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The word vinaya is derived from a Sanskrit verb that can mean to lead or take away, remove; to train, tame, or guide (e.g., a horse); or to educate, instruct, direct. All these meanings or shades of meaning intermingle in the Buddhist use of the term, where it refers both to the specific teachings attributed to the Buddha that bear on behavior, and to the literary sources in which those teachings are found. Vinaya is, in short, the body of teachings and texts that tell the ordained follower of the Buddha how he or she should or must behave. An ordained follower of the Buddha is one who has undergone a formal ritual of ordination as a part of which he or she proclaims himself or herself able to follow the established rules. He or she does not—it is important to note—take a vow to do so. In fact, vows of the type that characterize Western monastic groups are unknown, at least in the Indian Buddhist world. Having undertaken the formal act of ordination, an individual becomes a bhikṣu (male) or bhikṣuṇī (female), and the vinaya, strictly speaking, applies only to bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs, although there are also rules for "novices."

Bhikṣu literally means a beggar or mendicant, but it is clear from their contents that by the time the vinaya texts that we have were compiled, many, perhaps most, bhikṣus did not beg for their food. This and the kind of commitment required by Buddhist ordination is nicely illustrated by the section in an ordination ceremony dealing with food. The officiant says to the individual seeking ordination: "Are you, named so-and-so, able to subsist, for as long as you live, with alms food?" The newly ordained must say: "I am able." Then the officiant immediately says: "Extra allowable acquisitions are boiled rice or porridge made from flour, water, melted butter, and pomegranate, etc., or made from milk, or soup made from cream, etc., or food provided on the fifth day festival, or the eighth or the fourteenth or the fifteenth day festival, or food regularly provided by donors … or again any other allowable alms food that might arise from the religious community itself or an individual—in regard to your acceptance of that, due measure must be practiced. Will you be fully and completely cognizant of such a condition?" The newly ordained must say: "I will be fully and completely cognizant."

Since all extant vinayas appear to have similar provisions, it must be obvious that Buddhist bhikṣus need not be—by virtue of their own rules—beggars. They had, or were allowed, rich foods, permanent provisions offered by the laity, and their religious community could also provide their food. In fact, both Buddhist vinaya texts and non-Buddhist literary sources indicate that Buddhist bhikṣus had a reputation for eating very well indeed. In the former there are stories of more than one Buddhist monk dying as a result of overindulging in rich foods, and even accounts that suggest that the group's fine fare could motivate outsiders to seek admission. In the Pravrajyāvastu of the MŪlasarvĀstivĀdavinaya, for example, a text begins, "A member of another religious group came to the Jetavana monastery. He saw that lovely seats had been arranged there and excellent food and drink had been prepared. He thought to himself: 'The enjoyment of worldly things by these Buddhist śrāmaṇas is lovely…. I am going to enter their order too.'" Thetext goes on to make a rule against admitting someone who also belonged to another religious group, but does not deny or criticize the characterization of Buddhist facilities as well appointed and possessed of "excellent food and drink." (The diet of most Western Christian monks also appears to have been far superior to that of ordinary people.)

But if a Buddhist bhikṣu was not—at least in the period of the vinaya texts—what he was called (e.g., a beggar), the question of what he was still remains. The term bhikṣu is usually, and conventionally, translated into English as "monk," and this rendering should help in understanding what a bhikṣu was, but it does so only with the addition of clear qualifications, in part, at least, because even in the West there has never been agreement on what a monk was—the entire history of Western monasticism can be viewed as a long, sometimes acrimonious, and unresolved debate about just this question. Moreover, most monks in the West were also not what they were called. The English word monk is derived from a Greek word that meant "(living) singly or alone," and yet almost all Western monks lived collectively in ordered, formally structured groups. In spite of that—and this is a particularly important obstacle to understanding the Buddhist bhikṣu—the figure of the monk in the modern West has been almost hopelessly romanticized as a simple, solitary figure given up to deep contemplation. The possibilities for misunderstanding here are very great.

