How Middle was the Path of Liberation in Buddha’s Time ? Considerations on ordination continued

This greatly informative article seemed to me to bring some useful historical context to the idea of ordination from the time of the Buddha, highlighting that current concerns about society’s perceptions of monks and sangha, and difficulties that aspirants encounter are perennial features of breaking with the the habits of samsara  and in no way culture or time related.

   How Middle was the Path of Liberation in
Buddha’s Time?

It is always intriguing to wonder
what the founder of what was to become, sometime after his death, a major world
religion, might think were he to witness the way in which his original
teachings had come to be understood, and practiced, by much later generations
with different cultural backgrounds in other parts of the globe.

In the case of Christianity, one may wonder what Jesus might have thought, had
his second coming, so eagerly anticipated by the early Church, actually
materialized. What would the man who upturned the tables of the moneylenders in
the temple make of the opulence of the Vatican, or Muhammad of the present-day
ayatollahs in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Or what might the Buddha, a man who rejected the household life in favor of the
life of a recluse living in the jungle on the fringe of society, make of the
fact that the essentially monastic movement that he founded had become, at
least as practiced in the West in the late twentieth century, an essentially
lay movement amongst those whose domestic responsibilities ensured that their
adherence to the path could be at best a halfhearted, and part-time, affair?

In the Buddha’s own day, for instance, when asked by Sariputta, the Buddha’s
chief disciple, whether he had been diligent in matters spiritual, his lay brahmin*
follower Dhananjani complained:

How could I be diligent, good Sariputta, when there are my parents to support,
my wife and children to support, my slaves, servants, and work people to
support, when there are services to perform for friends and acquaintances,
services to perform for kith and kin, services to perform for guests, rites to
perform for the ancestors, rites to perform for the gods, duties to perform for
the king—and this body too must be satisfied and looked after!

to which Sariputta replies:

What do you think about this, Dhananjani? Suppose someone failed to live the
holy life because of a need to support his parents, his wife and children, his
slaves, servants and work people, because there were services to perform for
friends and acquaintances, services to perform for kith and kin, services to
perform for guests, rites to perform for the ancestors, rites to perform for
the gods, duties to perform for the king, as well as having a body that had to
be looked after. Because of this failure, the guardians of Niraya Hell might
drag him off to their hell. Would he gain anything by saying: "I failed to
live the holy life because of a need to support my parents and so forth"?

to which Dhananjani finally responds:

No, good Sariputta, for the guardians of Niraya Hell would hurl him wailing
into Niraya Hell itself. (M II 186f)

This is
not to say that lay-followers of the Buddha were unknown in his day, nor to say
that there were not certain persons who, though attaining liberation, opted to
remain householders to no apparent detriment, but it has to be conceded that
the practices advocated by the Buddha were those intended almost exclusively
for those who had removed themselves from the household circle in favor of a
nomadic life of asceticism in the jungles of northern India. Indeed, on one
occasion, when Anathapindika, a lay-supporter whose generosity to the Buddha
and his monastic followers had known no bounds, was informed, on his deathbed,
by the Buddha’s chief disciple Sariputta, that he should train himself not to
grasp after objects of the world and the feelings to which such grasping gives
rise, Anathapindika, somewhat justifiably, retorted:

Although the Teacher and the monks who were developing their minds visited me
for a long time, I have never yet heard esoteric talk such as this,

to which Sariputta replies:

Esoteric talk such as this, householder, does not occur for householders clad
in white. It is for those that have gone forth, householder, that esoteric talk
such as this occurs. (M III 2600)

Let us, therefore, without further
ado, take a fresh look at what was really going on in the jungles of northern
India in the fifth century B.C.E., and to what extent the practices of modern
lay Buddhists in the West reflect the original ideals.

As is well known, the Buddha is said to have taught a "middle way"—a
middle way between, on the one hand, addiction to sense-pleasures and, on the
other, addiction to self-mortification. Why he should have done so begins to
make better sense when viewed against the background of his own life
experiences before becoming enlightened.

Tradition has it that the Buddha was the son of a local chieftain in northern
India. When a soothsayer summoned to forecast the child’s future predicted that
he would become a universal monarch were he to remain a layman, but a Buddha
were he to renounce the world and go forth, his father, hoping his son would
remain a layman and subsequently succeed him, shielded the child from all
life’s ills, surrounding him with every possible luxury.

One day, however, the Buddha-to-be managed to sneak out of the palace without
the guards noticing, where he encountered four signs: a sick man, an old man, a
corpse, and a religious recluse. Quick to realize that he, too, was subject to
sickness, old age, and death, he soon after abandoned his wife and first-born
for the solitary life of an ascetic in the jungle, where he practiced a life of
severe self-mortification for six years, hoping to find a solution to the
problem of man’s mortality which had so shocked him. At times he went about
naked, flouting life’s decencies, eating one meal a day, then once every second
day, until he was one to eat only once a fortnight. And when he did so, he ate potherbs
or millet or wild rice or grass or cowdung. At other times he wore coarse
hempen cloths, or rags taken from the dust-heap. He plucked out the hair of his
head and beard, lay on a bed of thorns. The dust and dirt that accumulated on
his body fell off in lumps, as he sat up all night in the open, both in the
times of snowfall and the hot months of summer, and over the years his body
became so emaciated that his skin clung to his skeleton, and he almost died
before realizing that this was not the way to the goal he was seeking any more
than his former life of luxury had been. (M I 77ff)

He was, of course, not alone in opting for such austerities. Rather, it is
clear that such practices were common amongst the religious drop-outs of his
day, such as the Jains, who had similarly rejected the luxurious, opulent
lifestyle of the small religious elite that continually increased its wealth
and consolidated its power by officiating at ever more elaborate sacrificial
rituals paid for by the laity. The fact is that by the time of the Buddha large
numbers of such ascetics were to be found living on the fringe of a society
which largely despised them.

