Who Owns a Monastery in Ancient Indian Inscriptions?

Next up in the series on Monastery ownership, two posts based on Gregory Schopen’s essay, ‘The Lay Ownership of Monasteries and the Role of the Monk in Mulasarvastivadin Monasticism’ (Originally published in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 19.1 (1996) 81-126. I am using the reprinted version, Chapter 8 of Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.) This first essay deals with the inscriptions quoted by Schopen; the next, with the passages from the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya. Schopen emphasizes that this study is purely preliminary and is by no means complete or systematic. Here we present only a brief summary of the evidence he presents; the essay, as always with Schopen’s writings, is nuanced and provocative and well worth the read.

Schopen quotes a number of inscriptions from ancient India, which are seal or inscriptions that record the donation or ownership of a monastery. Most of these suggest that in some sense a lay person is the owner of the monastery. In most of the texts that follow, for the sake of clarity we will keep the Indic term vihara, which we have previously translated as ‘dwelling’. One inscription, a late second or early third century sealing from Intwa, near Jugadh, reads:

Maharaja-rudrasena-vihare bhiksu-sanghasya

‘Of (or for) the community of bhikkhus in the vihara of the Great King Rudrasena

In the Wardak Vase Inscription we find ‘in Vagramarega’s vihara’, where Vagramarega is a layman.

Potsherds from Tor Dherai contain an inscription that reads:

This hall for providing water is the religious gift of the Shahi Yola-Mira, the owner of the vihara, to the Sangha of the Four Quarters, for the acceptance of the teachers of the Sarvastivada in his own – Yola-Mira the Shahi’s – monastery.

This passage emphasizes the ownership by repeating the name, stating that the monastery is ‘his own’ (svakiya) and calling the lay donor the ‘monastery owner’ (viharasvami). Notice also the use of two distinct ideas for the recipients. On the one hand the hall is for the Sangha of the Four Quarters, as in the early texts; on the other hand, a specific sect, the Sarvastivadins, are mentioned as recipients. Here we are seeing the emergence of sectarianism in ancient India, and one of the critical issues for the sects, the ownership of property. The passage as stands it quite ambiguous: it could be that the monks of the Sarvastivada merely accept the property on behalf of the ‘Sangha of the Four Quarters’, and that it was in fact intended and used for all Sangha. But the tendency is clear enough, that offerings came to be conceived in sectarian terms, and that for practical purposes, property came to be owned not by the Sangha as a whole, but by one or other sect. In another inscription referenced below, the reference to the Sangha of the Four Quarters disappears, and the donation is simply for ‘the teachers of the Dharmaguptakas’.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the term acarya here has no connection to the modern Thai usage of ‘ajahn’ to refer to senior monks, but simply refers to the monks of the school.

Schopen quotes a number of other examples of inscriptions:

We find it said, for example, that a ‘Bodhisattva image was set up by Amohaasi, the mother of Budharakhita, together with her mother and father, in her own monastery’ (sake vihare); or that… a group of merchants made a gift ‘in their own monastery’ (svake vihare); or that Pusyadata, the daughter of Gunda, an owner of a vihara (viharasvamin) also set up an image in ‘her own monastery’ (svake vihare).

In other inscriptions the lay donor does not seem to own the entire monastery, but one part of it, for example a shrine. For example a lay sister (upasika) named Nagapiya set up a Bodhisattva ‘in her own shrine for the acceptance of the teachers (acarya) of the Dharmaguptaka’.

Schopen gives a number of further examples. Clearly this evidence is sufficient to show that in ancient India it was normal for a monastery to be regarded as, in some sense, the property of a lay donor. The terms used, for example, calling the lay donor the ‘sami‘ or ‘svami‘ are the same as those found in the early Pali sources. What is not clear from these brief examples, or from the Pali passages which we have cited earlier (some of which Schopen discusses), is what exactly this notion of ‘ownership’ entails. Is it a purely symbolic notion, or does the lay donor exert practical influence over the monasteries? If this is the case, then what does it actually mean to say someone ‘owns’ a monastery? It is to these questions we will turn in the next post.

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