Dhamma-Vinaya was the Buddha’s own name for the religion he founded. Dhamma—the truth—is what he discovered and pointed out as advice for all who want to gain release from suffering. Vinaya—discipline—is what he formulated as rules, ideals, and standards of behavior for those of his followers who go forth from home life to take up the quest for release in greater earnestness. Although this book deals primarily with discipline, we should note at the outset that total training in the Buddha’s path requires that Dhamma and Vinaya function together. In theory they may be separate, but in the person who practices them they merge as qualities developed in the mind and character.
“Gotamī, the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered and not to being fettered; to shedding and not to accumulating; to modesty and not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment and not to discontent; to seclusion and not to entanglement; to aroused energy and not to laziness; to being unburdensome and not to being burdensome’: You may definitely hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’”—Cv.X.5
Ultimately, the Buddha said, just as the sea has a single taste, that of salt, so too the Dhamma and Vinaya have a single taste: that of release. The connection between discipline and release is spelled out in a passage that recurs at several points in the Canon:
“Discipline is for the sake of restraint, restraint for the sake of freedom from remorse, freedom from remorse for the sake of joy, joy for the sake of rapture, rapture for the sake of tranquility, tranquility for the sake of pleasure, pleasure for the sake of concentration, concentration for the sake of knowledge and vision of things as they have come to be, knowledge and vision of things as they have come to be for the sake of disenchantment, disenchantment for the sake of dispassion, dispassion for the sake of release, release for the sake of knowledge and vision of release, knowledge and vision of release for the sake of total unbinding through non-clinging.”—Pv.XII.2
In establishing his religion of release, though, the Buddha did not simply set out a body of recommendations and rules. He also founded a company (parisā) of followers. This company falls into four main groups: bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunīs (nuns), lay men, and lay women. Although the Buddha saw no need to organize the laity in any manner, he arranged for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs—who had given up the entanglements of the household life to devote themselves more fully to the goal of release—to develop into communities. And he saw that they needed, as all communities do, ideals and standards, rules and customs to ensure their stability. This need is what gave rise to the Vinaya.
In the early years of the Buddha’s career, the texts tell us, there was no need to formulate monastic disciplinary rules. All of the bhikkhus in his following—the Community of bhikkhunīs had not yet been started—were men of high personal attainments who had succeeded in subduing many or all of their mental defilements. They knew his teachings well and behaved accordingly. The Canon tells of how Ven. Sāriputta, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, asked the Buddha at an early date to formulate a Pāṭimokkha, or code of rules, to ensure that the celibate life the Buddha had founded would last long, just as a thread holding together a floral arrangement ensures that the flowers are not scattered by the wind. The Buddha replied that the time for such a code had not yet come, for even the most backward of the men in the Community at that time had already had their first glimpse of the goal. Only when mental effluents (āsava) made themselves felt in the Community would there be a need for a Pāṭimokkha.
As time passed, the conditions that provided an opening for the effluents within the Community eventually began to appear. The Bhaddāli Sutta (MN 65) presents the Buddha at a later point in his career listing these conditions as five:
Ven. Bhaddāli: “Why is it, venerable sir, that there used to be fewer training rules and more bhikkhus established in the knowledge of Awakening? And why is it that there are now more training rules and fewer bhikkhus established in the knowledge of Awakening?” [Bhaddāli, who has been unwilling to abide by the training rules, seems to be suggesting that the rise in the number of training rules is itself the cause for fewer bhikkhus’ attaining Awakening. The Buddha, however, offers a different explanation.]
The Buddha: “So it is, Bhaddāli. When beings have begun to degenerate and the true Dhamma has begun to disappear, there are more training rules and fewer bhikkhus established in the knowledge of Awakening. The Teacher does not lay down a training rule for his disciples as long as there are no cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents have arisen in the Community. But when there are cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents have arisen in the Community, then the Teacher lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions.
“There are no cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents have arisen in the Community as long as the Community has not become large. But when the Community has become large, then there are cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents arise in the Community, and the Teacher then lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions.... When the Community possesses great material gains... great status... a large body of learning .… When the Community is long-standing, then there are cases where the conditions that offer a foothold for the effluents arise in the Community, and the Teacher then lays down a training rule for his disciples so as to counteract those very conditions.”
Thus the rules themselves were not the cause for degeneracy in the Community, and the conditions that provided a foothold for the effluents were not themselves effluents. Rather, the growing complexity of the Community provided the opportunity for bhikkhus to act on the basis of their defilements in a growing variety of ways, and the rules—although they could not prevent any of the five conditions—had to become correspondingly complex to counteract the opportunities those conditions provided for unenlightened behavior.
