The Beginning of Buddhism

Ian Mabbett. History Today. Volume 52, Issue 1. January 2002.

‘The venerable ascetic Mahavira for a year and a month wore clothes; after that time he walked about naked, and accepted alms in the hollow of his hand. For more than twelve years he neglected his body and abandoned the care of it; with equanimity he bore, underwent and suffered all pleasant or unpleasant occurrences arising from divine powers, men or animals.’

Mahavira (599-527 BC), the most celebrated teacher of the Jain religion in India, cultivated rigorous indifference to his surroundings. He silently endured stoning or dogs being set on him. He fasted, not even drinking, for long periods. He scrupulously harmed no living beings, and for long periods he sat motionless with heart pure and soul serene.

The early Jains like Mahavira were noted for their austerities. They believed that human actions (karma) generate a sort of field that controls the individual’s later fate. Normally it compels the individual to be reborn after death into another form, human or otherwise; and as all forms of life are inherently unsatisfactory, it is better to withdraw from the world, ceasing to generate any karma; then one might hope not to be reborn but to achieve a transcendent spiritual state.

Mahavira was not unique in his day for this radical withdrawal from society. In the sixth century BC in northern India and Nepal, there were many holy men who had cut off ties with their families and lived rough. They sought spiritual advancement by meditation and ascetic practices, often undergoing severe forms of self-mortification. Some, despite their rejection of society, acquired social prestige.

The Buddha, like his older contemporary Mahavira, was a mendicant monk, and his teaching eventually became a great world religion. To understand its appeal properly, we need some knowledge of the way it worked in its original historical setting. How did a religion that preached the radical rejection of society become a popular movement and an accepted part of that society?

The story of Buddha’s life as presented by the Buddhist scriptures (there is little other evidence) is essentially legendary. The scriptural tradition claims he was born as Siddhartha Gautama to a lordly family in the Himalayan foothills in what is now Nepal. 563 BC was long widely accepted as the date of his birth, but this has recently been challenged; it may be up to a century or so too early. As the story goes, it was foretold that he would become either a great ruler or a great holy man, and his parents surrounded him with luxuries to discourage him from any thoughts of a life outside the pleasure-loving court. As a young prince, Gautama became acquainted with the truth of unhappiness in human life only when he escaped the palace and saw for himself the reality of old age, sickness and death. The sight of a holy man, who seemed peaceful and content, finally inspired him to forsake palace, wife and family and become a wandering mendicant. At first he studied under teachers who prescribed rigorous fasting and self-mortification. Eventually, though, he rejected them all, realising that the way to salvation lay in peaceful meditation which could only be compromised by the distractions of physical discomfort. One night, meditating beneath a tree, he finally broke through all the barriers of ignorance and attachment and became enlightened.

The title Buddha, meaning the Awakened One, applies to him from that moment in his life onward.

The story of the rest of his career represents him as constantly wandering from place to place, offering teachings to all—ordinary people, land-owners, priests and kings alike. It is difficult to distinguish authentic historical information from legends within the accounts given. People must have seen him in much the same way as they saw other mendicant teachers—as a man who cut off all ties with society and suppressed normal human desires, hoping thereby to eliminate the karma that carries normal people through this life and into the next one, and to make himself an empty vessel for some sort of superior spiritual power.

The Buddha accepted the belief in karma, and also the idea that spiritual advance comes through the life of the wandering mendicant. He differed from the other religious leaders in two major respects. His path was called ‘the Middle Way,’ between life in society (seeking pleasures) and the life of a rigorous ascetic (fasting and mortifying the flesh).

And his understanding of karma was more psychological than those of other schools—to him, what mattered was not the action as such but the intention behind it. Spiritual advance came from the cultivation of appropriate attitudes rather than outward behaviour. Buddhism introduced a dimension of morality.

The earliest Buddhist scriptures reflect a clear emphasis upon rigorous psychological self-discipline. Monks were supposed to kill all their emotional attachments, because any such attachment was a barrier to salvation. An early text urged:

Having torn the ties, having broken the net as a fish in the water, being like a fire not returning to the burnt place, let one wander alone like a rhinoceros.

A Buddhist monk must live outside society, putting behind him everything belonging to his old life. The monk was expected to own nothing, live simply, and travel about, meditating and preaching. His life was not meant to be easy. The Buddha recommended that his followers live only on food scraps, wear only rags, sleep only at the foot of trees and use only urine as medicine. These principles were soon modified, but they represent the spirit of strict self-discipline.

The Buddha favoured lodging in the remote wilderness among woods and forests, where it was quiet, untainted by human presence, utterly secluded and suitable for solitary meditation. What counted above all was the elimination of all forms of attachment. An early text represented the Buddha as praising the life of the wanderer without possessions:

He who has sons is made unhappy by sons. In the same way, he who has cows is likewise made unhappy by cows; for what gives support causes unhappiness, but he who has no support has no unhappiness.

A story told in another text makes vivid the fact that a monk was, in an important sense, dead to the whole world, including his former family. A monk’s former wife comes to find him, hoping to win him back by showing him his baby son, but the monk refuses to take any notice of his wife or the child. He is held up as a model of dedication.

Then, putting the child down in front of the venerable Sangamaji, she went off, saving, ‘There’s your child, samana [wandering monk]. Support him!’ Then the venerable Sangamaji neither looked at that child nor said anything to him. Then Sangamaji’s former wife, before she had gone far, looked back and saw the venerable Sangamaji neither looking at the child nor saying anything to him. On seeing that, she thought to herself: ‘This samana is not desirous even of his child.’ Then, turning back, she took up the child and went off.

The life of a Buddhist monk involved a strenuous mental discipline. Meditation practice was an elaborate science, serious commitment to which entailed a routine that (at least in the early stages) disrupted the normal pattern of sleeping and waking, producing dream—like states. Monks devoted themselves to practices producing altered states of consciousness, they favoured isolation, ate and drank only minimally, and went without creature comforts. It is difficult at first to see why a religious movement like this should gain substantial popular support anywhere.

Such a lifestyle does have modern parallels. One example is the ‘reeducation’ process, popularly known as ‘brain-washing,’ developed particularly in China in the 1950s in an attempt to change the personalities of individuals to fit the image of new Communist man. Another similarity is with the training undergone in modern armies by soldiers in special units. For example, the Ranger School programme at Fort Benning, Georgia, involves stress-producing physical demands, absolutely minimal diet, and prolonged sleep deprivation. All this produces altered states of consciousness, including hallucinations.

Monks in training might well have mistaken hallucinations for evidence of growing psychic powers, though eminent teachers have always cautioned against becoming attached to psychic powers, boasting about them, or regarding them as evidence of spiritual advancement. What the modern parallels help us to see is that, in different societies, some of the same techniques have been developed in order to transform people, eradicating the habits and attitudes that went with their old lives and setting them apart from ordinary people. This is precisely what the Buddhist order was supposed to do—even though it inevitably lost much of this character by becoming popular and growing back, as a respected institution, into the society that it had initially rejected. And despite that rejection of society, Buddhism had always to have enough dealings with society for members to be recruited in the first place, and to survive on the alms of supporters thereafter.

The society known to the Buddha was not primitive. By 600 BC, in the land between the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers, towns had appeared with administrative functions. Though many of the older communities north and west of the urban concentrations on the Ganges remained decentralised, with power residing in assemblies of dominant families (the Buddha himself appears to have come from one of these), but along the lower Ganges, kingdoms appeared, governed by monarchs intent on conquest. The two big kingdoms of Kosala and Magadha both figured in sacred texts as places traversed by the Buddha, who was consulted by their kings for advice. Many of his teachings are represented as having been first uttered while he was visiting their capitals—especially Vaisali, capital of Kosala.

The main advances in material culture became widespread later. By about the fourth century, money became a normal medium of exchange; commerce was expanding and caravans of merchants were risking the perils of the great wilderness areas in pursuit of profits from longdistance trade. By the time of Ashoka, India’s first great emperor and proponent of Buddhism, in the late third century BC, writing had been introduced, baked bricks were widely used in construction, and iron tools had come into general use. Buddhism seems by then to have been particularly associated with commerce; in the later period vouched for by inscriptions, monasteries were often close to trading centres, and merchants figured prominently among lay supporters.

