Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period

Article Index
Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period
Reform Movements: Tantric yogis and Forest monks
The Vydyadhara in India, Myanmar and Tibet
Milarepa and the Yogins of Tibet
The Kagyu Monastics
Footnotes
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About a century before the dawn of the Christian era, nomad tribes from interior Asia, known as Shakas or Scythians, led by the powerful warlord Moga, invaded and conquered the north-west corner of India. One of these Shakas named Azes appears to have inaugurated the Vikrama Era in 58 B.C. After him came Azilises, and then around 5 A.D., King Azes II.
Not long after 19 A.D. the power of the warriors Shakas was broken by the Parthians under Gondophares.(1) And then another Asian tribe who called themselves the Kushans, were driven westward into the lands of the Shakas and Parthians by the Chinese. Upheaval followed upheaval. Around 78 A.D.(2) the Kushan king Kanishka finally consolidated much of Afghanistan and much of the northern region of India, including Kashmir, under his dominion. He established what might be called a "pax Kushana", in part by subduing local regions under feudal rule. Kanishka adopted and promoted Buddhism throughout his empire.
In brief, we may state that the period from the Buddha up to the era of Kanishka, a period of 630 years, covers the most important phase of initial development in Buddhism. During this period the foundations of Buddhist teachings and practices were laid down: the formation of the Eighteen Orders, the fixing of the Vinaya in its present editions, and the setting down of the metaphysical doctrine (Abhidharma) in written form.
Between the time of Kanishka up to the dawn of what we are calling the Medieval Period three great intellectual movements appear to take place in Buddhism.
First of all, there was the southern saint whose impact on Buddhist thought would be enormous: Arya-Nagarjuna, author of the profound philosophical treatise, Mulamadhyamaka-karika. This Nagarjuna was a contemporary of the first century emperor Satavahana, who ruled over a large portion of southern India. 

Yogui Gorakhnathi

The next event of great importance was the gradual emergence into the light of day of what are known as the Mahayana-Sutras (or Vaipulya-Sutra). The Tibetan historian Taranatha tells us that the first to hear of these Sutras was the second century King Laksasva. He built several monasteries and temples on Mount Abu, a mountain largely settled by Parsee followers of Zarathustra from Iran, a mountain which today stands in Rajastan close to the border of Gujarat. Mount Abu supports a 1200 meter high plateau with a beautiful sacred lake in its centre. King Laksavara invited teachers and monks of the Mahayana tradition to reside in the monasteries that he established there.
Taranatha records that after the establishment of a centre on Mount Abu, there appeared many teachers of the Mahayana, who received inspiration from celestial Bodhisattvas, such as Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, Guhyapati, Maitreya and Vajrapani. Once the Mahayana Sutras had been brought into the world, their dispersal was rapid. In 67 A.D. Kassapa Matanga and Dharmaraksa set forth from Gandhara (northwest India) on the silk route to China, carrying with them on the back of a white horse a gold statue of the Buddha and the Mahayana Sutra of 42 sections. Somewhere in the wastes of Tokharistan they met agents of the Chinese Emperor Mingti, who claimed that the Emperor had had a dream of a golden man, radiant as the sun, traveling on a white horse toward China. Kassapa and Dharmaraksa were consequently escorted to the Han capital, Loyang. There they were introduced to the Emperor himself, to whom they explained the Mahayana way of compassion and wisdom, and the White Horse Temple was erected in Loyang for their use. Thus, carried like seeds, the Mahayana quickly flowered in the Dharma-garden of the east.
The third great spiritual movement to arise in the Buddhist world was the Yogaçara, inaugurated by Asanga and Vasubandhu (290-370 A.D.), as a corrective against the rise of scholasticism that was then replacing the contemplative tradition in India.
Davidson categorizes the birth of the Medieval Period in Indian history with the final demise of the Imperial Guptas around 550 A.D. and the death of King Harsha in 647. This period in history, approximately from 500 A.D. to 1200 A.D., he describes as follows:

 "messy and confusing… It is the period of rise of cultural forms that British and continental authors loved to hate and that some Indians acknowledge with chagrin: tantrism, bhakti, excessively sophisticated poetry, sati, the solidification of the caste system, and the rapacious appropriation of tribal lands, to mention a few."(3)

