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...

Translation of the term bhikkhu

The translation of the term bhikkhu presents many difficulties. I have selected the term “monk” and have rejected “mendicant, almsman, brother, friar,” not necessarily because “monk” is the most literal, but, for reasons which I will state shortly, it appears to me the best and most suitable rendering.

Although neither “monk,” nor the terms rejected, are precise equivalents for bhikkhu, I could not find sufficient grounds for leaving bhikkhu untranslated, as though it were untranslatable. Further, I became more and more convinced that where an English word is possible, where it coincides to some extent with the significance of the Pali, although the known facts of history preclude full identity of meaning, it is more desirable to use it than to leave the word untranslated. Untranslated words are balking to the English reader, and it is for the English reader that this series is primarily designed. But before giving the reasons which determined my choice of “monk” as the nearest equivalent for bhikkhu, a few words must be said about each of the terms that has not been selected.

“Mendicant,” literally “a beggar for alms,” from mendicare, to beg, mendicus, “a beggar,” is also doubtless etymologically correct[1] as a translation of bhikkhu. BD.1.xli Yet, I think, it lays too much emphasis on one aspect only of the bhikkhu’s life, and ignores the other connotations of bhikkhu adduced by the Old Commentary,[2] as well as his functions of meditation and preaching. Moreover, in English it has no feminine, unless one falls back on the cumbersome “woman (or female) mendicant” as one is forced to say “woman (or female) slave” (dāsī) and “woman (or female) recluse” (samaṇī), a practice to be avoided as far as possible.

Professor B.M. Barua speaks of the bhikṣus as “Buddhist mendicants, monks or recluses,”[3] a sentence which well shows the hesitation which all translators must feel in trying to translate the term bhikkhu. An objection here would be, though it is a fault into which we all fall, that “Buddhist” is an anachronism, since “Buddhist” and “Buddhism” are terms of a much later invention. “Sakyan mendicant” would be possible; and it is true that here, as in all the other translations for bhikkhu that are being considered, the word “Sakyan” is wanted in all cases where it is necessary to distinguish the monastic followers of Gotama from those adherents of other sects who were also known as bhikṣu. But I doubt if the Pali Canon demands the drawing of such a distinction, for in it, I believe, the term bhikkhu denotes exclusively the Sakyan bhikkhu. Moreover, if it came to the feminine, the phrase “Sakyan female mendicant” would be unwieldy, and it seems a pity to use three words where two should suffice.

“Almsman” has “almswoman” for its feminine, and is further doubtless etymologically correct. For bhikṣa and bhikṣuḥ (Sanskrit) are the noun and participle derived from the desiderative base of bhaj, to beg, to beg for alms. But again, like “mendicant,” it lays too strong a stress on one aspect only of what the words bhikkhu and bhikkhunī came to stand for. For the Sakyan bhikkhu came to be much more than one dependent on others for the necessities of life. This is BD.1.xlii one of the reasons why I have not adopted Lord Chalmers’ rendering of “almsman”[4] here, as I have elsewhere.[5] Again, “almsman” may not inevitably mean one who asks for or who lives on alms, for it may also be used to mean a giver of alms. In addition, “almsman” would have a cumbrous translation in German and some other European languages. Hence I think that, as a possible rendering, it should be rejected.

“Brother” is, as a translation of bhikkhu, historically incorrect. It is the term by which bhikkhu is rendered in the Cambridge translation of the Jātakas, and the English title of the P.T.S’s translation of the Theragāthā reads “Psalms of the Brethren.” Thera is merely a bhikkhu of long standing. In spite of the recommendation for “brother” derived from its use in these works, the advance in Pali studies since the date of their publication shows that bhikkhu does not mean what “brother” means. It might be argued that the term “brother” draws attention to the bhikkhu’s relation to his fellow-members of the religious community, and that such a relation was explicitly recognised, in so far as bhikkhus addressed the bhikkhunīs not as bhikkhuni but as bhagini, “sister.”

Yet against this argument we must set the fact that neither Order looked to anyone or to any kind of being as their “father” or their “mother.” Nor were the vihāras ruled over by anyone corresponding to an abbot, father or bishop. Power of authority was not vested in an individual, but in the Pātimokkha courses of training and the Order (Saṅgha) of monks. All that can be said is, that the bhikkhus were  “brethren” to the extent that, apart from the three grades of theras (Elders), those of middle standing, and novices, no hierarchy existed among them, but terms of more or less equality.

