Jotiya dhirasekera

APPENDIX III The Concept of Sīmā: Its Origin and Development

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The Concept of Sīmā: Its Origin and Development

While the purity and the prestige of the early Buddhist Saṅgha was being safeguarded by the regular performance of the Pātimokkha ritual, the Mahāvagga witnesses certain sections of the community of monks who were holding factional meetings for the purpose of reciting the Pātimokkha within their own groups (Tena kho pana samayena chabbaggiyā bhikkhū yathāparisāya pātimokkha uddisanti sakāya sakāya parisāya. Vin.I.104). This would certainly have been in violation of the spirit in which the ritual was instituted in the early days of the Sāsana.1 Legislating against such a situation which would herald the disintergration of the Saṅgha, the Buddha declares it to be a Dukkaṭa offence and calls for unity of the Saṅgha in the performance of the Uposatha.

But considering the increasing membership of the corporation of the Saṅgha and the vastness of the territory over which it was spreading, there seems to have appeared the need to determine as to what would be a convenient unit for the collective activities of the Saṅgha. We notice in the Gopakamoggallāna Sutta that the village in which the monks lived had served as the unit of such monastic activities.2 When the Buddha insisted on the unity of the Saṅgha in their monastic activities, the monks seem to have been perplexed by the theoretical position whether the unity of the Saṅgha implied the inclusion of all members of the community living in the land, literally on earth: Kittāvatā nu kho sāmaggī hoti yāvatā ekāvāso udāhu sabbā pahavī'ti.. Vin.I.105. This, we have no doubt, was hardly meant to be taken as a real position and would have been recorded here more for the purpose of pointing out the relevance of practical considerations. An area of residence (ekāvāso) became the obvious choice as an operational unit and on the recommendation of the Buddha the area of residence is delimited by boundaries, accepted and agreed upon by the Saṅgha as the region of co-residence within which the Saṅgha was expected to perform its activities collectively: Sammatā sīmā saghena etehi nimittehi samānasavāsā ekūposathā. Ibid.106. This marks the birth of Sīmā in Buddhist monastic history.

It is clear from the evidence of the Mahāvagga that in the early days of the Buddhist community not all āvāsa or centres of monastic residence enjoyed the status of being Sīmā or independent units of monastic activity. Ekāvāsa meant a region of residence within which all members acted collectively as one single body (sagha). The Samantapāsādikā portrays beautifully this state of affairs in the early history of the Sāsana when it says that the eighteen great monasteries in the vicinity of Rājagaha formed collectively a single unit of common communal activity. (Rājagaha hi parikkhipitvā aṭṭhārasa mahāvihārā sabbe ekasīmā. Dhammasenāpatinā nesa sīmā baddhā. Tasmā veuvane saghassa sāmaggidānattha āgacchanto'ti attho. VinA.V.1049). Any one of the āvāsa within the region may turn out to be, by the choice of the Saṅgha, the venue of the ritual of the Uposatha (Tena kho pana samayena rājagahe sambahulā āvāsā samānasīmā honti. Tattha bhikkhū vivadanti amhāka āvāse uposatho karīyatu amhāka āvāse uposatho karīyatū'ti. Vin.I.108). We hear of members of one āvāsa going to another as guests for the purpose of performing the Uposatha there. (Āgantukā bhikkhū na jānanti kattha vā ajj'uposatho karīyissatī'ti. Ibid.107). Thus it was possible for the inmates of many āvāsa to operate as members of one Sīmā in their activities.

