There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.
The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.
There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.
Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:
Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.
There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.
Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.
The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.
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The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.
The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).
After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.
This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.
Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”
The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.
I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.
There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.
I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.
And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.