Any evidence for monastic buildings in the early Suttas?

In SN41.4 we find:

Then Citta went up to Mahaka, bowed, sat down to one side, and said to him, “Sir, please show me a superhuman demonstration of psychic power.”

“Well, then, householder, place your upper robe on the porch and spread a handful of grass on it.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Citta, and did as he was asked.

Mahaka entered his dwelling and latched the door. Then he used his psychic power to will that a flame shoot out through the keyhole and the chink in the door, and it burned up the grass but not the upper robe. Then Citta shook out his upper robe and stood to one side, shocked and awestruck.

Atha kho āyasmā mahako vihāraṃ pavisitvā sūcighaṭikaṃ datvā tathārūpaṃ iddhābhisaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkhari yathā tālacchiggaḷena ca aggaḷantarikāya ca acci nikkhamitvā tiṇāni jhāpesi, uttarāsaṅgaṃ na jhāpesi.

Mahaka left his dwelling and said to Citta, “Is that sufficient, householder?”


I’m sure there needs to be a building of some sorts for this proper reflection to have some meaning MN2:

Reflecting properly, they make use of lodgings: ‘Only for the sake of warding off cold and heat; for warding off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles; to shelter from harsh weather and to enjoy retreat.’


Interesting point. Though, that supports the idea of roofs but not necessarily walls.

Thanks. I’m taking a look at this sutta. I notice this:

When they reached the monastery, Mahaka said to the senior venerable,
Atha kho āyasmā mahako ārāmaṁ sampāpuṇitvā āyasmantaṁ theraṁ etadavoca:

Am I right that here @sujato is translating ārāmaṁ as monastery? This English word implies a building - at least I feel fairly confident that is how English readers would interpret it. Yet, the Pāli lookup tool gives this for ārāma:

pleasure-grove, a garden, a park

But the part that you refer to, while not mentioning walls, does mention a door. So this gives a high implication of there being walls. However, I find this story highly suspect, for these reasons:

  1. The monk was magically shooting fire. I find this highly unlikely to be true.
  2. The monk used his magic powers to set fire to grass. Baring in mind monks were forbidden from killing, to such an extent that they were to filter water so as not to kill invisible creatures, and from throwing water on dry ground because creatures in the water may dry up and die (and were they even forbidden from damaging plants?), then the idea of setting fire to grass, which would have an extremely high chance of killing insects, seems to me to be totally against the ethics of the monastic community.
  3. The door, assuming the translation is accurate, had a key hole. So then, why would a monk have a lockable room? Locks are generally used to prevent theft. I have even lived in a village where I saw no locks at all! It was in the forest, and had no road. I didn’t see a lock until I went to a neighbouring village, which had a dirt road - there I saw some houses with locks, and also more wealth, as well as a far higher rate of suffering. And since monks were anyway forbidden from having almost any possessions, I find it… unlikely… that they were building homes with doors that had locks and keys.

For these reasons, unless anyone can give a counterargument, I find this source unreliable.

Thanks, this is interesting. I note the word for ‘lodgings’ is senāsana, which does not by itself inherently imply any building so far as I can see. It seems to come from sayana (lying down/sleeping) and āsana (sitting). Deer even make patches in the grass to sit and/or sleep, as do many other animals, for example.

Though we have this handy list. I’ll go through it.
"Only for the sake of

  • warding off cold and heat;

A roof can ward off heat. A platform and bedding can ward off cold. This by itself doesn’t seem to necessarily imply walls.

-for warding off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles;

This seems a stronger case. Specifically, all those things aside from sun, which to me would be the roof’d job. That could be achieved by cloth, however. Thin cotton (muslin) or even discarded funeral cloths, for example. That can even work a fair bit better than the walls of some buildings I’ve stayed in in rural areas! (Such as the bamboo walls of tribal houses in Thailand). Though, I find actual substantial walls made of rigid material to be the more likely explanation here. Interesting.

