Overview of the Vinaya

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The Pali word vinaya literally means ‘control’[1] or ‘discipline.’ It is the first of three major divisions of the Pali Canon, the oldest extant collection of Buddhist scriptures. The Vinaya is followed by the Discourses (suttas) and the Higher Doctrine (abhidhamma). In English translation the Old School (Theravada) version consists of six volumes. These consist of the Rule Analysis (Suttavibhanga) (3 vols.), The Great Chapter (Mahavagga) (1 vol.), The Minor Chapter (Cullavagga) (1 vol.), and an Appendix (Parivara) (1 vol.). The Great and Minor Chapters together are called the Division (Khandakka). The Parivara is generally conceded to be later, maybe as late as the first century BCE. This is when the Pali Canon itself was first committed to writing.

Considered as a mode of spiritual development, the Vinaya advocates the practice of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a form of mindfulness (sati) characterized by extreme awareness and self-control. By this means the generation of negative karma is inhibited and the will disciplined and strengthened. This corresponds to physical and mental restraint (yama and niyama) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (2nd-4th cent. CE?), itself influenced by Buddhism. However, the Vinaya represents itself as secondary to spiritual practice proper, rather its precondition, not salvific in and of itself. Throughout the Pali Canon and later sutras as well it is quite clear that Wisdom, not morality or meditation, is the essential salvific factor.

The Vinaya consists of the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic order (sangha), consisting of male and female monastics.

The Great Ocean

The Buddha compares the doctrine (dhamma) and the discipline to a great ocean with eight strange and wonderful qualities. It is delightful to the anti-gods (asuras) that live therein. This and other positive references to the asuras in the Pali Canon are curious in that the anti-gods are traditionally seen as evil, but they were not always looked at this way. Is the Buddha recalling a past time when the anti-gods were superior devas rather than outcastes? In any case, the eight qualities are as follows:

  1. The great ocean deepens, slopes, and shelves gradually, without abruptness like a precipice.
  2. The great ocean is stable, not overflowing its margins.
  3. The great ocean throws up a dead body.
  4. The great rivers on reaching the great ocean lose their former names and identities.
  5. Streams and showers go into the great ocean, but the emptiness or fullness of the great ocean is not affected.
  6. The great ocean has one uniformly salty taste.
  7. The great ocean has many treasures, such as pearl, crystal, lapis lazuli, shell, quartz, coral, silver, gold, ruby, and cat’s eye.
  8. The great ocean is the abode of great beings of enormous size, including fish, anti-gods, and serpents.

In the same way, with respect to the doctrine and the discipline:

  1. training is progressive, with no abruptness such as penetration of profound knowledge.
  2. disciples will not transgress the rules of training, even if their lives depend on it.
  3. the order does not live in communion with immoral people.
  4. members of the castes, having gone from home into homelessness, lose their former names and families and are reckoned simply as recluses, sons of the Shakyan.
  5. even if many monastics attain emancipation (nibbana) in the nirvana condition in which no more groups are remaining, not by that is either the emptiness or the fullness of the nirvana condition affected.[2]
  6. the doctrine and the discipline have one taste, the taste of emancipation.
  7. the doctrine and the discipline have many treasures, including the four arousings of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of psychic power, the five faculties, the seven links in awakening, and the Noble Eightfold Way.
  8. the doctrine and the discipline are the abode of great beings, including stream attainers, once returners, non-returners, and the arhants, and those on the way to attaining these states.

There are three Vinaya traditions currently followed by Theravadin, Tibetan, and East Asian Buddhists. At least four additional Vinaya traditions are now extinct. Six complete versions survive. All Buddhist countries follow the Vinaya, except Japan, which follows the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) precepts, such as the 58 Great Vehicle precepts of the Brahma Net Sutra (see appendix), aka the Bodhisattva precepts, including self-ordination. In fact, the Bodhisattva precepts and the rules of the Vinaya are very similar. Scholars generally believe that the content of most Vinayas, which are also very similar to each other, are presectarian in content but not in form. In other words, these are individual adaptations of a common underlying tradition. All known Vinaya texts use the same system of organization and contain the same sections, suggesting that the structure if not the content of the Vinaya is presectarian. In this talk, we’ll be discussing the Old School’s Vinaya, mainly because that is the only Vinaya tradition that has been translated into English as far as I know. The existing manuscript traditions date from the 5th century CE, about about 800-900 years after the passing on of the Buddha. The oldest Vinaya seems to be that of the Great Order (Mahasamghika), which has fewer rules and is structurally simpler. Interestingly, the Great Order is also the school that led to the Great Vehicle, which establishes the Great Vehicle, and not the Old School, which traces its origin to the Elders (Sthavira), as the mainstream tradition.

