The Order of Monks and Nuns

36. For centuries, religion in India had been divided between two contrasting movements, the orthodox Brahmin tradition and the unorthodox (samana) tradition. The Brahmins taught that salvation could be achieved by being a good son and father and by faithfully performing certain rituals. The Brahmins themselves were married, usually to several wives, well educated in sacred and secular knowledge, and supported themselves and their families with the fees they received by performing the rituals that were believed to be essential for prosperity in this life and heaven in the next. The samana tradition on the other hand taught that salvation could only be achieved by understanding and transforming the mind. To facilitate this, renouncing family and social responsibility was considered helpful as it freed one from unnecessary distractions. Experimentation with various yogic and meditative exercises and also the practice of self-mortification were also common in this movement. This tradition was epitomised by the ascetic (samana, paribbajaka, muni, tapasa, etc.) who lived alone, or in small bands in the jungle, or in mountain caves, shunning society and its conventions. While some ascetics went naked, most wore simple clothing, usually dyed yellow, a colour that identified them as world-renouncers. In India, yellow was the colour of death or renunciation because before a leaf drops from a tree it turns yellow. When Prince Siddhartha renounced the world, it seems that he automatically assumed that the path of the ascetic rather than the path of the Brahmin would lead him to truth.

37. After he became the Buddha, he saw the need for a fraternity of ascetics devoted to helping others attain enlightenment and to transmit the Dharma throughout space and time. Consequently, like other teachers, he founded a community of monks (bhikkhu sangha), an autonomous legal body with its own rules and regulations. The Buddha changed the structure and rules of the Sangha as new situations arose and in the Vinaya Pitaka we get a picture of this gradual evolution. Over the centuries, while great empires have come and gone, the Sangha has survived and flourished, acting as a quiet witness to how the Dharma should be lived and as a medium for the spread of civilisation throughout Asia.

38. To become a novice (samanera) in the Bhikkhu Sangha, all that was needed was to approach a monk of at least ten years standing and ask to be accepted. The realisation that led to the decision to renounce the world often came as a result of hearing the Buddha’s teaching and was usually expressed like this: “The household life is confined and dusty, going forth from it is freeing. It is not easy for one who lives in the home to live the holy life perfectly complete, perfectly pure and polished like a conch shell. Suppose that I cut off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe and go forth from home into homelessness?” [ N1 ] After the candidate had shaved his head and put on his robe, he had to live by the Ten Precepts. The Buddha allowed even small boys to be ordained as novices. After a novice had received sufficient training and was at least 20 years of age, he could take his full ordination and become a monk (bhikkhu). To do this, he would have to approach an assembly of ten monks or more of at least ten years standing who were respected for their learning and virtue. The candidate would then be asked eleven questions to determine his suitability, his motives and his readiness. (1) Are you free from disease? (2) Are you a human being? (3) Are you a man? (4) Are you a free man? (5) Are you free from debt? (6) Do you have any obligations to the king? (7) Do you have your parents’ permission? (8) Are you at least twenty years of age? (9) Do you have your bowl and robe? (10) What is your name? (11) What is your teacher’s name? If the candidate answered these questions satisfactorily, he then requested higher ordination three times and if no one raised any objections, he was considered a monk.

39. Buddhist monks called themselves and were known by others as The Sons of the Sakyan (Sakyaputta). A monk could use property belonging jointly to the monastic community, but he himself could only own eight requisites (atthapirika). They were (1) an outer robe (civara), (2) an inner robe, (3) a thick robe for the winter, (4) an alms bowl with which he gathered his food, (5) a razor, (6) a needle and thread, (7) a belt, and (8) a water strainer to purify water and remove tiny creatures from it. A monk was expected to take everything he owned with him whenever he went on a journey “just as a bird takes only its wings with it whenever it goes”[ N2 ]

40. If people wished to give a gift to a monk, he could accept only food or any of those eight requisites, anything else – land, a building, cloth or grain, etc. – could only be accepted on behalf of the whole community and thus became the property of all. On becoming a monk, one was obliged to follow the Patimokkha, the two hundred and twenty-seven rules, which governed the discipline and functioning of the Sangha. The rules were divided into eight categories according to the punishment required if they were infringed. The most important rules were the four Parajika which, if a monk broke, he was automatically expelled from the Sangha and could not be ordained again in the future. They were (1) sexual intercourse, (2) theft, (3) murder, and (4) falsely claiming to have psychic powers or spiritual attainments. The word parajika literally means ‘defeat’ and means that the person who has broken any of these rules has been defeated by his desire, hatred or pride. Other important rules were the thirteen Sanghadisesa, which if infringed, required confession, and Nissaggiya Pacittiya, thirty rules concerning possessions, which if infringed, were punished by confiscation of the possessions. Other rules governed etiquette, settlement of disputes and administration. Because these rules, all of which are now recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka, were meant to be ways of maintaining discipline and solving the problems that always arise when people live together, they are not absolutes. The Buddha said that they could be changed or modified according to circumstances. Before he attained final Nirvana, he said to the monks, “If they wish, the Sangha may abolish the minor rules after my passing.” [ N3 ]

