Monastic Life – Chapter 29: Monks in the Mahayana

The Mahayana has sometimes been portrayed as a kind of revolution in the history of Buddhism, in which the narrow monastic goal of nirvana was replaced by the greater goal of buddhahood, a goal that is made available to both monk and layperson, male and female. There are indeed texts which speak of the lay bodhisattva, the Vimalakirti Sutra being the most famous. But a study of the earliest Mahayana sutras, although extolling the bodhisattva ideal, display a strong affinity with, and reverence for, the monastic tradition. The Inquiry of Ugra (Ugra- pariprccha), which may date from the first century bce, is such a text.

The scripture is structured, like so many sutras, as a dialogue between the Buddha and one or more other interlocutors. In this case, the main questioner, whose inquiry prompts the Buddha to launch into a protracted discourse on the bodhisattva path, is a lay bodhisattva named Ugra. Ugra is labelled a grhapati, a term that literally means *lord of the house’ but actually refers to men belonging to the upper stratum of what would later be called the vaisya (often rendered as *merchant’) caste. This label is translated here as *eminent householder’.

The sutra is divided into two parts, one directed to the lay bodhisattva and the second consisting of instructions for the renunciant. In the oldest version of the sutra, Ugra and his friends, after hearing the Buddha’s discourse, ask for and receive ordination as monks; in more recent translations, this event takes place in the middle of the sutra. In ail versions, however, the overall message is clear: while a lay practitioner is capable of performing at least preliminary parts of the bodhisattva path, to attain the final goal of buddhahood it is absolutely essential to become a monk. The Buddha declares quite unequivocally, *For no bodhisattva who lives at home has ever attained supreme perfect enlightenment. ‘

Accordingly, the Inquiry of Ugra urges the lay bodhisattva to break the ties of affection that bind him to his family, above all to his wife; the condemnation of marriage and family life is striking. Moreover, he is urged to emulate the conduct of the monks in his local monastery even while he still lives at home – which involves, among other things, complete celibacy. This is, of course, entirely congruent with what was required of the upasaka (often, but wrongly, translated simply as *lay Buddhist’), the lay brother who has taken on the three refuges and the five precepts (vowing not to kill, steal, lie about spiritual attainments, engage in sexual misconduct or to use intoxicants) and dresses in white as a sign of his semi-monastic status. The lay bodhisattva described in the Inquiry of Ugra, in sum, may be *in the world’ but is certainly not of it, and he is repeatedly urged to seek ordination as soon as he possibly can.

If the lay bodhisattva is portrayed in the Inquiry of Ugra as the best of all possible upāsakas, the renunciant bodhisattva, in turn, is
portrayed as the best of all possible monks. Not only does he follow the
standard requirements of the monastic life, but he goes beyond them, spending large periods of time (ideally, his whole lifetime) performing stringent ascetic practices in the wilderness. All of this, of course, is nothing more than a re-enactment of the biography of Sakyamuni Buddha himself, and there is every reason to think that aspiring bodhisattvas, both lay and monastic, took the stories of the Buddha’s life – including his previous lives, described in the jataka stories – as a script to be followed by those who wished to become buddhas themselves.

The Inquiry of Ugra never portrays any actual female practitioner, whether lay or monastic, as a bodhisattva. Apart from a formulaic reference to ‘gentlemen and ladies’ (commonly translated by others as *sons and daughters of good lineage’), which appears at the beginning and the end of the sutra and may well have been added long after its initial composition, there is no indication whatsoever that the authors of the Inquiry of Ugra believed women were capable of embarking upon the bodhisattva path. Indeed, the description of that path given in the text abounds in masculine imagery; it is difficult to imagine that women practitioners could have seen their own reflections in the ideal bodhisattva that the Inquiry of Ugra portrays.

The Inquiry of Ugra was a highly influential scripture in both India and East Asia, where it was widely quoted and commented upon for many centuries. Though virtually unknown in most contemporary Buddhist communities, it was an important and influential voice in the formative period of Mahayana Buddhism.

The text has not survived in any Indian-language version. It has been preserved, however, in five translated versions: three into Chinese, one into Tibetan and one into Mongolian. The Tibetan version has been used as the basis for the selections provided here.

Instructions to the Lay Bodhisattva

The Practice of Taking Refuge

O eminent householder, a householder bodhisattva, while living at home, should go to the Buddha for refuge, go to the dharma for refuge and go to the sangha for refuge…. And how should the householder bodhisattva go to the Buddha for refuge? O eminent householder, by forming the thought ‘I must attain the body of a Buddha, ornamented with the thirty-two marks of a great man’, and by exerting himself to acquire those roots of goodness by which the thirty-two marks of a great man will be acquired, in this way does the householder bodhisattva go to the Buddha for refuge.