The late date of the Vinaya is indicated by the fact that it assumes the existence of a settled monastic establishment, whereas most of the early monastics were wanderers. Originally there was no Vinaya, and the monastics lived together in harmony, under the enlightened guidance of the Buddha. However, as time passed the order grew and different situations arose that necessitated the Buddha to establish various rules, each rule being declared in response to a specific situation. Thus, the Vinaya is situational. These rules were supposed to have been recited by Upali at the First Buddhist Council, about 400 BCE, and must have included the Patimokkha (lit. ‘towards emancipation’). This is the shortest and is universally accepted as the earliest stratum of the Vinaya. This collection of rules was recited at the order’s new and full moon meetings (called uposathas), originally the eve of the soma sacrifice. Although it is common in many Buddhist traditions today to regard those who follow more rules as being spiritually superior to those who follow fewer, in fact Mahakassapa, who convened the First Buddhist Council after the passing on of the Buddha, declared that more rules are indicative of inferior attainment, recalling the tradition that originally there were no rules, which is also a  matter of logic.

The Patimokkha

The Patimokkha is part of the ‘Classification of Rules’ (suttavibhanga). The Patimokkha is the basic code of monastic discipline, consisting in the Old School version of 227 rules for monks and 311 rules for nuns. The 84 extra rules for nuns were intended to avoid the inevitable decline of the order from 1000 to 500 years due to the ordination of women. These rules restored the integrity of the order for a thousand years, which suggests that the order has been in decline since about 600 CE. That the Buddha instituted this regime is doubted by scholars, but it is clear that the compilers of the Pali Canon, especially the later collections (nikayas), were intensely and explicitly misogynistic. 600 CE corresponds to the rise of the bodhisattva path. The Pali Canon also states that the attainment of arhantship would become impossible 2000 years after the Buddha’s passing on, which equates to 1600 CE, about the same time as the institution of the office of the Dalai Lama. Today we are coming up to the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passing on, which is the midpoint of the Buddha’s 5000 year dispensation (sasana), and thus another crucial transitional moment in the historical development and renewal of Buddhism, corresponding to the Dharma Transmission to the West, aka the Unified Vehicle (Ekayana).[3]

The rules of the Patimokkha are organized according to the penalty for each rule, from greatest to least severity, including Defeat, Formal Meeting, Confession with Forfeiture, Confession, and Verbal Acknowledgement, followed by the Rules of Training. The most serious of these is, of course, expulsion from the order for life (Defeat). These are similar to the Four Restraints, which appear to be the original set of rules, i.e., abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, and sex, to which drinking alcohol was added about eight years after the Enlightenment. In the Patimokkha these are sex, stealing, murder, and, interestingly, lying about one’s spiritual realization. The latter must have been a point of contention in the early order, which clearly had a concept of progressive attainment. Rules regarding sex also appear frequently throughout the Patimokkha. We also know from the Vinaya that the requirement of chastity was a significant problem for the early male monastics, like other religious orders with similar demands. In fact, there are 24 pages of “hitherto untranslated passages” in Vol.  1 of Horner’s English translation of the Vinaya that are so obscene that they were left untranslated for several decades, now happily translated and freely available to all.

I do not propose to list all of the rules that Buddhist monastics adopted in order to maintain the decorum, modesty and restraint (vinaya) of the original order, but I will list a few of the more interesting ones, including agitating for a schism; rejecting criticism; rejecting money and trade;  avoiding wrongful speech, including lying; not to dig or destroy plants; not to pour water containing insects on the ground or use water containing living beings; to eat only in the morning (drinking non-alcoholic liquids seems to be ok); avoiding the military; not drinking alcohol; not killing; not to ordain anyone under 20 years old (19 in Western terms since Buddhists count age from conception); and not to affirm that sex is not an obstacle to realization. The specificity of the last rule is rather interesting, strongly suggesting that there must have been such a teaching among at least some Buddhists. There were also other teachings like this, including the belief that monks engaged in romantic trysts with “celestial maidens.” The orthodox rejected these assertions, of course.

The order was decentralized and self-governing. Each community of monastics would meet at the new and full moons to recite the rules, and purify the order of any infractions. Violations of the rules were settled by means of confession or confrontation, including excommunication in extreme cases. Each monastic lived with a preceptor, whose role was to train the monk, who in turn held their preceptor to the highest spiritual standard. It must have been a tightly knit, rather communistic system of mutual vigilance and control. Judging from the Pali  Canon itself, disputes and appeals to the Buddha were common, monks would implicate each other in perceived lapses of discipline, sex was a problem, and women were generally feared and disliked by the monks.  But the Buddha made ordination easy. Any monk could initiate others into the order, thus the system tended to proliferate and become decentralized with increasingly speculative opinions and different interpretations that led to growing diversity and a compensatory demand for increasing conformity and even, as the order continued to consolidate itself as an organization after the passing on of the Buddha, rigidity, until the system finally broke down after the Second Buddhist Council and split and eventually divided into the early Buddhist schools, the traditional number of which is 18 or 20.

