Then the venerable Udayin…coming up from behind, rubbed up against the Brahmin lady limb by limb.” —The Vinaya, or the Book of Discipline


What are we to make of the Vinaya? This twenty-two-hundred-year-old book of monks’ rules, which still defines Buddhist orders today, may be the most provocative of all the fundamental Buddhist documents. In its opening pages, the Buddha refuses to set out a code of conduct, saying that his monastic order is still pure with even the most backward of its 500 members bound for full enlightenment. Alas, immediately his monks and nuns start succumbing to passion in an amazing range of ways, from lying on fur coverlets to copulating with rotten corpses. The Vinaya then recounts the case histories that led the Buddha to institute each of the 227 monks’ precepts and 84 extra rules for bhikkuni, or nuns (numbers differ slightly across traditions).

It is a massive work, and most of its textual energy is devoted to the forbidden. Endless lists and descriptions leave little to the imagination concerning how a spiritual person ought not to behave. All details are made plain in a deadpan style that is, as the Veranja Brahmin says of the Buddha himself, “without the quality of taste.” Ah, but in the reader’s mind the Vinaya’s empty tone quickly loads itself with flavors, resonances that are surely unintended. At times we hear echoes of stern and prudish moralizing; at others, sly humor, or a breathless fascination akin to Fanny Hill’s unstalling zest for the repetitive act of love. And we enjoy it, though we feel we shouldn’t. Like the gargoyles on a cathedral, so much more fun to look at than the facade’s stony saints, the Vinaya engages us in ways that feel illicit.

[I]f the monk is infatuated, and rubs the woman’s body with his body, rubs up against it, rubs it downward, rubs it upwards, bends it down, raises it up, draws it to, pushes it back, holds it back hard, takes hold of it hard, grasps it, touches it, there is an offense entailing a formal meeting of the Order.

Titillation, clearly, is far from the Vinaya’s overt purpose (though some detailed passages tempt us to imagine one monk whispering to another, “Let’s go study!”). In its pages, the Buddha says over and over that renunciate life, lived within these precepts, is “complete and wholly purified,” the best way to be freed of suffering. The Vinaya is meant to be a liberating document; it is one of Buddhism’s Tripitaka, or “three baskets,” three major groups of texts. (The other two are the sutras, or sermons, and the Abhidharma, or book of psychological analysis.) Vinaya means “to lead out.” According to Webster’s, the English word education has the same root meaning. This way of life leads out of ignorance and suffering. Its main principles, as the Buddha constantly repeats, are passionlessness and supporting others’ faith in the true teaching.

Then, as now, some of the Buddha’s followers lack talent for these pursuits. Consider the “wicked monks, and shameless” who lived on Kita Hill as described in the Vinaya (translated by Rhys Davids and Oldenburg):

Such were the evil practices they followed: they used to…amuse themselves at games with eight pieces and ten pieces, and with hopping over diagrams formed on the ground, and removing substances from a heap without shaking the remainder;…and with sketching rude figures, tossing balls, blowing trumpets,…tumbling, forming mimic windmills, guessing at measures, having chariot races, and archery matches, shooting marbles with the fingers, guessing other people’s thoughts;…—and they used to run to and fro in front of elephants…;—and they used to…wrestle, and to box with their fists;—and spreading their robes out as a stage they used to invite dancing girls, saying, “Here you may dance, sister!” and greet her with applause. Thus manifold were the evil lives which they practiced.

These monks don’t seem to be trying very hard; yet they’re so jolly that to dub them “wicked” seems heavy-handed. That suits the Vinaya’s purpose, though, since it’s a book of laws defining a renunciate society. As such, it criminalizes many acts that are blameless for laypeople, as the Vinaya’s preeminent translator, I.B. Horner, notes. The first murder case, which concerns beetles baked into the walls of a mud hut, comes only after fifty-eight fornication cases, reflecting the fact that celibacy is the first definition of a monk or nun. (The four worst crimes are fornication, murder, stealing, and false claims of spiritual achievement; all merit the supreme penalty of expulsion.)

Great care is taken to monitor monastics’ relationship with laypeople. Clearly, the only reason why the Kita Hill monks have time for so much fun is that they don’t work but live on donations. In fact, this case comes to the Buddha after a good, dignified monk passes through town, and local folk won’t feed him because he isn’t smiling. Encouraged by a layman, the good monk reports to the Enlightened One.

