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Buddhist Monastic Code I
Chapter 1 (3. Edition 2013)
Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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Alternate Edition: Secound Edition, 2007

Note by the editor: Passages marked with an asterix * at its end are additions or modification in regard of the secound previous edition. (aside of numbering layout of the suttas, no changes in this chapter.)

The Pāṭimokkha

The Pāṭimokkha is available to us in several recensions, some in Indic languages, others in Tibetan or Chinese translations. However, of the Indic recensions, only one — the Pali — is still a living tradition, recited fortnightly and put into practice by Theravādin bhikkhus throughout the world. This is the recension translated and explained in this book.

The meaning of the term pāṭimokkha is a matter of conjecture. According to the Mahāvagga it means "the beginning, the head (or entrance — mukha), the foremost (pamukha) of skillful qualities" (Mv.II.3.4). The term serves as the name not only of the basic code of training rules, but also of a sermon in which the Buddha enumerated the basic principles common to the teachings of all Buddhas: "The non-doing of all evil, the performance of what is skillful, and the purification of one's mind: This is the Buddhas' message" (Dhp. 183). Thus whatever the etymology of the term pāṭimokkha, it denotes a set of principles basic to the practice of the religion.

The basic code of training rules for bhikkhus, in its Pali recension, contains 227 rules divided into eight sections in accordance with the penalty assigned by each rule: pārājika, defeat; saṅghādisesa, formal meeting; aniyata, indefinite; nissaggiya pācittiya, forfeiture and confession; pācittiya, confession; pāṭidesanīya, acknowledgement; sekhiya, training; and adhikaraṇa-samatha, settling of issues. The following chapters will discuss the precise meanings of these terms.

Three of these terms, though, do not denote penalties. The aniyata rules give directions for judging uncertain cases; the sekhiya rules simply say, "(This is) a training to be followed," without assigning a particular penalty for not following them; and the adhikaraṇa-samatha rules give procedures to follow in settling issues that may arise in the Community. Thus there are only five types of penalty mentioned in the Pāṭimokkha rules themselves, ranging from permanent expulsion from the Community to simple confession in the presence of another bhikkhu. None of the penalties, we should note, involve physical punishment of any kind. And we should further note that the purpose of undergoing the penalties is not somehow to absolve one from guilt or to erase any bad kamma one may incur by breaking the rules. Rather, the purpose is both personal and social: to strengthen one's resolve to refrain from such behavior in the future, and to reassure one's fellow bhikkhus that one is still serious about following the training.

In addition to the penalties directly mentioned in the rules, there are also penalties derived from the rules by the Vibhaṅga and commentaries. These derived penalties deal with two sorts of cases: 1) A bhikkhu tries to commit an action mentioned in one of the rules, but the action for one reason or another does not reach completion (e.g., he tries to kill a person, but the person doesn't die). 2) A bhikkhu commits an action not directly covered in any rule, but similar to one that is (e.g., he strikes an unordained person, which is not directly covered in a rule, while the act of striking a bhikkhu is).

Penalties of this sort, when derived from the pārājika and saṅghādisesa rules, include thullaccaya (grave offense) and dukkaṭa (wrong doing); those derived from the nissaggiya pācittiya, pācittiya, and pāṭidesanīya rules — except for the rule against insults — include only the dukkaṭa. The penalties derived from the rule against insults include dubbhāsita (wrong speech) as well. As for the sekhiya rules, the Vibhaṅga states that to disobey any of them out of disrespect entails a dukkaṭa. All of these derived penalties may be cleared through confession.

There may, of course, be times when the assigned penalties are not enough to deter an unconscientious bhikkhu from committing an offense repeatedly. In such cases, the Community in which he is living may, if it sees fit, formally impose additional penalties on him as a means of bringing him into line. These transactions range from stripping him of some of the privileges of seniority, to banishment from that particular Community, and on to suspension from the Bhikkhu Saṅgha as a whole. In each case the punishment is temporary; if the bhikkhu realizes his errors and mends his ways, the Community is to revoke the act against him and return him to his former status. These punishments are treated in detail in BMC2, Chapter 20.