There is, besides, another argument, to my mind so insuperable as to extinguish the claims of “brother” as in any way a suitable term by which to render bhikkhu. BD.1.xliii For bhātar, the accepted word for “brother,” and one in current terminology, was never apparently regarded as synonymous with bhikkhu, and indeed never seems to have been connected with members of the Order. These are never recorded to address one another or laymen as bhāta. Nor do the lay-people so address them. Had “brother” been wanted, had it been able to fulfil some purpose in the monastic life, surely bhātar would have been used, for it was to hand. As it is, the word seems to have been restricted in its use to the relationship of blood-brothers,[6] and even among the laity bhāta was not used in address, but tāta (dear).

With this absence of bhātar as a term used in the religious life, it is curious that monks used its opposite, bhaginī. But it should be noted that they addressed laywomen as well as nuns as bhagini. Hence the word bhaginī is clearly precluded from containing any unique reference to bhikkhunīs. Thus the two terms, bhaginī and bhikkhunī cannot be said to be precisely equivalent in meaning. The latter is applicable to women to whom the former is not applicable. Yet the implication remains, if words mean anything, that monks regarded women as “sisters,” while they did not regard men as “brothers.” There must be some historical reason for this. I venture to suggest that the celibacy to which the monk was consecrated was answerable for his looking upon women as bhaginī. But I am not prepared to say that this is the whole story, although I believe that it may be the root of the matter.[7]

“Friar,” although it has the English feminine “friaress,” does not appear to me such an acceptable rendering for bhikkhu as is “monk.” It is true that friars are much more than mendicants or almsmen, as a bhikkhu is, or came to be, much more than one who merely begs for alms. When, in the West, mendicancy became symbolic under St. Francis, the friars were to BD.1.xliv beg, as other poor men. The Sakyan bhikkhu, too, had to beg. Yet the growing belief that merit was to be acquired by giving in many cases inspired the laity to give before they had been begged. Hence begging did not take, such a high place in the duties of Gotama’s Order as it did in the West after St. Francis’ death; and I doubt if, in India, it was ever symbolic.

On the other hand, “friar,” being derived from frater, is open to the same general objections as is “brother.” Moreover, the Western friar, a later development than the monk, and with the monastic tradition behind him, never aimed at saving himself. He was a brother to the whole world, and went about talking to people at the wayside, to birds and animals; while the prime concern of bhikkhus, however much they may have preached, was with the attainment of their own perfection.

Having now considered various arguments for and against mendicant, almsman, brother, friar as translations of bhikkhu, I will put forward the reasons which led me to choose “monk” for this term, and “nun” for bhikkhunī. It may be that only a profound study of Western Monachism could fully justify or condemn this choice, but from a superficial study it would appear that the similarities between a “monk” and a bhikkhu outweigh their differences. These similarities and differences must be judged by the historical associations of the two words. Etymologically they are not connected. Yet in the East and in the West there were these movements, comparable in a general way, though varying in detail, towards ordering and organising religious life in a fashion that necessitated its devotees renouncing their former modes of life and their former worldly pre-occupations.

The two words, monk and bhikkhu, are the outcome of certain and definite historical tendencies. Because these did not follow the same course of development in East and West, the two words, although comparable in meaning, are not synonymous. For each is the expression of a particular phase of that development. BD.1.xlv If this is borne in mind, if we remember that we are dealing with historical variations of a common tendency, it will seem to us less remarkable that Western terminology offers no equivalent with which the term bhikkhu can be made exactly to fit, and more remarkable that a study in comparisons is as possible as it is.

The Western monk, coming into Europe from the East, has, like the Buddhist bhikkhu, a long and complicated history, and monks of one century and Order differ considerably from monks of another century and Order. The word monk (monachus) is derived from monos, meaning “alone.” For originally monks abandoned the worldly life for the sake of that solitude in which, by meditation and contemplation, they could attempt to save their souls. Communion with God would enable their souls to be entered by God. Later the outward forms of monkdom changed, and monks came to live a communal life in convents, observing the Rule of the Order which they had entered, and taking the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It was the monk’s great work to go out into the world so as to save men and to bring men to God. A separate development, a still further change displaced the monk’s earlier ideal of finding his own salvation while leading the life of a hermit or anchorite in the desert. Moreover, as monasticism developed, century by century, the early communal poverty gave way to communal plenty. Monasteries became land-owners, monks became cultivators of the soil, makers of various kinds of produce, copyists of manuscripts, storehouses of learning, although by none of these activities was individual property or gain supposed to result.

