By Bhante Sujato
We think of Buddhism as a way of peace and love, a philosophy and way of life guided by the highest of principles. So it can be a little surprising to find that the Buddhist texts deal quite extensively with matters of legalistic procedures, collected mainly in the body of monastic law known as the Vinaya. Such dry monastic rules seem outdated and fussy, and often weirdly irrelevant. But the Vinaya is a crucial record, for it systematically shows how the wisdom of enlightenment is applied in a practical down-to-earth manner, especially in how to run a community. What’s extraordinary is not that a 2,500 year old code is partly outdated, but that so much of it is still relevant.
One of the overriding concerns of the Vinaya is to provide a framework for building a harmonious community. And it is here that, in my view, the Vinaya is most valuable, and at the same time, most overlooked. It is no exaggeration to say that, while it is easy to find communities that insist on the most trivial rules on how to wear robes or who to bow to, it is almost impossible to find any community that takes seriously the Buddha’s guidelines for how to run a community. Almost!
The Buddha was faced with a difficult organizational problem. The Sangha owned monasteries, and running them was a task requiring a decent amount of organization. There were meals to be arranged, buildings to put up and then maintain, sweeping to be done, students to be mentored, robes to be patched, storerooms to be looked after, and so on. But Buddhist monks and nuns have an inbuilt wanderlust: they really don’t like to stay put too long. So how can we arrange for some stability in a monastery when people are always changing? Moreover, the monasteries were spread out over a vast area, with no way of quickly communicating between them. How can decisions be made with authority when the monastery belongs to the “Sangha”, but the Sangha is a distributed entity?
He solved this by a introducing a number of key management principles. These require that the focus of running a monastery shifts from a person to a principle. This is, of course, the same idea that underlies modern democracies. In the Buddha’s case, though, it meant that he had to set the example by taking himself out of the picture. He had to empower his followers to make key decisions independently. The foremost of such decisions is the ability to ordain. This is the basis for the very existence of the Sangha. In the first chapter of the Vinaya Khandhakas, therefore, he delegated the authority to ordain to the Sangha.
As the Sangha is spread out across the Ganges valley, however, decision-making soon becomes unwieldy. If it is the Sangha that makes decisions, how can we get the whole Sangha on board? This is addressed in the second chapter of the Khandhakas, which outlines the procedure for the “sabbath” or uposatha to be held each fortnight, and which must include all members of the Sangha. Now, within the Sangha, everyone is equal. All decisions should be made by consensus, with all members agreeing. If even the most junior Sangha member objects to an ordination or other procedure, it cannot go ahead. There is no additional power or authority that comes with seniority or status within the Sangha. As a general rule, senior Sangha members ought to be treated with respect and their advice listened to. But the final decision comes from the members, and is based on absolute equality.
For this purpose, the Sangha is defined as all monks or nuns who are included within the local monastery boundary (sīmā). Thus the Sangha is delegated authority; all Sangha members are equal; and such authority may be fully wielded by each local Sangha, so long as all of the monks or nuns of the local area are included.
Note that, in saying “monks or nuns” I mean to indicate that it must be either monks or nuns, not both; the Vinaya does not envisage monks and nuns making formal decisions together, except in a few special cases. The separation of Sangha for decision making is obviously a problematic issue, but it is, I think, important to acknowledge that that is how the Vinaya is. It enables the nuns communities to make their own independent decisions, over which monks have no say and no power. Given the patriarchal nature of decision-making in most human forums even to this day, it is not unreasonable to suppose that, were monks and nuns to make decisions together, the normal situation would be that the nuns get overridden or ignored and end up as mere voices of assent to the monks’ wishes. So the advantage of having a separate forum is that the nuns can make their own decisions. The disadvantage, or one disadvantage, is that there is no general forum provided in the Vinaya where issues relevant to both monks and nuns can be discussed and decided. That doesn’t mean that such decisions can’t be made; it just means that they don’t have the authority of the Vinaya.
So, the entire community of either monks or nuns must be included in any decision. But that is not all that is required. The local community does not simply have a fiat to decide whatever they want. No: any decision they make must accord with the teaching and the monastic code. This is a principle known as sammukhavinaya “resolution in the presence”, which is the most fundamental and universal principle of all Sangha procedures. It is defined in Kd 14, the Samathakhandhaka, which states that any decision or dispute must be resolved “in the presence of” four things:
- The monastic community included within the local boundary.