In the ‘Great Passing On Discourse’ (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) Ananda asks the Buddha to make a statement to the order on who should lead the order after his passing on, but the Buddha reprimands Ananda, and directs him to apply himself directly to the doctrine, “each one for himself.”[4] The Buddha also declares that new rules may not be added to the Vinaya,[5] which is rather odd considering their situational character, and that the minor rules might be abrogated.[6] Nevertheless, after the Buddha’s passing on Mahakassapa convened the First Buddhist Council of ‘the deserving’ (arahants) to rehearse the true discipline and doctrine of the Buddha. In the now large and decentralized Buddhist order only a small fraction must have been able to actually meet in the Saptaparni Cave, near present day Rajgir, where the arhants, traditionally but improbably reputed to number as many as five hundred, are supposed to have reprimanded Ananda, who had only just attained awakening the previous night, for encouraging the Buddha to allow the ordination of women! He was also reprimanded for not asking the Buddha the specific rules that might be abrogated. In response to these accusations, the council imposed eight extra rules, called the Heavy Rules (garudhamma), on the nuns, and decided to keep all of the rules of the Vinaya. In fact, the discourses suggest that these rules only numbered about 150. These issues continued to fester in the Buddhist order, however, even to the extent that the authority of the arhants was questioned. After the Second Buddhist Council, about 300 BCE, the order divided into two main streams, the conservative (sthavira, lit. ‘elder’) minority, who wanted to add new rules to the Vinaya in order to effect a more rigorous discipline, and the Great Order majority, who rejected the addition of new rules as schismatic in principle. The Great Order became the more speculative and metaphysical school, and rejected the absolute authority of  the arhants in favour of individual aspiration to Buddhahood, the path of the bodhisattva, the ‘wisdom being,’ which became the basis of the Great Vehicle. According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha taught the path of the arhant due to the short lifespan and personal limitations of his hearers, and almost didn’t teach them at all.  

In addition to the rules of the order, the Vinaya includes historical accounts of the beginning of the Buddha’s teaching career and the creation of the monastic order, including the rules of ordination and the order of nuns; the famous story of the wayward monk, Devadatta, who tried to enforce mandatory vegetarianism and other reforms on the order; and the First and Second Buddhist Councils, held about 400 and 300 BCE respectively. Many scholars think that the original Vinaya was compiled during the Second Buddhist Council. 

The Enlightenment

The Vinaya includes an extremely interesting and detailed history of the period following the Awakening of the Buddha, constituting the opening of the Great Chapter, in Vol. IV of Horner’s translation (see pp. 1-57). The Buddha, having been fully awakened, was staying at Uruvela, on the bank of the river Neranjara, at the foot of the Bo-tree, known as the Tree of Awakening. This is present-day Bodhgaya, located in the Indian state of Bihar. The Buddha sat in the traditional yogic cross-legged posture, immobile for seven full days, clearly in a state of yogic ecstasy. Apparently at the end of this period of seven days, during the night, the Buddha discovered what is known as the doctrine of interdependent origination (paticcasamupada), during the first watch of the night, approximately 5pm to 9:30pm. Thus he understood the “causal uprising” of old age, dying, grief, sorrow, lamentation,  suffering, dejection, and despair (duhkha) from birth, becoming, grasping, craving, feeling, awareness or contact, the six sense spheres, psycho-physicality or name and shape, consciousness, habitual tendencies, and finally ignorance, the primary state of “no information” that is the root cause of involuntary rebirth (samsara), described as “thing with cause.” Thus he realized the implication that by stopping or interrupting this sequence[7] one can escape the bondage of rebirth in the second watch, between approximately 9:30pm and 2am, described as “destruction of cause.” Finally, during the third watch of the night, from approximately 2am to 6:30pm, he experienced enlightenment, described as “the sun lighting up the sky.”[7.1]

I assume that everybody is familiar with this fundamental Buddhist doctrine. However, there are several points in this description that I would like to highlight. First, we see the Buddha sitting in the traditional cross-legged posture which goes back to ancient Indus Valley civilization (3300-1300 BCE), thus identifying the fundamental Buddhist practice with yoga and even with Shiva (Pashupati). This is confirmed by his enjoyment of ecstasy in an immobile state of trance for seven days. Prolonged states of trance are associated with the practice of yoga even today. Second, we see the Buddha discovering the doctrine of interdependent origination in this state of trance, not during but after the initial Awakening, during the three watches of the night. The version of this doctrine that we find in the Vinaya is the fully worked out, twelvefold version, which we find elsewhere in the Pali Canon involving different numbers of stages, but all broadly  similar. This culminates in the experience of Enlightenment, which occurs at the end of the week, after the Awakening. Thus, a clear distinction seems to be made between Awakening and Enlightenment.  This is called the Talk on Awakening.

