The myth matters more than the man

Buddhist Saints in India:
February 17, 1995

Buddhism is widely assumed to be a predominantly monastic religion, in the sense of its being the religion primarily of monks (and to a lesser degree of nuns), with a laity that participates in its benefits only to the extent of being able to "make merit" by offering material support to the monks. Reginald A. Ray's scholarly and very readable study challenges this assumption, enabling us to see 1,000-odd years of Indian Buddhist history in an entirely new light.

He challenges the assumption that Buddhism is structurally "two-tiered", consisting of what he terms town-and-village renunciants who occupy the upper tier and the laity who occupy the lower tier, by means of a comprehensive examination of the figure of the Buddhist saint, a figure which for specific historical and cultural reasons was "repressed" when scholars took up the study of Buddhism in the 19th century.

The saint in Buddhism may be understood, according to Ray, as a person in whom the ultimate potentiality of every human, indeed every sentient, being has been more or less fully realised. In the Indian Buddhist context, such a realisation implies (i) a characteristic life journey made by the individual from an ordinary human status to saintly perfection; (ii) a set of traditional disciplines, including forest renunciation and meditation, that are understood to facilitate this transformation; and (iii) a societal dimension, wherein the saint may manifest his or her enlightened charisma and others may respond to it through certain cultic behaviours, that is any activities through which devotees (both lay and renunciant worshippers as well as close personal disciples) relate themselves to the saint.

These three elements, which overlap and are mutually interdependent, form a "religious complex" and it is to the problem of understanding this complex and its implications that Buddhist Saints in India is devoted.

In the life of Sakyamuni Buddha, the founder of what is now known as Buddhism, the paradigm of the Buddhist saint is present in a particularly clear and classic form, and Ray identifies the paradigm of the Buddhist saint by means of a thematic analysis of that life as it is depicted by the 1st-century poet Asvaghosha in his Buddhacharita. There are 35 themes, from the crisis in Gautama's life that precipitates his formal renunciation of the world at the age of 29 to the development of characteristic kinds of texts, in particular sacred biography and the sayings of the Buddha after his death at the age of 80. These themes fit together in a coherent pattern, the most prominent feature of which is that it depicts the Buddha not as a town-and-village renunciant but as a forest saint whose earliest disciples were forest renunciants and who espoused a dharma essentially of forest renunciation.

It is also noteworthy that the "paradigmatic Buddha" revealed by Asvaghosha, as seen through the lens of thematic analysis, is at once human and superhuman, imbued with cosmic and mythic dimensions, which suggests that in approaching Buddha Sakyamuni it is invalid and finally impossible to separate, as some have tried to do, the man from the myth. Ironically, we come closest to the historical Buddha precisely when we take the legendary and cultic idiom of his hagiographical tradition most seriously.

The paradigm of sainthood provided by Buddha Sakyamuni was in more general use as a presupposition in Indian Buddhism, identifying not just the Buddha but others understood as Buddhist saints, from the composers of the songs contained in the Theragatha and Therigatha, some of which antedate the rise to dominance of settled monasticism, through such well-known orthodox saints as Mahakasyapa and Sariputra to the enigmatic figure of the pratyeka-buddha, or solitary saint, and the bodhisattva saints of the forest depicted in Mahayana sutras. Between Asvaghosha's portrait of the Buddha and the Buddha as depicted in the scriptures of settled monasticism, as represented by the Nikayas and vinaya of the Theravada Pali canon, there is a world of difference. Whereas in the former he is the forest saint par excellence, in the latter he is typically depicted as an urban individual.

Ray has little difficulty in showing that the former picture is the more accurate, and that the forest ideal - as opposed to town-and-village renunciation - was normative for earliest Buddhism. The two-tier model is therefore not adequate as an objective, scholarly model of Indian Buddhism as a whole. In its place he proposes a threefold (not a three-tier) model, giving its proper due to each of the three types of Buddhists: forest renunciant, settled monastic, and layperson. But though the forest ideal was normative for earliest Buddhism, soon after the death of the Buddha a process of monasticisation set in and the centre of gravity shifted from forest to a non-forest type of renunciation. Meditation was replaced by a concern for behavioural and ritual purity, realisation by a preoccupation with textual study, and the charismatic teacher by the learned and decorous scholar. Ray does not see this development, for which there were many causes, as being a degeneration.

Occupying as it did a middle ground between the ideal of forest renunciation and the larger social, political, and religious world of greater India, the monastery provided a uniquely effective vehicle for bringing the Buddhist dharma to society at large. None the less, as settled monasticism became not only dominant but normative it "edited" its forest rival almost out of existence - to the overall impoverishment of the religion. In the case of the Buddha himself the forest renunciant side of his personality was split off to become the figure of the pratyekabuddha.

Not that there was no forest response to the process of monasticisation. From early times forest renunciants had vigorously critiqued the way of life of their town-and-village counterparts. Between the two groups, as between each of whom and the laity, there was in fact an ongoing process of interaction, a process which helps to explain much in the history of Buddhism and which in various forms continues even today.

Urgyen Sangharak****a (D. P. E. Lingwood) is head of the Western Buddhist Order.

Buddhist Saints in India:: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations

Author - Reginald A. Ray
ISBN - 0 19 507202 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 508pp

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