Pali and Monastic Reform

A Response to Ananda Abeysekara

in Religion and Society
Author:
Alastair Gornall Associate Professor, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore alastair_gornall@sutd.edu.sg

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Abstract

This response acknowledges Ananda Abeysekara's review of Rewriting Buddhism: Pali Literature and Monastic Reform in Sri Lanka, 1157–1270, and expresses openness to reflecting on the analytical vocabulary Abeysekara found problematic. It also expands and clarifies the book's criticisms of prevailing views on medieval monastic reform in Sri Lanka and their relationship with monastic literary production.

In his review of Rewriting Buddhism: Pali Literature and Monastic Reform in Sri Lanka, 1157–1270, Ananda Abeysekara has focused on some of the book's analytical categories, most notably, my use of the concept of ‘agency’. Overall, I can appreciate the general substance of his argument that, by using words like ‘creativity’, for instance (which I employ within a broad critique of colonial, structuralist, and functionalist theories of literary production and monastic reform), there was scope to consider and reflect more carefully on the genealogy of such vocabulary and the implications of its use. I will keep Abeysekara's useful comments in mind for future endeavors, and other readers will be able to judge the value of the book beyond his review's perspectives. My aim in responding is to acknowledge the review and to use this opportunity to clarify and develop upon a couple of relevant aspects of the book.

Saṅgha Reforms and Monastic Autonomy

In several articles, the late Indologist Heinz Bechert provided a sociological framework for understanding medieval monastic reform that still dominates Buddhist studies. For Bechert (1968, 1970, 1973), court-sponsored reforms involving the purification and unification of the saṅgha led to the saṅgha being “integrated into the state,” to “enforce control of the saṅgha,” to prevent its “political activity,” and to ensure its focus on “supra-mundane (lokuttara)” aims.1 In chapter 3 of the book, I question this narrative centered on royal coercive power, not to deny royal involvement in monastic affairs, as Abeysekara (2022: 41) has understood (“Gornall suggests that . . . scholar-monks conducted their literary activities and reformed and united the monastic community all by themselves”), but because it is overly simplistic and schematic. It takes little account of the background of the reforms and the monastic involvement and interest in unification. It overlooks historical differences between reforms and treats reform as only an event when it could continue as a process mainly internal to the saṅgha. The concept of ‘state integration’ also carries anachronistic associations with modern religion-state politics (perceived continuities that Bechert makes explicit).2 My criticisms here develop a line of argument that the historian R. A. L. H. Gunawardana (1979: 318) initiated:

By presenting the unification of the saṅgha as the personal achievement of the king and a few monks, the accounts in the chronicles tend to overemphasize the significance of the synod. Since they contain no reference to the changes which had taken place within the organization of the saṅgha or to the development of relations between various factions up to the time of the unification, they tend to give a distorted view of the event.

Even if subsuming the saṅgha under the court formed an unspoken motivation for reform, one outcome was that the saṅgha strengthened its already growing organizational power. It became unified and structured like a royal court itself with an integrated chain of command, sustained by pastoral and disciplinary techniques, especially a standardized educational system. This new institutional structure could endure as a long line of kings, queens, and their courts subsequently rose and fell around it.3 The saṅgha could also draw on its own material resources, and monks cultivated political alliances far beyond the court. Another outcome of the reform era was that the norms of monastic property ownership largely returned. In the ninth and tenth centuries especially, the saṅgha had received a vast number of donations of land that were exempt from taxation and other forms of royal interference. These norms were regularly violated prior to Parākramabāhu I's 1165 reform, and, except for the reign of Māgha (1215–1236), rulers again respected the saṅgha as a landowner until the colonial era.4

The neglect of this aspect of reform is mirrored in the one-dimensional accounts of the era's unprecedented production of Pali literature (over a hundred years or so, the saṅgha composed more than a third of all Pali literature ever written in Sri Lanka). The few accounts of the era's literary activity explain it mechanistically as a natural outcome of centralized, royal support and a court-enforced focus on religious (i.e., not political) matters. I do not deny the importance of the royal court's patronage. Parākramabāhu I, for instance, built several important monastic colleges in Poḷonnaruva and encouraged the composition of two Pali works.5 Instead, my dissatisfaction with this kind of interpretation can be summed up as follows.

First and most simply, scholar-monks during the period were supported by a broader patronage base outside the monarchy (and many authors mention no patron at all). Second, the focus on monastic literature as a natural outcome of royal support or supervision means historians have rarely asked the important question of what monastic authors were doing in writing all these works. Third, centering the narrative solely on the king overlooks an essential outcome of reform for monastic literary production, namely, the saṅgha's administrative hierarchy and educational system, which, as noted, continued to develop during periods of political instability. This institutional formation valued scholarly virtuosity, and the saṅgha's leadership were expected to compose works to support their monastic order and patronage base.

