The monastic social movement that emerged from the Axial Age in India swept throughout Asia, transforming the landscapes, the cultures, and the politics of all its nations, as well as countless individuals. It is quite likely that it influenced even West Asia, North Africa, and Europe by lending its institutional style to Aramaic and Egyptian Christianity as well as to Manicheanism.
The Buddha’s Jewel Community
Monasticism was designed to embody, in an alternative social reality, the seeds of the planetary buddhaland, which the Buddha saw would emerge in the future. Monasticism was the center of what he called the “Jewel Community,” a specially protected community within society that enabled individuals to develop an extraordinary standard of ethical, religious, and intellectual life oriented to transcendent individual and social fulfillment. Indian society already had the institutions of the hermit ascetic and the priesthood of the urban temple. In between these two, the Buddha gradually evolved the institutional form of the suburban monastery, just adjacent to and still virtually within the existing social world.
The boundary between his community and the ordinary society was a change of identity so drastic that it involved a psychic death and rebirth. The monk or nun had to abandon race, caste, family, name, property, occupation, clothing, adornment, hair, even sexuality. The seriousness of this boundary was essential to insulate the monastic heart of the new community from the powerful demands of the larger social whole.
In the new community of monks and nuns, the members could cultivate a new way of relating to one another— without violence, exploitation, or competitive roughness. Because each was seeking transcendent liberation, there was a new consideration for the individual; a new sensitivity toward others as ends in themselves; a new respect for freedom, personal attainment, and wisdom. They put the Buddha’s psychological methods of self-cultivation into practice to free themselves from debilitating negative passions and to enjoy the happiness of the positive emotions. All of them, including women and members of the lower castes, could study the penetrating philosophical teachings of the Buddha. They could critique the conventional notions of the culture and attain liberative and transformative insight into the nature of the self and reality. Thus, the new community served as an ethical proving ground for a future buddhaland society, as psychological asylum and meditative retreat, as philosophical school, research laboratory, and cultural center.
The monastic community also served a number of mediating functions that were incidental to its main ones but that probably were important for its rapid and successful expansion throughout northern India. Its openness to women, to people of low caste, and to ex-slaves made it an important avenue of social mobility as well as a mechanism of social cohesion. It is perhaps for this reason that the rising mercantile classes of Indian society, some of whom came from the lower rungs of the traditional hierarchy and from the outsider castes, found their needs and aspirations satisfied by the monastic community and were its most important and enthusiastic backers.
This new institution was fundamentally the footing, the grounding point, for the Buddha’s vision of an enlightened society, which would spread across the planet gradually through history. It became a fountain of goodness through systematic restraint of evil; a haven of peace through concentration of mind and cultivation of positive emotion; and a center of learning, understanding, and knowledge through systematic inquiry into the true nature of reality. Monasticism institutionalized the primacy of the individual’s life-purpose of enlightenment over the collective’s purposes of survival and production.
As a cool-war general, the Buddha sent out his army of monks and nuns to infiltrate all countries. Within two centuries, the north of India had merged into a single empire, and in a parallel, invisible, and purely interior process, the Buddha’s community and its schools had become a widespread establishment, referred to simply as “the community.”
The social miracle Buddha performed was to get the kings of his day to accept the intrusion of this vast, materially purposeless institution.
Excerpted from Robert AF Thurman’s Inner Revolution by Penguin Group US