After the Buddha emerges from the contemplation of interdependent origination and his Enlightenment, he approaches from the Tree of Awakening to the Goatherds’ Banyan tree, presumably nearby, where he sits for a further seven days. During this period, a brahman (lit. holy’) putting on a show of chanting the sacred Sanskrit “seed” syllable, हूँ , described by the translator as “superstitious,” “arrogant,” and “angry,” asks the Buddha how one becomes a brahman, in this context clearly referring to a holy man. The Buddha, recognizing the brahman’s poor character, tells him that he must give up evil, including putting on a show of holiness; impurity; and egotism; master the Veda (lit. ‘knowledge’); and live a holy life, free of imperfections, including, according to the translator, passion, hatred, stupidity, pride, and false views. When the Buddha refers to the Veda here, he is clearly referring to gnosis, not the Brahmanic religion, which he clearly rejects. This is called the Talk at the Goatherds.

At the end of 14 days, the Buddha approaches the Mucalinda tree, and sits cross-legged for another seven days, where he experiences supreme happiness, absolute truth (dhamma), universal goodwill (metta), complete emotional detachment, and utter selflessness.

At the end of 21 days, the Buddha approaches the Rajayatana tree, where he sits cross-legged for another seven days, during which time, two merchants, called Tapussa and Bhallika, offer him barley-gruel and honey balls as a dharma offering (so he is clearly not entranced full-time). The merchants are so impressed by the Buddha that they become his lay disciples there and then, taking refuge in the Buddha and the Doctrine. This is called the Two Word Formula of ordination. This is the Talk at the Rajayatana.

After 28 days in total, which is the period of one lunation, the Buddha returns to the Goatherds’ Banyan tree. There he meditates in seclusion, reflecting that the doctrine, especially “causal uprising by way of cause,” which leads to emancipation, is profound, hard to know, and beyond rational comprehension. He considers not teaching in an ignorant world consumed by craving, thus becoming a hermit buddha (pratyekabuddha).  However, the Buddha realizes that the doctrine is intelligible to the learned, who have “little dust in their eyes,” acute, good, fearing evil karma and involuntary rebirth. They would benefit from hearing the truth, transcending death (amata), and the Buddha experienced a change of heart. Like the lotus, which is undefiled by the water in which it grows, the Buddha resolves to teach the way of immortality to others, renouncing impurity, for the sake of the few who can comprehend and accept his doctrine. This is called the Talk on the Holy (brahma) Appeal.

The Buddha considers teaching this new doctrine to his first two teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rama, but discovers that they had recently died. He resolves to travel to the Group of Five, i.e., Anna-Kondanna, Bhaddiya, Vappa,  Mahanama, and Assaji, who accompanied the Buddha during his period of self-mortification, who were at that time living in the deer park at Isipatana, near Benares, a distance of about 200 km or 40 hours by foot (perhaps one or two weeks’ travel?). On the road the Buddha comes upon a naked ascetic (ajivika) called Upaka, who was struck by the Buddha’s radiant appearance, and asked him the name and doctrine of his teacher. The Buddha declares himself to be a world-victor, all-knowing, perfect, detached, self-realized, unique, supreme, awakened to emancipation, and free from mortality and time.  But Upaka is not convinced. Shaking his head, he goes another way. Thus, the Buddha’s first attempt at conversion failed.

Arriving at the Group of Five, the ascetics are also unconvinced by the Buddha’s self-declaration, and ask how he can be awakened since he has given up the practice of extreme self-mortification, by which alone realization can be gained, but his charisma was such that they listened to his words. The Buddha declares to them that in order to attain realization they must give up the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification, declaring both to be dead ends. Rather, they should pursue a middle way, based on the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the stopping of suffering, and the Noble Path, which is eightfold, consisting of right view or insight, right thought or “thorough furthering,“ right speech, right action, right living, right endeavour, right mindfulness, and right concentration or equanimity, which resolve themselves into morality, meditation, and wisdom. By perfectly realizing this eightfold gnosis, enlightenment arises, with the cessation of involuntary rebirth. As a result of hearing the Buddha’s speech alone, Kondanna realizes dharma vision, the essential insight that “whatever is of the nature to uprise, all that is of the nature to stop.” Kondanna begs the Buddha for ordination into the as yet non-existing order. The Buddha ordains Kondanna, using the words, “Come, monk, well taught is the doctrine. Fare the Brahma-faring for making an utter end of ill.” As the Buddha continues teaching, first Vappa, then Bhaddiya, then Mahanama, and finally Assaji, also realize dharma vision and are ordained.  Thus, the Buddhist order, originally consisting of five monastics, came into existence. This occurred about the year 355 BCE.

The Buddha continues to teach the monastics about non-self-identity (anatta), impermanence (avijja), suffering and detachment, by the realization of which one attains emancipation, and purely through this gnosis the Group of Five attain perfect emancipation.

Subsequent sections summarize the early history of the Buddhist order, including the going forth of Yasa, the talk on Mara, ordination by the three goings for refuge, the case of the group of friends of high standing, the five wonders, the famous disquisition on burning, in which the Buddha declares the world to be burning with desire (tanha), and the going forth of Sariputta and Moggallana. The Vinaya then returns to a discussion of the rules for uposatha days and monastic ordination.

