Vinaya Pitaka (1): The Analysis of Monks’ Rules (Bhikkhu-vibhanga)

by I. B. Horner | 2014 | 345,334 words | ISBN-13: 9781921842160

The English translation of the Bhikkhu-vibhanga: the first part of the Suttavibhanga, which itself is the first book of the Pali Vinaya Pitaka, one of the three major ‘baskets’ of Therevada canonical literature. It is a collection of rules for Buddhist monks. The English translation of the Vinaya-pitaka (first part, bhikkhu-vibhanga) contains many...

The Pātimokkha rules

The Pātimokkha rules are the core of the Suttavibhaṅga. This list of rules, or list of courses of training, was recited twice a month on the uposatha (observance, Sabbath, or avowal) days, held on the nights of the new and the full moon.[1] In Vedic times, the upavasatha was a fast day kept for the preparation of and the performance of the Soma sacrifice. According to the Pali tradition, paribbājakas, or wanderers belonging to other sects, also held sacred two, if not three, days in each month for the recitation of their Dhamma.[2] It was in imitation of this popular custom that the Sakyan bhikkhus assembled on these same three days. Later, apparently, these were reduced to two,[3] and were devoted to the recitation of the Pātimokkha rules.

BD.1.xii This recitation served the double purpose of keeping the rules fresh in the minds of the monks and nuns, and of giving each member of the monastic community the opportunity, while the rules were being repeated or recited,[4] to avow any offences that he or she had committed. After the avowal came the due punishment. In the Suttavibhaṅga, the monk is usually shown as avowing his offence to Gotama, or to one of the monks, or to a group of monks, directly [when] he had committed it, and not as waiting to avow it before the full congregation (saṅgha) of monks. He was thus “pure” for the uposatha ceremony, and could take his place at the meeting.

Oldenberg sees in the term Pātimokkha, freedom “from sins there named,”[5] that is, in the list of rules called Pātimokkha. This is part of what amounted in Oldenberg to an obsession with “the doctrine regarding release from suffering, which forms so central an idea in the ancient Buddhist faith.”[6] But the monks were not asked, as Oldenberg states, whether they were “free from the sins there named.” The word for “free” or “freed” would have been vimutta. What they were asked was whether they were parisuddha, quite pure, pure in the matter of having kept the rules, therefore outwardly pure. I think that if Oldenberg had looked upon the Pātimokkha as a list of rules or courses of training, as I have called them above, and not as a “list of those offences which deserved punishment or some kind of expiation,”[7] he would not have been so much dominated by the idea of freedom from “sins.” Moreover, “sin” is not even a Sakyan conception.

This is leading us up to the derivation of the word pāti- (pāṭi-) mokkha. Rhys Davids and Oldenberg, following Childers, refer it to pāṭi (Sanskrit, prati) + muc, and see in it “disburdening, getting free.”[8] Buddhaghosa, too, at Visuddhimagga 16, derives it from muc, in the BD.1.xiii sense of being free from the punishments of niraya (hell) and other painful rebirths. But it was not the getting free that was of such importance as the being bound. This came first. Preceding the notion, if indeed it ever existed at the time when the Vinaya was compiled, that the monk should be free of sin or of the punishment for sin, came the assumption that the rules, as binding, should be followed and obeyed, and that a monk should be “bound by the restraint of the Pātimokkha” (pātimokkhasaṃvarasaṃvuta).

S. Dutt is of the opinion that Pātimokkha means “bond.” He regards it as an external bond of union devised to convert the Sect of the Sakyaputtiya samaṇas into an Order.[9] Rhys Davids and Stede in the Pali-English Dictionary say that it has the “sense of binding, obligatory, obligation,” and that the Sanskrit adaptation of the Pali should be pratimokṣya, “that which should be made binding,” and not prātimokṣa. Prātimokṣya, according to these lexicographers, is the same as the Pali Pātimokkha, “binding, obligatory,” from patimuñcati, to fasten, to bind.[10]

Dr. E.J. Thomas, on the other hand, says that Pātimokkha is “in Sanskrit prātimoksha. In form it is an adjective formed from patimokkha, binding, from pati-muc- ‘to fasten or bind on (as armour),’ and thus should mean ‘that which binds, obligatory,’”[11] thus agreeing with the definition given in the Pali-English Dictionary, but not with the derivation.

The word is defined in the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya as the “face, head of all good states,”[12] but as Winternitz pointed out this derivation “is quite impossible.”[13] Winternitz himself was inclined to explain Pātimokkha as “that which is to be redeemed,”[14] but unfortunately he did not support this statement, except by saying he thought that the correct translation of saṃgaraṃ pātimokkhaṃ of Ja.5.25 should be “a promise to be redeemed.”

BD.1.xiv Nearly all these authorities agree that the term is borrowed from other sects, and dates from pre-Buddhist days.

