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Shoyo Sensei’s Dharma Message:
Examination of Misunderstandings of Buddhism
(1) Did Buddhism Start As A Monastic Movement?
No, Buddhism Started As a Gradual Educational System Applicable to All.
* On many occasions, I have heard many misunderstandings and misconceptions
regarding Buddhism and Buddha-Dharma. I have decide, for the next several months
starting with this month, to direct my focus on some of these “wrong” ideas by carefully
examining them in order to come to clear and correct understandings as much as possible.
Question (1):
Many people think Buddhism started as a monastic and ascetic movement. Do you think this idea is
Answer (1):
No, I do not think so. It is one of many unfortunate misunderstandings about Buddhism. Max
Weber (1864-1920) was, perhaps, the first Western sociologist who single-handedly influenced
modern Western academia by labeling Buddhism as an ideal type of monastic and otherworldly
mysticism. He categorized Buddhism as an ultimately world-denying, asocial, amoral,
contemplative, and mystical religion. His thesis has profoundly influenced not only modern Western
sociologists but also Buddhologists, including a pioneer Buddhist scholar, Edward J. Thomas, who
influenced modern Western Buddhist studies. Such misunderstanding is well prevalent among many
current scholars. Luis Gomez, for example, says in the Encyclopedia of Religion, that the “follower
of Buddhism was expected to renounce the lay life and become a wandering ascetic.” Very recently,
Mohan Wijayaratna also revealed an opinion similar to that of Thomas, and said that Buddhism first
arose as a movement of “renouncers.”
Such ideas can be easily challenged by several basic questions. First, throughout the earliest
Buddhist texts written in Pali, it is known that when the Buddha went to a city or a village, many
laymen and laywomen visited him and listened to him. If Buddhism was an ascetic and a monastic
movement of “bodies of mendicants who had cut themselves off from the hindrances of worldly
ties,” why did so many lay people, including political leaders, merchants, farmers, bankers, slaves,
housewives, queens, children and, royalty, go to listen to the Buddha or to his disciples? The
Buddha’s teachings must have been considered beneficial, applicable and utilizable in their daily
Indeed, the Buddha’s first followers or disciples were not “renouncers,” but two businessmen named
Topassu and Bhallika. In the early stages of Buddhism, the relationship between monks and
householders was not the hierarchical one that we assume today. The lay people “followed” the
Buddha as did the monastic people. They were called “savakas” (people who listened to the
teachings of the Buddha). They were not the “followers” of the monks and nuns, but of the Buddha.
Neither group was considered more worthy of instruction than the other.
When the Buddha sent out the first five enlightened people to teach Dharma to the world, he said,
“Go forth, O disciples, for the good of the many, for the benefit of the many, for the happiness of the
many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, benefit, and happiness of gods and people.”
This statement alone indicates that Dharma, the Buddha’s teaching, is not only for a handful of
monastic or homeless people, but for all men, women, and children. They were people at different
social levels with different levels of understanding and spiritual development.
And yet, some scholars even think that the Buddha’s teachings are divided into two types: “Nirvanic
Buddhism” and “Karmatic Buddhism,” the former, exclusively and solely for monastic individuals
who strive for their own personal salvation, and the latter, specifically for lay people, the providers
of the monastic community with material support. They thought that lay people were emphatically
advised to observe conventional and social morality, such as the five ethical guidelines, and had
ritual ceremonies and merit-makings, such as dana (giving), to attain a happy rebirth in heaven, but
not enlightenment. In this way, Buddhism is, according to them, fundamentally dual by nature. They
misunderstood that the sharp polarity between monastic Buddhism and lay Buddhism existed from
the beginning of Buddhism.
But, if you closely examine the entire contents of these early Buddhist texts, you will find that there
is no such polarity in the Buddha’s teachings. His educational system is based upon the gradual
teaching/learning method, therefore you can divide his teachings into two, three, or even more, but it
is very clear that there is no such distinction that one is for the monastic and the other for the laity.
According to one sutra, after hearing the Buddha’s discourse, Vacchagotta, the wanderer, expressed
his perception of the Buddha’s teaching as follows:
Good Gotama, as the river Ganges, sliding towards the sea, tending towards the sea, inclining
towards the sea, stands knocking at the sea, even so this company of the good Gotama,
comprising householders and those that have gone forth, sliding towards nibbana (Skt.
nirvana) tending towards nibbana, inclining towards nibbana, stands knocking at nibbana. . .
(italics mine)
Question (2):
Wow, I did not know all these. Now, I understand that Buddhism did not start as a monastic
movement, but started as a gradual educational system applicable to all. Then, were there
householders and lay people who were enlightened?
Answer (2):
It should also be clearly shown that many householders attained various stages of enlightenment
without renouncing worldly life, about which I will explain more in the next month.
Shoyo Taniguchi, Ph.D.