Soka Spirit
Do We Need Priests? (Part I)

October 01, 1999

By Shin Yatomi
SGI-USA Vice Study Department Leader

I. Introduction

Someone interested in Buddhism recently asked me the following question: “So where’s your temple?” “We don’t have either temples or priests. We’re a lay Buddhist group,” was my reply.

“Oh really? . . .”

Sensing this person’s befuddlement, I explained the circumstances surrounding the 1991 excommunication of the SGI by the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood. This conversation reminded me that when people hear about Buddhism, their mental associations typically go from the Buddha (imagined as a grinning man with a big belly and long earlobes) to temples and tonsured men in robes attending to rituals or absorbed in quiet contemplation.

Though the SGI members are doing better than ever since our split with the priesthood, many still ponder the question: “Do we need priests? Are we missing something because we lack a formal priesthood?” Through my experiences over the past nine years, I do not feel that I am missing anything. When I attend SGI discussion meetings and other activities, I feel encouraged and nourished-inspired to further develop my personal practice.

But we should not depend solely on subjective experiences and feelings to reach this conclusion. For this reason, it might be helpful for us to reexamine the relationship between the priesthood and laity and investigate the historical development of the Buddhist priesthood.

II. The Tension and Anxiety Between Priesthood and Laity

It is not unusual to associate the concept of religion with the hierarchy of 1) a supreme power or deity, 2) priests and 3) the masses. This triad in which the saving force and the saved are connected by religious intermediaries has been a familiar concept in human history. For example, the word hierarchy1 derives from the Latin hierarchia, which means the power or rule of episcopate. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the word primarily meant each of the three divisions of angels who were considered a link between God and people.In the history of religion, tension and anxiety, rather than accord and unity, have more often permeated this triad. The priestly class wants to retain its role as intermediaries between the saving power or deity and the people. However, the priest class is keenly aware that its status completely depends upon the laity’s acknowledgement of its supposed authority in this role. In a political or behavioral sense, the power of priesthood derives not from God or the Buddha, but from the very lay believers who deem the priests to be their spiritual superiors. This inherent paradox in the nature of the clergy’s authority is a fundamental cause of their anxiety. Lay believers also have cause for their own tension in the triad. They are often caught between their desire to establish direct and unrestricted communion with the sacred on one hand, and the sense of security that comes from assigning responsibility for spiritual matters to the clergy on the other. Since both priesthood and laity have reasons for tension and anxiety in this triad, it is ultimately an unstable and dynamic relationship in which the status of each element is constantly evolving.

No religion is immune to the tensions and conflicts arising from this triad. (Even a religion that has rejected the role of priesthood still has to deal with the absence of priesthood.) The Protestant Reformation and the counter-Reformation of Catholicism may be one of the most well-known examples. Against the doctrines expounded by the Church, Martin Luther (1483-1546) advocated the priesthood of all believers. He wrote: “We are all consecrated priests through baptism… A priest in Christiandom is nothing else but an officeholder… If we are all priests… and all have one faith, one gospel, one sacrament, why should we not also have the power to test and judge what is right or wrong in matters of faith?”2 He also expounded on the sufficiency of the Bible: “Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Scripture or plain reason (for I believe neither in Pope nor councils alone, since it is agreed that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”3 In response to Protestantism, the Church at the Council of Trent in 1563 defended its basic position that the priesthood “consists in the power of consecrating and offering the Body and Blood of the Lord, and of remitting and of retaining sins.”4 The Church reaffirmed that the priestly orders “do not depend on the call or consent of the people, nor the secular power.”5 According to the Church, the powers of priests to interpret and preach the teaching of Christ as well as to forgive sins derive from Christ himself.6
The rift between the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood and the SGI similarly presents the tension and anxiety inherent in the triad of the saving influence (the Gohonzon, or Nichiren Daishonin’s enlightenment), the priesthood and lay believers. Ultimately, the priesthood under the leadership of Nikken, the current high priest, was unable to withstand that tension. The solution it sought was to sever ties with one corner of the triad-the members of the SGI-and replace it with something less a source of tension. That was a laity largely of disaffected members of the SGI who were fewer in number and less apt to question the priesthood’s exercise of authority over them.

