Going Into Homelessness


George Grimm

Translated by Bhikkhu Sīlācāra

Buddhist Publication Society
Kandy • Sri Lanka

Bodhi Leaf No. 114

First published: 1988

BPS Online Edition © (2014)
Digital Transcription Source: BPS and Access to Insight Transcription Project

For free distribution. This work may be republished, reformatted, reprinted and redistributed in any medium. However, any such republication and redistribution is to be made available to the public on a free and unrestricted basis, and translations and other derivative works are to be clearly marked as such.


This Bodhi Leaf is an extract from George Grimm’s magnum opus, The Doctrine of the Buddha: the Religion of Reason and Meditation (2nd revised ed., Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1958), translated by Bhikkhu Sīlācāra.

Grimm (1868–1945), known in his day as ’Bavaria’s most benevolent judge’, was an early German Buddhist who wrote on the Dhamma from deep personal conviction. Despite a controversial interpretation of the anattā or ’not-self’ doctrine, his book remains a brilliant pioneering attempt to comprehend from within the Master’s teaching as a unified whole.

This extract was chosen because it deals with a crucial topic which today is in danger of being brushed aside with too much haste, namely, the ’going forth into homelessness’, the adoption of the monastic way of life. In our own secular age, this momentous step—always placed by the Buddha at the very start of the gradual training—is being trivialised by being reduced to a choice of ’lifestyle’ or a cultural convention possessing no intrinsic value. Grimm’s essay, building upon the Pali suttas, offers a powerful and cogent reply to the contrary: that monasticism is not a mere dispensable appendage of the Dhamma but a natural and necessary outgrowth rooted in its transcendental core.

Grimm does not overlook the Buddha’s declaration that the Dhamma can be practised with deep commitment by the laity or that a dedicated lay person may far surpass a slack and negligent monk. But he eloquently reminds us, by appeal to the Buddha’s own word, that those who earnestly seek for full deliverance itself within this very life must be prepared to sever their ties to the world, including those that keep them in the home life. The Buddha in his great compassion founded the Sangha to encourage this step and to give it full support.

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Going Into Homelessness

The more exalted anything is, all the less is it generally understood, because it exceeds the mental capacity of the average man; and all the more is it exposed to misinterpretations. Indeed, because the cause cannot be removed, it is also quite impossible to meet these misinterpretations successfully. Hence it has always been the fate of the highest truths not only to be misunderstood, but also to be ridiculed.

It is therefore not astonishing that the doctrine of the Buddha too, the highest truth ever communicated to mankind, has frequently met this fate, especially in the countries of the West. This has been the case to a high degree from the fact that in its full, practical realisation, it issues in monasticism, an institution against which the ordinary man of the world instinctively revolts, because if it were in accord with the truth, it would mean the severest condemnation imaginable of his own way of living, which is entirely given up to the pleasures of the senses.

There are even in the West ’Buddhists’, in all seriousness believing themselves to be such, who consider this institution of the Buddha superfluous! Of course they thereby only prove the truth of the old Indian proverb: “Even in the ocean, a jug cannot hold more than its own measure.”

But to those who understand the way of freedom taught by the Buddha, it will be clear that this path cannot possibly be trodden in its entirety in the world. It demands nothing more and nothing less than the cultivation of the deepest contemplation and ceaseless watchfulness with regard to every single act, even the most insignificant, in the activity of the senses, so as to recognise as such every motion of thirst for the world in all its perniciousness, and thus allow no kind of grasping to arise any more.

But how should such unceasing control of all the impressions of the senses be possible within the world? It is impossible, because in the world these impressions are far too numerous for us to be able to maintain complete watchfulness over every single one of them. In the world, it is only on the rarest occasions, and then only for a brief period that we attain thoughtfulness, to say nothing of unbroken watchfulness.

As Raṭṭhapāla says to Master: “If I really understand the doctrine expounded by the Exalted One, it is not possible, living the household life, to carry out point by point the perfectly purified, perfectly stainless holy life” (MN 82). Not even the fundamental precepts can be constantly kept: “Who lives at home is much busied, much occupied, much concerned, much harassed, not always wholly and entirely given to truthfulness, not always wholly and entirely restrained, chaste, devout, detached” (MN 99).

