Post-Traditional Societies || Sangha, State, Society, "Nation": Persistence of Traditions in "Post-Traditional" Buddhist Societies

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  • Sangha, State, Society, "Nation": Persistence of Traditions in "Post-Traditional" BuddhistSocietiesAuthor(s): Heinz BechertSource: Daedalus, Vol. 102, No. 1, Post-Traditional Societies (Winter, 1973), pp. 85-95Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & SciencesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024110 .Accessed: 08/07/2014 08:24

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  • HEINZ BECHERT

    Sangha, State, Society, "Nation": Persistence of Traditions in

    "Post-Traditional" Buddhist Societies

    Buddhism in Ceylon and in four countries of mainland Southeast Asia?

    Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos?is described by the term "Theravada

    Buddhism." Although Theravada Buddhism, a dogma based

    on the canoni

    cal scriptures in Pali, is a rather conservative form of Buddhism, we can

    observe a marked difference between earlier and more modern states in

    its development. I propose a threefold distinction of "canonical," "traditional," and "mod

    ern" Buddhism. "Canonical" Buddhism (Urbuddhismus) is the Buddhism

    found in the tripitaka, the canonical scriptures in Pali. These scriptures are

    of Indian origin. Thus, they represent the particular form of Indian Bud

    dhism on which later Ceylonese and Southeast Asian Buddhism is based.

    Though there are differences between teachings and conceptions found in

    earlier strata and those found in later strata of these scriptures, we can de

    scribe "canonical" Buddhism as a rather coherent system of religious and

    philosophical teachings that includes a systematized set of rules and regula tions for the behavior of the members of the Sangha, namely, the monastic

    communities. "Traditional" Buddhism is the totality of beliefs and practices of Buddhists in the periods after the final codification of the canonical

    scriptures and before the beginnings of the modern period. In the Theravada

    countries, "traditional" Buddhism is characterized by its integration in the

    sociocultural system as the "national" religion and by the emergence of

    formalized state-Sangha relations. "Modern" Buddhism is a common des

    ignation of all forms of Buddhism that have developed under the impact of the changes which have taken place in the modern period; these include

    "modernistic" forms of Buddhism as well as "traditionalist" responses to the

    challenge of outside influences.

    For an analysis of the modern developments, the patterns of Sangha state and of Sangha-society relations in the earlier forms of Buddhism must

    be considered. The Sangha in the early period was a

    community of ascetics

    avoiding any form of direct involvement in the affairs of state and society.

    85

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  • 86 HEINZ BECHERT

    The charisma of the Buddhist saint was connected with his detachment from

    the world. Surely, the Buddha advised kings and ministers on the applica tion of moral and religious precepts in political life, but

    never on practical

    politics. The relations existing between Sangha and state were designed to

    minimize potential Sangha-state friction and to keep the Sangha independent from the state. Interference of the Sangha in political matters would have

    been against the established rules of the monastic order. The order belonged to "the four directions": it was by definition universal and supranational.

    The Sangha did not have any "guardian" central body which could supervise the way in which the word of the Buddha was to be interpreted

    or the way in which Buddhists should cope with problems

    on the basis of the Buddha's

    word found in the scriptural evidence. The only accepted authority was the

    word of the Buddha, later on supplemented by the classical commentaries

    said to be based on an uninterrupted lineage of teachers leading back to the

    Buddha himself. Thus, the early Sangha had no organizational structure that

    could counteract the forces of fragmentation. When the Sangha had grown up into an influential factor in social life,

    its original conception no longer applied to the facts, but it was never for

    mally invalidated. From the rather unclear traditions concerning the early Buddhist councils, we can conjecture that the kings of that period

    were not

    entirely indifferent to some of the internal developments of the Sangha,

    particularly to schisms that threatened the religious peace of the country. However, the first monarch to act in a way that led to the establishment of

    formalized state-Sangha relations was the great King Ashoka. We know from

    his so-called "schism edict," preserved in three inscriptions, that he had

    purged the Sangha and given orders to his "mahamatras" or state officials to control the observance of the edict. Many Sanghas had split into factions as a result of controversies on the rules of monastic discipline and their

    application. The existence of considerable monastic property from dona

    tions made it attractive for individuals who did not have the least intention

    of observing the rules to enter the Sangha. To remove this unfortunate state

    of affairs, it was necessary either to bring all the monks of a divided Sangha into harmony again or to expel those monks who

    were not willing to live

    and act according to the rules of Vinaya. Such an action by power of state

    was henceforth called a "Sasana reform"?a purge of the monastic institu

    tions of the Buddhist religion.1 It was also in the course of the missionary activities carried out by order

    of King Ashoka that the Buddhist religion was embraced by the contem

    porary king of Ceylon, Devanampiyatissa. Buddhism in the particular form

    of Theravada (which Ceylon imported from India) has since remained the

    religion of the Sinhalese in an unbroken tradition. The concept of the re

    sponsibility of the state for the well-being of the Sangha, resulting in a

    duty to act, if necessary, in the interest of the purity of the Sangha, became

    an important element of the traditional Sinhalese state ideology.2 A justi

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  • POST-TRADITIONAL BUDDHIST SOCIETIES 87

    fication for the interference of the state into internal matters of the Sangha was derived from the traditions concerning the already mentioned Sasana

    reform enacted by Ashoka, the ideal Buddhist king of the past. In a long

    process, the relations between Sangha and the state were more and more

    formalized. State officials acted to control the large-scale properties of the

    monasteries; the kings passed laws concerning the interpretation of the

    monastic rules and the organizational structure of the Sangha. Although these rules are said to have been formulated by monastic assemblies on

    the invitation of the kings, it is rather clear from the introductions of those texts that it was the king who finally decided on important matters, though

    within the framework of the established rules and traditions of the monastic

    order.3

    This integration of the Sangha in the structure of the state completely

    changed the original function and position of the Sangha. Certainly, there

    were still meditating monks retired from any contact with the outside

    world. However, the majority of the monks had to fulfill a number of obli

    gations within society: they acted as the literati preserving a great part of literature and higher studies, including historical and other non-religious

    writings. The monks taught the fundamentals of education to the villagers. It was because of them that the Theravada countries still had a higher

    literacy rate than European countries like England in the beginning of the

    nineteenth century. Further, the monks served the spiritual needs of the

    community in many ways. Donations to the Sangha provided high merit

    leading to a better rebirth. The wealth of the great monasteries did not,

    however, induce monks to live a life of austerity fitting for a Buddhist

    monk; it had a rather contradictory effect, which called for public control

    of these properties in the interest of the Sasana.

    The formalized and hierarchical Sangha structure

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