Mar Ngok Summer Teachings 2022: Day 1
1 August 2022
To open the long awaited 5 weeks of summer teachings, His Holiness the Karmapa welcomed the Sangha and international community with warmth and a quiet radiance. In the previous year, he reflected, he had covered many topics: the spread of Indian civilization, the Vedic period, the view and philosophy in the Upanishads, how the Buddha appeared in the world and turned the wheel of dharma, and how the teachings spread, particularly in the time of the Emperor Ashoka.
This year, he continued, we would look into Early or Original Buddhism from the Buddha’s enlightenment and turning the wheel of dharma, to its division into two main schools. It covers 9 stages:
- The formation of the sangha, vinaya discipline, and monastics
- The first council: how the scriptures of early Buddhism developed (sutras and vinaya)
- Buddhism after the Buddha’s parinirvana
- The second council and the split into the main schools
- The age of Emperor Ashoka (the third council)
- The contents of the scriptures
- The texts of early Buddhism
- Points of early Buddhism related to secret mantra
- The date of the Buddha’s parinirvana
If time permitted, the Karmapa added, he would extend the coverage to the 18 different schools of Buddhism and the spread of the Mahayana.
The origin of the Buddhist sangha and the application of vinaya discipline
The Fourfold Community
The Buddha’s followers were both householders and monastics. The Sanskrit name for householders or devoted laypeople who have taken refuge is upāsaka and upāsikā, to denote male and female respectively. However, there is a discussion whether an upāsaka is simply one who has taken refuge or one who in addition holds the five precepts. In Tibetan, the term used is ‘genyen’, meaning ‘approaching virtue’. According to the Grammar in Two Volumes, an early translation period text, the term ‘approaching virtue’ denotes someone who has both taken refuge and also holds the five precepts. Thus, they are ‘approaching virtue’ on the path of the arhat. The Japanese scholar Hirakawa Akira suggests an additional meaning: someone who attends or serves. The householders serve the monastics, providing them with the necessities of life from their own livelihood, and in return depend on monastics for guidance and dharma teachings. He maintains that laypeople received the name from the moment when they went for refuge to the Three Jewels.
According to the Treasury of Abhidharma, two traditions, the Aparāntika Vaibhashika and the Kashmiri Vaibhashika, so-called because of geographical locations in central India and in Kashmir, maintained a person became upāsaka or upāsikā at the point of taking refuge. Those who had the strongest faith and devotion took the five precepts as an additional step.
Male and female monastics are called bhikshus and bhikshunis respectively, the equivalent of the Tibetan ‘gelong’ and ‘gelongma’ ie ‘requesting virtue’. According to the Grammar in Two Volumes, those who are motivated by and seek nirvana, who are fully ordained by the ‘four-part motion with a request’ (ref Upacara ritual) and who live on alms in accord with the dharma are called bhikshus. However, Hirakawa Akira says that bhikshus are first and foremost mendicants, that is, someone who begs for alms but is not a beggar. Their sustenance comes from the offerings of devoted laypeople so that they can focus single-pointedly on dharma practice.
In order to become a bhikshu, one must take the 253 vows of full ordination, and abide by their strict discipline. The combined group of bhikshus, bhikshunis, (male and female monastics) upāsakas, and upāsikā (male and female lay practitioners) is called the fourfold community of Buddhism.
Put simply, the Buddhist sangha is an assembly of people with faith in the Dharma who gather with the aim of practicing the teachings. In the early Buddhist period the term sangha included only the monastics, not householders. There were separate bhikshu and bhikshuni sanghas. But if we use the term loosely, the fourfold community can all be called the sangha.
The Sanskrit word saṃgha was translated into Tibetan as ‘dge ’dun’ (gendun) and requires a gathering of at least four bhikshus [or bhikshunis]
Why is it called the sangha? A sangha is an assembly; a gathering of many bhikshus in a single place. For example, an assembly of many great trees is called a forest, but the individual trees are not called forests, but without any of the trees, the forest disappears. Likewise, individual bhikshus are not called a sangha, but without any bhikshus, the sangha disappears. An assembly of many bhikshus is called a sangha.
(commentary on the Hundred Thousand Line Prajnaparamita attributed to Nagarjuna)
Under the dual sanghas of bhikshu and bhikshuni, the male and female sanghas lived separately, each administering and taking responsibility for its own upkeep. Because of this self-containment, it was the bhikshus and bhikshunis who were recognized as ‘the sangha’, rather than all four parts of the community.
The term ‘sangha’ means an ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ so an individual cannot be called a sangha, only a ‘member of a sangha’. This meaning is not so clear in the Tibetan gendun.
The term ‘sangha’ is not limited to a Buddhist context. At the time of the Buddha, political and business groups in India were called sanghas. Similarly, there were religious sanghas in Hindu Brahmanism, Jainism, and in the ascetic traditions such as those of Ālara Kālāma and Udraka Rāmaputra, both of whom were Prince Siddhartha’s gurus before he became the Buddha. In the texts, the term gaṇa was also used for an assembly, particularly in the term bodhisattva-gaṇa, the assembly of bodhisattvas.
Harmony within the Sangha: Saṃpratipanna
In the words of the Chinese Master Viśeṣamitra (Compendium of the Vinaya (Vinayasaṁgraha): “Harmony” is of six types—signs, actions, discipline, view, ritual, and lifestyles—so that they are the same in flavour.‘’ Normally, we speak about the “blessings of the indivisible wishes of the sangha,” the Karmapa commented.
This means that they cannot be separated or distinguished in terms of these six qualities of harmony and the wish for virtue. Thus in Tibetan, sangha is translated as gendun, “wishing for virtue.” When we say, “the noble sangha, supreme of assemblies”, that also distinguishes it from societies of ordinary people in terms of the six qualities.
Similarly, in the Sutra of the Recollection of the Three Jewels:
It is worthy of joined palms. It is worthy of prostration. It is a glorious field of merit. It is the great purification of alms. It is always a great object of generosity.
These six qualities are not often discussed within the Tibetan tradition, His Holiness explained, but this ‘harmony’ is the foundation for the worthiness of the sangha, a gathering of individuals sharing the same aims and focus on virtue. It distinguishes it from all other sanghas.
It is said that discipline brings harmony and harmony in the sangha is happiness. ‘’It is important that this not be mere words but that we actually put it into practice,” the Karmapa emphasized.
Just before the break the Karmapa shared his thoughts about the current global situation:
No one knows what’s happening in the world; so many wars, sickness. I think it’s good to recite prayers. During the intermission we will recite the Praises to the Twenty-One Taras. Each week we will recite a different prayer.
The Growth of the Sangha
The earliest Buddhist sangha were the five followers who gathered when the Buddha gave his first teaching at Rishipatana Deer Park in Sarnath. They are called the ‘‘good group of five.’’ Kirti and his four brothers became the “next group of five,” followed by five youths in Varanasi who went forth and took full ordination. After that came the ‘’good group of sixty’’. Subsequently, Urubilvā Kāśyāpa, a non-Buddhist teacher, led one thousand of his students to go for refuge in the Buddha.
When great bhikshus like Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, and Maha Kaśyāpa joined, the foundations of the sangha community were firmly established. Later King Bimbisāra, one of the most important monarchs in India at that time, and the householder Anathapindada, a wealthy merchant, added their influence and sponsorship, and within a few years of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the sangha reached a considerable size. The Tibetan Vinaya scriptures record that when King Bimbisara sponsored the sangha, there were 1253 bhikshus.
The Prerequisites and Procedures for Going Forth
Almost everyone was allowed to enter the community of the sangha, without distinction of caste or social status. However, there were a few requirements, although much less than the 20 required for full ordination. One must be at least seven years old, with permission from living parents, and must have the permission of their master or lord if they are a government worker, soldier, slave, and not be in debt. Those with severe illnesses, impaired faculties or disabled, and the extremely aged were also barred. The sangha had to uphold high standards and be able to practice uninterruptedly without outside interference to achieve a sufficient level of meditation. These prerequisites would also prevent those who might go forth solely for the sake of food and clothing.
They would repeat the refuge three times in the presence of the elder members of the sangha and make a commitment to uphold the ten precepts or vows, after which they would become members of that sangha or assembly. The Buddha said that the śramaneras (which can refer to either novices or bhikshus) must primarily keep the ten precepts or śramanera vows. The ten precepts are to give up taking life, taking that which is not given, unchaste conduct, major lies, alcohol, high and elaborate seats, perfume and jewelry; song and dance, accepting gold and silver, and food at inappropriate times. These ten precepts are the most important among all the precepts. In addition, there are restrictions, such as shaving one’s head and facial hair, wearing the three dharma robes, and wearing very plain clothing.
The Sequence of Ordination
After a novice had lived within the sangha and reached the age of twenty, if they met the prerequisites, they could be given full ordination. At first, it was the Buddha himself who gave the vows, but later, as the sangha grew and began to reach out to people in remote lands, the Buddha designated others to give vows. Some people coming from far away were besieged by bandits and predatory animals. At this point the Buddha made a rule that one could take the bhikshu vows by reciting the promise to keep the vows three times in the presence of three elders of the sangha. That is how the early ritual evolved into a very simple ceremony.
The new bhikshu would be assigned a particular mentor, a khenpo or upadhyaya, as well as a tutor or acharya to look after them; in some cases, the younger ones became homesick and then the khenpo and tutor took the place of parents. The relationship would continue for ten years while the khenpo would teach the Vinaya from memory, the scriptures and meditation. Ordinarily, the khenpo would take the main responsibility for guiding the novice. At times when the khenpo was absent, the tutor would take over.
