Buddhism, it may be said, finds religious authority not only in texts and institutions, but also in enlightened people. Certainly, those understood as realized have occupied an important if not always well defined place within the early and developed tradition. The following pages will argue that the Buddhist saints have in fact a relatively clear role to play within historical Buddhist tradition, and also one that places them much more at the center of the tradition than has been recognized, either by contemporary scholarship or, sometimes, even by Buddhism itself.
This book raises some basic questions: Who are the Buddhist saints? How have they been understood by their devotees and detractors? What have been their characteristic historical roles in India? In response to these questions, this study offers a definition of the Buddhist saint as such and identifies the major types that existed in India. It also acquaints the reader with the legends surrounding some of the more important and representative individual saints. Further, it introduces the field of the Buddhist saints in India, providing a survey of some of the more significant scholarly studies on the subject. Finally, it gives an overview of some of the more important methodological, structural, and historical issues involved in any attempt to understand these figures.
Indian Buddhism exhibits a number of major periods of formation, including those of the genesis of Buddhism itself, and also of later movements such as the Mahāyāna. This study is particularly concerned with those saints who were important--especially but not only--in these formative periods. These were people who, to find freedom, chose to abandon the world and retreat into the wilds, the "forest" (Skt., araṇya; P., arañña) in the Indian terminology. These "forest saints" are particularly worthy of our attention not only because they represent the first Buddhist saints, but also because classical Buddhism owes so much to them. They stand at the beginning of many of the most important trends within Indian Buddhism. They articulated a specific ideal of complete renunciation of which later Buddhists were well aware and to which they could return at moments of personal and collective crisis. And the normativeness of the ideal they represented was enduring. Even when, in particular times and places, the specific type of the forest saint defined in these pages was modified or substantially transformed, even when the physical wilds themselves were left behind, the terminology and imagery definitive of the early saints of the forest tended to remain in force.
In its historical method, this book is frankly an experiment. Usually when the history of Indian Buddhism is written, settled monasticism provides the central reference point in terms of which that history is cast. This study takes the different