Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Group of Six

According to Buddhist tradition, there was a group of six monks who constantly behaved in ways that exasperated the Buddha, causing him to produce a series of monastic rules to regulate their conduct.

    "Six bhikkhus wearing wooden sandals, and each holding a staff with both hands, were walking to and fro on a big stone slab, making much noise. The Buddha hearing the noises asked Thera Ananda what was going on, and Thera Ananda told him about the six bhikkhus. The Buddha then prohibited the bhikkhus from wearing wooden sandals. He further exhorted the bhikkhus to restrain themselves both in words and deeds." Khuddaka Nikaya. The Dhammapada Stories. Translated by Daw Mya Tin, M.A., Burma Pitaka Association (1986)
    "...when the group-of-six bhikkhus went in a vehicle yoked with cows and bulls, they were criticized by the lay people. The Buddha then established a fault of Wrong-doing for a bhikkhu to travel in a vehicle; later illness was exempted from this guideline..." The Bhikkhus' Rules. A Guide for Laypeople compiled and explained by Bhikkhu Ariyesako 
    "when the general guidelines were first worked out, some group-of-six bhikkhus abused the system to impose penalties on innocent bhikkhus they didn't like (Mv.IX.3.1), so the Buddha formulated a number of checks to prevent the system from working against the innocent." Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Buddhist Monastic Code I, Chapter 6 Aniyata

See also "Six Monks, Group Of" in The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism.

What puzzles me in this tradition is the apparent repetition of the Buddha's behaviour. Why does he keep defining more rules to guide the behaviour of the six errant monks (bhikkhus), when it is surely apparent that a more profound intervention ("enlightenment" perhaps) is required. Or is this tradition intended to demonstrate exactly that - the inadequacy of rules?


  1. I think you misunderstand the role of the Buddha in Buddhism. In these stories the Buddha is making recommendations for good behaviour or etiquette. There is no other intervention that is available to him - he is a teacher, not a magician or a messiah. The worse he can do is ask a monk to leave the community. The best he can do is give useful advice. Enlightenment is not an intervention - it is an experience. Each person must experience it for themselves. The Buddha is the advisor on the best way to go about having that experience.

    The so-called group of six feature throughout the Vinaya and can hardly represent history people, but are ciphers for people who where less committed than average - less aware of their own actions and the consequences, apt to act on instinct or habit (they are all of us in other words). The Buddha creates rules to remind them (and others) that certain kinds of behaviour are not conducive to the path of asceticism they have undertaken.

    It makes clear that the people who did try to follow the Buddha were of a range of temperaments and talent when it came to his system of practice.

    Indeed any society is continually adjusting rules - making new rules and deprecating old ones as time goes on. New laws are passed in democracies every week.

    One of the interesting aspects of this rule making is that it highlights the kinds of things people actually did - since if no one did it there would be no need for a rule banning it.

  2. Thank you for your kind comment. The Buddha left us many stories, which we can learn from at many different levels.