In this episode, I continue with the story of the Theravadin precepts (see Part 1 for the first part of the story) – particularly how the Vinaya has affected the ordination of monks and nuns, and how lay people participate in precept practice. Then we move on to China, and I talk about how the Chinese dealt with the question of how to establish an authentic Buddhist lineage while adapting the Vinaya to China, and avoiding the trap of “hinayana” practice that Mahayana sutras warned about (was the Vinaya “hinayana” practice?). They responded by creating additional Mahayana precepts, and elaborate sets of monastic regulations.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Theravadin Vinaya’s Effect on Monastic Ordination Lineages [2:44]
Precepts and Lay People in Theravadin Buddhism [6:03]
The Transmission of Buddhist Precepts to China [8:26]
Chinese Additions to the Buddhist Precepts [13:09]
A Mahayana Perspective on Precepts [16:36]
Apocryphal Scriptures Offering Mahayana Precepts [21:35]
The Brahmajala Sutra, or the Sutra of Brahma’s Net [23:38]
The Creation of Regulations for Monasteries [29:15]
Reconciling the Vinaya with Mahayana Practice [34:08]
The Theravadin Vinaya’s Effect on Monastic Ordination Lineages
First, a bit about how the Theravadin code of discipline for monastics relates to the whole process of ordaining Buddhist monks and nuns. As I discussed previously, the lists of rules governing the life of a Theravadin monastic are called the Patimokkha (there’s one for bhikkhus, or monks, and another for bhikkhunis, or nuns), but the Patimokkha is contained within a much larger body of Pali language scriptures called the Vinaya. The Vinaya not only contains the origin stories and explanations of the Patimokkha, it also lays out regulations for all aspects of monastic life, including ordinations and the administration of monastic communities.
Therefore, the Vinaya as a whole strictly governs who is eligible for ordination, the processes they have to go through as they petition to be admitted to the monastic orders, and then the ordination ceremonies themselves. One critical aspect of the Vinaya requirements are that ten fully-ordained bhikkhus have to be present for the ordination – or, in the case of bhikkhunis, 5 bhikkhus and 5 bhikkhunis. The thing is, at low times in the history of Buddhism – during periods of persecution, or political turmoil, famine, and war – monastic lineages in particular countries or regions have ended up dying out. Without existing monastics to participate in ordinations, no new monastics can be admitted to the order.
When Vinaya monastic lineages have been lost in a particular area, local leaders seeking to reestablish them have had to send potential candidates abroad, or import monastics. For example, around the 11th century, the king of Sri Lanka requested monks from Siam (modern-day Thailand) to come to his country to reestablish the bhikkhu order after it was wiped out because of famine and war. Around this same time, the bhikkhuni order also died out throughout much of SE Asia, but efforts to reestablish it met with a lack of support, if not outright resistance. The argument was that there were no bhikkhunis in an authentic Theravadin lineage available to perform or witness ordinations, and – probably for largely political reasons – some governments forbid bhikkhus from ordaining bhikkhunis. (Note: Historically, governments have often been involved in regulating the Sangha). Non-Theravadin nun’s Vinaya lineages continued elsewhere – including in China, Taiwan, and Korea – but it’s only within the last 25 years that the Theravadin nun’s lineage has been slowly and painstakingly reestablished in SE Asia and elsewhere.
Precepts and Lay People in Theravadin Buddhism
Before I leave the subject of precepts in Theravadin Buddhism, I want to say something more about the participation of lay people in precept practice. As I mentioned in the last episode, from early on in Buddhism, the minimal guidelines for moral behavior were described by the Five Precepts, namely: Abstaining from killing human beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, or abusing intoxicants. Lay followers in most types of Buddhism have always had the option of deepening their practice and declaring their devotion to Buddhism by taking refuge in the Three Treasures and vowing to follow the Five Precepts.
In modern Theravadin Buddhism, it’s also common for lay people to “take” (that is, vow to follow) an additional three precepts for limited periods of time, such as during a meditation retreat, when they want to focus more intensively on Buddhist practice. When following eight precepts, people keep the standard Five Precepts, with the precept about abstaining from sexual misconduct replaced with abstaining from sex entirely, plus they vow to:
- Abstain from untimely eating (that is, after midday)
- Abstain from dancing, singing, music and unseemly shows, from wearing garlands, smartening with scents, and beautifying with perfumes, and
- Abstain from the use of high, large, or luxurious beds or couches
Finally, novice monks and nuns are given ten precepts, which include the eight just mentioned, plus a specific precept against wearing jewelry, and a precept about abstaining from handling money. It’s common in many Theravadin countries, particularly Thailand, for young men to take novice vows and live as a monk at some point – for days, months, or even years – and then return to lay life. There is also no shame in disrobing as a Theravadin monastic as long as you kept your precepts during the period you were ordained.
The Transmission of Buddhist Precepts to China
So, that brings us to the point in our story where the Buddhist moral precepts were transmitted north, to China. Actually, this transmission happened quite early on in Buddhism, so we’re actually backtracking in terms of time.
Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century CE, and by the 2nd century, Chinese translations of Indian scriptures were becoming available. Some early adherents to the new religion were inspired to the path of home-leaving. They shaved their heads, donned robes, and lived a renunciate lifestyle modeled on the information they had on Buddhism from written teachings, and from travelers who had spent time in India. From the point of view of the Vinaya, of course, these were illegitimate self-ordinations, but the early Chinese Buddhist monks were probably unaware of this because it took a while for translations of the Vinaya to become available and widespread.
Even once full versions of the Vinaya were translated and disseminated (by the 5th and 6th centuries), it still wasn’t immediately obvious to the Chinese how they should relate to it. For the most part, the Chinese associated authority with historicity (in this case, whether a given teaching or text was a historically linked to original, or true, Indian Buddhism), and sought to figure out how Buddhism was supposed to be. However, they faced four challenges in this effort. First, by the time Buddhist texts were brought to China, they had multiplied and diversified, so the Chinese ended up with multiple version of the Vinaya. Which one was right? Second, China differed considerably from India with respect to culture, climate, and landscape, so some practical adaptation was obviously necessary regarding things like the number of robes monks were allowed and how long they could store food.
Third, Chinese culture, influenced by Confucian ideals, tended to emphasize pragmatism and filial piety (that is, respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors), so the Indian monastic ideal of renouncing the world in order to focus on private spiritual cultivation – and expecting lay people to provide material support for this – was not so easy to promote in China. According to Bodiford, in his book Going Forth, until the Vinaya texts were firmly established in China, monks “lacked adequate arguments to justify leaving their families (an idea antithetical to basic Chinese values and not legally permitted until the early fourth century).” (Note: Filial piety was certainly valued in India as well, but it seems that the path for Buddhist monastics was paved by the strong Indian tradition of the sramana, which I described in Episode 6. Sramanas lived on the fringes of society as renunciates, pursuing alternative spiritual paths – and although I doubt any Indian parent hoped their child would end up a sramana, there seemed to be a lasting – if grudging – respect for them in Indian society.)
Back to China: By definition, monastics living according to the Vinaya are dependent on lay people for alms. This is why, as I mentioned in the previous episode, many of the Vinaya rules are concerned not so much with the discipline and moral behavior of monastics, but with maintaining the respect of lay supporters. So even if individual Chinese Buddhist monks were happy to abide by the Vinaya exactly as received from India, that in itself wasn’t enough; in order for the whole system to function, enough lay people had to approve of the monastic discipline and practice to support it.
Chinese Additions to the Buddhist Precepts
The fourth challenge faced by early Chinese Buddhists in establishing a precept tradition in China was this: They were presented with the teachings, practices, and texts of multiple sects of Buddhism at the same time. In particular, and most significantly, they received Mahayana teachings at more or less the same time that they starting getting translations of the Theravadin Vinaya. All monastics up until this time had been ordained with some version of the Vinaya, regardless of sect, but the Mahayana teachings presented the Chinese with a conundrum when it came to precepts and monastic practice.
Mahayana teachings and texts denigrated what they called “hinayana” – or small (hina) vehicle (yana) – practice, compared to the noble practice of bodhisattvas, which was called Mahayana (great vehicle). Hinayana practice was that of someone seeking their own spiritual liberation without particular concern for others. Once a hinayana practitioner attained arhatship, they would never again be reborn, but upon their death would gain complete release from the world of suffering (a.k.a samsara). A bodhisattva, on the other hand, makes a vow specifically to be reborn in the world of samsara over and over until every last sentient being is also liberated. This grand ideal had been part of Buddhism early on, but was generally presented as an option for the super ambitious and talented. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, taught that the bodhisattva path was superior, an obligation for any compassionate aspirant, and accessible to everyone.
Now, almost all of the various schools of Indian Buddhism got some kind of foothold in China as well, but few of them lasted more than a couple centuries. The ones that did last were Mahayana schools. After all, the Mahayana view of Buddhist practice was far more amenable to Chinese culture, which had a more positive view of the world and of human life than was held in ancient India. For example, in contrast to Indian spiritual adepts who sought to break free from rebirth in the world of samsara, Chinese Taoists were searching for the recipe for immortality! In addition, the way a bodhisattva remained engaged in the world for the benefit of others seemed more compatible with the Confucian values of filial piety and responsibility to society. Having come down decidedly in the Mahayana camp, then, the Chinese were faced with the conundrum: Was the Vinaya part of hinayana practice, and therefore lesser, or even incompatible with Mahayana practice? How could they honor the true spirit of Buddhism as it came from India, but be sure they weren’t falling into the trap of hinayana practice?
A Mahayana Perspective on Precepts
I’ll get to the creative Chinese Buddhist innovations that let both precepts and monasticism take hold in China, but first I want to give you more of a sense of the Mahayana message the Chinese encountered – especially as regards precepts. In one of the earliest Mahayana sutras, the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines (probably first written down in the 1st century BCE), the Buddha is asked whether a bodhisattva also trains “in the accomplishment of a Disciple.” “Disciple,” here, refers to a practitioner doing hinayana training with the aim of personal arhatship, following all the practices set out in original Buddhism – including, of course, the Vinaya. The Buddha responds by saying the bodhisattva should indeed also train in the ways of a Disciple, assimilating them “without opposing them,” but he should not make such practices “his own” or “abide with them.”
Instead, the Buddha describes how a bodhisattva’s dedication to benefit all beings, without discriminating between self and other, is her supreme practice. When she wholeheartedly takes refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and turns her attention toward Buddhahood, even if she “tastes of the five sense-qualities” (that is, remains somewhat enmeshed in the world), she is “established in the perfection of morality.” With “no notion of I and no notion of a being,” such a bodhisattva “has performed the withdrawal from perception” and has no need for restraint. On the other hand, the instant someone longs for the enlightenment of the arhats, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra says, she “becomes immoral!” In addition, as soon as a bodhisattva starts to judge beings as moral or immoral, or become the slightest bit proud of her own morality, the Buddha says, she herself is “perfectly immoral.”
What does this all mean? Essentially, the Mahayana teaching is that if you awaken to the reality of shunyata, or emptiness, the artificial distinctions you make between self and other fall away. There is no motivation to act selfishly or fearfully or lustfully. Perfect enlightenment results in perfect behavior, if you will, or you could say the precepts describe enlightened behavior. In contrast, as long as you’re striving for the reward of enlightenment for yourself, and as long as you’re trying to attain it by following a bunch of rules to purify yourself or improve your chances, you’re turning away from perfection of wisdom, which is the truly liberative insight into emptiness. The Buddha admits that precept practice is beneficial, to an extent; in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines he admits that it lifts up “those who hanker after calm,” and establishes them in the sphere of those with spiritual powers. But if a bodhisattva stops there, the deepest kind of morality – non-separation, the perfection of wisdom – will elude him.
So, how did the Chinese reconcile these radical Mahayana statements about morality and precepts with their desire to establish an authentic and legitimate Buddhism in China – one that, since the time of the Buddha, relied so heavily on the Vinaya? Remember, in the last episode I talked about how, in the Pali Canon, the Buddha states clearly that the holy life he was establishing would “not last long” unless it had a Patimokkha to hold it together!
In summary, the Chinese found two ways to add to the teachings and practices of Buddhism that allowed them to honor and stay true to the India Vinaya, while making the necessary adaptations to the codes of discipline and protecting themselves against the trap of hinayana practice.
Apocryphal Scriptures Offering Mahayana Precepts
First (and this is not in terms of time, just in terms of the order I’m going to talk about them), Chinese Buddhists addressed the tension between “hinayana” precepts and Mahayana aspirations by having Buddhists take uniquely Mahayana precepts in addition to honoring the traditional Vinaya. The idea was that the Vinaya precepts were for restraining and guiding the conduct of monastics, creating the ideal situation for spiritual cultivation, but the Mahayana precepts were about compassion and concern for other beings. Keeping the hinayana precepts was considered important for maintaining monastic discipline, and as long as the monks also vowed to keep the Mahayana precepts, they would keep all of their precepts in the proper spirit and avoid hinayana practice.
The most famous source of Mahayana precepts is the Brahmajala Sutra, or the Sutra of Brahma’s Net. This is considered by scholars to be an “apocryphal” sutra of Chinese origin – meaning that, although it claims to be a teaching given by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, it was probably composed in China sometime in the 5th century. The Brahmajala Sutra wasn’t the only Mahayana precept sutra that arose in China, either; in his essay, “Bodhisattva Precepts in the Ming Society,” from the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, William Chu says that after full translations of the Indian Vinaya become available in China in the 5th and 6th centuries, “they were followed by a flurry of apocryphal activities that almost seemed to have been propelled by a desire to supplement the somewhat socially maladaptive Indian preceptive models.”
The Brahmajala Sutra, or the Sutra of Brahma’s Net
The Brahmajala Sutra sets out 58 “bodhisattva” precepts, 10 major and 48 minor, and over time this was the version of additional bodhisattva precepts that were taken by most Chinese Mahayana monastics in addition to their Vinaya vows. (These 58 precepts were also taken by lay people, which I’ll get to in a moment.) The first of the ten major bodhisattva precepts mirror the Five Precepts of original Buddhism, with not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not lying. Curiously, the fifth precept – abstaining from intoxicants – becomes not selling alcoholic beverages; a proscription against consuming alcohol is found among the 48 minor bodhisattva precepts, but only the trade in liquor is counted among the major precepts. The other five major bodhisattva precepts of the Brahmajala are:
- “On Broadcasting the Faults of the Assembly: A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns — nor encourage others to do so.
- “On Praising Oneself and Disparaging Others: A disciple of the Buddha shall not praise himself and speak ill of others, or encourage others to do so…
- “On Stinginess and Abuse: A disciple of the Buddha must not be stingy or encourage others to be stingy…
- “On Anger and Resentment: A disciple of the Buddha shall not harbor anger or encourage others to be angry…
- “On Slandering the Triple Jewel [the Buddha, Dharma, or Sangha]: A Buddha’s disciple shall not himself speak ill of the Triple Jewel or encourage others to do so…”
According to the Brahmajala Sutra, if a bodhisattva breaks one of the major precepts, she commits a parajika offense. As I discussed in the last episode, in the context of the Vinaya, a parajika offense meant a monk or nun was no longer considered ordained, and would be expelled from the monastic Sangha. The use of the term parajika in this Mahayana precept sutra is simply meant to underscore the seriousness of the major precepts, because there was no such formal process of penalty and expulsion associated with the bodhisattva precepts. Which is fortunate, because the Mahayana precepts are much less concrete than hinayana ones; it’s pretty much impossible for anyone keep them perfectly – who can claim that they never speak ill of others, or that they never harbor anger?
I won’t go over all the minor, or “secondary,” precepts in the Brahmajala Sutra (if you’re curious, you can access a version of this text online), but just to give you a sense of them, here are a few of the things the sutra says “a disciple of the Buddha should not do:”
- [Show] Disrespect toward Teachers and Friends (1)
- Consume Alcoholic Beverages (2)
- Eat Meat (3)
- Fail to Request Dharma Teaching (when one encounters a teacher) (6)
- Fail to Care for the Sick (9)
- Store Deadly Weapons (10)
- Serve as an Emissary (for the military) (11)
- Give an Unsound Explanation of the Dharma (16)
- Exact Donations (on one’s own behalf) (17)
- Fail to Liberate Sentient Beings (“A disciple of the Buddha should have a mind of compassion and cultivate the practice of liberating sentient beings. He must reflect thus: throughout the eons of time, all male sentient beings have been my father, all female sentient beings my mother.”) (20)
- Lead the Assembly Unskillfully (25)
- Fail to Make Great Vows (35)
One particular aspect the Mahayana precept scriptures, including the Brahmajala Sutra, may account for much of their popularity in China: contrary to the Vinaya, which excludes many potential aspirants either outright, or because of its exacting standards, the bodhisattva precepts can – and should – be given to anyone who asks, as long as they can “understand the explanations of the Precept Master.” This includes, according to the Brahmajala Sutra, “kings, princes, high officials, Bhiksus, Bhiksunis, laymen, laywomen, libertines, prostitutes, the gods in the eighteen Brahma Heavens or the six Desire Heavens, asexual persons, bisexual persons, eunuchs, slaves, or demons and ghosts of all types.” In fact, one of the Brahmajala precepts forbids “discrimination in conferring the precepts.” Just as lay Buddhists had long been taking the Five Precepts, Chinese lay people were encouraged to take the Brahmajala precepts, and they did.
The Creation of Regulations for Monasteries
The second major way the Chinese added to Buddhism regarding precepts was the creation of elaborate sets of regulations for monasteries. The earliest of these was created by Daoan (312-385), the abbot of a monastery who apparently was a big fan of the Indian Vinaya, but addressed the needs for adaptation of monastic discipline to Chinese culture and circumstances by creating additional and complementary guidelines. Daoan’s disciples were known for their meticulous adherence to Vinaya as well as to their own regulations.
Over the centuries, different schools of Buddhism composed their own sets of monastic regulations, and each iteration tended to influence later ones. Such regulations became particularly central in Chan Buddhism. The Chan, or meditation, school (later called Zen, in Japan), arose in China in the 5th century and for various reasons became the dominant sect after a period of political turmoil in the 10th century. The Chan monastic regulations came to be called qinggui [keeng-gwee], alternatively translated as “rules of purity” or simply “monastic regulations.” One of the most famous of these was that of the Chan master Baizhang (749-814). Baizhang’s qinggui was lost (and some scholars even question whether it existed) but it was widely referenced by subsequent works.
The oldest extant set of Chan monastic regulations is the Chanyuan Qinggui, composed in 1103, which is the subject of Venerable Yifa’s book Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China. Yifa makes a convincing argument that the Chanyuan Rules of Purity borrowed a “tremendous amount of material” from the Indian Vinaya, as opposed to simply creating a new Chinese version of monastic discipline to suit Chinese tastes. She provides numerous examples where the Rules of Purity describe instructions for monastic deportment and rituals that are, in essence, straight from the Vinaya. What the Chinese regulations do is present them in a more Sinicized way, with more detail and context, and in places adapting them to Chinese cultural mores, the physical layout of Chinese monasteries, and practical requirements from the government.
I want to briefly give you a sense of what Chan monastic regulations were – and still are – like. The Chanyuan Qinggui – which has profoundly influenced Chan and Zen monastic regulations ever since – contains all kinds of instructions, including for how a new monk petitions for and gains admission to the monastery; what items a monk should own and carry with him when he travels; how monks should wear their robes, conduct themselves in the communal monks’ hall, and use the toilet. For example, the text says (and this is a very abbreviated list), “The following is inappropriate behavior in the monastery: congregating in the hall; shuffling one’s feet after nightfall… making noise with the bucket and ladle while washing; making noises while blowing one’s nose or spitting… taking on duties in excess of those required by one’s position, thereby interfering with the affairs of the monastery as a whole; spreading gossip; [and] creating unnecessary complications out of simple situations…” Although the rules may seem very specific and stringent, they are meant to be supportive of training and the Chanyuan Qinggui admits, “If the abbot were to expel from the monastery every transgressor, exhaustively enforcing all the regulations, then there would be no assembly at all.”
The Chanyuan Qinggui also covers exactly how and when to perform many small and large requisite rituals and ceremonies in the course of monastic life, and lays out the roles and responsibilities of temple administrators and officers, from the abbot down to the person who takes care of the bathhouse.
Reconciling the Vinaya with Mahayana Practice
These kinds of Chinese monastic regulations often addressed head-on the whole question of their relationship to the Vinaya. In the preface to the Chanyuan Qinggui, it explains “those individuals who enjoy the fruits of Dharma on the way to enlightenment, who are extraordinarily pure and exalted, the general precepts need not apply. But for those monks who have not attained such lofty qualities, neglecting the Vinaya is much like coming up against a wall and, it can be said, this neglect will result in a loss of respect in the eyes of others.” The text then begins with a section on receiving the precepts, saying monks should be ordained with both the Hinayana precepts (all the categories of rules inherited from the Indian Vinaya) and the 58 Mahayana precepts from Brahmajala Sutra.
Especially as Chan became increasingly predominant in China, after the 11th century, the qinggui monastic regulations, according to Chu, “came to eclipse, though never completely replaced, the Vinaya.” Clearly, then, the Chinese found a way reconcile the need for monastic discipline with the Mahayana spirit, and to this day Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monastics are ordained with both Vinaya and bodhisattva precepts.
That’s by no means the end of the story, of course… some later Chan masters become strong advocates of the Mahayana idea that precepts simply describe enlightened behavior, and taught that a superior way of practice – an option if you’re capable and especially determined – is to go straight for enlightenment instead of mucking about with lots of precepts. A couple of teachers even dared to suggest it might be best to do away with precepts altogether… But I’ll get to that in the next episode on precepts!
Bodiford, William ed. Going Forth. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press: 2005.
Chu, William. “Bodhisattva Precepts in the Ming Society: Factors behind their Success and Propagation.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 13: 2006.
Yifa, Venerable. Origins of Buddhist Monastic Codes in China (Classics in East Asian Buddhism): an annotated translation and study of the Chanyuan qinggui. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
Statue of Baizhang, in China, taken by Kyogen Carlson, 2010
 Jutima, Ani. Full Ordination for Nuns Restored in Sri Lanka. https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/full-ordination-for-nuns-restored-in-sri-lanka/
 Jutima, Ani. Full Ordination for Nuns Restored in Sri Lanka. https://www.bcbsdharma.org/article/full-ordination-for-nuns-restored-in-sri-lanka/
 “The Bhikkhus’ Rules: A Guide for Laypeople”, compiled and explained by Bhikkhu Ariyesako. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/ariyesako/layguide.html.
 Bodiford, Going Forth.
 Bodiford, Going Forth, page 4
 Chu, page 2
 Bodiford, Going Forth, page 4
 Bodiford, Going Forth, page 5
 Chu, page 2
 The Brahma Net Sutra, Translated by the Buddhist Text Translation Society in USA (http://www.buddhism.org/Sutras/2/BrahmaNetSutra.htm)
 Yifa, page xxi
 Tifa, page 30
 Yifa, page xxii
 Yifa, page 140
 Yifa, page 131
 Chu, page 3