up in the Mahaparinibbana sutta and included later in the category of the Bodhapakkiya Dhamma. But this Dhamma that bound together the Sangha, of which the Buddha was the Sattha (teacher), was not mere philosophy or creed: it had a practical ethical bearing stressed in the Samannaphala sutta and elsewhere. Rules of moral conduct are associated with the faith. But a review of them would show that these were not rules intended to serve as distinctive rules for a religious order. They relate to right conduct generally as understood by the Parivrajakas and analogous rules occur even in St. Benedict’s Instruments of Good Works. In these rules there is the lack of the distinctive Buddhist stamp that marks and individualizes the statement of the Buddhist faith. In the primitive Buddhist community, while the Dhamma was the special “dhamma” of a particular Sangha propounded by a Sattha, the Vinaya was not of this character; it was not the special Vinaya of a particular Order, but one of broad general application.
It is only in the Dhammika sutta in the sutta Nipata that we find the first tentative approach to the formulation of a body of rules for the order. The rules contained in this sutta are not a redaction from the Vinayapitaka: they are broad and general, but apply specifically to the conduct of a Buddhist bhikkhu.
The next step in the evolution of Vinaya must have been to give a binding character and authority to the rules by adopting them as the regula of the Buddhist Order, and I am inclined to think that this step was taken at the conference of monks, which goes under the name of the ‘First Council’. Perhaps it was at the same gathering, which is called Vinaya-sangiti in the canon, that the theory of the promulgation by the Buddha himself of each of the rules adopted by the monks was accepted. Each new rule adopted afterwards was covered by the same theory.
Until the time when the Vinayapitaka was finally drawn up – probably about a century after the passing of the Buddha – the rules of the Order were not a closed book: they were in process of growth. Among the Parivrajaka of the age certain rules of right conduct called silas were recognised. The condition of religious mendicancy itself connoted certain practices and abstinences. (…) The followers of the great Teacher obeyed these rules of Parivrajaka life, as presumably did the other Parivralakas. The beginnings of Buddhist Vinaya must have been made in this way – adopting fundamental rules of Parivrajaka life as the basic regula of the Order. For example, we find the cattari akaraniyani (Maha., 1, 78), a list of “four acts not to be done by a bhikkhu”, supposed to have been the Buddha’s injunction, but necessarily involved in the acceptance of the religious life of a Parivrajaka, enacted as the four parajika dhamma in the Patimokkha, becoming thereby part of the law of the Buddhist Order. It is highly probable that a settlement of the Buddhist Vinaya was made in this way, and not in the manner as reported in the canon as the so-called First Buddhist Council.
The character of the First Council has been much obscured by later traditions. The account of the proceedings has little historical value.
The only clue to the chronology of the Vinayapitaka is afforded by the account of the Council of Vesali given in the 12th khanadaka of the Cullavagga. If we accept the argument of Oldenberg and Rhys Davids, this ‘Council’ must be dated about the middle of the fourth century B.C., and the compilation of a complete body of Vinaya rules not much earlier than that date. But though the Vinayapitaka, in the form in which it has come down to us, shows more or less symmetrical plan and design, and points unmistakably to a final diaskeuasis which have been a little earlier than the Council of Vesali, its contents are by no means the work of an era or even an age. They consist in fact, as I expect to show presently, of much earlier and much later materials welded together by a theory. When these are rightly interpreted and arranged in their proper sequence, they will afford us evidence of a process of growth and development, of an evolution in Buddhist monarchism as reflected in the Vinayapitaka.