I refer to the saṅgha's organizational power that was enhanced or restored through monastic reform—its administrative structure, educational system, broader patronage network, and status as a property owner—as a form of (admittedly relative) autonomy and, in the book, I emphasize this perspective as a background for thinking about the period's unprecedented monastic literary activity. In adopting ‘autonomy’ as an analytical category, I was primarily working with the vocabulary of existing debates on saṅgha-state relations and comparative studies in religion and politics (see esp. Aung-Thwin 2013; Eisenstadt 2003; Gunawardana 1979; Lieberman 2003, 2009; Silber 1995). Abeysekara is correct that in using the term I was mainly pushing back against a narrative of reform and literary production that has focused almost exclusively on royal, coercive power and control (2022: 46–49). Like other authors, my use of the term was not meant to denote the saṅgha's separation from social relations. Clearly, monastic autonomy, with respect to land rights, for instance, depends on social norms and relationships, and the book explores some of the monastic ideologies sustaining those norms.

However, I can appreciate that in engaging with a definition of power focused on coercion vis-à-vis monastic autonomy, there was also an opportunity to engage with alternative theories of power and a more suitable vocabulary to explain these complex aspects of saṅgha-state relations. In this regard, future work on the period may also consider how the saṅgha developed through the reform era instead in terms of what Indrani Chatterjee (2013, 2015) has called “monastic governmentality.” Chatterjee's Foucauldian term similarly describes a form of South Asian monastic government that created monastic subjects through consecrated educational relationships and ‘legal-moral’ disciplinary practices and that held territory, governed resources, and managed households. Both these aspects of ‘monastic governmentality’ capture well the late medieval saṅgha's social and political position in Sri Lanka, and, importantly, the category avoids any unwanted connotation that the saṅgha's governmental state was utterly free from the royal court or preceded social relations rather than being, as it was, a product of such ties, including cooperation with the monarchy.

Authorship and Agency

One of the book's central aims was to argue that some monastic literature composed in the aftermath of the reforms was not simply a byproduct of royal reform as an event but was part of a continuing monastic process of consolidation, purification, and unification. The saṅgha's leadership—the grandmaster (mahāsāmi), later referred to as ‘king of the saṅgha’, and great elders (mahāthera)—composed new Pali works that shaped monastic subjects and cultivated new patrons. My interest in offering an alternative perspective on monastic literary production as a purposeful intervention in the saṅgha's circumstances stems from how the authors of the era described what they were doing and how those around them understood their activities.

Let us take, for example, Sāriputta, the first grandmaster and perhaps the most important monastic author of the era. In his writings, Sāriputta provides lengthy accounts of his thought processes in composing his works. In his Vinaya commentary, for instance, he evokes Parākramabāhu's reforms, describes what he saw as the problematic state of current Vinaya exegesis, and advertises his alternative exegetical strategies for resolving the confusion (ākula) in the saṅgha (Sāratthadīpanī 1960: 1). Authors from the era often similarly frame their activity as addressing a problematic issue in their textual tradition and/or community. Their contemporaries and successors also praise these authors in eulogistic and often monarchical terms. For instance, Sāriputta is variously lauded for his desire to purify the sāsana, his intellect, fame, and leadership over the saṅgha (e.g., Aggadhammābhivaṃsa 1955: 285). As in Sāriputta's case, such attributes are usually directly connected with a monk's role as an author. In a panegyric others added at the end of his Sinhala commentary on the Abhidhammatthasagaha, for instance, Sāriputta's prolific and foundational literary activity is compared with that of famous authors in Sanskrit literary history:

They believe that Sāriputta has become an author (kattu) like Candragomin, the sharpest of minds (nisitataramati), to the Cāndra grammatical tradition, Pāṇini to the Pāṇinian grammatical tradition, like the cleverest of minds (paṭutaramati) in the whole field of philosophy, and like Kālidāsa to poetry, he who created bliss in the hearts of the poet community. (Siri Paññāmoli Tissa 1926: 257)

We can connect such descriptions of scholarly prowess with monastic theories of authorship and literary composition. In one grammatical work, another grandmaster, Saṅgharakkhita describes elements that a book (gantha) should have, including an author (kattu), sources (nissaya), a goal for studying it (ārambhaphala), a topic (abhidheyya), a title (saṅkhāta), and a purpose (payojana) (Aggadhammābhivaṃsa 1955: 2–3). He states that an author should give his name to establish the authority (pamāṇa) of his book and that, by mentioning his sources, he advertises a book's purity (visuddhi) as he shows that it is his own work (attaniyabhāva). Saṅgharakkhita viewed an author's purpose as central to interpreting a book. He cites a verse stating, “Who could understand any teaching or any action while its purpose remains unexplained?” He also writes that, where suitable, an author may even describe another purpose behind the immediate purpose of writing, a so-called payojana-payojana, “purpose of the purpose.” Saṅgharakkhita's account is indebted to his learning of Sanskrit literary theory, and we find similar modes of presenting and interpreting new works throughout the era.

