Defining the lesser and minor rules

As part of a longer argument, Ven @Brahmali has discussed the controverted question of the “lesser and minor rules”. The Buddha on his deathbed allowed the Sangha to abolish these, but at the First Council there was no agreement as to what they were so ultimately the Sangha decided to keep all the rules.

If we grant that this allowance is real, we need to decide what are “the lesser and minor training rules”. This may seem like an impossible task, since even the participants of the first joint recitation (saṅgīti ) supposedly were unable to decide on this. The reality, however, is that we have solid pointers to decide. The monastic rules are divided between heavy and light rules (garukāpatti and lahukāpatti), with the lesser and minor rules clearly belonging to the latter. Moreover, the phrase ending the section on pācittiya rules in the Bhikkhu-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṁ niṭṭhitaṁ , “the minor section is finished”. The equivalent in the Bhikkhunī-vibhaṅga is khuddakaṁ samattaṁ , which essentially means the same thing. The idea that the monks at the first saṅgīti were unable to decide on what were the minor rules may be a rhetorical device used to justify keeping all the rules. It seems doubtful to me that this reflects an actual historical situation.

The discussion in the Pali Vinaya is here:

I just wanted to expand on this a little, filling in a few details and making it its own post so it’s more prominent.


“Lesser” (khuddaka) rules are the Pacittiyas, while “minor” (anukhuddaka) rules are the Patidesaniyas.

on the taglines in the Pali Vinaya

The Pacittiya section is consistently ended with Khuddakaṁ samattaṁ, in the Bhikkhu rules (pli-tv-bu-vb-pc92:2.2.22), bhikkhuni rules (pli-tv-bi-vb-pc96:2.2.22), and even the Parivara (pli-tv-pvr1.1:219.3). (Brahmali cites a synonymous reading khuddakaṁ niṭṭhitaṁ in the Bhikkhu-vibhaṅga; not sure where this is from, but anyway it’s not in the Mahasangiti edition.)

So this tells us that the presence of the tagline is quite deliberate and consistent. Moreover, in all three cases, the tagline comes before the final declaration of the end of the Pacittiyas, which shows that it is meant to apply specifically to the Pacittiya rules, not to other rules that came before (such as Nissaggiya Pacittiya).

on heavy offences

Brahmali draws on the commentarial canonical distinction between heavy and light offences, and as he says it’s pretty obvious the lesser and minor rules must be “light” offences.

Specifically, an3.86:2.2 says one can “fall into and be rehabilitated from” a lesser or minor offence, so that rules out the Parajikas.

The same sutta contrasts the lesser and minor rules with:

their precepts regarding the training rules that are fundamental, befitting the spiritual path

This seems to contrast the technical offences of the Vinaya with the more meaningful precepts that relate to moral fundamentals.

This is important to bear in mind, as the Pacittiya offences, while “minor” from a legal standpoint, include several rules that are considered morally fundamental: killing animals, beating up humans, drinking alcohol, lying. The invitation to abolish the lesser and minor rules is obviously not meant to allow such things; rather they are covered elsewhere in passages such as the Gradual Training. It would simply mean they are no longer treated as part of the formal legal framework of the Vinaya.

Now, an3.86 says that even an arahant is capable of breaking lesser and minor rules and then being rehabilitated. This is because there are many rules that are established by convention and do not require an unwholesome mind state to break them.

An example of this is Belaṭṭhasīsa, a respected monk and Ānanda’s preceptor. He is regarded as an arahant, which appears to be implied by his Theragatha verses where he compares himself to a “fine thoroughbred”. In Pacittiya 38 he is keeping rice from his almsround, drying it out and moistening it when he needs to eat, thus avoiding having to go for pindapata every day. The commentary explains that he would spend his time in deep meditation. The Buddha admonishes him—but does not call him “silly man”—and lays down the rule. The purpose of the rule is not just for monastic contentedness, but for establishing regular relations with the lay community.

This principle would seem to rule out the Sanghadisesa rules, but this is not clear. While most Sanghadisesa offences clearly require an unwholesome mind state, two of them are sets of building regulations which can easily be broken inadvertently.