41. Like all ascetics of the time, Buddhist monks spent most of the year wandering from place to place. This mobility gave the monks the opportunity to meet with large numbers of people to whom they could teach the Dharma and it also guaranteed that they could not accumulate property. However, one of the rules for monks was that they had to settle down and stay at one location for the three months of the rainy session (vassa). This period of staying put was necessitated by the fact that any travel was difficult during the rainy season, but the monks used it as an opportunity for intensified meditation. The number of such periods of meditation retreat a monk had had was a mark of his maturity and experience and then, as now, when monks met each other they would ask each other: “How many rains (vassa) have you had?”

42. To maintain discipline and strengthen common values in the Sangha, it was necessary for the monks to have a communal life in which everyone participated. Certain areas called constituencies (sima) were demarcated and all monks living within that area would come together twice a month, the meeting being called the Uposatha. During the Uposatha, the Patimokkha would be recited, breaches of discipline were confessed and punishment meted out, matters concerning the community were dealt with and of course the Dharma was discussed. If decisions had to be made, each monk could voice his opinion and had the right to vote on the decisions. The Uposatha had an important role to play in reaffirming the Sangha’s identity, strengthening fellowship, and in particular, in preserving and transmitting the Dharma.

43. At first there were no nuns, but as the Dharma became more popular and widespread, women gradually became more interested in leading the monastic life. During one of the Buddha’s visits to Kapilavatthu, just after his father had died, Maha Pajapati Gotami, his foster mother, approached him and asked if she could be ordained. The Buddha refused and Maha Pajapati Gotami went away in tears. After the Buddha left Kapilavatthu for Vesali, she shaved off her hair, put on a yellow robe and set out for Vesali also. She arrived covered with dust, with her feet cut and swollen, and with tears streaming down her cheeks. She asked Ananda to approach the Buddha and ask him once again if she could be ordained. And again he refused. Ananda felt sorry for Maha Pajapati Gotami and decided to intercede on her behalf. First he asked the Buddha if women had the same spiritual potential as men. The Buddha replied: “Women, having gone forth from home into homelessness in the Dharma and discipline taught by the Tathagata, are able to realise the fruits of Stream-Winning, of Once-Returning, of Non-Returning and of Arahantship.” Then Ananda asked the Buddha to consider how helpful his foster mother had been to him. “Lord, if women can realise the same states as men, and as Maha Pajapati Gotami was of great service to you – she is your aunt, your foster mother, your nurse, she gave you her milk and suckled you when your mother died – therefore, it would be good if women would be allowed to go forth from home into homelessness in the Dharma and discipline taught by the Tathagata.”

44. The Buddha finally agreed but stipulated that nuns would have to live by some extra rules. The special rules for nuns were (1) in matters of respect and deference, a monk always had precedence over a nun, (2) a nun must spend the rains retreat in a place separated from monks, (3) nuns must ask monks for the date to hold the Uposatha and about teaching the Dharma, (4) when a nun did wrong she must confess it before the community of both nuns and monks, (5) a nun who broke an important rule must undergo punishment before both the nuns and the monks, (6) a nun must be ordained by both an assembly of nuns and of monks, (7) nuns must not abuse or revile a monk, and (8) a nun must not teach a monk. Maha Pajapati Gotami accepted these extra rules, and so the Order of Nuns (bhikkhuni sangha) was inaugurated. [ N4 ]

45. However, the Buddha seems to have thought that with both males and females together, maintaining celibacy (brahmacariya), an important aspect of the monastic life, would be difficult. He later said that now that there were monks and nuns, a celibate order would only last for five hundred years. Interestingly enough, his prediction proved to be fairly accurate. By the 7th century CE, certain groups of monks were beginning to marry, a trend that, along with other circumstances, eventually led to the decline of Buddhism in India. Fortunately, in most Buddhist countries, monks and nuns continue to practise celibacy and uphold the original values of the monastic life.