-to shelter from harsh weather and to enjoy retreat

For this also, a roof would do but depending on how ‘harsh’, walls do make sense. Or, even a simple lean-to of 3 or so sticks and a bunch of leaves! Some tribes still live like that I have heard… one being in SE Asia? And that’s quite different from what most people nowadays think of a ‘building’, even being radically simpler than a ‘forest hut’ that some might stay in to meditate nowadays.

So is this the best we have of actual EBT references to monastics living in a potentially walled building? If so, I do still find it interesting if we have only this implication, and not any actual mentions of walls. If anyone does know of more references that give us any more details of the nature of the dwelling places, I would be interested to hear!

Regarding what I mentioned about lean-tos in SE Asia, I just googled to see if I could find a reference to that, and found this:

The Kubu of Jambi province (Sumatra), the Punan of Borneo, the Andamanese,3 the Negritos of the Thai/Malay Peninsula, the Mabri of north-ern Thailand, the Agta, the Dumagat, and the Batak, all of the Philippines, build leaf shields (lean-tos). Although Southeast Asian hunter-gatherers construct this simple dwelling, shifting cultivators and more sedentary peo-ple also build them for temporary accommodation. Malay farmers as well built leaf shields on high posts for temporary purposes

I could only see an extract for the article but if anyone’s interested in the source, it’s this:

And then, I also found this article which I will share in case anyone’s interested:

Here’s an interesting extract from that article which mentions Buddhism. I did try to chase up the reference it gives at the end but was unable to find the referenced article. I will highlight some parts I find interesting:

The circular and beehive type is also the predominant type of hut represented in the sculpture of Sānchi and Bārhut pillars. These basreliefs represent mainly two types of huts—(i) small domed huts used as residence by holy men and (ii) huts with semi-circular gable. In a bas-relief on the inner face of the left pillar of the eastern gateway of Sānchi are represented a fire chapel with a domed roof and simple leaf hut with a circular dome. In a bas-relief in a panel of a corner pillar of the ground railing of Bārhut stūpa, there is a building labeled “suddhamma devasabhā” which looks like a regular temple. This temple-like building has a two storied domed roof modelled on the dome of huts. Whereas the dome of the huts as a rule, is in four sections the spire of the building circular. These domed huts, says Chanda, may be the simplest type of kūṭ āgāra referred to in the Pali texts. The method of its construction appears to be a favourite simile with the authors of the Nikāyas. Thus in the Samyutta Nikāya it is said: “Just as in a peaked house, brethren, whatever rafters there are all converage to the roof peak, all go to junction there, even so whatever wrong states there are all have their roof in ignorance, all may be referred to ignorance, all are fixed together in ignorance, all go to junction there”. This kutagara or domed hut was also one of the five kinds of dwellings which Buddha allowed his monks to live in.104

Does anyone have any sources for these “five kinds of dwellings”? And… I find it interesting again that even in this, it seems to be implying again no walls, but rather, a domed roof, perhaps similar to the hunter gatherer type dwellings where the roof goes all the way to the ground? I also find it fascinating that the design of stupas might be derived from imitating the simple design of wall-less sramana huts! (Well, when I say ‘wall-less’, I mean in the sense of no specific walls, just a roof that goes to the ground).

And just for interest, here’s a picture of a recently made hut, I wonder if perhaps similar to what they’re talking about:

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There are sutras that describe Ananda being the keyholder for an entire monastery and going around telling the monks to assemble for this or that teaching. So, yes, apparently Buddhists had lockable doors at some point in history and believed it was the case during the Buddha’s time. Hmm, at the moment, I’m thinking of the Sarvastivada account of the first council found in the Commentary on the Prajnaparamita (which presents the Sarvastivada version of basic Buddhist teachings and history).

In that story, Ananda was sent away by Mahakasyapa until he was an arhat. When he came back after his awakening, he proves he’s an arhat by entering through the keyhole of the door. So, yeah, keys and locks were apparently a thing at some point early on.


