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Buddhist Monasticism

Monasticism (the sangha) has been a central practice of Buddhism since the very beginning.

In the earliest days of Buddhism, there was no organized monastic community, only the followers of the Buddha, and women were among those ordained. It is not known exactly when the practice of ordaining women stopped, but it may have been related to the difficulties associated with travel and accommodation under hazardous conditions.

By the time of the First Council, the monastic community became more structure and certain rituals and rules were established for the sangha. Candidates were to shave their heads and wear a yellow robe. To join the sangha, candidates must pay respect at the feet of ordained monks and declare three times the Three Refuges in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. Around this time, monastic buildings (viharas) began to be constructed to accommodate monks on their journeys.

The rules governing the behavior of monks were originally ten:

  1. No taking of life
  2. No stealing
  3. No sexual intercourse
  4. No lying
  5. No taking of intoxicants
  6. No eating at the wrong time (i.e., after midday)
  7. No dancing or music
  8. No decorations or cosmetics used on the body
  9. No sleeping on raised beds
  10. No acceptance of money.

The first five rules were expected of all Buddhists (with the third precept modified to prohibit wrongful sexual activity). By the time of the Pali canon, the 10 monastic prohibitions expanded into 227 rules. The text containing these regulations is caleld the Patimokkha, which became an integral part of the Vinaya (Conduct) "basket" of the Pali canon.

When Mahakasyapa died shortly after the First Council, Ananda became head of the sangha (Buddhist monastic community). During the 40 years he led the sangha, Buddhism spread throughout India. The Buddha had directed his disciples to teach "for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world," and this his disciples did. Never using violence or coercion, they simply taught others the way to enlightenment.

Early Buddhist evangelism usually consisted of a pair of monks entering a village, going from house to house with their begging bowls until they had enough for the one meal they ate each day. The monks would then return to the outskirts of the town, where they would often be followed by those who had been impressed by their demeanor and wished to talk with them. The monks would share what they knew, then move on to the next village.

The rapid growth of Buddhism probably had much to do with the way the monks conducted themselves. Always peaceful and respectful, the Buddhist monks would speak in the same way and with the same sense of compassion to people of any caste.


John Bowker, ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (Cambridge UP, 2002), p. 80. "Buddhism." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9105944