Vinaya: The Buddhist Monk’s Discipline

1 March 2524

I. The code of fundamental rules for the Buddhist orders of monks and nuns is called Pātimokkha. There are two Pātimokkha, viz.,

  1. Bhikkhu-pātimokkha containing 227 fundamental rules for monks
  2. Bhikkhunī-pātimokkha containing 311 fundamental rules for nuns.

The 227 rules for monks (the Bhikkhu-pātimokkha) are grouped into seven classes arranged in the order of the seriousness of the offenses from major to minor offenses. The first class is the group of four gravest offenses entailing expulsion from the Order, called Pārājika (Defeat), viz.,

  1. sexual intercourse;
  2. stealing;
  3. killing a human being;
  4. falsely claiming the possession of supernormal attainments (such as jhāna).

The following classification of the 227 rules may give a general picture of the Buddhist monastic life and a general idea of the spirit of the monk’s discipline:

  1. Rules concerning property and requisites—74 in number
  • – food and drink (19)
  • – clothing (24)
  • – bed, seat, lodging (18)
  • – money and property (8)
  • – general (5)
  1. Rules concerning relationships between the monks and the maintenance of order in the Sangha – 40
  2. Rules concerning the monks’ relationship with laypeople – 26
  3. Rules concerning nuns – 15
  4. Rules concerning women and sex – 13
  5. Rules concerning other bodily and verbal misconduct – 23
  • – killing and hurting (13)
  • – verbal misconduct (10)
  1. Miscellaneous rules (including the settlement of legal questions) –13
  2. Rules of etiquette –75
  • – on almsrounds, food and eating (30)
  • – on other good manners such as dressing, walking and sitting (29)
  • – on preaching (16)

The above classification is only a rough one. The total number exceeds 227 because some rules can be classified into several groups. For example, the rule that a monk shall not receive a robe from a nun can be classified into groups 1 and 4.

II. The fundamental rules of the Pātimokkha are sometimes called the basic/primary discipline of the Holy Life (ādibrahmacariyaka). Besides these fundamental rules, there are still other rules of the discipline outside of the Pātimokkha which are much larger in number and they are sometimes called the advanced/secondary discipline (abhisamācārika). Examples of this kind are rules concerning head-shaving, cutting of nails, rains residence, formal meeting of the Sangha, legal proceedings, punishment of perverse monks, election of monks in charge of communal duties, etc.

In addition to the canonical discipline, there have been developed in different places local customs that vary from country to country and from region to region. Many of these customs are intended to encourage, to support or to strengthen the strict observance of the Discipline, such as the use of a receiving-cloth to receive offerings from a woman, and the shaving of the eye-brows as practiced by the Thai monks. These practices, though to be distinguished from the original rules proper, are often good contributions to the integrity of the Discipline and thus to the lastingness of the Sangha.

III. The following four similes convey very well the spirit of the Discipline, namely,

1. The simile of the bird that, in possession of only two wings, is free and always ready to go anywhere (Dīghanikāya)

2. The simile of flowers that, being tied together by thread as a garland, stay in order, beautiful, unscattered by the wind (Vinaya)

3. The simile of the bees that roam about collecting nectar to build a beehive, not hurting the color and smell of the flowers (but helping the plant to grow and spread) (Dhammapada)

4. The simile of the ground on which all who do their work on land have to depend (Saṁyuttanikāya)

Simile 1 points to the spirit of simple life based on contentment and wanting little or having few wishes (as especially evidenced by the rules concerning property and material requisites) that allow monks to have physical freedom and mobility favorable to the development of their own spiritual goals and to their wandering to act as spiritual friends to laypeople, a role enjoined by the Buddha in sending his first group of disciples in the first year after the Enlightenment to go on journeys for the benefit of the many, for the good and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.

Simile 2 implies the spirit of preserving harmonious communal life and the stability of the Sangha in which all the members though recruited from different castes and classes become equal before the Discipline, unified, in good order, graceful and firm. Harmonious communal life and the stability of the Sangha provide favorable conditions both for individual spiritual pursuits and for the activities to benefit others.