Now the Buddhist bhikkhu did not live alone, but in communities; and there is nothing in the derivation of bhikkhu comparable to monos. Bhikkhu, bhikṣu is from the desiderative base of bhaj, to beg, to beg alms. On the other hand, he did go into seclusion for meditation during the “day-sojourn” (divāvihāra, cf. siesta), and sometimes for longer periods he retreated to lonely spots far from the haunts of men. And possibly in BD.1.xlvi his earlier history, as bhikṣu, he was one who lived alone, only gradually coming to live in a community, as the monk came later to lead a cenobitic life. Part of the moral duty of the Buddhist bhikkhu was, if he had talent that way, to go forth and give Dhamma for the sake of devas and mankind. In this he resembles certain Orders of Western Monachism which had as their mission the salvation of the world. The early Friars, too, did wayside teaching and preaching, but later this was regulated by authority and made orthodox. Monks, in Gotama’s Order, were certainly not segregated, and the Vinaya reveals all manner of inter-communication between the religious and the lay sections of society.

In order to give dhamma, the bhikkhu had to tour the countryside for nine months in each year. This would also prevent him from being a constant drain on the resources of the laity at any one place. But he was forbidden to travel during the three months of the rains. In this there was nothing similar to the Benedictine “vow of stability,” by which a monk undertook to remain permanently at one house. This vow was imposed because wandering ascetics had become a nuisance, whereas Buddhist monks had to stay in one fixed abode for the rains, lest in journeying during this season they should harm the young crops or destroy animal life. A motive such as the latter was far from the thoughts of Western monks, one of whose many activities was to tend the crops and dig the soil. Their view of life did not include a close kinship existing between men and animals, and even the Friars, who spoke to the animals as their “brothers,” did not suggest that a man might be undergoing rebirth as an animal (tiracchāna-gata).

It may also be supposed that the nine months of touring was made obligatory on a Buddhist monk in order to keep him healthy. The heaviest manual work he did was the washing, bleaching and beating of his robes, and now and again repairs to buildings. This was not because the entrants into the Order were weak, decrepit or sick. It was because the nature of the BD.1.xlvii beliefs which they held made work on the land impossible for them. In the West, agriculture and all forms of manual labour were regarded as essentials in the main work. They served the further purpose of helping the conquest of the spirit in its perpetual battle with the flesh, and of sharpening and toughening the monks against the vice of accedia. The Eastern bhikkhu who, on account of the climate, might have been more prone to this was, I think it reasonable to hold, fortified against sloth and indolence by the discomforts of journeying on foot (for the use of vehicles was not allowed), no less than by preaching and by spiritual exercises.

The Buddhist bhikkhu has to renounce his worldly possessions before he is ordained, and after his ordination he should own no private property, but should regard his bowl and robe and other requisites as being the communal property of the Order, lent to him for his use. He should lead a life of chastity. He should be obedient to the Pātimokkha courses of training. In these particulars his case closely resembles that of an European monk. But, and here is a great difference between the Western monk and the bhikkhu, as understood in the sixth century B.C. in India: there were no vows for a Sakyan bhikkhu to take. He did not make any vows, did not bind himself by vows. If he attempted right behaviour, this was because his spiritual training had led to the taming of the self. But where this was of no avail, penalties were inflicted and the discipline was tightened, sometimes in ways which left no loop-holes for laxity.

If there were no initial vows, far less were there any “final vows,” making a return to life “in the world” extremely difficult, if not impossible. For even after the second ordination ceremony, the upasampadā; a bhikkhu was able, if he wished, to “leave the Order,” vibbhamati, as is the Vinaya word, and to “turn back to the low life of the layman,” hīnāyavattati, as is the Piṭakan expression. What was binding on the bhikkhu was the one rule, the Pātimokkha, under which he BD.1.xlviii lived, the one training and the one work, as the definition of “in communion” at the end of each Pārājika rule shows, If he was not at one with these, he was defeated and expelled from the Order.