That the Buddha finally abandoned these practices in favor of a middle way
between the above two extremes did not mean that the middle way that he
advocated was not austere—it was just less austere than those earlier practices
to which he had once been committed. Indeed, the nomadic lifestyle that the
Buddha advocated for his monastic community, once he had become enlightened,
was no easy one: with nothing but a ragged robe for protection from biting
insects, cold nights, and monsoon rain, and with a diet consisting of—when
lucky—mere discarded scraps and leftovers, his fellow monks were obliged to
lead a fiercely austere lifestyle, isolated from society in the depths of the
jungle, where they would sleep little, if at all. Monastic rules dictated every
moment of waking life: monks were obliged, except when discussing the Buddha’s
teachings, to maintain the "ariyan** silence," whilst they
were also told how they should walk, stand, or sit, how they should urinate or
defecate, and when and how they should sleep. It was not even open to the monk
to decide when he should eat—and when he did so eat, he was obliged to mix up
everything he had managed to receive in his almsbowl into an unpalatable mass,
and then consume same in small lumps, all the time noting, as he did so, that
he was only eating in order to sustain his body until liberation was achieved.

It comes as little surprise that those practicing such an existence were not
envied by their contemporaries. Nor were they even admired:

Monks, this is the meanest of callings, this of an almsman. A term of
abuse in the world is this, to say ‘You scrap-gatherer! With bowl in hand you
roam about’. (It 89)

It was held by many in the Buddha’s
society that those who adopted such a lifestyle had done so through fear of
kings or robbers, through debt or having lost their relatives or means of
livelihood (M II 66, It 89) and perhaps for this reason alone the Satanic
figure of Mara*** had no difficulty in causing house-holders to revile, abuse,
vex, and annoy monks by persuading such householders that:

These shaveling recluses are menials, black, the offscourings of our kinsman’s
feet. They say "We are meditatives" . . . and with their shoulders
drooping, with their faces cast down, as if drugged, they meditate. (M I 334)

Nor does it seem that much effort
was required for certain religious rivals to put it about that a female wanderer
had been slain by the Buddha’s disciples following numerous sexual adventures
in the depths of the Jeta Grove. Pulling her body out of the ditch in which it
had been buried, they paraded it about the streets of Savatthi rousing the
people’s indignation, saying:

Mogao cliff caves near Duhuang on the silk road

Behold, brothers, the deed of the Sakyan sons! Shameless are these recluses!
The Sakyan sons are wicked, evildoers, liars, no livers of the holy life. (Ud

So bad, it seems, was their
reputation that in some quarters it was most unwise to tread. Alms were
gathered only with the greatest of difficulty in Mathura (A III 256); the men
of Sunaparanta were deemed by the Buddha to be hot-headed, fierce, and likely
not only to abuse and revile his monks but also even to strike them, beat them,
and slay them (S IV 611); whilst the borderlands were so perilous that none of
the Buddha’s followers, whether monastic or lay, would dare venture there. (D
III 263, 287; A IV 225) That these were no mere isolated incidents can be seen
from the frequently recurring passages in which the Buddha advises his monks to
endure abuse from outsiders. Of himself he says:

As an elephant, in battlefield, withstands the arrows shot from a bow, even so
shall I endure abuse. (Dhp 320)

Why anyone in their right mind should
have willingly elected to join him in following such a lifestyle, and endure
similar hardships, is perhaps difficult to fathom. Indeed, it is well known
that the Buddha, immediately following his enlightenment, initially hesitated
whether he should bother to share his discovery with anyone at all, reflecting

This Dhamma, won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to
understand . . . But this is a generation delighting in sensual
pleasure . . . And if I were to teach Dhamma and others were not
to understand me, this would be a weariness to me, this would be a vexation to
me, (Vin I 3f)

whereupon Brahma Sahampati (a deva
[demigod] from the Brahmaloka) intervened, pointing out to the Buddha that
there were some beings with little dust in their eyes who would profit from him
teaching them.

However, it must be stressed that although such beings may have had little dust
in their eyes, they were still hemmed in by sense-pleasures, and thus in
bondage to the Satanic figure of Mara. Any rescue would require great
skillfulness if Mara’s devious tactics were to be countered, which skillfulness
was precisely the reason why the Buddha had, prior to his enlightenment, spent
many hundreds of thousands of rebirths attaining all the various perfections that
would eventually qualify him for the task now in hand.

The manner in which the Buddha rescued such beings took the form, in the main,
of what is known as the "progressive talk," which started with the
Buddha descending to the then-current spiritual level of his hearer, and then
gradually steering him into a state of consciousness in which he too could now
experience what the Buddha had himself discovered on the night of his
enlightenment. As the texts have it:

Then the Lord talked a progressive talk, commencing with talk on almsgiving,
talk on [mundane] morality, talk on [rebirth in] heaven. He made visible the
peril, the vanity, the defilement of the pleasures of the senses and the
advantage in renouncing them. And when the Lord knew that the heart of the
individual concerned was ready . . . and uplifted [out of the sensual sphere],
then did he make visible to him that teaching that the Buddhas have themselves
discovered, viz. suffering, its uprising, its cessation and the path,

whereupon the convert would

see next entry post

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