Vinaya Pitaka (1): Bhikkhu-vibhanga (the analysis of Monks’ rules)

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 samaṇa

In rendering samaṇa by “recluse” I am adopting what has come to be a fairly usual translation. I am aware that it is a far from happy one. It has no feminine form in English; its connotation of being segregated and living in isolation is misleading. For the Sakyan samaṇas were not segregated, in the sense of being confined within the vihāra precincts and forbidden to mix with the laity. They were restricted from following worldly occupations, for it was held that these should be given up when a man or woman went forth from the household state. But the Sakyan samaṇas were in no way anchorites or hermits. Nor do I think “ascetic”[1] a particularly suitable rendering. For nowhere is asceticism, as understood in the West, made of importance in Pali literature. The chief asceticism which it recognises is a taming, a training (damatha, from the root dam), the restraint of evil deeds, thoughts and words. Thus, although “ascetic” may, etymologically, be more correct than “recluse,” unless the Sakyan meaning of asceticism be thoroughly understood, and its Western connotations of bodily mortifications and austerities be dispelled, “recluse” comes nearer to the Pali than does “ascetic.” For there were times when the samaṇas went into seclusion for meditation. There are, besides, other words in Pali, such as tāpasa, literally burning, which more definitely connote an ascetic.

Mrs. Rhys Davids says that “monk” is our nearest word[2] to samaṇa, although she also puts forward another word, namely “retreater,”[3] which perhaps is the best in the sense of preserving the history buried in the word samaṇa, śramaṇa. Doubtless “monk” could have been used for samaṇa, had this word not been selected as the most appropriate for bhikkhu. For from internal evidence, not only of the Suttavibhaṅga but of other parts of the Canon and the Commentaries,[4] it would appear that the Sakyan samaṇa was to all intents and purposes regarded as much the same as the Sakyan bhikkhu. The difference came to be more in the name than in the object, and may even have depended more on the person who used the term than on the person of whom it was used. This, in its turn, may depend on some earlier aspects of the history of the two terms.

The word samaṇa is not used as a direct form of address in the portion of the Suttavibhaṅga here translated. The brahmin of Verañjā, before he became a lay-follower, does not address Gotama as samaṇa, although in speaking to him he uses this word of him (Vin.3.2 = BD.1.2 below); and Gotama, in this same conversation, is recorded to apply the term to himself. BD.1.lii The schismatics also refer to Gotama in this way (Vin.3.171, Vin.3.172 = BD.1.296ff. below), but not in his presence. Monks are not recorded to address one another in this way, nor do the nuns employ the feminine samaṇi (vocative) when speaking to one another, nor the nominative samaṇī in speaking of one another. The laity, on the other hand, are sometimes recorded to speak of a particular monk by his personal name, coupled with the appellation samaṇa, such as samaṇa Udāyi (Vin.3.120 = BD.1.200 below). They also refer, so it is said, to monks as samaṇā, whether they admired them (Vin.3.119 = BD.1.200 below) or were vexed with them (Vin.3.120 = BD.1.200 below).

The curious thing is that the negative forms, asamaṇo, asamaṇī, occur quite often as terms of reproach, and meaning “not a true recluse.” On different occasions lay-people and monks are recorded to have reprimanded a monk for his bad behaviour by saying asamaṇo ’si tvaṃ, “you are not a (true) recluse.” A nun is recorded to have rebuked another nun in the single phrase asamaṇī ’si tvam. This was evidently such a serious reproach as to send the person rebuked to Gotama to receive his verdict on the offence committed or imputed, as the case may have been. If the action performed by the monk or nun in question is found by him to be blameworthy, one of the words of censure put into his mouth is always assāmaṇaka, “not worthy of a recluse, not belonging to a recluse” (e.g. Vin.3.24 = BD.1.43 below).

