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Rival Monastic Groups and the Messiness of Ethical Practice in Buddhist Vinaya Texts

Attached to Paper Session

This paper takes as its premise Martha Nussbaum’s insight that (i.) conventional language of philosophy and ethics in propositional terms is not adequate to understand views “that emphasize the world’s surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty,” and that (ii.) the literary form in which such views are expressed is as important as the content itself (Love’s Knowledge, p.3). Narratives can help us to see better the complicated nature of ethics in everyday life, in a way that’s not possible through reductive language or systematic lists of rules. With this premise in mind, I argue that attending to the lists of rules in the Vinaya texts is not adequate to understand the ethical life envisioned in and through Buddhist monasticism, and that it is through reading the narratives in these texts that we can gain a broader understanding of the complexities of ethics in Buddhist monastic life in particular, and in human life more generally.


We can see in the “confrontational narratives” depicting conflicts between two groups of monks that the Vinaya texts are self-conscious in not idealizing Buddhist monasticism, but instead present the “flawed and imperfect beauty” (Nussbaum) of the everyday life in a monastery. As they sometimes portray characters who even mistreat and harass others for fun or power, these narratives resist reducing them to mere illustrations of rules. Instead, reflecting on our own reactions of shock, surprise, or amusement as we read them, we can begin to understand what lessons these narratives do or do not teach their audiences, i.e., traditional Buddhist monastics as well as modern lay readers. 


For instance, many are the stories of the miscreant monks known famously as the “group of six” in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya texts (some of their parallel versions are preserved in the Theravāda Vinaya as well). Name any behavior that is inappropriate for a monk, and it is likely that the group of six is involved. In fact, the majority of the one hundred and eight “training factors” (śaikṣa-dharma) have been introduced in the Vinaya ostensibly because of something done by members of this group that others found offensive or inappropriate. These training factors pertain to various manners of comportment include even such basic activities as how to eat, wear robes, and walk properly in public spaces. The narratives regarding the group of six are therefore of significant interest for anyone striving to understand the complexity of Buddhist monastic discipline.


According to the Mūlsarvāstivāda narratives, the misbehavior of the group of six gains new heights when seventeen teenage boys become fully ordained monks. The group of six quickly take advantage of the naiveté and vulnerability of this second group, known colloquially in the texts as the group of seventeen. Senior members of the monastic community, the six, for instance, contrive to get their chores done by members of this new group. However, things sometimes turn nasty, even violent, when the seventeen suddenly refuse to serve the group of six, opting instead to study hard with a different teacher. This leads to unpleasant confrontations between the two groups. Fearing that the group of seventeen would become learned and domineering, the rascally members of the group of six deliberately intimidate and dissuade them from their studies. Although initially new and gullible, the seventeen do not just play the victim. They respond to these intimidations with severe measures of their own, once even succeeding in passing a sentence in the communal hearing to expel one member of the group of six. 


Confrontations between these two groups, presented with an astonishing degree of realism and humor, can be amusing, surprising, or even shocking to a reader. We see in these narratives that the competing groups are sometimes playful, but other times use tactics of domination to gain the upper hand. The foremost concern of my paper is an inquiry into what is at stake, both religiously and ethically, as these rival groups implement strategies of (mis)using the words of the Buddha to support their own agendas and to overpower and even expel members of an opposing group.


By observing the relationships of the members within these groups and the relationships between the two groups themselves through a close analysis of several narrative episodes, I come to the following conclusions: (i.) it is clear that monks do not live only by a set of a rules in their daily lives; (ii.) Vinaya narratives help us to see that there are also implicit bonds, tacit principles, and psychological factors operating, all of which are sometimes problematized in the stories about relationships between friends (and their opponents) in a monastic sub-group; (iii.), sometimes friends can be more effective in furthering ethical self-formation than their teachers can; (iv.) the conflicts between groups highlight the messiness of ethical practice in Buddhist monasteries; and that (v.) the messiness depicted in these narratives are oriented to readers, both monastic and lay, creating for them conditions to learn how to see the consequences of such conflicts, to avoid them, and/or be amused by them.


Thus, we can appreciate the richness of the Vinaya narratives, if we read them closely not as mere background stories for the introduction of rules, but as illustrations of the complicated nature of ethical practice in everyday life in Buddhist monasteries.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

The Vinaya texts of the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition contain a series of narratives depicting rival groups of monks who stay, study, play, and work together. This paper explores the dynamics of the relationship between two such monastic groups as they compete for domination, goad each other into excelling in their studies, and inadvertently create the conditions for critical self-reflection crucial to ethical formation. In this paper, I argue that the Buddhist Vinaya narratives, which are frequently read merely as the background for disciplinary rules, can profitably be read as pedagogical devices to explore the messiness of the conditions in which a life devoted to ethical practice can grow. This messiness includes conflicts between competing groups and using the Buddha’s words for deceitful purposes—forcing readers, including us, to a second order reflection on the very function and limits of vinaya (discipline) itself as a way life.