Are there old layers within the Vinaya?

Fellow dhamma-followers, my study is mostly with suttas, so I have not much of an idea about the vinaya pitaka.

Are there parts of the vinaya pitaka that are easily recognizable as not so old, or commentarial. And are there parts that are commonly seen as very old?

Any suggestions or literature references are welcome! Thanks


I believe Bhante @Brahmali may have something to share on this topic! :slight_smile:

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Generally speaking, the patimokkha is old, and so are some portions of the Khandhakas. Most of the material in the Vibhangas is considerably younger, although there will of course be exceptions.

The bhikkhu Vinaya is on the whole older than the bhikkhuni.

And, for what it’s worth, the Pali Vinaya is on the whole older than any of the other Vinayas. Fighting words, which many would disagree with. And obviously there will be later and earlier portions in every Vinaya, so such generalizations are of limited use. Still, so far as I have seen, it is usually the case that the Pali text appears to be the oldest.


Hi Gabriel,

In a paper written by Ven. Analayo and myself, which is about to be published by the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Ven. Analayo gives the following references that concern the temporal structure of the Vinaya Piṭaka:

Norman (19) explains that “the Old Commentary, which is really an analysis of words (Pada-bhājanīya) . . . defines the Pātimokkha rule word by word . . . the similarity between this method and that found in the Niddesa suggests that both belong to the same period.”

As noted by von Hinüber (17), regarding “the ‘commentary explaining individual words’ (padabhājaniya) . . . it seems rather significant that no mention is made of this part of the Suttavibhaṅga in the account of the first council since this might indicate that this account dates back to a time when the padabhājaniya did not yet exist.”

Similarly, Ñāṇatusita (xliii) points out that “the Padabhājana or Padabhājanīya . . . this basic glossary-style commentary is not mentioned in the account of the first council which suggests that it was first recited as an independent commentary . . . and was inserted later, perhaps when the Canon was written down, into the Suttavibhaṅga as a supplement.”

Kieffer-Pülz (430), commenting on the whole of the material that in the Suttavibhaṅga serves a commentarial function in relation to the pātimokkha rules, points out that “a comparison with the structure of other schools’ Vinayapiṭakas indicates that this commentary became fixed only after the Buddhist community had already divided into several branches. Since this commentary is included in the Vinayapiṭaka, it enjoys authoritative status.”


Norman, K.R. Pāli Literature, Including the Canonical Literature in Prakrit and Sanskrit of all the Hīnayāna Schools of Buddhism. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.

von Hinüber, Oskar. “Buddhist Law according to the Theravāda-Vinaya. A Survey of Theory and Practice.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 18.1 (1995), 7–45.

Ñāṇatusita, Bhikkhu. Analysis of the bhikkhu pātimokkha. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2014.

Kieffer-Pülz, Petra. “Vinaya Commentarial Literature in Pali.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, edited by J. Silk, O. von Hinüber, and V. Eltschinger, 430–441. Leiden: Brill, 2015.


I wouldn’t dare disagree on any sort of “strong terms” to meet “fighting words”, bhante, as I am really no expert on the matter, but I recall reading somewhere that there was a considerable belief among a number of people that the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya is the oldest extant vinaya preserved today, although for what reason this is believed I cannot say, as I can’t recall all of the article I had read that in.

What is your take on the theory that the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya is the oldest? Are you familiar with reasons why some others believe it to be the oldest? What are your responses to their points?

Forgive me for the sudden barrage of questioning and thank you for your time.

Thanks a lot Bhante! I’ll look into the references as well…

I just looked at the Website for that journal, and the article still doesn’t seem to be published yet. If I wanted to read that paper (and have no money), is there some other way? Or does that journal take control of the copyrights?

I studied this in some depth during my research for Sects & Sectarianism, and in my view this argument is wholly without merit.

You can see the detailed arguments in an essay I wrote at the time. This was one of the series of articles which I recently republished here, but I omitted that article by mistake. It seems the original file for that essay was corrupted, and I have retrieved it from an old web posting. Here it is!

One of the supporting arguments for this is a more detailed technical analysis of certain sekhiya rules, which is here:


Hi Venerable,

The article is available here. All articles in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics are available for free.


Respectful Greetings, Ajahn Brahmali,

Thank you for the reference, I look forward to reading it. :slight_smile: