The Bhikkhus Rules

A Guide for Laypeople

by Bhikkhu Ariyesako | 1998 | 50,970 words

The Theravadin Buddhist Monk's Rules compiled and explained by: Bhikkhu Ariyesako Discipline is for the sake of restraint, restraint for the sake of freedom from remorse, freedom from remorse for the sake of joy, joy for the sake of rapture, rapture for the sake of tranquillity, tranquillity for the sake of pleasure, pleasure for the sake of conce...

Schools Of Buddhism

For an outsider, one of the most notable features of Buddhism is the number and diversity of Buddhist schools. When disputes (such as that described above) are left unresolved there is a tendency for the formation of nikaaya or schools, which are passed on through ordination lineage to future generations of bhikkhus. Historically, as Buddhism spread over Asia,[1] the practice of local Communities gradually adapted to new circumstances. The originally slight divergences grew so that today not only do we have the major Schools of the South (Theravaada) and the North (Mahayaana, Tibetan), and East (Mahayaana, Chan, Son, Zen, etc.) but also myriad minor local differences.

"Coming down to later times, when the different groups became established in places foreign to the original lands, those two [schools] became very far apart both in the texts and in the language for chanting, all the way to garments and customs — just compare for instance, Vietnamese monks with Thai monks."


"[In the Theravaada School,] this reached the point where the intonations used in speaking Paali [language] differed: such as ours in Thailand, those in Sri Lanka, Burma and the Mons, for example. Each group holds that their way is better than that of the other groups. Even though they have contact with each other, they are not united as a single group, and minor [schools] arise out of them, determined according to nationality...

"In these national [schools] some [schools] would thrive at certain times, until other [schools] would take them as a model to be followed... [by] some bhikkhus requesting entry to their group by taking new ordination or re ordination... A [school] which takes the methods of another [school] will make further differences in its methods until they are a separate [school]. These call themselves by names different from the nationality, such as our [Thai] Mahaa nikaaya and Dhammayuttika nikaaya; the Burmese Culaga.n.thii and Mahaaga.n.thii. [One no longer finds these names, now there are the Sudhamma Nikaaya (the largest group), the Shwegyin Nikaaya and the small Dvaara Nikaaya]; and the Upaaliva.msa, Marammaava.msa and Raamannava.msa of Sri Lanka. (Now more frequently known as Siam Nikaaya, Amarapura Nikaaya, and Raamanna Nikaaya.)"


There seems to be a natural tendency for the more strictly practicing Communities to attract more lay respect and therefore more lay support — including more material support.[2] However, as luxuries tend to become necessities there is often a corresponding decline in Vinaya practice.

The next stage seems to be that when the Vinaya practice has deteriorated into laxness, a group of monks will spontaneously be attracted to going back to higher standards and will go and live at a monastery together to put that into effect, eventually forming a new group or nikaaya. This stricter practice attracts lay support, and that forces the more lax communities to reform their ways. And then as standards decline...

Another way that the local Vinaya practice is rejuvenated is by the import of strictly practicing monks from elsewhere to form a model community. For example, Sri Lankan monks were invited to Siam more than five hundred years ago, and some centuries later Thai monks were themselves invited back to Sri Lanka after the local Sa"ngha had died out.

Inviting foreign monks to reform the local practice was often at the instigation of the Buddhist king and seemed to have worked quite well. However, attempts by central authorities to forcibly rejoin their own local schools (nikaayas) of monks have seldom been successful, especially as Buddhism has never favored the use of violence in religious suppression. What often happens is that instead of merging two nikaayas into one, it forces another sect to form. Then there are three — the two original plus a new combined sect. This is probably because the Sa"ngha is a local community structure that is oriented to the wider Sa"ngha of bhikkhus by the Vinaya. Thus the Vinaya, rather than any central authority, is what brings groups together.

Footnotes and references:


See Banner of the Arahants, Ch. V.


There is an example from an ancient Sri Lankan inscription commemorating the kings gift of silk robes to the Pa.msakulika monks. As this title indicated that they were rag robe wearers, it is ironic that they found themselves with royal silk robes.

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