10 posts were split to a new topic: Criteria for deciding if a text is an EBT

May be of interest …

The initial monastery was formed of two long parallel and oblong halls, large dormitories where the monks could eat and sleep, in conformity with the original regulations of the samgha, without any private cells.[2] Other halls were then constructed, mostly long, oblong building as well, which remind of the oblong construction of several of the Barabar caves.[2][7]

The archaeological evidence point to a very early construction for this vihara, probably circa 530-400 BCE.[2][3] This vihara is very different from the later quadrangular vihara built from the 1st century CE in Gandhara.[2] The absence of stupa is also noticeable, contrary to the viharas built with stupas at a later date.[2] The construction method (rubble foundation) and artifacts discovered on the spot, such as iron nails, terracotta balls or coarse red pottery all point to a date no later than the 5th century BCE.[2]


Thank you @Ficus , interesting! So, that Wiki page says:

The Jivakarama vihara , also Jivaka Amravana vihara (Amra-vana means “mango garden”),[1] Jivakamravana , Jivakamrabana or Jivakavanarama , is an ancient Buddhistmonastery, or vihara, established at the time of the Buddha.[2][3][4]

For the claim of it being from the Buddha’s time, I could check the first reference online. It’s a 2010 book but instead of referencing the suttas, it’s referencing another book from the 60’s!


It’s the same 2 pages of the same book that this is sourced from, which in turn relies on a different book from the 60’s. The reasoning seems quite conjectural:
Screenshot 2021-03-19 at 22.18.20
Screenshot 2021-03-19 at 22.19.18

While the bibliography is unviewble, Imanaged to deduce that his source is ‘Buddhist monks and monasteries of India’ by Sukumar Dutt. Unfortunately, the relevant chapter is unviewable on google books, so the trail ends there for me.

So, I decided to check what ‘Schopen had to say about this supposed Jivakarama vihara’ in his more recent classic (1996 as opposed to this 2010 booke relying on work from the 60’s) ‘Bones, Stones and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India’. This extract is also referencing the ‘phases of development’ that the above book detailed on those same two pages, and, in general refutes the information given above:

So it seems the information in this Wikipedia page cannot be relied upon as a claim for evidence of a building during the time of the Buddha.

@Senryu, @cdpatton

Bhante @sujato discusses archeology, Schopen and similar academics, and EBTs here.

His arguments may be of value for this topic as well

Thanks. Though, I do not see how this relates to the discussion. Sujato is criticising Schopen’s view of the texts. But I don’t see him criticising his work on archaeology. Let alone supporting the Wikipedia article over Schopen’s discrediting the 1960’s source for the claims in the Wikipedia article.

So it seems on this point, all we have is a claim from Wikipedia, and Schopen, a great authority on Buddhist archaeology, refuting it. No-one else had added to the argument either way, so, as it stands, it would seem most logical to adopt Schopen’s position and dismiss this source. But then, I don’t think we should be surprised as it’s only a Wikipedia article after all!

Maybe you’re interested in this (p. 16-17)

Thanks. It doesn’t give dates but does give periods I’m unfortunately unfamiliar of the dates of. But… it seems to me Schopen’s exhaustive work 40 years later should be more authoritative. No? he does deal with this specific case, as I quoted from him above.

I just randomly came back to this topic, which raises a range of interesting questions.

He most certainly is not. So far as I know, Schopen has literally never been to India or set foot on an archeological dig[*], nor has he any qualifications in the field. He’s interested in archeology to the extent that he can use it to discredit experts on early Buddhism with whom he disagrees.

Having said which, I don’t believe that the Jivakambaravana, nor at any other site, dates back to the Buddha. Maybe it’s an early pre-Ashokan complex, but even that is tenuous.

Oh well, let me oblige!

In the passage you helpfully provide, we find a typical Schopenism. He addresses the fact that one of the reasons the Jivakambavana is regarded as early is that there are no stupas, which are almost always found in later monasteries. But Schopen argues:

There are, in fact, a number of other “Elliptical Structures” similar to the Jivamabavana, and … at least two of them “are identified as stupas”!

For Schopen, it’s quite exciting that he can prove someone else wrong. The problem, though, is that a glance at the “elliptical structures” of the Jivakambavana shows that they are nothing like stupas at all. If he had seen them he would know this.