Shortly after the SGI’s announcement in 1993 that it would be conferring Gohonzon to its members, the Nichiren Shoshu Bureau of Religious Affairs stated: “The Soka Gakkai is a group that has been excommunicated by Nichiren Shoshu, and has absolutely no relationship with Nichiren Shoshu. Therefore, no matter what actions the Soka Gakkai may take, Nichiren Shoshu has no connection with those actions whatsoever.”7 But with this resolute denial of any ties with their former lay believers came the rather emotional plea: “Nichiren Shoshu believers who are still members of the Soka Gakkai! At least one last time, reconsider the path you are taking! Once you have crossed the line and accepted the ultimate heresy-the counterfeit object of worship-you will have crossed over to the wrong side of the river that separates enlightenment from extremely long imprisonment in the evil paths.”8

In fact, the priesthood’s “one last time” was not really the last; it has continued to attempt to win back its excommunicated lay believers even until today. The priesthood’s obsession with its former lay believers most eloquently illustrates its anxiety stemming from the paradox of its source of authority mentioned above. To assert its supposed spiritual superiority, the priesthood had to strike at the basis of its own priestly authority by excommunicating the majority of its lay believers.

The priests of Nichiren Shoshu are not the only ones who have experienced tension and anxiety due to the triad of spiritual interdependency. The SGI, in one sense, traded its problems with the priesthood for another challenge. Having been excommunicated, the SGI can no longer rely on the priesthood as support for a sense of orthodoxy. Today the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood stresses believers? obedience to the high priest as an absolute necessity for their enlightenment: “If one has correct faith following the guidance of the High Priest, then benefit will result. However, even if one possesses a traditional Gohonzon, if the person worshipping it slanders the High Priest of the conferral of the lifeblood of the Law, . . . there will be no benefit.”9 According to the priesthood’s doctrine as indicated here, what is more important than believing in the Gohonzon is to follow the high priest. According to the priesthood, only the high priest, by the virtue of his assumed mystical lineage from Nichiren Daishonin, can correctly interpret the founder’s teaching and guide lay believers toward salvation. The priesthood claims: “The Nichiren Shoshu faith consists of following the lifeblood received by only a single person [i.e., the high priest].”10

The priesthood’s idea of Buddhist practice provides a sense of comfort and security to some people in that they need not struggle to find and establish a direct and intimate connection with the ultimate reality—their own Buddha nature. Their faith is validated by a third party. Simply put, their only responsibility is to defer to their local priest, through whom they commune with the high priest, who communes with the Mystic Law on their behalf. Those of us who have chosen to practice the Daishonin’s Buddhism without the priesthood, however, must accept the struggle to perceive and manifest our inherent Buddhahood as the Daishonin urges us: “Therefore, when you chant the Mystic Law and recite the Lotus Sutra, you must summon up deep conviction that Myoho-renge-kyo is your life itself.”11 In this case, it is a practitioner’s responsibility to define and establish his or her relationship with the Buddha nature.

This internal challenge of ours, furthermore, is often made more difficult by the popular notion that Buddhism is the domain of monks or priests. Even in modern times, the image of an Asian man in robes, sans hair, is the image of Buddhism to many. The idea that ordinary lay people can develop a mastery of Buddhist thought and practice seems out of synch with people’s impression of traditional Buddhism.

The history surrounding the development and evolution of the Buddhist order, however, tells us that a institutionalized priesthood is not an absolute element in Buddhist tradition. History enables us to view the role of the Buddhist priesthood as something constantly evolving and dynamic in its forms. In the following, I would like to briefly trace the history of the Buddhist priesthood and their relationship to the laity.

III. The Early Buddhist Order

Why Did Shakyamuni Become Homeless?

To better understand the nature of the early Buddhist Order, it is important to know why Shakyamuni left the secular world to pursue a religious life. Being a monk or priest at that time in India meant to be homeless and lead the life of a wandering mendicant. It was a role fundamentally different from that of Buddhist priests in Japan today, the majority of whom are married, have families, and thus are virtually indistinguishable from the laity except for ceremonial robes and shaved heads. In Shakyamuni’s India, it was customary for those aspiring to a religious life to leave their families. Professor Hajime Nakamura describes the nature of Shakyamuni’s decision to leave home as follows: “In a modern sense it corresponds to leaving the family and going to the city or abroad for study or to obtain certain skills.”12 The option to become a monk, however, was limited to the affluent because the initiates had to leave enough resources behind to provide for their familes.13 Indeed, Shakyamuni himself came from an affluent royal family.