The Talk on Burning

The talk on burning is a famous early talk of the Buddha that he gave at a place called Gaya Head, shortly after leaving Uruvela. In this talk, the Buddha declares that everything is burning. The eye is burning, material shapes are burning, eye consciousness is burning, impingement on the eye consciousness is burning, feeling is burning, and so on for the ear, nose, tongue, tastes, body, and mind. The six senses are burning. They are burning with the fire of passion, hatred, and stupidity. Why are they burning? They are burning because of birth, aging, dying, grief, sorrow, suffering, lamentation, and despair. Seeing this, the disciple of the noble ones disregards the eye, material shapes, consciousness, feelings, and so on for the other senses. Disregarding,  he is dispassionate; through dispassion he is freed; in the state of emancipation  the knowledge comes to be, “I am freed,” and he comprehends, “Destroyed is birth, lived is the holy (brahma) life, done is what was to be done, there is no more of being such and such.”

Interestingly, the Buddha also uses “burning” as a metaphor for the essential luminous nature that “shines” and “blazes,” stating that recluses and brahmans who violate the Four Restraints are “tarnished, dust-soiled, utter fools, shrouded in darkness” (Cullavagga XII, 295). Thus, the dust that obscures the eyes of the ignorant also obscures their inherent radiance.

The First Buddhist Council

Mahakassapa’s lay name was Pippali. He was part of the Buddha’s inner circle, with a reputation for asceticism. Mahakassapa was a brahman farmer who though married he and his wife had decided to embrace chastity. Being enlightened doesn’t seem to result in unanimity of thought, and Mahakassapa and Ananda had a disputatious relationship. This came to a head when Mahakassapa was travelling along the road from Pava to Kusinara with his monastic entourage. While sitting beneath a tree a naked ascetic passed by from the direction of Kusinara. Mahakassapa asked about the Buddha and the ascetic told him that the recluse Gotama had died in Kusinara. This precipitated a crisis in the community over the issue of rules. Some people thought that the rules should be liberalized, as the Buddha had said before he passed on. Mahakassapa saw this as a threat to the integrity of the order, and convened a council of the highest  ranking members of the order in Rajagaha, during the rainy season following the passing on of the Buddha,[8] including Ananda. Ananda was the last personal attendant of the Buddha. Ananda was still being only a learner. Interestingly, Mahakassapa didn’t want other monastics to attend the council, according to the translator because had they done so Mahakassapa would have had to include them in the proceedings according to Buddhist law, so it appears that the First Buddhist Council was held in secret. That such a decision was made clearly shows that the Buddhist order was more diverse at the time of the Buddha’s passing on than the Pali Canon indicates. Mahakassapa and his entourage selected themselves to recite the doctrine and the discipline at the first council after the Buddha’s passing on, and Mahakassapa controlled the agenda by being the only one who asked all the questions, and their descendants enforced this orthodoxy, apparently, based on the text, against those who held more liberal views.  Ananda seems to have been the odd man out. The night before the council was scheduled, in the middle of the month, Ananda after meditating on his body much of the night. Shortly before sunrise he began to lie down on his bed and as he did so, while not touching the earth, he spontaneously attained the perfection of arhantship, between lifting his feet off the ground and laying his head on the pillow, as the text states.

When the order was convened in the middle of the month, Mahakassapa appointed Upali, an early disciple of the Buddha, to recite the rules of the order, presumably based on the Patimokka. Mahakassapa then called on Ananda to recite the discourses, beginning with the discourses of the Digha Nikaya. However, when Ananda said that the Buddha had declared at the time of his passing on – and thus a profoundly serious statement, practically equivalent to his last words – that the “lesser and minor rules of training may be abolished” after his passing on, Ananda was unable to tell the council which specific rules the Buddha was referring to. As a result, there was dissension in the council. Mahakassapa opposed any changes to the rules on the grounds of public opinion, something that the Buddha also paid attention to, since the Buddhist order survived on gifts of food and property. Thus the council declined to change any rules. Interestingly, this dissension over the rules never dissipated, and about a hundred years later the Buddhist order split.

In addition, the council severely criticized Ananda, accusing him of  wrong doing for not asking the Buddha which rules of training were lesser and minor. Ananda declined to admit that this was a legitimate offence, but in deference to the council confessed. Ananda was then accused in turn of stepping on the Buddha’s robe; allowing women to honour the body of the Buddha after his passing on, as a result of which his body was defiled by their tears; not entreating the Buddha to live longer for the sake of the world, despite a broad hint by the Buddha that he might do this; and convincing the Buddha to allow the ordination of women.

