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July 31, 2015 full moon

The Four Assemblies and Theravāda Buddhism

An Article by Bhikkhu Anālayo

Bhikkhu Anālayo is a German scholar-monk and the author of Satipatthāna: The Direct Path to Realization, Perspectives on Satipatthāna, and Excursions into the Thought-World of the Pāli Discourses. He is a core faculty member at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a professor at the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of Hamburg, and a researcher at the Dharma Drum Buddhist College in Taiwan. He studies Buddhist texts in Pāli, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan; his current research interests focus on a comparative study of the Pali Nikāyas and Chinese Āgamas, with a special interest in the topics of Buddhist meditation and the role of women in Buddhism.

Introduction

In this paper I examine two significant developments in the Theravāda tradition from the viewpoint of the Pāli canonical teaching that the four assemblies — bhikkhus, bhikkhunīs, male lay disciples, and female lay disciples — are the necessary foundation for the Buddha’s teaching to thrive. These two developments are the revival of lay meditation and the revival of bhikkhunī ordination.

The Four Assemblies

According to the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta of the Dīgha-nikāya, the Buddha proclaimed that he would not pass away until he had established members of each of the four assemblies in being “wise, well-trained, and self-confident,” vyattā vinītā visāradā (DN II 104).1 This passage makes it unmistakably clear that an essential foundation for the Buddha’s mission of teaching the Dharma was that bhikkhus as well as bhikkhunīs, and male as well as female lay disciples, are wise and well-trained, and that they are also self-confident.

The four assemblies come up again in the Pāsādika-sutta of the same Dīgha-nikāya, which sets the Buddha’s possession of four assemblies of such wise and self-confident disciples in contrast to other teaching traditions under the leadership of someone who is not a fully awakened Buddha (DN III 125). In other words, having these four assemblies of wise and self-confident disciples is what distinguishes a Buddhist tradition from a tradition that is not Buddhist.

According to the Lakkhana-sutta, also found in the Dīgha-nikāya, the wheel-marks on the soles of the Buddha’s feet foretold his destiny of being surrounded by these four assemblies (DN III 148). This makes possession of four assemblies an integral, in fact indispensable, aspect of the Buddha’s ministry. A discourse in the Anguttara-nikāya highlights the rather unfortunate condition of being reborn in a “border country”, which is a country where the four assemblies of Buddhist disciples cannot be found (AN IV 226).

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The Mahāvacchagotta-sutta of the Majjhima-nikāya reports that, on hearing that each of these four assemblies of Buddhist disciples had reached various levels of awakening, the wanderer Vacchagotta decided to join the ranks of the Buddhist monastic order (MN I 491). This stands in contrast to numerous other occasions when he approached the Buddha or his disciples with various questions, without the resulting discussion inspiring him sufficiently to want to go forth as a Buddhist monk.2 The message that emerges on comparing these passages to the Mahāvacchagotta-sutta is that even detailed replies to his questions could not achieve what was eventually accomplished through the inspiring example set by the accomplishments attained by each of the four assemblies.

In sum, there can be little doubt that the Pāli discourses consider the four assemblies to be of fundamental importance for the thriving of the Buddha’s dispensation, the sāsana. Their coming into being is seen as an integral aspect of the Buddha’s mission and forms a distinctive mark of the Buddhist tradition. This in turn implies that any living Buddhist tradition that orients itself on the values enshrined in the Pāli canon needs to ensure that these four assemblies are in existence, and that each of these assemblies has the opportunity to develop wisdom, to train themselves well, and in this way to become self-confident.

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Central for the development of wisdom and a way of training oneself in such a way as to become self-confident would of course be the practice of meditation. The canonical sources in fact repeatedly refer to accomplished meditators not only among bhikkhus, but also among bhikkhunīs as well as lay disciples. The Etadagga-vagga of the Anguttara-nikāya presents various named bhikkhunīs as foremost in meditation, as well as in the attainments that result from meditation, such as the quick gaining of direct knowledge, the divine eye, recollection of past lives, and supernormal powers (AN I 25). Needless to say, the fact that, for example, bhikkhunī Uppalavannā is foremost in supernormal powers implies that other bhikkhunīs also had such abilities, albeit not to the high degree to which these had been mastered by Uppalavannā. There can be little doubt that the ancient bhikkhunīs were reckoned to have been highly accomplished meditators.

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