Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values and Orientations

Reviewed by Kevin Trainor

History of Religions
Vol.37 No.1 (August 1997)

COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Chicago

            Reginald Ray has undertaken a formidable task. As he notes, modern 
            European and American accounts of Indian Buddhism have tended to 
            neglect the figure of the Buddhist saint, whom he defines as "a 
            person in whom the ultimate potentiality of every human, indeed 
            sentient, being has been more or less fully realized" (p. 44). 
            Drawing on textual accounts of the Buddha's life and several of his 
            prominent followers, Ray identifies a basic typology of Buddhist 
            perfection, which, he maintains, reflects a coherent Indian 
            religious ideal, one firmly rooted in the "Indian mind." Central to 
            this ideal, according to Ray, is the tradition of "forest Buddhism," 
            a tradition that, in Ray's assessment, had its origins in the 
            earliest historical stratum of the Buddhist movement but was later 
            largely obscured by a tradition of settled monasticism. Ray's 
            substantial work surveys an extensive body of primary and secondary 
            sources with an eye toward a fundamental revision of common views 
            about the sociology of the early Buddhist tradition. He describes 
            himself as working out of the history of religions and Buddhology, 
            the latter incorporating a diversity of disciplines. As the book's 
            subtitle suggests, Ray explores the foundational values and 
            orientations of the Indian Buddhist tradition, articulating a 
            provocative hypothesis about the history of the earliest Buddhist 
            community. Dissatisfied with the skeptical attitude of many 
            contemporary scholars toward earlier efforts to reconstruct the 
            history of original Buddhism, Ray asserts that it is indeed possible 
            to identify "the general character and shape of the early tradition 
            and community" (p. 9). 
            That early tradition, as Ray reconstructs it, was preeminently one 
            of forest asceticism, a tradition that he identifies with the Buddha 
            and with later charismatic religious virtuosi who became the focus 
            of cults of religious devotion centered around their enshrined 
            corporeal remains. Ray argues that this ideal of forest asceticism 
            provides the basis for a series of Buddhist exemplars, identified by 
            the titles "buddha:" "arhant," "pratyekabuddha," and "bodhisattva." 
            Ray depicts these figures as wonder-working meditational adepts who 
            stood apart ideologically and institutionally from the communities 
            of town-and-village monastics whose primary religious practice was 
            mastery of Buddhist texts and conformity to the minutiae of their 
            elaborate codes of monastic discipline. He attributes the virtual 
            invisibility of the forest saint ideal to a process of 
            "monasticization" in which later communities of settled monastics 
            effectively displaced the earlier ideal of the forest-dwelling saint 
            and came to regard their own mode of life, defined by textual 
            mastery and disciplinary purity, as the ideal of the Buddha himself. 
            Ray argues that this process of rendering invisible the original 
            Buddhist ideal of forest asceticism has occurred in both the ancient 
            history of the Buddhist tradition and in the modern Euro-American 
            tradition of scholarship. Early in the history of Buddhism, perhaps 
            even during the lifetime of the Buddha, the tradition of settled 
            monasticism arose from a complex mix of "creative and degenerative 
            factors" (p. 402) and eventually displaced the forest tradition, a 
            process that Ray maintains was particularly pronounced in Theravada 
            Buddhism. He argues that the Mahayana movement is best understood as 
            a continuation or revival of the early forest tradition, noting that 
            if this is true, then "the fundamental ideal and inspiration of the 
            Mahayana may indeed be said to derive from the earliest and most 
            authentic Buddhism, just as the Mahayana has always claimed" (p. 
            417). And, according to Ray, because the Pali canon (which Ray 
            argues was more thoroughly monasticized than those of some other 
            early Buddhist schools) has served as the primary source for modem 
            attempts to write the history of early Buddhism, the early forest 
            saint tradition has undergone a second process of erasure. 
            Ray acknowledges that his thesis will provoke considerable debate 
            since it stands in stark contrast to much recent scholarship on the 
            history of early Buddhism and on the rise of the Mahayana movement. 
            His work is commendable for its efforts to move beyond the 
            "two-tiered model of Buddhism" defined by the opposition between 
            monastic and lay Buddhists. He also makes a valuable contribution by 
            drawing attention to a substantial body of secondary literature on 
            Buddhist sainthood, much of it in French. Yet as one of those who 
            remains skeptical about efforts to uncover the early history of the 
            Buddhist tradition by identifying allegedly early textual strata in 
            the extant scriptural canons, I remain unconvinced by Ray's thesis. 
            I find that he provides a very selective and at times tendentious 
            reading of the texts from the Pali canon that he puts forth as 
            evidence of an original forest tradition. Few scholars of Buddhism 
            would disagree with Ray's assertion that forest renunciation and 
            some forms of ascetic practice were defining elements in the ethos 
            of the early Buddhist movement and in later Buddhist communities. It 
            remains unclear, however, why we should prefer an account that on 
            the basis of a selective reading of the resources posits the 
            existence of an original community of forest renunciants who alone 
            embodied authentic tradition, a tradition that was later distorted 
            by worldly monastics more concerned with their own disciplinary 
            purity and scholarly attainments than with meditation and 
            realization. This account bears more than a passing resemblance to 
            influential nineteenth-century narratives of an original authentic 
            monastic tradition that was later corrupted by a Buddhist laity 
            incapable of understanding the Buddha's true teaching, though in 
            Ray's version the culprits are worldly monastics. While Ray's 
            account of the early tradition represents an advance over earlier 
            narratives by highlighting the importance of devotional elements in 
            the early tradition (elements interpreted by nineteenth-century 
            scholars as evidence of the decline of the tradition under lay 
            influence), it nevertheless is essentially a narrative of decline 
            and renewal insofar as it grants authenticity to some forms of 
            Buddhist practice (forest ascetics, both before and after the 
            appearance of the Mahayana) and denies it to communities of settled 
            Buddhist monastics (especially those of the Theravada tradition) who 
            appear to have integrated the ideals of disciplinary purity, textual 
            erudition, meditational attainment, and devotion to the Buddha. 
            Ray's concluding chapter does in fact articulate a "threefold model" 
            of Buddhism that affirms the functional integration and respective 
            contributions of forest renunciants, settled monastics, and lay 
            Buddhists to the ongoing continuity of the Buddhist tradition, a 
            perspective that stands in tension with the historical argument 
            around which much of the book is organized. The contribution of 
            Ray's work lies not in his identification of an original, authentic 
            form of Buddhism but in the wealth of primary and secondary 
            materials he has utilized toward the end of identifying some of the 
            enduring ideals of perfection that have shaped a diversity of 
            Buddhist communities in the history of India.