Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India: Their History and Their Contribution to Indian Culture

By Sukumar Dutt | Go to book overview

1
From 'Study for Faith' to 'Study for Knowledge'

A PHENOMENON, increasingly evident in the decline of Buddhism, is the gradual modification of the purely conventual character of the monasteries. From being seats of monk-life and monk-culture, they grew into centres of general learning and liberal scholarship. It was the late fruition of the ancient tradition of saṅgha life which we have seen carried on by a long line of monk-scholars whose lives and careers have been noticed in the previous part.

The type of monastery organization called Mahāvihāra commenced probably sometime in the Gupta age--an aggregation of several monasteries combined in a unitary organization. In these Mahāvihāras, a re-orientation took place of the old traditional monk-culture, redounding to the loss in a large measure of its exclusively monkish preoccupation. This liberalized culture was the Indian 'Buddhist Culture' of that age. The Mahāvihāras were both its depositories and purveyors during the decline of Buddhism in India. It spread in the country from the Mahāvihāras; it was there that foreign monks resorted to imbibe it.

Nissaya was an ancient rule of Vinaya--dependence on a teacher for a space of years which varied with the trainee's ability to learn.1 It was part of the regula and regimen, but it served at the same time to create a new value in monastic life, a tradition of learning and scholarship. It continued unbroken in the monasteries and grew, as we have observed, into an inalienable aspect of Saṅgha life. We have seen how the ideal monastery āntideva contemplates in the eighth century AD is conceived by him as a place 'humming with reading and recitation of lessons'.2

This traditional learning of the monasteries had been at its beginning a cloistered pursuit--learning in canonical lore for the benefit and use of monkhood. But it was progressively liberalized--extended and enlarged in its scope and contents and made available not to monks alone, but to all seekers after knowledge. It was a new development of monastic life and activity and one involved in the complex of conditions and circumstances Buddhism had passed through since the beginning of the Gupta era in its long and historic process of decline. It is an obscure chapter of Buddhist history, but the Chinese pilgrims' accounts afford us glimpses into it.

____________________
1
See Part IV, Sec. 1, p. 235.
2
See verse from Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra quoted at the beginning of Part IV.

-319-

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