Prātimokṣa | Disciplinary Code


Prātimokṣa | Disciplinary Code

The Prātimokṣa (Pāli, pātimokkha), presumably the oldest section of the Vinaya, contains the disciplinary code that regulates the life of the Saṅgha, the Buddhist monastic community.

The etymology of the term prātimokṣa is uncertain, but it denotes the highest standard of conduct for Buddhist monastics.

In the early days of the Buddhist community, the prātimokṣa was apparently a simple profession of faith in the Buddha’s primary teachings that was recited periodically by the expanding Saṅgha.

Later, the term came to refer to the corpus of disciplinary rules that developed gradually over time as the Saṅgha grew and regulations were formulated in response to specific incidents of misconduct.

The prātimokṣa is recited twice a month, on the full moon and new moon days, at an observance known as Saṅgha Poṣadha (Pāli, uposatha).

This observance is a rite of confession in which the actual confession of faults precedes the recitation of precepts and declaration of purity.

The Bhikṣu-prātimokṣa is recited by fully ordained monks and the Bhikṣuṇī prātimokṣa is recited by fully ordained nuns in separate observances; novices and laypeople are not permitted to attend.

The semi-monthly obligatory recitation of the prātimokṣa is a means of reviewing the ethical guidelines and rules of etiquette that the monks and nuns voluntarily agree to observe, and a time for them to reaffirm their purity with regard to the prohibitions.

This liturgical observance, conducted within a sīmā (ritually established boundary), is a way to ensure harmony within the Saṅgha and between the Saṅgha and the laity.

Rituals of repentance and confession and specific procedures for expiating offenses are prescribed.

The importance of the precepts is evident in the Buddha’s declaration that the prātimokṣa would guide the Saṅgha after he passed away.

The prātimokṣa precepts found in the Vinaya (monastic discipline) regulate the lives of Buddhist monastics who have received the upasaṁpadā (full Ordination), as well as novices and probationers who are in training.

The precepts give detailed instructions that regulate ethical decision making, food, clothing, shelter, furnishings, and other material requisites, as well as the rules that govern etiquette and personal interactions.

The extant texts of all schools of Vinaya list 5 categories of precepts that are common to both Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs:

(1) pārājika (defeats that entail expulsion from the Saṅgha, such as killing a human being or engaging in sexual intercourse);

(2) saṅghāvaśeṣa (remainders that entail suspension, such as acting as a go-between or baselessly accusing someone of a pārājika);

(3) nihsargika-pātayantika (abandoning downfalls that entail forfeiture, such as keeping excess robes or engaging in business activities);

(4) pātayantika (propelling downfalls or lapses, such as intentionally telling a lie or eating at an improper time); and

(5) śaikṣā (faults or misdeeds, such as wearing the robes improperly or eating in a careless fashion).

There is 1 additional category for Bhikṣus, the 2 aniyatadharma (individually confessed downfalls), and 1 for Bhikṣuṇīs, the 8 pratideśanīya (offenses requiring confession).

The 7 adhikaraṇa-śamatha (methods of resolving disputes) are included in the prātimokṣas of both Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs:

These 7 methods include: assembling the parties to the dispute, remembering events, admitting one’s responsibility, resolving matters by a majority decision, and so forth. 

Diverse schools of Vinaya (nikāyas) developed in India within a few hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinirvāṇa,

but the prātimokṣa rules and procedures of all these schools are thought to derive from the rules of discipline that were originally recited at the first of the Buddhist councils.

Although the substance of the precepts is fundamentally the same, the specific numbers of precepts vary slightly from one school to another, for a variety of reasons. For example,

(1) local communities had different interpretations of monastic discipline and there was no central authority to adjudicate them;

(2) the precepts were transmitted orally and in different languages for several hundred years before they were written down; and

(3) as the Buddhist community spread to different geographical and cultural areas, some precepts were adjusted in accordance with local customs.

