The Ritual Obligations and Donor Roles of Monks in the Pāli Vinaya
MORE THAN ONCE recently it has again been suggested that Buddhist monks had little or no role in life-cycle ceremonies in early India.1 I do not know on what evidence these suggestions are based, but it does not seem that it could be the Pāli texts. In fact, Buddhist vinaya texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, and what Roth calls "Prākrit-cum-Sanskrit" seem to suggest quite otherwise. They seem to suggest and assume that monks regularly had a role in such ceremonies and that their ritual presence and performance at such ceremonies was of some importance. Most passages, indeed, employ language that suggests "obligation" (karaṇīya). The same texts suggest and assume that Buddhist monks were active donors to their own monastic community.
Ironically, the one life-cycle ceremony in which a significant place for monks has been explicitly conceded--the funeral--is also the one which is not explicitly included in the list of such ceremonies that appears in the Pāli Vinaya passage that seems most concerned with such matters. But although the funeral is not explicitly mentioned there, the passage may allude at least to death rituals as Edgerton sometime ago seemed to surmise: it speaks of "illness" (gilāna), and the illness in question seems to be, to judge by context, terminal.2
The passage occurs in the Vassupanāyika-khandhaka, the section dealing with the "beginning of the rains." In the Pali Text Society edition, the only one available to me, this passage is rather badly chopped up in an apparent attempt by editor or scribe to abbreviate repetitions. It deals in general with the occasions or situations when a monk could legitimately break the rain-retreat during which he was otherwise strictly forbidden to travel. One of these reasons--but only one--has been widely cited: a monk may be away for up to seven days if he goes to learn from a lay-brother (upāsaka) a "recognized sūtra" (abhiññātaṃ ...suttantaṃ) that might otherwise be in danger of being lost. There are, however, a number of other equally legitimate reasons.3