Jotiya dhirasekera

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A. Aṅguttara Nikāya

AA. Aṅguttara Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Manorathapūraṇī

AAS. Ānanda Āśrama Series

Ap. Apadāna

Brh. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad

Chānd. Chāndogya Upaniṣad

Comy. Commentary

D. Dīgha Nikāya

DA. Dīgha Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Sumaṅgalavilāsinī

Dhp. Dhammapada

DhA. Dhammapadaṭṭhakathā

DhsA. Dhammasaṅgaṇī Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Atthasālinī

Gilgit MSS Gilgit Manuscripts

IHQ. Indian Historical Quarterly

Ind. Ant. Indian Antiquary

J. Jātaka

Kaṭha. Kaṭha Upaniṣad

Kkvt. Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī, i.e. Pātimokkha Aṭṭhakathā

M. Majjhima Nikāya

MA. Majjhima Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Papañcasūdanī

Māṇḍ. Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad

Manu. Manusmṛti

Miln. Milindapañha

Muṇḍ. Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad

Praśna. Praśna Upaniṣad

PTS. Pali Text Society

Pts. Paṭisambhidāmagga

S. Samyutta Nikāya

SA. Samyutta Nikāya Aṭṭhakathā i.e. Sāratthappakāsinī

SBB. Sacred Books of the Buddhists

SBE. Sacred Books of the East

Sn. Suttanipāta

SnA. Suttanipāta Aṭṭhakathā

Taisho Taisho Issaikyo

Tait. Taittirīya Upaniṣad

Thag. Theragāthā

Thig. Therīgāthā

Ud. Udāna

UdA. Udāna Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Paramatthadīpanī

Vibh. Vibhaṅga

Vimt. Vimativinodanī Vinaya Ṭīkā

Vin. Vinaya Piṭaka

VinA. Vinaya Aṭṭhakathā, i.e. Samantapāsādikā

Vinvi. Vinayavinicchaya

Vism. Visuddhimagga

Buddhist Monastic Discipline


It is well to begin a study of Buddhist monasticism with a brief reference to religious mendicancy in India in general. Both these are by no means unexplored fields of study and have engaged the attention of scholars for nearly a century. Among the more successful and recognised of these we would not fail to mention Max Muller, Monier Williams, Oldenberg, Rhys Davids, Mrs. Rhys Davids, E.J.Thomas, Nalinaksha Dutt, Miss I.B. Horner and Sukumar Dutt. The pioneers among them started their work during the last few decades of the 19th century and worked on relatively scanty material. However, we are glad to note that in our evaluation of their results, we have found some of these scholars of distant antiquity to be extremely reliable and trustworthy. Admittedly, they tried to work with perfect detachment but it cannot always be said, perhaps due to forces beyond their control, that they were free from bias of some sort or another.

We have attempted in the present study to analyse and examine such lapses wherever possible. It is our conviction that, barring the paucity of source material at a particular time, the following considerations contributed in some way or other to the origin and perpetuation of several erroneous theories:

(i) An unnecessary attempt to force into one single genealogical tree many institutions of diverse origin. This is particularly true in the case of some scholars who begin their study of Indian religions from the Vedic schools and trace it down chronologically through the centuries. Here is Monier Williams attempting to see Buddhism in relation to Brahmanism: `We perceive again the close connexion between Brahmanism and Buddhism; for clearly the Brahmacārī and Sannyāsī of the one became the Srāmaṇera or junior monk, and Sramaṇa or senior monk of the other.'1 But this is an unfortunate identification which is far from the truth. The Pali works keep the brahmacarya of the Brahmins distinctly apart from their own [brahmacariya]. In the Suttanipāta it is said that the orthodox Brahmins of old practised the life of brahmacariya for forty-eight years.

Aṭṭhacattālīsaṃ vassāni komārabrahmacariyaṃ cariṃsu te

vijjācaraṇapariyeṭṭhiṃ acaruṃ brāhmaṇā pure.


The Aṅguttara Nikāya too, expresses a similar idea.2 This distinction between the brahmacariya life of the Buddhist disciple and that of the Brahmins is clearly maintained by an independent observer in the person of King Pasenadi Kosala in the Dhammacetiya Sutta.3 [Idhā'ha bhante passāmi eke samaabrāhmae pariyantakata brahmacariya carante dasa'pi vassāni vīsatim'pi vassāni tisam'pi vassāni cattārīsam'pi vassāni. Te aparena samayena sunhātā.... pañcahi kāmaguehi samagībhūtā paricārenti. M.II.120.]