It is unhistorical to presume that the entire corpus of the laws of the Vinayapitaka was drawn up at one time. From the beginning we hear of persons in the Buddhist Sangha, called Vinaya-dharas, who concerned themselves with the study and exposition of the rules of Vinaya. The existence of such professors was the surest guarantee for conservation and consolidation of these laws from generation to generation among Buddhist Bhikkus. A final diaskeuasis must have been made shortly before the Council of Vesali, for the lawyer-like manner in which the moot-points were sought to be decided there presupposes the existence of a complete code, susceptible no longer to addition or alteration. But this code which the Vinayapitaka represents was the result of a gradual process of accumulation, probably over a century and a half, and of conservation and consolidation of the laws, so that in the final redaction earlier materials were mixed up with later. Laws which had grown obsolete were retained in the process, those which had become partially unsuitable were amplified and extended in their application, new ones came into existence, either through longstanding custom becoming self-conscious, or by common consent, being necessitated by new conditions of monastic life.
Instances of the retention of obsolete laws in the corpus and the development of new laws introduced into it later abound in Vinayapitaka.
Some rules of the Patimokkha (e.g. pacittiya, 69, 73) assume the existence of forms of procedure which are nowhere found in the Patimokkha itself, but in Cullavagga, I. In pacittiya, 69, for example, occurs the phrase akatanudhammena (“not dealt with according to form”). The Vibhanga says that the form contemplated here is ukkhepaniya-kamma, but the Patimokkha knows nothing of such a form. In pacittiya, 73, again, we have the expression yan ca tattha apattim apanno tan ca jathadhammo karetabbo (“the offence a rising therefrom is to be dealt with according to proper form”), which seems to contemplate a tajjaniya-kamma for stupidity (see Cullavagga, I, 4, 1). Such expressions as are cited above point to the intrusion into the Patimokkha of later elements of developed Vinaya.
The author goes on developing this idea, with much examples and references from the texts (but this is already quite long). So… What do you think? What to beleive?
It makes sense to me, as I actually already had such ideas while being a temporary bhikkhu, and felt that much of the Vinaya was so law-like well developed material that it was at odd with the type of life early samanas lived (at least during the Buddha’s lifetime), and how it's described in the suttas (i.e. the “Cula-hatthipadopama sutta, MN27” which, I feel, offers a complete description of what a bhikkhu should
be, in the letter and the spirit, and how he should live and practice). The contrast between the Vinaya we know and the samanas’ spirit is even more obvious when one looks at historical descriptions of the general lifestyle at that time (see “Buddhist India”).
The author also explains, later in this book, how sanghas were living (after the Buddha’s passing) in separate monasteries as single and autonomous entities, on a democratic mode of functioning (there were no abbots, or monastery “director”), using the sangha-kamma (consent of all the residing monks) to make decisions. In these sanghas were included Vinaya-dharas, law specialists, which enabled the community to establish new rules as the needs would arise (that's the theory of the author but it seems quite plausible). With the Teacher gone and the spread of the community at large, these groups, or sanghas, were not so near from each other any more. This situation, of autonomous sanghas equipped with complete decision and law making processes, tells a great deal about how sectarian Buddhism could take place, and it also explains the differences found in the various Vinayas that have been preserved up to these days.
All that makes sense to me really. But of course, it shatters quite a bit the theory of “it’s all been said by the Buddha”, which is a rather comfortable one, and thus questions such as how to use the Vinaya today may arise... Actually I think that it would be good to look at it. One question for example, why the process of natural development of the regula
, with the abandoning or adaptation of obsolete rules and the making of new ones according to the needs of circumstances, should have stopped? This theory of “all said by Buddha”, although important as far as the authority of the tradition and the text is concerned, is somehow freezing the inherent aliveness and intelligence of all the system proposed and started by the Master, leaving us with an old, sometimes perhaps not so adequate set of rules, which can have, seen from within, the feel of being locked up in a kind of "museum".
Well… these are some reflections of perhaps a too “rational” practitioner (but one strongly called by spirituality), reflections based on some readings of historical studies and theories... So it’s just open questioning really. Free inquiry. And that comes, as I said in the beginning, from a mind that likes to investigate...
Thank you for any feed back (and sorry for the lengh of this post - by the way is it the right place for such discussion?).