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Buddhist Books and Texts: Canon and Canonization—Vinaya


The earliest Buddhist literature is divided into the doctrinal teachings, the dharma, and the rules for ethical behavior, the Vinaya. The Vinaya is divided into the Sūtravibhaga, case studies of each individual rule, and the Skandhaka, essays on important topics, for example ordination, monastic clothing, medicine, adjudication of disputes, the conduct of community meetings, and so on. The Vinaya rules are collected in a separate list called the Prātimoka, and there is a summary of the Skandhaka called the Karmavācanā. Taken together, the Vinaya literature outlines the core Buddhist ethical teachings, ordination procedures, and community ritual guidelines. While the ethical and social behavior models have been consistent, the expression and structure of the Vinaya literature have been reformulated, expanded and interpreted. The pressures of rapid growth and social involvement brought about changes in Vinaya literature. These changes mark significant differences in Buddhist intellectual and social history in different cultures, times, and places.

From its beginning and through its history the Vinaya rules and the entire corpus of literature have been established in response to monks' and nuns' encounters with the ordained and the lay communities. The four fundamental rules (pārājika ) of the Buddhist monastic code prohibit engaging in sexual activity, killing living beings, stealing, and lying (given in this order in the texts). The details of these prohibitions in the Vinaya literature show that they were actively discussed and applied; the four transgressions are demonstrated in a broad spectrum of case studies used to establish moral and legal precedents. The Vinaya literature covers a wide range of possible violations of each rule, classifies transgressions according to severity, and designates specific penalties for each type of violation.

The detailed nature of Buddhist ethical and legal codes is made clear in the descriptions of the first major transgression in the Vinaya, the prohibition of sexual activity for ordained monks and nuns. Along with the prohibitions against taking life, stealing, and lying, the attention given to sexuality shows that preserving the integrity of the celibate community was a top priority. Eighteen Vinaya rules of varying importance are concerned with sexuality, and intentional sexual relations is the first in the list of the most serious offenses, resulting in expulsion from the community. The related rules for monks and nuns prohibit sexual activity with men, women, hermaphrodites, eunuchs, any living being, and the dead and dying and whether intoxicated or sober. All varieties of intentional sexual activity are described and prohibited for monks and nuns and are grounds for expulsion from the community. The Pali Vinaya goes on to prohibit sexual relations while "awake, asleep, intoxicated, mad, drunk, [or with] dead and decomposed partners" (Horner, 19381952, vol. 1, p. 49). Sexual relations are prohibited whether one is sleeping, awake, a novice monk or nun, or in any way compliant. All further varieties of sexual activity are explicitly described and prohibited, including incest, masturbation, or activity with any artificial device. Verbal allusions to sex acts and related abusive language are prohibited. In contrast to these descriptions of violations and penalties and in a demonstration of the extensive nature of this legal literature, the Vinaya does not hold female or male victims of sex abuse guilty of any violation, nor are such victims to be penalized. The penalties for each kind of transgression are included, beginning with dismissal from the community for intentional acts and confinement to quarters, suspension of privileges, and restrictions on interaction with the community for lesser violations.

The Vinaya literature is rich with descriptions of all varieties of each kind of transgression, their contexts, and their penalties. The rules against taking life include detailed case studies and legal precedents. The Vinaya literature prohibits intentionally killing any living being and specifies that human life is of greater value than animal life. Inciting anyone to injure any living being is a violation, and there are strict prohibitions against the slaughter of any living being on behalf of a monk or a nun. Intentional and unintentional activities that result in death are presented in detail, and penalties are assigned according to the severity of the transgression. Other rules prohibit physical violence motivated by anger or displeasure, and threats of violence are classified as violations.

For monks and nuns, taking anything not given is explained as stealing. Lying, especially about one's spiritual attainment or status, is particularly weighty for ordained monks and nuns. Infractions even remotely related to all four cardinal rules are illustrated in anecdotes and case studies, and the penalties for each type of transgression are specified. This literature is a rich source of Buddhist canonical law, and in addition to monastic rules, it served as a guideline for lay law in many cultures.

In addition to the four cardinal rules, six other community rules were included in an early list of ten. Monks and nuns were not to take alcoholic beverages, they were not to take meals after midday, and they were not to engage in dancing, music, or such entertainment. They were not to use ornamental jewelry or perfumes, they were not to sleep in luxurious bedding, and they were prohibited from handling gold and silver.

The Rules

The Pali Vinaya, the oldest extant Vinaya, contains 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns. The core list of rules is called the Pātimokkha (Prātimoka ), and the list is memorized and recited by Buddhist monks during their monthly meetings into the early twenty-first century. Most scholars agree that this list of rules was compiled before the canonical versions with the stories and commentaries in the Sūtravibhaga. The separate list of rules, the Prātimoka, is, however, not included in any early version of the Vinaya Piaka.

The Vinaya rules are attributed to the historical Buddha, who is said to have made the rules as his group of followers grew. The gradual development of the lists of Vinaya rules shows that Buddhist monastic law was not conceived of as a predetermined or revealed moral agenda given in total to the ordained community. The rules were rather practical measures designed gradually to preserve what were thought to be mental and physical conditions appropriate to the practice of Buddhism. The historical Buddha made rules for the community as the occasions presented themselves, and it is likely that rules were collected and added after the Buddha's lifetime. The variations in size of the extant Vinaya collections show the dynamism of the community and the tension between preservation of the inherited rules and the need to adapt to unprecedented new conditions.

The original list of rules formulated in the Buddha's lifetime for his original community expanded as the Buddhist monastic community grew and spread to different places. Soon different Vinayas were collected and regarded as authoritative scripture. As far as is known, these were collected and transmitted orally. Fragments of written Vinaya documents dating to the first century bce survive in several languages, but the first complete written Vinaya is in Pali language, dating to the fifth century ce. From text fragments and inscriptions, it is known that after the third century bce at least six collections of Vinaya rules were produced in different cultural contexts. These Vinaya collections are generally associated with geographic regions and sect affiliation. They are the Sarvāstivādin, Dharmaguptaka, Mahīśāsaka, Mūlasarvāstivādin (the largest Vinaya), Pali, and Mahā-saghika. Of these the Vinayas of the Sarvāstivādin, Dharmaguptaka, Mahīśāsaka, and Mahāsaghika exist in Chinese translations, the Pali Vinaya in its language of composition, and the Vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādin in Chinese and Tibetan translations.

The literal meaning of the word Prātimoka is a rule or rules that lead one to liberation. The Prātimoka is the core of the Sūtravibhaga, which contains the explanatory stories or contexts for each rule. The rules are divided into eight sections, expulsion (pārājika )four; community meeting (saghādisesa )thirteen; undetermined (aniyata )two; forfeiture (nisargika )thirty; expiation (pātayantika )ninety-two; confession (pratideśanīya )four; and civility (śaika )seventy-five; adjudication (adhikaraaśamatha )seven, adding up to a total, in the Pali version, of 227 rules. Eighty-four more rules dealing with sexual propriety and community behavior are added for nuns.


The second part of the Vinaya is the Skandhaka. This section, like the rules (Sūtravibhaga ) section, has an abbreviated summary called the Karmavācanā, which, like the Prātimoka list of rules, is not included in the Pali Vinaya. The Skandhaka section of the Vinaya is largely concerned with community issues, giving descriptions of rituals, procedures, monastic life, and materials. Instead of setting out rules and penalties, this section of the Vinaya deals with ordination procedures, monastic authority, community ritual observances, clothing styles, cosmetic styles, healthcare, adjudication of disputes, and so on.

There are two sections in the Skandhaka, the Main Section (Mahāvagga ) and the Lesser Section (Cullavagga ). The entire Skandhaka is set in the context of stories from the life and teachings of the Buddha, first including major components of monastic life in the Main Section and minor points in the Lesser Section. The Main Section begins with a brief account of the Buddha's enlightenment experience, the theory of the twelve links of causal interdependent origination, the eightfold path, the four noble truths and the theory of the nonexistence of the self. The first major section is on ordination. The Buddha's original procedure is described, then the specifics of the evolution of the ceremony and the requirements for ordination are set out. These descriptions of receiving monastic robes, having one's head shaved, and taking vows are preserved in all versions of the Vinaya.

The next two sections of the Skandhaka deal with feeding, housing, and occupying thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns during the Indian monsoon season. The Vinaya records that monks and nuns used to wander from place to place even through the rainy season. Farmers began to complain about crops destroyed by Buddhists wandering in the monsoon, undernourished and weaker monks and nuns began to develop illnesses, and travel became difficult. The Buddha and monastic authorities therefore instructed the communities to set up shelters and temporary residences for the duration of the monsoon season. With so many monks and nuns living together, the community was soon faced with the problems of retreat conduct and an effective method to propagate the teachings during the monsoon retreat time.

These sections of the Vinaya literature contain a rich collection of sociological, economic, and anthropological data. Mundane matters under the heading of "Leather Accessories" describe health and hygiene problems in ancient India, and the descriptions of the commodities in common use give information about the regional economy, including the use of wooden products, palm, bamboo, wool, gold, silver, gems, bronze, glass, tin, lead, and copper. Ethical and community definition issues follow in the section prohibiting the slaughter of cattle and animals and the problems that arise from use of their skins. Monks and nuns are not to kill animals, in particular cattle, which in addition to being living beings were considered sacred by many of the Buddhists' Indian brethren.

