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종교 탐방

IV. Sangha, society, and state

 승가, 단체, 국가


Buddhists of all times and places have recognized the importance of community life, and over the centuries there has developed a distinctive pattern involving a symbiotic relationship between monks (and in some cases nuns) and the lay community. The relationship between the monastics and the laity has differed from place to place and from time to time, but throughout most of Buddhist history both groups have played an essential role in the process of constituting and reconstituting the Buddhist world. Moreover, both the monastics and the laity have engaged in a variety of common and complementary religious practices that have expressed Buddhist orientations and values, structured Buddhist societies, and addressed the soteriological and practical concerns of Buddhist individuals.


The sangha is the assembly of Buddhist monks that has, from the origins of Buddhism, authoritatively studied, taught, and preserved the teachings of the Buddha. In their communities monks have served the laity through example and, as directed by the Buddha, through the teachings of morality (Pali: sila; Sanskrit: shila). In exchange for their service the monks have received support from the laity, who thereby earn merit. Besides serving as the centre of Buddhist propaganda and learning, the monastery offers the monk an opportunity to live apart from worldly concerns, a situation that has usually been believed necessary or at least advisable in order to follow strictly the path that leads most directly to release.

1) The origin and development of the sangha.

According to scholars of early Buddhism, at the time of the Buddha in northeastern India there existed numerous religious mendicants or almsmen who wandered and begged individually or in groups. These men had forsaken the life of a householder and the involvement with worldly affairs that this entails in order to seek a doctrine and form of practice which would meaningfully explain life and offer salvation. When such a seeker met someone who seemed to offer such a salvatory message, he would accept him as a teacher (guru) and wander with him. The situation of these mendicants is summed up in the greeting with which they met other religious wanderers. This greeting asked, "Under whose guidance have you accepted religious mendicancy? Who is your master (sattha)? Whose dhamma is agreeable to you?"

The groups of mendicants that had formed around a teacher broke their wanderings during the rainy season (vassa) from July through August. At this time they gathered at various rain retreats (vassavasa), usually situated near villages. Here they would beg daily for their few needs and continue their spiritual quest. The Buddha and his followers may well have been the first group to found such a yearly rain retreat.

After the Buddha's death his followers did not separate but continued to wander and enjoy the rain retreat together. In their retreats the followers of the Buddha's teachings probably built their own huts and lived separately, but their sense of community with other Buddhists led them to gather fortnightly at the time of the full and new moons to recite the Patimokkha, or declaration of their steadfastness in observing the monastic discipline. This ceremony, in which the laity also participated, was called the uposatha

Within the first several centuries after the Buddha's death, the sangha came to include two different groups of monks. One retained the wandering mode of existence; this group has been a very creative force in Buddhist history and continues to play a role in contemporary Buddhism, particularly in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The other, much larger group gave up the life-in-the-forest and settled in permanent monastic settlements (viharas). There appear to be two major reasons for this change in the mode of living. First, the followers of the Buddha were able, through their confession of a common faith, to build up a certain coherent organization. Second, the laity gave meritorious gifts of land and raised buildings in which the followers of the Buddha might live permanently, assured of a supply of the staples of life and also fulfilling the Buddha's directive to minister to the laity. In this manner small viharas were raised in northeastern India and adjoining areas into which Buddhism spread. With the reign of King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, further developments occurred. This king, who controlled much of India, took a protective interest in the unity and well-being of the Buddhist monastic community, and he promulgated a dhamma for his kingdom that shared a great deal with Buddhist teachings directed to the laity. As a result of his support and influence, Buddhism developed a more universal orientation. (see also Index: monasticism)

In the post-Ashokan period, Buddhist monasteries grew in size and acquired a great deal of wealth. By about the 5th century AD there developed mahaviharas, or monastic centres, serving as universities, such as Nalanda. These universities were centres of Buddhist learning and propaganda, drawing monks from China and Tibet and sending forth missionaries to these lands. The institutions were open to the outside influence of a resurgent Hinduism, however, which is one of the factors that weakened Buddhism and led to its disappearance from India in the 13th century.

In all Buddhist countries, monasteries continued to serve as centres of missions and learning and as retreats. Different types of monastic establishments developed in particular areas and in particular contexts. In several regions there were at least two types of institutions. There were a few large public monasteries that usually functioned in greater or lesser accord with classical Buddhist norms. In addition, there were many smaller monasteries, often located in rural areas, that were much more loosely regulated. Often these were hereditary institutions in which the rights and privileges of the abbot were passed on to an adopted disciple. In areas where clerical marriage was practiced--for example, in medieval Sri Lanka and in post-Heian Japan--a tradition of blood inheritance developed.

2) Internal organization of the sangha.

