Sera Monastery

1. Early Indian Buddhist Monasticism and Its Major Rites

+ –

1. Early Indian Buddhist Monasticism and Its Major Rites

The Buddha and the Early Monastic Community

THE ANCIENT SOURCES agree that sometime in his mid- to late twenties Siddhārtha Gautama — a sixth-century BCE north Indian prince who belonged to the Śākya clan of the kingdom of Kosala — had a life-changing experience. On a series of day trips through Kapilavastu, the Śākyan capital, he witnessed four sights that made him question the meaning and purpose of his life. He saw, purportedly for the first time, a sick man, a decrepit old man, a corpse, and an ascetic. These four sights brought him face to face with suffering — illness, old age, and death — and the experience is said to have shaken Siddhārtha to the core. However, the fourth sight, that of the ascetic, offered a glimmer of hope, a way forward beyond suffering. Contemplating all of this, Siddhārtha decided that the only life worth living was the one devoted to the quest for emancipation — the deliverance from suffering — and so renouncing his life of princely pleasures and privilege, he ran away from the palace in the middle of the night, cut off his hair, changed his royal garments for rags, and entered the forest to live with other ascetics who were pursuing the goal of liberation (figure 18).

These men, called śramaṇas, were engaged in a spiritual discipline of austerities and meditation.37 Siddhārtha apprenticed himself to some of the most distinguished of these forest hermits, most notably Ārāḍa Kālāma and Udraka Rāmaputra. After six years of practicing different techniques of concentration grounded in a severe form of asceticism that included rigorous fasting, Siddhārtha, who had become emaciated and extremely weak, realized that this path was not going to lead him to emancipation (figure 19). Understanding that self-mortification was as much of an extreme as the life of pleasure that he had renounced, he took nourishment and, regaining his strength, sat under a banyan tree in the village that today is known as Bodhgaya. There he meditated throughout the night, and as the sun rose he attained enlightenment, or awakening. The Buddha spent the next five decades of his life teaching throughout north India. He died around age eighty and was cremated. His ashes were distributed as relics to some of the kingdoms where he had taught. This version of the Buddha’s life, which we might call the “naturalistic account,” is found in texts like the Lalitavistara and in traditions like the Theravāda. The Mahāyāna versions of the Buddha’s life differ in several respects. For example, some Mahāyāna texts claimed that Siddhārtha was an enlightened being before coming to earth, and that he “play acted” (tshul ston pa) the various deeds that constituted his life propelled not by karma but voluntarily out of compassion for the world.38 Whatever the nature of the being who performed these deeds — whether he was an ordinary human, a highly advanced bodhisattva, or an enlightened being — all of the traditions are in general agreement about the major events of the Buddha’s life.



Figure 19. Statue of the Buddha after his six years of fasting. Modern reproduction of an early Gandharan original. Wat Mendut, Java, Indonesia. Photo: J. Cabezón.


After his enlightenment, the Buddha contemplated what he had learned and began to have serious doubts about whether his profound insights could be communicated — that is, whether or not he should teach. But realizing that some people would benefit from what he had to say, after several weeks (and with prodding from the gods Indra and Brahmā) he embarked on a teaching career that would last for fifty years, until his death around age eighty. Initially, the Buddha thought to share his insight with Ārāḍa and Udraka, his two former ascetic teachers, whom he thought stood the greatest chance of understanding him, but as he contemplated this he gleaned, through his psychic powers, that both men had already died. So he decided instead to seek out the group of five ascetics (pañcavargika) who had been his lifelong friends and his spiritual companions in the forest. The five were staying at the Deer Park in Ṛsipatana, in what today is the town of Sarnath on the outskirts of the great Hindu holy city of Vārāṇasī (figure 20). Because he had eaten, the Buddha looked healthy and strong. As soon as the five ascetics saw him, they realized that he had forsaken the path of self-mortification and they agreed among themselves to shun him, but the Buddha’s newfound charisma, born from his enlightenment, quickly won them over. As he preached to them his first sermon, The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, one after another they gained insight and became his followers. The Buddha welcomed them as the first Buddhist monks with a simple two-word formula, ehi bhikṣuka: “Come, monk.” This is how, according to the classical sources, the first monks were admitted into the order, and how the Buddhist Saṅgha, or community, was founded.39 After the conversion of the group of five, the Buddha started to travel throughout north India, preaching. By all accounts, he was charismatic, physically attractive, and a gifted speaker. He captivated audiences and started to attract large numbers of followers. Many people, including converts from other ascetic traditions, asked to be admitted to his new monastic order. Mohan Wijayaratna estimates, based on the Pāli texts, that by the end of the Buddha’s first year of teaching several hundred men had already joined the Buddhist monastic community.40 Originally an all-male order, at the request of his stepmother, Mahāprajāpatī (and with the intercession of Ānanda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant), he began to ordain women as well, thus also founding an order of nuns. The contemporary Tibetan historian Dungkar Rinpoché is one of the few scholars to provide estimates of the number of monks and nuns in ancient India, stating that at the time of the Buddha’s death there were “several tens of thousands,” and that at its highpoint in the fifth and sixth centuries the number of fully ordained and novice monks and nuns numbered around 2 million.41



