RELATION BETWEEN THE SAMGHA AND STATE AND LAITY
( Presidential Address delivered at the Twelfth Annual
of the Society on 21st December, 1964.)
U Aung Than
M.A., Professor of Pali, Arts and Science University, Rangoon.
JRBS, XLVIII, i, June 1965
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The Samgha mentioned in the Trisarana — The triple formula of expressing Buddhist faith refers to the Ariya Samgha (the noble community of monks) the members of which bad attained the spiritual heights in the Buddhist way of life. As such they have partially or totally cut themselves off from the inmates of the 31 planes of existence except to do good works through compassion on the puthujjana i.e. those beings who had no spiritual status in the Buddha Sasana, such as giving admonition in the doctrine, helping them to do good works either for spiritual uplift or for social welfare. They have no relation with either the state or the laity in the intricate secular public life.
The samgha referred to in this article is the sammutisamgha - the members of which are regarded as bhikkhus by convention. They are the puthujjanas and have not cut themselves off from the weal and woe of everyday life experienced by the state and laity. In fact they are part and parcel of the state and laity.
In the modern idea of state, people are the state and the state in turn is composed of the people who, to the Samgha are their laity.
Although the members of the Samgha had renounced the world to be released from the ills of the rounds of births and the suffering, confronted in this very life yet spiritually or physically they are not prepared to be aloof from those who had not renounced the lay life because of the fact that the laity are the sole supporters of the community of the bhikkhus. A bhikkhu is enjoined by the Vinaya not to work for his living and he is entirely dependent on the lay folk for his maintenance and as such he cannot be indifferent to the welfare and otherwise of his supporters. Modern Society has become so complex that secluded life for the bhikkhus has become an impossibility.
Even in the early days of the Buddha when he urged the bhikkhus "Go ye forth and spread the dhamma for the good and welfare of the people" he was asking his first batch of disciples to take his dhamma to the very door of every man and thus initiated social contact with the lay people.
The Buddha started to form his bhikkhu Samgha with only a nucleus of sixty recluses but through the rationality of his dhamma and by his exemplary life and strong personality many people flocked round him and he gained a large number of adherents both as lay devotee and clerical personages. So popular and liberal was his system as contrasted with the exoteric disciplines of Brahmanism that people expressed the faith in his teachings through faith, fashion and famine. So since the days of the Buddha these conventional bhikkhus were in existence. The Buddha never intended to form a bhikkhus samgha as the sammutisamgha but tolerant and compassionate as he was for all beings and hoping that they would improve in their spiritual striving he permitted these hangers-on in this congregation of monks, so much so that instead of training his bhikkhus to strive straight for the Nibbana he had to create a lower standard of his teaching for those who have not adequate interest and aptitude. Thus these monks strive for improvement of their lot through series of births till they are better fitted for the final leap to Nibbana.
The increase in the number of those who left their homes to lead a homeless life necessitated the prescription and formulation of rules for their conduct and discipline known as the Vinaya pitaka. As I have said just now, the burden of supporting the large community of bhikkhus fell voluntarily on the believers.
I.B. Horner in her introduction to the Vinaya translation has remarked "Thus the Vinaya does not merely lay down sets of rules whose province was confined to an internal conventual life. For this was led in such a way as to allow and even encourage a certain degree of intercommunication with the lay supporters and followers no less than those lay-people who were not adherents of the faith. What was import ant was that the bhikkhus should neither abuse their dependence on the former, nor alienate the latter, but should regulate their lives as to give no complaint. These rules were laid down to enable the recluses to strengthen themselves against themselves and their human weaknesses, to endow them with goodness and virtue as living witnesses to men's desire for perfection, to fortify them for victory in the contest between the spirit and flesh, between right and wrong undying ideals to which a puthujjana ardently clung, but to which he could not himself aspire".
