Ethics and Community

Community Organization

Community (sangha) is one of the "three jewels" of Buddhism. (The other two are the Buddha's teachings [dharma] and the Buddha himself.) Originally the sangha was a term describing the community of monks, but it grew to include lay participants, and now refers to the Buddhist community as a whole.

As Buddhism shifted from groups of wandering ascetics to organizations with stable, physical structures, it was always integrally connected to the communities within which these structures were built. Among the earliest known Buddhist activities that included lay participants were those that occurred in the location of stupas. These areas became sites for pilgrims to visit, and also for joyous festivals involving locals and visitors in multifaceted events that at once entertained, informed, and generated merit. Gradually, more and more monasteries were built, not only near these stupa sites but also in many other locations in South Asia. As Buddhism was established throughout Asia, the monastery became its fundamental institutional structure.

Although Buddhism was initially disruptive to social structures by drawing men away from their social obligations, it soon became a productive contributor to local communities. A Buddhist monastery provided its community with religious rituals, spiritual guidance, places of worship, and a means of earning merit. Buddhist laypersons sometimes formed social clubs that arranged pilgrimages, met to chant or copy sutras, or carried out projects for the benefit of others.

Buddhism became known as a source of practical benefits for its followers. This practice grew from the texts and stories about the bodhisattvas, who provided spiritual rescue but were also said to be able to protect people from dangers such as fires or floods. One might visit a monastery to ask for healing for a loved one, for help finding a marriage partner or a job, to insure the birth of a healthy child or grandchild, or to ask for success in examinations or a myriad other things that would benefit one's life.

Monasteries also served social needs by determining auspicious dates for weddings, telling fortunes, and, in some cases, providing political clout or mediating between locals and the government. In addition to sponsoring festivals, they also sometimes held large vegetarian feasts to which all the locals were invited, paying a donation only if they were able.

Monasteries sometimes served as inns, offering beds and meals for travelers. Some provided social services such as schools, orphanages, health care facilities, food and shelter for the homeless, facilities for the elderly, and even animal rescue. Occasionally they carried out public works projects, such as building roads and bridges, digging wells and planting trees along travel routes, deepening river channels, or creating reservoirs to provide communities with fresh water.

Over time, Buddhism merged with the cultures to which it was introduced, being shaped by them and shaping them in turn. Perhaps because of the way it was spread, by word of mouth rather than by military force or coercion, and because of an attitude of acceptance toward other religions, there was relatively little conflict between Buddhism and indigenous religions. Buddhism was so successful in China, for instance, that the Daoists and even the non-religious Confucians imitated Buddhist institutional structures.

In some countries, during some eras, Buddhism was an official state religion, and in those situations Buddhist monasteries conducted rituals on behalf of the state, called on the powers of protective deities, and offered prayers to repel invaders in times of war. In China, monasteries sometimes served as retreats for scholars and government officials. Also in China, during the era when Buddhist monasteries were often quite wealthy, the monasteries sometimes lent money, charging interest at prevailing rates. Buddhist monasteries were also sometimes centers of rebellion, leading people who revolted against unfair rulers or poor social conditions.

Today's Buddhist monasteries come in many shapes and sizes. They may be identified with families, neighborhoods, villages, cities, or nations. They offer many of the same services and opportunities, both sacred and secular, that monasteries have offered historically. The Buddhist monastic complex of buildings, statues, open landscapes, and ritual spaces is a place where people gather in communal celebration with others, and it is often the social center of a community.

Study Questions:
1.     What are some of the rituals laity can perform?
2.     Describe the role of the monastery.
3.     What role has Buddhism played in shaping politics?

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