Nonetheless, the Sanghadisesas are referred to as garudhamma, which in this context means “heavy offence”. So it seems pretty clear that they would not be considered “lesser and minor”.

undetermined rules

The aniyata rules are two supplementary rules that apply for monks only. They define a procedure to follow if a monk is credibly accused of a violation of sexual manner by a laywoman. The violations include Parajika and Sanghadisesa, so these rules clearly pertain to serious matters and are not “lesser and minor”.

relinquishment with confession

Thirty rules involving the relinquishment of a physical object are called Nissaggiya Pacittiya. Most of these deal with matters that are of a similar minor nature as the Pacittiyas.

Probably the most important are the rules forbidding the use of money, which was the main point discussed in the Second Council. In fact, I believe that the structure of this entire narrative, stretching back at least as far as the opening of the Mahaparinibbanasutta where the Buddha encourages the monks to not abolish any rules, is shaped to culminate in the Second Council. That is, I believe the elders of the Second Council (or shortly after) arranged the old material to support their case. At the Council, a number of arguments are brought forth to emphasize that the rules against money were fundamental. For example, they are included in the Gradual Training.

This supports the idea that the Nissaggiya Pacittiyas are not considered lesser. Add to this the fact that the khuddakaṁ samattaṁ tagline clearly excludes the Nissaggiya Pacittiyas, and I think it is probable that they are not among the “lesser and minor” rules, although I am less confident in this case.


The Patidesaniya rules (“acknowledgeable”) are a short set of rules that follow the Pacittiyas. They are quite different in the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Vinayas, but in both cases deal with minor matters around the meal time.

One nuance lacking in translations is that the phrase khuddānukhuddaka literally means “lesser (khuddhaka) and following (anu-) the lesser”. This fits well with the Patidesaniyas, which both follow the Pacittiyas and are less serious. Thus if the Pacittiyas are the khuddaka, the Patidesaniyas are the anukhuddaka.

sekhiya, adhikaraṇasamatha, dukkaṭa, thullaccaya

One of the elders at the First Council suggests that the “lesser and minor” rules are those apart from all those considered above.

The problem with this argument is that the above rules constituted the “roughly 150 training rules” that were recited in the original Patimokkha. We know that the “lesser and minor” rules were recited, because one of the Pacittiyas is in fact about a monk complaining about having to recite them.

“pli-tv-bu-vb-pc72:1.11”: "“kiṁ panimehi khuddānukhuddakehi sikkhāpadehi uddiṭṭhehi

Thus all the rules that were not recited are ruled out. In the Pali, there are four categories of rule that were not recited in the original Patimokkha: sekhiya, adhikaraṇasamatha*, dukkaṭa, and thullaccaya.

These days the 150 rules have been expanded to 227, because the sekhiyas and adhikaranasamathas were added at some point (quite early, as they are found in all schools, although the sekhiyas vary considerably).

  • The seven Adhikaraṇasamathas (“methods of settling issues”) are general kinds of legal procedures, and not really “training rules”.

other Vinayas

I haven’t researched the other Vinayas on this point. It would be really interesting to see, especially if they have anything corresponding to khuddakaṃ samattaṁ.

the purpose of the passage at the First Council

Brahmali suggests that the passage at the First Council may be a rhetorical device to justify keeping the rules. I agree, and I think the overall narrative thrust is to emphasize that the Sangha keeps these rules because the Sangha decided to. After the Buddha’s passing, the bad monk Subhadda suggests getting rid of all the fussy rules imposed by the Buddha. The narrative thread establishes that keeping the rules is what the Sangha wanted.

This, again, loops back even further to the start of the Khandhakas, just after the Buddha’s awakening, where he sets up the Sangha to look after itself by teaching and performing ordinations. The Sangha was well aware that there would be forces looking to wear down the rules, and the memory of the Buddha’s authority would wane over time. The strength of the Dhamma comes because we undertake what we decide to undertake. Sikkhāpadaṁ samādiyāmi is first person singular present tense: “I undertake the training rule”.

Thus the purpose of this narrative is to show that the Sangha decided to take responsibility to keep the rules of its own volition, not just because the Buddha said so.