Kings in ancient India who adopted the Buddhist faith became the chief donors, supplemented by rich merchants and other laymen. Before they were converted to Buddhism they followed the faith of Brahmanisn, and even from the Vedic times the kings were advised in their administration of the state by Brahmin purohitas or chaplains. Though Buddhism was a non—temporal system yet its dhamma in its basic form teaches morality (Sila). Based on Sila the spiritual factors of the religion have to be developed. So Buddhism teaching moral conduct as its fundamental tenet became an aid to the peace and security of the state and the kings, whether they be Buddhists, or not, bad to look forward to the Bhikkhus who were the teachers of morality. More-over it was the age-old custom of the ancient kings to tolerate all forms of faith and support the recluses of all religions, but only the genuine recluses were respected and honoured. But recluses who had infringed the laws of the state are reported to the head of their institutions and are admonished by the heads in the Vinaya pitaka, Suttavibhanga, dutiya parajikasikkhapada a bhikkhu by name Dhaniya used the state timber to build a monastery for his own use but the king would not tolerate the act and warned the bhikkhu not to repeat such action. When the Buddha heard about this incident he promulgated a vinaya rule after consulting with a bhikkhu who had been a judge when he was a layman. The Buddha also on his part administered his bhikkhusamgha in conformity with the laws of the country and wishes of the public. He had laid down vinaya rules prohibiting persons wanted by the state either for service or for crime. He did not allow sons to be admitted to the bhikkhusamgha without the consent of the parents in consideration of their feelings. Flesh of certain animals such as that of the elephants and horses were banned for the simple reason that they are useful to the state, which used them for fighting purposes in the four-fold array of the army namely — elephant corps, cavalry corps, chariot corps and infantry. King Passenadi of Kosala consulted the Buddha not only about his family affairs but also the state affairs. King Bimbisara and even his patricide son King Ajatasattu used the good offices of the Buddha and the bhikkhusamgha for the peace and security of their kingdoms.
At times when, and countries where the king was not a follower of the Faith it was always the faithful laity who contributed to the maintenance of the bhikkhusamgha. Contributions made by the laity were always voluntary and even in places where the king was a Buddhist no law had ever been enacted by which such contributions were made compulsory either from the citizens or from the state treasury. The king's contribution was his own and not in the name of the state. Monks must not work for their living and it is by their practice of noble conduct as well as by example of their own holy life as personifications of the dhamma they earn the devotional faith of the people who contributed to them material support with the idea that the samgha was the field for acquiring merit. But the generosity of the donors are in no way to be taxed by the bhikkhus who were strictly admonished not to injure the feelings of the laity by their excessive expectations for donation. With regard to the alms from the laity they were instructed to conduct themselves like the bee which takes the juice of the flower without harming its colour or scent.
There is a recorded instance in which the members of the bhikkhuSamgha depending as it does on the laity for their support was brought to their sense when the people refused to give alms for their misconduct. It happened at Kosambi where the monks had a dispute which spread to their respective adherents. But the majority of the populace foreseeing greater dissensions among both the bhikkhu and the laity stopped giving their usual alms and the bhikkhus realizing their disaster came to amicable terms.
The general principle underlying the attitude to be adopted by the members of the Samgha towards the laity is that they must so act that their action must be "for the benefit of the non-believers, for increase in the number of believers; it must not be for the reduction of respect and esteem of the non-believers as well as believers nor must they cause wavering in the believers. One of the prescribed samgha-kammas called Patisaraniya-kamma is a measure to be carried out against a monk who had given offence to a householder. The guilty monk is required to obtain the pardon of the householder he had offended. Not only with the laity but also with regard to the state, the members of the Samgha were expected to live in conformity with the king's law and to be good citizens, even though the king is not a Buddhist. In ancient India there was unwritten mutual consent that the kings would not interfere with the internal polity of the bhikkhuSamgha. Once during the time of Asoka when many false bhikkhus enjoying the bounty of the king were crowding the Buddhist monasteries, the true monks refused to perform Uposotha ceremony i.e. the fortnightly regular meeting of the bhikkhus, which the king insisted that they must carry out.
In spite of the fact that the minister had exceeded the royal authority by beheading some of the bhikkhus who had refused to conform to the king's orders, the bhikkhus remained adamant. Any offence or crime committed against the law of the state by a member of the Samgha would be subject to the jurisdiction of the king and he could not claim exemption by reason of his being a member of the samgha even though it had its own rules of discipline involving punishment.
