India in the sixth century B.C.E. was especially alive with religious adepts going about their business alone or in the company of others. But monastic institutions as we know them, did not exist then, nor did monasteries exist in Buddhism during the Buddha’s lifetime. The pre-Buddhist ideal of the world-renouncing mendicant is already acknowledged in the legend of the “four-signs” which leads to Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation: after seeing examples of old age, sickness, and death, the Buddha-to-be sees a self-composed, serene, and alert “bhikku.” The ideal of this nomadic, world-renouncing lifestyle was well established in Vedic period prior to Buddhism. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad reads: “He who passes beyond hunger and thirst, beyond suffering and ignorance, beyond old age and death—men, knowing Brahman thus, give up the desire for sons, wealth and prosperity and become bhikkus.” It was this ideal that inspired Siddhartha and led him to experiment with various forms of asceticism: yoga, celibacy, fasting, wandering, begging, and other austerities.

"Procession of Monks", Kogan Gengei, 1747-1821, sumi on paper, courtesy of New Orleans Museum of Art, museum purchase.
“Procession of Monks”, Kogan Gengei, 1747-1821, sumi on paper, courtesy of New Orleans Museum of Art, museum purchase.

While the ascetic impulse has led adepts of all stripes to “renounce the world,” India seems to have gone further than other cultures in its broad social integration and ritualization of the world-renouncing ideal, a “going-forth” from the life of the householder to that of a nomadic ascetic. A standard Buddhist phrase expresses this transition as a passage from “home into homelessness.”

During the period of the Buddha’s lifetime it was not uncommon for Indian ascetic movements to form communities of hermits and renunciants. The forms of early Buddhist monasticism played a special role in influencing the development of these communities and the movement from an entirely nomadic life to a more settled existence: homelessness into home.

The early followers of the Buddha, the “bhikku-sangha,” embraced the wandering life of the ascetic, but according to the Mahavagga (Vinaya 1.137) the “sons of the Shakyans” were criticized by outsiders because they maintained their nomadic ways through the monsoon season, apparently trampling young plants that had sprung up from the new rains and destroying “small living creatures.” The text paraphrases the critics: “Those who belong to other schools may not be very well-disciplined, but at least they withdraw somewhere to make a residence for the rainy season . . . but these ascetics, the sons of the Shakyans, don’t stop traveling during the summer, winter, and rainy season as well.”

According to the story, the complaints were reported to the Buddha and in response he instituted the rule that monks should maintain a retreat during the rainy season. The mandatory three-month retreats were normally spent in one place, usually in temporary structures, sometimes in boats, and almost always near a town. When the monks abandoned these temporary structures after the rainy season retreats, the structures were left to the elements, vandals, and thieves, suffering the fate of most empty and unattended buildings.

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