In performing the ritual of the Uposatha the monks had to operate collectively and no sectional meetings were allowed within that region (Tehi bhikkhave bhikkhūhi sabbeh'eva ekajjha sannipatitvā uposatho kātabbo. Yattha vā pana thero bhikkhu viharati tattha sannipatitvā uposatho kātabbo. Na tv'eva vaggena saghena uposatho kātabbo. Ibid.108). All monks living within it, heedless of the distance they had to travel and the hardships of the journey, congregated at an appointed place for the purpose of the Pātimokkha recital. In the interests of the guest monks it was considered necessary to decide before hand upon a site for the performance of the ritual, viz. an uposathāgāra. Thus, on account of the prior knowledge of the place, the participants would be enabled to arrive there in time without any confusion. The Saṅgha may choose for this purpose any one of the five buildings sanctioned for monastic residence.1 Once selected an uposathāgāra continued to be recognised as such until the decision is revoked by the Saṅgha. It is clear from the following statement about the thoughtless selection of two such buildings at the same site and the subsequent order made by the Buddha to cancel one and use the other (Tena kho pana samayena aññatarasmi āvāse dve uposathāgārāni sammatāni honti ... Anujānāmi bhikkhave eka samūhanitvā ekattha uposatha kātu. Vin.I.107). In case the uposathāgāra turns out to be too small for the congregation which assembles, then the Saṅgha is empowered to declare as much of the courtyard of the building (uposathapamukha) as necessary to be valid territory in which the participants may take their seats for the ritual of the Pātimokkha. This is clearly a matter of ritualistic detail quite additional to the early spirit of the Pātimokkha recital. For it is said with reference to an incident which historically takes precedence over this that the ritualistic validity of the ground on which a monk sat during the Pātimokkha recital was a matter of no concern as long as he was able to hear from there the Pātimokkha as it was being recited (Sammatāya vā bhikkhave bhūmiyā nisinnā asammatāya vā yato pātimokkha suṇāti kato'v'assa uposatho. Ibid.108).

Although the delimitation of a region of Sīmā was approved, Sīmā in its early stages was not subjected to restrictions of size. Some of them became very large extending up to four, five and six yojana. The monks who had to travel long distances to the venue of the recital were unable to arrive in time. Hence three yojana soon came to be fixed as the maximum allowable size of a Sīmā. No Sīmā was also to extend beyond a river unless there was a permanent bridge or a regular ferry providing a safe crossing.1 The incidents connected with this proviso make it clear that it is based on practical considerations and has no ritualistic significance whatsoever.

Based on this institution of Sīmā which is thus established by delimitation of a specified region to be a unit of co-residence and common Uposatha, the members of the Saṅgha are given a concession to set apart one of their three robes for safe keeping, as a stand-by to be used in case of damage to the others. This legislation was actually provoked by the incident in which the venerable Mahā Kassapa who on his way from Andhakavinda to participate in the Uposatha at Rājagaha got his robes wet while crossing a river and had to attend the ritual in his wet robes for want of a change of clothing. This concession of keeping out of one 's possession one out of the unit of three robes (ticīvarena avippavāsasammuti) is applicable within the aforesaid Samāna-saṃvāsaka-sīmā, but leaving out its urban areas,1 for it is out side these that this concession would have been most needed. (Yā sā bhikkhave saghena sīmā sammatā samānasavāsā ekuposathā sagho ta sīma ticīvarena avippavāsa sammanatu hapetvā gāmañ ca gāmūpacārañ ca. Vin.I.109).

The Mahāvagga also makes provision for regions in which monks reside but wherein no Sīmā has been officially proclaimed. In the case of such towns and villages (gāmagahaena c'ettha nagaram pi gahita eva hoti. VinA.V.1051) their own boundaries are accepted to circumscribe the area of co-residence for the monks (Asammatāya bhikkhave sīmāya ya gāma vā nigama vā upanissāya viharati yā tassa vā gāmassa gāmasīmā nigamassa vā nigamasīmā aya tattha samānasavāsā ek'uposathā. Vin.I.110 f.). This seems to reflect the conditions which are referred to in the Gopakamoggallāna Sutta and are perhaps characteristic of a stage of pre-sīmā antiquity (Te maya tad'ah'uposathe yāvatikā eka gāmakkhetta upanissāya viharāma te sabbe ekajjha sannipatāma. M.III. 10).