The Second Buddhist Council

A century later the Vesali monastics promulgated ten points of Vinaya that allowed a number of questionable activities, consisting of

  1. Storing salt in a horn.
  2. Eating after midday.
  3. Eating once and then going again to a village for alms.
  4. Holding the Uposatha Ceremony with monks dwelling in the same area.
  5. Carrying out official acts when the assembly was incomplete.
  6. Following a certain practice because it was done by one’s tutor or teacher.
  7. Eating sour milk after one had his midday meal.
  8. Consuming strong drink before it had been fermented.
  9. Using a rug which was not the proper size.
  10. Using gold and silver.

This led to a dispute between the Vesali monastics and the followers of one Yasa, apparently a follower of the tradition established by Mahakassapa. Each recited different discourses to defend their various views, which were finally resolved at the Valika monastery or the Gabled Hall in Vesali, at least according to the Pali tradition!

In the course of the aforementioned legalities a monastic named Revata is said to visit the oldest monastic on earth, ordained (improbably) 120 years before,[9] called Sabbakamin, and to ask him about the Ten Points. Revata is an arhant who “abides” in goodwill, referring of course to the Buddhist practice also often called “loving-kindness.” There is some suggestion that goodwill is the method or skilled means (upaya) by which he has attained perfection, which is a point of contention today. Richard Gombrich has argued that the practice of goodwill can lead to perfection, but this point is hotly disputed. Revata in turn asks Sabbakamin in what he abides. Sabbakamin’s answer is extremely interesting. He says: “Because of abiding in the concept of emptiness do I, beloved, now abide in the fullness thereof.” The translator gives as equivalent, “abiding in the sustained fruition of emptiness,” based on the commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya. Sabbakamin further identifies ‘emptiness’ (sunnata) with “the abiding of great men,” mahapurisas, referring (according to the translator) to buddhas; hermit buddhas; Thus Come Ones (tathagatas), who abide in ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’ (tathata); and arhants. In other words, emptiness is the highest “abiding,” which appears in the Pali Canon as a synonym for meditation, e.g., the “Tathagata’s abiding,” an exercise which refers to mindfulness of the breath. The ultimacy of the meditation on emptiness is of course the fundamental premise of the Great Vehicle, especially the Utmost Yoga (Atiyoga) of Padmasambhava, known to the Tibetans as the Great Perfection (Dzogchen).


There are quite a few points of interest in the Vinaya that I will summarize.

  1. The oldest Vinaya is that of the Great Order, but is not one of the three Vinayas that are still followed by Buddhist monastics today.
  2. Scholars believe that all six extant vinayas share a common underlying presectarian tradition.
  3. The Vinaya is later than the discourses, even though it is placed first in the Pali Canon. However, it includes historical material related to the discourses.
  4. The Buddhist order split after the Second Buddhist Council (circa 300 BCE) into two factions, a conservative faction that led to the current school of the Elders,  and a more liberal school that led to the Great Vehicle. Current opinion leans to the view that the conservatives were the schismatic faction.
  5. Originally there was no Vinaya. The rules of the Vinaya were contingent on specific situations as they arose.
  6. The Buddha said that the lesser and minor rules of the Vinaya could be abrogated after his passing on. In any case he indicated that the Vinaya tradition would only flourish for a thousand years, and after two thousand years that arhantship would no longer be attainable, due to the degeneration of the order. This is the view of the Pali Canon taken as a whole.
  7. Considered as a spiritual practice, Vinaya is comparable to physical and mental restraint, which is the foundation of Yoga.
  8. The Buddha compares the order to the world ocean, and says that it is characterized by gradual training, full of treasures, and inhabited by great beings. Interestingly, these great beings include anti-gods and serpents (nagas), despite the anti-gods’ late Vedic association with evil. Serpents are traditional guardians of treasure, and are traditional enemies of the anti-gods. Interestingly, various disciples and other figures in Buddhist history have been identified as serpents.
  9. The Mahayana Precepts, aka Bodhisattva Precepts, are substantially similar to the Vinaya.
  10. The new and full moon meetings derive from the eve of the Vedic soma sacrifice, during which an entheogenic or psychedelic plant was imbibed by the ancient rishis. The 28-day period that the Buddha remained in the vicinity of the Tree of Awakening also reflects this lunar symbolism.
  11. The cross-legged posture of the Buddha derives from the ancient Indian  practice of Yoga, which goes back to the figure of Pashupati, an early analogue of Shiva, during the Indus Valley civilization.
  12. After experimenting with extreme self-mortification, the Buddha definitely abandons asceticism and declares a middle way between the extremes of self-torture and self-indulgence, even acquiring a reputation for laxity.
  13. The Buddha appears to have had two primary spiritual experiences, consisting of Awakening and Enlightenment, separated by a week spent in an ecstatic state.
  14. The Buddha’s experience of enlightenment produced a radiant appearance, mentioned elsewhere in the discourses and elsewhere positively associated with death, that could be perceived by others, as well as a charismatic quality that also influenced others consciously or unconsciously. Ananda also experienced this state the night before the First Buddhist Council.
  15. In the accounts of the Buddha’s early talks we see his emphasis on the law of cause and effect, ignorance and desire as the causes of suffering and involuntary rebirth, gnosis and detachment as their cure, and the realization of impermanence as the means by which emancipation can be experienced in a blissful, non-temporal, perfect state of cessation.
  16. Gnosis is the essential means by which awakening (“dharma vision”) is attained, and constitutes an essential and irreversible change of state.
  17. Shortly before passing on the Buddha urged the order to take the doctrine as their leader, “each for himself,” and declined to appoint a successor. He also said that “the lesser and minor rules” of the Vinaya could be abrogated.