(ii) An inadequate knowledge of Pali, the language in which one of the most reliable recensions of Buddhist texts is preserved. Some of the pioneers very naturally stumbled over in many places in their translations, mainly through their ignorance of the peculiarities of idiom. Greater disaster befell Pali studies when later scholars who followed in their wake placed implicit faith on the earlier translations and built far-reaching theories on them. A very glaring instance of this is found in S.Dutt's reliance on Chalmers' translation of the Gopakamoggallāna sutta.1 It is also possible to trace other instances of incorrect translations which result more from biased thinking than from ignorance. Here are two such cases picked up at random:

(a) Bhavissanti dhammassa aññātāro (Vin.I.21; M.I.163.) translated as: 'Some when they learn will become (i.e. will grow).'2

It simply means: `There would be some who would understand the doctrine.'

(b) Ariyassa vinaye yo accayam accayato disvā yathādhamma paikaroti.... āyati savara āpajjatī'ti3 -translated as: `In these Rules laid down by the Venerable One, he who realises his lapse to be such and remedies it according to law, obtains absolution at once.'4

Here, not only is this translation incorrect but the quotation itself is badly mutilated. The words vuddhi hi esā should be prefixed to the quotation. The translation should then read as follows:

`It is a sign of progress in this noble discipline if one realizes his lapse to be such and remedies it according to law and safeguards against its repetition in the future.'

(iii) An unwarranted disregard for the subsequent commentarial traditions which merit more serious consideration.

It should be made quite clear that we do not make a plea here on behalf of the Pali Commentaries that they should be used as the sole criteria in the interpretation of Canonical texts. Far from it. But our contention is that more often than not, when Commentaries have been subject to criticism and ridicule, they have been misjudged and misinterpreted. We come across instances when modern scholars accuse commentators of being ignorant of etymology.1 But it is obviously unreasonable to imagine that every commentarial explanation of a word either had to be or was thought by the commentators to be an etymological one. It would certainly amount to fighting wind-mills to mock a commentator at a definition like sasāre bhaya ikkhatī'ti bhikkhu.2 This is by no means born of ignorance of etymology. Commentarial tradition is equally conversant with the definition bhikkhatī'ti bhikkhu.3 And there are numerous other definitions of bhikkhu. 4

This commentarial trend is much more evident in the numerous definitions that have been successively added on to the word Pātimokkha. All these go to prove the fact that the commentarial tradition which legitimately goes back to the early days of the Sāsana, even as far back as the time of the Buddha, did acquire in its long history a wealth of information which is invaluable in the study and interpretation of Buddhist ideas and institutions. Such information reveals something dynamic in their evolution. The connotations of words and the values attached to them are seen changing in course of time.

It would be interesting to study the various definitions of Pātimokkha in the light of these observations. In the Mahāvagga, in what is called the Old Commentary by Rhys Davids and Oldenberg, we have perhaps what may be regarded as the oldest definition of Pātimokkha: Pātimokkhan'ti ādi eta mukha eta pamukha eta kusalāna dhammāna.1 One would search in vain here for an etymological definition. But one cannot ignore the light it throws on the scope and function of the Pātimokkha in the early history of the Sāsana. It is said to be the beginning, the source of all good activities. We have shown elsewhere how the Pātimokkha which began as a complement to sīla in early Buddhist monasticism soon came to be regarded as sīla par excellence. Thus we discover their identification in the Commentaries [Pātimokkhasavaro eva hi sīla - MA.I.155; SA.III.230.]. The cultivation and acquisition of virtue (kusalā dhammā) was the main concern of the monastic life2 and soon the Pātimokkha came to be the sole guide in Buddhist monasticism for the attainment of this ideal. Hence, even in the Canonical texts, sampannapātimokkha or the perfection in terms of the Pātimokkha becomes a necessary adjunct of a sīlasapanna or one who is perfected in sīla.

We are well aware of the fact that the spiritual earnestness of early Buddhist monasticism soon receded into the background. In its place, the slower process of perfection through saṃsāric evolution, subject to birth in good and evil states (sugati and duggati), came to the fore and gained greater prominence. This tended, to a certain degree, even to secularize the monastic ideal. It came to be that the reward for the religious life of the monk differed from that of the layman only in the matter of degree. They both shared a life of bliss in heaven, the monk excelling the layman with regard to his complexion, glory and life-span.

Nave deve passantā vaṇṇavanto yasassino
sugatasmiṃ brahmacariyaṃ caritvāna idhāgate.
Te aññe atirocanti vaṇṇena yasasāyunā
sāvakā bhūripaññassa visesū'pagatā idha.


However, there is no doubt that this was viewed as a departure towards something inferior. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the Buddha gives these same items of divine excellence as a cause for revulsion for those who seek the true fruits of recluseship [Sace vo bhikkhave aññatitthiyā paribbājakā eva puccheyyu devalokū'papattiyā āvuso samae gotame brahmacariya vussatī'ti nanu tumhe bhikkhave evam puṭṭhā aṭṭiyeyyātha harāyeyyātha jiguccheyyāthā'ti. Evam bhante - A.I.115. ].