The development of the sangha from a group of wandering mendicants loosely bound together by their faith in the Buddha and his teachings, to monks living closely together in a permanent monastery necessitated the development of rules and a degree of hierarchical organization. It appears that the earliest organization within Indian monasteries was democratic in nature. This democratic nature arose from two important historical factors. First, the Buddha did not, as was the custom among the teachers of his time, designate a human successor. Instead, the Buddha taught that each monk should strive to follow the path that he had preached. This decision of the Buddha placed every monk on the same footing. There could be no absolute authority vested in one person, for the authority was the dhammathat the Buddha had taught. Second, the region in which Buddhism arose was noted for a system of tribal democracy, or republicanism. When a serious question demanded attention in the region, the male inhabitants would meet to decide upon a course of action, often electing a temporary ruler. This republican tradition, which supported the antiauthoritarian nature of the Buddha's teaching, was adopted by the early sangha.

When an issue arose, all the monks of the monastery assembled. The issue was put before the body of monks and discussed. If any solution was forthcoming, it had to be read three times, with silence signifying acceptance. If there was debate, a vote might be taken or the issue referred to committee or the arbitration of the elders of a neighbouring monastery. As the sangha developed, a certain division of labour and hierarchical administration was adopted. The abbot became the head of this administrative hierarchy and was vested with almost unlimited powers over monastic affairs. The antiauthoritarian character of Buddhism, however, continued to assert itself. In China, for instance, the abbot continued to refer all important questions to the assembled monks, who had elected him as their leader. Similarly, in Southeast Asian countries there has traditionally been a popular distaste for hierarchy, making rules difficult to enforce in the numerous almost independent monastic units.

As the Buddhist sangha developed, specific rules and rites were enacted that differ very little in all Buddhist monasteries even today. The rules by which the monks are judged and the punishments that should be assessed are found in the vinaya texts (vinaya literally means "that which leads"). The Vinaya Pitakaof the Theravada canon contains precepts that were supposedly given by the Buddha as he judged a particular situation. While in the majority of cases the Buddha's authorship can be doubted, the attempt is made to refer all authority to the Buddha and not to one of his disciples. The heart of the vinaya texts is the Patimokkhawhich, in the course of the sangha's development, became a list of monastic rules. The rules are recited by the assembled monks every fortnight, with a pause after each one so that any monk who has transgressed this rule may confess and receive his punishment. While the number of rules in the Patimokkha differs in the various schools, with 227, 250, and 253, respectively in the Pali, Chinese, and Tibetan canons, the rules are essentially the same. The first part of the Patimokkha deals with the four gravest sins, which necessarily lead to expulsion from the monastery. They are sexual intercourse, theft, murder, and exaggeration of one's miraculous powers. The other rules, in seven sections, deal with transgressions of a lesser nature, such as drinking or lying.

In the Theravada countries--Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Kampuchea, and Laos--the Buddhist monastic community is composed primarily of male monks and novices (the order of nuns died out in the Theravada world more than a millennium ago, and contemporary efforts to reestablish it have met with only minimal success), white-robed ascetics (including various types of male and female practitioners who remain outside the sangha but follow a more or less renunciatory mode of life), and laymen and laywomen. In some Theravada countries, notably in mainland Southeast Asia, boys or young men were traditionally expected to join the monastery for a period of instruction and meditation. Thus, the majority of men in these areas were (and to a lesser extent still are, at least in Myanmar and Thailand) directly involved with the monastic ethos. This practice has fostered a high degree of lay participation in monastic affairs.

In the Mahayana and Vajrayana countries of China and Tibet there was traditionally a stage of one year before the aspirant could become a novice. This was a year of probation when the aspirant did not receive tonsure and remained subject to governmental taxation and service, while receiving instructions and performing menial tasks within the monastery. At the end of this one-year probationary period, the aspirant had to pass a test, including the recitation of part of a well-known sutra--the length depending upon whether the applicant was male or female--and a discussion on various doctrinal questions. In China, one usually did not progress beyond the novice stage unless he or she was of exceptional character or was affiliated with the government. (see also Index: ordination)

According to vinaya rules, entry into the sangha is an individual affair, dependent upon the wishes of the individual and his family. In some Buddhist countries, however, ordination was often under the control of the state, and the state conducted the examinations to determine entry or advancement in the sangha. In certain situations ordination could be obtained not only through such examinations but also by the favour of high officials or through the purchase of an ordination certificate from the government. This selling of ordination certificates was at times abused by the government in order to fill its treasury.