To this group of unbounded Sīmā of gāma and nigama is also added the forest regions in which monks reside. From any such place of residence an area of a radius of sattabbhantara, i.e. seven abbhantara1 is marked out as the region of samānasavāsa and ekuposatha (Agāmake ce bhikkhave araññe samantā sattabbhantarā aya tattha samānasavāsā ekuposathā. Vin.I.111). Such a Sattabbhantara Sīmā enjoys also the privilege of ticīvaravippavāsaparihāra (ticīvarena avippavāssasammuti).2 The Mahāsakuludāyī Sutta perhaps portrays an earlier phase of monastic life when it says that even the forest-dwelling monks come regularly to the midst of the Saṅgha for the recital of the Pātimokkha.3 In course of time further independent units of monastic residence seem to appear as the community expands and spreads over wider territories. As a result of this we also note a corresponding change in the concept of Sīmā.

Sīmā, which originally indicated a practical and convenient unit of residence of the Saṅgha for their common communal activities (samānasavāsā ekuposathā) and referred to as Samānasaṃvāsaka Sīmā, seems to have soon changed its character to mean also the venue in which the Saṅgha may perform its monastic activities like the conferment of Pabbajjā and Upasampadā. This gives rise to what is latterly known as the Khaṇḍa Sīmā. The Samantapāsādikā suggests that this smaller unit of Khaṇḍa Sīmā should, in fact, be established first before the establishment of the Samānasaṃvāsaka Sīmā (Ima pana samānasavāsakasīma sammannantehi pabbajjupasampadādīna saghakammāna sukhakaraattha pahama khaṇḍasīmāyo bandhitabbā. Vin.A.V.1041).

In a monastic residence which is complete with all its accessories like the Bodhi tree, Cetiya and the Alms-hall, the Khaṇḍa Sīmā should be located in a quiet corner [not in the centre of the monastic residence] at a place which is not frequented by many people (Sace hi bodhi-cetiya-bhattasālādīni sabbavatthūni patitṭṭhāpetvā katavihāre bandhanti vihāramajjhe bahūna samosaraaṭṭhāne abandhitvā vihārapaccante vivittokāse bandhitabbā. Ibid.). Considering the quorum for valid monastic acts (which range from four to twenty monks), it is said that the Khaṇḍa Sīmā should be large enough to accomodate not less than twenty-one monks (Sā heṭṭhiamparicchedena sace ekavīsati bhikkhū gahāti vaṭṭati tato ora na vaṭṭati ... Ibid.). It is also conceded that a large monastery could have as many as two, three or more Khaṇḍa Sīmā (Sace pana vihāro mahā hoti dve'pi tisso'pi tad'uttari'pi khaṇḍasīmāyo bandhitabbā. Ibid.1042).

Any watery abode like a river, natural lake or the sea is said to be, by its very nature, suitable for the performance of all monastic acts. 'Its very nature' here may mean the fact that such places being 'uninhabited' it requires no further legislation to exclude aliens. Here, under normal circumstances, there would be no danger of trespassers (Sā pana attano sabhāven'eva baddhasīmāsadisā. Sabbam ettha saghakamma kātu vaṭṭati. Samuddajātassaresu'pi es'eva nayo. VinA.V.1052). Thus we see the emergence of the Udakukkhepa Sīmā. It is a region in a river, a natural lake or the sea which covers `the distance that a man of average (height) can throw water all round.'1 (Nadiyā vā bhikkhave samudde vā jātassare vā ya majjhimassa purisassa samantā udak'ukkhepā aya tattha samānasavāsā ekuposathā. Vin.I.111).

The Mahāvagga itself gives indications of a steady elaboration of the concept of Sīmā. What was originally introduced for the convenient administration of the monastic community soon turns out to be a cause of dispute in itself. With the fragmentation of the central Sīmā and the consequent multiplicity of smaller units there arose the danger of some of them overlapping the others (Tena kho pana samayena chabbaggiyā bhikkhū sīmāya sīma sambhindanti. Vin.I.111. Also: Tena kho pana samayena chabbaggiyā bhikkhū sīmāya sīma ajjhottharanti. Ibid.). To avoid such overlapping of territory of each monastic group it soon became necessary to provide a `buffer state' (sīmantarikā) between two regions which are marked out as Sīmā (Anujānāmi bhikkhave sīma sammannantena sīmantarika hapetvā sīma sammannitu.. Ibid.).