A common designation of the monastic followers of Gotama was samaṇā Sakyaputtiyā, recluses (literally sons of the) Sakyans, or Sakyan recluses. This was also used of them by the laity (e.g. Vin.3.43, Vin.3.136, Vin.3.172 = BD.1.67, BD.1.234, BD.1.299 below), including those occasions where the monks had given them cause for complaint (Vin.3.44, Vin.3.73, Vin.3.119 = BD.1.70, BD.1.125, BD.1.200 below). In each definition that it gives of pārājika, the Old Commentary invariably states that the errant bhikkhu is become one who is not a samaṇa, not a Sakyaputtiya. These two words, asamaṇa and asakyaputtiya, are sometimes BD.1.liii used together in other passages as terms of abuse (Vin.3.164f. = BD.1.283 below). It may also be noted that, as the monastic disciples of Gotama were called samaṇā Sakyaputtiyā, so  the followers of Mahāvīra were called, even in the Pali canon,[5] samaṇā Nigaṇṭhā, or to be exact, nigaṇṭhā nāma samaṇajātikā, a kind of recluse called nigaṇṭhas (Jains).

If the Sakyan samaṇa came to correspond with the Sakyan bhikkhu on the one side, on the other he came to correspond with brāhmaṇa, brahmin, in the meaning of this term as it grew into Sakya, and also into Jainism.[6] For the fact that samaṇa often appears in combination with brāhmaṇa in Pali canonical literature does not there, I think, necessarily imply any opposition between the two, any more than it does in Jaina literature.[7] According to Professor B.M. Barua,[8] there were various sects or groups or schools of Śramaṇa who broke away from the “later form of Brahminic religion, superstition and mysticism.” So far there was opposition. But by the time that the Sakyaputtiyas were known as samaṇas, the term brāhmaṇa was also being incorporated into Sakyan usage, and was there receiving a new meaning.

While brahmins as a class remained, brahmins by birth and occupation, brahmins forming sects of ascetics, living by various rules, the word brāhmaṇa was developing for Sakya the meaning of the best, the highest person, not because of birth and lineage, but because of spiritual endeavour and attainment. To this, samaṇa in public opinion was evidently equivalent. Had not the two words come to have some identity of meaning, not exactly the same things would have been BD.1.liv said of them both, as is the case in a formula occurring now and again in this part of the Suttavibhaṅga (e.g. Vin.3.44, Vin.3.120 = BD.1.70, BD.1.200 below). On the other hand, the words samaṇa and brāhmaṇa occur in two other sentences at Vin.3.44, once separated by the disjunctive (or), once forming a compound. It is possible that some divergence between the two is intended here, as perhaps referring to members of different sects; in which case the two words would not be substitutes or synonyms for one another.[9]

Footnotes and references:


E.g. E.J. Thomas, History of Buddhist Thought, 72, 82, 89.


The Birth of Indian Psychology and its Development in Buddhism, p.185; and cf. her Outlines of Buddhism, p.62, p.65.


Buddhism, Home Univeristy Library, new edition, p.198.


Canonical references very frequent. For commentaries see, e.g. AN-a.iii.156 (Siamese edition), bhikkhū kaṇhādhimuttikā ti samaṇā nām’ ete; and MN-a.ii.4, where samaṇas are explained as those on the four ways to arahantship, thus being identified with bhikkhus.




Jaina Sūtras, ii.138 (edited by Jacobi, Sacred Books of the East XLV).: “He who has no worldly attachment after entering the Order, who does not repent of having become a monk … him we call a brāhmaṇa.” Again at p.422: “The samaṇas or brāhmaṇas who say thus … do not speak as samaṇas or Nigranthas.”


Cf. Jaina Sūtras, ii.140, and last note.


Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy, p.242. See also p.237ff.


On samaṇas see B.M. Barua, Pre-Buddhistic Indian Philosophy, p.242, and Ratilal Mehta, Asceticism in Pre-Buddhist Days, Indian Culture, iii.4.

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