Inequality and the origins of spiritual specialists

In Buddhism, as in Indian spirituality generally, a core requirement is the presence of a significant body of spiritual specialists, the various samaṇas, ājīvakas, nigaṇṭhas, munis, and of course bhikkhus. The existence of these religious professionals presupposes an economic system with sufficient surplus to support them. With the exception of occasional periods of drought or war, it seems that, whether in ancient India, or in the various Asian countries down to the present day, it has never been difficult for the society to provide the needs of even sizable populations of renunciants. Far from it: the support for the Sangha extended far beyond what was required for them to live, and resulted in massive, sustained, and incredibly expensive building of monumental structures.

It is one of the ironies of Buddhist history that today, a much smaller population of renunciates struggles to get support even for a daily meal and a simple hut in the wealthiest country that has ever existed.

Where did this surplus come from? A recent article in Nature notices that in neolithic times wealth inequality was much less in the New World than the Old, and points to a key difference between the two regions: cattle and horses.

The hypothesis is that ownership of domesticated cattle and horses allowed for much more efficient cultivation of land, hence a larger food surplus, and led to the emergence of the “rich”, the first capitalists, whose “capital” was their beasts of burden.

This is interesting from many points of view, but especially when you consider how important cattle and horses were for the early Aryans. It seems, in fact, that they domesticated the horse, and the cow was of course core to their wealth.

So it seems that harnessing these beats of burden leads to the creation of inequality; and inequality allows the creation of a professional spiritual class. Why is it, then, that as inequality grows even more, we seem to find ever less need for specialized spiritual professionals?


The United States, by comparison with many other of the wealthier countries in the world, supports a vast number of religious traditions, and denominations within those traditions. If Buddhist monks are not very highly represented in that number, that is only due to the fact that Buddhism was not historically a very prominent religion among the many groups of people who colonized or emigrated to the US.

Of course, institutional religion appears to be on the decline here as elsewhere. Probably in many cases, that is not at all regrettable. As the general level of education spreads in all economically developed societies, teachings and preachings that once seemed plausible to many people, and fulfilled their spiritual needs, may in many cases no longer satisfy both the hearts and intellects of those people.


I think it’s also worth noting that the Scandinavian societies are among the least unequal in the developed world, but also report very low rates of religiosity. It might be argued that high inequality in the United States is actually encouraged by many religious traditions, which sometimes treat prevailing social realities as an expression of divine will or favor.





Probably we also have to take into account that in most of these traditional Buddhist countries Buddhism was very much supported by the respective governments who directed large amounts into building prestigious religious buildings and sometimes even imposed Buddhism on people. In modern Western countries this isn’t the case.

In Japan for example, the Sangha was supported by the state on one hand, but on the other hand also kept within certain boundaries.


Does the monastic hierarchical structure in Buddhism is seen as sort of inequality ?!

I doubt it- it seems to be a management structure common to most functional organisations, apart from when it’s dynamics become twisted. This happens when it feeds the defilements of some individuals and they affect and afflict others.

With metta


Sometimes poverty might make a renunciate life possible:

With metta

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I had nightmare flashbacks to courses in Marxism from my university days upon reading the title. My nightmares were pleasantly dispelled, however, upon reading the OP. I give the writer most formal “props” that it is appropriate to give a renunciant.

This brings to mind the post Ven Sujato made, a while ago, about a section of DN with a very dense passage, involving the relinquishing of shovels/hoes/farming implements (which necessarily, at least in the case of ploughs for instance, aside from the most primitive human-run ploughs, involves horse/cow domestication), and the ‘alternative’ history of the Brahmins which the Buddha gave in the Agguññasutta, which seems to indirectly comment upon this quote that I isolated from the OP. In fact, I think that this shovel quote I am half-remembering was one-and-the-same with the Agguññasutta discussion that Ven Sujato initiated much earlier, perhaps last year.

I feel that this sentiment from the OP and that sentiment are intimately related, but perhaps that is just me.

EDIT: I found the discussion I was referring to with my incompetent cryptic remarks about shovels & Brahmins before, it is here: An extremely dense four words

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I think inequality was an important driver here, but I always think of it more in the terms of ‘social change’ that brought suffering to the fore of people’s minds that led to spiritual innovation. Some people became richer, built bigger homes, had more wealth and therefore security. But city life brings with it poverty, beggars, epidemic illness, rats, plague, famine. They realized despite satisfying all their former needs and more, they still couldn’t control sickness, aging, death, sorrow, lamentation… etc. Obviously the wealth was an important factor in not only allowing for generosity to support a sangha, but suffering is also needed for creating the conditions where people could go forth and would support mendicants.

Perhaps it’s another reason why Ajahn Chah was so successful and why Buddhism made such huge growth in the West, because happened during another period of extreme social change when suffering became obvious and apparent (1950s-1970s).

As I write this I realize that there are other times of suffering and no spiritual innovation and the missing factor is the wealth of inequality so I guess there’s both.

The problem nowadays is distance and technology have shielded us from our suffering. Our beasts of burden are the faceless woman working an a textile factory in Bangladesh and the starving polar bear. Our spiritual innovation is Reason and technology through which we assure ourselves this set up is ok and go on to ‘zone out’ and forget about the world and the fact that we still can’t escape aging, illness and death.
In fact, it seems that science and reason has given us the illusion that we control aging, illness and death, and so these have become our spiritual masters - after all, technological and scientific innovation is what we put the wealth of our inequality into.

The difference between us and the spiritually unequal of the past is that we are practically oblivious to suffering and the imminent reality of death, and put our faith in the more logical and therefore ‘right’ of science and technology, rather than the apparently illogical and unreasonable approach to happiness - faith.