O eminent householder, how should the householder bodhisattva go to the dharma for refuge? O eminent householder, with reverence and respect for the dharma, having the dharma as his objective, desiring the dharma, rejoicing and delighting in the pleasure of the dharma, being intent upon the dharma, inclined towards the dharma, with a propensity for the dharma, protecting the dharma, abiding in the preservation of the dharma, dwelling in the accomplishment and practice of the dharma, mastering the dharma, seeking the dharma, having the power of the dharma, having the sword [which is] the gift of the dharma, doing what is to be done with respect to the dharma, and by having those qualities, bearing in mind the thought ‘Having awakened to supreme perfect enlightenment myself, I must rightly share the dharma with the world, with its gods, humans and asuras’ – O eminent householder, this is how a householder bodhisattva goes to the dharma for refuge.

O eminent householder, how should the householder bodhisattva go to the sangha for refuge? O eminent householder, if he sees monks who are stream-enterers, or once-returners, or non­returners, or arhats, or unenlightened ordinary persons, or members of the sravaka vehicle, the pratyekabuddha vehicle, or the Mahayana, with reverence and respect towards them he makes the effort to stand up, speaks to them pleasantly and treats them politely. Showing reverence towards those he meets with and encounters, he bears in mind the thought that ‘When I have awakened to supreme perfect enlightenment, I will teach the dharma which cultivates [in others] the qualities of a sravaka or a pratyekabuddha in just this way.’ Thus having reverence and respect for them, he does not cause them any trouble. That is how a householder bodhisattva goes to the sangha for refuge.

Breaking Family Ties

O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth three thoughts towards his own wife. And what are the three? The thought of her impermanence, the thought of her unreliability, and the thought of her changeableness. O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth those three thoughts towards his own wife.

O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth three thoughts towards his own wife. And what are the three? The thoughts that ‘she is my companion in happiness and enjoyment, but not my companion in the next world’; that ‘she is my companion in eating and drinking, but not my companion in experiencing the ripening of actions’; and that ‘she is my companion in pleasure, but not my companion in suffering’. O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth those three thoughts towards his own wife.

O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth three thoughts towards his own wife. And what are the three? The thought of her as impure, the thought of her as stinking, and the thought of her as disagreeable.

O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth three thoughts towards his own wife. And what are the three? The thought of her as an enemy, the thought of her as an executioner, and the thought of her as an antagonist.

O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva who lives at home should bring forth three thoughts towards his own wife. And what are the three? The thought of her as an ogre, the thought of her as a demon, and the thought of her as a hag…

Moreover, O eminent householder, the householder bodhisattva should not bring forth the thought of excessive affection towards his son. O eminent householder, if he brings forth the thought of excessive affection towards his son, while not doing so towards other beings, he should reproach himself with three reproaches.

And what are the three? ‘Bodhi belongs to the bodhisattva whose mind is impartial, not to the one whose mind is partial; bodhi belongs to the bodhisattva who strives rightly, not to the one who strives wrongly; and bodhi belongs to the bodhisattva who does not make distinctions, not to the one who makes distinctions.’ Thus having reproached himself with these three reproaches, he should bring forth the idea of ‘enemy’ towards his son, thinking ‘He is an enemy, and is not dear to my heart. If for his sake I bring forth excessive affection towards that son of mine while not doing the same towards other beings I will be deviating from the training prescribed by the Buddha. For his sake I have damaged my roots of goodness and have heedlessly endangered my own life; therefore he is harmful to me. For his sake I have followed a path that is not in accord with the path of bodhi; therefore he is my opponent.’

When Visiting the Monastery

O eminent householder, if the householder bodhisattva wishes to go inside a monastery, he should remain at the monastery door with a well-bred mind, with a dextrous mind, with reverence, respect, faith and veneration, and should prostrate himself towards the monastery. Only then should he go inside the monastery. And he should reflect to himself as follows: ‘This is a place for dwelling in emptiness. This is a place for dwelling in the signless. This is a place for dwelling in the wishless. It is a place for dwelling in loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. This is a place of practitioners of meditation, a place for those who have cut off all places. This is the place of those who have truly gone forth and have truly entered the path. When will I be able to go forth from the dusty place, the household place, and conduct myself in this way? And when will I be able to take part in the activities of the sangha, the activities of the posadha ceremony [in which monks recite their vows fortnightly], the activities of the pravorana ceremony [at the end of the rains’ retreat], and the activities of paying respects?’ And so thinking, he should rejoice in the thought of going forth as a monk.

For no bodhisattva who lives at home has ever attained supreme perfect enlightenment. Those who have done so have all gone forth from the household, and, having done so, they have thought of the wilderness; they have had the wilderness as their goal. And having gone to the wilderness, there they have awakened to supreme perfect enlightenment. And it is there that they have acquired the requisites [of enlightenment]…

When he goes inside the monastery, he should do homage to the marks of the Tathagata. And having done homage to them, he should bring forth three thoughts. And what are the three? (1) ‘I, too, should become one who is worthy of this kind of worship’; (2) ‘Out of pity for living beings, I should bestow my own body’; and (3) ‘I should train and make efforts in whatever way will cause me to quickly attain supreme perfect enlightenment and to do the deeds of a buddha, and by having experienced the parinirvana [final nirvana] of a tathagata, to cause others to attain parinirvana.’