There were two types of religious practitioners during Shakyamuni’s time: the brahmanas and the sramanas. The brahmanas were the priests of Brahmanism (the ancient form of Hinduism), considered the highest caste of Indian society, even above those of the ruling ksatriya class. 14 In his youth, a brahmana left home to study the Vedas under a teacher. After completing his study, he returned to his family to marry and raise a family. He would then officiate at various sacrificial rituals for the Hindu gods. When his sons returned from their initial studies and became old enough to assume responsibility for the household, the brahmana would leave home again to embark on a life of wandering.

The sramanas were a newer type of religious practitioner. They would enter a life of wandering and begging while young, and engage in various ascetic practices in their quest for the absolute.15 But they never again returned to secular life. For both types of religious practitioner, however, a life of wandering and begging was considered the norm in their religious discipline. When Shakyamuni set out to seek a solution for people’s suffering, he chose the life style of a wandering monk, according to the social customs of his day. If he were alive today in America, we can easily assume that the form of his initial religious role would have been different. Even an enlightened person intent on spiritual reform would be unlikely to begin as a wandering monk today. Shakyamuni’s choice to become a monk or priest in no way implies the absolute value of the priestly class in Buddhism; it simply indicates his adoption of the social customs of his day in achieving his aims.

Against Class Discrimination

After Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, he began to preach his teaching (the Dharma) to all people, regardless of their caste, race, sex or economic status. He first converted the five monks with whom he had initially practiced austerities.16He then converted Yasas, the son of a wealthy elder of Benares, and Yasas’ parents and wife became Buddhist laymen (upasaka) and laywomen (upasika).17 Through Shakyamuni’s preaching, his order grew to include people from all walks of life-for example, rulers such as King Bimbisara of Magadha;18 non- Aryan slave women such as Punnika;19 artisans such as the blacksmith Cunda20; wealthy merchants such as Sudatta,21 the sick, such as Suppabuddha, who was a leper described as “a poor, miserable, wretched creature”22; and even criminals such as Angulimala,23 who was a vicious bandit; and the list goes on.

Regarding Shakyamuni’s preaching career, Professor Hajime Nakamura comments:

It was unheard of in Gotama’s contemporary India to preach one’s teaching to all the people. This is obvious when we compare his situation with the various philosophers of the Upanisads, who limited their audiences and often confined themselves to preaching to their own children, or distinguished individuals whom they deemed were qualified to receive instruction. Gotama Buddha broke this traditional restriction and doing so must have required considerable determination and courage. 24

Judging from Shakyamuni’s disregard of social or economic distinctions in choosing his audience, the early Buddhist order must have been a dynamic movement open to all people. The Buddhist movement at its beginning was opposed to any form of class discrimination. 25

The Origin of the Samgha

The Buddhist order was called samgha (also spelled as sangha). During Shakyamuni’s time, the same term described a number of political groups and trade guilds; it was also applied to religious groups.26 The general notion of the samgha included the four groups of Buddhists: monks (bhiksu), nuns (bhiksuni), laymen (upasaka) and laywomen (upasika). 27 When it is used in early Buddhist texts, however, the term usually refers to the two orders of priesthood: the order of monks (bhiksu-sangha) and the order of nuns (bhiksunisangha).28 The Buddhist Order was often called samagra-sangha or “harmonious order.” It was thought that members of the samgha should practice in harmony since they share the same goal of attaining enlightenment.29

A distinction was made between the two types of Buddhist order. The first type was called sammukhibhuta-sangha or the “present order,” meaning a Buddhist order that existed at a certain time and place.30 During Shakyamuni’s time, many orders were formed in various locations. Those orders were governed by rules called vinaya. But a Buddhist scripture on monastic discipline records that Shakyamuni did not initially set forth priestly rules: “For the five years immediately following Sakyamuni’s Enlightenment, the sangha of bhikkhu was completely pure but after that they gradually committed errors. As a result, the Buddha established regulations as the need arose . . .”31 The second type of samgha was more of a conceptual expression of the Buddhist order called caturdisa-samgha (the “universal order” or “the order of the four quarters”), which included all the Buddha’s disciples of the past, present and future and was expressed as monastic rules applicable to all the present orders.32 No present order could claim the possession of monasteries and other buildings; all the properties were considered to belong to the universal order.33