The life of a Buddhist monk was originally one of wandering, poverty, begging, and strict sexual abstinence. The monks were supposed to live only on alms, to wear clothes made from cloth taken from rubbish heaps, and to possess only three robes, one girdle, an alms bowl, a razor, a needle, and a water strainer used to filter insects from the drinking water (so as not to kill or imbibe them). Most Buddhist schools still stress celibacy, although some groups, particularly in Tibet and Japan, have relaxed the monastic discipline, and some Vajrayana schools have allowed sexual intercourse as an esoteric ritual that contributes to the attainment of release. Begging, however, has tended in all schools to become merely a symbolic gesture used to teach humility or compassion or to raise funds for special purposes. Also, the growth of large monasteries has often led to compromises on the rule of poverty. While the monk might technically give up his property before entering the monastery--although even this rule is sometimes relaxed--the community of monks might inherit wealth and receive lavish gifts of land. This acquisition of wealth has led at times not only to a certain neglect of the Buddhist monastic ideal but also to the attainment of temporal power. This factor, in addition to the self-governing nature of Buddhist monasteries and the early Buddhist connection with Indian kingship, has influenced the interaction of the sangha and the state. (see also Index: asceticism)


Though Buddhism is sometimes described as a purely monastic, otherworldly religion, this is not accurate. In the earliest phases of the tradition the Buddha was pictured as a teacher who addressed not only renouncers but lay householders as well. Moreover, although he is not depicted in the early texts as a social reformer, he does address issues of social order and responsibility. (See, for example, the famous Sigalovada Sutta which has been called the "householder's vinaya.")

Throughout Buddhist history, Buddhists have put forth varying forms of social ethics based on notions of karmic justice (the "law" that good deeds will be rewarded with happy results while evil deeds will entail suffering for the one who does them); the cultivation of virtues such as self-giving, compassion, and evenhandedness; and the fulfillment of responsibilities to parents, teachers, rulers, and so on. Moreover, Buddhists have formulated various notions of cosmogony, cosmology, and soteriology that have provided legitimacy for the social hierarchies and political orders with which they have been associated. For the most part, Buddhism has played a conservative, moderating role in the social and political organization of various Asian societies, but the tradition has on occasion given rise to more radical and revolutionary movements as well.

Over the course of Buddhism's long history, the relationship between the Buddhist community and state authority has taken many forms. The early Buddhist sangha in India appears to have been treated by Indian rulers as a self-governing unit not subject to their power unless it proved subversive or was threatened by internal or external disruption. Ashoka, the Buddhist king whose personal faith and prestige helped Buddhism grow from a regional to a universal religion, appears to have been applying this policy of protection from disruption when he intervened in Buddhist monastic affairs to expel schismatics. He came to be remembered, however, as the Dharmaraja, the great king who protected and propagated the teachings of the Buddha. (see also Index: church and state)

In Theravada countries Ashoka's image as a supporter and sponsor of the faith has traditionally been used to judge political authority. In general, Buddhism in Theravada countries has been either heavily favoured or officially recognized by the government, so that the golden age in which there is a creative interaction between the government and the monks has been viewed as an obtainable goal. The sangha's role in this interaction has traditionally been to preserve the dhamma and to act as the spiritual guide and model, revealing to the secular power the need for furthering the welfare of the people. While the sangha and the government appear as two separate structures, there has been some intertwining; for monks (often of royal heritage) have commonly acted as temporal advisers, and the kings--at least in Thailand--occasionally have spent some time in the monastery. It should also be pointed out that Buddhist monastic institutions have served as a link between the rural peoples and the urban elites, helping to unify the various Theravada countries.

In China the relationship between the sangha and the state has fluctuated. At times Buddhism has been seen as a foreign religion, as a potential competitor with the state, or as a drain on national resources of men and wealth. These perceptions have led to sharp purges of Buddhism and to rules curbing its influence. Some of the rules attempted to limit the number of monks and to guarantee governmental influence in ordination through state examinations and the granting of ordination certificates. At other times, such as during the early centuries of the T'ang dynasty (618-845), Buddhism was almost considered the state religion. The government created a commissioner of religion to earn merit for the state by erecting temples, monasteries, and images in honour of the Buddha.

In Japan, Buddhism has experienced similar fluctuations. During the period from the 10th to the 13th century, monasteries gained great landed wealth and temporal power. They formed large armies of monks and mercenaries that took part in wars with rival religious groups as well as in temporal struggles. By the 14th century, however, their power began to wane, and, under the Tokugawa regime that took control in the 17th century, Buddhist institutions became, to a considerable degree, instruments of state power and administration.

Only in Tibet did Buddhists establish a theocratic polity that lasted for an extended period of time. Beginning in the 12th century, Tibetan monastic groups developed relationships with the powerful Mongol khans that often gave them control of governmental affairs in Tibet. In the 17th century the Dge-lugs-pa school, working with the Mongols, established a monastic regime that was able to maintain more or less continual control until the Chinese occupation in the 1950s.

During the immediate premodern period, each of the various Buddhist communities in Asia developed some kind of working relationship with the sociopolitical system in its particular area. Within the sweep of Western colonialism and especially after the establishment of new political ideologies and political systems during the 19th and 20th centuries, these older patterns of accommodation between Buddhism and state authority were seriously challenged. In many cases bitter conflicts resulted--for example, between Buddhists and colonial regimes in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, between Buddhists and the Meiji reformers in Japan, and between Buddhists and many different communist regimes. In some cases, as in Japan, these conflicts have been resolved and new modes of accommodation have been established. In other cases, such as that of Tibet, there has been no resolution. 


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