Figure 20. The ruins of the monastery of Ṛsipatana and, in the background, the stūpa commemorating the site at which the Buddha first taught. Sarnath, India. Photo J. Cabezón.


Many young men joined the Buddhist Saṅgha. The Pāli canon preserves for us exchanges in which people marvel at the fact that men who were still “black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth, in the prime of life, and having never engaged in sensual pleasure [i.e., while still virgins],” nevertheless chose to lead a completely celibate life.42 Some of the individuals who sought admission into the order were just boys. The Buddhist tradition has traditionally maintained that the earlier a man is admitted into the Saṅgha, the easier the process of acculturation, the more complete his intellectual training, and the greater the likelihood that he will be able to cope with the challenges of the ascetic life, especially celibacy. But boys were not suitable candidates for full ordination, or upasaṃpadā (bsnyen par rdzogs pa) — they could not be ordained as monks (bhikṣu, dge slong) — and so lower initiations called “renunciant” (pravrajyā, rab tu byung ba) and “novice” (śrāmaṇera, dge tshul) were instituted. To receive such initiations, boys had to be old enough to be able to “shoo away crows,” which has traditionally been understood to be seven years of age.43 In Tibet, boys under this age — or older boys who were not ready to become full-fledged novices because they needed more training — were first initiated as “intermediate renunciants,” or parma rapjung (bar ma rab byung).44 They took the five lay precepts and were given robes, and their hair was shaved, leaving a small tuft on the crown that would be cut off by the abbot 34in a simple tonsure ceremony. Later, when they met the age requirement and the other criteria, they were given novice ordination. When they reached age twenty they could be ordained as monks.45 In Tibet every boy or man who had one or another of these levels of ordination — parma rapjung, novice, or fully ordained monk — was known generically as trapa (grwa pa), a term unknown to the Vinaya, but the most common designation for monks in Tibet.46

In ancient India women too were admitted to the Buddhist order either as fully ordained nuns, bhikṣuṇīs (dge slong ma), or as novice nuns, śrāmaṇerikā (dge tshul ma). A third category of nun called “probationary,” or śikṣāmānā (dge slob ma), lasted two years; it was an intermediate stage between novice and bhikṣuṇī. The purpose of this probationary period was, according to some texts, to ensure that the postulant was not pregnant before her ordination as a nun. Men did not have to undergo a probationary period unless they had converted from other sects, in which case they too had to be tested for a period of four months before being admitted into the order.47 The bhikṣuṇī order died out in India before it could be introduced into Tibet. The Tibetan nuns’ tradition is therefore composed entirely of novice nuns, since śrāmanerikā ordination can be imparted by monks in the absence of fully ordained nuns. The common Tibetan word for nun is ani (a ni); the more polite form is chölak (chos lags) or tsunma (btsun ma). In recent years, scholars have been exploring whether and how bhikṣuṇī ordination might be reintroduced into the Tibetan tradition. Although this has been a contentious issue, at the time of the writing of this book the issue is close to being decided, and it is likely that there will soon be fully ordained nuns in the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition.