And when there was the country-wide schism in religion the state intervened for the peace and security of the realm as in the case of Asoka who had the third Buddhist council convened so that religious affairs of the bhikkhus would not spread to the citizens. But then it must be said that during that period of history Asoka assumed that he was the Head of the church and defender of the faith and according to Vincent Smith Asoka's government was "a theocracy without a God".
Ceylon, the next Buddhist country having received its Buddhism from Mahinda, son of Asoka, carried on the tradition and method of relation between the church and state and laity. During the time of King Dutthagamani, the king in contradiction to the Vinaya rules which forbid the bhikkhus from participating in any act of war took with him Buddhist bhikkhus to fight the Damila king Elara on the excuse that he was such a devoted Buddhist that he could not afford to forego the sight of the bhikkhus every morning. The bhikkhu samgha consented to accompany the king on the ground that Dutthagamani was fighting the heretical Damilas who were destroying the Buddhist religion. This incident showed that the king used the moral support of the bhikkhus and the members of the bhikkhusamgha complied because they were well aware that it was a life and death struggle for supremacy between two religions — Buddhism and Brahmanism. But the author of Mahavamsa tried to justify the act erroneously giving the excuse that the bhikkhus were sent as a "penance". This incident may be regarded an exception which proves the rule.
When we come to Burma also, history almost repeats itself except for a few instances. The reason for which is that the same conventions and customary traditions were introduced into Burma from Ceylon.
It was the Buddhist bhikkhus who evolved the Mon and Burmese alphabet and learning was imparted by them. The bhikkhus then were the only teachers of the kings and ministers and the laity as well. Teachers were respected like the Trinity of the refugees and the parents, and the king and the laity offered lavishly their donations and built many monasteries in which the bhikkhus carried on their studies and teaching with zeal. The bhikkhus of Pagan had their own Head of the Order whom they nominated form among themselves. Whether or not the Head of the Order received official appointment from kings, they were treated with due respect and deference by the latter as their teachers of spiritual and secular learning. As in ancient India the head of the monasteries were looked upon both by the king and laity as admonishers on morality of the state and reliance was placed on their teachings. But very rarely did the members of the samgha take advantage of their position to interfere with the administration directly.
On one occasion during Pagan period the Primate Elder Panthagu denounced Narathu the king of Pagan in no uncertain terms because Narathu after promising the Elder that he would himself raise his brother Minshinsaw to the throne, poisoned him to death and seized the throne. The king had no option but to swallow the denunciation of the Primate who was in the right and who was a holy man, and to take action against him would probably mean more trouble from the monks as well as from the people and the king was guilty of the crime.
During Ava and Amarapura periods kings officially appointed certain learned monks as the head of the Church with the title of Samgha-natha (Lord of the Samgha) but later it was changed to Rajaguru (King's preceptor). Thus the kings would wield a considerable amount of influence over their subjects through the members of the Samgha who had their willing support. Bodawpaya was a strong and despotic king and he introduced certain reforms in the organisation of the Samgha. It was Bodawpaya who put an end to the century-old controversy which is related to the mode of wearing robes when the bhikkhus came into the village. The departure from the usual practice was made by those who came to be known as Ekamsika i.e. those who wore the upper robes with the right shoulder bare against the orthodox practice of wearing the robe covering both shoulders—Parupana. During the time of Alaungpaya, Munindaghosa thera refused to obey the orders of the king with regard to this controversial problem of wearing the robe and the thera was banished from the country. At the place of banishment the thera collected a considerable number of adherents to his own view and when the king heard about it he was summoned to the capital and was put into the prison. When Bodawpaya ascended the throne he issued a decree in favour of the mode of wearing robes as practised by the Parupanas. One Atula Yasadhamma resisted the order and the king had him declared to be an Alajji, i.e. one who has no sense of shame. He was disrobed and disgraced in a humiliating manner in public and then exiled from the capital.
The Samgha till the time of Bodawpaya became endowed with a large number of grants of land by kings, ministers and wealthy laity. The king became jealous of the bhikkhus for the power and prestige in which they were held by the people and he attempted to seize some of the lands belonging to the Samgha but his successor Bagyidaw reversed the order of confiscating the Samgha lands-called Wuttagan lands.