Certainly, also in the world, we may restrict our relations to it as much as possible; for instance, we may enter no profession, found no family, but these relations will never allow of being cut off entirely. For to live in the world just means to maintain relations with the world. So far, however, as these relations extend, to that extent we are occupied with worldly things; to this extent, therefore, we are cultivating and strengthening the fetters that chain us to the world. In so far, therefore, the ties cannot be definitively severed; and hence, to this extent, complete deliverance is impossible. For, wholly delivered he only is who “has cut through every tie.”

On this point there can be no reasonable doubt. And thus it is really only a self-evident thing when the Buddha expressly asserts the impossibility of reaching Nibbāna while living the ordinary life of the world. “Is there, O Gotama, any householder, who, not having left off household ties, upon the dissolution of the body, makes an end of suffering?” “There is no householder whatever, Vaccha, who, not having left off household ties, upon the dissolution of the body, makes an end of suffering” (MN 71).

Precisely in consequence of this point of view the Buddha founded the Sangha as the Order of all those who have left home for the life of homelessness, in order, under his guidance, to strive as noble disciples towards the great goal of complete departure out of this world. In this Sangha of the selected ones, therefore, not less than in the Buddha and in his Doctrine itself, as the Three Jewels, Tiratana, must those take their refuge who wish to tread the most direct road to deliverance, as it is expressed in the formula of confession which up to the present day constitutes the actual confession of faith of all Buddhists:

To the Buddha I go for refuge.
To the Dhamma I go for refuge.
To the Sangha I go for refuge.

After this, the utter folly will probably be apparent of all those who think they must advocate a Dhamma without a Sangha. For they take away the blade from the knife; or, what is the same thing, they would have us believe that a bather might become dry before he has got out of the water. Such a standpoint, of course, they can only adopt because they are unable to grasp the kernel of the Buddha’s doctrine, and with it, their own eternal destiny. That is to say, they are unable to comprehend that “the whole world is really a burning house, from which we cannot save ourselves quickly enough” (MN 52). For if they did understand this, then it would be simply impossible that instead of speaking contemptuously of “flight from the world,” they should not draw a breath of relief every time they saw yet another person flee out of this burning house, and only regret that they themselves cannot find the courage to do the same.

What about the complaints that, according to this, all men ought to become monks and nuns, and that the world would thus be in danger of dying out? Such complaints amount to just this, that one would regard it as a calamity if all men were to be cure of their bodily ailments because then there would be no more hospitals. Certainly, the world would cease to exist if all beings could be brought to realise their eternal destiny; but thereby it would only be suffering that would reach its definitive end. However, those who are so intensely concerned about the continuation of the world may console themselves, since this will not happen. For there will always be those who, far from leaving the world themselves, will even throw stones at those who set them the example.

Assuredly, certain scruples are difficult to set aside, even for earnest strivers, as regards the so-called collision of duties brought about by the way into homelessness as it affects one’s own relatives, especially wife and children. Though the Buddha does not permit ordination to anyone who does not have the permission of his parents, he is not opposed to a man’s leaving wife and children in order to seek his eternal deliverance. This standpoint comes out most clearly in the following narrative.

One time the Exalted One was staying at Sāvatthī, in the Jeta forest grove of Anāthapiṇḍika. At that time Venerable Saṅgāmaji had come to Sāvatthī in order to see the Exalted One. Now the former wife of the Venerable Saṅgāmaji had heard that the Venerable Saṅgāmaji had arrived in Sāvatthī. Thereupon she took up her child and went to the Jeta forest. Now at this time the Venerable Saṅgāmaji was seated at the foot of a tree in order to spend the afternoon there in meditation.

The former wife of the Venerable Saṅgāmaji went to him and said: “Look here, ascetic, at your little son and support me!” At these words the Venerable Saṅgāmaji remained silent. A second and a third time she said to him: “Look here, ascetic, at our little son and support me!” And for the second and the third time the Venerable Saṅgāmaji remained silent.

Then the former wife of the Venerable Saṅgāmaji laid down the child before the Venerable Saṅgāmaji and went off, saying: “This is your son, ascetic. Support him!” But the Venerable Saṅgāmaji neither looked at the child nor spoke a word.

As the former wife of the Venerable Saṅgāmaji watched from a distance, she saw that the Venerable Saṅgāmaji neither looked at the child nor said a word. Thereupon she thought: “Not even for this child does this ascetic care.” And so she returned, took the child and went away. But the Exalted One, with the divine eye, purified and superhuman, saw this meeting between the Venerable Saṅgāmaji and his wife. And the Exalted One perceived the meaning (of this meeting) and on this occasion uttered the following verse:

The coming does not make him glad,
The going does not make him sad;
The monk, from longings all released,
Him do I call a brahmin.

