Doing Business for the Lord: Lending on Interest and Written Loan Contracts in the Mulasarvastivada-Vinaya

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It is probably fair to say that there has been very little discussion in Western scholarship about how Indian Buddhist monasteries paid their bills. It is possible, of course, that this is in part because money and monks have had, to be sure, an unhappy history in the West - at least as that history has often been written - and the topic may, therefore, be considered somehow unedifying.(1) It may also be true, as Peter Levi's "Study of Monks and Monasteries" suggests, that we like our monasteries in "ruins," as "landscape decorations and garden ornaments." "That," Levi says, "is because the ruins of monasteries speak more clearly than the real inhabited places."(2)

However this be eventually settled, it appears that this reticence or romanticism has worked less forcefully in regard to the study of China. Why this was so is again uncertain, but one effect of it is not: much that a student of Indian monastic Buddhism might find surprising in the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya, for example, will be old hat to economic and legal historians of China. A particularly good instance of this sort of thing occurs in the Civara-vastu of the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya where we find the following passage: tatra bhagavan bhiksun amantrayate sma. bhajayata yuyam bhiksava upanandasya bhiksor mrtapariskaram iti. bhiksubhih samghamadhye avatarya vikriya bhajitam. On one level the meaning of this passage is straightforward: "In this case the Blessed One said to the monks: `You, monks, must divide the estate of the dead monk Upananda!' The monks, having brought it and having sold it in the midst of the community, divided (the proceeds)."(3) It looks here like there was a kind of `public' sale or auction of the belongings of a dead monk that was held by the monks, and that what was realized from this sale was then distributed to the monks in attendance.

Although there is, in fact, a second reference to "selling" the goods of a deceased monk in this same passage, this procedure, seen through the eyes of an Indianist, will almost certainly appear unusual. But readers of J. Gernet's remarkable Les Aspects economiques du bouddhisme dans la societe chinoise du [v.sup.e] au [x.sup.e] siecle will already be familiar with it. In discussing the "partage entre les moines des vetements du defunt" Gernet said - almost forty years ago - that "les documents de Touen-houang nous montrent les religieux d'une meme paroisse ... reunis pour la vente aux encheres des vetements et des pieces de tissu. Les benefices sont ensuite partages entre les moines ..."(4)

Professor Gernet, who for good reason paid less attention to the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins, seems to have thought that "il n'est pas question cependant dans les Vinaya de la vente des vetements des moines morts," and that "seul le Vinaya des Mahasamghika fait une allusion, fort discrete, a ce mode de partage ...," although he himself then quotes short passages from both the Vinaya of the Sarvastivadins and "la Matrka [des Mulasarvastivadin]" which refer to the sale of monastic robes,(5) and Lien-sheng Yang had already some years before noted that "a [Mulasarvastivadin] vinaya text translated in the early T'ang period, however, indicates that in India sale by auction was used to dispose of such personal belongings" of deceased monks.(6) Yang's assertion seems now, in part at least, to be confirmed by the passage from the Civaravastu cited above. that passage does not actually contain a word for `auction', but clearly refers to the sale "in the midst of the community" of a dead monk's possessions, and - although it cannot establish that this was actually practiced in India - it does confirm that Mulasarvastivadin vinaya masters thought it should, or hoped it would.

Such confirmation from an extant Sanskrit text is, of course, welcome, but perhaps a more important point is that without the work of sinologists the significance of the Civara-vastu passage might very easily be missed. …