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 Vinaya is one of humanity’s most extraordinary texts. Always reasonable, often surprising, and full of outrageous and entertaining stories, it offers a vision of an ideal community that is as relevant—and as challenging—as it has ever been. The Vinaya is thoroughly anarchist: no hierarchy, no power vested in individuals, consensus decision making, and property held in common. It is this that has allowed the Sangha the flexibility to adapt Vinaya practice in response to changing times and places. The Vinaya dispenses with power in favour of principle. It works because the monastic community wants to do the right thing, and are willing to work together with sincerity. Originating in a culture where torture and capital punishment were considered normal, the Vinaya envisages no punishment worse than expulsion from the community, while most “offences” may be settled with a simple confession to another monastic.

The treatment of women in the Vinaya is somewhat complex and controversial. Here we find the story of how the Buddha’s foster mother, Mahāpajāpatī, is not granted permission to ordain at first, although the Buddha is depicted as changing his mind. This passage has too many textual problems for it to be regarded as authentic, and must have been added to the Vinaya at some later date, probably around the time of the Second Council. It remains as evidence of the challenges that some monks felt when expected to treat nuns as equals. However it must be borne in mind that the overriding purpose of the nuns’ Vinaya is so that women can set up and run independent spiritual communities, teaching and training themselves. And, as several Vinaya rules show, nuns were fully involved in buidling monasteries, teaching the lay community, and all other aspects of monastic life. There is no power of command by monks over nuns, and nowhere are the monks allowed to make Vinaya rulings for the nuns. The nuns were a self-governing community, fully autonomous except for a few occasions when they participated jointly in formal acts of the Sangha together with monks. But even on such occasions, the monks were not in control: the Vinaya is in control and the monks must act in accord with Vinaya.

In this and many other matters we see in the Vinaya a constant compromise and adjustment, as the ideals of the Dhamma run up against the realities of our profane world. The Vinaya does not shy away from the sordid, even the evil. A large proportion of the text documents the wicked behaviour of monastics. Yet it is essentially optimistic. It assumes that people will, by and large, tell the truth and try to do the right thing; and that, with the significant exception of the Pārājika rules, everyone deserves a second chance.

The voice of the Buddha runs like a thread of light through the entire Vinaya, informing every decision, and present on almost every occasion. Yet much of the Vinaya as we have it today originated later; I would put the main period of composition of the Vinayas at perhaps 100–200 years after the Buddha. We are fortunate to have many different recensions of Vinaya texts, a few of which are referred to by Horner in her introduction. Comparative studies of the Vinaya, while still inadequate, have come a long way since her time. One of the overwhelming findings of these studies is that, while the Pātimokkha texts of the different versions are almost identical, the background stories, detailed analyses, and case studies vary considerably. Together with the very strong evidence of massive editorial input in the text, for example in the artificial repetitions of nearly identical events, it is clear that the Vinaya texts as they stand constitute a complex, highly sophisticated literature that evolved and developed over a considerable period of time. While it is not possible to say with certainty exactly what originated with the Buddha, we will not stray too far from the truth if we assume that the rules, and some of the other material such as certain Saṅghakammas, originate from the Buddha himself, while most of the other material is the product of later generations. This later material is not a fixed recitation as the Pātimokkha was, but neither is it entirely invented; rather, it draws freely and creatively from earlier traditions.

In 2013, as work for SuttaCentral was gathering pace, we heard the good news that on 10 May the Pali Text Society had released a number of texts under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence (CC BY-NC 3.0). This release included the six volumes of the classic Vinaya translation by I.B. Horner, The Book of the Discipline. Crucially, the terms of the release permit derivative works, which meant that the way was open to create a new edition of this classic of 20th century Buddhist scholarship.

We immediately undertook to create a natively digital edition of this translation, which remains the only complete translation of the Vinaya into English. In doing so, we aimed to honor the work of I.B. Horner and the Pali Text Society, and to promote a greater awareness and understanding of the Vinaya for those who are not able to access the printed edition.