Even when these conditions did arise, though, the Buddha did not set out a full code at once. Instead, he formulated rules one at a time in response to events. The considerations that went into formulating each rule are best illustrated by the events surrounding the formulation of the first.
Ven. Sudinna, the story goes, had strong faith in the Buddha and had ordained after receiving his parents’ grudging consent. He was their only child and, though married, was childless. His parents, fearing that the government would confiscate their property at their death if it had no heir, devised various schemes to lure Ven. Sudinna back to the lay life, but to no avail. Finally, his mother realized that he was firm in his intention to stay a bhikkhu and so asked him at least to have intercourse with his former wife so that their property would have an heir. Ven. Sudinna consented, took his wife into the forest, and had intercourse three times.
Immediately he felt remorse and eventually confessed his deed to his fellow bhikkhus. Word reached the Buddha, who called a meeting of the Community, questioned Ven. Sudinna, and gave him a rebuke. The rebuke fell into two major parts. In the first part, the Buddha reminded Ven. Sudinna of his position as a samaṇa—a monk or contemplative—and that his behavior was unworthy of his position. Also, the Buddha pointed out to him the aims of the teaching and noted that his behavior ran counter to them. The implication here was that Ven. Sudinna had not only acted inconsistently with the content of the teaching, but had also shown callous disregard for the Buddha’s compassionate aims in making the Dhamma known.
“‘Worthless man, it is unseemly, out of line, unsuitable, and unworthy of a contemplative; improper and not to be done…. Haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the sake of dispassion and not for passion; for unfettering and not for fettering; for freedom from clinging and not for clinging? Yet here, while I have taught the Dhamma for dispassion, you set your heart on passion; while I have taught the Dhamma for unfettering, you set your heart on being fettered; while I have taught the Dhamma for freedom from clinging, you set your heart on clinging.
“‘Worthless man, haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the fading of passion, the sobering of intoxication, the subduing of thirst, the destruction of attachment, the severing of the round, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, unbinding? Haven’t I in many ways advocated abandoning sensual pleasures, comprehending sensual perceptions, subduing sensual thirst, destroying sensual thoughts, calming sensual fevers? Worthless man, it would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a poisonous snake than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman’s vagina. Why is that? For that reason you would undergo death or death-like suffering, but you would not on that account, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell. But for this reason you would, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into a plane of deprivation, a bad destination, a lower realm, hell….
“‘Worthless man, this neither inspires faith in the faithless nor increases the faithful. Rather, it inspires lack of faith in the faithless and wavering in some of the faithful.’”
The second part of the rebuke dealt in terms of personal qualities: those that a bhikkhu practicing discipline is to abandon, and those he is to develop.
“Then the Blessed One, having in many ways rebuked Ven. Sudinna, having spoken in dispraise of being burdensome, demanding, arrogant, discontented, entangled, and indolent; in various ways having spoken in praise of being unburdensome, undemanding, modest, content, scrupulous, austere, gracious, self-effacing, and energetic; having given a Dhamma talk on what is seemly and becoming for bhikkhus, addressed the bhikkhus.”
This was where the Buddha formulated the training rule, after first stating his reasons for doing so.
“‘In that case, bhikkhus, I will formulate a training rule for the bhikkhus with ten aims in mind: the excellence of the Community, the comfort of the Community, the curbing of the impudent, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and the fostering of discipline.’”
These reasons fall into three main types. The first two are external: 1) to ensure peace and well being within the Community itself, and 2) to foster and protect faith among the laity, on whom the bhikkhus depend for their support. (The origin stories of the various rules depict the laity as being very quick to generalize. One bhikkhu misbehaves, and they complain, “How can these Sakyan-son monks do that?”) The third type of reason, though, is internal: The rule is to help restrain and prevent mental effluents within the individual bhikkhus. Thus the rules aim not only at the external well being of the Community but also at the internal well being of the individual. This latter point soon becomes apparent to anyone who seriously tries to keep to the rules, for they foster mindfulness and circumspection in one’s actions, qualities that carry over into the training of the mind.
Over the course of time the Buddha formulated more than 200 major and minor rules, forming the Pāṭimokkha that was recited fortnightly in each Community of bhikkhus. In addition, he formulated many other minor rules that were memorized by those of his followers who specialized in the subject of discipline, but nothing is known for sure of what format they used to organize this body of knowledge during his lifetime.
After his total nibbāna, though, his followers made a concerted effort to establish a standard canon of Dhamma and Vinaya, and the Pali Canon as we know it began to take shape. The Vinaya was organized into two main parts: 1) the Sutta Vibhaṅga, the ‘Exposition of the Text’ (which from here on we will refer to simply as the Vibhaṅga), containing almost all the material dealing with the Pāṭimokkha rules; and 2) the Khandhakas, or Groupings, which contain the remaining material organized loosely according to subject matter. The Khandhakas themselves are divided into two parts, the Mahāvagga, or Greater Chapter, and the Cullavagga, or Lesser Chapter. Historians estimate that the Vibhaṅga and Khandhakas reached their present form in approximately the 2nd century B.C.E., and that the Parivāra, or Addenda—a summary and study guide—was added a few centuries later, closing the Vinaya Piṭaka, the part of the Canon dealing with discipline.