Thus, taken as a whole, the Vinaya's system of penalties makes use of three basic principles — confession, forfeiture, and various degrees of ostracism from the Community — as means of enforcing the rules. To understand the wisdom of this system, it is important to realize how each of these principles is related to the practice of the Dhamma and the training of the mind.

Confession: There are several spots in the discourses (e.g., DN 2, MN 140) where the Buddha states, "It is a cause of growth in the Dhamma and discipline of the noble ones when, seeing a transgression (of one's own) as a transgression, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma and exercises restraint in the future." From the context each time the Buddha makes this statement, it is clear that "makes amends" means confessing one's mistakes. In another passage (MN 61), the Buddha informs his son, Rāhula, that if one sees that one's words or deeds have harmed oneself or others, one should confess them to a knowledgeable companion in the celibate life. All those who have purified their thoughts, words, and deeds in the past, all those who are doing so in the present, and all those who will do so in the future, he adds, have acted, are acting, and will act in just this way. In addition, one of the basic requisites for exerting oneself in the practice is that one not be fraudulent or deceitful, and that one declare oneself to one's knowledgeable companions in the celibate life in line with one's actual behavior (AN V.53). Thus a willingness to confess one's misdeeds is an essential factor in progress along the path.

Forfeiture, in most cases, is simply a symbolic adjunct to confession. One forfeits the object in question, confesses the offense, and then receives the object in return. In a few cases, though — where the object is improper for a bhikkhu to use or own — one must break it or forfeit it for good. In these cases, forfeiture serves as a check against greed and as a reminder of two essential principles — contentment with little and modesty — that the Buddha extolled to Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (AN VIII.53) as absolutely basic to the practice. In particular, AN IV.28 identifies contentment as one of the basic traditions of the noble ones, the essential culture of the religion as a whole.

Ostracism: In a famous passage (SN XLV.2), the Buddha tells Ven. Ānanda, "Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is the entirety of the celibate life. When a bhikkhu has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path." Thus one of the few things a bhikkhu serious about the practice would naturally fear would be to be ostracized by the well-behaved members of the Community, for that would be a true barrier to his spiritual progress. This fear would then help deter him from any action that might entail such ostracism.

In this way, the Vinaya's system of penalties provides rehabilitation for offenders and deterrence against offenses — with confession the means of rehabilitation, and ostracism the deterrent — growing directly out of principles basic to the practice of the Dhamma.

Offenses. In analyzing offenses for the purpose of determining penalties, the Vibhaṅga divides an action into five factors: the effort, the perception under which it is made, the intention motivating it, the object at which it is aimed, and the result. In some of the rules, all five factors play a role in determining what is and is not a full offense. In others, only two, three, or four play a role. For example, under the pārājika rule forbidding murder, all five factors have to be present for a full offense: The object has to be a human being, the bhikkhu has to perceive him/her as a living being, he has to have murderous intent, he has to make an effort for the person to die, and the person has to die.

If any of these factors is missing, the penalty changes. For instance, object: If the bhikkhu kills a dog, the penalty is a pācittiya. Perception: If he cremates a friend, thinking that the friend is dead, then even if the friend is actually alive but severely comatose, the bhikkhu incurs no penalty. Intention: If he accidentally drops a rock on a person standing below him, he incurs no penalty even if the person dies. Effort: If he sees a person fall into the river but makes no effort to save the person, he incurs no penalty even if the person drowns. Result: If he tries to kill a person, but only succeeds in injuring him, he incurs a thullaccaya.

In some rules, though, the factors of intention, perception, and result do not make any difference in determining offenses. For example, if a bhikkhu is sleeping alone in a room and a woman comes in and lies down in the room with him, he incurs the pācittiya for lying down in the same lodging as a woman even though his intention was to lie down alone and he was unaware of her presence. A bhikkhu who drinks a glass of wine, thinking it to be grape juice, incurs the pācittiya for taking an intoxicant all the same. A bhikkhu who tries to frighten another bhikkhu incurs a pācittiya regardless of whether the other bhikkhu is actually frightened.

Of these factors, intention is the most variable. Under some rules, it deals simply with the issue of whether the bhikkhu's action was fully deliberate. In others, it deals with the impulse, the mental state, e.g., anger or lust, impelling his action. In others, it deals with the immediate aim of this action; in others, with the underlying motive that the immediate aim is intended to serve. In still others, it deals with combinations of any of these four.

