The Sociology of Early Buddhism

The Sociology of Early Buddhism

The Sociology of Early Buddhism

The Sociology of Early Buddhism

Synopsis

This volume analyzes the remarkable ability of Buddhism to survive within a strong urban environment despite its renunciant nature. Early Buddhism flourished because it was able to take up the challenge represented by buoyant economic conditions and the need for cultural uniformity in the newly emergent states in northeastern India from the fifth century BCE onwards. In spite of the Buddhist ascetic imperative, the Buddha and other celebrated monks moved easily through various levels of society and fitted into the urban landscape they inhabited. The book offers reasons for this apparent inconsistency.

Excerpt

[If a monk] has utterly destroyed every vestige of worldly contamination, if he is not tied to any source of sustenance, if his territory is freedom, then the passing of such a one is hard to trace, like that of birds in the sky.

The idea of total detachment pervading this verse illustrates concisely the fundamental ambience associated with the early Buddhist quest: detachment, freedom from ties, renunciation of the world, celibacy. As both religious attitude and lifestyle practice, adoption of an attitude of total detachment has done much to define the image of the monk throughout the ages since the beginnings of Buddhism. in the world today, and in several recent centuries for which good evidence is available, there is no doubt that the Order of Buddhist monks has had plenty of interaction with society; in many countries it has necessarily been integrated within the pattern of social, cultural and even political systems. a fundamental dichotomy appears then as the monks who received the earliest Buddhist message were expected to live it as homeless mendicants, severing all ties with society in order to devote themselves fully to the search for enlightenment. the problem faced in this book is to explain how, right from the beginning, Buddhism has from a doctrinal viewpoint required of its Order of monks the practical application of an ethic of renunciation and detachment and yet this very same order has remained a vibrant part of society, culture or politics wherever Buddhism has flourished.

The present study confronts this problem by focusing on the relationships between Buddhism, understood as its teachings and the activities of the Buddhist Order, and its social context in northern India in about the fifth to third centuries bce, assuming that these were the centuries during which the Pāli Canon took shape, though its formation could have continued for another two hundred years. Attention is given especially to the social dynamic of the growth of Buddhism, a dynamic understood within the terms of the opposition suggested in the first paragraph. Inevitably . . .

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