I have recently been asked about the history of the use of dwellings among Buddhist monastics. It is often assumed, reasonably enough, that there were no dwellings in the earliest period of Buddhist history. Those with a purist bent tend to idealise this period as giving the most authentic expression of Buddhist practice. But is it really possible to divide Buddhist history neatly into an initial period characterised by the wandering monastic and a later one characterised by settled monasticism? Although I think there is some truth to this distinction, I also believe the reality, as it tends to be, is much more complex. It seems to me that the two kinds of lifestyle must have existed together almost from the very beginning of Buddhist history. I will make my case below. Please bear in mind that this is more a series of off the cuff remarks than a proper study. For this reason I welcome alternative points of view, and indeed feedback of any kind.
But first of all, here is the actual question that my little essay is a response to:
I wonder if I may bother you with a question which has long puzzled me. … It concerns the Sangha’s use of overnight residences. They seem to be first introduced in Cullavagga VI (Vinaya II, pp.146 ff.). Having got the Buddha’s permission to construct overnight dwellings, a merchant of Rājagaha is there said to construct 60 of them in one day. The Buddha allows them to be of five types. Neither that there were five types at the outset, nor that the first ones were constructed at the rate of 60 a day, sounds plausible. Do you have an idea to what extent we can trace the development of the Sangha’s possessing and making use of dwellings? Obviously there were none at the beginning. But does that apply to nuns? It seems to me that for nuns to pass the night somewhere which is accessible to anyone would be quite dangerous.
And here is my reply:
The origin stories in the Vinaya are interesting. I fully agree with you that the story that leads on to the allowance to build dwellings stretches credulity. And of course this is true of many of the origin stories, including those that introduce the pātimokkha rules. Some of the stories are not even good matches to the rules they relate to. Scholars, including Oldenberg I believe, have argued that the origin stories were added later, at a time when the rules were sometimes poorly understood by the monastic community, and thus the discrepancy between rule and story. Although I agree that the stories were probably added a long time after the rules were formulated, I find the idea that the ancient Indian monastics did not understand the rules slightly patronising. It sounds to me like a leftover from Victorian times when people actually thought that non-European cultures were intellectually inferior. The idea that a modern scholar or monastic should understand these rules while the ancient Indian monastics did not sounds entirely implausible to me. If anything, it should be the other way round. We need a better explanation for the occasional disconnect between origin story and rule.
The general consensus among scholars is that the origin stories (and the rest of the Sutta-vibhaṅga, for that matter) are later than the rules. I have no doubt that this is generally correct. This relative lateness of the origin stories implies that they were not systematically memorised from the very beginning. At some point after the Buddha had passed away, the Sangha must have decided on the need to incorporate origin stories in the vinaya corpus. But because they had not been systematically memorised and transmitted, I expect there would have been errors, sometimes serious ones, in trying to reproduce what had actually taken place in the earliest period.
It seems to me that if the origin stories had been invented by later generations of monastics, as is sometimes suggested, then instead of seeing a mismatch between story and rule, we should expect a very good match between the two. An artificially constructed origin story would surely be created in such a way that it would naturally lead on to the rule. The fact that this is not what happens suggests to me that the monastics were trying to recall events that had been partly lost to memory. Because they wanted to be as faithful as possible to the actual historical events, they did not try to edit their flawed memories so as to create more plausible origin stories. In this way we are left with the occasional disconnect that is visible to the present day. This, to me, is a likelier explanation for the observed inconsistencies than what has previously been suggested.
That’s a bit of background to your question about monastic dwellings. As you suggest, the specific origin story in the Cullavagga is quite likely not historical truth, yet it may contain some remnant of what actually happened. With that in mind, I will look more closely at your specific enquiry.
