The Vinaya (a Buddhist Pali and Sanskrit word) literally means "leading out," "education," and "discipline."
It is the regulatory framework for the Buddhist monastic order, the Sangha, based on the canonical texts called the Discipline Collection (Vinaya Pitaka). The teachings of the Buddha, or Buddha-Dharma as it was known in ancient times, can be divided into two broad categories: Doctrine and Discipline, Dharma and Vinaya. (The third collection is known as the Abhidharma, the "Higher Teaching") that explains everything in exacting detail, as opposed to the conventional and practical language of the sutras and monastic precepts. Another term for Buddhism is Dharma-vinaya.
At the heart of the Vinaya is a set of rules known as Patimokkha (Pratimoksha). Moksha is an ancient Indian word for "liberation" from rebirth and suffering. Pati or prati is "path" or practice, the steps to liberation. It is the essence of the Vinaya recited fortnightly (every two weeks) by monastics.
The Buddha was concerned not only with establishing the Dharma in the world but also the Sangha to preserve and promote the teachings for a long time after his presence. Many of the rules were established with this consideration in mind. Buddha statue at Sukhothai, Thailand (Aidan McRae Thomson/Flickr.com).
The Vinaya was passed down orally from the Buddha to his elder (immediate) disciples, the theras and theris, who recited and memorized it for posterity. Eventually, various Vinayas arose in different Buddhist schools. Some were the result of schisms, others were based on geographical or cultural differences and the different sects that developed.
Three of these are still in use. All three Vinayas are the same in substance with only minor differences.
The Buddha's first discourse was delivered to the Five Ascetics with no mention of discipline or rules of conduct. Their dedication, having lived for a long time as wandering Indian ascetics and yogis, made such instruction unnecessary. Later, as others unfamiliar with the supreme-life (brahmacarya) became monastics, it became necessary to formalize rules of behavior appropriate for the survival of the Sangha and Dharma.
THERAVADA: Buddhist monastics in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, and Indonesia follow the Theravada Vinaya, which has 227 rules for monks and 311 for the revived school of nuns.
MAHAYANA: Buddhist monastics in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam follow the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya (四分律), which has 250 rules for monks 348 for nuns. Some schools in Japan technically follow this, but many Zen monks there are married, which would be a violation of the rules. Other Japanese "monks" only follow the Bodhisattva Precepts.
VAJRAYANA: Buddhist monastics in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia, and Mongolia follow the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, which has 253 rules for monks, 364 for nuns (although, in theory, the female Monastic Order was never introduced in Tibet). However, the Dalai Lama authorized followers of the Tibetan tradition, known generally as Vajrayana, to be ordained as nuns in traditions that have such ordination).
In addition to the core patimokkha rules, there are many supplementary rules concerning etiquette and less important details that might easily vary with culture, climate, and conditions. But most schools, particularly Theravada, are opposed to making changes or reinterpreting what the Buddha taught.
- In a very touching story, the Buddha said to Ananda, "When I am no longer here, if the Sangha wishes to, it can gather and change the minor rules but should keep the major ones." In a terrible lapse due to his grief at the prospect of losing the Buddha, Ananda neglected to ask the Buddha which rules were "minor." So the Theravada school has been very reluctant to change any.
The Buddha constantly reminded his "hearers" (savakas) that it was the "spirit" of the rules that counted more than technicalities. But sadly, as with professional priests the world over, it is the technicalities that seem to count for more than the sentiment behind them. The guidelines themselves are designed to assure a satisfying life centered around meditation. The rules do not make sense except in this context. They will otherwise seem too restrictive.
(SirenSongsIndia) Buddhist monastics (monks, novices, and ten-precepts nuns) from Nepal on almsround in modern India, Kalachakra ceremony, January 2006.
But for one who meditates, they are just right. The Sangha now seems more oriented towards preserving the Dharma and teaching. But it was originally set up to foster practice. The Dharma will survive in the world so long as at least ONE person is still practicing. When that person stops, the world will lose path of purification (Vissudhi-magga), the path to freedom (Vimutti-magga), the path to complete liberation (moksha) the Buddha rediscovered.