The Buddha accepted not only monks and nuns but also laypeople as followers. Buddhist laymen and laywomen followed an ethical code called the 35“five precepts,” or pañcaśīla (bslab pa lnga) — not killing, not stealing, not lying, not committing adultery, and not drinking alcohol.48 Later Tibetan scholars would classify everyone who formally adopted rules of conduct into eight categories:

  1. Fully ordained monks (bhikṣu)

  2. Fully ordained nuns (bhikṣuṇī)

  3. Probationary nun (śikṣāmānā)

  4. Novice monks (śrāmaṇera)

  5. Novice nuns (śrāmaṇerikā)

  6. Laymen (upāsaka, dge bsnyen)

  7. Laywomen (upasikā, dge bsnyen ma)

  8. The one who is keeping the fast (upavāsasthānin, bsnyen gnas la nye bar gnas pa)

The last of these refers to a layperson who follows a special discipline, lasting twenty-four hours, almost identical to that of novices.49 The upavāsasthānin is only a temporary status, whereas all of the rest are, so long as they are not renounced, lifelong. The first five of the eight categories constitute the monastic order; the last two (or three, if one includes the upavāsasthānin) the lay community. Lay Buddhist householders were responsible for supporting the Saṅgha, providing it with robes, food, and the few necessities of life that monks and nuns required. The laity’s support was important because monks 36and nuns were not allowed to work or even to cook, and were supposed to beg just enough food to sustain them for each day. Indeed, the word that we translate as “monk,” bhikṣu, comes from the Sanskrit root bhikṣ, which means “to beg.” In later times, after the Indian Buddhist monastic community became sedentary, kings or wealthy patrons endowed monasteries with lands that were worked by peasants who supplied the monastery with a portion of what they produced (grains, milk, and so on). This was used to feed the monks so that they would not have to go on daily begging rounds, but this was a much later development. Although begging for one’s daily meal was never really practiced in Tibet, the tradition is still observed in Theravāda countries like Thailand and Myanmar.


As the monks of the new Buddhist order traveled and taught, they received requests for ordination. In the earliest days, monks would send prospective candidates for ordination to the Buddha himself, who would ordain them with the same simple formula he had used to welcome the group of five, “Come, monks.” But as the number of such requests increased, and as those seeking ordination came from increasingly more remote regions, this method of ordination was seen to be unfeasible. (The Vinayavastu mentions that one young man died from the arduous journey.) So the Buddha is said to have changed the procedure.

The Lord thought, “Those who listen to my teachings, who come from far away, from exceedingly long distances, are experiencing hardship, so from this day forward I give permission for them to become renunciants and to be ordained through the [local] Saṅgha. The Saṅgha should henceforth make them renunciants and ordain them.” But since [the monks] didn’t know how to make them renunciants or how to ordain them, they asked the Lord [how to do this]. He replied, “If someone approaches you and wishes to become a renunciant, you should guide them [through the process]. Assembling the entire Saṅgha [of your location], make the proper arrangements for [the postulants’] robes. Have them prostrate [to the monks] in order of seniority, and then, with their hands clasped at their heart [in a gesture of respect], have them squat and request [ordination three times].50


The Buddha goes on to explain that one of the assembled monks should then address the Saṅgha to inform them that an individual named so-and-so has requested ordination. If the monks are in agreement about ordaining the individual, they are told to remain silent; if not, they are told to speak up. Having made this announcement three times, if no one objects, then the postulant is ordained. This became the procedure for admitting monks into the order during the middle period of the Buddha’s ministry — the period when postulants were ordained by the entire Saṅgha of a given place.51

