Thursday, August 13, 2009


This is an interesting talk by Professor Gregory Schopen, chair of the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and an authority on ancient Indian Buddhism, who has been separating Buddhist fact from fiction for the past 30 years. In this UCLA Faculty Research Lecture, Schopen explores the Buddha as an astute businessman, economist and lawyer. Watch it here:

As a skeptic who doubts a
historical Buddha ever walked this earth, I applaud Schopen for pointing out that Buddha, or at least the religion he was supposed to have founded, was extremely concerned with profane as well as sacred matters.

This is really not surprising because a monastery was often big business in the community, usually built by kings and nobles and endowed by them with much wealth. Therein lay the seed of their own destruction, for when royal support was withdrawn, for whatever reason, the monastic system was not able to sustain itself and finally collapsed. After the invasion of Gandhara by the White Huns, thousands of monasteries in that once Buddhist land became derelict, as attested to by Xuanzang.

But in the Indo-Gangetic plain, matters hadn't come to a head yet, the Muslim invasion being several centuries over the horizon. Hwui Li, Xuanzang's disciple who visited India in the 7th century CE, gives a vivid picture of the Buddhist university at Nalanda. He says, “The Sangharamas [monasteries] of India are counted by myriads… . The priests belonging to the convent, or strangers (residing therein) always reach the number of 10,000… .

Watch this video (Seven Wonders of India: Nalanda University) to get some idea of the immensity of Nalanda in its heyday.

"The king of the country respects and honors the priests, and has remitted the revenues of about 100 villages for the endowment of the convent. Two hundred householders in the villages, day by day, contribute several hundred piculs (133 1/8 lbs.) of ordinary rice, and several hundred catties (160 lbs.) in weight of butter and milk. Hence the students here, being so abundantly supplied, do not require to ask for the four requisites (clothes, food, bedding, medicine). This is the source of the perfection of their studies, to which they have arrived."

Another Chinese traveler, I-tsing, who also visited India in the 7th century CE, gives a detailed account of the arrangement of affairs of a deceased monk. He describes that it was the duty of other monks to see whether the deceased had left any debts or whether he had left any will or if anybody had nursed him during his illness. When they found anything like this, they, according to the law, distributed the deceased’s property.

The Chinese traveler refers to a list of things which are distributable and which are not distributable. He says, “Land, houses, shops, bed-gear, wooden-seats, and iron or copper implements are not distributable; earthen utensils i.e., bowls, smaller bowls, lundikas (pitchers) for drinking and for cleansing water, oil-pots and water-basins are distributable, the rest are not.

Wooden and bamboo implements, leather bedding, shaving things, male and female servants; food, corn, lands and houses are all to be made the property of the priests assembling from every quarter. Among these, things which are movable are to be kept in storehouses and to be used by the assembly. Lands, houses, villages, gardens, buildings, which are immovable, become also the property of the assembly.

If there remain clothes or anything wearable, whether cloaks, bathing-shirts, dyed or un-dyed, or waterproofs, pots, slippers, or shoes, they are to be distributed on the spot to the priests then assembled… . Quadrupeds, elephants, horses, mules, asses for riding are to be offered to the Royal Household. Bulls and sheep should not be distributed, but belong to the whole assembly.

Such goods as helmets, coats of arms, etc., are also to be sent to the Royal Household… . Paints of good quality such as yellow, vermillion, azure, blue, green are sent to the temple to be used for coloring images and the ornaments around… , medical substances are to be divided into two portions, one being devoted to pious objects (Dhammika), the other to the priests’ own use (Sanghika). The former portion is spent in copying the scriptures and in building or decorating the ‘Lion Seat.’ The other portion is distributed to the priests who are present… .

The scriptures and… their commentaries should not be parted with, but be kept in a library to be read by the members of the order. Non-Buddhistic books are to be sold and (the money acquired) should be distributed among priests then resident… . Gold, silver, wrought or unwrought goods, shells, and coins are divided into three portions, for the Buddha, for Religion (Dharma) and for the priesthood (Sangha). The portion for the Buddha is spent in repairing the temple, stupas that contain holy hair or nails, and other ruins. The portion belonging to Religion is used for copying the scriptures and building or decorating the ‘Lion Seat.’ Another portion belonging to the Assembly is distributed to the resident priests.” [From Buddhism in India as described by the Chinese Pilgrims AD 399-689 Kanai Lal Hazra.]

From this we can infer that Buddhist monks then, as now--though they may have renounced the household life--were not above acquiring a good deal of property in their life time. Some things never change. So it is quite obvious that the Buddhist Sangha (Clergy) had to be quite savvy about money matters or, as Schopen puts it, 'Buddha was a businessman.'

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