The question of the composition of the Pātimokkha rules is one which, while being of the greatest interest, is not very likely to grow out of the speculative stage. This question has two sides to it: that of when and that of how the rules came to be formulated. I can only point out the existence of these problems, not attempting to solve them. The solution of the one would to a large extent elucidate the other.

The rules were either drawn up in their entirety in Gotama’s lifetime; or they were drawn up in their entirety after his parinibbāna (utter waning); or some were drawn up during his lifetime and others afterwards. The last assumption is that most generally favoured by scholars, who adduce “additions and modifications,” repetitions and inconsistencies, existing among the collection of rules.[15] Again, if it were held that the rules were codified into their present shape after Gotama’s parinibbāna, this would not at all necessarily mean that they were not known and enforced during his ministry. The question of how they were composed likewise suggests three alternatives: either that some actual event led up to the framing of each rule; or that they were all formulated in readiness to meet events, but before these had occurred; or that some had an historical source, while others owe their existence to precautionary imagination.

It is conceivable that not one of the Pātimokkha rules was framed until someone, lay-followers or the more dependable monks and nuns, had seen, heard or suspected a mode of behaviour which seemed to them unfitting in a member of one of Gotama’s Orders. Each rule is therefore very possibly the direct result of some actual event, and was not made with merely hypothetical cases of wrong-doing in mind. On detecting, even on suspecting that conduct unfitting in a recluse, BD.1.xv unworthy of a monk had been perpetrated, the action was reported, as it is almost invariably stated, to Gotama, either by the errant monk himself or by those vigilant in the interests of the Order. The Suttavibhaṅga shows that if the action were found to be blameworthy, a course of training was set forth, a penalty was attached, and it henceforth became manifest that a breach of each rule of right conduct would incur a like penalty.

Prevention of unsuitable behaviour in monks and nuns seems to have rested on two bases. In the first place the presumption that a certain line of conduct had been forbidden by Gotama, apparently appealed to the purer-minded and more zealous monks. Secondly, the penalty, fixed commensurably with the breach of the rule, will doubtless have exercised a deterrent influence over the behaviour of some of those monks who were not susceptible to the dictates of loftier motives.

Although the framing of each major rule is without exception attributed to Gotama, it has never been suggested that at the inception of the Orders he thought over all the possible cases of wrong-doing and depravity of which the monks might be capable, and propounded a ready-made body of rules to meet every conceivable contingency. It is, however, more likely that the majority of the rules grew up gradually, as need arose, and are the outcome of historical developments that went on within the Order. At the same time it would not have been impossible for the Sakyans to have borrowed at all events the outline of a compendium of rules from other sects. We cannot tell with any degree of accuracy the historical Order in which the rules were formulated. All that can be said is, that there is no need to imagine that offences were perpetrated and rules promulgated in the order in which they now appear in the Suttavibhaṅga.

Again, it is to my mind questionable whether all the offences, grave and petty, all the adroit evasions and twistings, all the cases of illness which prevented a BD.1.xvi rule from being carried out to the letter, all the multifarious detail of communal life, were reported to Gotama, who then pronounced his verdict, and either framed a new rule or altered an existing one.

The rules are doubtless ascribed to him so as to give them weight, but of what proportion he was in fact the author we can never know. We can merely judge that, as some of his disciples were competent to preach dhamma, so some would also have been competent to meet a case of wrong-doing by admonishment and rebuke, and by decreeing an appropriate penalty as a safeguard for the future. Indeed, in the Suttavibhaṅga, although by far the greater number of rules is said to have been enunciated by Gotama, many a sub-rule at least (as in Bu-Ss.9, Bu-Ss.10, Bu-Ss.11) is laid down without reference to the Founder. Although he remains the central figure in the Vinaya, any absence of reference to him is an indication either that some transgressions occurred and were legislated for after his parinibbāna (utter waning), or that, even while he was still alive, it was not thought necessary to trouble him with the entire mass of items, some of them very trivial, that was bound to arise in the organisation of “unenclosed” Orders of monks and nuns. This was the more complicated both because the members of the Orders were, and were recognised to be, at varying stages of spiritual development, and because their behaviour was not viewed solely as it affected internal policy, but also as it affected the laity.

For the believing laity, though naturally not to the forefront in the Vinaya, are in a remarkable way never absent, never far distant. They perpetually enter into the life of the Order as supporters, critics, donors, intensely interested; and themselves affected by Sakya, it seems that they were deeply anxious for its success. Thus the Vinaya does not merely lay down sets of rules whose province was confined to an internal conventional life. For this was led in such a way as to allow and even to encourage a certain degree of intercommunication with the lay supporters and followers, BD.1.xvii no less than with those lay people who were not adherents of the faith. What was important, was that the monks should neither abuse their dependence on the former, nor alienate the latter, but should so regulate their lives as to give no cause for complaint. With these aims in view, conduct that was not thought seemly for them to indulge in had to be carefully defined; and it became drafted in rule and precept.

