Vinaya Piṭaka – More Than Disciplinary Rules

November 26, 2020

 Vinaya Piṭaka contains much more information than Vinaya rules for bhikkhus/bhikkhunis.

Introduction – Need to Consult All Three Piṭaka

1. The Buddha said that if there is any doubt or a concept that is not clear, one should check with SuttaVinaya, and Abhidhamma. These basically refer to the Tipiṭaka (three baskets) of Sutta Piṭaka, Vinaya Piṭaka, and Abhidhamma Piṭaka.

  • Most people refer to the Sutta Piṭaka and forget about the other two. Abhidhamma Piṭaka is a bit hard to understand, and without a firm grasp of basics, it is harder.
  • Most people think that the Vinaya Piṭaka is just for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. But there are sections in the Vinaya Piṭaka that have details that are not in the other two Piṭaka. 
  • The following article provides details of the Vinaya Piṭaka: “Vinaya Piṭaka – The Basket of the Discipline.” We will only discuss some key features.
  • For someone who is “new to Buddhism,” the introductory article by Bhikkhu Bodhi could be useful: “The Buddha and His Dhamma.”
A Balanced Approach – Importance of the Vinaya Piṭaka

2. It is prudent to use a balanced approach to learn Buddha Dhamma. Instead of diving into analyzing deep suttas, one needs first to get an idea about the Buddha, the necessary moral background, and basic concepts like kamma and rebirth.

  • In the beginning, both the Sutta Piṭaka and Vinaya Piṭaka can be quite helpful. One should get into Abhidhamma only after getting a good idea about the background, key concepts, and the ultimate goal.
  • While the Sutta Piṭaka discusses dhamma concepts, the Vinaya Piṭaka provides the background settings for the following two cases: (1) for many suttas, and (2) for many Vinaya rules.
Background for Key Suttas

3. The Vinaya Piṭaka provides an illuminating background account for many suttas.

  • For example, the Mahāvagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka has a chronological account of the events following Buddha’s Enlightenment. The English translation at Sutta Central is good: “On Awakening.”
  • That account describes in detail Buddha’s daily activities following the attainment of the Buddhahood. It also explains in detail how the Buddha delivered and discussed, over several days, the material condensed in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) to the five ascetics.
  • That is why some highly-condensed suttas SHOULD NOT be translated word-by-word. It takes many posts to discuss in detail, even just the key verses of a deep sutta. See, “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.”
Background for Vinaya Rules

4. For many years after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, there were no disciplinary rules for the bhikkhus. Those who ordained as bhikkhus in those early years had fulfilled most of their “pāramitā” and did not need much clarification of dhamma concepts. They also were ‘self-disciplined,” and it was not necessary to impose rules.

  • Most Vinaya rules were set up to handle particular situations where one or more bhikkhus had done things that were not appropriate. The Vinaya Piṭaka provides background accounts for many such cases. Such accounts provide insights into dhamma concepts as well as providing reasons for enacting such rules.
  • For example, there was no rule for the bhikkhus to abstain from eating after Noon. There were few other reasons to impose that rule, but one reason was to discipline those who started wearing robes to “live an easy life.” That rule was enacted probably after 20 years or so, and by that time, most people had become faithful followers of the Buddha. They held bhikkhus in high regard and took care of all their needs.
  • There is an account in the Vinaya Piṭaka for another reason for that rule. One bhikkhu went for an alms-collection after dark, and a woman had thrown dirty water from a cooking pot at the bhikkhu because she could not see him.

5. Here is another example. Any bhikkhu commits a pārājika offense (which is one of the four most serious offenses) by declaring supermundane attainments like jhana or magga phala (uttarimanussadhamma), knowing that he does not have such attainments.

