A Buddhist monastic holds up their saffron-colored robe

Understanding the Vinaya

Amy Paris Langenberg on the history, evolution, and modern manifestations of the training rules followed by Buddhist monastics.

By Amy Paris Langenberg

Photo by Gastão Fiandeiro.

According to a certain Pali sutta, there was a monk (or bhikkhu) called Bhaddāli, a disciple of the Buddha who failed to follow his teacher’s rule about eating only one meal a day. After he realized his mistake, he spoke with his teacher about the deleterious effects of ignoring the training rules laid down for monks. The Buddha explained that, in neglecting the training rules, even a monk who spends time in a retreat hut in a secluded wilderness location will fail to “realize any superhuman distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones.” A monk who does follow the training rules laid down by the teacher, on the other hand, will accomplish all four of the meditative absorptions (jhana), recollect his own past lives, understand the cycles of birth and death experienced by sentient beings, and finally, destroy his mental defilements.

Following this explanation, Bhaddāli quite reasonably asked why, if this was the case, “there used to be fewer training rules but more enlightened mendicants?” The Buddha responded by explaining that there were more training rules than previously because a greater number of defilements (asava) had appeared in the sangha. He further explained that the reason for this greater number of defilements was the Buddhist community’s ever-increasing size, fame, learnedness, and wealth. 

According to traditional narratives, the very first training rule formally promulgated by the Buddha for his growing community of monks was the one proscribing sexual intercourse. The origin story accompanying that rule concerns Sudinna, an earnest and committed monk who is persuaded by his natal family to have sex just one more time with his former wife in order to conceive a son and heir. When the Buddha hears of Sudinna’s mistake, he famously compares intercourse with a woman to inserting one’s penis in the mouth of a venomous snake. He then establishes the rule, known as the First Defeat (parajika I), forbidding monks to participate in sexual intercourse on pain of being expelled from the community. In this way, the tradition inscribes the practice of celibacy as the defining disciplinary commitment of Buddhist monastics.

According to traditional narratives, the Buddha continued to add training rules as problematic situations arose. Some were quite serious. For instance, he established three more parajikas concerning morally grave transgressions that would result in “defeat.” These included taking a valuable item that is not given, killing or otherwise bringing about the death of a human (including a fetus), and intentionally lying to others regarding the extent of one’s spiritual attainments. Other training rules fell along a gradient of consequence, from more serious infractions like flirting heavily with the opposite sex to less serious infractions like wearing fancy shoes.

Monks and nuns are often taught that the rules dictating their behavior have two main purposes: training individual monastics, and protecting the faith of the laity. For this reason, many training rules have less to do with ethical concerns per se, and more to do with decorum, or maintaining the dignity of the sangha in the eyes of the laity. These include rules pertaining to how to wear one’s robes, table manners, how to walk, talk, and laugh, and even how to properly urinate.

The growing body of training rules also included some that were particular to nuns (bhikkhuni), whose order the Buddha is said to have established at the request of his foster mother and aunt, Mahapajapati. For instance, nuns were obligated to accept four additional parajika rules—eight in total—which added extra constrictions aimed at safeguarding nuns’ sexual purity to the already existing rules regarding sex, killing, stealing, and lying. Nuns were also to be held responsible for following the eight “heavy rules” (garudhammas) that Mahpajapati is said to have agreed to as a precondition for establishing the nuns’ order. The latter, which includes rules about not criticizing monks, having monks officiate at nuns’ ordinations, and always bowing to monks regardless of respective seniority, are generally understood to systematically subordinate the nuns’ to the monks’ community. They are controversial and sometimes ignored in contemporary nuns’ sanghas. 

“According to the traditional narrative, the Buddha had specified that his disciples were free to change the minor rules as they saw fit; however, they could not agree on which were major and which minor, and so preserved them all.”

In addition, nuns were given gender-specific training rules concerning menstruation, accidental pregnancies, the use of dildos, and other issues pertaining to the particularities of the female embodiment. Monks also have additional rules aimed at curtailing their potential exploitation of nuns. For instance, they are not supposed to require members of the women’s community to do their laundry.

At what Buddhist historians refer to as the “First Council” of disciples, said to have taken place shortly after the Buddha’s death, a senior disciple called Upāli recounted the many training rules, which were then codified and preserved as the Vinaya (Pali/Sanskrit; texts containing rules and precepts for monastics). According to the traditional narrative, the Buddha had specified that his disciples were free to change the minor rules as they saw fit; however, they could not agree on which were major and which minor, and so preserved them all. A number of different versions of the Vinaya survive, but only three are in active use by contemporary monastic sanghas: the Pali Vinaya in South and Southeast Asia, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya in East Asia, and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, and in the Tibetan diaspora.