(Just to be clear, what you are seeing here is a modern reconstruction of the old remains. When excavating, archeologists will uncover the remains, then use the old stones or bricks around to cover the old work so that it doesn’t erode or get destroyed by tourists. I was recently at an ongoing archeological dig in northern Sri Lanka, where they were studying and protecting a nearly 2000 year-old monastic complex in this way.)

And I wanted to circle back to this quote from Wynne in the OP, after the (non-exhaustive) range of evidence provided by subsequent posters:

Ārāma in this kind of context describes a regular residence for monastics, supporting a large, established community with a prominent public presence, on valuable land donated by wealthy supporters, belonging to the private institution of the Sangha, upon which regular formal religious procedures were carried out, and, yes, supporting a range of buildings for residences, gatherings, and the like. In English, we don’t use the word “park” for this, we use the word “monastery”.

The idea that in the 45 years of the Buddha’s life, mendicants lived entirely or primarily in the open air is utterly unrealistic. They would have begun building huts as soon as it started raining. I’ve stayed in “parks”, and they’re great … until the rain falls. Then they’re miserable. Anyone who has lived as a monk would know this. There’s a reason why “dwelling in the open air” is a special and limited ascetic practice.

And for Wynne’s:

Buildings are hardly mentioned in the Suttas, but the Vinaya has more material on it - although this probably only indicates that the Vinaya is generally later than the Suttas.

Yes, the Vinaya is generally later than the Suttas, and represents a somewhat more settled and developed time. But it’s excessive to say this is the “only” reason for the difference.

The Vinaya explicitly deals with the material side of monastic life. In most cases in the Suttas, the kinds of building people lived in don’t really matter. When I’m teaching Dhamma, how often do I mention my dwelling place? I dunno, sometimes? But if I’m writing monastery regulations, I have to get a whole lot more detailed. That’s the point of the Vinaya.

So it’s not “only” lateness, it’s also the purpose of the text.

[*] I read an interview with him years ago where he said this. Maybe he’s been to India since, but he certainly hadn’t when he wrote his influential essays in the 80s.


This may be of interest?

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Sorry to keep on banging on this point, but I realized I had overlooked something.

True, but also, the Vinaya is highly stratified, and the early portions are easily recognizable.

The main early portion, which is probably as early as the main suttas, is the patimokkha. And there we find several quite detailed rules that regulate monastic buildings. In particular, the sizes and types of building are limited, which indicates that there had already been a tendency to build over-luxurious residences. We also find a concern for the environmental consequences of building, the means of funding them, decision making procedures, as well as safety regulations. All this indicates that by the time of the patimokkha, there was already a long history of monastic residences. This backdates it, in all probability, to the Buddha’s lifetime.

Also, it probably shouldn’t need saying, but the examples that Wynne gives of the Buddha being “homeless” are in fact episodes when he was traveling.

Actually a great book, so long as you remember that Fogelin was influenced by Schopen, so his grasp of Buddhist history is shaky. Unlike Schopen, Fogelin is actually an archeologist, so his archeology is good. But for example, he refers to references to Ashoka in the Pali canon, but of course, there is no such thing.


Cool! And, sorry that I am so behind in responding to notifications, it seems to take me hours each time I come back to this wonderful site, and I never seem to catch up sufficiently!

Ok, interesting!

I’m not sure never going to India would invalidate all of his work. But you do go on to show a very relevant downfall of this regarding the ‘elliptical structure’ - thanks! I do also think that it’s great that he tries to discredit views via archaeology. Even if it would lead to wrong conclusions, hopefully the debate improves the overall understanding. I would love to see a well reasoned response to his ‘Bones, Stone…’ book! Some of the issues he raised seemed quite interesting, including for example the monastics offering large sums of money.

So it would seem at least that his work that I brought into this topic was valid, so far as it was discounting the claim raised about that site with regard to evidence of buildings at the time of the Buddha. So that seems useful at least.

Nice! Yes it looks as if he didn’t even check any photos or diagrams for that one, if indeed there were no other elliptical structures that come close to looking like stupas! (I even thin that any ellipse might be unlikely to be a stupa - I have myself at least never heard of a blatant ellipse shaped stupa!)

