Editor’s note: This is from Chapter 8 of Nalin Swaris’ book Buddhism, Human Rights and Social Renewal, which I will publish in full soon. It contains a radical reassessment of the Buddha’s teaching and it’s relevance to contemporary thought.
Membership in [the Buddha’s] Sangha was not determined by birth, but by free choice of an aspirant and literally by formal adoption into a new type of kinship group. The foundation of a new kind of sangha was a brilliant and imaginative project of practical transcendence. All were admitted to full and equal membership in the Buddha Sangha, whether members of the aristocracy, Brahmins or ‘ritually unclean’ performers of menial tasks like scavengers. This act of “going forth from the household to the homeless life” was, in its historic context, more than the giving up married life; it was the renunciation by men and women of the patriarchal household and its power relations.
The Buddha founded a new type of sangha by taking the positive values and practices of clan societies and by transcending in practice their narrow perspective, which confined egalitarianism to blood relations. The Buddha extended egalitarianism and solidarity to include all human beings and founded a Universal Tribe, which he called a “Sangha of the Four Quarters”, comprising male and female renouncers and householders. The choice of colour worn by the Buddha’s disciples was a frontal rebuff to the Brahmins varṇa, or colour scheme. White was worn by Brahmins to indicate ritual purity and high social status; black was assigned to śūdras. The Buddhist mendicants donned saffron coloured robes, the colour of rags worn by the untouchable caṇḍālas. Reversing Brahmin notions of high and low, the Buddhist householders wore white garments when they assembled to hear instructions on the Dhamrna from mendicants. Incensed Brahmins regularly attacked Buddhist mendicants as śūdras, “shameless beggars, shavelings, dark fellows born of Brahma’s foot” (Dīgha Nikāya I.90 on). They faced a formidable threat, because the Buddhists’ leader was an outstanding personality once of a prestigious Kṣatriyan lineage.
When a man or woman entered the Sangha of mendicants, he or she legally became a member of this universal society. But de facta, a candidate was initiated into a local commune, also called a sangha. The Universal Sangha was a federation of self-governing communes, a gaṇasangha in the best sense of the term, because the existing system’s particularism had been transcended not in thought but in practice. Private property was abolished and the clan tradition of collective ownership adopted: property was shared, as among members of an extended kinship group. The amalgam of this new society was filial devotion to the founding father, the Buddha, and dāna: sharing the values of his Dhamma. In the spirit of dāna the renouncers brought the gift of Dhamma instruction to the householders, and in exchange the householders provided them with the basic necessities of life. It is therefore not surprising that the first Buddhists referred to themselves as “Sons and Daughters of the Sakyan”.
In accord with the tradition of lineage societies, the unity of early Buddhist sanghas was not merely legalistic. The members were welded together by bonds of familial affection. In their songs of freedom, the first Buddhist women expressed gratitude for the beautiful friendship, kalyāṇa mittatā, and the sisterhood they found in the bhikkhuṇi sangha. The Vinaya Piṭaka refers to a community of bhikkhus led by the Elder Anuruddha where beautiful friendship reigned. When the Buddha inquired about the welfare of this community, Anuruddha replied: “Master, we are all living together on friendly terms and blending harmoniously, as milk and water, regarding each other with the eye of affection.” (Vinaya Piṭaka 1.351)
The Buddha’s companion and aide Ānanda once asked him if beautiful friendship and companionship in the Sangha constituted a partial realisation of his Noble Path, to which the Buddha replied:
Not so! Not so, Ānanda! Truly, the whole of this life of excellence consists in beautiful friendship, beautiful support and beautiful comradeship
(Saṁyutta Nikāya I.88).
This seldom quoted description of the Noble Way’s social efflorescence suggests the Buddha believed that the goal of human liberation has to be realised not in another world, but through the creation of a social humanity and a humane society. Real freedom is possible only in authentic communities where individuals obtain happiness in and through free and non-discriminating association. In a morally transformed society, individuals will see each other not as means or obstacles to their freedom, but as the conditions of their freedom. Freedom from every form of subjection is what his a-societal Sangha was meant to provide and exemplify. In the Buddha’s own words:
In my Sangha, there is only one flavour, the flavour of freedom
(Vinaya Piṭaka V.335).
In a world divided by personal and group interests, the first Buddha Sangha was intended to demonstrate in practice that there is another possibility. The Buddha expressed this ideal, as originally envisaged, in beautiful and moving language:
Let us live happily, hating none, in the midst of those who hate
Let us live healthily, among those live unhealthily
Let us live free from care among those afflicted with anxiety
Let us [live] happily then, we who posses nothing,
Like radiant gods (Dhammapada 197-200].