Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Heritage of the Bhikku

The Buddhist Tradition of Service

by Walpola Rahula

From the best-selling author of What the Buddha Taught, the fascinating story of the Buddhist monks’ life of service.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date September 19, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4023-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00

About The Book

Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a perennial backlist best-seller and has proven to be an indispensable guide to beginning Buddhism. It is renowned for its authoritative, clear, logical, and comprehensive approach. The Heritage of the Bhikkhu is a vivid account of the Buddhist monk’s role as a servant to people’s needs as a follower and teacher of the basic Buddhist principles. In this fascinating and informative volume, the author emphasizes Buddhism as a practical doctrine for daily living and spiritual perfection, not simply a monastic discipline. The Heritage of the Bhikkhu is a pioneering work that deserves to stand with the author’s earlier masterpiece.



Buddhism is based on service to others. Sumedha the Hermit (Bodhisattva who became Gotama the Buddha) renounced nirvâṇa, which was accessible to him, at the feet of the Buddha Dâpaṅkara and resolved to remain in saṃsâra (circle of existence and continuity) to serve the world. “He renounced nirvâṇa as suffering in saṃsâra and took upon himself suffering in saṃsâra for others as nirvâṇa. A true Buddhist should have the strength to sacrifice his own nirvâṇa for the sake of others.
The Buddha exhorted his bhikkhu disciples not to settle permanently in one place, but to wander from village to village preaching to the people for their good and for their well-being.1 Accordingly, the Buddha and his bhikkhus traveled throughout the year, except during the three or four rainy months (vass’na), preaching to the people ideas conducive to their well-being here and hereafter.

It is interesting to examine those ideas the wandering Indian bhikkhus preached. Generally, the villagers were poor, illiterate, not very clean, and not healthy.

They needed simple moral ideas conducive to their material well-being and happiness rather than deep and sublime discourses on philosophy, metaphysics, or psychology as taught in the Abhidhamma. Ideas preached to such lay people are to be found in many places in the Buddhist Scriptures (Tipiṭaka).

The Cakkavattisîhanâda-sutta in the Dîgha-nikâya clearly states that poverty is a cause of crime and im morality. As the Buddha realized this fact, he and his disciples preached to the people the value of earning wealth and the importance of economic development for their well-being and happiness. Further in the Kûṭadanta-sutta (in the Dîgha-nikâya) he expounded that crimes such as stealing could not be stopped by punishment: for such crimes to be adequately and properly controlled and stopped, opportunities should be provided for the people to be happily engaged in their occupations and to lead comfortable lives.

A trader who desires to prosper in his business should exert himself constantly throughout the day; he should be able to select saleable goods; he should be able to determine the purchasing price and the selling price of a commodity; he should be capable of buying things where they are in abundance and selling them where they are in scarcity; he should not cheat his customers by using false measures and weights; he should not engage himself in “unjust trades.”2 Such interesting ideas about vocations are found in several places in the Aṅguttaranik”ya.3

Economic security (atthi-sukha), enjoyment of wealth (bhoga-sukha), freedom from debts (anaṇa-sukha), leading a faultless life (anavajja-sukha)–these are four kinds of happiness for a layman. Ability in one’s occupation (uṭṭh”nasampad”), protection of wealth (“rakkhasampad”), association with good friends (kaly”ṇamittat”), expenditure in proportion to income (samaj”vikat”)–these four are said to be conducive to the well-being of people in this world.4

People were advised to use a quarter of their earnings for day-to-day expenses, to invest two quarters, and to keep one quarter in reserve for emergencies. The ways in which accumulated wealth can be destroyed were also clearly explained.5

If a family that has become wealthy desires to live happily without falling from its position, it should regain things lost, should repair things which are damaged, should not be extravagant on food and drink, and should not have as the head of the family a man or a woman of ill-behavior and immoral life.6

It is stated in many places that for one’s own advancement one should work strenuously without being lazy.7Health is the greatest asset and one should strive to be well.8

Numerous ideas for the well-being of society are frequently stated. Liberality (dâna), kindly speech (peyya-vajja), service for the benefit of others (atthacariyâ), equality (samânattatâ)–these are well known as the four Bases of Assistance (saṅgaha-vatthu).9 Many ideas for the advancement of society, as well as duties and obligations both by the family and the society for their mutual benefit, are mentioned in the discourses such as the Sigâla, Parâbhava, and Vasala. The Sigâla-sutta goes even to the extent of stating that a husband should please his wife by making presents of beautiful dresses and ornaments to her.

During the time of the Buddha certain kings oppressed the people. It is evident from the Dhammapadaṭṭhakath” that the Buddha directed his attention even towards the serious problem of government through compassion (karuṇ”), with a view to promoting a form of just government that would not harm and hurt the people suffering under the tyranny and the heavy taxes imposed on them by unrighteous rulers.10

Buddhism teaches that a country should be governed in accordance with the Ten Duties of the King (dasarâ-jadhamma), namely: (1) liberality (dâna), (2) morality (sâla), (3) giving up everything for the good of the people (pariccâga), (4) honesty and integrity (ajjava), (5) kindness and gentleness (maddava), (6) austerity in habits (tapa), (7) freedom from hatred, ill-will, enmity (akkodha), (8) non-violence (avihiṃsâ), (9) patience, forbearance, tolerance, understanding (khanti), and (10) non-opposition, non-obstruction, i.e., not to obstruct any measures conducive to the welfare of the people (avirodha).11 When the Magadha monarchy prepared for war against the Licchavi Republic, representatives of the Magadha monarchy approached the Buddha and inquired of him if they would win that war against the Licchavis. The Buddha replied that the Licchavis would remain undefeated because seven conditions of welfare existed among them.12

Thus, in this way the Buddha and the bhikkhus taught such important ideas pertaining to health, sanitation, earning wealth, mutual relationships, well-being of society, and righteous government–all for the good of the people.

The Buddha did not confine his services to the mainland of India. He is reported to have visited Ceylon (Lanka) in order to settle a tribal feud.13 Further, the Samantap’s’dik” (Vinaya Commentary) states that the Buddhas of the past visited Ceylon for the benefit of the sick, in the interests of social welfare, and to settle disputes.14 On one occasion when Ceylon was overwhelmed by an epidemic of fever, the Buddha Kakusandha visited this country with his bhikkhus and saved the people from death and disaster. On another occasion the Buddha Kon”gamana visited Ceylon when it was in the grip of a severe and dreadful famine and saved the people from certain destruction. The Buddha Kassapa visited Ceylon on the occasion of a bitter strife, settled the feud, and brought peace and prosperity to the land and its inhabitants.