  • Of course, any bhikkhu (or a layperson) can declare genuine attainment if the need arose. But if it is done without really having such attainments that is a pārājika offense for a bhikkhu. He must give up the robes since he would not be able to make progress.
  • That Vinaya rule was enacted after a group of bhikkhus decided to make such claims to receive alms during a famine. That account is described in the Vinaya Piṭaka: “The training rule on telling truthfully.”
  • There were reasons for enacting each of the 227 rules for bhikkhus and 311 rules for bhikkhunis. Those accounts are given in the Vinaya Piṭaka.
“The Life of the Buddha” Is a Good Resource

6. The book, “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli is good to read and keep as a reference for two reasons:

  • It provides a chronological record of the Buddha’s life (after the Buddhahood),
  • Detailed accounts of significant events by combining accounts in the suttā with those taken from the Vinaya Piṭaka.

7. For example, it provides the background for delivering some major suttā or verses.

  • For example, there is a detailed account (pp. 55-60) of how the Buddha had to perform even a few miracles to convince Uruvela Kassapa, his two brothers, and 1000 of their followers before they agreed to listen to the Āditta Pariyāya Sutta (SN 35.28) or the Fire Sermon (page numbers quoted are for the 2001 First BPS Pariyatti edition.)
  • So, we can see that it was not easy in those early days for the Buddha to convince some of the ascetics who had their own beliefs of what Nibbāna was about.

8. The subsequent chapters provide a good chronological account of what happened until the Parinibbāna. One can get a sense of which major suttā were delivered at around what time.

  • There are accounts on the two chief disciples, and short accounts of other important personalities such as Anāthapiṇḍika, Angulimāla, Visākha, etc. Chapter 7 describes the formation of the order of bhikkhunis.
  • Several encounters with the Māra Devaputta are scattered throughout the book.
  • One paragraph on p. 109 is on how the Buddha visited the Tāvatimsa deva realm and delivered Abhidhamma. A summary was conveyed to Ven. Sariputta expanded it with the help of his students to the form that we have today.
  • There is a chapter on Devadatta, which describes events that are not found in suttā: For example, how he attained (anāriyajhānās and iddhi (super-normal powers) powers and using those iddhi powers how he appeared on the lap of Prince Ajatasattu as a baby wrapped in snakes.
  • It provides a good account of Devadatta’s efforts to take the life of the Buddha and how he lost all those super-normal powers and jhānās at the end.
  • More at “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.”
An Example From the Book

9. I will provide the following as an example of what is in this book that is not available in any sutta. It describes how the five ascetics attained the Sōtapanna stage over several days with the delivery and discussions of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

Here is a direct quote from p. 45 of the book (starting from the point where the Buddha had just finished the first delivery of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta):

“Then Aññata Koṇḍañña, who had seen and reached and found and penetrated the Dhamma, whose uncertainties were left behind, whose doubts had vanished, who had gained perfect confidence and became independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation, said to the Blessed One: “Blessed One, I wish to go forth under the Blessed One and to receive the full admission?”

“Come, bhikkhu,” the Blessed One said, “The Dhamma is well proclaimed. Live the holy life for the complete ending of suffering.” And that was his full admission.

Then the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with a talk on the Dhamma. As he did so, there arose in the venerable Vappa and the venerable Bhaddiya, the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma. All that is subjected to arising is subjected to cessation. They, too, asked for and received the full admission.

These, having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, knowing dhamma … having attained without the help of another full confidence in the teacher’s instruction, spoke thus to the Blessed One: “May we, Blessed One, receive the going forth in the Blessed One’s presence, may we receive ordination?”

Then living on the food they brought to him, the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with a talk on the Dhamma. All six lived on the food brought back by the three of them. Then there arose in the venerable Mahānāma and the venerable Assaji the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma, and they too asked for and received the full admission”.

More Resources on Background Material

10. The following is also a good resource: “A Sketch of the Buddha’s Life: Readings from the Pali Canon.”

  • That post has extractions for various suttas and provides accounts before and after the Enlightenment.
  • Another one (presumably tailored to young children) is: “A Young People’s Life of the Buddha.”
  • In the next post, I will provide an overview of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka.
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