At this stage in the historical evolution of the ordination rite, the preceptor (upādhyāya, mkhan po) and teacher (ācārya, slob dpon) did not yet play a role in the ordination ceremony. As more individuals joined the Saṅgha, however, the laity began to complain that because monks had no one to supervise them, they were “not well trained, not well formed,” and did not know the proper etiquette of renunciants. Moreover, because no one was responsible for a newly ordained monk, each of them was on his own. When one of the new recruits got sick and died without receiving any assistance from his brethren, the Buddha realized that something was wrong with the system and he decided that new monks needed mentors, older monks who would guide them in the proper observance of the rules, provide religious instruction, and help them in times of need. At this point the Buddha changed the ordination procedure again, and instead of having monks be ordained by the entire community, he required them to be ordained by a smaller group of monks headed “by a preceptor and teachers,”52 thereby creating lifelong bonds between postulants and more experienced monks through the act of ordination. The Vinaya — the literature where all of this is discussed — advises the new monk in this fashion: “[Having been ordained,] from this moment on you should see your preceptor as if he were your father, and the preceptor, in turn, will see you as a son. 38From this moment, and for the rest of your life, you ought to respect your preceptor, and the preceptor, in turn, will nurture you so long as you both live.”53 We cannot of course be sure of the accuracy of this historical account of the development of the ordination ritual — whether these various changes all took place during the Buddha’s lifetime or whether they were attributed to that period as a way of giving later ritual developments legitimacy — but the narrative seems plausible enough.

A passage from the Vinayavastu that describes the ordination procedures for monks has been translated in Appendix 1.54 Full ordination as a bhikṣu, called upasaṃpadā (bsnyen par rdzogs pa), is a tiered process. In order to become a monk, the postulant has to first be a novice, or śrāmaṇera, and in order to become a śrāmaṇera, he has to first become an upāsaka, or layman. Initiation into the higher tiers of the Pratimokṣa is therefore contingent on initiation into lower ones. Ordination requires a minimum of ten monks (or five in an “outlying region” where the Saṅgha is not flourishing). The ceremony involves various steps under the direction of three main ritual actors: the preceptor or abbot upādhyāya, the novice’s main teacher who has to be an elder monk with ten years’ seniority; the ritual specialist, or karma kāraka (las byed pa), who oversees the ordination ritual; and the confidential rapporteur, or rahonuśāsaka (gsang ston), who interrogates the novice during the ordination ritual to make sure he does not have any “impediments” to being ordained.55 The postulant has to have the major requisites — the three robes, or at least cloth for making robes, and the begging bowl — and these need to be “blessed” and made ritually usable. Once all of the preliminaries have been completed, the actual rite of ordination, which is quite short, is conducted. As in many monastic rites, the Saṅgha is given the opportunity to object to the ordination, and if no one does, then the end result is automatic:

“Venerable members of the Saṅgha, please listen. [This postulant] named so-and-so with the preceptor named so-and-so is seeking 39to be ordained by the Saṅgha. [This postulant] named so-and-so with the preceptor named so-and-so is requesting to be ordained through the Saṅgha. He is a man. He has male genitals. He has reached the age of twenty. He possesses the three robes and the begging bowl. He is devoid of any impediments. Given that [this postulant] named so-and-so with the preceptor named so-and-so has requested to be ordained through the Saṅgha, let the venerable ones remain silent if they find acceptable that the [postulant] named so-and-so with the preceptor named so-and-so be ordained. Let those who do not find it acceptable speak up.”

This is the first ritual act. The second and third repetitions are the same.

“The Saṅgha, having found it acceptable, the Saṅgha has ordained [the postulant] named so-and-so with the preceptor named so-and-so. I glean this by virtue of its silence.”

The highly repetitive nature of the ritual is undoubtedly a vestige of its orality — of the fact that it was originally passed down from one generation to the next orally. At the end of the rite, the exact date and time of the ordination has to be calculated and announced for the purpose of determining the monk’s seniority. Thereafter, some essential teachings are given: the monk is required to affirm his willingness to subsist on the four requisites (niśraya) — rags as robes, alms as food, dwelling under trees, and urine as medicine — and his willingness to refrain from the four actions that bring “defeat,” which we will explain shortly. The ceremony concludes with some words of advice on the relationship that a novice should have with his teacher and fellow monks, and on the importance of study, practice, and gaining realization. This ritual — which in its entirety is quite complex — undoubtedly evolved over time. According to the historical account found in the Vinaya, one of the most important functions of the rite is to create a relational bond between a new monk and his teachers. The ordination rite is slightly different from one Buddhist tradition to another. The procedure outlined here is the one found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition that is practiced in Tibet. This is still the way that monks are ordained in the Tibetan tradition today, even if some of the steps have taken on a largely symbolic quality. For example, the set of confidential questions that are meant to determine whether the postulant has any impediments are today largely pro forma and postulants are told beforehand just to say yes (yin la) or no (ma yin la) depending on whether the question is a positive (yin nam) or negative one (ma yin nam). Moreover, since the language 40of the rituals is quite formal and old, and since the would-be monk has yet to study the Vinaya at the time of ordination, it is only the rare postulant who will understand what is being said. In Tibet, it was customary to take ordination not from just any elder monk but from a high-ranking trulku. This was considered auspicious, it created a permanent bond with the great master, and it was believed to bring blessings. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama ordained many monks, so did the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s two tutors, and since he came of age, so too has His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself. In Lhasa in the mid-twentieth century, several high-ranking Sera trulkus were among the most popular “ordaining lamas,” including Purchok Rinpoché, Lhabtsun Rinpoché, and Bari Dorjé Chang (figure 21).

