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Religion Library: Buddhism

Early Developments

Written by: Julia Hardy

Over time there was some relaxation of the monastic rules. At first all the monks were homeless by choice, except during the monsoon season, and owned few possessions. Originally personal possessions were limited to a robe, a begging bowl, and a staff, but gradually these limits were relaxed. Later some began to settle in monasteries built with gifts of land and money from wealthy lay Buddhists, often built on sites where the monks had stayed during the monsoon season. These monks became more engaged with the lay community, serving as teachers, scholars, doctors, and in other professional capacities. They owned more possessions, most of them collectively, and with time their lives became very comfortable. Other monks continued to follow the old ways, living more isolated and ascetic lives in forested areas.

Lay Buddhists also were given strict rules of behavior. They vowed not to kill, steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants. They were encouraged to be good workers, to take proper care of their possessions, not to overspend or accumulate debt, and to associate with others who shared the same values. They were to fulfill household duties, bring up their children properly, treat their spouses with respect, and take good care of their parents. Through acts of generosity, particularly toward monks, and through lives of virtue and the practice of meditation, lay Buddhists could accumulate merit that could earn them a higher rebirth, perhaps even a rebirth as a monk in a future life.

For the first centuries after Buddha's death, the monastic community was the driving force of the religion. A number of separate monastic groups had already been formed during or just after the Buddha's lifetime. Shortly after his death, a Council composed of the leaders of these groups, as well as prominent disciples of the Buddha, was convened to standardize the doctrine and rules for these communities. A second Council was held a hundred years later to settle further disputes over the rules of discipline.

After the Buddha's death, his remains were divided and enshrined in various stupas. Remains of other respected Buddhists were also enshrined in stupas, and these became popular places for lay people to go to worship and pray. Stupas became more and more elaborate and the structure of the stupas themselves acquired symbolic significance. They were erected for expanded purposes, such as marking the locus of important events. Some stupas became popular pilgrimage sites, especially those marking important moments in the Buddha's life, or those containing the most sacred relics. Eventually large temple complexes would grow up around some of these stupas.

Study Questions:
1.     What can be said about the relationship between urbanization and Buddhism's development?
2.     How did early Buddhist monks create a judicial system?
3.     What were the rules of Buddhist monks? Buddhist lay persons?
4.     Where did Buddhists initially go to on pilgrimage, and why were these sites significant?