Ud I.8

There are many who are honest friends of the doctrine of the Master, but nevertheless are unable to understand this standpoint. And yet it is perfectly clear if only understood from the heights of pure cognition.

If the Buddha is right in this, that the eternal destiny of every being lies in his outgrowing the world, and at last leaving it entirely, then from the nature of this destiny also must be taken the criterion for the evaluation of every action from a moral point of view. Good or moral, in the highest sense, can only be what serves for the reaching of this ultimate goal; bad or immoral is everything that hinders this or directly makes it impossible. If this indubitably correct principle is taken as basis, then he certainly is not acting immorally who for the sake of his eternal welfare leaves the world and with it also wife and child. What he does is good for him, for it lies in the line of his eternal destiny; it is even extraordinarily good, for it lies upon the nearest way to it.

But if, on his side, it is something extraordinarily good that he wishes to do, then just because of this, every obstruction of this step, from whatever side it may come, appears as something immoral— this word used, of course, from the highest standpoint now adopted by us. In short: it is not he who wishes to become a saint who acts immorally; but those who act immorally are his wife and children who out of selfishness wish to hinder him from achieving his eternal liberation.

In order to recognise clearly this distribution of the guilt, the following points ought to be considered. He also is moved by love of wife and child, perhaps more than those who condemn him, for he is unquestionably a noble man. But with the severest mental struggles he opposes this love as well as any other inclination leading back to the world, and presses forward to do the most difficult thing a man can ever do, to take up the struggle against himself to its full extent. Compared to this struggle, every other is mere child’s play, for he aims to learn to renounce the satisfaction of every motion of craving, and in time, to become entirely free from craving.

But all that the others want is not to lose their supporter. They are unable to master their inclination towards him who is leaving them, which presents itself in the guise of love; in a word, they are the slaves of their own craving.

Who now is great, and how small? But is the great to abandon his goal for the sake of the small? May a warrior going to battle allow himself to be kept back by the complaints of wife and children? Wouldn’t the whole world cry out at him: “Weakling!”?

From this, it obviously follows that is not advisable to neglect to do something morally good out of regard for the lack of understanding of others. For it is nothing else but lack of understanding that here stands obstructively in the way.

During their endless pilgrimage through the world, some few persons have found themselves together for a brief time in one family, to be separated again very soon in death, and then each must continue the pilgrimage alone, perhaps on through terrible future. Looked at from this point of view, is it not unreasonable if one of them wishes to hinder another from putting an end to this unhappy wandering through the worlds only in order that he may enjoy this present fleeting existence as free from care and pain as possible, unconcerned about his own fate or about the future fate of the other?

Is not his at bottom really irresponsible? Who is here the egoist—he who wishes radically to annihilate everything that makes him an ego existing in the world; or the other who, not satisfied merely with the affirmation of his own ego, desires also to force the other into his service?

Since, therefore, the going into homelessness is moral, every impediment to it is an immorality; hence none can claim treaty-rights as impediments against it. For every claim to such a restriction by treaty-right of the other party would itself mean an immorality, inasmuch as the character of the action that is immoral in itself cannot be altered by a claim to its being reserved to the person against whom it is to be committed, moreover, under conditions quite different from those at present prevailing. In the same way that public law takes precedence over private law, and thus a private claim must give way to a public one, in the same way, every claim derived from a contract or from some other legal ordinance must give way to the demands of ethics, if law is not to become an instrument for the triumph of immorality.

By this, however, we do not mean that the claim to go into homelessness is one that is free of all conditions. Rather does it find its limits in the very moral demands out of which it arises. Whoever seeks his own eternal welfare may not endanger the true welfare of others.

Of course, the sorrow he causes to those belonging to him without further ado may be excluded as regards him who leaves home; for it is not he who is the cause of this, but simply their own ignorance. Accordingly, he has not to bear the consequences of this. For the rest, however, it is, of course, only a question of the true welfare of those belonging to him, not what these themselves hold to be their welfare.

Hence it is no great matter if now they should lose that carefree, perhaps comfortable life they have hitherto been leading. For such a life, regarded from the highest standpoint, is to be regarded as more of a misfortune than a blessing, since, as a rule, it only strengthens attachment to this world, and thereby future suffering.

