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...

Stories exposing the classes of offences

The point of the series of short stories or incidents, which usually follow the Old Commentary’s exegesis, is to show what exceptions could be made to a rule, what exemptions were permissible, what lesser and sometimes what graver offences were incurred, and what was an offence from which there could be no exemption since it tallied in all its main respects with that which had led to the framing of the rule. These stories are not invariably ascribed to any particular person, as are those introducing the rule. They not seldom attach the behaviour which needs consideration to “a certain monk.”

These stories reveal the existence of different grades of penalty for different types of offence against the main rules. Not merely are there five great classes of offences—Pārājika, Saṅghādisesa, Nissaggiya Pācittiya, Pācittiya and Pāṭidesaniya—there are also thullaccaya (grave) offences, and dukkaṭa offences (those of wrong-doing). These are of constant recurrence in the stories, or “Notes giving the exceptions to, and extensions of, the Rule in the Pātimokkha.”[1] Of rarer appearance BD.1.xxxv are offences of wrong speech. One or other of these offences is said to be incurred if behaviour has approximated to that which a particular Pātimokkha rule has been designed to restrain, but which is, so far as can be judged, not so grave in nature as a breach of the rule itself, because of certain differences in its execution, or because of certain extenuating circumstances.

Sometimes the stories are grouped together to form a set. Although, where this occurs, each story may show no more than a minute variation from the others, they are all set out at length. Putting the gist of the stories into general terms, each one would then read something as follows: If this is done, but not that, though the other thing is done, such and such an offence is incurred. If this is done and that, but not the other thing, such and such an offence is incurred. If this is not done, but that is done, and the other thing is (is not) done, such and such an offence is incurred. And so on through permutation and combination of deeds done or not done, until the final case is achieved where no offence is incurred.

These groups of stories are apt to be tedious to Western readers. I have therefore put them, when they occur, into a smaller type, as also other passages concerned with small shades of differences. Doubtless such meticulous detail was useful in defining exactly what was lawful and what was not lawful for monks to do, and in preventing the evasions which from time to time they seemed ready to attempt. As history, these stories are as interesting in evincing an Oriental love and management of detail as in revealing items of topical value in regard to manners and customs. The manner and time of their formulation are as problematical as those of the major rules.

At the end of each Pārājika, Saṅghādisesa and Aniyata Rule, general circumstances are stated where the breach of the rule is riot to be counted as an offence. The most comprehensive of these is when a monk is mad, in pain or a beginner. Others have a more specialised import. Thus, for example, there is said to be no BD.1.xxxvi offence if a monk had some course of behaviour forced upon him, but did not consent to it (as in Bu-Pj.1); if he did something accidentally, not intending to do it (as in Bu-Pj.3); if he did something unsuitable, being under a misapprehension (as in Bu-Pj.2).

The occasions when it is stated that no offence is incurred are all remarkable for their humane and lenient tone, for their reasonableness and common-sense. Thus there is no offence if something not given is taken for the sake of food (Bu-Pj.2.7.38), or is only taken for the time being (Bu-Pj.2.7.40), it being assumed, apparently, that there was the intention of returning it. Again, two occasions are recorded[2] where a monk died, in the one case through being tickled,[3] and in the other through being trod upon.[4] Yet no murderous act was done, or the verdict would have been different, and not that “there is no offence involving defeat.” It seems probable that the monks who died were nervy, delicate or infirm, and received a shock or heart-attack resulting in their death, but had they been in normal health they would have come to no harm.

Footnotes and references:


Vinaya Texts i.xix.


aṅgulipatodaka. Pali-English Dictionary has “nudging with the fingers,” Critical Pali Dictionary “tickling with the fingers.” Dialogues of the Buddha i.113 has in the text “nudging one another with the fingers,” but Dialogues of the Buddha i.113, n.3, in referring to the above Vinaya passage (= Vin.4.110) says: “It must there mean ’ tickling.’” GS.iv.225 (AN.iv.343) has “poking one another with the fingers.”


Or ottharati may mean to spread out, to stretch out.