Because the purpose of this volume is to translate and explain the Pāṭimokkha, we are most directly concerned with the Vibhaṅga. It is organized as follows: The rules in the Pāṭimokkha are presented one by one, each rule preceded by an origin story relating the events leading up to its formulation. In some instances a rule went through one or more reformulations, in which case an additional story is provided for each amendment to show what prompted it. With each new formulation of a rule, any previous formulations were automatically rescinded. Otherwise, the added restrictions or allowances contained in the reformulations would have been rendered meaningless. Thus, the final formulation of the rule is the authoritative one, with the earlier formulations holding only historical interest.
After the final statement of the rule is a word-analysis (pada-bhājaniya), which explains in detail most of the important terms in the rule. For many of the rules this analysis includes one or more “wheels,” or tables, giving the contingencies connected with the rule, working out all their possible permutations and passing judgment as to what penalty, if any, each permutation entails. For example, the discussion of the first rule contains a wheel that gives all the objects with which a person might have sexual intercourse, lists them against the variables of the sort of intercourse and whether or not the bhikkhu involved gives his consent, and announces the penalty for each possible combination of factors.
Following the word-analysis for each rule is a section of non-offense clauses, listing extenuating circumstances under which a bhikkhu would be exempted from the penalty imposed by the rule.
Finally, for the major rules, there is the Vinita-vatthu, or Precedents, listing various cases related to the rule and giving verdicts as to what penalty, if any, they entail.
The Vibhaṅga forms the basis for most of the explanations of the training rules given in this volume. However, there are many questions on which the Vibhaṅga is silent or unclear. To answer these questions, I have turned either to the Khandhakas or to the commentarial literature that has grown up around the Vinaya over the course of the centuries. The primary works I have consulted are these:
1) The Samanta-pāsādikā—“The Thoroughly Inspiring”—(from here on referred to as the Commentary), a commentary on the Vinaya Piṭaka compiled in the 5th century C.E. by Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, who based his work on ancient commentaries. The originals for these ancient commentaries may have been brought to Sri Lanka from India and translated into Sinhalese, but frequent references throughout the commentaries to places and people in Sri Lanka show that much of the material in the commentaries was composed in Sri Lanka. From internal evidence in Buddhaghosa’s writings—he compiled commentaries on a major portion of the Canon—historians have estimated that the ancient commentaries were collected over a span of several centuries and closed in approximately the 4th century C.E. Buddhaghosa’s work thus contains material much older than his date would indicate.
By Buddhaghosa’s time a belief had grown up that the ancient commentaries were the work of the Buddha’s immediate disciples and thus indisputably conveyed the true intent of the Canon. However, as we shall see below, the ancient commentaries themselves did not make such exalted claims for themselves.
Still, the existence of this belief in the 5th century placed certain constraints on Buddhaghosa’s work. At points where the ancient commentaries conflicted with the Canon, he had to write the discrepancies off as copier’s mistakes or else side with the commentaries against the Canon. At a few points, such as his explanation of Pc 9, he provides arguments effectively demolishing the ancient commentaries’ interpretation but then backs off, saying that the ancient commentaries must be right because their authors knew the Buddha’s intentions. Perhaps pressure from the elder bhikkhus at the Mahāvihāra in Anurādhapura—the place where the ancient commentaries had been preserved and where Buddhaghosa was allowed to do his work—was what made him back off in this way. At any rate, only on points where the different ancient commentaries were silent or gave divergent opinions did he feel free to express his own.
2) The Kaṅkhā-vitaraṇī—“The Subjugator of Uncertainty”—(the K/Commentary), a commentary on the Pāṭimokkha also compiled by Buddhaghosa. Although this work is largely a synopsis of material in the Commentary, it contains some independent material, in particular a system of classifying the offenses under each training rule into their component factors. It also contradicts the Commentary from time to time, suggesting that it may have been based on a commentarial tradition different from the one underlying the Commentary.
3) The Sārattha-dīpanī—“The Essence-Meaning Illustrator”—(the Sub-commentary), a sub-commentary on the Commentary, written in Sri Lanka in the 12th century C.E. by a Ven. Sāriputta, the first Mahāsāmin, or head of the Sri Lankan Saṅgha, after that Saṅgha was reformed and unified under the patronage of King Parakrāmabāhu I. This work not only explains the Commentary but also deals with points in the Canon itself, sometimes indicating passages where the Commentary has deviated from the Canon. It also quotes as authoritative the judgments of three ancient texts—the Gaṇṭhipadas, which are no longer extant—and of Ven. Buddhadatta, a scholar of the 4th century C.E. who wrote two extant Vinaya guides.
4) The Vimati-vinodanī—“The Remover of Perplexity”—(the V/Sub-commentary), another 12th-century sub-commentary, written in southern India by a Ven. Kassapa, who also wrote the Mohavicchedanī, a synopsis of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka and Buddhaghosa’s commentaries on it.
5) The Kaṅkhā-vitaraṇī-purāṇa-ṭīkā and the Kaṅkhā-vitaraṇī-abhinava-ṭīkā—the old and new sub-commentaries to the K/Commentary—(Old K/Sub-commentary and New K/Sub-commentary). The first, which appears to be missing some passages, was written by an unnamed author during the Anurādhapura period, which predates the time of the Ven. Sāriputta mentioned above. The second—whose full name is the Vinayattha-mañjūsā Līnapakāsanī, “The Chest for the Meaning of the Discipline, the Clarifier of Subtle Meaning”—was written by Ven. Buddhanāga, a student of Ven. Sāriputta. Both works comment not only on the K/Commentary but also on the Commentary and the Canon.
6) The Attha-yojanā—“The Interpretation of the Meaning”—(the A/Sub-commentary), a sub-commentary that—unlike the works of Vens. Sāriputta, Kassapa, and Buddhanāga—does little more than analyze the language of the Commentary. This was written in the 15th century C.E. by a Chieng Mai grammarian named Ven. Ñāṇakitti.
From here on “the ancient commentaries” will denote the original commentaries that Buddhaghosa had to work with, and “the commentaries” all seven works listed above.
In addition to the Canon and the commentaries, I have referred to the texts listed in the Bibliography. Three of these deserve special mention here.
1) The Pubbasikkhā-vaṇṇanā, a large compendium of rules from the Canon and the Commentary, compiled in 1860 by Phra Amarabhirakkhit (Amaro Koed), a pupil of King Rāma IV. This was the first comprehensive Vinaya guide compiled for use in the Dhammayut sect, which was founded by Rāma IV while he was still a monk. Although this book was officially supplanted by the Vinaya-mukha (see below), many Communities in Thailand, especially among the Kammaṭṭhāna forest tradition, still prefer it as more authoritative. The book contains a minimum of explanatory material, but it does occasionally provide interpretations of the Canon that cannot be traced directly to the Commentary. Many of these interpretations were carried over into the Vinaya-mukha, so a bhikkhu practicing in Thailand would be well advised to know them. Thus I have made reference to them wherever relevant.
2) The Vinaya-mukha, a guide to the Vinaya written in Thai in the early 20th century by Prince Vajirañāṇavarorasa, a son of King Rāma IV who ordained as a bhikkhu and eventually held the position of Supreme Patriarch of the Thai Saṅgha for many years. This work he wrote as part of his attempt both to create a centralized, bhikkhu-administered ecclesiastical organization for the Thai Saṅgha and to unite its two major sects. The attempt at unification failed, but the attempt at centralization succeeded, and the book is still used as the official textbook on Vinaya for the examinations run by the Thai Council of Elders. Prince Vajirañāṇa in his interpretations often disagrees openly not only with the commentaries, but also with the Vibhaṅga itself. Some of his disagreements with the commentaries are well taken, some not.
I include the book here both for the valuable suggestions it makes for dealing with unclear points in the older texts and because it is taken as authoritative through much of Thailand. It has been translated into English, as The Entrance to the Vinaya, but the translation is so flawed that I have chosen to translate anew all the passages I quote from it.
3) The Book of Discipline, a translation of almost the entire Vinaya Piṭaka into English by Miss I. B. Horner. Although I have learned much from Miss Horner’s work, there are points where my translations and conclusions differ from hers. Because many readers will want to check the information in this book against hers, I have marked these points with a “(§).” Anyone curious as to which interpretation is correct should check the passages in question against the primary sources listed in the Bibliography at the back of this book.
Disagreements among the texts
There are two levels of difficulty in trying to collate all these various texts. The first is that the Canon and Commentary, in Pali, exist in four major printed editions: Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, and European (printed by the Pali Text Society (PTS)). Although these editions are largely in agreement, they occasionally differ in ways that can have an important practical impact. Thus, where the editions differ, I have had to choose the reading that seems most reasonable and consistent with the rest of the Canon. In some cases, this has meant adopting a reading followed in only one edition against a reading followed in all the others (see, for example, the discussions under Sg 3 & 4). Where different readings seem equally reasonable, I have given the alternative readings as well.