“If, householder, you will do what I advise, then you will put this heap of gold and jewels on carts and have them taken out of town and thrown into the middle of the Ganges. And why so? Surely, householder, you will experience through them woe and sorrow, grief and pain and despair,” Raṭṭhapāla tells his father who tries to persuade him to renounce monkhood by calling attention to his great wealth (MN 82).

It does not matter even if those left behind lose their supporter, if only they are just able to support themselves, be it only with the help of others. For this, regarded from the highest standpoint, may be more a blessing than a misfortune, since it is particularly effective in making men think about their true relation to the world. Hence there remain only as cases demanding consideration of him who wishes to become a monk, those where without him even the minimum amount of support necessary to his relatives, or even their eternal liberation, would be jeopardised. An example of the latter would be the case where his children were in danger of being morally neglected.

The former standpoint is adopted by Ghaṭīkāra the potter in the 81st Discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya. In reply to the exhortation of his friend Jotipāla to enter the Order of the Master, he says: “Don’t you know, dearest Jotipāla, that I have to support my old and blind parents?” But that in no case may a man put in jeopardy the eternal welfare of those he leaves behind by going into homelessness becomes clear precisely through the story from the Udāna quoted above, where Saṅgāmaji maintains a passive attitude only towards the demand of his former wife that he shall support her and her child. If her eternal welfare had been in question, that pity for all beings, dwelling in him as in every saint, would have determined him to save her. To be sure, this pity, in the case before him, would probably have been confined to the ’miracle of instruction’ as the only means promising real success.

To bring under one principle, in harmony with the intentions of the Buddha, the cases in which the going into homelessness had better not be undertaken out of regard for others, we might say: whoever wants to enter the Order of the Master, his relations towards those belonging to him must be of such a kind that his step would be approved by them if they stood upon the same high moral level as he himself. If, after having carefully examined himself, he finds these relations to be of this sort—in other words, if, their roles being exchanged, he could say that he, in their place, would consider himself obliged to give his consent—then, if now he actually goes away, he acts in entire harmony with the moral law decisive for him, and therefore cannot be doing anything in any way blameworthy.

For the real cause of all the suffering entailed upon those belonging to him through the step he takes, lies not in him but in their own lack of understanding or defective cognition. Thus, rightly regarded, the blame is not his but their own, and by them must be borne. If they were on the same level as he, instead of their making the event a source of suffering, it would be followed by the most wholesome consequences for them also.

“If, Dīgha, the family whence have come these three well-born ones who have left home behind and vowed themselves to the homeless life shall think upon them with hearts filled with faith, long will it make for the welfare and happiness of that family,” is said in the 31st Discourse of the Majjhima Nikāya, with reference to three youths who had followed the Buddha.

If thus there may be external circumstances detaining one from going into homelessness, the chief hindrance generally lies in the man himself. The man must be ripe for this, that is to say, his entire willing must already be so ennobled that nothing within this world is able any longer entirely to satisfy him, so that the eternal, as soon as in any comprehensible fashion it enters his range of vision, powerfully attracts him and causes all his earthly possessions to appear to him as empty and insipid, no further able seriously to fetter him.

“Just as if, Udāyi there was a householder or the son of a householder, rich, greatly endowed with money and valuables, many heaps of gold, many masses of corn, many fields and meadows, many multitudes of women, many servants, many handmaids. And he would see in a grove a monk, with clean-washed hands and feet, cheerful of countenance, after having taken his meal, sitting there in the cool shadow, giving himself to exalted heedfulness.

“And he would feel thus: ’Blissful, truly, is the holy life! Free from suffering, truly, is the holy life! Oh, that I were such a man who, with hair and beard shaved off, clad in yellow robes, might go forth from home into homelessness!’ And he would be able to leave the many heaps of gold, the many masses of corn, the many fields and meadows, the many houses and farms, the many multitudes of women, the many servants, the many handmaids, and go with hair and beard shaved off, clad in yellow robes, from home to homelessness. … These for him are no strong fetters, but weak fetters, rotten fetters, fetters unable to hold” (MN 66).

But on this height stand only the very tiniest minority of men. The immense majority still cleave so tightly to the world that the message of a supramundane happiness and peace is at best only able to arouse in them, even if they live in the most miserable circumstances, a feeble and indefinite feeling of the unworthiness of their present situation, which of course can furnish no motive to corresponding action.