What then is a monk? It is an individual who, motivated by the realization that no lasting happiness is to be found in worldly pleasures, emulates the Buddha by abandoning the life of sensual enjoyment, a life lived with “wives and children” based in the home. In place of such a life, monks, through formal ordination, commit to a life of discipline and restraint, realizing that this is necessary for achieving a more lasting happiness, the permanent peace of nirvāṇa. Renunciation (niḥsāra, niryāṇa; nges ’byung) is a state of mind that finds no joy in saṃsāra and seeks release from suffering. Tsongkhapa likens renunciation to the attitude of prisoners yearning for release from jail. Renunciation is, strictly speaking, a necessary condition for entering the monastic life.56 In practice, however, few individuals probably became monks with an already developed and mature sense of renunciation. In Tibet, most monks were ordained at an early age before they were even instructed in religious principles. They entered the monastery with an attitude that was probably more akin to that of children going to summer camp or to entering boarding school — and often not of their own volition but because this was the wish of their parents.57 As in most of the Buddhist world, in Tibet it was considered auspicious and meritorious for a son — usually a middle son if there were three sons — to become a monk. So it was often the parents’ decision to send a boy to a monastery. But if the population of a regional monastery fell below acceptable levels, it was not uncommon for the local authorities to impose a “monk tax,” or tratrel (grwa khral), that obligated families to send one son to the monastery. The few young men who made the decision to become monks on their own may have done so for religious reasons, but as often as not they joined a monastery simply to avoid the responsibilities that came with traditional family life or to secure a better future for themselves. In Tibet a monk’s life was financially more stable than that of the typical villager, it afforded one a greater opportunity for education, and it sometimes opened the door to other forms of employment. Monasticism in Tibet was for many individuals a profession rather than a deeply felt religious calling. This does not mean that some monks did not go on to develop a profound sense of religious vocation and even a deeply felt sense of renunciation. The historical record shows that the monasteries produced great saints, but these have always been in the minority, and even in these cases the sense of renunciation was something that usually developed over a lifetime rather than being present from the start.



Figure 21. Bari Dorjé Chang, one of the highest lamas of Sera, who ordained an entire generation of monks.


The Monastic Rules

The general rules governing the conduct of renunciants — celibacy, nonviolence, begging for food, having minimal possessions, acting with restraint, and so on — were generally well known in ancient India, but in the early days of the Buddhist Saṅgha they were formally codified. According to the Vinaya, over the Buddha’s lifetime the clergy tested the limits of acceptable monastic behavior. Whenever monks or nuns were unsure about whether a certain action was permitted, they brought the case before the Buddha, who rendered judgment. When he deemed an act to be inconsistent with the monastic discipline, the Buddha would prohibit it and prescribe a punishment for the deed ranging from expulsion to simple acknowledgment of wrongdoing, depending on the severity of the offense. (The first perpetrator of the deed, incidentally, was never subject to the punishment because the rule had yet to be codified.) In this way, over the course of the Buddha’s life, a fixed set of rules arose “inductively” and organically in response to the day-to-day actions of the clergy. The resulting “rules of training” (śikṣāpada, bslab pa’i gzhi) — sometimes called “vows” in the Western literature — were compiled into a document called the pratimokṣa, or monastic code.58 A full discussion of the monks’ rules lies beyond the scope of this book. These rules have, in any case, been discussed in a number of other sources.59 The transgressions fall into seven classes depending 43chiefly on how they are punished or purified, with each category (and punishment) being less weighty than the one that precedes it.