These schools are in almost complete agreement concerning the precepts, exhibiting only minor differences.

Of the roughly 18 schools of Vinaya that developed in India, 3 lineages of prātimokṣa are still in existence today:

1) The Theravāda Vinaya is preserved in Pāli and practiced by Bhikṣus in Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Śrī Lanka;

although the Bhikṣuṇī-prātimokṣa exists in Pāli, there is no living lineage of Bhikṣuṇīs in the Theravada tradition.

2) The Dharmaguptaka-Vinaya is preserved in Chinese and practiced by Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

3) The Mūla-Sarvāstivāda-Vinaya is preserved in Tibetan and practiced by Bhikṣus in Bhutan, the Indian Himalayas, Mongolia, Nepal, and Tibet;

although the Bhikṣuṇī-prātimokṣa exists in Tibetan, there is no living lineage of Bhikṣuṇīs in the Tibetan tradition.

In the Theravada tradition, there are 227 precepts for Bhikṣus and 311 for Bhikṣuṇīs;
in the Dharmagupta, there are 250 for Bhikṣus and 348 for Bhikṣuṇīs; and
in the Mūla-Sarvāstivāda, there are 258 for Bhikṣus and 354 for Bhikṣuṇīs.

The Bhikṣuṇī-prātimokṣa-sūtra exists in all 3 of these Vinaya schools, but a living lineage of Bhikṣuṇīs exists only in the Dharmagupta School.

Tens of thousands of Bhikṣuṇīs in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam today regulate their lives by the Bhikṣuṇī-prātimokṣa of the Dharmagupta School.

In all 3 extant Vinaya schools, the number of precepts for Bhikṣuṇīs is considerably greater than for Bhikṣus:

The Bhikṣu Saṅgha was quite well organized and influential by the time the Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha was established 5-6 years later,

so the Bhikṣuṇīs were naturally expected to follow the majority of the Bhikṣus precepts, in addition to new precepts occasioned by specific misbehaviour among the nuns.

In the first category of precepts, the pārājikas, there are 4 that are common to both Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs. They are to refrain from:

(1) sexual intercourse,
(2) taking what is not given,
(3) taking a human life, and
(4) telling lies, especially about one’s spiritual attainments.

The 4 additional pārājikas for Bhikṣuṇīs are to refrain from:

(5) bodily contact with a lustful man;
(6) arranging to meet a man with amorous intentions;
(7) concealing a pārājika of another Bhikṣuṇī; and
(8) obeying a Bhikṣu who has been expelled from the Saṅgha.

Of the second category of precepts, saṅghāvaśeṣas,

Bhikṣus in all schools have 13, whereas
Bhikṣuṇīs in the Dharmagupta and Theravada have 17, and
Bhikṣuṇīs in the Mūla-Sarvāstivāda have 20.

Some saṅghāvaśeṣas are similar for Bhikṣus and Bhikṣuṇīs (e.g., acting as a go-between, baselessly accusing someone of a pārājika, refusing to accept admonishments, creating a schism in the Saṅgha), while others are dissimilar.

Broadly interpreted, there are 8 types of prātimokṣa precepts:

1. Bhikṣu (fully ordained monk),
2. Bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained nun),
3. Śikṣamāṇā (probationary nun),
4. Śrāmaṇera (male novice),
5. Śrāmaṇerikā (female novice),
6. Upāsaka (layman),
7. Upāsikā (laywoman), and
8. Upavāsatha (one-day lay observance).

There is no counterpart to the siksamana (probationary nun) ordination for monks.

The 1-7 categories of prātimokṣa precepts generally entail a lifetime commitment, except in countries such as Thailand where temporary ordination is offered.

The 8th type of prātimokṣa precepts, upavāsatha, is the observance of 8 precepts for 24 hours by laypeople.

The aim of all types of Prātimokṣa precepts is to cultivate restraint of the senses as a means to achieve liberation.