“As if, Udāyi there was a man, poor and neither free nor independent, and owning but a single hut, decayed and dilapidated, open to the crows, not at all beautiful, a single resting-place, decayed and dilapidated, not at all beautiful, a single bushel of corn-seed, not at all beautiful, a single woman, not at all beautiful; and in a grove he would see a monk, with clean-washed hands and feet, cheerful of countenance, after having taken his meal, sitting in the cool shade, giving himself to exalted heedfulness.

“And he would feel thus: ’Blissful, truly, is the holy life! Free from suffering truly is the holy life! Oh, that I were such a man who, with hair and beard shaved off, clad in yellow robes, might go forth from home to homelessness!’ And he would not be able to leave his one single hut, decayed and dilapidated, open to the crows, not at all beautiful, his one single resting-place, decayed and dilapidated, not at all beautiful, his one bushel of corn-seed, not at all beautiful, his one woman, not at all beautiful, and go forth, with hair and beard shaved off, clad in yellow robes, from home to homelessness. . . . These are strong fetters for him, tight fetters, tough fetters, not rotten fetters, but a heavy clog” (MN 66).

According to this, the Order of the Master comes into question only for very few men, for so very few that the Buddha, after having come to full awakening, doubted if he ought to communicate to the world the Dhamma that had unveiled itself before him, since it was a truth “going against the stream, deep, intimate, delicate, hidden, not to be reached by mere reasoning, imperceptible to those delighting in the senses” (MN 26).

But at last, consideration for those few “noble beings who would be lost if they heard not the Doctrine,” determined him to found the Sangha. So very few minds of the highest order did the Buddha find even in his own favoured age when care for their eternal welfare exerted an influence over the actions of men as at no other time. How many, then, in our ’evil age’, and moreover, in the West, may be ripe to walk the highest path on to its end?

The question therefore arises as to what all those are to do who in consequence of their previous kamma, for external or internal reasons are not ripe for the Sangha, and yet in whom, more or less, a “Divination of the truth” has arisen, and thereby “trust in the perfected One and in his Doctrine has become rooted and sent forth shoots” (MN 109).

To them also, as we know, the Buddha shows the way, and precisely in the Noble Eightfold Path, points out to them also the only possibility of moral progress. Even in the world they may live in accordance with it in the measure of their capacity for doing so, and so far as the conditions under which they have to live permit. Some may have to confine themselves merely to creating the conditions for a favourable rebirth, some may also strive towards the great final goal of the complete overcoming of the circle of rebirths.

Though they do not reach the highest goal of holiness in this life—in this embodiment, according to what we have said above, Nibbāna can only be attained within the Sangha—nevertheless they may thus far curb and refine their passions and thereby their thirst for the world, that even in them the inner certainty may arise that at the moment of their approaching death they will never again attach themselves to a germ below the human kingdom; so that with every existence still in store for them, they come nearer to their eternal liberation.

Having “entered the stream, they are safe from torment in the lower worlds and sure of the Full Awakening.” They may even completely cast off “the five fetters of the low earthly life” that ever and again lead back to this our world of the five senses, namely, sensual desire, ill will, belief in personality, faith in the efficaciousness of ritual ceremonies and customs, and doubt, so that after death they will no more return to this world, but in one of the highest worlds of light will attain Nibbāna.

The Sangha is nothing but an institution for clearing away, in advance, all those external hindrances that in the world generally make it impossible to keep closely and steadily to the Noble Eightfold Path. In so far as we know how to avoid these hindrances as much as possible in the world, and thus to restrain them, successful progress may also take place here. And it may even happen that one who remains in the household life may progress further than another who has left it.

But of course one who withdraws from household life, other circumstances being the same, will make much easier and quicker progress than one who remains in the household life. Often, in fact, one’s household and business duties will be of such a kind that only a complete break with them will provide even the possibility of working earnestly for deliverance. But even where they are exceptionally favourable, they can never be of such a kind as to make possible complete deliverance during this present lifetime, and the unshakable certainty of the same. Therefore to those who make this highest goal their aim, it only remains to enter the Sangha.

To these elect ones the Buddha appeals first. Hence, it will be clear without further argument that he makes the going into homelessness the starting-point for the realisation of the Noble Eightfold Path, and bases this Path in all its parts upon this going forth, by leaving it to all who are not able or willing to fulfil this fundamental antecedent condition to hold to the several stages of the Path, as far as it is possible to them in their individual circumstances. And so he begins his description of the Path to deliverance, as it takes practical shape, with the going forth into homelessness.