Western monks—insofar as one can generalize—not only lived communally in usually well-endowed, permanent, and architecturally sophisticated complexes with an assured and usually abundant diet, they were also almost exclusively occupied with communally chanting or singing religious texts for the religious benefits or "merit" of their living and deceased donors and benefactors. If this is what a monk is understood to be, then a Buddhist bhikṣu might indeed be called a kind of monk. Certainly their vinayas are almost obsessed with avoiding any behavior that might alienate lay followers and donors, and they are saturated with rules designed, it seems, to make bhikṣus acceptable to donors as worthy objects of support and, consequently, as reliable means for donors to make merit. These "monks" too are in the service of the laity. Indeed, all Buddhist vinayas, it seems, contain detailed rules about a bhikṣu's obligations to the laity, one of which is to recite daily, both communally and individually, religious verses for the merit of their benefactors. Much to the chagrin of those modern scholars who want to maintain that meditation was an important part of Buddhist monastic practice, moreover, the vinaya texts that we have say very little about meditation and allow very little room for its practice. They are equally chary of radical ascetic practices. This literature—and we have a very great deal of it—is concerned with maintaining and promoting a successful institution.

The extent of vinaya literature

The vinaya literature that has survived is enormous and still very little studied. It is commonly said that the vinayas of six Buddhist orders or schools have come down to us. Apart, however, from small fragments in Sanskrit from Central Asian manuscript finds, and the shortest section called the PrĀtimokṢa, the vinayas of four of these orders—the MahĀsĀṂghika, Sarvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka, and MahĪŚĀsaka—have survived exclusively in Chinese translations. The Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya has fared better: Large parts of it are available in a relatively early Sanskrit manuscript, large parts in a Chinese translation, and what may be the whole of it in a very literal Tibetan translation. The vinaya of the TheravĀda order, finally, is preserved entirely in Pāli, an Indian language, but scholars now agree that it too is a "translation" from some more original version.

At least two points, however, need to be noted in regard to all these vinayas. We do not know if any of these vinayas are complete because we do not actually know what a complete vinaya is. Until very recently the Theravāda or Pāli Vinaya, even though it was redacted in Sri Lanka, was taken as a model of what a complete vinaya in India would have looked like. Now, however, as the other vinayas are becoming better known, this has become problematic, and it is beginning to appear that the Pāli Vinaya is missing some potentially old sections that are found elsewhere under titles such as Nidāna (introductions) or Mātṛkā (matrices). This remains to be worked out, but the other important thing that needs to be noted is that none of the vinayas as we have them is early. The four vinayas preserved only in Chinese were all translated in the fifth century and consequently can represent only what these vinayas had become by that time—they do not necessarily tell us anything about what they looked like before then. The shape of the Theravāda-vinaya too cannot be taken back prior to the fifth century—its actual contents can only be dated from Buddhaghosa's roughly fifth-century commentary on it, and even then both this commentary and the canonical text are known almost exclusively only on the basis of extremely late (eighteenth- and nineteenth-century) manuscripts. The Mūlasarvāstivāda-vinaya was not translated into Chinese until the eighth century, and into Tibetan only in the ninth, but it is the only vinaya for which we have significant amounts of actual manuscript material from, perhaps, the fifth, sixth, or seventh centuries. Regardless, then, of how one looks at it, the material we now have represents vinaya literature in a uniformly late stage of its development, and it can tell us very richly what it had become, and very poorly what it had earlier been.

The structure of vinaya literature

Perhaps not surprisingly almost all of these late vinayas look alike in broad outline. Almost all are, or were, structured in the same way and have basically the same component parts or sections. The shortest section, and the one that most scholars consider to be the oldest, is called the Prātimokṣa, a term that has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The Pratimoksa is a list of graded offenses that begins with the most serious and continues with groups of offenses that are of lesser and lesser severity. The number of offenses for monks differs somewhat from order to order, the longest list (Sarvāstivāda) contains 263, the shortest (Mahāsāṃghika) has 218, but all use the same system of classification into named groups.

The most serious offenses, in the order given, are unchastity (in a startling variety of ways), theft, intentionally taking human life or instigating the taking of a life, and claiming to have religious attainments or supernatural powers that one does not have. The last of these is, of course, the only one that is unique to Buddhist vinaya, and is one that could have been a source of considerable friction and disruption for the communal life. It involved monks claiming a full understanding and perception of truths that they did not have; claims to stages of meditations and psychic powers that had not been achieved; and, interestingly, claims of regular and close relationships with divinities and a host of local spirits.

These four offenses are called pārājikas, a term commonly translated as "defeats," and it is still commonly asserted that the commission of any one of these by a bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī resulted in his or her immediate and definitive expulsion from the order. This, however, was almost certainly not the case in India. Every vinaya except the Pāli Vinaya contains clear rules and ritual procedures that allowed a bhikṣu (and it seems a bhikṣuṇī) who had committed a pārājika to remain a member of the community, at a reduced status to be sure, but still with many of the rights and privileges of an ordained bhikṣu (or bhikṣuṇī). This is just one more way in which the Pāli Vinaya appears to be unrepresentative.