First of all, I don’t think it is enough to rely on the Vinaya to answer this question. We need to bring in all the earliest texts and use whatever information touches on the matter. One such piece of information is the fact that ascetics of other traditions seem to have used dwellings before Buddhism arose. Here are some examples:
“Once ( bhūtapubbaṃ ), Assalāyana, when seven brahmin seers were consulting together in leaf huts in the forest …” (MN 93)
“Once upon a time ( bhūtapubbaṃ ), a certain fire-worshiping matted-hair ascetic settled in a leaf hut in a wilderness region.” (DN 23)
“‘They set aside bad, unskillful things’ is the meaning of ‘brahmin’, the first term to be specifically invented for them. They built leaf huts in a wilderness region where they meditated pure and bright, without lighting cooking fires or digging the soil. They came down in the morning for breakfast and in the evening for supper to the village, town, or royal capital seeking a meal. When they had obtained food they continued to meditate in the leaf huts.” (DN 28)
“Once upon a time, mendicants, several hermits who were ethical, of good character, settled in leaf huts in a wilderness region/by the ocean.” (SN 11.9+10)
Much of this is mythological in nature, but I believe it is reasonable to think that it reflects a generally accepted view that ascetics/sages often lived in huts before the advent of Buddhism. If this is correct, it makes me wonder whether there was any real necessity for the Buddha to specifically allow dwellings. Important aspects of Buddhism - such as the robes, the shaven head, the uposatha ceremony, and more - were taken over from the existing samaṇa movement. The Buddha would often put in place limits on these things - such as allowable materials, sizes, and colours of the robes - but there seems to be no reason why he would have to legislate their very use. I would suggest the same is true for dwellings, that is, that dwellings were simply used as a matter of course because it was an existing practice among the samaṇas. So it seems likely to me that Buddhist monks used dwellings from the very beginning, while no doubt substantial numbers also lived in the open.
The early use of dwellings is also suggested by the early establishment of monasteries. According to the account in the Vinaya, the Veḷuvaṇa (The Bamboo Grove) was given to the Sangha soon after the Buddha’s awakening and just before the ordination of Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna. If we can trust the chronology in the Vinaya (a big if!), then it seems the Jetavaṇa was given not too long afterwards. Once the Sangha had become a property owner, it would seem natural to construct dwellings on these properties. If these properties were not used in this way, their acquisition would not make much sense, since the monks might as well have stayed in the forest. So this too suggests the fairly early construction of monastic dwellings.
Here are a few more arguments that point in the same direction:
- The Vassakkhandhaka prescribes proper dwellings with doors to be used by monks during the rainy season. It seems reasonable to assume that the obligation to stay put during the rainy season was laid down as a requirement fairly early on, since this too was a generally accepted practice among ascetics, even among some lay people.
- The biography of the Buddha found in the Mahakkhandhaka suggests he started using huts very soon after his awakening. For instance, when he met the fire-ascetic Kassapa brothers, he asked to stay in their fire hut (Mv.1.15.1).
- When people came to see the Buddha, they are regularly depicted as approaching his dwelling (vihāra) and knocking on his door. This description is found in a number of suttas. The Buddha is also frequently described as entering his dwelling or as sitting down in its shade.
- There are a large number of references in the suttas to monks using empty dwellings for their meditation practice, with 15 individual suttas of the Majjhima Nikāya mentioning this. There are a number of further instances in the Saṃyutta and the Aṅguttara. In other words, the idea of using dwellings for meditation is so widely integrated into the suttas that it seems likely to have been part of them from very early on.
- There are very few references anywhere to monks sleeping outdoors. A rare reference is found at AN 3.35, where the Buddha is said to have slept on a pile of leaves in mid-winter. Apart from this, most references to the Buddha dwelling in the open concern the time before his awakening, especially while he was pursuing ascetic practices.
- The origin story to pārājika 2 shows how Dhāniya built grass huts and then a clay hut. It seems likely the pārājikas were among the first rules to be laid down and so this origin story may hark back to the earliest days of Buddhism.
None of the above arguments is particularly strong in its own right, but taken together I think they give a picture that is fairly consistent, which is that it seems likely that dwellings for the monastic order existed from early on in Buddhist history, perhaps from the very beginning. If this is correct, and we further estimate that the order of nuns was established a few years after the Order of monks, then it does not seem unreasonable to conclude, at least provisionally, that the nuns would have been able to use dwellings as soon as the first nuns were ordained.