This distinction is Canonical. It is found among other places at Kd.1 and Kd.10.

I believe the adhikaraṇasamathas, “the seven principles for settling legal issues”, are early. They are found in all the Vinayas, as you say. The number of principles is the same for all of them, and the order mostly so. The consistency across traditions is greater for the adhikaraṇasamathas than for the pācittiyas, and far greater than for the sekhiyas. The only good reason to consider them as a late addition is that they don’t seem to fit into the pātimokkha. But actually, I think they do.

Before I consider whether the adhikaraṇasamathas belong in the pātimokkha or not, it would be useful to consider the number of rules. Two suttas in the Aṅguttara mention that the number of rules is in excess of 150. If we discount the sekhiyas, which I agree were probably not part of the early pātimokkha, we are left with 152 rules, which is very close to 150, perhaps too close. If we also remove the adhikaraṇasamathas, we are only left with 145 rules, which is not enough. So straightaway we have some reason to think that perhaps the adhikaraṇasamathas have always been part of the pātimokkha. (In fact, I believe even a core group of sekhiya rules may have been part of the pātimokkha from the beginning. This would explains the presence of sekhiyas in the pātimokkha as a category, and it would give us an appropriate safety margin on the 150 rules.)

Still, why are the adhikaraṇasamathas part of the pātimokkha at all? Might this just be an ancient mistake? This question arises because of the great difference between, on the one hand, the various classes of rules that need to be confessed, and, on the other hand, the adhikaraṇasamathas, which are principles and procedures to be followed when legal issues arise in the Sangha. The pātimokkha is just concerned with rules, isn’t it? Well, perhaps not.

Before I try to answer this question, I wish to make the point that we should be very careful with doubting the competence of the ancient monastics. Given that the adhikaraṇasamathas are found in all schools in much the same way, they would have had to be added quite a while before the sectarian period of Buddhism. We are getting close to the time of the Buddha, arguably within the first century or so after he passed away. Were such monumental mistakes made by the early Sangha? I find it unlikely. The Sangha was unified and presumably included of a significant number of well-practiced and wise monastics. To my mind, the time immediately after the Buddha is the time when we should least expect great blunders of judgment on the part of the Sangha.

So what might be the rationale for including the adhikaraṇasamathas in the pātimokkha? Here we need to start with the fact that the Vinaya as collection of scriptures did not exist in the earliest period. What did exist from early on, however, is the pātimokkha, which is mentioned almost 100 times in the four main Nikāyas alone. This means that when procedures were being laid down - such as the ordination procedure and observance day ceremony, both of which would have been required from early on - there would be nowhere to collect them except in the pātimokkha. I suggest such procedures were the earliest content of the adhikaraṇasamathas.

This means, of course, that the adhikaraṇasamathas would have looked quite different in the earliest period. We would expect them to include the complete ordination ceremony (however developed is was at that particular time), the principles for establishing the innocence of certain monastics, the principles for confessing offences, the principles for dealing with disputes, and more. Because many of these procedures are quite involved, the adhikaraṇasamathas would have become large and unwieldy fairly early on, which is the reason, I suggest, that it was soon (perhaps within the lifetime of the Buddha) moved out of the pātimokkha to become the core of the Khandhaka section.

In fact, the adhikaraṇasamathas, as we have them, are quite meaningless. They are merely a set of heading without any content or explanatory detail. This is unlike any of the other rule of the pātimokkha, which are all explained in detail, sometimes considerable detail. Something feels wrong about these principles. This discrepancy is especially glaring since the 14th chapter of the Khandhakas, perhaps the last chapters of the Khandhakas (it has no uddāna, for instance), seems to have been especially created as a kind of vibhaṅga for the adhikaraṇasamathas. No other rules of the pātimokkha are treated in this way.

To sum up, I believe the adhikaraṇasamathas were part of the pātimokkha from the beginning. There was no other container to hold these principles. Only when things got unwieldy, were they moved out to form what is now the Khandhaka section.