The process of creating this edition was this. First the text was scanned, OCR-ed, converted into a Word document, and proofread. This initial process was done by Ven. Jaganātha assisted by Ven. Nibbidā. They then handed the project to me, and I engaged an IT firm, Hi-Tech Outsourcing Services, to convert the Word document into a detailed, clean, and semantic HTML/XML file, as well as doing another round of proofreading. This demanding project was handled with skill and good cheer by Jatin Patel and his team at Hi-Tech. Finally I went over the files, doing final touches like headings, ensuring that references were consistent, creating internal links, and further proofing. Ultimately the text is marked up in HTML5, closely related to the markup used on SuttaCentral, but with a few special features.

Horner’s translation is easy to criticize. It regularly relies on over-literal renderings, while at the same time there are many errors in rendering the Pali. The style is distractingly archaic, and it would be a mistake to attribute this to the passing of time since publication: it was already archaic when it was published. The Parivāra translation, for example, was published in 1966, the same year “Good Vibrations” and “Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35” were released; yet it unironically uses the phrase “Thou understandeth…”. Such archaisms indicate a gulf not in time but in culture. Horner belonged to a generation where Buddhist studies were the province of a European intellectual elite; while the popularization of Buddhism that began in that decade owed more to the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan than to the academic texts of the Pali scholars.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the gulf in time and culture between ourselves and Horner lies not in the style of the translation but in her doctrinal interpretations. Writing in the mid-20th century, Horner came under the influence of her teacher and mentor, Caroline Rhys-Davids, and her overbearing tendency to read every possible word and phrase as implying that the Buddha’s real teaching was of a “Self” that was made to “Become”. Thankfully, such interpretations have (mostly) disappeared from the Buddhist world, and exist now as relics of the West’s gradual and uncertain progress towards understanding the Dhamma, best discreetly passed over. I only mention this here because I suspect that some modern readers, unfamiliar with the historical context, will find such references confusing.

Despite this, with one important exception—the Pārājika rules, which I will discuss below—no substantive changes have been made to the text. Tempting though it has been to correct some long-standing mistakes (nuns do not carry weapons!), I have endeavoured to recreate in digital form the work of I.B. Horner. Rather than attempting piecemeal corrections I felt it would be better to start with a faithful digital text, then undertake a thorough revision.

However, I have not been so conservative when it comes to the structure and referencing systems used in the text. Our goal has been to create a translation that is compatible with SuttaCentral, and many details have been standardized accordingly. In particular, the text incorporates a truly staggering quantity of references in the footnotes. Normally for SuttaCentral’s texts we exclude footnotes and similar material: we are presenting the ancient texts, not modern opinions. However, in this case I felt that the value of the notes was such that it would be a shame for them to be omitted from a digital edition. It is precisely the interconnectedness that marks the Vinaya as a sophisticated system, and nowhere have the relations between various parts of the text been delineated in as much detail as in Horner’s notes. We thus decided to include the notes in a separate digital edition, while the text on SuttaCentral will, as usual, be presented without notes.

This meant we had to sort out the nearly 12,000 internal cross-references, as well as over 7,000 external references. The internal references required a great deal of work to standardize. To start with, there is the problem that the entire text runs three distinct referencing systems in parallel:

  1. The “volume and page” of the P.T.S Pali edition;
  2. The “volume and page” of the English translation;
  3. The “chapter and section” numbers, which are the same for both editions.

It is a shame that the editors of the Pali editions did not uniformly insist on a detailed “chapter and section” system, as we are now in the unfortunate situation where the academic standard is to reference the volume and page of the increasingly outdated P.T.S. Pali paper editions.

The situation is more complex than that, however. For the original text placed the reference numbers at the end of the section they refer to, following the Pali tradition. Such an arrangement does not sit easily with the logic underlying modern documents, which are codified in systems such as HTML, and for this edition we have relocated all references to the beginning of the relevant section

In addition, Horner often used highly abbreviated forms of reference, making it difficult to tell exactly what level of section or subsection is being referred to. We have tried to eliminate this problem by spelling all references out in full. Once the references had been made (so far as possible) entirely explicit and consistent, it was a (relatively) simple matter to turn them into hyperlinks. Thus all of the internal cross references should, in theory, link to the correct place in the text. Any errors found in the references are likely to be the result of the digitizing process, rather than being in the original text, for errors of reference in the text are exceedingly rare (although I have silently corrected a very few).