How Sangha and Paccekabuddha Refute Peace for Buddhists

When Siddhartha Gautama became Shakyamuni Buddha he decided against peace. What does this mean?

Perfect peace, inner and outer peace, means accepting whatever happens to you. Please consider this for a moment.

If someone attacks you with intent to kill, you have the choice of resisting or accepting. Resisting your attacker means fighting them; the political concept of “non-violent” resistance means very little in such a physical situation. Accepting your attacker is the only peaceful solution. It also means that you will die. If you can accept your own death you are a truly peaceful person.

If someone invades your community and asks you to surrender to their will, you have the same choice. If you “non-violently” resist the invaders, you may not be taking up arms but you are demonstrating that your beliefs conflict with theirs, which is a disruptive response, not a peaceful one. Complete surrender is the peaceful option. A perfectly peaceful community is therefore one that will be extinguished at the slightest touch.

The principal legacy of Buddha is the sangha, or community of monks. The sangha follows a very strict set of rules. They do not surrender to people who ask them to secularize their community. The establishment of a rule-abiding community in human society is not a peaceful action. It implies a small but recognizable level of resistance to the emotions and entanglements of lay society. Its membership is strictly voluntary, but it actively fights inner disorder, through its dispute system, and self-extinction, through its mission to propagate the dhamma. We must acknowledge that the sangha probably has the effect of promoting peace and absolving suffering in the society it depends on. The sangha is a skillful means to dhamma. But it is not a perfectly peaceful community and was not meant to be.

(Aside: Under the leadership of a Buddha I can accept that the sangha would be perfectly peaceful because any opposition to the sangha could be eliminated without conflict through a peaceful and compassionate reaction instructed by perfect understanding. But ordinary people are not Buddha.)

For people to follow rules they must believe in them. Belief is not a rational concept. No amount of rationality can force someone to drop everything and take up the monk’s robes. To make that decision you must have, as Buddha did, a belief (1) that the dhamma can be taught through sangha (2) that it will change the state of the world and (3) that this is a good thing. Unless if you are already Buddha these things are not obvious. They require a deep mystery to activate themselves in your mind, a recognition of Buddhism as a power and a force beyond a voluntary practice of meditation.

These three beliefs are cultural institutions. In Buddhist countries their power is strong; you believe, your family believes, and your friends believe. It is relatively easy to be a monk. In the West, none of those things are likely to be true. Many people may have a strong grasp of the dhamma in the West. But the dhamma is not acting on the world through a strong sangha. At best it is taking baby steps, during face-to-face personal encounters, in carefully considered acts that everyone must agree to be promoting peace in order to be considered Buddhist. Teaching mindfulness can be done over the Internet, but this is not the same as acting mindful. Only when people believe in the ability of dhamma to change the world for the better can the sangha be grown. They must not only believe tentatively that it sounds like it makes sense; they must devote themselves, they must give money, they must build, they must tell their friends and make their beliefs more acceptable. The sangha thereby is forced to institute itself on the world.

Dhamma is not peaceful, because Buddhism teaches that it requires propagation, and the propagation of dhamma is not peaceful. It is a force that acts on the world, eliminating wrong view and establishing deeper understanding. It does not drift through the air, seeping into the ears of meditators and giving them ethereal power. Sangha does not exist without its human believers, its pious monks and pious laity. It is very much a worldly force that builds order and disturbs the natural chaos. Trees must be chopped down to create its gathering spaces. It represents itself in monks, temples, pagodas and books, in local histories, in familiar illustrations and jataka tales. These things are not excess junk surrounding the dhamma but a reflection of the cultural power of the sangha, the same power that is necessary to maintain the community of monks and the vinaya they keep.