Lastly, are the adhikaraṇasamathas to be regarded as heavy or light offences? The obvious answer is that they are neither, because they are not offences at all. So I would say that although they were part of the pātimokkha, they were kept outside the usual classification used for offences proper.


Bhante, this I believe is what is meant by the Elders’ lack of consensus on what is minor and not.

I think you make a good case that they would have been perfectly aware that the pācittiyas and patidesaniyas were the ‘lesser and minor’ sections. The problem is: “Did the Buddha really mean all of these, or just the lesser ones among them?”

It seems quite controversial to say, abolish the rule on killing animals and drinking alcohol. I’m sure it would have been controversial, even for those who knew the pācittiyas were generally considered ‘khuddaka.’ So then you have a problem: we have these lesser rules, but some of them are kind of a big deal, so what exactly did the Buddha mean? Some of these lesser rules, if abolished, could seriously alter the functioning and future of the Sangha. I for one am extremely grateful that they were not abolished — can you imagine what a comparative mess that would be?

Say we do abolish all of these equally. Then there would be no record of what they ever were. Gone. Say we abolish some. Well not everyone is going to agree on what should be abolished, especially after the decision is made when there is a precedent of abolishing rules. So we would have all kinds of Pātimokkha variations across all different schools and maybe even small, independent communities. Because let’s say a group of Dharmaguptaka monks abolishes some of the lesser rules not abolished before. What do they then do for the recitation of them? The easiest thing is to literally drop them and not recite them so that the ceremony is actually meaningful about what is being confessed and not. Next thing you know, you have a whole new lineage of Vinaya from one monastery.

So thinking about this even a little bit, I think it becomes clear that this is the problem. There are many rules that are “lesser,” but are they actually lesser? And the Sangha would have known all the controversy and chaos that could have ensued. So it was best to keep the same recitation (and now we have the exact same core ~150 rule Bhikkhu Pātimokkha across all early schools barring the 2 pācittiya exceptions). The benefit is that as the Buddha’s precedent stands, monastic communities have the go-ahead to interpret and apply or not follow certain minor rules among these pācittiyas and patidesaniyas as they see fit, without necessarily causing chaos in the recitation lineages.

TL;DR I think there is a genuine, authentic reason why the Elders would have debated the lesser and minor rules, even knowing that the Pācittiyas/Patidesaniyas were the target lists in question. I don’t think it is just literary propaganda (for lack of a better word) from the Second Council.



Also, the immediate chaos and complaints following Buddha’s parinibbana that may have ensued if the Sangha abolished the minor rules were a factor in keeping the rules in place.

Since that particular potential for chaos has passed, each group or monk may decide whether or not to uphold minor rules or rules that are not morally binding. This is the way of personal responsibility.

Either way, there is no allowance for acts based on greed, hatred and delusion, and in that sense the rules are not limited to 150/227.

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A training rule for monks not to harm animals didn’t lead to the discrimination of feudal outcastes. The choices and prejudices of people involved in corrupt power systems did.

The rule is a training precept monastics personally and intentionally choose to adopt for ethical reasons. Same as vegetarians agreeing on certain dietary restrictions for ethical reasons. We wouldn’t blame vegetarians for corrupt people discriminating against meat eaters. There’s already enough blaming and villainization of people making personal ethical decisions; we don’t need any more.

Also, PSA, the Vinaya rule on not harming animals has no extra clause or fine print that others who do harm animals should be oppressed and discriminated against. In fact, no precepts even remotely imply this :slight_smile:


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Thanks, my bad, I’ve fixed the OP.

Yeah, I guess this is just an assumption. I agree the adhikaraṇasamathas must have been early. And it makes sense that they’re at the end, giving means of resolving the issues raised in the list of rules. So sure, I think this is an interesting idea.

Right, so regardless they were not part of the “lesser and minor rules”.

The problem with this argument is twofold:

  • So far as I am aware, there is a universal implied consensus at the First Council that by “lesser and minor rules” certain rule categories were meant. Not a single person is recorded as arguing it means “minor rules among the rule category”.
  • The explicit text evidence clearly indicates that the Pacittiyas as a whole are the “lesser” rules.