In using the principle of internal consistency here, I am following the Great Standards that—as the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (DN 16) reports—the Buddha formulated at Bhoganagara shortly before his passing away:
“There is the case where a bhikkhu says this: ‘Face-to-face with the Blessed One have I heard this, face-to-face have I received this: This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.’ His statement is neither to be approved nor scorned. Without approval or scorn, take careful note of his words and make them stand against the Suttas and tally them against the Vinaya. If, on making them stand against the Suttas and tallying them against the Vinaya, you find that they don’t stand with the Suttas or tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: ‘This is not the word of the Blessed One; this bhikkhu has misunderstood it’—and you should reject it. But if… they stand with the Suttas and tally with the Vinaya, you may conclude: ‘This is the word of the Blessed One; this bhikkhu has understood it rightly.’”
[The same criteria are to be used when the bhikkhu cites as his authority a Community with well-known leading elders; a monastery with many learned elders who know the tradition, who have memorized the Dhamma, the Vinaya, and the Mātikā (the precursor to the Abhidhamma as we know it); or a single elder who knows the tradition.]
In other words, the determining factor in deciding a correct understanding is not personal authority but consistency. Only if a statement stands up under comparison with what is known of the Canon should it be accepted as true Dhamma or Vinaya. This standard was enunciated when the texts were still orally transmitted, but applied to our situation at present it means that we cannot take the assumed reliability of a particular printed edition as definitive. If a certain reading seems more consistent than its alternatives with what is known of the rest of the Canon, then—regardless of the edition in which it is found—it should be preferred. If two variant readings seem equally consistent with the known Canon, they may both be treated with respect.
The second level of difficulty in dealing with differences among the texts is that there are points on which the Vibhaṅga is at variance with the wording of the Pāṭimokkha rules, and the commentaries are at variance with the Canon. This forces us to decide which strata of the texts to take as definitive. As far as discrepancies between the Vibhaṅga and the rules are concerned, the following passage in the Cullavagga (X.4) suggests that the Buddha himself gave preference to the way the bhikkhus worked out the rules in the Vibhaṅga:
“As she was standing to one side, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī said to the Blessed One: ‘Venerable sir, those rules of training for the bhikkhunīs that are in common with those for the bhikkhus: What line of conduct should we follow in regard to them?’
“‘Those rules of training for the bhikkhunīs, Gotamī, that are in common with those for the bhikkhus: As the bhikkhus train themselves, so should you train yourselves.’… (emphasis added).
“‘And those rules of training for bhikkhunīs that are not in common with those for bhikkhus, venerable sir: What line of conduct should we follow in regard to them?’
“‘Those rules of training for the bhikkhunīs, Gotamī, that are not in common with those for the bhikkhus: Train yourselves in them as they are formulated.’”
This passage implies that already in the time of the Buddha the bhikkhus had begun working out a way to interpret the rules that in some cases was not exactly in line with the way the Buddha had originally formulated them. Some people have read this passage as suggesting that the Buddha, though resigned to this development, was displeased with it. This, however, would contradict the many passages in the Canon where the Buddha speaks in high praise of Ven. Upāli, the foremost of his bhikkhu disciples in terms of his knowledge of Vinaya, who was responsible for teaching the rules to the other bhikkhus and who was largely responsible for the shape of the Vinaya as we now have it. It seems more likely that the Buddha in this passage is simply saying that, to avoid unnecessary controversy, the way the bhikkhus had worked out the implications of the rules was to be accepted as is.
Because this development eventually led to the Vibhaṅga, we can be fairly confident that in adhering to the Vibhaṅga we are acting as the Buddha would have us do. And when we check the few places where the Vibhaṅga deviates from the wording of the rules, we find that almost invariably it has tried to reconcile contradictions among the rules themselves, and between the rules and the Khandhakas, so as to make the Vinaya a more coherent whole. This is particularly true with rules that touch on Community transactions. Apparently, many of these rules were formulated before the general patterns for transactions were finalized in the Khandhakas. Thus, after the patterns were established, the compilers of the Vibhaṅga were sometimes forced to deviate from the wording of the original rules to bring them into line with the patterns.
As for contradictions between the Commentary and the Vibhaṅga, this is a more controversial area, with two extremes of thought. One is to reject the Commentary entirely, as it is not the Buddha’s word, for modern historical scholarship has shown decisively that it contains material dating many hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing away. The other extreme is to accept the Commentary as superseding the Vibhaṅga entirely, in line with the traditional belief that grew up around it: that it was composed at the First Council to express the true intent of those who composed the Vibhaṅga and yet somehow were unable to put what they really meant to say into the Canon itself. Although exponents of each extreme can cite traditional sources in their defense, neither extreme complies with the two sets of Great Standards—the one mentioned above, the other below—that the Buddha formulated for judging what is and is not allowable under the Vinaya, and what does and does not count as Dhamma-Vinaya in the first place.
