Throughout Buddhist history there has been a complicated relationship between the laity and the monastic order. Recent research has led to a series of interesting observations regarding the primacy of merit building as a force binding monks and their lay donors.
The notion of merit is integral to understanding the web of relationship in the Buddhist world. As westerners we seem to discount this type of morality as a nicety, and is not central to our motivations. Though we do see the benefits of being kind to people and offering help to those in need, we do not see the result as accumulating a storehouse of merit from such acts. This idea of merit building is perhaps best seen in the context of the belief in reincarnation. If one is to have a fortunate rebirth, one must perform virtuous acts in a previous life. If we understand the primacy of this belief then we will begin to appreciate how important it was for Buddhists to perform certain acts, and to make offerings to affect a good result later on.
This act of offering up one’s self, one’s wealth and anything of value or sacrifice, created an interesting closed loop between monks and the laity. For the donor seeking merit, there needed to be a receiver. This relationship became highly developed and intensively guided by the Vinaya Code.
Looking back at the structure of this relationship, we find curious arrangements between these two parties, which can come as a surprise to our western preconceptions.
- Donors built monasteries (viharas) for the monks and outfitted them with furniture, kitchenware, and other types of domestic wares. The monks were expected to use these goods, and in their using of them, the donor gained merit. Curiously, if the monks did not use them, the donor did not gain merit.
- The idea of donation is highly nuanced. It appears in the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya that what constitutes giving, appears to our sensitivities as leasing, or arms length ownership. What a donor expects to receive is clearly spelled out, and it is not a handing over of assets to the sangha.
- Per the Mulasarvastivada-vinaya, when monasteries are built and conveyed for use by the sangha, the donor retains ownership of the land and buildings. In the case that many viharas are available and few monks in the area to live in them, the monks nevertheless must spend time every day at each vihara in order for the donor to incur merit. Far from a monk having the leisure to meditate undisturbed in his own abode, he is obligated under the Vinaya Code to perform activities that are exclusively for the benefit of the donor. It almost appears that the monks are indentured servants, there for the primary benefit of the donors earning merit from their use of wealth.
See Chapter 8, Lay Ownership of Monasteries and the Role of the Monk
Buddhist Monks and Business Matters, Still More Papers on Monastic Buddhism in India Gregory Schopen Hawaii University Press, 2004