All the Buddhist priests during Shakyamuni’s time led a life of wandering and begging except for three or four months of the rainy season when they took shelter in one place and engaged in intensive study and meditation.34 According to the early Buddhist texts, priests were allowed to possess six items: three robes, a begging bowl, a cloth to sit upon, and a water strainer.35 Their lives were austere and entirely devoted to their religious practice. It is interesting to note that soon after Shakyamuni’s death, which various scholars estimate to have been around the end of the fifth or fourth century BCE,36 Buddhist priests renounced the life of wandering and started to settle down.37 This transition from wandering to settlement marked the beginning of the Buddhist priests’ lives at temples and monasteries.38 In this regard, it must be pointed out that Shakyamuni never had a temple or monastery if it refers to a priest’s permanent residence or home. He remained homeless to the end; his entire life as a religious practitioner was spent in travelling and preaching his Dharma to all people.

The Three Treasures

The three treasures, which is also translated as the three refuges or the three gems, are the Buddha, the Dharma (i.e., his Law or teaching), and the samgha (the Buddhist order or community). It is an old Buddhist tradition that practitioners pay respect to those three fundamental elements of Buddhism. Sutta-Nipata, one of the early Buddhist scriptures, explains that the Buddha is worthy of respect because he expounded the truth that benefits all people; 39 Shakyamuni’s Dharma is worthy of respect because it enables all people to attain peace and overcome death.40 Lastly, the samgha is worthy of respect because it consists of the Buddha’s “faithful followers” who have “steadfast hearts.”41

The Buddha and his teaching are obviously important because without them there could be no Buddhism. In fact, during the earliest period of Buddhism, homage was paid only to the Buddha and the Dharma. Paying homage to all the three treasures is considered to be a later tradition.42 Professor Hermann Oldenberg suggests that the idea of the three treasures began in a period after Shakyamuni’s death when the Buddhist order “stood as the sole visible exponent of the idea hitherto embodied in Buddha, as the sole possessor of delivering truth.”43 In other words, it is the significance of the samgha that the Buddha’s faithful disciples spread his teaching, especially after his passing. Put simply, the essential role of the samgha lies in propagation activities. This is consistent with Shakyamuni’s emphasis to widely spread the Dharma. In one of the early texts, Shakyamuni tells his priestly disciples:

Go out and preach, monks, out of compassion for sentient beings, and out of concern for the world. Bring benefits, happiness, and caring to gods and men. No two of you should go to the same place. Preach the Dharma with reason and eloquence so that it will be good at the beginning, middle, and end. 44

The samgha becomes worthy of respect only when its members are correctly spreading the Buddha’s teaching. Put another way, the true samgha is nothing other than a group of Buddhist practitioners dedicated to the propagation of Buddhism.

Spiritual Equality and Self-reliance

Other notable characteristics of the samgha include its spiritual equality. It was thought that Shakyamuni’s disciples were fully capable of attaining the same enlightened state as their teacher. This idea is reflected in one of the eight analogies of the samgha comparing it to the ocean. In one of the early texts called Udana, Shakyamuni states: “Just as, monks, the mighty ocean is of one flavour, the flavour of salt, even so, monks, this dhamma is of one flavour, the flavour of release.”45 Through the Buddha’s teaching, all people can savor exactly the same state of enlightenment as the Buddha. Just like water in the great ocean has the same salty taste everywhere, there is no distinction in the spiritual state people may attain through the Buddha’s teaching.

This spiritual equality of early Buddhism is documented elsewhere as well. For example, the spiritual state attained by the five monks who were the first Buddhist converts is depicted as being exactly identical as Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. In this regard, Professor Hajime Nakamura states: “The notion that the Buddha’s disciples could never reach the same goal that he attained since he was super-human, is a product of later imagination promulgated by the pompous theologians of subsequent eras, and a distortion of historical fact.”46 Any Buddhist who declares that he has obtained a spiritual status that cannot be attained by other practitioners is making a claim that even Shakyamuni did not make and thereby promoting a non-Buddhist perspective.

Spiritual equality acknowledged in the samgha had some implications in terms of its organizational characteristics. Although priests’ seniority in length of practice was respected, there was no hierarchical character in the early samgha. Some priests had some administrative duties such as caretaker of sleeping quarters and council chambers or as distributors of food and other necessities.47 But they had no greater political influence than others within the order. Professor Hermann Oldenberg points out: “Unanimity was necessary as a general rule in most of the resolutions of the Order.”48 The early samgha was democratic in its nature and structure.