The khenpo had to care for the student like his own son, and the student had to serve the khenpo like his father. They had to eat together, and care for each other when they became ill. In brief, they had to help each other as they lived a life of practicing dharma.
Six years after his enlightenment, the Buddha went to his homeland and was greeted by a Brahmin called Udāyī. The Buddha appointed Shariputra to be his khenpo and thus established a new method for ordaining bhikshus, known as the upacāra ritual. From that time on, a gathering of the whole sangha community was not needed and one could ‘go forth’ with an assembly of ten bhikshus. In due course, when even ten bhikshus were unable to gather in a remote area, the Buddha reduced the number to five.
The person taking the vows first had to explain clearly their aim for taking bhikshu ordination to the sangha. This is called the request. The person who chaired the assembly was called the ‘master of the action’. One of the bhikshus, called the private questioner, would examine whether the postulant met all the prerequisites. Then they would recite the refuge prayer three times. That sequence was called the “the “four-part action with a request”. The khenpo had to prepare an alms bowl and the three dharma robes as well as arrange the requisite number of bhikshus. Then they would find a suitable place to take full ordination.
The Three Dharma Robes
A bhikshu had to wear three different types of dharma robes, called tricīvaram : a robe for the upper body, a robe to wear on the lower body, and the saṇghāṭī [Tib.namjar] or outer robe to be worn on top. According to the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya in the Tibetan canon, the saṇghāṭī outer robe was only to be worn only by bhiksus on seven particular occasions. When it was not being worn, it was to be respected and kept in a safe place. All three dharma robes must be so plain that no one could feel attachment to them. Monastic robes had to made by sewing together scraps of fabrics which had been thrown out as useless, or they were made from fabric cut into small pieces offered by devotees and then sewn back together. No brand name, and nothing striking to attract attention.
The Japanese scholar Hirakawa Akira asserts that monastic robes must be dyed a light brown color called kāsāya before use. According to the Tibetan Mulasarvastivada vinaya, only robes that are red, yellow, and blue may be worn, and the dyes must not be bright. But if a donor gives a very brightly colored cloth, it should be washed three times in water, and if it still has not faded, it may be worn without fault. (One does not see monastics wearing blue).
Tibetan texts on the vinaya, give an idea of the measurements: the lower robe must be five panels or pieces in length, the upper robe seven, and the saṇghāti between nine and twenty-five. In width, lower robes must be one and a half panels; the upper robe and saṇghati must be two and a half panels.
These days we don’t see the robes that were worn by early Buddhists. The closest would be the Theravadans in Sri Lanka, Thailand, or Laos. Tibetan robes are fairly similar to the original. The least similar are the Chinese robes.
The Sangha’s Food and Lodging
One of the distinguishing features of the early Buddhist Sangha was the requirement to go on alms rounds to obtain food. It was a demanding practice: to be satisfied merely to have one’s stomach filled, not to pick and choose, not to criticize the quality of food or discuss likes and dislikes.
According to a citation in the Pali Vinaya, they were to avoid rich households, but the Tibetan scriptures shunned this kind of discrimination. Alms should be asked without distinction between rich or poor, eaten to the last bite, and finished before solar noon. They were allowed to eat meat on condition that they had not seen, heard, or suspected the animal was slaughtered for their sake. As each family had to kill one of their domestic animals to have meat it was important to enquire. Or they could eat meat in place of medicine if they were sick. Furthermore, they ate only once a day, a “single seat.” If they were healthy, they were not allowed to drink milk, milk porridge, or milk products, because these were considered fine foods.
The lifestyle at the time was very difficult compared to now, the Karmapa commented.
As for lodging, when bhikshus were traveling and there was no place prepared ahead of time for them to stay, they had to sleep outside, frequently under trees. Except during the monsoon in India, it rains infrequently, so even if they had to sleep under trees it was not too difficult. There were some in the sangha who on their own initiative lived an even more ascetic lifestyle. Later, the twelve qualities of training in asceticism were compiled and given the name of dhūtaguṇa: staying in solitude, subsisting on alms, and so on. The elder Mahakāśyapa was well known for keeping the qualities of training.
It was similar to Milarepa’s asceticism, Karmapa concluded.
The Karmapa reflected on how difficult this would be if monastics at the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo in Bodhgaya had to abide by these rules and go on alms rounds to the local Indian villages. They would be taking food from poor people in ragged clothing contrasting with the fine clean robes of the monks. Now if we try to do these ascetic practices it would be considered strange. Indian society and current society are completely different. We have to fit in with our society.
At this the Karmapa concluded the first day of teaching.