This is standard Vinaya format. Hearing the story, the Buddha exclaims, as he always does, “How could [they] follow such practices?” His cry indicates a descent: wisdom is lacking; unenlightenment reigns; unenlightened people need rules. He then defines the behavior as wrongful, states its grievousness, assigns a penalty, and mentions similar instances meriting the same penalty. The Kita Hill monks are rebuked for foolishness and setting a bad example; they’re banished from their hill.

Unfortunately, punishment often fails to revive the essence of the holy life. The Kita Hill bhikkus “did not…mend their ways”; Venerable Udayin, who rubbed the Brahmin lady, later makes lewd remarks; the nun Thullananda kicks out her roommate, asks the king for his woolen robe in winter and his linen robe in summer, and sends back a gift of ghee, demanding oil instead. Another group, the Khabbagiya bhikkus, keep villagers awake with talk of ghosts and shipwrecks; wear bracelets, necklaces, and rings; touch heifers’ private parts; spring on heifers’ backs; rub their bodies on wood while bathing; institute proceedings against those not present; and use a tempting array of “lofty and large things” to recline upon.

Again and again, the Buddha sighs, “How could they!” He rebukes, disciplines, and even expels these characters, but they reappear like cartoon villains miraculously revived, freshly robed, and ready (again) to demonstrate their fundamental ignorance. How can they fail to understand? To a point, we empathize with their humanity—we, too, are weak and sensual, and break vows. Buddhist teachings point toward a state beyond the chafings of desire; until we’re there, we’re ignorant enough to indulge in things that ultimately bring us suffering. Even lay precepts are impossible for a normal human being to keep perfectly.

Yet our faith in the universal efficacy of the Buddha’s early teachings sometimes falters upon reading, again and again, the antics of these hardened boundary testers. Vinaya characters often seem worse than we are: morally obtuse, insincere, depraved, or simply so corrupt we wonder whether they ordained just to get free food. After the Buddha decrees that sexual intercourse will result in expulsion, the following incident occurs:

[A] certain monk in the Great Wood at Vesali, on account of his lust kept a female monkey….Now at that time a large concourse of monks…came up to this monk’s [dwelling]. The female monkey, seeing these monks coming from afar, went up to them and postured before them. Then these monks thought, “Undoubtedly this monk has committed fornication,” and they hid themselves to one side. Then this monk…returned with his almsfood, and eating half gave the other half to the female monkey. And there was some misbehavior. Then those monks said to that monk, “Surely the course of training has been made known by the lord, your reverence? Why do you commit fornication, your reverence?”

“It is true, your reverence, that the course of training has been made known by the lord, but it refers to the human woman and not to the female animal.”

This rationalization doesn’t convince the Buddha; nor do the excuses of monks who decide sex is fine if they lie quite still while the woman “exerts herself,” or if they disguise themselves in “a dress made of owls’ wings.”

Owls’ wings? At such times, we must admit that the Vinaya’s mentality is so antique that we can no longer fully enter into it. To understand it in its context would take a monumental historical methodology, but it is safe to say that the Vinaya is one of those ancient books of sacred law that just doesn’t shy away from regulating, point by point, the entire range of human possibilities. (Consider the biblical book of Leviticus, which reminds Hebrews not to sleep with sheep.) At least one elderly professor of Sanskrit refused to assign sections of the Hindu Dharmasastras that explain not to fart and belch in front of one’s guru on the grounds that these passages “appeal to undisciplined minds.” It seems for those literal-minded times, if an act hadn’t been forbidden, it might have become a practice.

Nonetheless, those heifer-loving monks, those nuns who can’t quit staring at a membrum virile lying in the road (!) dismay us. So it comes as a relief to consider that most of these base, self-deluded characters never belonged to the Buddha’s order: they’re cartoons, cardboard villains whose perversions exist to teach us principles. Although the Vinaya was written down three centuries after the Buddha’s death, its 227 rules are considered authentic (a long list but possible to memorize), and some of the historical facts are genuine. But imagine trying to keep straight 50 years of remarks on thousands of legal cases made by a spiritual teacher who died in 1694. “Actual remembrance of the Buddha, and of his time, could have sufficed only in the rarest instances to give a correct historical basis for the Rules,” note the Vinaya’s first English translators, Rhys Davids and Oldenburg.

The notion that some of the Buddha’s words might have been invented is shocking in some dharma circles. But fabrication must have seemed justified to the ancient scribes, since the legal procedures were in place, and they had faith that their Order embodied the Buddha’s authentic teachings. All they did was fill in a few blanks. For example, the immutable prescription for robe dyeing (in the Rhys Davids and Oldenburg translation):

At the time the Bhikkus spread the cloth on the floor
[when they had dyed it]; the cloth became dusty.