Dhammaceti, the Mon king of Pegu who himself had been a member of the samgha before he became king, finding that the bhikkhusamgha in the Mon kingdom was very much disorganised and had split into a number of sects, successfully unified the different sects into a single order by introducing a uniform method of Upasampada ordination and creating Kalyani thein—the ordination hall with rules strictly according to the Vinaya code. The parents and relatives of the candidates who did not adhere to these rules for ordination were punished.
With regard to the property owned by the Samgha no individual bhikkhu according to the strict Vinaya rules is to have ownership of any property except the light indispensable requisites of a recluse called parikkhara such as a set of three robes, bowl, water—strainer, razor, needle, thread and a piece of leather to be used as a carpet. Gifts of monasteries and lands for support of bhikkhus are intended to be made to the community of bhikkhus as all members of the samgha were supposed to lead a communal life. But in the course of the long history of Buddhism there appeared cases where gifts made to individual recluses are sanctioned. Such puggalika properties were often disputed and such ecclesiastical cases were decided by the Thathanabaing in council during the Burmese kings time. The king also appointed officials known as Mahadan wuns who were in practice liaison officers between the king and the Thathanabaing-in-council. But under the British occupation these disputes were decided by the civil courts. As regards criminal offences committed by the members of the Samgha, they are sent to criminal courts like those of the ordinary citizens and when they were judicially convicted they are treated like ordinary prisoners.
Ordinarily the kings did not interfere with the internal polity of the samgha but when they have to do so in the cause of peace and security they did so with the consent of their Rajagurus presuming that the kings are the Defenders of the Faith— Thathanadayaka.
A few decades after the British occupation of Burma, with the resurgence of national spirit some bhikkhus like U Uttama and U Wisara took interest in the politics and participated in the movement for arousing the patriotism of the people by drawing instances from the Jatakas in their religious sermons. During the Diarchical period elections for representatives to the Legislative Council were conducted and the candidates taking the precedents created by the Burmese kings in eliciting the support of the Samgha for the peace and security of the state exploited the influence wield by the members of the samgha over the electorate. And a very low percentage of the worldly minded members of the Samgha were lured to the erroneous sway of the politicians who made their approach on the grounds of religion. In some extreme cases some bhikkhus unnecessarily suffered in the hands of the Law. There was such an organisation as samgha—ovada—kham G.C.B.A.
Even after the independence the politicians exploited the Samgha in the name of religion but the majority of the members of the samgha realizing that the Government is composed of many Buddhist ministers and officials and that it was a Burmese Sovereign State, the amount of support they gave to the politicians was far less than that given during the British occupation when the country was under alien rule.
The government of Independent Burma generally adopted the previous laws but as it has to be run on democratic and secular principles, the constitution has laid down certain rights to Buddhist religion i.e. "The state recognised the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union of Burma and also recognises other religions." Independent Burmese state enacted a legislative measure with regard to ecclesiastical matters called the Vinicchaya Act: by which all matters concerning the Samgha are taken out of the jurisdiction of the civil courts, except in cases of criminal offences which were dealt with as in the cases of ordinary citizens. But the final appeal lies with the civil courts.
Thus the following conclusions can be drawn from the facts stated above:
(1) The Church is dependent on the laity for its material needs. Contribution by the laity are voluntary and the measure of their support depends upon the degree of piety and strict religious life led by the bhikkhus in accordance with the Vinaya rules.
(2) The State has no authority over the internal administration of the Church but it can take measures either by legislation or otherwise for the peace, security and welfare of the people.
(3) The individual members of the Samgha are subject to the jurisdiction of the civil courts in respect of their conduct and actions even though they are definitely sanctioned by the Vinaya code.
(4) The Church has no independent territorial jurisdiction and the sovereignty of the state does not exclude the Church.
Copyright - Myanmar Book Centre & Book Promotion & Service Ltd., Bangkok, Thailand
Restriction: For your own private non-business study only and not to be re-published nor re-distributed.
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