(I) The four most important rules, called “defeats” (pārājika, pham pa) because they bring about an irreparable rupture in someone’s status as a monk or nun, are (a) not to engage in sexual intercourse, (b) not to lie about one’s spiritual attainments, (c) not to intentionally kill a human being, and (d) not to steal an article of substantial worth.60 If a monk commits any of these actions, he is — in all but certain exceptional circumstances — expelled from the monastery and he loses his status as a monk.

He is expelled. If a monk does [any one of] these acts, as soon as he does it, he is no longer a monk, no longer an ascetic, no longer a child of Śākya. His monkhood has deteriorated. His ascetic status has been destroyed; it has deteriorated. He has been vanquished, he has fallen, he has been defeated; there is no recuperating his ascetic status.61

(II) The next most serious set of infractions, thirteen in number, is called saṅghāvaśeṣa or saṅghātiśeṣa (dge ’dun lhag ma). The meaning of the term is far from certain, but it has sometimes been glossed as a transgression “requiring a further ritual act of the Saṅgha” because the community needs to take certain steps in order to bring the offender back into communion. Five saṅghāvaśeṣa transgressions are of a sexual nature: the intentional “emission of semen” (e.g., masturbation), touching or speaking lewdly to a woman, acting as a matchmaker or go-between, and so on. Two of the rules have to do with following improper procedures in building temples or individual dwellings. Three involve false accusations against other monks or creating schisms in the community. The last two deal with setting a bad example for the laity and refusing to heed the admonishment of the Saṅgha when rebuked. The punishment for these acts involves suspension of monastic privileges and requires a meeting of the Saṅgha for reinstatement.

(III) After the thirteen saṅghāvaśeṣa there follow two rules that presume that the monk had a secret encounter with a woman. They are called aniyata, or “indeterminate” (ma nges pa), because the nature of the transgression — and its purification, if any — depends on what happened during that encounter. (IV) The next set of thirty transgressions, called niḥsargika 44pāyantika (spang ba’i ltung byed), “offenses requiring forfeiture,” all deal with material things — robes, mats, money, bowls, medicine, and so on — that were improperly acquired. The offenses are expiated by confessing the transgression to another monk and giving back the article. (V) There then follows a group of ninety “simple offenses,” or pāyantika (’ba’ zhig pa), which are quite diverse. Several of them involve improper speech: lying, slandering people, improperly reciting or preaching the Dharma, bearing false witness against another monk, revealing the faults of another monk to the laity, and so on. Some rules concern improper use or care of monastic property; others have to do with actions (like digging) that could harm living beings. Many of these rules govern interactions with other monks, with nuns, or with the laity — for example, under what conditions and for how long a monk can stay in the home of a householder. Other rules govern how monks ought to eat, drink, bathe, travel, and so forth, or the kinds of possessions they may keep. It is here that we find, for example, the prohibition against monks eating after noon. The ninety offenses require confession before another monk in order to be purified. (VI) Four additional rules, called “to be confessed,” or pratideśanīya (so sor bshags pa), proscribe accepting and eating food from certain people; they have to be confessed outside the monastery before reentering. (VII) The largest category of transgressions, 112 in all, is called śaikṣa (bslab par bya ba), meaning “trainings.” Like the ninety simple offenses, this is a heterogeneous category. The unifying theme is proper monastic etiquette — how to dress, move in public, eat, teach, and even where and how to defecate, urinate, and spit. (VIII) Finally, there is a group of seven items called adhikaraṇa śamatha that are really more procedures than rules; the Tibetan tradition translates the name of the category “pacification of disputes” (rtsod pa zhi bar bya ba). These have to do with legal procedures for judging monks or for settling factional disagreements in the Saṅgha. These śikṣāpadas, or “rules of training,” do not exhaust the regulations governing the life of monks, for there are also “local monastic ordinances” (kriyākara)62 as well as other rules and procedures governing monastic life.63