They told this thing to the Blessed One.
“I prescribe, O Bhikkus, that you spread grass [and put the cloth on it].”
The grass they had spread was eaten by white ants.
“I prescribe, O Bhikkus, that you get a bambu peg…to hang the cloth on.”
They hung it up in the middle; the dye dropped down on both sides.
“I prescribe, O Bhikkus, that you tie it fast at the corner.”
The corner wore out. They told this thing to the Blessed One….

A similar passage details toilet building, but translators found it repulsive and truncated it.

If the Vinaya is part fiction, we understand its emotional appeal, the reason for which we exclaim, “Where can I get one of those coverlets, the ones with embroidered flowers, and soft fur dangling down?” Those old monks must have drawn upon still lively yearnings as they compiled their lists of forbidden possessions and naughty sensual acts; they must have understood intimately the wish to interpret rules in favor of one’s own compulsions. Each time a scribe spoke on the Buddha’s behalf, however, the Vinaya is no wiser than whoever was just then putting words into his mouth. And the antics of the order are limited only by the scribe’s imagination.

Certainly, when immorality attains surreal proportions, readers are intended not to enjoy the fiction, but to see the principles of law: the timeless dharma that leads to liberation. In his own time, the Buddha set accepted wisdom on its ear by insisting that liberation was a personal responsibility, independent of birth, priestly intervention, or ritual performance; the nature of an act depends on the purity or impurity of its motivation. Because of its emphasis on individual responsibility, the British scholar Richard Gombrich has suggested that Buddhism is too rigorous to become a successful mass religion; in the Vinaya, the Buddha, too, predicts that “conditions causing the cankers” will arise only after the movement becomes successful on a larger scale.

In the Vinaya, renunciation is the only acceptable impulse. However, monks aren’t punished for bad thoughts, only for bad acts—unless no passionate motive can be found. A monk who is “mad, unhinged, in pain, or a beginner” is always exempt. Enlightened arhants who have extinguished all their passions are ipso facto incapable of fault. Blameless, too, was the monk who was napping while a woman “sat on” him and took her pleasure.

“Monk, did you consent?” the Buddha wanted to know.

“I did not know, lord,” he said.

“Monk, there is no offense as you did not know.”

(This case must be fictional!)

Fragment of a wall painting (Ming-oi, China, Uighur period, eighth to ninth century C.E.), depicting monks listening to a dharma talk. In the sky above, an apsaras, or celestial nymph, brings a writing brush.
Fragment of a wall painting (Ming-oi, China, Uighur period, eighth to ninth century C.E.), depicting monks listening to a dharma talk. In the sky above, an apsaras, or celestial nymph, brings a writing brush.

The grievousness of a crime depends on the intensity of its motivating passion, measured by how far it’s been indulged. If a monk just covets an object, there’s no case; but if he touches it, he commits wrongdoing. If he makes it quiver, his offense worsens; once he removes it from its place, he has stolen and is expelled from the order. Penalties range from expulsion to penance, such as confession and temporary loss of seniority.

So far the system seems lucid, coherent, and applicable, but things get sticky at the charnel ground. Monks have intercourse with corpses “not yet decomposed” and then “practically undecomposed.” They’re expelled; but when a monk has intercourse with a corpse that’s “practically decomposed,” the Buddha deems him fit to stay in the order. Another monk assembles his dead beloved’s bones and behaves in what I.B. Horner calls “an unsuitable way” with them, refusing to translate the original passage on grounds that it is too graphic. Whatever he did, he’s allowed to stay in robes.

Surely it requires a wilder determination to fling oneself onto a rotting mass of ooze than onto a nice, fresh corpse? What has happened to motivation now? These weird test cases are not instances of the Vinaya’s insanity defense. Rather, they’re designed to educate our reasoning by offering false scents and distracting information. Intercourse being the first offense, it is defined with extreme care; for an expulsion, four things must conjoin: a monk, his will, his penis, and a fleshy orifice. (A nun’s expulsions are easier: all she needs do is touch a man desirously between collarbone and knees.) Cases define each of the four elements except number three, the penis; that’s the monks and requires little explanation.

Element one: a monk is a monk unless he publicly disavows his monkhood. If he does so properly, he can have sex and later re-ordain; otherwise, he’s irreversibly expelled. Cases show monks are guilty who fornicate in disguises of grass, wood shavings, or that evocative “dress of owls’ wings.”