Some did, in fact, rebel against it. Evidence of this, though with a different emphasis, is found in the Commentary to the story of the Samaṇa Devaputta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya who, due to no choice of his, found himself born in the heavenly world [So chāya disvā cutibhāva ñatvā na mayā ima hāna patthetvā samaadhammo kato. Uttamattha arahatta patthetvā kato'ti sampattiyā vippaisārī ahosi. SA.I.86.]. At this stage we are not surprised at the following definition of Pātimokkha given by Buddhaghosa: Ya ta atimokkha atipamokkha uttamasīla pāti vā sugatibhayehi mokkheti duggatibhayehi, yo vā na pāti ta mokkhetī'ti pātimokkhan'ti vuccati. 1

Apart from the new emphasis which is laid on the scope of the Pātimokkha, one thing stands out clearly in this definition of Buddhaghosa. Buddhaghosa is conscious of the paramount importance of the Pātimokkha as a body of sīla: it is the atimokkhaṃ atipamokkhaṃ uttamasīlaṃ. Nevertheless, it is now valued more for its efficacy in warding off from and guarding against the possible dangers of sugati and duggati. It is the security of the life after death that is now sought. Yet another thing strikes us here. Whatever may be the purpose for which the Pātimokkha is used, the Commentator seems to be aware of the fact that the primary idea associated with the Pātimokkha is that of freeing, liberating and saving. It is as though he knows that the verbal notion in the word Pātimokkha is derived from the root/muc, giving such verb forms like muccati, muñcati, moceti which have the idea of free, release or liberate.

In the present study of monastic discipline we use the word `monastic' primarily in the sense of `pertaining to or characteristic of monks, nuns, friars and the like.' Any reference to monasteries is made only secondarily in association with the former. As a prelude to such a study three things should be viewed clearly in order that the problems of Buddhist monastic discipline may be analysed in their proper context.

They are:

  1. Pre- Buddhist religious mendicancy in India.

  2. Origins of Buddhist monasticism.

  3. Origins of Vinaya literature.

Extensive work has admittedly been done in all these fields of study. Very definite ideas have been expressed on many problems connected with them. Nevertheless, we feel that there are numerous instances where modification and reconsideration of views already expressed is not only desirable but absolutely essential.

A great deal has been said about religious mendicancy in India before the advent of Buddhism. As early as 1889, Monier Williams said the following on the subject:

`Monasticism had always been a favourite adjunct of the Brahmanical system, and respect for monastic life had taken deep root among the people... Hindu monks, therefore, were numerous before Buddhism. They belonged to various sects, and took various vows of self- torture, of silence, of fasting, of poverty, of mendicancy, of celibacy, of abandoning caste, rank, wife and family. Accordingly they had various names... Such names prove that asceticism was an ancient institution.'1

These remarks of Monier Williams about pre-Buddhist mendicancy are also borne out by the evidence of the Pali texts.2 Oldenberg gives a very vivid account of the pre-Buddhist origin of Indian monasticism.3 Sukumar Dutt makes a very comprehensive study of the origin of śramaa in India in a chapter entitled `The Primitive Parivrājaka - A Theory Of Their Origin'.4 He has refreshingly new and interesting views to express regarding their origin. It would be out of place in the present study to quote these authorities at length on the history of pre-Buddhist religious mendicants. Suffice it to say that all evidence points to the wide prevalence and respectful acceptance of religious mendicancy in ancient India prior to the birth of Buddhism, and that what was most noteworthy about it was the diversity rather than the homogeneity of its character.

On the origins of Buddhist monasticism much more markedly divergent theories have been put forward since the beginning of this century. One of the distinguished pioneers in the field of Buddhist studies, Professor Rhys Davids, expressed the following view about Buddhist monasticism at a date as early as 1886. 1

`It was a logical conclusion from the views of life held by Gotama, that any rapid progress in spiritual life was only compatible with a retired life, in which all such contact with the world as would tend to create earthly excitement and desires should be reduced as much as possible; and accordingly, from the first he not only adopted such a mode of life for himself, but urged it on his more earnest disciples.'2

In 1912 he was joined by his wife, Mrs. C.A.F. Rhys, in expressing the same view. In the unrevised editions of her Buddhism in the Home University Library series (pre-1934) she says the following about Buddhist monasticism:

`The monastic habit or practice of seclusion in the wild, common to Indian recluseship from time immemorial, and probably imported from India to Egypt and so to the newly Christianized Europe, was largely and systematically practiced by Buddhists. It was both practiced by the founder himself, and recommended to the followers, as the best opportunity for cultivating detachment, spiritual calm, and thoroughgoing meditation on any given subject prescribed by the recluse's superior.'1

After a thorough analysis of the evidence of the Sutta and Vinaya Piṭakas we feel that this explanation of Buddhist monasticism is indisputably correct. The motive in renunciation as given here could not be any more near the truth.

