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Tipitaka Context of the Vinaya Pitaka

The Vinaya Pitaka

The Vinaya Pitaka, the first division of the Tipitaka, is the textual framework upon which the monastic community (Sangha) is built. The Vinaya contains the code of rules by which monks and nuns are to conduct themselves individually (the Patimokkha), as well as the rules and procedures that support the harmonious functioning of the community as a whole.

Initially, the Sangha lived in harmony without any codified rules of conduct. Over time, however, as the Sangha grew in number and evolved into a more complex society, occasions inevitably arose when some members of the Sangha would act in unskillful ways. Whenever one of these cases was brought to the Buddha's attention, he would lay down a rule establishing a suitable punishment for the offense, so as to deter members of the Sangha from such inappropriate behavior in the future. The Buddha's usual reprimand was itself a powerful corrective:

It is not fit, foolish man, it is not becoming, it is not proper, it is unworthy of a recluse, it is not lawful, it ought not to be done. How could you, foolish man, having gone forth under this Dhamma and Discipline which are well-taught, [commit such and such offense]?...It is not, foolish man, for the benefit of un-believers, nor for the increase in the number of believers, but, foolish man, it is to the detriment of both unbelievers and believers, and it causes wavering in some.

The Book of the Discipline, Part I, by I.B. Horner (London: Pali Text Society, 1982), pp. 36-7.

Altogether, there are 227 Patimokkha rules for the bhikkhus (monks) and 311 for the bhikkhunis (nuns). As the rules were established one by one, on a case-by-case basis, the punishments naturally range widely in severity, from simple confession (e.g., if a monk behaves disrespectfully) to permanent expulsion from the Sangha (e.g., if a monk commits homicide).

The monastic tradition and the rules upon which it is built are sometimes criticized -- particularly here in the West -- as irrelevant to the "modern" practice of Buddhism. The Vinaya is seen by some as a throwback to an archaic patriarchy, based on a hodge-podge of arbitrary rules and customs that only obscure the essence of "true" Buddhist practice. This narrow view misses one crucial fact: it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of monastics who have consistently upheld and protected the Patimokkha rules for almost 2,600 years that we find ourselves today with the luxury of being able to receive the priceless teachings of Dhamma. Were it not for the Vinaya -- and for those who continue to keep it alive even today -- there would be no Buddhism.

It is helpful to remember that, throughout the entire Pali Canon, the Buddha never refers to the spiritual path he taught as simply "Vipassana" or "Mindfulness" or the like. Rather, he calls it "Dhamma-vinaya" -- the Doctrine (Dhamma) and Discipline (Vinaya) -- suggesting an integrated body of wisdom and ethical training rather than a mere collection of meditation techniques or attractive philosophical ideas. The Vinaya is thus an indispensible facet and foundation of all the Buddha's teachings, inseparable from the Dhamma, and worthy of study by all followers -- lay and ordained, alike.

Lay practitioners will find the Vinaya Pitaka filled with valuable practical lessons concerning human nature, guidance on how to establish and maintain a harmonious community or organization, as well as profound teachings of the Dhamma itself. But its greatest value, perhaps, lies in its power to inspire the layperson to consider the extraordinary possibilities that exist in a life of true renunciation, lived in harmony with the Dhamma.

The four divisions of the Vinaya Pitaka

I. Suttavibhanga

This section includes the complete set of rules for the Sangha, along with the "origin story" for each one. The rules are summarized in the Patimokkha, and amount to 227 rules for the bhikkhus, 311 for the bhikkhunis. The Patimokkkha rules are grouped as follows:

Selections from the Suttavibhanga:

  • The Patimokkha: The Bhikkhus' Code of Discipline, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This book offers a concise summary of the Patimokkha rules.
  • For an introductory background to the rules, see:
  • The Buddhist Monastic Code: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. This book provides an in-depth examination of each of the rules.

    A translation of the bhikkhuni patimokkha is not currently available for free electronic distribution.

II. Khandhaka (Mahavagga)

This includes several sutta-like texts, including the Buddha's account of the period immediately following his Awakening, his first sermons to the group of five monks, and stories about how some of the Buddha's great disciples joined the Sangha and themselves attained Awakening. Also included are the rules for ordination, for reciting the Patimokkha during uposatha days, and various procedures that monks are to perform during formal gatherings of the community.

Selections from the Mahavagga:

  • Upatissa-pasine (Mv I.23.5) -- Upatissa's (Sariputta's) Question. The young Ven. Sariputta asks Ven. Assaji, "What is your teacher's teaching?" Upon hearing the reply, Ven. Sariputta attains the fruit of Stream-entry. (This is one of the suttas selected by King Asoka (r. 270-232 BC) to be studied and reflected upon frequently by all Buddhists, whether ordained or not.) [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, tr.]
  • Vinaya-samukkamsa (Mv VI.40.1) -- The Innate Principles of the Vinaya. The Four Great Standards by which a monk can determine whether an action would or would not be considered allowable by the Buddha. (This is one of the suttas selected by King Asoka (r. 270-232 BC) to be studied and reflected upon frequently by all Buddhists, whether ordained or not.) [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, tr.]
  • Kucchivikara-vatthu (Mv VIII.26.1-8) -- The Monk with Dysentery. In this touching story the Buddha comes across a desperately ill monk who had been utterly neglected by his companions. The Buddha leaps to his aid, and offers a teaching on those qualities that make patients easy (or difficult) to tend to and those that make caregivers fit (or unfit) to tend to their patients. [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, tr.]
  • Dighavu-kumara Vatthu (Mv X.2.3-20) -- The Story of Prince Dighavu. This is surely one of the most dramatic stories in the Pali Canon -- a tale of murder, intrigue, and revenge -- which teaches the wisest way to "settle an old score." [Thanissaro Bhikkhu, tr.]

III. Khandhaka (Cullavagga)

This section includes an elaboration of the bhikkhus' etiquette and duties, as well as the rules and procedures for addressing offences that may be committed within the Sangha. Also included is the story of the establishment of the bhikkhuni Sangha, plus detailed accounts of the First and Second Councils.

Selections from the Cullavagga:

  • Vatta Khandaka (Cv VIII) -- Collection of Duties. This chapter concerns the duties that govern the day-to-day life of the bhikkhus. Many of the duties outlined here are more subtle than the strict rules laid out in the Suttavibhanga, and call on the bhikkhus to cultivate a respectful and well-mannered sensitivity to others in the community. Although this text is principally intended for monks, laypeople will find in it many useful hints for the mindful cultivation of good habits and manners, even in the midst of a busy lay life.

IV. Parivara

A recapitulation of the previous sections, with summaries of the rules classified and re-classified in various ways for instructional purposes.

See also:

  • The Buddhist Monastic Code: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Valley Center: Metta Forest Monastery, 1996). A comprehensive modern commentary to the 227 Patimokkha rules for Theravada monks.
  • Sisters in Solitude, by Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996). A translation of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka bhikkhuni Patimokkhas.
  • The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha of the Six Schools, by Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Bangkok: Thammasat University, 1991). Comparative look at the nuns' Patimokkha rules in six Buddhist schools.
  • Book of the Discipline, Vols I-VI, by I.B. Horner (London: Pali Text Society, 1982). Nearly complete English translation, in six volumes, of the Vinaya Pitaka.
  • With Robes and Bowl, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1986). A first-hand glimpse of the way of life for a meditating forest monk in Thailand.
  • Going Forth: A Call to Buddhist Monkhood, by Sumana Samanera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).


Updated: 1-7-2000

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