Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo

Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo

Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo

Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo

Synopsis

In this book, Richard Gombrich shows how Theravada Buddism has affected and been afected by its social surroundings. He explains what the Buddha owed to his predecessors and what he was arguing against. Many issues are raised and discussed.The Buddha preached in north-east India in about the fifth-century BC. He claimed that human beings are responsible for their own salvation, and put foward a new ideal of the holy life, establishing a monastic Order to enable men and women to pursue that ideal. For most of its history the fortunes of Theravada, the most conservative form of Buddhism, have been identified with those of that Order. Under the great Indian emperor, Asoka, himself a Buddhist, Theravada reached Sri Lanka in about 250 BC. There it became the religion of the Sinhala state, and from ther it spread, much later, to Burma and Thailand.In this book, Richard Gombrich, a leading western authority on Buddhism, shows how Theravada Buddhism has affected and been afected by its social surroundings. He explains what the Buddha owed to his predecessors and what he was arguing against. Buddhism began as a largely urban religion, appealing to a new middle class, but in Sri Lanka it became the culture of the agricultural society. In the nineteenth century, British colonial rule, and especially contact with Protestant missions, initaited fundamental change. Now, as Gombrich shows, in independent Sri Lanka the rapid urbanization of an exploding population threatens to schange the religion beyond recognition.

Excerpt

The history of Theravāda Buddhism seen from the point of view taken by the tradition itself (what anthropologists call the 'emic' view) is the history of the Sangha. This virtual identification of the fortunes of a religion with those of its professionals is alien to most religious traditions, even to some strands within Buddhism itself – not least to many educated Buddhists today. But in our view it constitutes the very core of Theravāda Buddhism. in this it is very Indian. Our view of early Indian religion and culture is mainly a brahmin view, because it is brahmins who composed and preserved texts. Similarly, Theravādin tradition is the product of texts composed by, and indeed largely for, monks and nuns. We shall show in chapter 6 that in the Theravādin societies of Ceylon and southeast Asia the Sangha, though remaining unlike brahmins in other ways, played a part analogous to brahmins as the cultural specialists of their society. Though one must not push the comparison between Buddhism and brahminism too far, to look for a lay tradition of Theravāda Buddhism is a misunderstanding of the same kind as looking for a low-caste tradition of brahminism: were it a lay tradition it would not be Theravāda, 'the doctrine of the elders', i.e. of the fully trained members of the Sangha.

To explain the phenomenon in these terms is not, however, to deny its coherence, its logic in terms of Buddhism itself. We have shown above that the Buddha, evidently influenced by his cultural environment, took it almost for granted that the vast majority of those who were serious about . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.