Another variation is that in rules where a bhikkhu may be put into a passive role in committing an act that would fulfill the factor of effort, the factor of intention is changed to consent: mental acquiescence to the act combined with a physical or verbal expression of that acquiescence. Under some rules, such as the rule against sexual intercourse, simply letting the act happen counts as physical acquiescence even if one lies perfectly still, and the question of whether one incurs a penalty depends entirely on the state of one's mind. Under other rules, though — such as the rule against lustful contact with a woman, which includes cases where the woman is the agent making the contact — simply lying still is not enough to count as a physical sign of acquiescence, and even if one consents mentally, say, to a woman's fondling, one would incur a penalty only if one says something or responds with a physical movement to her action.

Because of the many variations possible in the factor of intention, it might be argued that it should be consistently divided into such sub-factors as presence or absence of deliberation, impulse, immediate aim, and motive. However, the Vibhaṅga itself is not consistent in distinguishing among these three. Under Pr 3 and Sg 1, for instance, it clearly distinguishes among them, in that impulse and motive play no part in determining the offense in question, whereas deliberation and immediate aim do. Under Sg 8 and 9, however, the impulse — anger — is conflated under motive: the desire to see another bhikkhu expelled from the Saṅgha. In fact, under most rules the Vibhaṅga does not make a clear distinction among these sub-factors, so it seems artificial to force a consistent distinction throughout. Thus the approach followed here is to place these considerations under one heading — intention — and to alert the reader to the distinctions among them only when important.

The factor of effort is basic to every rule and is also used to determine offenses in cases where a bhikkhu intends to break a rule but does not complete the action. For instance, in the case of stealing, the efforts involved are said to begin when, acting under the intent to steal, a bhikkhu gets dressed and starts walking to the object. With each of these preliminary efforts — literally, with every step — he incurs a dukkaṭa. At first glance, this may seem extreme, but when we view his state of mind as having ultimate importance, this system of assigning penalties is appropriate. Every step intentionally taken toward an offense reinforces an unskillful state of mind; the knowledge that each of these steps incurs an additional offense may help deter a bhikkhu from his original plans.

Thus it is important, when reading about each training rule, to pay attention to what role these five factors play in determining the offenses related to the rule. And, of course, it is important for each bhikkhu to pay attention to all five of these factors in all of his actions to make sure that he does not fall at any time into an offense. This is where training in discipline becomes part of the training of the mind leading to Awakening. A bhikkhu who is mindful to analyze his actions into these five factors, to be alert to them as they arise, and to behave consistently in such a manner that he avoids committing any offenses, is developing three qualities: mindfulness; an analytical attitude toward phenomena in his thoughts, words, and deeds; and persistence in abandoning unskillful qualities and developing skillful ones within himself. These are the first three of the seven factors for Awakening, and form the basis for the remaining four: rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.

Pv.VI.4, in reviewing the Vibhaṅga's five factors for analyzing offenses, devises a number of categories for classifying offenses, the most important being the distinction between rules carrying a penalty only when broken intentionally through correct perception (sacittaka), and those carrying a penalty even when broken unintentionally or through misperception (acittaka).

Although it may seem harsh to impose penalties for unintentional actions, we must again reflect on the state of mind that leads to such actions. In some acts, of course, the intention makes all the difference between guilt and innocence. Taking an article with intent to return it, for example, is something else entirely from taking it with intent to steal. There are, however, other acts with damaging consequences that, when performed unintentionally, reveal carelessness and lack of circumspection in areas where a person may reasonably be held responsible. Many of the rules dealing with the proper care of Community property and one's basic requisites fall in this category. Except for one very unlikely situation, though, none of the major rules carry a penalty if broken unintentionally, while the minor rules that do carry such penalties may be regarded as useful lessons in mindfulness.