Furthermore, the samgha did not have a specific person or high priest who would interpret the Buddha’s teaching for the rest of the Buddhist community. In fact, the samgha did not claim to have any authority to institute new rules or interpret the Buddha’s teaching. Although new rules were introduced into the samgha after Shakyamuni’s death in response to changing circumstances, the monks made sure to attribute those changes to the Buddha himself.49 This attitude of the early samgha indicates that in addition to the spread of Buddhism, the preservation of the Buddha’s teaching was considered an important function of the Buddhist order.

In other words, faithfulness to the founder was an essential prerequisite for the Buddhist order. No arbitrary legislation or interpretation contradicting Shakyamuni’s teaching was tolerated within the Buddhist order. Consequently the samgha did not choose to have a leader who would legislate rules and interpret doctrines. The faithful observance of the Buddha’s teaching was viewed as paramount.

Although every Buddhist was thought capable of attaining the same enlightenment as Shakyamuni, the samgha refused to acknowledge any specific person to succeed their teacher immediately after the founder’s death. One of the early Pali texts called Majjhima Nikaya records the discourse between Ananda (one of Shakyamuni’s ten major disciples) and a certain Brahmin, which took place soon after Shakyamuni’s death. Parts of this dialogue reveal an important aspect of the samgha:

Brahmin: “Is there a single Almsman who in every respect and in every particular possesses all the qualities that were possessed by the reverend Gotama, the Arahat all enlightened [the Buddha]?”

Ananda: “No, Brahmin. For the Lord made a Path where path there was none, traced out a Path where path there was none, and revealed a Path till then unrevealed… Today his disciples follow him in the Path which has come to them from him. …”

Brahmin: “Is there any particular Almsman, Ananda, who was designated by the reverend Gotama to be at his decease your alternative refuge, and to whom, in his place, you might have recourse today?”

Ananda: “No.”

Brahmin: “Is there any such Almsman chosen for this purpose by the Confraternity and designated as such by Elders and Almsmen?”

Ananda: “No.”

Brahmin: “Having no such alternative refuge, how come you to be in such unison?”

Ananda: “We lack not an alternative refuge, Brahmin; we have one in the Doctrine. . . .”

Brahmin: “Is there any one particular Almsman who today you respect and revere, to whom you show honour and worship and to whom you look up with respect and reverence?

Ananada: “Yes.”

Brahmin: “In answer to my previous questions, you have already told me that Gotama designated no Almsman as an alternative to himself as your refuge at his death, and that the Confraternity has designated no one since; but now you tell me there is an Almsman whom you revere and in dependence on whom you live in respect and reverence. What can your words mean?”50

At this point, Ananda starts to explain ten various qualities that would make a person worthy of respect.51 In other words, anyone who develops virtuous character and abilities should be respected. As we can see in Ananda’s discourse, the samgha did not place anyone in a position of spiritual superiority above the rest; at the same time it encouraged honor and respect for anyone virtuous as a result of practice based on Shakyamuni’s Dharma.

Originally neither the Dharma nor the samgha allowed for any intermediary to stand between a practitioner and his or her enlightenment. Individual practitioners are responsible for their salvation through their own efforts to practice the Buddha’s teaching. After all, self-reliance is a cornerstone of Buddhism. Shakyamuni instructed Ananda on his deathbed: “Therefore, Ananda, in this world be an island to yourself, be a refuge to yourself and take refuge in no other. Make the Dharma your island, the Dharma your refuge and no other.”52

No Excommunication of Lay Believers

The Order of early Buddhism did not reject a priest unless he committed a serious violation of the rules of monastic conduct, such as a transgression of the four great prohibitions: sexual intercourse, stealing, killing and lying.53 At the same time, if priests wanted to return to their secular lives and continue to practice as lay believers, they were always free to do so. It was generally thought that no one should be bound to the priestly order or the Buddhist community as a whole by external powers.

Consequently there was no notion of excommunication of laity in early Buddhism. In this regard, Professor Hermann Oldenberg comments: “A formal excommunication of unbelieving, unworthy, or scandalously-living lay-brothers there was not, and, as a result of circumstances, there could not be.”54 If there were a lay believer disruptive to the Buddhist community, the members of the priestly order would simply refrain from receiving alms from such a person.55 This was as far as the priestly order went in applying sanctions to lay believers for transgressions.