Simile 3 represents the spirit of maintaining good and beneficial relationship with the lay society. The Discipline makes the monks’ life almost absolutely dependent on the laypeople for material sustenance, but only in such a way that they will not become a burden to the latter.

Living in contentment with few wishes, the monks are expected to consume the least possible requisites to maintain health and physical well-being, not to fall to luxury. There are many disciplinary rules forbidding the monks from begging or asking laypeople for food and other requisites. Their relationship with the laity should be only for the growth of virtue and progress on the Noble Path.

Simile 4 embodies the spirit of sīla (moral conduct) under the garb of the Discipline as the basis for all higher practices and further progress toward the final goal of nibbana. Here the Discipline holds the place of basic and elementary training wherein many training rules are intended to make the monk’s life well aloof from worldly temptations and distractions that may obstruct or delay spiritual progress.

IV. An effective practice of the Discipline involves an awareness of its spirit and an understanding of its place in the overall scheme of practice and its scope and limitation of function.

The whole Buddhist practice consists in the threefold training of sīla (morality) samādhi (or better, adhicitta: cultivation of mental qualities) and paññā (wisdom). Discipline is included in, or often equated with, sīla or morality. It is basic or elementary training in that it makes the practitioner prepared for more advanced training in samādhi and paññā and makes his communal and social life conditions favorable to his training and practice. This is effectuated at three levels, namely:

1. At the level of the individual’s personal life, the practice of the Discipline leads to a wholesome state of mind characterized by the absence of remorse, and of fear of punishment, revenge and blame. It makes the person confident and makes the mind peaceful through joy, relaxation and tranquility, and thus easy to concentrate.

2. At the level of communal life, the Discipline makes all members live together peacefully and in harmony. Not disturbed, distracted or occupied by conflict, quarrels, disputes and troubles, the monks find a favorable environment for mental development. Peaceful surroundings tend to make the mind peaceful. In such a community, the members can act as good friends to help one another progress on the path.

3. At the level of social life, a society haunted by crimes, political troubles, immoral activities and poverty is not favorable to the practice of the Dhamma. People live in fear or are too preoccupied with their own safety and security (or with sensual pleasures) and often fail to concern themselves with spiritual matters or to support the monks. On the other hand, in a peaceful, pious and moral society, monks can find material support, can freely move from place to place on their preaching journey, and thus can devote themselves both to the meditation and to activities for the benefit of others. The monks’ rightful relationship with the people as the latter’s good friends (kalyāṇamitta) who are active in giving the Dharma (dhamma-dāna) coupled with the monks’ own exemplary moral life faithful to the Discipline which is the basis of that relationship can instill and strengthen in the people faith in the Dharma and can contribute much to the morality, security and peacefulness of the society.

To live up to the spirit of the Discipline, the monk should also keep in mind the following ten purposes of monastic legislation, viz.,

  1. for the excellence of the unanimous Order;
  2. for the comfort of the Order;
  3. for the control of shameless persons;
  4. for the living in comfort of well-behaved monks;
  5. for the prevention of temporal decay and troubles;
  6. for protection against spiritual decay and troubles;
  7. for the confidence of those who have not yet gained confidence;
  8. for the increase of the confidence of the confident;
  9. for the lastingness of the true doctrine;
  10. for the support of the discipline.

(Vin.III.20)

At another place (the Aṅguttaranikāya), ten more purposes are specified including “For helpfulness to the laity”.

Blind observance of and wrong attitude to the Discipline can lead astray and even become an obstacle to the progress on the Noble Path. Such blind and wrong practice is usually caused by the ignorance of the spirit of the Discipline and of its place in relation to other parts of the practice. Some may keep strict discipline out of wrong desires such as for praise or in order to be reborn in heaven. Others may exalt themselves while being contemptuous of others out of pride in the strict discipline they keep. Such attitudes amount to attachment to mere rules and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa), a fetter that binds man to suffering. The Discipline rightly observed, on the contrary, becomes a firm foundation for the development of mental qualities and wisdom that lead on toward the perfect freedom of nibbana.

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