In addition to the pārājikas, the Prātimoksa lists six further categories of offenses (a seventh outlines certain procedures), again in decreasing order of seriousness. These again involve issues of sexuality and property, but overwhelmingly, perhaps, matters of proper decorum. Actual ethical concerns are surprisingly underdeveloped.

A second component part of the vinaya is called the Vibhaṅga, or explanation, and is closely related to the first. It is a kind of commentary on each of the rules listed in the Prātimokṣa, which typically describes the incident that gave rise to each of the rules, the conditions under which they must be applied, or in light of which an infraction of the rule does not actually constitute an offense. There are an impressive number of loopholes, and the dialectical ingenuity applied to the interpretation of the rules here is easily a match for that found in the higher reaches of Buddhist scholastic philosophy.

Although the bare Prātimokṣa was regularly recited at the fortnightly communal assembly of monks, it is unlikely that the rules themselves were ever actually applied without recourse to a Vibhaṅga, and this makes all the difference in the world. The Mūlasarvāstivāda Prātimokṣa, for example, has—like all the Prātimokṣas—a rule that would seem to forbid the engagement of bhikṣus in money transactions, but its Vibhaṅga unequivocally states that they must, for religious purposes, accept permanent money endowments and lend that money out to generate interest. This is but one of many possible examples.

A third component of Buddhist vinayas is what is called the Vinayavastu or Khandhaka, both vastu and khandhaka meaning here something like "division" or "chapter." There are generally between seventeen and twenty vastus, and they are named according to the main topic that they treat. There is, for example, a chapter on entering the religious life (Pravrajyāvastu), a chapter on the rainy season retreat (Varṣāvastu), a chapter on medicine (Bhaiṣajyavastu), a chapter on bedding and seats (Sayanāsanavastu), and so on. Like the Vibhaṅga, this part of a vinaya is large and very rich in both details and illustrative stories. The name of a vastu is, however, by no means an exhaustive indication of what it contains. The chapter on robes (Cīvaravastu), for example, does indeed deal with robes, but it also contains a good deal of material on Buddhist monastic inheritance law and the proper handling of a deceased monk's estate, which, in some cases at least, appears to have been very large. One of these vastus, the chapter on small matters (Kṣudrakavastu), is, ironically, so large that it sometimes is treated as a separate component.

What has so far been described refers strictly speaking to a vinaya for bhikṣus. But another component of a vinaya is both a separate Prātimokṣa and a separate Vibhaṅga for bhikṣuṇīs, a term that is usually translated as "nun." Although the number of rules for bhikṣuṇīs, or nuns, in their Prātimokṣas is significantly larger than the rules for monks, the literature dealing with them is considerably smaller, and, for example, there appears not to have been a separate Vinayavastu for nuns, although the Pāli Khandhaka does contain a chapter on nuns, and a large part of one of the two volumes of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Kṣudrakavastu also is devoted to them.

Not so long ago a description of canonical vinaya literature would have ended here, with perhaps a nod toward the Pāli Parivāra, which is usually, but probably wrongly, described simply as an appendix. But very recent work has begun to look more carefully at the group of texts preserved in Chinese that are called Nidānas and Mātṛkās, and their counterparts preserved in the Tibetan translation of a large two-volume work called the Uttaragrantha. These texts seem to represent an independent ordering and treatment of vinaya rules, and there are some indications that this treatment may be older than that found in the better-known parts of the vinaya. This research, however, has only just begun, and the relative age of even the better-known parts of the vinaya is itself unresolved.

Theories on the date of vinaya literature

There are two general and opposed theories concerning the development of vinaya literature, both of which at least start from one of its most obvious characteristics: Although belonging to different orders or schools, the vinayas that have come down to us have, as already noted, a great deal in common, both in terms of their structure and their general contents. One theory would see these shared elements as early and argue that they predate the division of the Buddhist community into separate orders or schools. Another theory would see these same elements as late, as the result of mutual borrowing, conflation, and a process of leveling. There are, of course, arguments and evidence to support both theories.

Ancillary vinaya texts

In addition to canonical vinaya texts, there are, finally, large numbers of commentaries, subcommentaries, and handbooks. The last of these may have been particularly important since it seems likely that most monks did not actually read the enormous canonical vinayas, but relied instead on summaries, manuals, and such handbooks. But this too is a literature that has been very little explored and remains largely accessible only to specialists.

See also:Festivals and Calendrical Rituals; Precepts; Robes and Clothing; Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda


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Gregory Schopen