Oh thanks, that’s useful info. I will bear that in mind if I go to more sites! I tend to visit people more than archaeological sites, but I have ended up at a few.

Thanks for the explanation. However I suppose that still leaves open the question as to what the nature of the buildings was. In English we might easily assume a ‘monastery’ to be a large building. Whereas what you have written there leaves room for a broad range of possibilities, including a collection of individual huts, with or without walls, possibly with rather temporary leaf roofs. Possibly more akin to some hunter gatherer encampments.

So I’m not really arguing about the word choice, but more that that leaves open the possibility of something quite different from the image of what the word ‘monastery’ may conjure in the mind of an English language reader.

That’s interesting. Especially for the context of another discussion on the recent post I made about meat eating. What is your sense for a rough dating of… let’s say the bulk of the Vinaya?

Fair enough.

Yes, indeed. Although if we go by the earliest evidence, we still must be careful of seeing what the evidence tells us in the absence of our preconceptions, so I still find this topic interesting, and still have the sense that perhaps the buildings were… more rudimentary than we might sometimes assume? And I also wonder what kind of proportion we might have found amongst the Sangha outside of monsoon time, in terms of building-living vs. more open living.

Thanks! I will try to find the time to read that!

Cool. Do we have anywhere any kind of map (visual would be great!) of the Vinayapitaka (and Suttapitaka) showing which parts are the earliest? Also is there any chance of labels on the texts on this website to indicate if they’re from the earliest layer or not (or maybe even a more extensive categorisation into historical layers?) Could be very helpful for research!

Do you mean luxurious monastic residences, or secular ones? If the former, do we have any details from that earliest layer on the details of such buildings?

That’s fascinating! I guess I am particularly interested in any details about walls, if we have any? :slight_smile:

I find his research often lacking in thoroughness, to be honest.

Oh really? I tend not to read later texts but there are many late texts in the Pāli canon, right? I found this from this source: Asoka

Asoka.-King of Magadha. He was the son of Bindusāra. Bindusāra had sixteen wives who bore him 101 sons.

The chief Pāli sources of information regarding Asoka are Dīpavamsa (chaps. i., v., vi., vii., xi., etc.), Mahāvamsa (v., xi., xx., etc.), Samantapāsādikā (pp. 35 ff. ). Other sources are the Divyāvadāna passim, and the Avadānasataka ii.200ff. For an exhaustive discussion of the sources and their contents see Prszlyski, La Legende de l’Empereur Asoka.

Are none of those sources regarded as part of ‘the Pāli’? And, if not, then is his mistake perhaps just in the accepted breadth of the term ‘Pāli Canon’?

Briefly! Pindapata calls!

Many scholars have refuted his work over the years, including myself. It’s not just a matter of interpretation, he regularly just omits sources or miscontrues evidence and when the facts are straightened out they seemingly inevitably lead to exactly the opposite conclusion than he wants.

Ok. But the basic meaning is just “where monks live”.

The patimokkha is early, the analysis was compiled over about 200 years or so. It largely differs between traditions.

Nope, too complicated.


Look up the relevant sanghadisesa rules for details.

Actually there are, but it would take a bit of digging. But even the patimokkha refers to building materials for walls.

No, none of them are in the Pali canon. Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa are Sri Lankan history texts, Samantapasadika is the Vinaya commentary, Divyavadana and Avadanasataka are late Sanskrit collections of legends. None of them are even close to canonical.

(FYI, on the phrase “in the Pali”, for the commentaries, “in the Pali” would mean “in the Tipitaka”. In modern times we treat Pali as the name of a language. So yes, some of these are in the Pali language, but they are not in the Pali canon.)

He’s an archeologist relying on secondary sources, and unfortunately since his secondary source was Schopen he was led astray. Still, he should have done due diligence, since all of this is basic knowledge in the field.

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Oh thanks. Yeah to be honest I never got far into that book, it didn’t ‘feel good’ reading it. Maybe just as well!

Hmm, well the Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

a building or buildings occupied by a community of monks living under religious vows.