The rules that have come down to us in the various Vinayas are not necessarily accurate templates for how monastic discipline is practiced on the ground in Buddhist cultures today. Vinaya is both a precise set of rules and a guiding ideal. Sincere monastics may try to follow all of the training rules very strictly, or they may not follow or even be familiar with all of them.  (A Theravada nun I know travels with a companion so that she will not have to handle money herself. However, most contemporary monastics handle cash and use credit cards, as the inconvenience of avoiding handling money is prohibitive.) 

Furthermore, some individuals living as celibate monks and nuns in various Buddhist settings are not formally ordained as bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. For these practitioners, a simplified set of training rules applies. For instance, in Theravada contexts where higher ordination is not readily available to women, so-called “precept nuns” follow a monastic version of eight or ten precepts. These include refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, misuse of speech, and use of intoxicants—plus three or five additional rules that ensure a level of material simplicity. The latter proscribe eating at the wrong time, using cosmetics, perfumes, or adornments, and indulging in entertainments. Even here, there is room for interpretation, as the precept nuns I know might attend a music concert or watch a cat video on TikTok, and good-smelling personal hygiene products do not seem to pose much of a disciplinary dilemma for them.

Some Buddhist cultures have moved away from Vinaya practice in significant ways. For instance, Saicho (767–822), founder of the Japanese Tendai school, broke from the Indic Vinaya traditions and established an ordination based on fifty-eight “bodhisattva precepts” drawn from Brahma’s Net Sutra, an apocryphal Mahayana sutra text from China. The bodhisattva precepts, which can be given to either monastic or lay Buddhists, dispensed with much of the detail of the Indian Vinayas and instead promulgated ten grave precepts advising against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, the use of intoxicants, etc., and forty-eight minor precepts giving other instructions regarding ethical behavior. Several of the minor precepts had a significant specific impact on the practice of Buddhism in East Asia, especially prohibitions on eating meat or “pungent herbs,” and the idea of animal release as a compassionate practice.

Although celibacy is fundamental to Buddhist monasticism according to the canonical tradition, for the past 150 years, a majority of Japanese temple priests have been noncelibate, often marrying and fathering children. The arguments for clerical marriage promulgated in the wake of the 1872 Meiji law making it legal were, in part, ethical, combining Confucian with biological and evolutionary notions of the naturalness of sexuality. The suppression of sexual desires was deemed unrealistic, inhumane, and unpatriotic. Others declared that, in the age of spiritual decline (Japanese: mappo), sexual feelings were irrepressible, and therefore even those who declared celibacy would end up indulging in women (and alcohol) in secret anyhow. In this view, sexually active priests were deemed preferable to hypocritical or dishonest priests.

The degree and manner in which Vinaya discipline has been practiced in Tibetan Buddhist forms of monasticism is also complicated at close range. Scholars have observed that as long as the large numbers of monks that inhabited major monastic centers in Tibet obeyed the four root vows (in other words, the four parajikas), did not drink alcohol, did not violate the particular monastic guidelines of their own monastery, and attended all required rituals, their chosen level of strictness was understood to be an individual rather than institutional responsibility. 

Tibetan monastic communities have struggled over the centuries to reconcile the Vinaya ethics with bodhisattva and tantric ethics. In some cases, the rule of celibacy for monks has been subordinated to other, tantric, goals in the Tibetan cultural world. For instance, the famed eighteenth-century visionary Jigme Lingpa was ordained as a novice monk as a young person, but, although he did not formally renounce his vows, he may have practiced with several different consorts. He listed as one of the benefits of consort practice that, when done correctly without seminal emission, it purifies the broken vow of celibacy.In the end, the Buddha’s response to Bhaddāli’s question proved prescient. An increasingly complex and sophisticated monastic sangha necessitates increasingly elaborate and sophisticated approaches to moral discipline, some of which may include novel interpretations of fundamental commitments such as celibacy. In some cases, as in Japan, and maybe Tibet, the result seems to be fewer rather than more training rules in the end.  

Amy Paris Langenberg

Amy Paris Langenberg

Amy Paris Langenberg is Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College. Her work focuses on monasticism, gender, and sexuality in Buddhism. She is currently collaborating with Ann Gleig on a book project about sexual abuse in Buddhist communities.