In support of the first extreme, it is possible to cite the origin story to NP 15, which quotes the Buddha as saying, “What has not been formulated (as a rule) should not be formulated, and what has been formulated should not be rescinded, but one should dwell in conformity and in accordance with the rules that have been formulated.”
From this statement, it is possible to argue that the Commentary has no legislative authority at all. One of its most controversial aspects—and this applies to the Sub-commentary as well—is a tendency not only to explain passages in the Canon but also to extrapolate from them, assigning prohibitions and allowances in areas that the Canon did not cover. This would appear to be in violation of the above statement. However, we must remember that the rules formulated by the Buddha include not only prohibitions but also allowances. As the Dhamma-Vinaya has spread to many nations, encountering new cultures, and has endured over time, encountering new technologies, the question has often arisen: Is everything not allowed prohibited? Is everything not prohibited allowed? Either position carried to its extreme would create huge problems in the practice. To say that everything not allowed is prohibited would prevent bhikkhus from utilizing many harmless conveniences; to say that everything not prohibited is allowed would give countless defilements free rein.
The Buddha, however, had enough foresight to see that, over the course of many centuries, new situations would arise that had not existed in his lifetime, and there would be a need to extend the principles of the Vinaya to cover those situations as well. Thus, Mv.VI.40.1 reports that he established the following four guidelines for judgment—called the Great Standards (not to be confused with the Great Standards given in DN 16 and mentioned above)—for judging cases not mentioned in the rules:
“Bhikkhus, whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it conforms with what is not allowable, if it goes against [literally, “preempts”] what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
“Whatever I have not objected to, saying, ‘This is not allowable,’ if it conforms with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you.
“And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it conforms with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
“And whatever I have not permitted, saying, ‘This is allowable,’ if it conforms with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you.”—Mv.VI.40.1
Thus it is easy to see that the Commentary and Sub-commentary, in extrapolating from the rules in the Canon to assign new prohibitions and allowances, are simply exercising their right to apply these Great Standards. The question in weighing these commentaries, then, is not whether they have the right to extrapolate from the Canon to formulate prohibitions and allowances, but whether they have applied these Standards in a wise and appropriate way. We ourselves will have recourse to these Standards in the course of this book, both to evaluate the judgments of the commentaries and to determine how the principles of Vinaya apply to new situations today.
The second extreme, however, argues that we have no right to pass judgment on the authority of the Commentary at all. This position, however, runs counter to the principle of consistency espoused in the Great Standards mentioned in DN 16 (and discussed above) for judging what is and isn’t the word of the Buddha. Just as variant readings in the Canon should be judged for consistency with what is already known of the Canon, explanations of the Canon given by later teachers have to be judged for their consistency with the known Canon as well.
This point is borne out by three important passages in the texts. One is the narrative of the Second Council, during which the bhikkhus of Vesālī defended ten practices on the grounds that they had learned them from their teachers. The elders who judged the case, though, insisted on evaluating the practices in terms of whether they adhered to the Canon. The primary point of controversy—the question of whose authority was greater, the Canon’s or the teachers’—was point six:
“‘The practice of what is habitual, sir—is it allowable?’
“‘What is the practice of what is habitual, my friend?’
“‘To practice (thinking), this is the way my preceptor habitually practiced; this is the way my teacher habitually practiced—is this allowable?’
“‘The practice of what is habitual is sometimes allowable, sometimes not.’”—Cv.XII.2.8
What this means, as the elders showed in their conduct of the meeting, is that one’s teacher’s and preceptor’s practices are to be followed only when in accordance with the Canon.
The second passage is the discussion of the Great Standards in the Commentary to DN 16, which concludes that the commentaries are to be accepted only where they are in agreement with the Canon. Apparently the teachers who compiled the ancient commentaries took a more modest view of their authority than did the elders of the Mahāvihāra at the time of Buddhaghosa, and did not pretend to supersede the Canon as the final word on what is and is not true Dhamma and Vinaya.
The third passage, a discussion in the Commentary to Pr 1, further elaborates this point by listing four levels of Vinaya, in descending order of authority: the level found in the Canon, the level based on the four Great Standards given in Mv.VI.40.1, the level found in the Commentary, and the level based on one’s personal opinion. Any disagreement among these sources, this passage notes, should be settled by siding with the opinion of the higher authority. Thus the Commentary to the Vinaya puts itself only on the third level of authority, adding that not all of the Commentary qualifies even for that level. The opinions of Vinaya experts after the first generation of commentators, even though included in the Commentary, count only as personal opinion. At present there is no way of knowing for sure which opinions are first-generation and which are not, although the opinions of Sri Lankan Vinaya experts named in the Commentary would obviously fall in the latter category.
