Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1992

Suffering and the Way to Cessation; Ajahn Sumedho
Flowing with the Pain; Jody Higgs
Towards Simplicity; Sister Thanasanti
Washing Away the Blood; E. Bernstein, Y. Moser
Out in the Outback: Letter from Australia; Ven. Kovido
Life of Forest Monk (Pt IV); Luang Por Jun
Highland Retreat; Venerable Suriyo
Aspects of Training: A Universal Order; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:
Editorial: Ajahn Sucitto


Aspects of Training: A Universal Order

In this extract from the Vinaya instructions to the bhikkhus at Amaravati in 1988, Ajahn Sucitto points out the developments in attitude that the Buddha brought about among the sect of "Wanderers" of India to transform it into the Bhikkhu-Sangha.

There has been a tradition in India for millennia, certainly from before the time of the Buddha, of paribbajakas, spiritual seekers who were homeless ones, wanderers. Some of these Wanderers became the Buddha's first disciples, and fundamental features of their attitude towards spirituality form the basis of the Sangha's training. There were also the Brahmins, those in the priestly caste, who followed the Vedas and performed the Vedic rituals to ensure prosperity, fecundity, etc. But the paribbajakas were those who renounced caste and worldly aims and values. This renunciation was called the pabbajja, the going forth, and it was a complete renunciation of any status or role in the caste system. And this, in the Indian culture, was a very significant step since most people belonged completely to one particular niche in the caste structure. To renounce that was a considerable renunciation.

This is important to consider because in our life here we can begin to develop ideas of status or role or position. Nowadays in Buddhist countries, there is an ecclesiastical hierarchy in the Sangha, but this is purely an administrative structure, often brought about through secular powers. In the Holy Life itself, there is no status. Such roles and responsibilities as are allocated by the Sangha to individual members of the Order are not considered to be very important, nor regarded as a measure of one's spiritual development.

The paribbajakas had thrown away a lot of the outward regulations of the religious life and it seems that the Buddha found this helpful because it meant that the regulations became much more internalised. A pure one was thought to have purity of heart rather than just being one who could perform rituals. Paribbajakas adopted a common standard of harmlessness, renunciation and celibacy. The sincere ones were not interested in acquiring things, not fascinated by the sensory world, not looking for winning power or gain or support. It is from this the attitude of going-forth, which defined the fundamental 'status' of the homeless one, that the bhikkhu training conventions evolved.

In that way of life, a paribbajaka would seek the going forth under a teacher, a sattha. When Wanderers met each other, they would ask, 'Whose Dhamma and discipline are you following, friend?' There were teachers like Sanjaya, the original teacher of Venerables Sariputta and Maha-Mogallana, and each had their own Dhamma and discipline. The training disciplines of other paribbajakas consisted mainly of ascetic practices like eating out of the hands, going naked, not lying down, or drinking water out of puddles rather than out of vessels. This was their training for renunciation. However, the Buddha's emphasis was upon a more refined wisdom training, and his whole teaching was of a reflective nature. So, though he lived a wanderer's life, the Lord Buddha felt that his disciples should try to open up beyond the limitations of both the paribbajaka ethic and that of the Brahmins. His approach was more universal than that of his contemporaries.

In his last years, the Buddha made the point over and over again that the Dhamma-Vinaya was the teacher, not him.

Lord Buddha offered a Dhamma and discipline that weren't just a set of rules to be kept by a particular sect or a group for the purpose of ritual or asceticism or out of blind obedience to a teacher's whim, but were that which led to universal truth, to universal standards of wisdom and morality, and to skilful conduct for all human beings. As the Buddhist Sangha evolved out of this amorphous band of wanderers, the definition of what the bhikkhu was became more and more narrow. And yet the increasing degree of this regulation was never considered to be an obstacle to liberation. The disciples undertook these further restrictions upon what they could do and what was suitable and so forth because they considered them to be not limitations on the Holy Life but rules which strengthened it and gave it a broader significance.

So one should look at the particular training rules that the Buddha established for his bhikkhu disciples in this way. They were intended to develop a life that led to harmlessness, renunciation, contentment with little, and freedom from passion in ways that were not mortifying or extreme. And they led to behaviour which exemplifies and illustrates those goals in order to establish and sustain faith in lay people.

Becoming a bhikkhu, an ordained disciple of the Buddha, was, at first, very much as it would have been for any other paribbajaka: one would have faith in the sattha, the Lord Buddha, and ask for the going forth in his Dhamma and discipline. And the Buddha would say, 'Come, bhikkhu, live the Holy Life.' At first, that was all that ordination, as we now call it, meant - just an affirmation of faith in that particular teacher and a reciprocal acceptance.

Throughout his life the Buddha continually distinguished between faith and belief. He said that one would realise truth through one's own knowledge rather than just through belief. He insisted on many occasions that disciples not just blindly believe but follow him out of faith. This attitude, which is in line with the sentiments expressed in the Kalama Sutta, emphasises personally experienced realisation, which was a goal fundamental to the Wanderers. And in his last years, the Buddha made the point over and over again that the Dhamma-Vinaya was the teacher, not him - he was the Awakened One, the one who pointed out the Way. He was adopting the role of teacher not in the old sense of someone who expected belief but rather as someone who demonstrated a universal law. However, a disciple should certainly follow his teacher in faith, backed up by his reflective reasoning.