Who is a perfectly peaceful being? The Tripitaka gives us the answer. Some Buddhas are what we call paccekabuddha (縁覚 engaku). “Buddhas are enlightened by themselves and enlighten others: Paccekabuddhas are enlightened by themselves (but) do not enlighten others: they comprehend only the essence of meaning (attha-rasa), not the essence of the idea (dhamma-rasa). Because they are not able to put the supramundane dhamma into concepts and teach it; their realisation of the Dhamma is like a dream seen by a dumb man and like the taste of a curry from the city to one who lives in the forest”. (Suttanipata Commentary)

“Thus having entered upon religious life, he retires to the forest and goes on alone.” (Niddesa) He does not chop down any trees, for he needs no meeting spaces. He forces no bhikkus to wear robes or abstain from alcohol. In fact, he forces no one to hear the dhamma, but lives alone, “like the horn of a rhinoceros”.

If you were to summon superhuman self-control and achieve inner peace today, you would not become a Buddha. You would become paccekabuddha, understanding transience and dependent arising, but not how to control the force of compassion. Perfectly aware compassion makes you more than peaceful; it makes you a net positive force. If compassion were peaceful then an enlightened world, a world where all men become Buddhas, would be a peaceful one. But compassion is not peaceful, so a world where all men become Buddhas is simply an opening into further enlightened work.

In establishing the sangha the Buddha went beyond the concept of peace, because he not only saw the dhamma but knew the dhamma inside and out, and could not live anything other than dhamma, and was led by the dhamma to compassion, and was led by perfectly aware compassion to create an institution. Buddhists must therefore believe that this institution, when it follows the rules laid out by Buddha, is a positive force in the world.

Posted: July 19th, 2011 | Dharma, World Peace 1 Comment »

One Comment on “How Sangha and Paccekabuddha Refute Peace for Buddhists”

  1. 1 Not quite anonymous said at 2:59 pm on August 15th, 2011:

    Re: “Under the leadership of a Buddha I can accept that the sangha would be perfectly peaceful…”

    The canon is brimful of detailed descriptions of the conflicts that arose both within the monastic order, and in the friction between the monastic order and society-at-large.

    The standard account of the death of Maha-Moggallana was that he was assassinated by offended members of a non-Buddhist religion.

    Yes, starting a new religion results in overt hostility from already-established religions; yes, this included monks getting beaten to death, in this instance, and probably others less famous; yes, many non-fatal conflicts are recorded in the canon, that give you a sense of what the sources of social conflict were.

    There are also canonical accounts of monks being reviled by their own parents, because, obviously, the younger generation converted to the new religion while the older generation rejected it (or simply maintained their old religion).

    And, obviously, a religion that openly ridicules the caste system in the midst of a social order predicated on the caste system is going to cause some conflict; obviously, too, a religion that ridicules and repudiates the Vedas will cause some conflict with a pre-established religion that worships the Vedas.

    Re: “Many people may have a strong grasp of the dhamma in the West.”

    No, they don’t. The number of people who can read primary sources is fewer than twenty; the number who are actually motivated to do so is lower still. And if you don’t read primary sources, trust me, you don’t have a strong grasp of the dhamma.

    The idea of the paccekabuddha allows for nibbana outside of the cosmological cycle of the Buddhas; hypothetically, someone in the middle of Brazil or Botswana could attain the understanding that there is no soul, all is impermanent, etc. etc., and basically re-invent the core philosophy of Buddhism, with no access to Buddhist tradition. Hypothetically, he (or she) could attain nirvana in isolation; however, what he would be unable to do (as the story goes) is initiate a new cycle of the teaching, with the creation of a monastic community, followed by its gradual decline and disappearance, etc. –as the latter is believed to be strictly linked to the world-cycle. The principle of the latter is, basically, one Buddha per planet (or one Buddha per geological era… i.e., unimaginable periods of time).

    It’s a shame the paccekabuddha didn’t inspire more drama or poetry; it is a pretty poetic predicament, e.g., being the only guy in Botswana to know the terrible truth, and yet be unable to really communicate to anyone in your own culture.

    By contrast, I’m an optimist: this life is suffering doctrine could be the next big fad in Africa or South America… it could catch on any day now…