Note: In East Asian Mahayana the minor precepts are not regarded as binding.

Major Precepts

  1. On Killing
  2. On Stealing
  3. On Sexual Misconduct
  4. On Lying and False Speech
  5. On Selling Alcoholic Beverages
  6. On Broadcasting the Faults of the Assembly
  7. On Praising Oneself and Disparaging Others
  8. On Stinginess and Abuse
  9. On Anger and Resentment
  10. On Slandering the Triple Jewel

Minor Precepts

1. Disrespect toward Teachers and Friends
2. On Consuming Alcoholic Beverages
3. On Eating Meat
4. On Five Pungent Herbs
5. On Not Teaching Repentance
6. Failing to Request the Dharma or Make Offerings
7. Failing to Attend Dharma Lectures
8. On Turning Away from the Mahayana
9. On Failure to Care for the Sick
10. On Storing Deadly Weapons
11. On Serving as an Emissary
12. On Unlawful Business Undertakings
13. On Slander and Libel
14. On Starting Wildfires
15. Teaching Non-Mahayana Dharma
16. Unsound Explanation of the Dharma
17. On Exacting Donations
18. On Serving as an Inadequate Master
19. On Double-tongued Speech
20. Failure to Liberate Sentient Beings
21. On Violence and Vengefulness
22. Arrogance and Failure to Request the Dharma
23. On Teaching the Dharma Grudgingly
24. Failure to Practice Mahayana Teachings
25. Unskilled Leadership of the Assembly
26. Accepting Personal Offerings
27. Accepting Discriminatory Invitations
28. Issuing Discriminatory Invitations
29. On Improper Livelihoods
30. On Handling Business Affairs for the Laity
31. Rescuing Clerics Along with Sacred Objects
32. On Harming Sentient Beings
33. On Watching Improper Activities
34. Temporary Abandoning of the Bodhi Mind
35. Failure to Make Great Vows
36. Failure to Make Resolutions
37. Traveling in Dangerous Areas
38. Order of Seating Within the Assembly
39. Failure to Cultivate Merits and Wisdom
40. Discrimination in Conferring the Precepts
41. Teaching for the Sake of Profit
42. Reciting the Precepts to Evil Persons
43. Thoughts of Violating the Precepts
44. Failure to Honor the Sutras and Moral Codes
45. Failure to Teach Sentient Beings
46. Preaching in an Inappropriate Manner
47. On Regulations Against the Dharma
48. On Destroying the Dharma


Defeat (Vol. I, pp. 1-191)
[Parable of the hen] (Vol. I, p. 6]
[Four jhanas] (Vol. I, p. 7)
[Remembering past lives] (Vol. I, p. 8)
[Interdependent origination] (Vol. I, p. 9)
[Four Noble Truths] (Vol. I, p. 10)
[Sariputta asks the Buddha which tradition lasts longest] (Vol. I, p. 14)
[List of suttas] (Vol. I, p. 15)
Sudinna Recital (Vol. I, pp. 20-38)
Story of the Female Monkey (Vol. I, pp. 38-40)
[Homosexuality] (Vol. I, p. 50)
[Tathagata’s abode] (Vol., I, pp. 121f.)
[Four jhanas] (Vol. I, p. 152)
Formal Meeting (Vol. I, pp. 192-329)
[Story of Seyyaseka] (Vol. I, pp. 192-195)
[Story of Manikantha] (Vol. I, pp. 248-251)
[Condition of heat] (Vol. I, p. 275)
[Act of truth] (Vol. I, p. 280)
[Story of Devadatta] (Vol. I, pp. 296-305)
[Assaji and Punabhasu] (Vol. I, pp. 318)
Undetermined (Vol. I, pp. 330-340)
Hitherto Untranslated Passages (Vol. I, pp 349-372)

Forfeiture (Vol. II, pp. 1-163)
[Volitional force] (Vol. II, p.130)
Expiation (Vol. II, pp. 164-416; Vol. III, pp. 1-102)
[Condition of heat] (Vol. II, p. 383)
[Sagata gets drunk] (Vol. II, pp. 383f.)

