The First Monasteries

The early Buddhist community began as a group of wanderers. It soon involved a settled pattern of life, at least during a portion of the year. In Northern India, there is a rainy season that arrives during the months of June or July that makes the roads (specially of fourth century BC India) impassable for a group of wandering monks.

The Rain Retreat

It was important for these monks to find a place to settle down during the rainy season, for what is called the rain retreat. Sometimes, in the very early texts, they say they stayed in caves or even at the base of a big tree. Eventually, when lay supporters were around, it was possible for them to establish regular dwelling places where they could live during the rainy season.

Originally, these were temporary places, monks would get up and wander for the rest of the year and then come back to these places for the rains. As the community became more complex and sophisticated, these places evolved into regular settled monastic communities, known as Biharas.

The Golden Age of Monasticism

Monasteries had been particularly important in Tibet. In fact, one of the best places to go to see traditional monastic practice in action would be one of the great monasteries in Central Tibet. Monastic practice is important in China, Japan and throughout South East Asia.

In its heyday, around the year six or seven hundred of the common era, the great Buddhist monasteries in India were extraordinarily sophisticated and complex centers of learning. They were really like modern universities. They taught not just religious discipline and religious ritual, but a lot of secular disciplines: literature, the arts and medicine were part of the sophisticated intellectual life of the communities.

These monasteries permitted the development of a sophisticated Buddhist civilization, it would have been difficult without them. They also, strangely enough, made the Buddhist community vulnerable to persecution.


These monasteries were the major centers of Buddhist life. If public support for these monasteries began to wane, or if you have a group of invaders coming in suppressing the practice of monasticism like this, they were extremely vulnerable to persecution.

That is what happened eventually in India. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there were a series of invasions that swept across Northern India from Afghanistan that devastated many of the sophisticated cultural institutions in Northern India.

One of the major focal points of persecution was this group of monasteries strung down along the Ganges basin. When they were suppressed, when they were burned and destroyed, and the monks were dispersed, it was very difficult for Buddhism to regenerate in India.

One of the ironies of Buddhist history is that Buddhism has virtually died out in the land of its origin. It was due, at least in part, to the vulnerability of the monastic institutions.

This article is part of the series about The Early Sangha

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