Some may object that to pass judgment on the Commentary is to lack respect for the tradition, but actually it is because of respect for the compilers of the Vibhaṅga that I make the following assumptions in checking the Commentary against the Vibhaṅga:
1) The compilers of the Vibhaṅga were intelligent enough to be consistent within the discussion of each rule. Any explanation based on the premise that they were not consistent should give way to an explanation showing that they were.
2) The compilers were well enough acquainted with the contingencies surrounding each rule that they knew which factors were and were not crucial in determining what is and is not an offense. Any explanation that adds or subtracts factors from those mentioned in the Vibhaṅga should give way to one that follows the Vibhaṅga’s analysis. Also, any attempt to use the Great Standards in taking the explanations for one rule and applying them to override the explanations given for another rule should be rejected, inasmuch as those Standards are meant solely for issues where nothing has already been explicitly forbidden or allowed.
3) The compilers, in reporting the precedents in the Vinita-vatthu—the cases the Buddha judged against an existing rule—were careful enough to include all the important factors bearing on the judgment. Any explanation that requires rewriting the precedents, adding extra details extraneous to the Vibhaṅga to account for the judgment, should give way to an explanation that can make sense out of the precedents as they are reported and in terms of the analyses presented elsewhere in the Vibhaṅga.
It’s not that I take any joy in arguing with the Commentary. In fact, wherever possible, I have been happy to give it the benefit of the doubt, and on many points I am very much in its debt. Still, now that Buddhism is coming to the West, I feel it is time to stop and take stock of the commentarial tradition and to check it against the earliest sources. This is especially important in a way of thought and life that, from the very beginning, has appealed to reason and investigation rather than to blindly accepted authority. In doing this, I am simply following a pattern that has repeated itself through the history of the Theravādin tradition: that of returning to the original principles whenever the religion reaches an historic turning point.
There is, of course, a danger in being too independent in interpreting the tradition, in that strongly held opinions can lead to disharmony in the Community. Thus in evaluating the Commentary against the Canon, I do not want to imply that my conclusions are the only ones possible. Important points may have slipped my attention or escaped my grasp. For this reason, even in instances where I think that the Commentary does not do justice to the Vibhaṅga, I have tried to give a faithful account of the important points from the Commentary so that those who wish to take it as their authority may still use this book as a guide. If there are any points on which I am mistaken, I would be pleased if knowledgeable people would correct me.
At the same time, I hope that this book will show that there are many areas on which the Vibhaṅga is unclear and lends itself to a variety of equally valid interpretations. For proof of this, we need only look at the various traditions that have developed in the different Theravādin countries, and even within each country. For some reason, people who may be very tolerant of different interpretations of the Dhamma can be very intolerant of different interpretations of the Vinaya, getting into heated arguments over minor issues having very little to do with the training of the mind.
I have tried to make the point throughout this book that any interpretation based on a sound reading of the Canon should be respected: that each bhikkhu should follow the interpretations of the Community in which he is living, as long as they do not conflict with the Canon, so as to avoid conflict over minor matters in daily life; and that he should also show respect for the differing interpretations of other Communities where they too do not conflict with the Canon, so as to avoid the pitfalls of pride and narrow-mindedness.
This is especially true now that monasteries of different nationalities are taking root in close proximity to one another in the West. In the past, Thais, Burmese, and Sri Lankans could look down on one another’s traditions without causing friction, as they lived in separate countries and spoke different languages. Now, however, we have become neighbors and have begun to speak common languages, so we must be especially careful not to waste what little time we have in the celibate life on minor disagreements.
My aim throughout this book has been practical. I have avoided dealing with academic issues concerning the authenticity and reliability of the tradition, and instead have tried simply to report and explain what the tradition has to say. Of course, I have had to be selective. Whatever the unconscious factors that have influenced my choice of material, the conscious considerations shaping this book are briefly as follows:
We are dealing primarily with rules, but rules are not the only way to express disciplinary norms, and the texts we are surveying express their norms in a variety of forms: as rules, principles, models, and virtues. The different forms are best suited for different purposes. Principles, models, and virtues are meant as personal, subjective standards and tend to be loosely defined. Their interpretation and application are left to the judgment of the individual. Rules are meant to serve as more objective standards. To work, they must be precisely defined in a way acceptable to the Community at large. The compilers of the Canon, recognizing this need, provided definitions for most of the terms in the rules, and the authors of the commentaries continued this task, carrying it out with even greater thoroughness. Thus much of this book, in reporting these texts, is concerned with the definition of terms.