Another scheme introduced in the ancient commentaries for classifying offenses is the distinction between those that the world criticizes (loka-vajja) and those that only the rules criticize (paṇṇati-vajja). The Commentary defines this distinction by saying that the term loka-vajja applies to rules that can be broken only with an unskillful state of mind (i.e., greed, anger, or delusion), whereas paṇṇati-vajja applies to rules that can be broken with a skillful state of mind. It notes that one way to classify a particular rule under either category is to note how the Buddha changed it if he took the opportunity to amend it. If he made the rule more stringent — as in the case of Pr 3, against killing human beings — offenses against the rule are loka-vajja. If he made the rule more lax — as in the case of Pc 57, against overly-frequent bathing — offenses against the rule are paṇṇati-vajja.

The Vinaya-mukha redefines the terms as follows:

"Some offenses are faults as far as the world is concerned — wrong and damaging even if committed by ordinary people who are not bhikkhus — examples being robbery and murder, as well as such lesser faults as assault and verbal abuse. Offenses of this sort are termed loka-vajja. There are also offenses that are faults only as far as the Buddha's ordinances are concerned — neither wrong nor damaging if committed by ordinary people; wrong only if committed by bhikkhus, on the grounds that they run counter to the Buddha's ordinances. Offenses of this sort are termed paṇṇati-vajja."

Even a cursory glance at the Pāṭimokkha rules will show that many of them deal with the latter sort of offense, and that such offenses concern relatively minor matters. The question often arises, then: Why this concern with minutiae? The answer is that the rules deal with social relationships — among the bhikkhus themselves and between the bhikkhus and the laity — and that social relationships are often defined by seemingly minor points of behavior.

Take, for instance, the rule that a bhikkhu not eat food unless it is handed to him or to a fellow bhikkhu by an unordained person on that day. This rule has wide-ranging ramifications. It means, among other things, that a bhikkhu may not leave human society to lead a solitary hermit's existence, foraging for food on his own. He must have frequent contact with humanity, however minimal, and in that contact he performs a service to others, even if simply offering them a noble example of conduct and giving them an opportunity to develop the virtue of generosity. Many of the other seemingly trivial rules — such as those forbidding digging in the soil and damaging plant life — will reveal, on reflection, implications of a similar scope.

Thus the extremely detailed nature of the rules cannot be attributed to a strictly legalist temperament. And from what we have seen of the way in which the Buddha formulated the rules — dealing with cases as they arose — there is reason to doubt that he himself wanted them to form an airtight system. This impression is explicitly borne out by several passages in the Canon. Take, for instance, this discourse:

"On one occasion the Blessed One was living in Vesālī, in the Great Wood. Then a certain Vajjian bhikkhu went to him... and said: 'Venerable sir, this recitation of more than 150 training rules comes every fortnight. I cannot train in reference to them.'

"'Bhikkhu, can you train in reference to the three trainings: the training in heightened virtue, the training in heightened mind, the training in heightened discernment?'

"'Yes, venerable sir, I can...'

"'Then train in reference to those three trainings... Your passion, aversion, and delusion — when trained in heightened virtue, heightened mind, and heightened discernment will be abandoned. You — with the abandoning of passion... aversion... delusion — will not do anything unskillful or engage in any evil.'

"Later on, that bhikkhu trained in heightened virtue... heightened mind... heightened discernment... His passion... aversion... delusion were abandoned... He did not do anything unskillful or engage in any evil."

AN 3.85

Another discourse with a similar point:

"'Bhikkhus, this recitation of more than 150 training rules comes every fortnight, in reference to which sons of good families desiring the goal train themselves. There are these three trainings under which all that is gathered. Which three? The training in heightened virtue, the training in heightened mind, the training in heightened discernment...

"'There is the case, bhikkhus, where a bhikkhu is wholly accomplished in virtue, concentration, and discernment (i.e., is an arahant). With reference to the lesser and minor training rules, he falls into offenses and rehabilitates himself. Why is that? Because I have not declared that to be a disqualification in these circumstances. But as for the training rules that are basic to the celibate life and proper to the celibate life, he is one whose virtue is permanent, whose virtue is steadfast. Having undertaken them, he trains in reference to the training rules. With the ending of (mental) effluents, he dwells in the effluent-free awareness-release and discernment-release, having directly known and realized them for himself right in the here-and-now.

"'Those who are partially accomplished attain a part; those who are wholly accomplished, the whole. The training rules, I tell you, are not in vain.'"

AN 3.86