Politeness and etiquette in the Buddhist sangha

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In our June seminar we welcomed Dr Christopher Handy, who spoke about his research on etiquette among Buddhist monks and nuns. Based on readings of the Buddhist monastics codes in the vinaya Handy pointed out that many of the rules for monks and nuns have little or nothing to do with ethics, and can be better characterised as rules of etiquette. Approaching the vinaya texts in the context of politeness, Handy drew on Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s politeness theory (itself based on the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman) to argue that many of the rules in the vinaya are primarily concerned with not losing face.

The rules concerning politeness are especially common in the śaikṣadharma or ‘rules for training’, which include, for example, prohibitions against making a smacking (capucapu) or slurping (surusuru) sound when eating. Some rules of politeness, Handy showed, are based on previously existing Brahminical customs, such as the rule against urinating while standing. On the other hand, the nature of politeness is different when Buddhist monks and nuns are among lay people. Ordinarily friendly acts such as smiling and making small talk are not allowed to be directed towards lay people, especially those of the opposite sex.

Furthermore, Handy pointed out cases where the rules that applied when monks and nuns went among the laity were different from the rules they had to observe when amongst themselves. For instance, one case in the vinaya tells the story of the Buddha sneezing in the course of giving a teaching. When a monk in the audience said “long life!” (the equivalent of “bless you”!), the Buddha explained that it was not necessary to say that to him, or to fellow members of the sangha. However, when monks observed this same rule and failed to say “long life!” when their lay supporters sneezed, those supporters were offended at the monks’ rudeness. When told of of this, the Buddha said that the monks could continue to use the usual polite response with lay people.

After this fascinating talk, Handy demonstrated the new ERC-funded OpenPhilology project for Buddhist scriptures, which he is involved with at Leiden University. Click here for details.