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Religion Library: Buddhism

Early Developments

Written by: Julia Hardy

Buddhism arose at a time of significant social and political change. In the regions where it grew and flourished, urban centers were growing rapidly and creating new social conditions. Buddhism — with its egalitarian ideals, its structures for organizing community, and its opportunities for social and religious mobility — was well-suited for the time. With increased trade came a growth in the number of merchants and traders who, even when wealthy and successful, had low social status. Buddhism was appealing because monks were treated equally regardless of their caste. Early texts say that fifty-five of the first sixty of the Buddha's followers were from wealthy and powerful merchant families. Not all monks were wealthy, however; people of any status were welcome.

Regardless of class or economic status, monks had to follow strict rules. A monk could be banished for engaging in sexual relations, stealing, killing someone, or claiming to have supernatural powers. Lesser offenses would lead to a period of probation, the forfeiture of certain privileges, and temporary loss of standing in the community. Monks took vows not to drink alcohol, not to eat after noon, not to indulge in public entertainments, not to use ointments, perfumes, or a comfortable seat or bed, and not to handle money. There were rules against flirting, touching, and masturbation; thirty specific rules about possessions — how one was allowed to acquire and use them; and ninety-two rules that covered miscellaneous offenses such as gossiping or hoarding food. Eventually, all of these rules were recorded in a massive collection of texts, the Vinaya.

When a monk broke a rule, he was required to confess to an assembly of monks, who would then determine and enforce punishment. The assembly would also rule as to whether the acts were intentional or unintentional; monks were normally not punished for unintentional misdeeds. There were additional complex rules of etiquette that served to facilitate harmony within the monastic groups. A well-defined social order eased potential conflicts among those who had grown up with strict caste differentiations and varying rules of social behavior within and between castes.

Women who became nuns were often women who had lost their defined roles in society in some way; they were widows, courtesans, or adult women who had not married. According to the early texts, the first five hundred women to join the sangha were women whose husbands had abandoned them to become monks. The rules for nuns were even more numerous and more stringent than those for the monks. Their status in relationship to the monks was limited in various ways, and they were not permitted to wander alone. Despite this inequity, Buddhist nuns were often less burdened by social restrictions than were women outside the monastic community, and the relative independence and rare opportunity to enjoy spiritual and intellectual pursuits were attractive to some women.