This need for precision, though, accounts for the weakness of rules in general as universal guides to behavior. First, there is the question of where to draw the line between what is and is not an infraction of the rule. A clear break-off point is needed because rules—unlike principles—deal in two colors: black and white. In some cases, it is difficult to find a clear break-off point that corresponds exactly to one’s sense of what is right and wrong, and so it is necessary to include the areas of gray either with the white or the black. In general, but not always, the Vibhaṅga’s position is to include the gray with the white, and to rely on the principles of the Dhamma to encourage the individual bhikkhu to stay away from the gray.
Take, for instance, the rule against masturbation. The Vibhaṅga limits this rule to forbidding only those forms of masturbation that aim at ejaculation, for if it had drawn the line anywhere else, it would have become an offense for a bhikkhu simply to scratch himself. Thus self-stimulation that does not aim at ejaculation is not an offense, although in many cases it is clearly against the spirit of the Dhamma. The Vinaya-mukha notes, disapprovingly, a number of older Vinaya guides that like to dwell on these areas of gray and seem to delight in figuring out ways to avoid an offense by working around the letter of the rules. In this book I am taking a different tack: Under those rules that include large areas of gray with the white, I have noted a few relevant principles from the Dhamma to spell out a wise policy with regard to the gray areas—not to reformulate the rule, but simply as a reminder that, as noted above, the Vinaya without the Dhamma does not suffice as a guide to the goal.
Second, there is the drawback that a large body of rules demands two tactics of interpretation that can, on occasion, prove mutually exclusive. On the one hand there is the need for logical consistency in applying basic principles across all the rules so as to lend authority to the system as a whole, at the same time making it easy to understand and memorize. On the other hand there is the need to give reasonable weight to the particular constellation of factors surrounding each individual rule. The first approach runs the risk of sacrificing common sense and the human context of the rules; the second, the risk of appearing inconsistent and arbitrary. Although the compilers of the Vibhaṅga are consistent within the discussion of each rule, they take each rule on a case-by-case basis and do not always come to the same conclusions when analyzing rules that, on the surface, might seem to merit parallel treatment. In other words, when the demands of reasonableness conflict with the demands of logical consistency in a narrow sense, their consistency lies in consistently choosing the reasonable approach. Under the major rules, they provide enough examples in the Vinita-vatthu to bolster the case for their interpretive strategy. Under the minor rules, they leave it to the reader to ponder their strategy for himself. This approach places heavy demands on each bhikkhu, in that a reasonable system is harder to memorize than a narrowly logical one, but in the long run it aids in the maturity and sensitivity of the bhikkhu who is willing to learn from the Vibhaṅga, and in the livability of the Vinaya as a whole.
A third drawback resulting from the need for precision in rules is that the more precisely a rule is defined to suit a particular time and place, the less well it may fit other times and places. The compilers of the Canon, in order to make up for this weakness, thus provided the origin stories and precedents to show the type of situation the rule was intended to prevent, providing principles and models that indicate the spirit of the rule and aid in applying it to differing contexts. In writing this book I have often made reference to these stories, to give this added dimension.
However, I have also found it important not to make the origin stories the principle guide in interpreting the rules, for in many cases the range of circumstances they cover is narrow, whereas the range of the rules they introduce is much broader. The first rule, for instance, was formulated when a bhikkhu had sex with a former wife, and was amended when another bhikkhu had sex with a monkey, but the rule is not limited to cases where monkeys and former wives are a bhikkhu’s partner in sex. In some instances—such as the origin story dealing with the establishment of the Invitation ceremony—the incidents leading up to the formulation of a rule were only tangentially connected to the rule; in others—such as the origin story for the establishment of the kaṭhina ceremony—the story reports no wrong-doing on anyone’s part. These indicate that in some cases the Buddha had specific rules in mind and was simply waiting for the slightest pretext to formulate them. Thus the origin stories can at most help fill in the blanks in the explanatory material. They can never be trusted as guides for overriding the explicit information that that material provides.
Admittedly, the stories do not always make for inspiring reading. For example, instead of reading about bhikkhus accepting a meal at a donor’s house and then uplifting the donor with a talk on Dhamma, we read about Ven. Udāyin accepting a meal at the dwelling of a bhikkhunī who was his former wife, and the two of them sitting there exposing their genitals to each other. Still, the stories do remind us that the more inspiring stories we read in the discourses took place in a very real human world, and they also reveal the insight and understated wit of those who framed and interpreted the rules. The element of wit here is especially important, for without it there is no true understanding of human nature, and no intelligent system of discipline.
Finally, in compiling this book, I have tried to include whatever seems most worth knowing for the bhikkhu who aims at fostering the qualities of discipline in his life—so as to help train his mind and live in peace with his fellow bhikkhus—and for anyone who wants to support and encourage the bhikkhus in that aim.