It was also a period marked by the decline of women's rights, the advent of Kamasutra and pornography in Indian culture, and in Buddhism, an eclipse of the earlier meditative tradition. In many cases we find that women's Orders of nuns disappear during this time, as their right to have independent lives is gradually curtailed. With the decline of meditation, scholasticism becomes the main Buddhist activity to take its place.
The great University of Nalanda was founded by King Kumaragupta who reigned 415-455 A.D. When Fa-Hien visited Nalanda in the IV century it was a rather desolate little place called Nala, chiefly remembered for being the village where Sariputta was born and where his remains were laid to rest in a Stupa. But after its inauguration by Kumaragupta, building continued through the next five successive reigns, to be finally completed by King Yasodharma in 535 A.D. Nalanda became the leading light for scholastic Buddhism. By the time that Rahulabhadra, ordained in the Mula-Sarvastivada Order, became an abbot at Nalanda, the place had grown into a full scale University, with a large faculty. Rahulabhadra, the teacher of Nagarjuna II (author of the Mahaprajnaparamita-sastra, a commentary on the Prajnaparamita-Sutra in 25,000 slokas), was a contemporary of the Madhyamaka scholars Kamalagarbha and Ghanasala.
The Chinese monk I-Ching has left us with a detailed report of life at Nalanda around 671 A.D., at the time of his trip to India. According to his report, Nalanda was a giant University supporting many thousands of students and scholars at state expense.
I-Ching mentions the different Buddhist monastic Orders existing in his time: the Mahasanghika, Theravada, Mula-Sarvastivada and so forth. He says that some members of these Orders practiced a Hinayana form of Buddhism; others adhered to the Mahayana. There were evidently, for example, Mahayana practitioners who were monks of the Theravada Order, or conversely, Sarvastivada who kept strictly to the Hinayana. In contrast, nowadays it is generally said that the Theravada entirely eschews the Mahayana, but in earlier times this was evidently not the case.
A concise description of these two ways of Buddhism, which thrived during the medieval period, has been given by Prof. Conze, who said as follows:  

"The adherents of the Mahayana and Hinayana both practice the same Vinaya, recognize the same five categories of faults, are attached to the same Four Truths. Those who worship the Bodhisattvas and who read the Mahayana Sutras get the name of Mahayanists; those who do not are Hinayanists."(4)

During the Medieval Period monastic life became far more regulated. Just as feudalism, first introduced by the foreign Kushans some centuries earlier, replaced earlier democratic systems in Indian politics, so too it made formidable inroads into religion. "Scholasticism" is a word used to describe the style of learning and education dominant prior to the rise of humanism in Europe; however, it is also a term eminently suitable to describe the early medieval period in Indian Buddhism. Scholasticism (from the Latin schola, or school) implies an exhaustive and detailed study of a given set of "authorized" texts embodying the transmitted knowledge of a particular school of thought. In support of the philosophical position of the school to which a particular student might belong, the student would first undertake a long, painstaking, closely supervised reading of the approved authorities. He would then be trained to engage in the art of disputatio, i.e., the standard forms of debate that adhered to an established logic system, to prove the overall veracity of the text that he was trained in. Graduates became expert upholders of the view maintained by their respective schools. Loyalty to a given school of thought was not so much based on a personal search for understanding and Truth; rather, it was a feudal obligation to one's school or lineage.
Students of a particular school were often connected to their given school through clan and family ties. This principle often had economic foundations. Royal patronage of a monastery meant that the intellectual and professional abilities of members of the monastic establishment were at the service of the king.
The traditional support of monastic by local donation changed during the medieval age into a system of feudal taxation. Large monasteries and universities became the owners (by royal decree) of villages and districts, from which they could draw support at demand. One benefit of this system was that the great monastic universities, such as Nalanda, Vikramasila, Odantapuri, and so forth, might be attended without cost to either the students or faculty, i.e., the universities and monasteries were maintained at state expense. But the downside was the fact that the burden of this expense rested on the backs of the people, the villagers themselves, who had no say in the matter. Another evil was the dependency of the monasteries to the royal whim.
Conceptual changes also arose. While in earlier Buddhism the ideal was embodied in the Arahat, the saint, the ascetic, the enlightened one (Bodhisattva), or in other words the man or woman who attained realization through spiritual practice and meditation, during the Medieval Period the ideal person became the most brilliant scholar. The clerics and the favored monastic priests (purohit) that served the royal court were intellectuals recognized for the infinite amount of literary knowledge they had succeeded in memorizing. The greatest scholars (pandits) were they who could demonstrate their erudition in public contests of debate.
Through disputation against every foe, the scholar was expected to uphold the position of his (and it was usually a "he", since women’s' position sank to an all time low) own school. The scholar who conceded a major public debate was more than often made to join the winning school. Since this could result in far more than loss of face ―indeed, more than likely in a loss of one's social position and university professorship, and therefore a loss of salary— failure could pose a major disaster. The promotion of scholarly learning and memorization of minuscule detail was therefore pushed to extreme limits.
In the Pançaka Nipata of the Anguttaranikaya there is a prediction by the Buddha regarding the decline of the Buddhist contemplative life:

"In the future, Bhikshus will put forth no effort to attain the unattained, to master the un-mastered, to realize the unrealized, since those who come after, falling into wrong views, will become indulgent, lazy and degenerate. Thus, Bhikshus, from corrupt Dharma comes corrupt discipline, from corrupt discipline comes corrupt Dharma."