Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations,
by Ray, A. Reginald, New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp. xviii + 508

Reviewed by John Schroeder, St. Mary's College of Maryland

Philosophy East and West
Volume 49, Number 2
(April 1999)
pp. 235-237

Copyright by University of Hawaii Press

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p. 235

Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations by Reginald A. Ray is an excellent study of early Indian Buddhism that highlights the struggle between the early monastic community and the forest saints, who were pivotal players in Indian Buddhism. This is an important work for Buddhist scholars because it outlines the spiritual ideals and religious practices of early Indian Buddhism, argues for the priority of the forest renunciant in understanding early Buddhist history, and offers a detailed reconstruction of the early monastic community. The main point of the book, however, is to argue against a one-sided reading of Buddhism that neglects the important role of the forest saint in the formation of early Buddhist history.

    The book begins by challenging a common assumption that is shared by Buddhist historians and scholars. Most scholars, says Ray, read early Buddhism through what he calls the "two-tiered model of Buddhism," which sees the development of Buddhism hovering between the poles of monasticism and lay life. The structure of this "two-tiered model" derives primarily from the Theravaada tradition and offers a normative vision of Buddhism as composed of two lifestyles: that of the monk (bhik.su) occupying the upper tier and that of the layperson (upaasaka) occupying the lower; and both are thought to have been instituted by the Buddha. This model has so dominated the depictions of early Buddhism that it is now accepted as a given by most scholars.

    Ray challenges the historical accuracy of this model by arguing that it neglects some of the most important and influential figures in early Buddhist history: the forest saints. Moreover, this "two-tiered model" that scholars so readily accept as an appropriate reading of early Buddhism was in fact created by the monastic traditions in an effort to normalize their own lifestyle over and against the forest saints. Ray's argument that the monastic Buddhists constructed the "two-tiered model" in order to marginalize the forest saints is the most provocative and radical aspect of his book, and it questions the way early Buddhism is usually conceived.

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p. 236

    Against the "two-tiered model," which privileges the monastic ideal, Ray argues that forest Buddhism was the highest ideal of earliest Buddhism, and that, even if the Buddha did teach "town and village renunciation" (monasticism), he saw it as inferior to the forest type. The early Buddhist community, says Ray, took Shaakyamuni as its ideal by following his own path: they dwelt at the foot of trees or in mountain retreats, practiced meditation, performed "magical" feats, and proclaimed their realization to others out of compassion. They wore rags for robes, sought alms, searched for an enlightened teacher, and engaged in intense spiritual practices, all of which are antithetical to monastic life. In fact, it is their devotion to meditation, as opposed to textual learning, that distinguishes the forest renunciants from their fellow monastics.

    Ray supports his view that the highest ideal of early Buddhism was the forest type through a variety of sources. He examines early texts such as the Theragaathaa and Theriigaathaa, the Udaana, and the Samyuttanikaaya, all of which revere the forest saint; he examines hagiographic depictions in which the saint is an object of devotion; and he shows how the different ideal types of Buddhist saints, the arhats, the pratyekabuddhas, and the bodhisattvas, were originally conceived within the early Buddhist community as non-monastic forest dwellers.

    Given the cultic status of the forest saints in the formative stages of early Buddhism, however, why do we find so few references to them from the Paali monastic sources? Ray's answer is that the early monastic tradition "repressed" the forest saint in order to idealize its own vision of Buddhism. Following Weber's description of monastic Buddhism, Ray notes that the transition from complete forest renunciation to "town and village" renunciation coincides with a marked shift in the structure of the Buddhist community: it moves from charismatic figures to traditional authority; it is more "bureaucratic," more marked by definitive forms and codified procedures; and it no longer takes food given only as alms, wears rags for robes, or lives under trees, but instead takes settled monasticism as its highest value. The most significant feature about this shift, however, is that meditation is no longer a defining feature of a Buddhist's life. One of the earliest expressions of monastic Buddhism, for example, the Old Skandhaka, devalues meditation in favor of behavioral purity and textual analysis, and other texts such as the Mahaaparinirvaana Suutra and the Milindapa~nha render the wandering mendicant invisible by normalizing their own brand of monastic Buddhism. According to Ray, the denigration of meditation, stupa worship, and a wandering lifestyle, as well as the idea that there are only two authentic forms of Buddhism (monastic and lay), must be seen as a power struggle in the early Buddhist community:

Now it may be observed that these devaluations taken together are nothing other than the two-tiered model of Buddhism, which the Old Skandhaka is developing in order to accomplish its central purpose of establishing the authenticity and normativity of its own, settled monastic kind of Buddhism. Thus in its earliest Buddhist rendition, the two-tiered model of Buddhism is ideological in character and part of the attempt of one kind of Buddhism to assert its own special normativity at the expense of other s. (p. 29)

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p. 237

    Against this "two-tiered model" by which early Indian Buddhism is usually read, Ray suggests that we should read the history of early Buddhism as a dynamic interaction not just between monastic and lay life -- but between monastic, lay, and forest life. To neglect this third "tier" would mean a diminished understanding of what early Buddhism is all about, says Ray, and would simply continue the ideological bias of the Paali monastic tradition in its attempt to marginalize the forest saint. What is interesting for Ray in this "three-tiered model" of Buddhism is that it has fewer hierarchical connotations: each one exemplifies a supreme value in Buddhist life, and each, in its own way, expresses a lifestyle conducive to spiritual fulfillment:

It is realized people who are of supreme value rather than the particular lifestyles by which they become realized or in which, once realized, they are found. Any model of Buddhist types must remain to some extent relative and open, for no one can ever know how much, from a spiritual viewpoint, any individual can or will attain in one situation as opposed to another. (p. 438)

    Whether or not the reader accepts Ray's "three-tiered model" over the "two-tiered model," and whether or not he is right about seeing the highest ideals of early Buddhism in the forest type is perhaps unimportant. The real value of this book and its significance for most Buddhist scholars may be that it offers a clear picture of the practices and lifestyles of those Buddhist renunciants whose spiritual disciplines are not found in the monasteries or formal doctrines of academic Buddhism. In this sense, Buddhist Saints in India is an important contribution to Buddhist studies.