This ritualistic concern with which the validity of each Sīmā seems to have been guarded appears to have been a subject of absorbing interest in the history of the Sāsana. This would have been necessarily so as the authority for the enforcement of discipline in Buddhist monastic life had to be secured at an impersonal level through the validity of monastic procedure. Sīmā undoubtedly was the corner-stone of this structure. The Khandhakas have already witnessed the interest shown in it. The Samantapāsādikā shows how it has proceeded so far as to produce divergent views on many issues according to the inclinations of the diverse groups that developed within the Theriya fold.1

The wealth of Vinaya literature written in Ceylon in Pali on the theme of Sīmā shows what a live problem it had turned out to be even after the authoritative commentarial notes of Buddhaghosa on this subject. A Ceylonese thera by the name of Vācissasra is said to have compiled the Sīmālaṅkāra in the 13th century. The Buddhist monastic community of Burma seems to have been equally interested in this problem. The Burmese thera Chapaṭa compiled a Tīkā to the Sīmālaṅkāra of Vācissara.2 Of this work, Mabel Bode says: `The Sīmālaṅkārapakaraṇa of Chapaṭa was a result of the Talaing thera's studies in Ceylon.'3 A considerable amount of literary activity on this subject seems to have gone on in both countries, perhaps with mutual influence.4 Another treatise compiled in Ceylon similar to the Sīmālaṅkāra of Vācissara is the Sīmāsaṅkarachedanī of Srī Rāhula (15th century).5

The importance attached to the ritualistic validity of Sīmā does not appear to have been peculiar only to the Southern schools of Theravāda Buddhism in Burma and Ceylon. It does seem to have been shared by some of the schools of Buddhism in the Far East as well. The Kaidan (the equivalent of Sīmā in the Far East) must have enjoyed some prestige in China and Japan at a very early date. Kanjin (Chien-chen in Chinese pronunciation) who introduced the Vinaya or Ritsu sect (= Lū-tsung of China) from China to Japan built a Kaidan for performing the ceremony of admission to the Order.1 What is more important here is the point which stresses the ritualistic significance of this new establishment. Monks and nuns of the land who had already been ordained but whose admission to the Order was considered invalid for any reason were re-ordained by him. After many entreaties by Dengyo Daishi, the founder of the Tendai sect in Japan, another Kaidan was established at Hieizan in 827 A.D. This seems to have led to the decline of the fortunes of the Ritsu sect. However in the 12 th century, Shosho shonin, in a bid to revive the Ritsu sect, wrote a treatise called Kaidan Shiki on the ceremonial to be observed at ordinations.2 Nevertheless, we have no doubt that with the birth of new and rival sects the Kaidan probably had to face a competitive process of change and modification.

The history of Buddhist monasticism in Ceylon has also witnessed a major dispute regarding the validity of a Sīmā which was being used for the conferment of Upasampadā. It assumed such proportions that Burma too, was drawn into it. Its histroy in brief is as follows.3 In 1845 A.D. an Udakukkhepa Sīmā `consisting of a permanent raft fixed in the middle of the lake called Mādugaṅga at Balapitimodara [in Ceylon / Sri Lanka] and having an approach to it by a bridge from the bank' was established. Sometime afterwards, `a famous learned priest called Laṅkāgoda Sirisaddhammavaṃsapāla Dhīrānanda' found fault with it `as being confused and undetached, and consequently irregular and invalid ... In consequence of his representations and his protest against the vaildity of the rite of ordination performed in the said Sīmā many priests who had received that rite there had themselves re-ordained in properly defined Sīmās ... There were, on the other hand, several who from various motives upheld the validity of that Sīmā and the ecclesiastical acts performed therein: thus disputes and dissensions arose in the Society and rent the unity and harmony which had hitherto prevailed.'

