Historic Resonances

I have been taking Ken Ford’s history class at Clouds and we have been studying the book, “A Concise History of Buddhism” by Andrew Skilton. Certain facts have struck me as very contemporary. Finding things in history that are very similar to the current issues in American Buddhism, I find very consoling. It’s not that we have a misunderstanding of Buddhism and its issues but that these problems have a long-standing tradition of being difficult or divisive. Here is some of the information that I found resonated with contemporary problems.

Precept Recitation

The development of Sangha happened after the Buddha died when disciples may or may not have had direct contact with the person Shakyamuni Buddha. Because disciples now learned the dharma from other people, the founders added the idea of Sangha as being part of the triple treasure. In these early years, the sangha congealed by having bi-monthly meetings where they had a formal recitation of the precepts, the vinaya and confession. Otherwise they were independent wandering monks. This has supported my feelings that our monthly precept recitation is very important and one of the centerpieces of a contemporary non-monastic sangha.

Urban and country centers

The early sanghas began making buildings. I found it very interesting that there were two types of meeting places for the monks. An Avasas was a building built for the sangha in the country to live in. An Aramas was a building built by the laypeople in the city to help ease the collection of alms for the monks. From the very beginning of our history, there were urban lay oriented centers, and monastic living quarters in the country. During this time there was a great change in style from wandering monks to monastics.

Diversity in Doctrine

What I see happening currently is a great diversity in how people are interpreting Buddhism. The way to practice, and adjustments to monastic and lay life, are arising as Buddhism meets the Western Culture. What I found in my reading is that this happened after Buddha died in the beginning of the codification of Buddhism and throughout the evolution of Buddhism.

Buddhist diversity in the early years (from Skilton) was caused by various factors:

  1. Buddha did not appoint one successor
  2. The sangha itself had a non-centralized structure
  3. The Buddha specifically advised that his disciples remain as islands to themselves.
  4. Isolated community made it easier to have different interpretations
  5. The Buddha himself encouraged diversity as he refused to allow his teaching to be standardized into a particular dialect or format
    1. Different languages certainly attributed to different understandings
  6. Ambiguity in the original teachings when he delivered different teachings according to the individual monk he was teaching
  7. The arising of prominent teachers who had different interpretations of Buddha’s teaching.

The early most debated issues that caused doctrinal divergences.

  • Karma
  • The status of the arhat with the controversy that they were perfectly enlightened or have human faults.
  • The nature of nirvana and of space
  • Whether there was an intermediate existence after death
  • Whether insight occurs instantaneously or gradually
  • Whether the mind is inherently pure and contaminated only by adventitious defilements