Confession (Vol. III, pp. 103-119)
Training (Vol. III, pp. 120-152)
Legal Questions (Vol. III, pp. 153-155)
Bhikkhunivibhanga (Vol. III, pp. 156-426)

Talk on Awakening [interdependent origination] (Vol. IV, pp.1-3)
Talk at the Goatherds’ (Vol. IV, pp. 3, 4)
Talk at the Mucalinda (Vol. IV, pp. 4, 5)
Talk at the Rajayatana (Vol. IV, p-p. 5, 6)
Talk on Brahma’s Entreaty (Vol. IV, pp. 6-10)
Talk on the Going Forth of Yasa (Vol. IV, pp. 21-26)
Talk on Mara (Vol. IV, pp. 26-29)
Talk on Ordination by the Three Goings for Refuge (Vol. IV, pp. 29-30)
Talk on the Case of the Group of Friends of High Standing (Vol. IV, pp. 30-32)
Five Wonders (Vol. IV, pp. 32-37)
Talk on Burning (Vol IV, pp. 45, 46)
Talk on the Going forth of Sariputta and Moggallana (Vol. IV, pp. 52-57)
Talk on the Licchavis (Vol. IV, pp. 315-18)
[Buddha bathes a sick man] (Vol. IV, pp. 431-434]
[Buddha and the bull elephant] (Vol. IV, p. 504)

[Story of Devadatta] (Vol. V, pp. 259-285)
[Parable of the Great Ocean] (Vol. V, pp. 330-336)
Talk on the Eight Important Rules for Nuns (Vol. V, pp. 345-356)
Section on the Five Hundred [First Buddhist Council] (Vol. V, pp. 393-406)
Section on the Seven Hundred [Second Buddhist Council] (Vol. V, pp. 407-430)


[1] Vinaya is control of body and speech, meditation of mind.

[2] Cf. Laozi, Tao Te Ching, chaps. 5, 45.

[3] This is also 1200 years after the appearance of Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha, who in turn appeared 1200 years after the Buddha’s passing on, as well as the culmination of the Age of Science, aka the “sword interval” (satthantarakappa), which began in 1757, followed by the manifestation of Shambhala in the 25th century, under the direction of Maitreya, the Future Buddha, who will establish a Golden Age of 2160 years, corresponding to the so-called Age of Aquarius, beginning in 2424 CE. This is my own synthesis of various traditions.

[4] DN 16.2.9, 2.25f., 6.1.

[5] DN 16.1.6.

[6] DN 16.6.3.

[7] Specifically at the points of ignorance or craving, through the cultivation of wisdom or detachment respectively.

]7.1] In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (DN 16) the Buddha simply attains enlightenment, overcoming Mara. According to the Majjimma Nikaya (sutta 36) the Buddha experienced the recollection of past lives in the first watch of the night, the passing away and reappearance of beings in the second watch, and the exhaustion of the taints in the third watch, followed by interdependent origination at the end of the following week. According to the Dhammapada commentary, in the first watch the Buddha remembered his previous births; in the second he purified his deva vision; and in the third he realized interdependent origination, in both forward and backward order.

[8] This is supposed to have occurred three months after the passing on of the Buddha. Since rainy season is June to September, this implies a date for the passing on of March to June.

[9] He is supposed to have shared the cell of Ananda, no doubt after his becoming the personal attendant of the Buddha 20 years after the Enlightenment of the Buddha at the age of 35 about 445 BCE. Ananda also outlived the Buddha by twenty years. This would put the Second Buddhist Council between 305 and 260 BCE, based on a date for the passing on of the Buddha of 400 BCE.


abhidhamma. higher doctrine
ajivika. religious mendicant
amata. ambrosia
anatta. non-ego
arahant. honourable
asura. anti-god
atiyoga. ultimate yoga
avijja. ignorance
brahma. holy
buddha. wise
dhamma. doctrine
duhkha. suffering
dzogchen. great perfection (or: great completion)
ekayana. unified vehicle
garudhamma. heavy rule
mahaparinibbana. great passing on
mahasamghika. great order
mahavagga. great chapter
mahayana. great vehicle
metta. goodwill
naga. serpent
nibbana. emancipation
nikaya. collection
niyama. mental restraint
parivara. appendix
paticcasamuppada. interdependent origination
pitaka. division
pratyekabuddha. hermit buddha
samsara. rebirth
sangha. order
sasana. dispensation
sati. attention
satthatarakappa. age of swords or science
sthavira. elder
sunnata. emptiness
sutta. discourse (also: rule)
suttavibhanga. classification of rules
tanha. desire
tathagata. ‘Thus Come One.’
theravada. doctrine of the elders
upaya. skilled means
veda. gnosis
vinaya. discipline
yama. physical restraint


Horner, I.B., trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. I (Suttavibhanga). 1938; rpt. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2014.

———-, trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. II (Suttavibhanga). 1940; rpt. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2012.

———-, trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. III (Suttavibhanga). 1942; rpt. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2012.

———-, trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. IV (Mahavagga). 1951; rpt. Lancaster: Pali Text Society, 2007.

———-, trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. V (Cullavagga). 1952; rpt. Bristol: Pali Text Society, 2013.

———-, trans. The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). Vol. VI (Parivara). 1966; rpt. Lancaster: Pali Text Society, 2014.