In the vast library of books on Buddhism—or on any monastic tradition, for that matter—surely only one contains a chapter entitled “Nuns Who Become Pregnant.” It appears in Shayne Clarke’s Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticisms, an exegesis of rules governing monks’ and nuns’ family relations, contained in the vinayas, or monastic law codes, of early Indian Buddhism. The book may also be unique in that its index directs readers to monastic jurisprudence regarding “self-insemination”; “parents with children on alms rounds”; “making/using dildos”; and “nursing nuns,” and many other topics one usually doesn’t associate with contemplatives. But then part of what makes the vinayas special and distinguishes them from the sutras, or discourses of the Buddha, is that they leave no stone of human behavior unturned. The vinayas are hardly dry, legalistic texts. From the sound of it, in fact, we 21st-century types have nothing on the shenanigans and tangled private lives of the Buddha’s disciples some 2,500 years ago.

Clarke, a professor of religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has devoted a good part of his career to reconsidering the role of family in early Buddhist monasticism. Much of his work takes aim at a prevailing academic notion that the original sangha members were required to sever all ties with kith and kin, that the Buddha insisted they should be islands unto themselves. For a scholarly book, Family Matters is a romp, detailing many of the rich narratives or “frame-stories” behind each of the hundreds of vinaya rules—the “call,” so to speak, that inspired the “response” that is each of the Buddha’s regulations for monastics.

What to do when, say, a nun (who is not supposed to touch a male) gives birth to a baby boy; or when a father ordains only to discover, on his alms round, that the laity are scandalized by the toddler in his arms? Clarke has also written on humor as a teaching device in the vinayas. Why, for example, are monks required to inspect their seats before sitting down? Apparently because a Venerable Udayin once, during a visit to a lay household, sat on someone’s baby. It didn’t end well. After a story like that, who could ever forget the rule?

These kinds of narratives caught Clarke’s attention as a graduate student in his native New Zealand, where he was translating Pure Land texts from classical Chinese under the direction of the Buddhist scholar Paul Harrison. A guest lecture on the vinayas by the now-famous Buddhologist Gregory Schopen came as a revelation. “I’d never heard of monastic law codes,” says Clarke. “They were about real people. About the social lives, the economic lives, of Buddhists in India.” Harrison pointed him to I. B. Horner’s English translations of the Pali Vinaya, which in turn led him to vinayas in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit. Clarke recently edited an edition of full-color facsimiles of vinaya folios in one of those composite scripts, part of the 1931 discovery of 6th–7th-century manuscripts at Gilgit, in what is now Pakistan. Making sense of them requires painstaking comparative translation—going back and forth between the cryptic brushstrokes of a manuscript and known texts in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, or Pali. Other recent projects include an entry on vinayas for the forthcoming edition of Brill’s new multivolume Encyclopedia of Buddhism, a preliminary study of Buddhist notions of sexuality, gender, and transgression, and an ongoing survey of Dunhuang Tibetan manuscripts.

For decades, Clarke argues, academics have promoted the ideal of the eremitic monk, taking as their touchstone the Rhinoceros Sutra (Sutta Nipata 1.3), each of whose 40-some verses closes with the exhortation to “wander alone, like a rhinoceros.” There’s debate about the point of the sutra, but now it’s widely believed to be addressed not to the average monk but to people who find themselves in a world without the buddhadharma and so must strive to become pratyekabuddhas—“private buddhas” or “buddhas on their own.” Moreover, from the vantage point of anyone who has observed or been part of a contemporary Buddhist monastery, it’s clear that monks and nuns are secluded only some of the time and continually engage with the laity, including family members. They likely always have. Translating the trove of the vinayas, as Clarke shows, is beginning to reveal more of the rich, complicated, and highly social world of early Indian Buddhism.

–Mary Talbot, Editor-at-large

Why is the Pali Vinaya the monastic code most contemporary Buddhists, especially in the West, know about, and why is it important to look at other sources of Buddhist monastic law? Not just the Vinaya, but Pali texts in general are the most well known because we have relatively reliable English translations of them. It’s really that simple. So if we have these translations, why should we look at texts that are preserved in Chinese that are unavailable in English? Or texts preserved in Tibetan or Sanskrit that are not translated into English? We think that Buddhism is this monolithic thing, that there’s only one Buddhism. But that’s not the case, and it never has been the case. The Pali texts are fine if you’re interested in particular types of Buddhism. But they are not representative of the diversity, the range, of manifestations or practices of Buddhism throughout history.