I just thought it worth mentioning that terms like “spiritual specialists” and “religious professionals” tend to put a very positive spin on a broad and very mixed social phenomenon. Mixed in among all of the wandering mendicants pursuing a truly holy life were, I imagine, a not insignificant number of frauds, charlatans, quacks, spongers, confidence artists and even more dangerous vagabonds preying on the superstitions and vulnerabilities of the public.

The Buddha warned about many of these figures, and many of the specialized “arts” they practiced - which he seems to have thought were of little value. Unfortunately, his words haven’t always had the subsequent impact he probably hoped they would.


Material inequality has always existed way before Indo-European herdsmen or the Indian model of spiritual practice which Buddhism stemmed from. Inequality of all kinds is just a natural part of human existence which we seem to have the illusion we can change permanently so everything is equal. Not that we shouldn’t try to do what we can while we try to work towards liberation so we’re out of the samsaric mess.

I would also add that I think the need for spiritual specialists is greater than ever, whether people realize it or not.


Unpopular, but this is karma, as per EBTs, to some degree. We will never have an equal society, karma or not. The Buddha attracted those from the lowest caste right through to local kings. Anybody with a sense of Dukkha (ie human) will be attracted- but the common thread is they are the ‘wise’ and compassionate, ie- they are the ‘vinnu’ who will understand the Dhamma.

With metta


A much more noble goal than uselessly trying to lower inequality would be to rise the standard of living of everybody, be them rich, poor, medium, etc. For example poor people in USA are fat, a big difference compared to communist countries for example or to thirld world ones. Poor, Middle class, rich, etc. - all are better off than their counterparts in other places of the world. And this is something those who helped make this happen should be proud off. Especially since their example has now been taken up by all the rest of the world and that took a lot of people out of poverty already. (1 million in China alone)

As for the problem in question, I don’t think it has anything to do with inequality. Buddhism is not state-supported religion in USA and neither is it too popular. In my country for example, where religion is highly supported by the state, we have built 5 churches for every school built after the 89 revolution. We are right now in the process of building a huge, lavish, extremely expensive one with golden polished roof called “The cathedral of our nation salvation”

These kind of things can only be done by the state

The Buddha attracted those from the lowest caste right through to local kings.

The huge majority of Buddha followers were actually from the higher castes of Bhramins and Warriors. Buddhism has always been and will always be a higher caste religion. It is not a “poor person religion” like Christianity for example. (at least the version of christianity that we have today)

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I would say warriors and merchants rather than kings or slaves. A middle path, of sorts.


Regarding monasticism in the USA, the issue we have here is we are a country with virtually no history of mendicancy of any kind, even of the Christian type. People don’t know how that works and don’t understand alms. I think that is changing, over time I have heard monks say that a couple decades back people had no idea who they were–assumed they were hare krishnas, but now people see them and know they are Buddhist monks.

From the experience at Abhayagiri, I can say in California the knowledge of Buddhism is getting to be more substantial and donations and support of monks from American Buddhists here is such that now often monasteries have to turn away some donations. That doesn’t mean society at large understands monks and you could start a monastery anywhere in the country with no problems, but its not so very bad.


Actually, terms like ‘‘spiritual specialists’’ and ‘‘religious professionals’’ make me cringe a little. They seem to overshadow inequality at another level. I won’t go into that any further as I’m not interested in opening a can of worms that might provoke an endless set of arguments. However, since we are on the subject of the economics of supporting renunciants, has the subject of who has to pay for the luxury of solely following the path to liberation ever been addressed? Bhikkhus, for example, may not open the earth in fear of harming and/or killing insects. Yet someone has to do it in order to plant a garden in the hope of getting some food from somewhere. So, I guess my broader question is: Do renunciants get a free pass from defilements because they pass the buck on to the ‘worldly’ people ? Isn’t it a case of the latter having to get their hands dirty and furthering their burden of wrong deeds in order to support the renunciants who then go free of having to accumulate such demerit?


You will always see these kinds of ideas thrown around (people calling monastics freeloaders and so forth), and yet, I am pretty sure it is a minority of people who ever truly have the aspiration to ordain, so IMO this line of thinking is not grounded in reality.

There is no compulsion to give dana (or at least, there shouldn’t be). Supporting monastics is something a lay person chooses to do, and they also gain merit by the act of giving. Personally, I wish I was in a position to give more!

Helping other people go “scott free” - what could be better than that?! I believe it will come back around - it is a wholesome thing to do.

Also, the monastics I listen to and respect (unfortunately, mostly via online channels) are always reminding me to do good things, to abandon bad things, and to purify the mind - and they give instructions on how to actually do this through meditation. They spread the Dhamma! In most cases, what they give is worth far more than what they actually receive in material terms.


Ven Dhammajiva, a Sri Lankan monastary bhikkhu would say to tread the path is to learn how to ‘nimbly avoid bad kamma’. That is, how to walk their path without entanglements which could otherwise arise, very easily, unless mindfulness is maintained. I think it is like trying to draw a line on the number of animals killed from eating. We just have to make our way the best we can or is possible- and its not going to be pretty or perfect. But it is better than sitting around looking externally at someone who is making a genuine effort to escape the bonds of samsara. The Buddha gets loads of flack re leaving his wife- maybe he should have just stayed home, become enlightened, and called it a day.

with metta

There’s a fair bit of diversity in how asceticism is (and was) viewed. The Buddha was at the receiving end a few times too, when hard-working people called him as a lazy freeloader. But, giving, in general, has a cleansing effect on the mind. It’s rare that one could give voluntarily to someone and then fume internally. So, in the case of someone supporting an ascetic, both parties benefit. And maybe eventually, a layperson will gain enough courage and willingness to seek the path of renunciation…