Looking at Buddhist Monasticism

He who is controlled in hand, foot, and in speech, who is well disciplined and practices the utmost restraint; he who delights inwardly, in concentration, who leads a solitary life and is content – him they call a bhikkhu (mendicant). Dhammapade Canto XXV – 362

All Buddhists strive to unite and align their perception through meditation and physical discipline. Whilst looking within, interaction with the physical world comes under the strictest of moral controls. The question is the extent to which an individual ‘looks’ and feels the need to ‘discipline’. A lay-person follows a handful of Vinaya Vows, whilst an Ordained monastic follows hundreds. A lay-person, however, without Ordaining may voluntarily take-on ‘Monk’s Rules’ and live a life as pure as any Ordained Buddhist monastic without being formally linked to any Order, Master or monastic establishment. Armed with the Buddhist sacred texts, a lay-person may become a tree-dweller or sit in any place that is ‘convenient’ rather than ‘expected’. This situation is rather like the ‘oblate’ of the Christian monastic tradition, which is a useful model for Buddhists.  

Those sages who observe nonviolence, who are ever controlled in body, attain the changeless state (nirvana) where, having gone, they suffer no more. Dhammapada – Canto XVII 225

Of course, a formally Ordained Buddhist monk is actually a ‘beggar’ (Bhikkhu) rather than a ‘monk’ in the Western sense of the word. A Bhikkhu is committed to following the Vinaya Discipline, the Bodhisattva Vows and every facet of the Dharma to the minute detail with no deviation. His or her body is sustained by ‘begging’ (except in China where an Emperor outlawed begging and Buddhist monastics must be self-sufficient and grow their own food). The Ordained Buddhist path is considered a powerful fast-track toward liberation from all suffering, whilst the lay-path is often presented as a slow-path to personal happiness, but not necessarily full liberation or enlightenment. A Buddhist ‘Beggar’ is not necessarily in search of ‘oneness’ with any god, but is rather jettisoning from the mind (and body) all impurities that arise from greed, hatred and delusion.  

Those who control the mind which wanders afar, solitary, incorporeal, and which resides in the inner cavern (of the heart), will liberate themselves from the shackles of Mara. Dhammapada Canto III – 37

This is not the entire story. Obviously, as Buddhists are striving to find the empty mind ground – and then ‘unite’ with that mind ground – there is a ‘oneness’ being sought, albeit a distinctly ‘Buddhist’ monad. The empty mind ground is found when the obscuration of greed, hatred and delusion are removed. This path can be followed by anybody regardless of situation and life circumstance. An Ordained monastic takes one path, whilst a lay-person takes another. Both are useful and meet in the act (and doorway) of seated meditation, and ‘selfless’ service to others. Buddhist monasticism is a ‘moment to moment’ affair, with profound implications for the texture of perception and nature of enhanced understanding. No one Ordained the Buddha, and his first Disciples took refuge only in the Buddha and Dharma – as no formal Sangha existed at this time. Buddhist monasticism is the rediscovering of the purity of the original ‘tree-dwellers’, with historical evidence suggesting that before the developing of the Vinaya Discipline, the Buddha emphasised the following of the Dhammapada! 


Harischandra Kaviratna: Dhammapada – Wisdom of the Buddha (English-Pali) Theosophical University Press, (2001)

Sukumar Dutt: Early Buddhist Monachism, Asia, (1960)

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