- The principles of the Dhamma.
- The procedures laid down in the Vinaya.
- The individual or individuals concerned.
In MN 104 Sāmagāmasutta the Buddha describes how such a procedure should operate:
And how is there resolution in the presence of those concerned? It’s when mendicants are disputing: ‘This is the teaching,’ ‘This is not the teaching,’ ‘This is the training,’ ‘This is not the training.’ Those mendicants should all sit together in harmony and thoroughly go over the guidelines of the teaching. They should settle that disciplinary issue in agreement with the guidelines.
These are critical and central principles to how the Sangha should operate, and yet we find that in much of the modern Sangha they are systematically ignored. Decisions are made about people who are not present. Or they are based on local customs or traditions. Or they fail to observe the principles of the teaching. Or they are based on the ideas of a council appointed by worldly authority. Or decisions are made by a senior monastic, disregarding the views of the rest of the Sangha. Such decisions are illegitimate and have no authority in Vinaya. The responsibility falls on the Sangha to resist such corruptions by insisting on properly organized and implemented Sangha decisions, based on a consensus of all monks or nuns within the boundary.
If consensus fails, the Sangha has a fallback procedure, yebhuyyasika or majority decision. They should go to another, larger monastery, and bring the matter to the community there. Intractable problems may be settled by the majority decision in such a case.
All these procedures sound, I’ll be the first to admit, like a bit of a nightmare. I guess that many of you may have participated in an organization that tries to make decisions based on consensus, only to find yourself consumed in endless meetings and discussions. The Buddha avoids this by a simple means: the appointment of Sangha officers. Essentially, the Sangha decides in consensus to appoint a certain one of their members to look after a particular office, such as looking after guests, managing the storeroom, or arranging meals. Once an officer has been appointed, they have authority to act and make decisions in their sphere. This is, of course, subject to the guidelines of the Vinaya and any decisions made by the Sangha as a whole; but generally, a Sangha officer can and should proceed to carry out their duties without referring to the wider Sangha. No other monk or nun, even the most senior, has any authority to countermand the Sangha officer within their field of duty. If there is any dispute in this, it should be brought back to the Sangha for discussion and settlement. This system means that duities can be carried out in a monastery quite efficiently, and extended meetings are usually limited to a discussion at the fortnightly uposatha.
I’m aware that all this sounds uncomfortably legalistic. No-one joins the Sangha because they want to litigate with the people they live with. But this is where the second principle of sammukhavinaya comes into play: Vinaya procedurs must follow the principles of the Dhamma, which teaches kindness, respect, and forgiveness. The Vinaya, in fact, includes many examples where the Buddha urges against legalistic and litigious behavior. The Sangha is urged to avoid carrying out disciplinary measures, especially against those who are new and tender in faith. If measures cannot be avoided, they should be carried out as gently as possible and settled as swiftly as possible. Any “punishments” are mild and reasonable, usually requiring only that the guilty party cease their actions and ask forgiveness.
Monks or nuns who frequently raise legal issues in the Sangha are frowned upon, while those who participate in Sangha life with humility and kindness are praised. It is an unfortunate fact of life that not everyone does the right thing all the time. And sometimes we need a formal means of dealing with such situations. These procedures act as a final measure to protect against abusive or corrupt behavior, so that the bulk of the well-behaved monks or nuns are not harmed by the misbehavior of the few.
The Vinaya urges the cultivation of friendly and loving support among the Sangha. Junior monastics should look upon their mentors as a mother or father, while the seniors should see the juniors as their children. The Sangha should always regard each other with kindly eyes, mixing like milk and water, ever on the lookout for how they can make each others’ lives easier. This extends even to simple things like sharing the contents of the alms-food that you receive in your bowl. But it also means that sometimes it is necessary to undertake legal proceedings to curb the behavior of certain individuals. This should never be done out of malice or jealousy, but only to protect the community, and individuals concerned. If people are willing to acknowledge their fault and mend their ways, the matter is settled and the community can move on. So long as the principle of kindness and forgiveness are foremost, we can avoid the necessity for legal proceedings.