Indian monasticism differs from Western in the important respect that the former stood in no need of fighting battles against temporal powers. The world in which Gotama’s Orders grew up was fully in favour of experiments in religious devotion. Such struggles as there were, were not between monks and the armies of hostile kings, not between monks and the active scorn of the world, but struggles, no less heroic in intention perhaps, to strengthen the monks against themselves and their human weaknesses, to endow them with goodness and virtue as the living witnesses to man’s desire for perfection, to fortify them for victory in the contest between the spirit and the flesh, between right and wrong—undying ideals to which many an ordinary layman ardently clung, but to which he could not himself aspire.

In the Vinaya literature that has come down to us, Gotama is nowhere shown as legislating for his lay-followers, as Mahāvīra did for his. Yet, even in the absence of a Vinaya for laymen, it is apparent that an attitude of toleration and common-sense admitted much that was permissible to the worldly section of the community that was not considered to be fitting in monks. Had no difference been insisted upon, one of the most potent reasons for the existence and for the popularity of monks would have been rendered invalid. For one of the points of entering Gotama’s Order was to learn control of body, mind and speech. This, it was thought, was essential to spiritual progress, and was extremely hard to attain, unless the shackles of the household life had been laid aside. Then man, as monk, could more readily attain perfection and its fruit (arahattaphala), BD.1.xviii the goal of brahmacariya, the good, divine, holy or Brahma-life. Arahatta, as the goal, was at some time in the early history of the Order substituted for that other goal: an approach to Brahma, that Highest, an approach which India, in the sixth century B.C., held that each and every man was potentially capable of making. Because religion was understood in those days, men who, according to popular estimate, showed that they were on the Way to the Highest, were this regarded as Brahma or arahatta, were revered and not despised.

Yet, as in any others, the Vinaya shows that there were in Gotama’s Orders indolent, lax, greedy monks and nuns, those who were lovers of luxury, seekers after pleasure, makers of discord. We should, however, be greatly mistaken if we insisted upon regarding the Order as riddled by scandal, by abuses and by minor forms of wrong-doing. There is no doubt that these existed; but there is no justification, simply because they happen to be recorded, for exaggerating their frequency, or for minimising the probity and spiritual devotion of many men who, in Gotama’s days, were monks. Records of these are to be found in the Nikāyas, in the thera-therī-gāthā; and, too much overlooked, there are in the Vinaya, the virtuous, moderate monks who, vexed and ashamed, complain of the misdemeanours of their fellows.

As historians, we must be grateful to these inevitable backsliders, for theirs is this legacy of the Pātimokkha rules. Had the Order contained merely upright, scrupulous monks and nuns—those who were steadfastly set on the goal of the Brahma-life, and those who had, in the circumstances, to voice their annoyance with the wrong-doers—in all likelihood the Vinaya, the Discipline, the Pātimokkha rules would not have come into being, and much of the early history of the Order would now be known to us solely through the indirect and fragmentary way of the Sutta-Piṭaka.

If monks behaved in a way that was censurable in monks, this does not necessarily mean that their conduct BD.1.xix was wrong in itself. Various activities were not only permissible for lay-people, but were fully accepted to be such as could be unquestionably pursued by them. Marriage, negotiating for parties to a marriage, trading, the owning of possessions, are cases in point. Nor could we maintain that, before a particular course of training had been made known, the conduct of a monk was necessarily reprehensible if it resembled that which was legitimate for the laity. For all monks came into the Order from the laity. Therefore if it did not at once strike them that in certain respects their behaviour should change when their vocation changed, it is only natural that in the meantime they should have indulged in pursuits for which, as laity, they had attracted no adverse criticism.

I think it very likely that some of the courses of training for monks that are included in this volume were formulated as a result of this bringing over of lay-life into the religious life; for a difference between the two had to be made, and then maintained. Others most certainly were formulated as the result of behaviour which, whether evinced by a layman or a monk, would have been regarded as equally blameworthy; others, again, to prevent the monks from being an intolerable burden on the laity; while still others were formulated so as to preserve the harmony and well-being of the Order.

Now and again, monks, contemplating a certain action which they knew to be forbidden or which they knew to be wrong, are recorded to think: “There will be no blame for me.” Was this because they had done similar things while still “in the world” without incurring censure, and so thought that they would be immune from blame after they had gone forth? Or did they think that there was some reason why they personally would incur no offence for their deed? If so, spiritual pride had still to be humbled in them.

Footnotes and references:


Not “read out,” as Oldenberg says, Vinaya Texts i.xv.


Vinaya Texts i.xv.


Vinaya Texts i.xiv.


Vinaya Texts i.xv.


Vinaya Texts, i.xxviif.


Early Buddhist Monachism, p.89f.


Cf. Vin.3.249, patimuñcati, to bind on or tie on a head-pad.


History of Buddhist Thought, 15, n.1.


History of Indian Literature, ii.22, n.2.


History of Indian Literature, ii.22, n.2.


E.g. E.J. Thomas, History of Buddhist Thought, p.14.