But we lament the fact that, supported by her new discovery of `the growing vogue of the cenobitic monk and his peculiar ideals', Mrs. Rhys Davids abandoned her early ideas about Buddhist monasticism expressed earlier.2 In her Outlines of Buddhism published in 1934 she shows her new attitude to monasticism in Buddhism:

`I believe, that for the founder of Buddhism and their co-workers the business of the missioner was the main pre-occupation, and that, effectively to carry on this, it was necessary to give up the life `of the world' as a tie which would nullify the worth in their work in religion. People would not have listened to the gospel taught by one who was sharing their life. He had to show that that gospel was the one thing in the world which mattered.'3

This is a very strange motive which is ascribed here to the pabbajita. This is as it were to show that pabbajjā and the life of brahmacariya have nothing in common. Mrs. Rhys Davids goes a step further. She undertakes the formidable task of simplifying, or oversimplifying we should say, the concept of brahmacariya in Buddhism. Of brahmacariya in Buddhism she says:

`It paraphrases Dharma as perfect conduct, in a word hitherto used for the life of a student under his teacher, resembling to some extent the life of a medieval youth in a collegiate cloister, but now applied to life as the `many-folk' might live if they chose to.'1

But this popularized rendering of the meaning of brahmacariya when it comes to Buddhism, unlike in the Caturāśrama Dharma, seems to be hardly justifiable except on the assumption that Buddhism, in its origin, was a religion for the `many- folk'. In a chapter devoted entirely to this subject of brahmacariya, we show why we prefer to hold a different point of view on the evidence of the Pali texts (See Ch. III.). For the present we would place before the reader a very different evaluation of the life of pabbajjā and its relation to the practice of brahmacariya as given by Miss Horner:

`For one of the points of entering Gotama's Order was to learn control of body, mind and speech. This, it was thought, was essential to spiritual progress, and was extremely hard to attain unless the shackles of the household life had been laid aside. Then man, as monk, could more readily attain perfection and its fruit (arahattaphala), the goal of brahmacariya, the good, divine, holy or Brahma-life.'2

These remarks, whatever may be the interpretation of Brahma-life, savour truly of the contents of the early Nikāyas.

Monier Williams who completed his treatise on Buddhism in 1880 has made the following remarks on the origins of the Buddhist Saṅgha:

`What ought rather to be claimed for him (Buddha) is that he was the first to establish a universal brotherhood (Saṅgha) of coenobite monks, open to all persons of all ranks. In other words, he was the founder of what may be called a kind of universal monastic communism (for Buddhist monks never as a rule, lived alone), and the first to affirm that true enlightenment - the knowledge of the highest path leading to saintship - was not confined to the Brahmans, but open to all the members of all castes.'1

He adds further:

`The peculiarity about Gotama's teaching in regard to monachism was that he discouraged solitary asceticism, severe austerities, and irrevocable vows, though he enjoined moral restraint in celibate fraternities, conformity to rules of discipline, upright conduct, and confession to each other.'2

These observations of Monier Williams both with regard to the origins of Buddhist monasticism and the pattern of the consequent organization, we would regard as being commendably thorough and accurate. However, there is one single point on which we would like to seek further clarification. He says that Buddhist monks never, as a rule, lived alone. It is difficult for us to determine the evidence on which he arrived at this conclusion. Judging by his evident familiarity with the Vinaya texts, we wonder whether it is the apparent compulsory residence under a teacher for a prescribed period of time which is in the tradition of the Vinaya which led him to this remark. But we should observe here that the Vinaya itself gives many exceptions to this general practice.3 At the same time, forest-dwelling, solitary monks were as much a feature of early Buddhism as the resident, urban monks who lived in communities. This is the burden of the Khaggavisāṇa Sutta of the Suttanipāta. This aspect of Buddhist monastic life is discussed at greater length elsewhere (See Chs. VII & XII).

On the other hand, Dr. Sukumar Dutt, obsessed as it were with the idea of itinerant mendicancy which he derives from the life of Parivrājakas, seems to be unable to conceive of any settled life in the early Buddhist community of Bhikkhus. Of their life he says: `in its original condition of homeless wandering'.1 Was not the Buddha himself, even prior to his enlightenment, sufficiently acquainted with settled community life among his contemporaries who had renounced the household life? The institutions of Ālāra Kālāma, Uddaka Rāmaputta, Sañjaya and the three Kassapa brothers, all point to the existence of well settled communities of `homeless men'. Such settled life did not come to be tabooed in Buddhism, either early or late. Itinerancy was not a compulsory injunction and was never implied in the Buddhist ideal of agārasmā anagāriyam pabbajati.. As we have pointed out elsewhere, it came to be adopted by some through personal preference, but this does not in any case imply any general change of attitude in Buddhist monasticism.

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