On the Death of the Charismatic Founder: Re-viewing Some Buddhist Sources

Michel Clasquin-Johnson


Routinization is a term invented by Max Weber to describe events after the death of a charismatic religious leader. It has become widely used in the humanities in a variety of contexts. The death of the historical Buddha produced the first known instance of extreme routinization, in which the charisma of the founder is transmuted into a system of teachings that are themselves invested with authority, quite separate from the charisma of any individual within that tradition. This article examines the Sāmagāmasutta and the Gopaka-Mogallānasutta, two texts from the Majjhima Nikāya. These texts, when read together, show us just how the Buddha prepared the way for the extreme routinization that would take place in the community, and how the early Buddhist monks reacted to this. In the Sāmagāmasutta, the Buddha prepares for the power vacuum after his own death by setting up procedures by which the monks will be able to govern themselves without relying on a single charismatic leader. The Gopaka-Mogallānasutta describes events after the Buddha’s death and indicates that the Buddha’s instructions had been followed faithfully. Taken together, these two obscure texts frame the far more famous Mahāparinibbānasutta and provide it with valuable context. This discussion is followed by a consideration of how Buddhism ended up reverting to more conventional patterns of routinization as it expanded


Buddhism, Charisma, Founder, Gopaka-Mogallānasutta, Mahāparinibbānasutta, Majjhima Nikāya, Max Weber, Routinization, Sāmagāmasutta, Succession

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