How does this kind of faith differ from belief? It's a matter of humility, of being prepared to test out the teacher's advice in the spirit of free inquiry. There is an example in the Kitagiri Sutta, sutta 70 of the Majjhima Nikaya, where the Lord Buddha says to a group of monks: 'I, monks, enjoy good health, vitality and freedom from physical discomfort by eating one meal a day, so you too should do this, monks.' And they said, 'Yes, Lord', and they tried it and they kept that rule. Then they went to two of the monks of the notorious 'group of six'.

These two, Assaji and Punabbasuka, were monks renowned for their shamelessness. The good monks said to them, 'We eat one meal a day and we enjoy good health.' And Assaji and Punabbasuka said, 'Well, we eat three meals a day - we eat in the mornings, we eat in the evenings, we eat whenever we feel like it - and we enjoy good health and feel good too. So we're going to do it this way.' The good monks then told this to the Lord Buddha and he summoned these two monks and said: 'There is a difference between doing that which is pleasant and skilful and doing that which is is pleasant and unskilful. It's not that your actions produce physical displeasure, but they go no further - and there are ways in my training which lead towards the goal of the Holy Life, towards renunciation, contentment with little, and so forth.'

He was, in fact, pointing to the very ethos of the parabbajaka, the mendicant, the one content with little and not particularly interested in the sensory world. And he was asking them to reasonably investigate their actions in terms of the tenets of the 'going-forth', the act of faith. He also reminded them that the fundamental step in the graduated course of training was having faith in the teacher. You may not always agree with what he says or have experienced what he's talking about, but you have faith in the teacher. And from that faith you become interested in Dhamma, you draw near, you listen to Dhamma, you practise it, you struggle with the conflict that your defilements bring up, and then you penetrate to truth and experience the results. But the first step is to have faith. If there's no faith, then you don't begin or continue. And what these monks had done wrong, where their foolishness lay, was in acting out of a lack of faith. There was no willingness to commit themselves to following the teacher; and without that the course of training does not even get off the ground.

Moreover, the Buddha said that, as far as he was concerned, it was of no importance at all whether people kept the rules or not. Rather than concerning himself with that, he wanted to compassionately point out that if they wished to progress, then this was the correct course of action.

Since the Buddha's Parinibbana, it's up to the Sangha to be that source of faith and to practise in faith. Many times, we take on training rules that we may not feel are especially relevant or that don't agree with our personalities. Even as a community we may think, 'I don't see the point in that.' These particular views often arise in the mind. One has to tackle them skilfully, to see that it's more important to sustain practice that brings up faith in one's own mind - a kind of going forth and a willingness to try - and that creates a situation that supports the faith of others. Many of our minor rules and conventions are arbitrary, but they have been decided upon, and if we keep them, then there is a sense of unity and concord, a composed and well-ordered sense in the community that is inspiring and gives rise to a fruitful field for the practice of other people.

There are many rules on harmonious conduct in community life: rules about sustaining and proclaiming gross wrong views; rules that deal with showing respect towards the Vinaya (the discipline), the Dhamma, the Order, the Buddha, the elders, and so forth. These attempt not to create orthodoxy but to create standards of orthopraxy. The Buddha's emphasis was on unanimity of practice so that the good field of the Dhamma-Vinaya and the field of the Sangha were kept in good order for the welfare of others and for future generations.

The other universal aspect of the Lord Buddha's approach was the attempt to keep Dhamma-Vinaya available to the lay people. There was encouragement for bhikkhus to teach. There was a time when the bhikkhus just used to sit and meditate and be quiet and the lay people complained the monks just sat there all night long, 'dumb like hogs'. And the Buddha said, 'Bhikkhus, I allow you to talk on the Dhamma.' So they started talking on Dhamma. In other words, the concept of social responsibility was introduced - which wasn't a concept in the Wanderers' vocabulary. Note: the bhikkhus were to act out of a sense of responsibility rather than a desire to win favour or support.

Many training rules that sustain a life of mendicancy grew out of a need to develop a relationship with lay people, to keep Dhamma-Vinaya accessible to them and in their minds. A bhikkhu's life is one of having little personal storage of items. Even when we have established monasteries, we use communal stores; we renounce personal ownership and go to a storeman to ask for permission for this or for that. This is a good training because one doesn't start taking requisites for granted. Lay people can 'make invitation' (pavarana - the invitation to ask them for any requisites the monk or nun may need), but there are rules to make sure that one does not take advantage of such offers by asking or constantly badgering people for things.

Also, there are observances that conform to the social customs of that time, designed to present an appearance that was polite, graceful, and pleasing to the lay people. Many of the sekhiya rules work on this level. When we understand this principle, we see the need to investigate what is suitable and what is offensive to the social customs of the age. If we do what's appropriate, we can feel that we are working in harmony with what the Lord Buddha taught and what the Dhamma is about.

So you see how this non-sectarian and universalist approach of the Buddha makes it very important for the Bhikkhu-Sangha to try to sustain an appearance that is inspiring, to live in harmony and concord, to avoid activities that give rise to bad reputation or to people's not being inspired by the Holy Life, and to agree to abide within rules and regulations. So it was that, from the basis of the Wanderers' rejection of conventions and spirit of independent inquiry, there arose a very distinctive order, whose conventions are for its own welfare and for the welfare of the many.