At this time two Ceylonese priests named Dhammakkhandha and Vanaratana went on a visit to Burma and informed the High Priest (Saṅgha Rāja) of Mandalay about the controversy that was raging in Ceylon with respect to the validity of the Balapitimodara Sīmā in which the ordination of the Amarapura priests had been hitherto held ... This pontiff (Saṅgha Rāja) having learnt the particulars of the case and after consulting the most eminent members of the Buddhist clergy in that country, drew up a memorandum embodying their decision on the matters in dispute, and sent the document in charge of these priests to the address of the principal priests of the Amarapura Society in Ceylon. This authoritative decision which was adverse to the views held by those who maintained the validity of the aforesaid Sīmā not having been accepted as conclusive by them, the Saṅgha Rāja of Burma sent a second epistle supporting the statements made in the first with the help of copious quotations from the Pali texts and commentaries, and exhorting the recalcitrant priests to yield to reason and authority.

When this epistle was read in a public assembly of the Buddhist clergy and laity, the then High Priest of the Amarapura Society and his colleagues who, for some time, upheld the vaildity of the disputed Sīmā became convinced of its faultiness and renouncing their preconceived notions on the subject joined the party of Laṅkāgoda. A number of priests at Dodanduwa who stood aloof from the contending factions also gave in its adherence on this day to the united factions, and thenceforward the three parties in alliance performed their ecclesiastical functions together in peace and harmony. But this epistle as well as two others accompanied with diagrams on the subject, subsequently addressed to the Amarapura priests of Ceylon by two learned members of the Burmese church, had no effect on those who persisted in their error.

Things were in this state when the priest Vimalasāra Thera of the Ambagahapitiya Vihāra at Velitota, who had received his ordination at the faulty place of consecration, wrote some epistles addressed to the late King of Burma and to the leading ministers and priests of that country, propounding certain questions having reference to the validity or invalidity of the disputed Sīmā at Balapitimodara. The questions submitted by Vimalasāra were, at the instance of the King and his ministers, referred to a Committee of the most learned Buddhist priests of Mandalay under the presidency of the best Vinaya scholar of that country named Sirisaddhammavamsapāla Jāgara Mahā Thera. This Committee embodied their opinions on the different points submitted to them in the form of a report, which was printed and published in Burma, and copies of it were sent to Ceylon for distribution among the priests here. The decision arrived at by this learned Committee was again adverse to the opinions of Vimalasāra and his party, and the Sīmā at Balapitimodara was condemned as defective and faulty. One would have supposed that this would settle the whole question and put an end to the controversy and strife once and for ever; but it was not so.....

With the praiseworthy object of conciliating the factious brethren in Ceylon and uniting the Amarapura Society in the bonds of peace and brotherhood, the Committee aforementioned, named Sirisaddhammavamsa Jāgara Mahā Thera, and who had come on a visit here, convened an asembly of the principal priests of Ceylon in order to advise and exhort the oppositionists to yield to reason and discipline. This priest, in a great public assembly held at Velitara exhorted Vimalasāra and his party to stand to reason and to submit to authority; but the oppositionists actuated by policy rather than by wisdom, disregarded the sober admonition.

After the great Thera Jāgara left the island, the leader of the oppositionist band, Vimalasāra Thera, printed and published a work entitled Sīmālakkhaṇadīpanī in which he attempted to set at naught the generally received opinions of the ancient elders of the church who, in his estimate,were not infallible and were liable to error. This book has been widely circulated among the Amarapura section of the Buddhist clergy both in and out of the island, and its tendency is to perpetuate and widen the breach which has unfortunately occurred among the brethren of the Amarapura clergy.

In order, therefore, to counteract the evil effects which this work is calculated to produce among the laity and clergy, and to correct the errors and misrepresentations which it contains.... we have thought it incumbent upon us to publish a reply to that work by the title of `Sīmānayadappana or A Mirror of the System of Consecrated Boundaries.'

We lament the fact that we are not in a position to produce an equally comprehensive version for the defence from the school of Vimalasāra Thera. However, it is clear that in these two works we come to possess two Vinaya treatises on the question of Sīmā submitted from opposite camps. These two masterly studies of the 19th century, while being undoubtedly a valuable addition to our Vinaya literature, also indicate the changing trends in the history of the Sāsana in the island.

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