By the third century BC, the kingdom of Magadha had eliminated the competition and established an empire with outposts across most of the Indian subcontinent. This empire was founded by Ashoka’s grandfather Candragupta (c.321-297 BC). According to tradition, the latter’s minister Kautilya, who belonged to the hereditary brahman priesthood, was the author of a book on statecraft (the Arthashastra). In its extant form it is likely to date from much later, but what it envisages is an elaborate and centralised bureaucracy under the control of an absolute monarch.

Brahmans like Kautilya could serve kings in senior posts; they became a privileged stratum in society. Already in the Buddha’s day, their position had become ambiguous. While Buddhist scriptures use the word brahman to denote an ideal holy man of advanced spirituality, at many points they also insisted that brahmans were often corrupt, small—minded, and superstitious or likely to trade on the superstitions of others. One text says that they were so greedy for their fees for assisting at a sacrifice that at the mere smell of one they ran up like dung-eating animals. The rank of brahman could be inherited and this no doubt generated a large class of people qualified as priests but compelled to make a living any way they could. The appeal of wandering mendicant religious teachers like the Buddha lay partly in the contrast between their message and that of the brahmans.

One explanation for the increasing appeal of the Buddha’s teaching to the urbanised society of the rising states focuses on the central role of human unhappiness in the Buddha’s teaching. The ‘Four Noble Truths,’ said to encapsulate his doctrine, begin with the fact of unhappiness (or, more properly, the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of life, over which we have no control and in which no good things last). This unhappiness (secondly) has a cause (human grasping at impermanent things); the cause (thirdly) can be removed (by eliminating ignorance and grasping); and (last) there is a way to remove this cause by following the Buddha’s teachings. This manifesto presupposes dissatisfaction with life, a type of dissatisfaction that is keenly felt and recognised as a problem to be solved. Following this explanation, the misery of poverty-stricken existence made people receptive to a teaching that portrayed life as a vale of tears.

There are problems, though, with this explanation. Why should people—even those who were anxious to do something about their unhappiness—be attracted to such an uncomfortable way of life? If they were poor to begin with, they would scarcely be better off as mendicants wholly dependent on the charity of poor householders. Furthermore, the period of the Buddha’s life—in the sixth or fifth century BC—was not a time of misery, but one of expansion and urbanisation. Buddhism, with its prescriptions for an ascetic life outside society, is not the obvious choice for those experiencing urbanisation. And why should merchants, the agents of materialism, be natural allies of ascetics?

A second explanation for the rise of Buddhism uses an opposite argument. The new urban society in the Ganges Valley required a new culture and a new set of values appropriate to larger political units and to a more fluid economic system; Buddhism fitted the bill. This interpretation has become fairly standard among historians who argue that the old religion of the brahman priests, with its animal sacrifices and arcane rituals, was inappropriate to the cosmopolitan city-based kingdoms that were developing, and also to agricultural society, in which animals were scarce resources. By contrast, Jainism and Buddhism (both hostile to the taking of any form of life) offered universal values neutral towards different cultural groups.

There are no doubt elements of truth in these views, but we must not forget that Buddhism appears to have been intended, in its very earliest forms, not as a mass movement but for exceptional individuals who wished to forsake everything in order to seek salvation in solitary meditation. The problem remains—how could a movement that rejected life in society become a social force?

A third explanation for the appeal of Buddhism is put forward by those with an anthropological background. They argue that it did not really reject life in society, but from the beginning favoured an active role for monks as counsellors, teachers and even priests, playing a full part in the life of the community. It is true that the Buddhist order acquired this sort of social role eventually, but it seems that this happened more as a result of Buddhism’s popularity than its cause. It is impossible to overlook the evidence that this was a teaching for an elite of dedicated seekers of enlightenment who were prepared to forsake society and its comforts.

There is also the possibility that the arduous ascetic lifestyle was in fact an important feature of Buddhism’s appeal. Recent research conducted by the present writer in collaboration with Dr G. Bailey suggests that ascetic monks who had detached themselves from society were perceived as trustworthy, impartial advocates by people in outlying communities who were suffering the political and economic encroachment of the urban kingdoms, but who lacked ways of coping with this encroachment.

