Dharmaguptakas and the Stupa

Note: Accompanying my book Sects & Sectarianism I wrote a series of short articles on related matters. I recently came across these, tied them up, and present them here for your enjoyment.

Vasumitra mentions that the Dharmaguptakas held that stupa worship was meritorious, which is hardly unusual. But the school also preserves a unique list of 26 sekhiya rules pertaining to conduct around the stupa. The obvious reading of these two bits of information is that the Dharmaguptakas had a special emphasis on the stupa cult. But the more I think about this, the odder it seems.

I wonder what could it possibly mean for a school to have more emphasis on the stupa than other schools? We know that stupa worship has been an apparently universal center of Buddhist devotional practice, at least since Aśoka and probably since the Buddha. The Mahāvihāra is the only Vinaya not to discuss stupas in its Vinaya, and yet we know that this school, contrary to its undeserved reputation for dry intellectualism, worshiped stupas with exuberance. How could anyone possibly worship stupas more?

And if the Dharmaguptakas did worship stupas especially, why should this be particularly expressed in their sekhiya rules, of all places? Surely we should expect to find such an emphasis in their devotional literature, but as far as I know such evidence is not forthcoming.

Remember that the Vinaya rules are, in accordance with ancient precedent, not laid down without a reason. One does not simply formulate a series of Vinaya rules to express one’s particular doctrine. Vinaya rules are formulated in response to transgressions that actually happen. If the Dharmaguptakas had special rules about the stupa, this means they were in a situation where monks and nuns actually did act in these ways. But why on earth would Buddhists need a rule telling them not to pee on a stupa? Perhaps we need to seek another reason for the presence of these special rules.

One of the things that immediately struck me when I saw this list is the rule prohibiting stretching one’s feet out towards the stupa. This is almost a caricature of the teachings in etiquette that I, as an untrained mleccha, had to learn when I first visited Thailand. It is a common experience for Westerners who travel to Buddhist countries, the clumsiness they feel around unfamiliar customs. After many years and many embarrassing slip-ups, I gradually internalized the norms of Buddhist etiquette. Returning to the barbarous frontier lands of Australia, the coarseness of the locals was almost shocking, I could feel the ‘inappropriateness’ in my belly—although soon enough it becomes normal again.

It seems to me that this may well have been similar to the experience of the Greek Dharmagupta. Traveling a long way to Pāṭaliputra, he spent years learning language, teachings, meditation, and no doubt absorbed the refinements of Buddhist devotions. Returning to his homelands in the far-off Greek regions, at the borders of the Indian cultural sphere, he must have had quite a task to introduce Buddhist ways. It is likely, perhaps inevitable, that the locals, including the newly ordained monks and nuns, would not be familiar with Buddhist etiquette, and would need teachings on things that for their Gangetic brothers and sisters would be too obvious to need mentioning.

I suggest, then, that the sekhiya rules regarding the stupa are not an expression of any particular emphasis on the stupa, but are a response to inappropriate conduct regarding the stupa that happened when the Dharmaguptakas became established in the Gandhara region, perhaps by Yonaka Dharmagupta himself.

In support of this, one of these ‘stupa’ rules in fact refers not to the stupa but prohibits taking a Buddha image into the toilet—again, hardly something that would need making explicit in a Buddhist culture. But as we know, Gandhārā was one of the earliest regions where Buddha images, heavily Greek influenced, are found.

Thus these rules should be seen as local rules, developed not as an expression of a doctrine about stupas, but as a practical way of teaching the local monks and nuns in a new Buddhist environment the appropriate ways of behavior. This reminds us of an important feature of Vinaya rules: the fact that a Vinaya rule prohibits something does not mean that that thing never happened. On the contrary, if it never happened there would be no need for a rule about it. It also seems likely that other sekhiya rules should also be seen as local adaptations, although it is difficult to find clear-cut examples of this.

The question that remains then is: why did Vasumitra mention the Dharmaguptakas as having a special doctrine of the stupa? We know that the Dharmaguptakas and others in the region were spectacularly successful, and Gandhara became a Buddhist stronghold for a long time. After a generation or two, the people would have been as thoroughly Buddhicized as anyone else. There would be no more need for special stupa rules. But of course the rules would remain, though redundant, as so many other Vinaya rules. Later, the reason for their necessity would be forgotten. Anyone studying the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya would notice this special group of rules, so unlike the other Vinayas. It would be natural to assume, as have modern scholars, that the rules expressed a special doctrine about the stupa—this may have even occurred among the Dharmaguptakas themselves. Eventually this became formalized as one of their special doctrines.


Wow, what a great example of Ockham razor bhante! It is indeed a simple, likely and realistic explanation for the peculiarity around stupas found in this specific vinaya. Much more likely than the conspiracy theory approach that tries to create deep division where maybe there was none.