We should not depart from the consensus of historical record on the basis of hypothetical “what ifs”.

This is reductive. The entire narrative arc is clearly constructed to create an authorization for the Second Council. This is story-telling, which creates meaning from the purposeful depiction of events, not propaganda, which is deliberately manipulative and misleading.

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There is also the interesting fact of the name Pātimokkha. The Pātimokkha rules are consistently called sikkhāpada, “training rules”. If the Pātimokkha were exclusively about these rules, one would perhaps have expected a name that reflected this, that is, something to do with sikkhāpada. Instead we find the slightly mysterious term we are familiar with.

The meaning of Pātimokkha has been much discussed, especially by Nyanatusita in his “Word for Word Trandlation and analysis of the Pātimokkha”. It is hard to pin down. Yet perhaps the most likely meaning is “counterpart to liberation”, paṭi + muc, which would give the term a very wide application, similar to the idea of “training” in the broad sense of the term.

So, the very fact that we find a name such as Pātimokkha suggests to me that we are dealing with more than a set of rules.


Bhante, forgive the ‘can of worms’ topic, but very briefly: are the ordination procedures very similar across the khandhakas of other Vinayas? Or does the ordination procedure tend to vary widely? And what about the robes/kathina?

Basically, I’m wondering if there is evidence that the content of these procedures is agreed upon and old, but was moved out of the sutta of the pātimokkha.

Should we question this consensus though? I mean, khuddaka is quite a common word that can be general or specific in various contexts. But if there is good reason to think it must refer to standard, existing Vinaya rule categories, I suppose that’s that.

I gave this same reason in support of the debate not being about rule categories though. The fact that it is so explicit and obvious that the Pācittiyas are classified as ‘khuddaka’ makes it seem like the debate would have to be over the more general meaning of the word.

So my point is that the confusion would be about what is meant by khuddaka — does it refer to the ‘lesser rules’ as in the Pācittiyas, or does it mean ‘lesser’ in a less formal Vinaya sense as in the rules that aren’t a big deal? The Buddha didn’t clearly specify, so it couldn’t be decided. I find this as more than a ‘what if’ and more just a valid, alternative reading of the text that makes much more logical sense given the evidence (unless the first point you made is unambiguous, as I said above).

I just don’t think propaganda needs to be misleading. From Merriam-Webster:

  1. the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
  2. ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause

It could be a series of facts depicted in a certain way to get a beneficial result. It’s still propaganda. Especially when it comes to religious institutions. But semantics aside (who needs them?), I don’t mean to say that there is none of this going on—I agree there clearly is an arc leading to the Second Council. I mean that this story of the First Council is not just that, because I feel it can be read in a more charitable way.

Please let me know if there are any mistakes here! :pray:
Mettā :slight_smile:

There hasn’t been much comparative study of the Khandhakas. Virtually the only such study is The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature by Erich Frauwallner. This what he has to say about the Khandhaka on ordination:

But the text itself is essentially the same, with the exception of the usual deviations due to different traditions and of isolated amplifications and developments. (p.71)

I would recommend you read for yourself what he has to say. It only goes over a few pages, starting at p.70. To summarise, a Sanghakamma is required for ordination in all traditions. The details of this kamma are not mentioned by Frauwallner, but using the references he provides, you may be able to find the Chinese text on SC and then use the translation software to get an idea of the content.


If the start of your historical inquiry is, “let’s disregard the only ancient source, which is consistent in this specific detail across more than half a dozen ancient texts” then you’ll soon find yourself not in Kansas any more.

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Agreed, but what if the start is “Let’s rethink a particular interpretation of the only ancient source“?

I’m not saying to disregard the account. I’m saying that it would make a lot more sense if ‘khuddakānukhuddaka’ was considered ambiguous precisely because there is both a category of rules called ‘lesser’ and because there are rules which are qualitatively lesser, and these categories do not align, hence lack of consensus.

The account says they couldn’t decide on what the lesser rules were because the Buddha didn’t clarify (/Ānanda didn’t ask). So the above seems to be a perfectly valid interpretation of what that would look like. Unless there are details that make this implausible?

Mettā :pray: