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  • Institutional AuthorityA Buddhist Perspective
  • Dhammanandā Bhikkhunī (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh)

Rules and Authority in the Early Days of the Saṅgha

After the Buddha gained enlightenment, he addressed the group of five people (pañcavaggīya) with whom he had once practiced austerities. Kondañña became enlightened, and eventually the whole group of five became enlightened, one after another. There was no need then to set any rules for them to follow, as they were all enlightened.

In these early days, there was no material gain in the monastic lifestyle. People walked the monastic path out of sheer commitment. They were serious in pursuing their own spiritual path. As time went by, the teaching of the Buddha became more popular and his followers increased. Even then the Buddha did not think it was necessary to lay down any monastic rules (vinaya). This was clear when he turned down a proposal from Sāriputta, his immediate disciple, that he should lay down some rules.

Monastic rules came into existence only when specific problems arose in the community for consideration. The very first rule was laid down because Sudinna, a young monk, had sex with his own wife when he visited his parents’ home and was urged toward this by his mother so that she could have a grandchild to continue the family lineage. Sudinna, having met his mother’s request, was disturbed in conscience. As the days went by, he became pale and thin. When his friends asked what was wrong, he told them what was bothering him. The Buddha then laid down the first pārājika (defeat—action that requires expulsion from the Order) for bhikkhus (monks) and bhikkhuṇīs (nuns): that they should not have any sexual relationships. In settings such as this, rules started to come into existence.

Even at the First Council, I do not think that the complete pātimokkha,1 as the bhikkhus and bhikkhuṇīs now have it, was in existence. It should be remembered that the Buddha gave permission for the modification of minor rules if the monastic saṅgha (community) should agree.2 At the First Council, however, the five hundred arahats could not agree as to which could be considered major and minor rules. As [End Page 147] a result, Mahā Kassapa, the chief monk, who presided over the council, proposed that all should be kept intact. That has become solidified and is now normative for Theravāda Buddhism.

In the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta, in the chapter on the last journey of the Buddha from Sāvatthi to Kusinagar, it is recorded that Ānanda, the Buddha’s attendant and cousin, asked the Buddha if he was going to choose anyone to lead the saṅgha after his passing away. The Buddha replied very clearly that he had given the dhamma and vinaya as dīpa (an island) for the bhikkhus and bhikkhuṇīs to follow. The sutta makes it very clear that the Buddha did not intend to appoint anyone to hold a position of complete authority.

I would venture to say that if the Buddha had not made this point clear, Ānanda would have been given a natural position of authority after the Buddha had gone. After all, Ānanda had followed the Buddha, serving him, learning and absorbing the dhamma from him, continuously for twenty-five years of the Buddha’s life. He was the only one praised for being foremost (etadagga) with many abilities, for instance the ability to remember most of the Buddha’s teaching. He was indeed qualified for the position. We read also that during the three months between the passing away of the Buddha and the First Council, people were already seeking him out as their spiritual guide. The only drawback was that, during the Buddha’s lifetime, he was not enlightened. However, he attained enlightenment just in time for him to participate in the First Council, which five hundred arahats are recorded as attending.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, if disagreement arose in the saṅgha, the case was always brought to the Buddha, who, having called both parties together, would settle the case in front of them...