Organization of Buddhist Church (Buddhist Sangha)

Buddhist Church and its Organization

Gautama Buddha not only preached his religious doctrines but he laid down rules for the organization of the Buddhist church (Buddhist Sangha). These bodies of rules and their rigorous observance by the Buddhists led to the formation of the corporate body known as the Buddhist Sangha.

In Buddhism, three things or Trinity formed an important part of the creed. They were;

  • Faith in Buddha – the Teacher;
  • Faith in Dhamma or Doctrines;
  • Faith in Sangha or the Church.

Hence every Buddhist monk utters the holy Trinity of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

Rules of Conduct for the Buddhists

Buddha divided the embers of his sect in two separate groups, viz, the monks or the Bhikkhus and the householders or the Grihis.

He laid down specified code of conduct for the guidance of the monks. These rules have been codified in the ‘Patimokkha’ and the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’. These rules may be divided into seven groups as described below.

Ordination and Membership

Persons belonging to any caste, both males and females were eligible for membership of the Buddhist Sangha, provided they did not suffer from certain disabilities like leprosy and other diseases. The minimum age limit for ordination as a monk was 15. A person seeking ordination as a monk had to select a preceptor and obtain the consent of the assembly of monks for his ordination. If he was permitted, he had to shave his hair and moustache and to wear yellow robes. He was admitted to lower ordination or pravrajya. He had to observe stern morality, rigorous austerity for certain number of years. He had to live under the guidance of his preceptor during his apprenticeship or pravrajya. If he passed this test, he was recommended by his preceptor for the higher ordination or upasampada. After receiving higher ordination the monk became a full- fledged member of the Buddhist church and his life was guided by the rules of the Patirnokkha.

Fortnightly Assembly and Confession

The monks living in a particular area had to assemble together every 8th, 14th and 15th day of a fortnight. In these assemblies a president was elected from among the monks. After recitation of the Patimokkha, the president asked the monks and the nuns whether any one of them had committed any breach of rules during the preceding fortnight. If any on confessed his guilt, he had to perform his penance according to the rules laid down in the Patimokkha. The lay Buddhists or House-holders did not live the life of a Bhikshu or monk. He merely expressed his loyalty and devotion to the Samgha and pursued the ethical principles of Buddhism in his life. He had to make financial contributions for the maintenance of the Samgha.

Dress and Food

As regards the dress and food of the monks, Buddha was not in favour of extreme austerity. The monks could wear three pieces of garments made of cotton, coloured in yellow for the upper and lower part of the body. They could be the food, receive offering from the faithful and accept invitations for meals. When they became ill, they could take medicines from physicians. But Buddha urged that they should avoid any kind of excess.


Buddha laid down rules for the selections of sites for monasteries and their mode of construction. The ownership of the monasteries was vested in the general council of monks. The management of the Buddhist church was primarily in the hands of the local Sangha.

The Vassa

The monks had to live the life of wandering recluses. During the rainy season they were required to live or three months in fixed residence or vassa. They could depend on the charity of neighbouring people for their sustenance during this period. At the end of the vassa, they would assemble and confess their offences. If any monk committed any breach of rules during the vassa, he had to confess it and do penance.

Rules for Nuns

Special code of rules were laid down in the `Bhikshuni Patimokkha’ for the guidance of the nuns. They were expected to observe them rigorously.

Constitution of the Buddhist Church

The constitution of the Buddhist church was based on the essential principle of democracy. Buddha seems to have copied them from the autonomous republics of his time. Buddha did not nominate any person to be his successor. He did not select the head of the Buddhist church after him. There was no central organization in the Buddhist church to coordinate the activities of the local Buddhist Sanghas. So the local Buddhist Sanghas for all intent and purposes were virtually independent. They were parts of the universal Buddhist church merely in theory. The members of a local Buddhist Sangha formed a general assembly which was the so sovereign body and all important business was done by its consent. The consent of the General Assembly was expressed through voting by ballot or throwing wooden sticks in a basket. For different kinds of business the minimum number of members required to be present was fixed. The head of the local monastery as well as certain officials were elected by the local assembly. These officials managed the secular business of the monastery. Monastic institutions were the most remarkable contribution of Buddhism to Indian culture. The ultimate authority of the Buddhist church or Sangha was vested in the hands a general council. The general council was authorized to collate and codify the principle of Buddhism and revise the rules. The First General Council was held a few weeks after the death of Buddha in the Saptaparni cave near Rajgriha In this Council the teachings of Buddha were collated and classified. Mahakashyapa was the president of this Council. Upali and Ananda, the two direct and favourite disciples of Buddha were authorized to collate the Vinaya and the Suttas. The monasteries became academic centers of Buddhist learning.

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