There will always be debate around the datability and relative authority of the different text collections. For Theravadins, the Pali texts are seen as the original and therefore most authoritative of all. And from that perspective, other vinayas are seen as unorthodox and aberrant. What is your take on this? Are they all equally valid? Whether they are equally valid depends on one’s point of view. From a practitioner’s standpoint, only the canonical text of one’s own school will be valid, and that’s fair enough. They all purport to be the word of the Buddha. Obviously, however, this cannot be historically true. One could tie oneself into knots trying to explain all of the contradictory statements. Nevertheless, that these texts have been preserved, that they have been transmitted as the word of the Buddha, is sufficient basis for scholars to study them.

Related: The Myth of the Historical Buddha

The Pali Vinaya serves as the guideline for most contemporary Theravada monasteries in Southeast Asia as well as the West. Tibetan Buddhist lineages generally follow the Mulasarvastivada vinaya, while many East Asian traditions in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, follow the Dharmaguptaka. Are the other vinayas used by monastics in the present day? Not really. Thich Nhat Hanh has updated the Theravada pratimoksha [the stripped-down list of rules, part of the vinayas, which monks chant fortnightly] for his community—it’s called A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-First Century. But otherwise it is chiefly only these three codes that are used. Although the degree to which these codes are actually followed or even studied in some countries is a separate issue. In addition to the vinayas, however, various handbooks and local ordinances are also used. In Tibet, for instance, most monks study not the vinaya itself, which is enormous [some 12 volumes in Tibetan, each volume consisting of around 500 two-sided folios], but a digest known as the Vinayasutra.

When you began delving into other vinayas, was it immediately evident that they were different from the Pali in terms of the flexibility about certain rules? Yes. Each vinaya opens with the laws proscribing sex. A monk or nun who has sex commits a parajika [literally, “defeat”], which is generally interpreted to mean they can no longer be part of the community. They are no longer “in communion.” What I was seeing was that for the monk who commits the first parajika, in all Buddhist monastic law codes, apart from the Pali texts, there is a process by which this person can remain within the sangha in a demoted status.

Each vinaya opens with the laws proscribing sex.

If you look at all the other monastic law codes in Chinese and Tibetan, a monk who without a single thought of concealment—and that’s a key phrase—confesses his offense is granted a type of probationary status. But if we look only at the Pali material, then we see that he’s no longer a monk or he’s excommunicated. If we look at the other traditions, we might say, from a Westerner’s perspective, they’re more “Buddhist.” It’s a more compassionate response.

How do you account for the fact that all the other vinayas take a more permissive approach than the Pali Vinaya does in the case of a monk who has committed the first parajika? Were the authors of the Pali Vinaya just hardliners in comparison? There is some evidence that the Theravada commentarial tradition is aware of the rule allowing a monk who has committed the first parajika to remain within the sangha in a demoted status. That the Pali Vinaya no longer includes this rule could be accounted for in a number of ways, including the possibility that it was deleted. Five out of six vinayas include this rule; its absence in the Pali Vinaya as it has come down to us makes this vinaya the odd one out, so to speak. 

There is also good anthropological evidence suggesting that something very similar to this rule is practiced in some Theravada communities. In other words, the rule may not be contained in the Pali Vinaya, but that has not stopped monastic communities from adopting it in practice. 

You could say that the same thing applies to the case of pregnant nuns. Here it’s not a case of the Pali texts differing from the other texts, because the Pali says the same thing. If a nun gets pregnant, one might expect that she’d be thrown out. But that is not the case, and that should probably not be the case. Especially for a religion that prides itself on compassion. Do you really want to throw a pregnant nun out on her ear, into the streets? No, you want to look after her, but at the same time keep things under wraps.

Do the vinayas tell us what happens to these monastics who gave birth, or ordained with their families and that sort of thing? What kind of monk or nun can you be if you have these kinds of entanglements? That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure I can answer that on the basis of the texts. They don’t give us the whole life stories of all of these monks. But we can take the well-known story of the monk Sudinna, who goes back to his home and his parents because, basically, his family wants him to impregnate his wife. They need an heir in order to avoid taxes. So he has sex with his wife, but then he goes on to attain arhatship after that, which is the goal of Buddhism. And that part of the story is often overlooked. Many other monastic “misfits” also attain arhatship in these texts.

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Sudinna is the first monk we meet in the vinaya, so in that respect, can’t we look at his story as a cautionary tale? He’s sort of the poster child for what doesn’t work: resuming marital relations, living at home. He attains arhatship only because he’s wise enough to get off the normal route. Certainly. Perhaps people think I’m suggesting that monks in India were practicing at home. I don’t think that’s the case. But I do think there were many more continued familial ties with brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers in the monastery. Even wives. We gloss over these things, maybe partly because, in fact, what most people read is not the vinaya itself but rather the pratimoksha—this list of rules that has no narrative in it. It just says, if a monk does x, he is parajika. He is defeated. We don’t read the vinaya text that says, well, actually, he’s allowed to participate in this, he’s allowed to do that. We often confuse prohibitions with censure.

You devote the first chapter of your book to how the sutras, particularly the Rhinoceros Sutra, have led scholars to insist that the monastic life demanded utter seclusion and severing of family ties. But the discourses are also chockablock with stories about monks’ relationships with kinsmen and friends and all sorts of characters who show up to talk to the Buddha. Couldn’t you make a case for continued familial contact by looking at the discourses of the Buddha, too? You could make the case against seclusion on the basis of the sutras, certainly. In part, my book is pointing out that there’s much more to Buddhist monasticism than we know or than we’ve been told primarily on the basis of the Pali texts. Just look at some of these stories! Sure, it’s going to be provocative. In what book do you find discussion of nursing nuns, or child-caring and nannying nuns at all, let alone to learn that this is said to be authorized by the Buddha? But these things are just sitting there in the vinaya texts. You won’t find that to the same extent in the sutra texts. It’s a different genre, with different interests and different goals. There are revealing narrative flourishes, but they are focused on the philosophy or discourses of the Buddha. The other thing to remember is that although sutras were written for public consumption, the vinayas were not; they are strictly in-house documents, for monastic eyes and ears only—and perhaps for good reason!

I envision a very lively scene from reading these vinayas—nuns raising children, monks going for alms with toddlers riding on their shoulders. It seems like some monastics may have had pretty messy lives. Exactly. People’s lives are messy, and people are complicated. It’s a very human story. The book is not meant to show us how monks’ lives should be. If you want that, you should go to the pratimoksha, the list of rules of things that people should not do. But that’s not very readable. Because we lack so many other texts, the vinayas give us the richest sense of the nitty-gritty of daily life.

But aren’t the pratimokshas and the vinayas ultimately meant to help people navigate the issues that come up in the course of monastic life? Yes, but I would also say that the authors were very interested in the wider perception of the monastic institution. The rules are often about protecting the reputation of the monastery. There are many otherwise unallowable things that are allowable as long as they are done out of the public eye. Because the last thing you want is potential donors grumbling.

Might compiling all these examples of married monks and pregnant nuns begin to create the impression that this was the norm? No. I think repeat offenders would have been dealt with very severely. But there’s a difference between a repeat offender and someone who occasionally slips up. Look again at Sudinna, for instance. He didn’t even want to have sex. You could say it was an act of filial piety. His parents asked him to do something and he did it. It’s not like many of the stories—he was not overcome by passion at all. And ultimately, the point of his story is very clear: he does go back home for alms and there is some interaction with his family, but he makes a very clear statement that living at home is not conducive to the religious life.

Related: Buddhism’s Second Class Citizens 

What does your research have to say to laypeople who are practicing today? Do you think the vinayas have implications for how we approach Buddhism? It may be that Buddhist teachings are much more liberal than we may have thought, or much less conservative than we may have hoped. I think of the Japanese clergy as an example. Japanese priests are generally married. They drink alcohol. They handle money. To a Thai Buddhist or a Theravada monk, much of this would be unacceptable. It’s not monasticism at all. I don’t think Indian Buddhist monks had gone quite that far, but they may have been leaning closer to the Japanese model than previously recognized. If you look at Newar Buddhism in contemporary Nepal, monks continue to live in households, which are called viharas, and they are married and have children, and their sons inherit their temples. This is probably not as different from the Indian Buddhism as described or understood or assumed by the authors and/or redactors of the monastic law codes.

Presumably, though, monastic communities were set up to give people the best possible shot at enlightenment. Not having certain obligations—caring for children or property, not being tempted to commit offenses that are going to muddy the mind—seems very important. It’s ostensibly why the vinaya was put together the way it was. Does the kind of liberalism you describe imply a different soteriological goal? Or simply different degrees of orthodoxy? I agree that the authors of the vinayas were interested in upholding the most beneficial environment for people to practice Buddhism. But is it really appropriate for everybody to practice that way? You can compare it to a university, for instance. You have some people who actually do research and some people who don’t. The number of people who are actually striving toward nirvana in a monastery is probably a very small percentage. Still, that doesn’t mean that the institution shouldn’t fully support that goal. If it takes a village to raise a child, I’m sure it takes more than a village to raise an arhat. But I think we would be kidding ourselves if we thought every single monk in history had nirvana as his goal.

How has the idea that monastics were supposed to cut all ties to family stymied inquiry into early Indian Buddhist monasticism? By reading texts with a certain mind-set, one tends to ignore data that does not fit with one’s preconceptions about monasticism, to not ask interesting questions. If we think there is no place in Indian Buddhist monasticism for pregnant nuns, for instance, then we might well ignore all such references, writing them off as strange, curious, or unimportant. But when we read the texts with a mind alert to other possibilities, a more nuanced vision of monasticism emerges.

To be sure, Indian Buddhist authors did not want nuns to get pregnant. Yet, for whatever reasons, some nuns probably did become pregnant—whether they were widows who were, unbeknownst to themselves, pregnant when they “left home,” whether they were victims of rape, or simply incorrigible monastics who couldn’t get with the program. Rather than burying their heads in the sand and ignoring the reality, however occasional or exceptional, monastic lawyers in early India legislated a place for such women in order to protect both the vulnerable and the reputation of the monastic institution.

If we assume that Indian Buddhist nuns never became pregnant, then we fail to ask what I think are interesting questions of our texts; we don’t generally ask questions about monastic motherhood or nursing nuns because we think that such things did not exist. The constriction of our inquiry is further compounded by the fact that the texts remain untranslated.

So more and reliable translations are in order. Yes! If I read a text, it ends with me. If you translate a text, that’s another story. That was another goal of the book—by making these stories available, we’re saying, “Look at this extraordinary material.” Just imagine what more lies out there. 

More Rules Needed

An excerpt from the Chinese translation of the Mulasarvastivada vinaya

The nun Gupta’s husband was a monk. He visited her to deliver a dharma talk and, becoming aroused, ejaculated into his robes. After he changed robes, Gupta offered to wash the soiled garments. With the robes in her possession, Gupta became nostalgic for her former husband—with surprising results. One outcome of these events was a rule that unrelated nuns should not wash monks’ robes for them. What happened to Gupta led to even more legislation:

Then, since the nun Gupta had taken a drop of semen and placed it in her mouth, and also taken another drop of semen and placed it in her vagina—the maturation of the actions of sentient beings is difficult to comprehend—consequently, she became pregnant and gave birth to [a boy named] Kumara-Kasyapa.

Then Gupta the nun did not dare to touch him.

The child thereupon cried.

Her relatives inquired, “Why is the child crying?”

Some nuns heard this and remained silent; other nuns replied, saying, “The World-Honored One has set down a rule-of-training that [a nun] is not allowed to touch a male. Therefore she does not dare to approach, and he cries because of this.”

They thereupon replied, saying, “The World-Honored One is very compassionate; how could he not allow one to touch one’s own son? If the mother does not touch him, how could he survive?”

The nuns heard this and, praising it as excellent, they went to inform the bhikshus. The bhikshus reported it to the Buddha. 

The Buddha said: “One should touch one’s own child. There is no fault in nurturing him and taking him in one’s arms.”

–Trans. Shayne Clarke

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