Ultimately, there is no straightforward interpretation of the initial popularity of Buddhism.

There are indications within the scriptures that, almost from the outset, Buddhism began to involve itself more and more with the life of surrounding society. At first, monks were supposed to linger in one place only during the rainy season, but gradually the wandering decreased, so that eventually the retreats evolved into permanent monasteries, and the monks within them entered into a symbiotic relationship with the local lay supporters who supplied them with food and other goods. A large part of the scriptures, the Vinaya, sets out the rules that monks were to follow in their monastic life, and includes many details about relations with the laity.

In return for alms, the monks were originally supposed to offer only spiritual teaching, but they did many other things as well. One story cites the bad example of a monk who was supposed to have engaged in a spot of match-making. He made a practice of spying out eligible young men and women and singing their praises to the parents of possible spouses, describing them as beautiful, intelligent, energetic and so forth. In one case, he procured for a certain family a girl who was the daughter of a former prostitute. His efforts to put things right when the girl was mistreated were unavailing, and both the girl and her mother cursed him.

Such stories generally represent the Buddha as disapproving of the behaviour described, and instituting new rules to prohibit it. But the episodes of inappropriate behaviour show that monks must have allowed themselves to be drawn into roles that were not part of the original ascetic programme but which were expected by layfolk, who regarded them as wise men who could be trusted to help them in various ways.

Other examples are furnished by the monk’s role as a physician. It is quite possible that the Buddhist order nourished a rich tradition of medical knowledge—perhaps for many centuries a stronger tradition than those of other religious groups; certainly people expected monks to prescribe antidotes and potions for various purposes. One story tells of a monk agreeing to prescribe for an abortion when the pregnant woman did not want her husband to discover her unfaithfulness; another tells of a monk prescribing a fatal concoction, when the patient’s hands and feet had been cut off and his family did not want him to live. These acts earned severe reprimands from the Buddha.

The original ascetic impulse was revived from time to time, but the Buddhist order increasingly involved itself with the wider social concerns. In time, the monks became domesticated as a functioning element in the community, much patronised by rulers. For the first couple of centuries after the Buddha’s death (whether in c.483 BC, the traditional date, or up to a century later as is now believed possible), the story is obscure and the scriptures give little information about actual events. But in the third century BC: the emperor Ashoka patronised the Buddhists and other schools of holy men lavishly, bestowing property upon them and encouraging all his subjects to respect them—an indication that by this time Buddhism had acquired popularity and social prestige.

Ashoka’s reign, a major landmark in Indian history, was a turning-point in the fortunes of Buddhism. His inscriptions are the oldest surviving texts in India (apart from the still–undeciphered Indus Valley script of the third millennium BC) and they tell us much about his aspirations. He favoured brahmans and mendicant monks generally, but gave special favour to Buddhism, declaring himself an ardent lay follower.

For two-and-a-half years I have been an open follower of the Buddha, though at first I did not make much progress. But for more than a year now I have drawn closer to the Order, and have made much progress.

The emperor assumed the authority to make rules for the communities of Buddhist monks. He promulgated a sort of code of public morality, called dhamma, consisting chiefly of harmonious co-existence, respect for elders and holy men, and the sanctity of all forms of life. Some have thought that this dhamma was identical with Buddhism but, though informed by Buddhist morality, it was essentially the emperor’s own.

The subsequent evolution of Buddhism is much more richly attested by written sources. It is marked by various trends, some of which were probably present from early on—a growing tendency to treat the Buddha as a god, the building of monuments as ritual centres, the accumulation of myths about the Buddha’s past lives, and developments in scholarly activity. The last of these was boosted by the practice of writing down Buddhist texts, which began in the first century BC.

Overall, Buddhism’s early history is somewhat paradoxical: the first monks were solitary wanderers who absorbed spiritual merit and psychic powers by meditation in the wilderness; but as their fame grew, their services, both spiritual and practical, were solicited and they became caught up in a web of social relationships that made them functioning parts of the society they had left. The process is a natural one; it has taken place time and time again in the history of Buddhism and it is part of the way real life works.