It provides a perfect springboard for the higher attainments (the jhanas, or "meditative absorptions," and four stages of enlightenment). Practitioners, particularly monastic practitioners, were instructed by the Buddha to live as "islands unto themselves" depending only on the Dharma and accomplished disciples as guides after his passing.
In this sense, living life as the Vinaya prescribes it is "more than merely a means to an end: it is very nearly the end in itself" (Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988, p. 89, quoting Carrithers).
Surrounding the rules is a range of texts. Each rule is accompanied by an origin story, the circumstances that led to its establishment. For the Buddha never made a rule except that circumstances warranted it. Famously he was once asked, "Why are there now so many rules and so few enlightened disciples?"
This was during his own life in the first 45 years of the Dharma being reintroduced to the world. He answered that that is the way it is. At first disciples (due it seems to karma and having waited so long for a fully enlightened teacher to arise in the world) are very well behaved, and there is no need for formal rules. But soon people become lazy or corrupted, and the necessity for more and more rules arises.
Many of the Vinaya stories, which are like sutras themselves, explain the origin of a parituclar rule. It is possible to trace their development as a skillful response to specific situations or misbehavior. There are many sutra-like texts that are more general statements about Buddhist doctrine or that give biographical details of some of the great disciples and their enlightenment. Other sections detail how the rules are to be applied, how breaches are to be dealt with, and how disputes among monastics are best handled.
- Some say the Buddha was the first to develop democratic processes for the functioning of the Sangha. They were certainly not in use in ancient India prior to the setting up of the Buddha's Doctrine and Discipline. And they were soon picked up by the ancient Greeks, who are now credited with being the founders of democratic principles.
Originally there were no explicit rules, yet the Buddha and his male and female disciples lived in harmony. Most of the time they would have been "wandering" alone or in small groups far from home. They were not "priests" (brahmins, brahmana) but recluses (shamans in an early sense of the word, shramana)
Every year, during the rains of the Indian monsoon season, when traveling becomes difficult if not impossible, the monastics would come together for a three months for intensive meditation practice. This rains retreat (Vas or Vassa, Wassa) period is still observed, particularly in Theravada countries.
As the Sangha, open to all, grew with many people of lesser natural ability who remained unenlightened, it became necessary to institute more and more guidelines for the ease of those who practiced well and the restraint of those who did not.
Initially the rules were flexible and adapted to the situation. But by the time of the Buddha's passing (parinirvana) there would have been a body of formal rules guiding monastics.
In the Maha-pari-nirvana sutra (the "Great Passing into Final Nirvana discourse") the Buddha, as part of his final instructions, tells the monastics gathered around him that they can abandon some "minor" rules but should stick to the "major" ones without stating which were which. (It could be imputed, but many monastics have not wanted to take the chance of tampering with what the Buddha taught until later liberalized schools arose in faraway countries living in circumstances very different from ancient India, such as America and England.
It has therefore generally been decided that all rules be kept if not always followed by all monastics. They are not "laws" but guides. And only four of them, the "defeat offenses (parajikas) entail immediate and irreversible expulsion from the formal fully-ordained monastic order, technically speaking, even if one might have difficulty attaining the "fruits of recluseship" or immediate benefits of being a monastic (samannaphala). Even then, however, one could revert to novice status and live as a monastic.
Immediately after the Buddha's passing, Maha Kassapa called together the First Council. It was at this convocation in Rajagriha [modern Rajgir], Magadha, India, that the teachings (discourses and rules) were recited, collected, and sorted. It is said that the huge volume of teachings were recited from practiced memory, with Ananda reciting the sutras and Upali reciting the Vinaya. Source
There are few English translations of the entire Vinaya texts. The Patimokkha recitation is available but not a readable collection of all the detailed stories. The exception comes from one eccentric and idiosyncratic American monk within the Thai tradition: