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The MṢlasarvāstivāda-vinaya is one of the six extant Buddhist monastic codes, or vinayas. There is some controversy about how to understand its title, and thereby its place among the various vinayas. It could be read as "The Root (or Original) Monastic Code of the Group that Teaches that All Exists," or it could be read as "The Monastic Code of the Root (or Original) Group that Teaches that All Exists." However it be taken, it is almost certain that the presence of mūla in the title reflects a polemical claim on the part of its compilers or their group.

Although again there is some controversy, the best available evidence would seem to indicate that, in the form that we have it, it was probably compiled in the first or second century c.e. in northwest India. Several scholarly studies have suggested that, in comparison with the other vinayas, the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya often seems to contain some very early material or accounts that are markedly undeveloped when compared with those found elsewhere. "Very early," however, is relative since this vinaya, like all the surviving vinayas, appears to have been redacted late, centuries after the time of the Buddha, and to presuppose a fully developed and very sophisticated form of monasticism.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya is its enormous size. It has been called "monstrous" and has been said to be about four times longer than any other vinaya. Its Tibetan version, in traditional format, fills thirteen large volumes and consists of more than four thousand leaves or eight thousand "pages." In addition to this Tibetan version, which appears to be complete, the Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya survives in a partial (but still massive) Chinese translation, and significant parts of it have also come down to us in Sanskrit. Very little of this monster has been translated into English; a little more has been translated into German.

This vinaya, like all vinayas, contains a huge number of major rules and minor regulations meant to govern everything from ordination to how to use the latrine. But this vinaya also contains rules detailing how monks should lend money on interest or borrow money from laymen, how they should warehouse and sell rice, take images in procession into town, make up parts of canonical texts, and a host of other things not commonly presented as integral parts of Buddhist monasticism.

Rules per se, however, take up a relatively limited space in this huge collection. It also contains a significant number of texts that elsewhere are found in the sūtra collection. More importantly, perhaps, it is stuffed with stories and narrative tales. On this account one scholar has even called it "one of the masterpieces of Sanskrit literature," and it has certainly been a source that later authors and artists drew on heavily for their subjects, and that scholars will be mining for a very long time.

See also:Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda


Schiefner, F. Anton von. Tibetan Tales Derived from Indian Sources, tr. W. R. S. Ralston. Boston: Osgood, 1882.

Schopen, Gregory. Buddhist Monks and Business Matters: More Collected Papers. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

Gregory Schopen

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