The formal rules of training, the stories that led to their codification, a variety of monastic rituals, and a lot of other material (including, in some versions, an account of the Buddha’s life) were compiled into a multivolume collection 45known as the Vinaya or Dulwa (’Dul ba) — the “Discipline” — which came to constitute one of the three principal parts or “baskets” (piṭaka, sde snod) of the Buddhist canon.64 After the Buddha’s death, monks started to disagree about the rules — especially about the largest category, the “trainings” — and this gave rise to schisms in the Buddhist Saṅgha and to distinct Vinaya traditions, each with its own texts.65 As Buddhism spread, different Vinayas were transmitted to different regions of Asia. Hence the Pāli Vinaya was promulgated in Sri Lanka and from there was transmitted to Southeast Asia. The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya spread throughout China and East Asia; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya was transmitted to Tibet. Although the pratimokṣa rules are very similar from one Vinaya tradition to another, there are also differences, including differences in the number of rules. For example, there are 227 rules for monks and 311 rules for nuns in the Theravāda tradition, whereas the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition contains 253 rules for monks and 364 rules for nuns.

The novices’ rules (śrāmaṇeraśikṣāpada, dge tshul gyi bslab pa’i gzhi) were not as extensive or as demanding as the rules for fully ordained monks and nuns. Both male and female novices had to observe ten rules, which are sometimes further subdivided to form a list of thirty-three or thirty-six. The ten novice rules prohibit

  1. killing

  2. stealing

  3. sexual intercourse

  4. lying

  5. drinking alcohol

  6. dancing, singing, and playing musical instruments

  7. using garlands, perfumes, and unguents

  8. using large or high seats or beds

  9. eating after noon

10. handling gold or silver66


Tsongkhapa adds that novices also had to observe three additional rules: asking one’s preceptor for guidance in matters of conduct, abandoning the clothing and other signs of a householder, and donning the symbols of an ascetic: shaving the hair (and, in the case of monks, the beard), wearing monastic robes, and so on.67 In the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, novice and full ordination are taken for life, although there are permissible reasons and procedures for “giving up the training” and reverting back to the lay life. Reordination is possible, but it is permitted at most three times. After the third time, it is no longer possible to reordain.

As we have seen, four transgressions, the so-called defeats, are offenses that cannot be purified in the sense that once done, they bring about the loss of one’s status as a monk. This is true for both fully ordained monks and for novices. In the case of other offenses, confession (deśanā, bshags pa) was central to purifying a transgression. The Vinaya considers the confession of a transgression to another ordained person to be an important part of the process of purification; and vice versa, it sees the hiding of transgressions as causing them to fester. We will have more to say about this when we turn to the topic of the ritual of confession later in this chapter.

To sum up, in the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, novice monks followed ten rules, and fully ordained monks 253 rules. The Tibetan tradition takes very seriously the first four rules, the defeats. If a monk is found to have broken any of these, he is expelled from the monastery: he is forced to disrobe and put on soiled white clothes (white being the color of householders’ clothing). If the monk’s action also constituted a violation of the civil law code — for example, if he committed murder or stole something of worth — then the secular authorities would be summoned to the main entrance of the monastery to take custody of the individual as he was ejected, and he would then be tried in a criminal court.68 Tibetan monks had legal jurisdiction in matters concerning their members, but only up to a point. If a monk violated the civil laws, he was subject to prosecution. There were also times when entire monasteries (including Sera) were deemed in violation of the laws and were punished by the Tibetan government.


Tibetan attitudes toward the other categories of transgressions varied. Some monasteries upheld even the minor monks’ rules quite strictly — the tantric colleges of Lhasa were renowned for their strict discipline — but most monasteries did not. For example, although alcohol is strictly prohibited by the Vinaya, and although monks today keep this rule strictly, we find various Geluk lamas throughout history writing short tracts urging monks to refrain from drinking alcohol, which suggests that this was a recurring problem.69 Several of Sera’s rule books regard drinking as being punishable by expulsion from the monastery.70 Tibetan monks also never observed the tradition of begging for their food. The vast majority of monks didn’t e

Join Wisdom

This content is available for All-Access members of the Wisdom Experience. Click below to learn more!

Learn More
rotate left rotate right