Skip Navigation

What Manner of Monk is This: The Buddhist Bhiksu's Obligation to Support his Parents in Early and Medieval India

by Gregory Schopen, UCLA

It is perhaps ironic that the more we learn about Indian Buddhist 'monastic' literature, and the more we learn about what actual Indian Buddhist 'monks' did, the less the individuals involved look like what we could call 'monks.' Indeed, Buddhist bhiksus appear to have done, or have been required by their rules to do, an alarmingly large number of unmonkish things. Indian Buddhist inscriptions, for example, clearly establish that very large numbers of actual Indian Buddhist 'monks' made donations for the benefit of their parents, both living and dead, and therefore had the financial means to do so. Indian Buddhist 'monastic' codes or Vinayas also establish, for example, that Buddhist monks had or retained the right to inherit family property or wealth, and were required to pay off their own financial debts after they became monks. Such provisions—and many others in Buddhist Vinaya—are so divergent from what is found in Western monastic Rules like The Rule of the Master or The Rule of St. Benedict that it is becoming increasingly more awkward, and disingenuous, to call the ideals and ways of life found in Benedict and Buddhist Vinaya the same thing. It is not at all clear whether the terms 'monasticism' and 'monk' can, or should be, stretched so far and so thin. Here I would like to look very briefly at another set of rules in Buddhist Vinaya that would seem to suggest not. These rules concern the Buddhist bhiksu's obligation to financially support, or materially maintain, his parents. But, unfortunately, I am able to survey—and that more than a little superficially—only two of the extant Vinayas, the Pali Vinaya and the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya. This narrowness might be off-set at least for some who believe that the former represents the earliest of the extant Vinayas, and the latter the latest: for them our two Vinayas would represent the beginning and the end of the canonical development of such injunctions. I must, however, hasten to add that I am not among that host of such true believers.

Conference paper presented at Buddhism In (and Out of) Place Conference held 17-18 October 2004

Center for Buddhist Studies