The Vinaya Pitaka, the first division of the Tipitaka, is the textual framework upon which the monastic community (Sangha) is built. It includes not only the rules governing the life of every Theravada bhikkhu (monk) and bhikkhuni (nun), but also a host of procedures and conventions of etiquette that support harmonious relations, both among the monastics themselves, and between the monastics and their lay supporters, upon whom they depend for all their material needs.
When the Buddha first established the Sangha, the community initially lived in harmony without any codified rules of conduct. As the Sangha gradually grew in number and evolved into a more complex society, occasions inevitably arose when a member would act in an unskillful way. Whenever one of these cases was brought to the Buddha’s attention, he would lay down a rule establishing a suitable punishment for the offense, as a deterrent to future misconduct. The Buddha’s standard reprimand was itself a powerful corrective:
It is not fit, foolish man, it is not becoming, it is not proper, it is unworthy of a recluse, it is not lawful, it ought not to be done. How could you, foolish man, having gone forth under this Dhamma and Discipline which are well-taught, [commit such and such offense]?… It is not, foolish man, for the benefit of un-believers, nor for the increase in the number of believers, but, foolish man, it is to the detriment of both unbelievers and believers, and it causes wavering in some.
— The Book of the Discipline, Part I, by I.B. Horner (London: Pali Text Society, 1982), pp. 36-37.
The monastic tradition and the rules upon which it is built are sometimes naïvely criticized — particularly here in the West — as irrelevant to the “modern” practice of Buddhism. Some see the Vinaya as a throwback to an archaic patriarchy, based on a hodge-podge of ancient rules and customs — quaint cultural relics that only obscure the essence of “true” Buddhist practice. This misguided view overlooks one crucial fact: it is thanks to the unbroken lineage of monastics who have consistently upheld and protected the rules of the Vinaya for almost 2,600 years that we find ourselves today with the luxury of receiving the priceless teachings of Dhamma. Were it not for the Vinaya, and for those who continue to keep it alive to this day, there would be no Buddhism.
It helps to keep in mind that the name the Buddha gave to the spiritual path he taught was “Dhamma-vinaya” — the Doctrine (Dhamma) and Discipline (Vinaya) — suggesting an integrated body of wisdom and ethical training. The Vinaya is thus an indispensable facet and foundation of all the Buddha’s teachings, inseparable from the Dhamma, and worthy of study by all followers — lay and ordained, alike. Lay practitioners will find in the Vinaya Pitaka many valuable lessons concerning human nature, guidance on how to establish and maintain a harmonious community or organization, and many profound teachings of the Dhamma itself. But its greatest value, perhaps, lies in its power to inspire the layperson to consider the extraordinary possibilities presented by a life of true renunciation, a life lived fully in tune with the Dhamma.
- I. Suttavibhanga — the basic rules of conduct (Patimokkha) for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, along with the “origin story” for each one.
- II. Khandhaka
- A. Mahavagga — in addition to rules of conduct and etiquette for the Sangha, this section contains several important sutta-like texts, including an account of the period immediately following the Buddha’s Awakening, his first sermons to the group of five monks, and stories of how some of his great disciples joined the Sangha and themselves attained Awakening.
- B. Cullavagga — an elaboration of the bhikkhus’ etiquette and duties, as well as the rules and procedures for addressing offences that may be committed within the Sangha.
- III. Parivara — A recapitulation of the previous sections, with summaries of the rules classified and re-classified in various ways for instructional purposes.
- The Bhikkhuni Patimokkha of the Six Schools, by Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (Bangkok: Thammasat University, 1991). A comparative look at the nuns’ Patimokkha rules in six Buddhist schools.
- The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople compiled and explained by Bhikkhu Ariyesako (Sanghaloka Forest Hermitage, 1999). A very readable summary of the bhikkhus’ Vinaya rules, aimed at giving laypeople a better understanding of the monks’ way of life.
- Book of the Discipline, Vols I-VI, by I.B. Horner (London: Pali Text Society, 1982). An almost complete (though archaic) English translation of the Vinaya Pitaka.
- The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volume I: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2007). A comprehensive modern commentary to the 227 Patimokkha rules for Theravada monks.
- The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volume II: The Khandhaka Training Rules Translated and Explained, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Valley Center, CA: Metta Forest Monastery, 2007). A detailed explanation of the Khandhaka training rules.
- Going Forth: A Call to Buddhist Monkhood, by Sumana Samanera (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1983).
- Sisters in Solitude, by Karma Lekshe Tsomo (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996). A translation of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka bhikkhuni Patimokkhas.
- With Robes and Bowl, by Bhikkhu Khantipalo (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1986). A first-hand glimpse of the way of life for a meditating forest monk in Thailand.
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