Element two: The will to fornicate must be present. Neither remorse, hope to avoid punishment, nor ignorance of the law constitute excuses. The monk who lies still while the woman “exerts herself” is kicked out; so is another who agrees to labor while the woman lies still; and another who accepts sex from a woman who believes it “the highest gift” she can offer. Lacking the fornicating intention, monks can stay ordained: the monk who slept through the woman’s ecstasy, the arhant too stiff with pain to move away, a monk and nun forced to have sex by a gang of youths.

Element four: Intention present, the penis must now penetrate a fleshly orifice to the depth of one sesame seed. Expulsion isn’t warranted for the monk who wants sex but stops, “conscience-stricken at the mere touch,” nor for the monk with nocturnal emissions.

What, now, qualifies as an orifice? It can belong to the monk himself; any woman alive or dead; any nonhuman female ghost, goddess, demoness, dragon-maiden, or animal; any male human, nonhuman, or animal; any monk or novice, eunuch, or hermaphrodite. (Homosexual acts are acknowledged in the monks’ rules, but not the nuns’.) Two monks able to insert their members into (different) orifices of their own are expelled, but the monk who restored himself to glowing health by masturbating with his hand merits a lesser penalty. The orifice must be fleshly: a sore on a corpse qualifies, but misbehaving with a wooden doll or a plaster decoration is no ground for expulsion.

Lacking any of the crucial four elements, there’s no case for expulsion. Even weighty factors ought not cloud our analysis. One account reports the Buddha saying,

Now at one time a certain monk…seeing a little girl lying on her back, was enamored of her and made his thumb enter her, and she died. On account of this he was remorseful….Monk, there is not an offense involving defeat [i.e., expulsion]; there is an offense involving a formal meeting of the Order.

If this is not the invention of naive, celibate virgins, then the monk must have done worse things to this child than we’re being told. (People do succumb easily in the Vinaya, dying from being sat on, tickled, given buttermilk.) Even if the story is made up, it’s reprehensible to use a little girl’s death in order to dramatize the forgivability of digital rape. (The monk isn’t expelled for killing, either, since he didn’t intend for her to die.)

We wonder why expulsion so rigidly requires a penis. At first blush, it might seem a convenient way of defining fornication, but if ease of application is the main criterion for making a celibacy rule, then monks should disrobe on the same grounds as nuns for desirous contact between collarbone and knees.

Let’s try to reconstruct the reasoning here. The Vinaya’s chief organizing principle is renunciation; apply it, and the case is clear. Presumably, the monk would have preferred to penetrate the little girl with his male organ instead of his thumb. Clearly, that would have felt better; so, too, it’s more satisfying to ravish living flesh than a wooden doll, a fresh corpse than a rotten one. But can we go on to say that these necrophiliacs, frotteurs, and child molesters are more restrained than ordinary fornicators? The first monk to be expelled, Venerable Sudinna, slept with his ex-wife, succumbing only after repeated pressure from his distraught parents not to leave the family behind without an heir. Was Venerable Sudinna really more gripped by lust than the lurid creep by the roadside?

While the literalism of the Vinaya may amuse, it may frighten us as well. Can we learn anything from our laughter and our doubts, or must we decide that access to truth requires surrender to some perfectly authoritative text? If so, which text do we choose, and what about its inconsistencies—do we attribute them to our own confusion? If so, we may be less enlightened than secular scholars, who see inconsistency for what it is and go on seeking a text’s essential meaning. Some Buddhists feel that laypeople shouldn’t study the Vinaya, since they don’t intend to keep its vows and since its oddities might raise doubts, thus cutting off the path to liberation for less committed practitioners. A less paternalistic answer comes from the Vinaya’s Buddha himself, who makes laws so reluctantly, crying out each time, “How could they?” Evidently, he feels that each follower ought to recognize the course of training, now that he has pointed it out. Whether that cry is the historic Buddha’s or a latter-day redactor’s, we don’t know; the former seems likely, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the cry of the Buddha mind, audible across two millennia: a naked appeal to the intelligence of anyone who’s listening. If we listen inwardly while reading the Vinaya, we can hear it in our own minds, too.


Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the Pali Text Society edition of the Vinaya: The Book of the Discipline (six volumes, translated into English by I.B. Horner in 1938, reissued in 1982), which is published in Great Britain. Others are from T.W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenburg, translators: Vinaya Texts, Part I, the Patimokkha, the Mahavagga I-IV, Oxford, 1881; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi/Varanasi/Patna, 1968. Personal interviews with Ramona Hamblin, Harvard Law School; and Sanskrit scholar Dr. Susan Oleksiw.