Taking up the Homeless Life (…unless you are in the Army)

The Buddha seems to have had friendly relations with the kings of his time.  Growing up the son of a rāja (head governor or president of a republic), the young Siddhattha must have spent numerous hours with his father learning the ways of governance and diplomacy. Also, it seems that holy people were highly respected. There are many stories of the Buddha arriving in an area only to have the king come down to greet him (not the other way around) with a large retinue in tow.

This respect manifested in a special legal status for the Sangha. It seems that the kings respected the Sangha as autonomous, with a separate code of conduct and punishment outside secular jurisdiction. As Schumann states, “Bimbisāra of Magadha issued express instructions to his officials to take no action against mendicants of the Buddha’s Order who might commit offences.”

But this separation of the law of the Sangha from the law of the land became strained when matters of security were at issue. In particular, on some occasions when a king wanted to send soldiers out to a disputed territory, it seems that more than a few of them decided to take up the homeless life instead. This threatened the jurisdiction and security of the King and the land by thinning out the forces meant to protect both.

In light of this, King Bimbisāra went to the Blessed One and requested that members of the royal service not be allowed to be given the going forth (into the homeless life).  The Blessed One consented to this request.  He used the occasion to introduce another code of conduct for the Sangha: no member of the royal service should be given the going forth (into the homeless life); doing so is an offense of wrongdoing.

As we have seen, the Buddha refused allowing the sick into the Sangha and now, with this instruction, he also refused allowing members of the royal service into the Sangha.  Children were allowed, but only with parental permission.  In each of these cases, it seems that the occasion for the instruction was in large part due to the pleas or strong request of a lay person, not a fellow monk or nun or holy person.

Throughout Schumann’s book, he emphasizes the Buddha’s pragmatic role in building the Sangha.  It was very important to maintain good relations with the Kings and the lay people.  Since the monks and nuns were travelers, it was to their benefit to not be restricted in their travels.  Since they relied on the lay people for alms food, it was to their benefit to be on good terms with them. In return, the monks and nuns offered instruction in the Dhamma and the opportunity for making merit.  Surely, considerations such as these operated in the background as the Buddha considered a request to limit the actions of the Sangha.

Practical considerations are an important part of the Buddha Way. In the Korean tradition, a wooden instrument (called a ‘moktak’) is used during some of the chants. If I use one at home, then I can surely expect calls from neighbors complaining about the loud banging at six in the morning! A practical solution to avoid conflict: do not use the moktak or cover it with a large sock to dampen the sound.

Of course, in some cases, perhaps continuing to use the moktak would be the thing to do.  Not every request should be accepted.  In cases such as these, however, we must be careful.  Are we working for the relief of suffering of all beings?  Or are we working to reinforce our sense of practice and the way it should be?

A delicate dance, not always obvious, not always easy, but exciting and enlivening and pointed in the direction of joyful ease and relief of suffering!  Thank you for reading With(out) Bounds!

(Note: This account of the Sangha and its legal status is paraphrased from H. W. Schumann’s The Historical Buddha (tr. M. O’C. Walshe), pages 153 – 154.  References to Pāli Canon sources can be found there.)

3 thoughts on “Taking up the Homeless Life (…unless you are in the Army)”

  1. I once went to a Buddhist center in central California to do a 3 week solo retreat. My cabin was not too far from a house where some of the center’s residents slept.

    The retreat schedule included midnight practice, which always began with bowing and then chanting. The residents of the house didn’t appreciate the resonate sound of moktak at 12:30 am and sent a note asking if I could not use it. No problem. In fact, chanting at that early hour seemed even lovelier!

    Our practice can be extraordinarily spacious and wide, if our minds can also be like that. The Buddha was the model!

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