A bhikkhu goes for alms, he begs, silently, for alms; he is entirely dependent on the laity for food, robes, lodgings and medicine. In the great centuries of Western Monachism monks, far from being beggars for alms, were the donors of abundant charity. Bhikkhus received alms, they did not give them. If a bhikkhu received no kaṭhina cloth at the time of its distribution, he wore rags taken from the dust-heap. Moreover, a mark of the bhikkhu is that he is one who wears the patchwork cloth (bhinnapaṭadhara). For even gifts of robe-material had to be made up, not whole, but in pieces, symbolical of a beggar’s rags. The “yellow robes” of a bhikkhu are comparable to the Western “habit,” the frock and cowl.

In looking for points of contact between “monks” and bhikkhus, their relation to the lay-followers might be adduced. In, for instance, a Cistercian abbey the brethren were divided into the monks (monachi) and the lay-brothers (conversi). The Buddhist Order had its lay-followers. But there, I think, the similarity between the Buddhists and the Cistercians ends. For the Buddhist lay-followers of the faith, in supporting the religious exponents and answering their call of poverty, did not regard them as the means of transmitting their gifts of charity to other needy laity. These gifts were made to and for the bhikkhus, and there the matter ended. Nor were the lay-followers organised as were the conversi. They did not live in the vihāras and they had no cloistral duties to perform. These were executed by those bhikkhus who had been duly appointed to various offices,’ such as that of food-distributor, assigner of lodgings, robe-distributor, silver-remover, and so forth, offices comparable to those of almoner, kitchener, cellarer of the Western convent, and which in Cistercian abbeys were performed by the conversi. The vihāras did not receive laity as guests; BD.1.xlix they only received monks from other districts. In Western monasteries the entertainment of lay-visitors was a very important matter.

The wide scope of meaning compressed into the word bhikkhu is doubtless an indication that the word was of gradual growth, its significance increasing as the object which it connoted acquired more and more aspects and characteristics. I think the plain historic fact is that originally bhikkhus were no more than “men of the scrap-bowl.” To this was added, for their greater merit, the meaning of men who, besides living on begged meats, had broken away from this or that undesirable state, and had assumed various distinguishing marks.

In spite of the differences between bhikkhu and monk, the affinities between them seem to me marked enough to warrant translating bhikkhu as “monk.” I have also chosen “monk” for various other reasons. In the first place, in the translations of Pali literature which have already appeared, no less than in several books on Early Buddhism, monk is a rendering that has been commonly adopted for bhikkhu. This word, therefore, has some tradition behind it, and hence will not arrest the reader’s attention with a sense of unfamiliarity. Secondly, in deciding upon the nearest English equivalent for bhikkhu, I had to take into account the fact that an easy feminine form would be required.  “Nun” is a very convenient translation for bhikkhunī, and has, moreover, equivalents in other European languages. This is not a negligible point when comparing translations. Another reason for the choice of “monk” was that, in the period of Indian history under review, this word necessitates, in the last resort, the drawing of a distinction merely between the Sakyan monk and the Jain monk. Each of the other possible terms—almsman, mendicant, friar[8]—might be applicable to the disciples of other sects; but these could hardly be termed “monks.”

BD.1.l The tremendous growth in the meanings and associations of both “monk” and bhikkhu clearly shows that in some cases it is impossible for the history of words to be contained in their etymology. I mention this tendency for words to grow and change, a tendency not of course peculiar to these two terms, simply to remind the reader that etymology is not an infallible guide to the developed meaning of terms. By the time the objects that such terms denote have passed through several phases, their historical meaning their significance in and for history, may have come to be more than their etymological meaning indicates, different from it, even the very reverse of it. The most that etymology can do in such cases is to point to the meanings that the words once, very likely originally, possessed. This is of undoubted importance. But to translate them according to that meaning, and without a due regard for the known facts of their evolution, would be grossly to neglect the significance that they came to acquire as a result of their historical development.

Footnotes and references:


Introduction à l’ History du Buddhisme indien, 2nd edition, p.245, where he says that the sense of the word bhikkhu means exactly “one who lives by alms.”


Maskarī as an Epithet of Gośāla, Indian History Quarterly, iii.2, p.253.


Further Dialogues of the Buddha.


Women under Primitive Buddhism.


E.g. at Thig.408, Ja.1.308.


Cf. SN.iv.110, where, however, there is also mention of the “mother-mind” and “daughter-mind.”


“Brother” is hardly possible, as I have tried to show above.