The authors of the period articulated an understanding of authorship in robust, agentive ways, focusing on their activities as purposeful interventions. This new form of authorial language indexed the institutional changes in the saṅgha's hierarchical structure, the scholarly virtuosity it valued in its leadership, and its adoption of Sanskrit literary practices. I am not sure we face such a strict epistemological choice in viewing this language as either discursive (authorship as a function of discourse) or as indicating an empirical reality. Instead, I am inclined to view authorial agency as an emergent property that was no doubt a product of many factors, especially discourse and power, but that still had a causal reality analytically irreducible to those aspects.6 I understand that, for those who come down on a different side of this epistemological debate, giving any explanatory weight to such a reality (even if causal rather than substantial) neglects a true appreciation of context, power, structure, and so on. I do not dismiss this argument out of hand, and it is something I will reflect on. And so, while I am not quite ready to dispense with a causal agent, I will take seriously Abeysekara's related criticisms of extra-discursive agentive abilities, such as creativity (2022: 53–58), for instance. And, importantly for the field, I hope for a greater collective responsibility to acknowledge and address issues of debate.

Notes

1

The argument that monastic reform subsumed the saṅgha under the royal court rests on the fact that royal reform could involve kings (1) supervising the disrobing of monks, (2) sponsoring higher ordination festivals, and (3) making monastic appointments. The edict composed after the 1165 reform is silent on any formal role of the king in the functioning of the saṅgha (concerning monasticappointments, for instance). However, Parākramabāhu I did sponsor an annual higher ordination or upasampadā festival in his capital. Parākramabāhu II's edict, composed at the end of the era in 1266, differs by codifying royal involvement in monastic affairs. Some senior monastic appointments required the approval of both the saṅgha and the king, and similarly, higher ordination was sanctioned by the saṅgha leadership in agreement with the king. While this later edict formalized saṅgha-court cooperation and could be read as instantiating a form of court Buddhism, it also gave the saṅgha power to check unilateral royal attempts to make appointments or hold ordinations (as had happened in previous centuries).

2

I would contend, too, that, in foregrounding continuities with the premodern past, this position obscures a proper appreciation of how colonialism completely transformed the saṅgha's social status.

3

This is not to say the saṅgha was unaffected by political turmoil. Some monks did leave the island during the reign of Māgha (1215–1236), especially. But importantly, those who left to South India still contributed to the scholarly community in Sri Lanka. The saṅgha leadership in Sri Lanka also remained remarkably stable and monastic education continued to function (as attested by successive generations of highly trained scholar-monks with educational ties to the saṅgha's older leadership and the use of scholarly titles, such as nissayamutta, ‘freed from pupillage’).

4

Some have argued ex silentio that Parākramabāhu I's court used monastic reform as an opportunity to confiscate the land of expelled monks (no mention is made of their property, though the reformed saṅgha still used their key institutions). While Parākramabāhu I may have benefited in this way, for the resultant saṅgha, the norms of property ownership of former centuries continued once again.

5

Sāriputta's Vinayasaṅgaha and Aṅguttaranikāyaṭīkā.

6

My thinking about agency is influenced, in part, by the early works of Roy Bhaskar (1979).

References

  • Abeysekara, Ananda. 2022.“On Rewriting Buddhism: Or, How Not to Write a History.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 13: 3980. https://doi.org/10.3167/arrs.2022.130104.

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  • Aggadhammābhivaṃsa, ed. 1955. Moggallān pañcikā aphvaṅ: Sāratthavilāsinī maññ so Moggallān pañcikā ṭīkā. Yangon: Mrui jambū mit chve piṭakat puṃ nhip tuik.

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  • Aung-Thwin, Michael. 2013. “Those Men in Saffron Robes.” Journal of Burma Studies 17 (2): 243334. https://doi.org/10.1353/jbs.2013.0012

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  • Bechert, Heinz. 1968. “Einige Fragen der Religionssoziologie und Struktur des suedasiatischen Buddhismus” [Some questions in the sociology of religion and the structure of South Asian Buddhism]. Beiträge zur religionssoziologischen 4: 251295.

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    • Export Citation
  • Bechert, Heinz. 1970. “Theravāda Buddhist Sangha: Some General Observations on Historical and Political Factors in its Development.” Journal of Asian Studies 29 (4): 761778. https://doi.org/10.2307/2943086

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bechert, Heinz. 1973. “Sangha, State, Society, ‘Nation’: Persistence of Traditions in ‘Post-Traditional’ Buddhist Societies.” Daedalus 102 (1): 8595.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bhaskar, Roy. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Chatterjee, Indrani. 2013. “Monastic Governmentality, Colonial Misogyny, and Postcolonial Amnesia in South Asia.” History of the Present 3 (1): 5798. https://doi.org/10.5406/historypresent.3.1.0057

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    • Export Citation
  • Chatterjee, Indrani. 2015. “Monastic ‘Governmentality’: Revisiting ‘Community’ and ‘Communalism’ in South Asia.” History Compass 13 (1): 497511. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12265

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, Vol. 1: A Collection of Essays. Leiden: Brill.

  • Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. 1979. Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Lieberman, Victor. 2003. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol. 1: Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Lieberman, Victor. 2009. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol. 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sāratthadīpanī-ṭīkā. 1960. Vol. 1. Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana ed. Yangon: Buddhasāsanasamiti.

  • Silber, Ilana Friedrich. 1995. Virtuosity, Charisma, and Social Order: A Comparative Sociological Study of Monasticism in Theravada Buddhism and Medieval Catholicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Siri Paññāmoli Tissa, ed. 1926. Abhidharmārthasaṅgraha vistara sannaya. 3rd rev. ed. Ambalamgoḍa: Wijaya Printing Press.

Contributor Notes

ALASTAIR GORNALL is Associate Professor of History and Religion at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. His research focuses on the history of Pali literature and Theravada Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Email: alastair_gornall@sutd.edu.sg | ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5366-5538

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Advances in Research

  • Abeysekara, Ananda. 2022.“On Rewriting Buddhism: Or, How Not to Write a History.” Religion and Society: Advances in Research 13: 3980. https://doi.org/10.3167/arrs.2022.130104.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aggadhammābhivaṃsa, ed. 1955. Moggallān pañcikā aphvaṅ: Sāratthavilāsinī maññ so Moggallān pañcikā ṭīkā. Yangon: Mrui jambū mit chve piṭakat puṃ nhip tuik.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aung-Thwin, Michael. 2013. “Those Men in Saffron Robes.” Journal of Burma Studies 17 (2): 243334. https://doi.org/10.1353/jbs.2013.0012

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bechert, Heinz. 1968. “Einige Fragen der Religionssoziologie und Struktur des suedasiatischen Buddhismus” [Some questions in the sociology of religion and the structure of South Asian Buddhism]. Beiträge zur religionssoziologischen 4: 251295.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bechert, Heinz. 1970. “Theravāda Buddhist Sangha: Some General Observations on Historical and Political Factors in its Development.” Journal of Asian Studies 29 (4): 761778. https://doi.org/10.2307/2943086

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bechert, Heinz. 1973. “Sangha, State, Society, ‘Nation’: Persistence of Traditions in ‘Post-Traditional’ Buddhist Societies.” Daedalus 102 (1): 8595.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bhaskar, Roy. 1979. The Possibility of Naturalism: A Philosophical Critique of the Contemporary Human Sciences. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chatterjee, Indrani. 2013. “Monastic Governmentality, Colonial Misogyny, and Postcolonial Amnesia in South Asia.” History of the Present 3 (1): 5798. https://doi.org/10.5406/historypresent.3.1.0057

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chatterjee, Indrani. 2015. “Monastic ‘Governmentality’: Revisiting ‘Community’ and ‘Communalism’ in South Asia.” History Compass 13 (1): 497511. https://doi.org/10.1111/hic3.12265

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. 2003. Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities, Vol. 1: A Collection of Essays. Leiden: Brill.

  • Gunawardana, R. A. L. H. 1979. Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lieberman, Victor. 2003. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol. 1: Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lieberman, Victor. 2009. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol. 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sāratthadīpanī-ṭīkā. 1960. Vol. 1. Chaṭṭhasaṅgāyana ed. Yangon: Buddhasāsanasamiti.

  • Silber, Ilana Friedrich. 1995. Virtuosity, Charisma, and Social Order: A Comparative Sociological Study of Monasticism in Theravada Buddhism and Medieval Catholicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Siri Paññāmoli Tissa, ed. 1926. Abhidharmārthasaṅgraha vistara sannaya. 3rd rev. ed. Ambalamgoḍa: Wijaya Printing Press.

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