So I do think people take it as being more than merely that! Then regarding the size, I was careful to say might, but just to give some support to that, we use the qualifier forest monastery for the multiple small hut situation, I would say in part perhaps because without the qualifier, the assumption would be a large more permanent structure. I’m not saying I agree with Wynn in needing to say ‘park’ not ‘monastery’, but, also ‘monastery’ in some way perhaps hides some of the ambiguity or the broader range of possibilities of the situation in the Pāli? But anyway, this is a rather small point I guess. It was worth exploring for me anyway, in the quest for understanding the nature of the dwelling spaces in the Pāli.

Ah ok thanks. Does that 200 years start at the Buddha’s first teaching, or, at his time of death? And, do we date the early suttas at around 70 years after the Buddha’s death? So… perhaps the early suttas have a higher degree of reliability/earliness than the early part of the vinaya?

If there is some kind of list of ages of texts, if I can find the time I could perhaps make such a map and do my best to have the presentation simple, easy to visually access. What I don’t have time for is to collate the dating data.

Ok cool, so then this would seem to mean luxurious monastic buildings were being built some time within 200 years of {the Buddha’s first teaching or his death}.

Is that an archeology joke? :joy:

Ok, interesting. If anyone has the time to provide a link that would be awesome. I don’t know a way to search in Suttacentral through specific texts. I also don’t understand the structure of the Vinaya so I don’t know if this is from that or another part, but I found a story of a monk throwing her shit over a wall onto a Brahmin’s head:
It makes mention of ‘an encircling wall’, so maybe kind of ‘privacy walls’ or to keep out animals and unwelcome people. It also gives this in the definitions section:

An encircling wall:
there are three kinds of encircling walls: encircling walls made of bricks, encircling walls made of stone, encircling walls made of wood.

This other Vinaya text has a rule about nuns not being in a secluded place with a man. The wall mention only comes in the explanation at the end (later addition as a commentary?) Also they were standing so it would seem to me unlikely they were actually inside, but anyway here’s the explanation part:

A secluded place means: it is secluded by a wall built of wattle and daub or by a door or by a screen or by a screen wall or by a tree or by a pillar or by a sack or it is secluded by anything whatever.

Oh, no mention of wattle and daub in Brahmali’s translation of that, though the PED does mention it for kuṭṭa and in the entry for kuḍḍa it gives:

a wall built of wattle and daub
And a vinaya reference for other walls:
Three such kinds of simply-built walls are mentioned at Vin IV.266, viz. iṭṭhakā° of tiles, silā° of stone, dāru° of wood.

Hopefully that’s useful for anyone trawling this thread for references! If I had a way to search just the vinaya, or even better just the patimokkha, I would continue my efforts but I don’t know a way to do that.

Ah ok. Maybe he just misunderstood the term ‘Pāli Canon’, or as you seemed to have suggested, mistakenly taken Schopen’s word for it.

Yeah, thanks. I sometimes use it in the former sense but more often just when I am referring to a specific passage comparing the Pāli with the English.

I don’t know if the usage has yet infiltrated into archaeology, but among social scientists specialising in Buddhism it’s become common to use the term “Pali canon” in a revised sense, meaning the de facto rather than the de jure canon. Whereas the latter is limited to the Pali Tipiṭaka, the former encompasses any Pali sources that have (or have had) significant influence on the world view or the quotidian life of those living in the Theravadin cultural milieu.

In Thailand, for example, the de facto canon would include the Phra Malai Kham Luang, in Myanmar the Abhidhammatthasangaha (a text popularly memorised as an act of merit) and Ledi Sayādaw’s Paramatthadīpanī (a major influence on both vipassanā traditions and the weizza cults), and in Sri Lanka the more important vamsa texts. Works like the Visuddhimagga, Milindapañha and Dhammapada Atthakathā would be de facto canonical in all Theravadin countries.

The distinction derives from a seminal paper by Steven Collins: On the Very Idea of the Pali Canon (1990), though Collins’ preferred terms are “closed canon” and “open canon”.

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None that are not controversial, and none that are fine grained enough for what you are suggesting.

This has been an area of active research and even more active controversy since the inception of Buddhist Studies.

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