Instructions to the Monastic Bodhisattva

The Importance of Wilderness-dwelling

Moreover, O eminent householder, the renunciant bodhisattva, having seen its ten advantages, will not abandon wilderness­dwelling for as long as he lives. And what are the ten? He will see that ‘My mind becomes happy and comes under my control; being without the idea of “mine”, I will become free of grasping; lodging will be given to me in abundance; I will not be devoid of delight in living in the wilderness; with respect to dwelling-places, I will have few objectives and little to do; casting off my dependants, I will have no regard for body and life; being happy alone, I will abandon noisy gatherings; I will give up the goal of attaining qualities produced by actions; in accord with the practice of samadhi, my mind will become one-pointed; and my attention will be wide open and without defilement.’ O eminent householder, having seen these ten advantages, the renunciant bodhisattva will not abandon wilderness-dwelling so long as he lives….

Moreover, O eminent householder, the renunciant bodhisattva who lives in the wilderness should think to himself, ‘Why have I come to the wilderness?’ And he should reflect as follows: ‘I came to the wilderness because of being frightened and afraid. Frightened and afraid of what? Frightened and afraid of noisy gatherings and of associating with others; of desire, hatred and delusion; of pride, conceit and the disparagement of others; of covetousness, envy and jealousy; of sights, sounds, scents, tastes and touch-objects; of the Mara of the skandhas, the Mara of the defilements, the Mara of death and of Mara himself; of mistaking the non-eternal for the eternal, the painful for the pleasurable, the selfless for the self and the impure for the pure; of thought, mind and consciousness; of craving and samsara; of hindrances, obstructions and obsessions; of a false view of individuality; of taking things as “me” and “mine”. in short, being frightened and afraid of paying attention to all unvirtuous things.

‘Being frightened by such frightening and fearful things as these, I have come to the wilderness. One cannot be freed from such frightening and fearful things as these by living at home, living in the midst of noisy gatherings, living without making efforts and without exerting oneself in yogic practice, and while directing one’s attention improperly. For all the bodhisattva mahasattvas who have appeared in the past have been liberated from all fear after dwelling in the wilderness, and thus they have attained the fearless state of supreme perfect enlightenment.’

Avoiding Contact with Others

Moreover, O eminent householder, the renunciant bodhisattva should not be in close contact with many people. He should think to himself as follows: ‘I should not bring forth the roots of goodness for just one being; rather, I should bring forth the roots of goodness for all beings.’ Nonetheless, O eminent householder, the Tathagata has permitted the following four kinds of association to the renunciant bodhisattva. And what are the four? To associate with others in order to listen to the dharma; to associate with others in order to mature as beings; to associate with others in order to worship and revere the Tathagata; and to associate with those whose spirit of omniscience is uncontaminated. O eminent householder, the renunciant bodhisattva is permitted these four kinds of association by the Tathagata. O eminent householder, this being the case, the renunciant bodhisattva should be free of all other kinds of association.

The Ordination of Ugra and his Friends

Then with one voice Ugra and the other eminent householders praised the words of the Blessed One, and spoke to the Blessed One as follows: ‘It is amazing, O Blessed One, how the Blessed One has spoken so well about the faults, obligations and activities of the household life, and about the advantages of the good qualities of the renunciant. O Blessed One, now that it has become clear to us the extent of the faults and bad qualities of the household life and the endless advantages of the qualities of the renunciant, O Blessed One, please let us go forth and receive full ordination in the well- taught dharma and vinaya taught by the Well-Gone One.’ When they had spoken thus, the Blessed One replied, ‘O eminent householders, the renunciant life is difficult; one must keep one’s conduct perfectly pure.’ When he had spoken those words, the eminent householders replied, ‘O Blessed One, it may be true that the renunciant life is difficult, but we ask the Blessed One to allow us to go forth. We ask to be allowed to exert ourselves in the Blessed One’s teachings.’ And the Blessed One allowed them to go forth.

Then the Blessed One said to the bodhisattva Maitreya and the bodhisattva Sarvacaryavisuddha, ‘Good men, cause these eminent householders to go forth and ordain them!’ When the Blessed One had spoken, the bodhisattva Maitreya presided over the going forth of nine thousand eminent householders, while the bodhisattva Sarvacaryavisuddha presided over the going forth of seven thousand eminent householders. And upon the teaching of this dharma-text… a thousand living creatures brought forth the spirit of supreme perfect enlightenment.

Translated by Jan Nattier from a critical edition of the Tibetan based on the following versions: Otani (= Beijing) No. 760[19], Derge No. 63, Narthang No. 51, Stog Palace No. 11[19], and the London Manuscript Kanjur.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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