The Buddha built his system upon the civilization in which he lived, and adapted to that civilization the methods he perceived were necessary. He drew upon the heritage of centuries in building his presentation of the Truth he taught, as all Great Teachers, Seers, Prophets and Leaders of mankind should do, for a bridge must be constructed between the old and new. He led by a gentle incline from the Brahmanical system to his own. He discarded, as he built his own Path, very many by-paths of peculiar practices and extreme asceticism. This is well known from a study of his life.
He built upon an old and very well developed civilization, and took into his calculations the customs of the people — of whom he was one. This is to be considered carefully as a basis for the succeeding statements.
He drew upon the screen of Time a battle plan for the day in which he lived. The plan itself is Timeless, and has merit, divested of the special details which were designed to apply at the time of his teaching. Apart from its methods, the plan still stands in its severity and beauty. Apply it to the busy modern world, unencumbered by its Rules for the Bhikshus or ascetics, and we have the Rules for the Householder, or lay member of the Buddha's Dharma. Among the ranks of the Householders, Kings of India have been proud to serve, so no householder of the western world should consider that beneath him. It is in meeting one's destiny that the true Buddhist finds The Way to peace and high achievement.
Manifestly the Sangha could not be transplanted to another climate in its original costume, observing rules designed for a hot country. Something must be changed. The dress and rules were changed to suit a different climate in Tibet and northern China. Something must give way, if in another century an age-old custom is outworn, and there appears a better method. So in a changing world, we need not think that there is necessity to retain the original form and fashion of the Sangha, outwardly.
So much for the exterior unessentials. The Doctrine, or the Law, remains. This can be taken by anyone, in any quarter of the world, to mind and heart, and built into the daily life little by little, changing the daily habits, until the householder is in line with all the Five Precepts prescribed for lay members. He need not lose his place in the community or be considered queer or useless in his day or generation. He can find useful occupation and fulfill his duty, be a valuable worker in the world, mingle with all sorts of men and women in his daily occupation. He need not take the solitary life or preach from village to village. He may be, and often is, incapable of such efforts. He may be better fitted for the quiet effort to live the Precepts, to find his own Way by his own effort, and if this is not practical in our century and times — what is practical?
The Bhikshu, however, must choose another path. He must find a center of the Brotherhood, and must journey to the East to find such a center. He may stay temporarily, or permanently. But this path is for the unencumbered, who have wealth and leisure, who are without dependents or obligations to others. It is for those who make the decision to concentrate their effort, even as the Bhikshus did in the days of the founding of the Order, and still do in Eastern lands. It should be remembered that even in the Buddha's day the Bhikshus were the exception, not the rule, compared to the vast majority who accepted the Vows of the Householder. The few take the path of the Bhikshu and the many take the path of the Householder, but this status of Householder is not without merit.
1. Reprinted from The Golden Lotus, May, 1944, Philadelphia, Penn. (return to text)