The section on medicine contains allowances to treat illness and provide hospice care. The foundations of Indian medicine were located in Buddhist monasteries, and these are evident here, for example, in the descriptions of acceptable medicines and their administration. The Skandhaka includes medical diagnostic information, food warnings, hygiene information, and information on medical procedures. It goes on to detail information about monks' and nuns' robes, the acceptable material for making monastic clothing, and the rituals for acquiring and distributing new robes. Again, the Skandhaka provides much information about ancient India's commodities economy. Here there are descriptions of the use of linen, cotton, silk, wool, hemp and canvas.

The Skandhaka continues with sections about the Campā and Kośāmbī communities and general descriptions of community interaction with the Buddhist legal system. Violations of Buddhist monastic rules, for example, the case of quarreling among the Kośāmbīs, are judged and sentences specified. These two sections mark the end of the Main Section of the Skandhaka. The remainder of the Skandhaka is the Lesser Section and it is packed with applications of Buddhists rules. The basic rules are stated in the texts, always with the Buddha present or on his authority, and the rules used are summarized at the end of each section. These long case histories describe the interface of the Buddhist worldview with everyday human life. The extensive deliberations in the Lesser Section show monks and nuns confronting and coping with basic human needs and shortcomings in accord with Buddhist guidelines.

Later Vinaya Literature

The Pali Vinaya and other Vinaya collections are preserved in the Buddhist canonical collections and are regarded as sacred and inviolable. However, as described here, the canonical collections were themselves products of processes of disputation and retrospective compilation. A good example of this process is the controversy between the Sthavira and Mahāsaghika sects, which likely produced slightly different versions of the Vinaya rules. Similarly the processes that produced and caused the revisions of the ancient collections continued, and the Vinaya was recast in later cultural and religious contexts.

There are good examples, particularly in Sri Lanka, India, and China, of the ongoing process of preserving the ancient rules and community rituals and at the same time building new text collections around them. In twelfth-century Sri Lanka, the Vinaya literary canon was recanonized in the Katikāvata (Regulations of the order) literature, which addressed new conditions and concerns of the monastic community. In India in about the seventh-century, after the end of the Gupta dynasty, the scholar Guaprabha composed the Vinaya Sūtra and commentary, based on the ancient Skandhaka literature. These texts were commented on extensively in India and became core documents for later Tibetan Buddhists, who produced a large corpus of Tibetan commentaries on Guaprabha's Indian texts. Similarly in China the Vinaya was recast in Chan monasteries to accommodate Chinese Confucian traditions in the Chanyuan Qinggui (Rules for purity in Chan monasteries). These and other compositions are careful to preserve inherited canonical rules and regulations, but they include innovations designed for each respective environment. The Vinaya canonical literature is thus preserved and at the same time carefully recast.

In addition to these well-known and widely circulated compositions, major Buddhist monasteries composed manuals that addressed their communities' special concerns, setting out ritual schedules and etiquette for their local communities. The ancient Vinaya rules were again preserved and rituals observed; ordination, monthly meetings, recitation of rules, and ethical parameters were kept intact. In sum, though definitely preserved intact, canonization of the Vinaya literature was not a procedure that set up lists of rules to be mechanically and literally followed in all circumstances. Canonization was rather a dynamic creative process that functioned to meet the needs of a growing and changing community and did not preclude later addition and reformulation.

See Also

Law and Religion, article on Law and Religion in Buddhism; Monasticism, article on Buddhist Monasticism.


Frauwallner, Erich. The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature. Rome, 1956. Translated by L. Petech. A useful early study of the history of the different versions of the Vinaya.

Hirakawa, Akira, trans. and ed. Monastic Discipline for the Buddhist Nuns: An English Translation of the Chinese text of the Mahāsāghika Bhikuī Vinaya. Patna, India, 1982. A good example of the Vinaya literature in translation.

Horner, Isaline B. The Book of the Discipline (Vinayapiaka). 6 vols. London, 19381952. A translation of the Pali Vinaya.

Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn. A Comparative Study of Bhikkhunī Pāimokkha. Vārāasī, India, 1984.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era. Translated by Sarah Webb-Boin. Louvain and Paris, 1988. A dated but useful reference for Vinaya literature.

Prebish, Charles S. Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Prātimoka Sūtras of the Mahāsāghikas and Mūlasarvāstivādins. University Park, Pa., 1975.

Ratnapāla, Nandasēna. The Katikāvatas: Laws of the Buddhist Order of Ceylon from the Twelfth Century to the Eighteenth Century. Munich, 1971.

Thera, Ñāamoli, trans. The Pāimokkha: 227 Fundamental Rules of a Bhikkhu. Bangkok, 1966.

Wijayaratna, Mohan. Buddhist Monastic Life: According to the Texts of the Theravāda Tradition. Translated by Claude Grangier and Steven Collins. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Yifa. The Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China: An Annotated Translation and Study of the Chanyuan Qinggui. Honolulu, Hawaii, 2002.

Paul K. Nietupski (2005)

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