The exact meaning and derivation of the word pātimokkha is uncertain. Several meanings and etymologies and word-plays are given by the ancient commentators and the modern translators and scholars. The pātimokkha in terms of a word, as well as a code of discipline and the recitation of it, is unique to the Buddhist tradition and no other Indian religious traditions, such as the Jain tradition (which has sūtras with rules but no Pātimokkha recitation or the like) have anything corresponding to it; see Dutt 72.
The Padabhājana gives an etymology based on the word mukha: entrance: “Pātimokkhan-ti ādiṃ etaṃ mukhaṃ etaṃ pamukhaṃ etaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ.”: “The Pātimokkha: this is the start, this is the entrance/front/face, this is the forerunner of good states.”
As Horner notes in BD IV 133 n. 2, this seems to be more a word-play than an etymology. The same counts for the following commentarial etymologies.
At D-a II 479 three etymologies are given; the first one is based on the word mukha: entrance and the next two on the root √muc: “releases”: “Yaṃ taṃ atimokkhaṃ atipamokkhaṃ uttamasīlaṃ, pāti vā sugatibhayehi mokkheti duggatibhayehi, yo vā naṃ pāti taṃ mokkhetī ti; pātimokkhaṃ ti vuccati“: “That which is the very front, the very foremost, the highest virtue. Or: it protects one from (pāti: √pā + a) the fears of good bourns (and) delivers one from the fears of bad bourns. Or: it delivers the one who protects it, thus it is called the pātimokkha.”
Other commentarial etymologies & word-plays are:
Vism 16 & Vibh-a: 330: “Pātimokkhasaṃvarasaṃvuto ti ettha pātimokkhan-ti sikkhāpadasīlaṃ, tañ-hi yo naṃ pāti rakkhati, taṃ mokkheti mocayati āpāyikādīhi dukkhehi, tasmā pātimokkhan-ti vuccati. Saṃvaraṇaṃ saṃvaro, kāyikavācasikassa avītikkamass’etaṃ nāmaṃ. Pātimokkham-eva saṃvaro pātimokkhasaṃvaro, tena pātimokkhasaṃvarena saṃvuto pātimokkhasaṃvarasaṃvuto upagato samannāgato ti attho.”:
“Pātimokkhasaṃvarasaṃvuto: restrained with the Pātimokkha restraint’: here pātimokkhaṃ is the virtue of the training precept, for it delivers that one who protects (pāti) and guards it, it delivers one from the sufferings starting with hell. Therefore it is said pātimokkhaṃ. Restraining, saṃvaraṇa (action-noun), is restraint, saṃvara, this is the designation for the physical and verbal non-transgression. The pātimokkhaṃ is restraint (i.e., a Kammadhāraya cpd, one thing being the other) , therefore Pātimokkha restraint. Pātimokkhasamvarasaṃvuta is being restrained with the Pātimokkha-restraint, undertaken, endowed with, is the meaning.
Kkh 2: “Pātimokkham*: pa-ati-mokkhaṃ ati-pa-mokkhaṃ ati-seṭṭhaṃ ati-uttaman-ti*.”: Pātimokkhaṃ: that which is the very very front, the very very foremost, the very best, the very highest.” The prefix ati- here means “very,” “extremely.”
Pa- is an intensifying prefix and can also be translated as “very.” The Kkh explanation, or rather wordplay, suggests that pāti- in pātimokkha is an inversion of the prefixes ati- and pa-.
Vibh 511 (quoted in Sp 787): “Pātimokkhan-ti sīlaṃ patiṭṭhā ādi caraóaṃ saṃyamo saṃvaro mokkhaṃ pamokkhaṃ kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ samāpattiyā.”: “Pātimokkhaṃ: the base founded on (or beginning with) virtue (cf. S V 143), the conduct, the control, the restraint, the front, the forerunner for the attainment of wholesome states.”
These commentarial etymologies imply that Buddhaghosa made use of manuscripts with the reading pātimokkha, rather than the Thai reading pāṭi-mokkha, and this gives further support for pātimokkha as the correct reading.
What the explanations also imply is that traditionally the word pātimokkha is regarded as a neuter noun, not a masculine noun, as every explanation above gives it as a neuter form. This is also attested by the plural pātimokkhāni; e.g. in “ubhayāni … pātimokkhāni svāgatāni honti” at Vin I 65. This is why in the titles and the conclusion of Pātimokkha editions and manuscripts the neuter form bhikkhupātimokkhaṃ is given.
The other early Buddhist traditions use the term prātimok ṣ a (as part of the compound prātimok ṣ asūtra) and derive it from the root √muc; see CSP 3–7.
This derivation based on the root √muc resonates with the last line of the Nidāna where it is said that there is ease for one who has revealed his offences. This ease is explained by the word-commentary, Vin I 104, as ease in the attainment of jhānas etc.
Remorse and guilt are a great hindrance for attaining superhuman states. A I 1–7: “Avippaṭisāratthāni kho kusalāni sīlāni … avippaṭisāro kho pāmujjattho …”: “The goal of wholesome virtues is non-remorse … the goal of non-remorse is joy…”; M I 440: “… attanā pi attānaṃ upavadito na uttarimanussadhammā … sacchikaroti”: “… having reproved himself he does not realise superhuman states … “; cf. A III 15, IV 336.
The Buddha often said, both to bhikkhus and laypeople, that it is growth in the noble discipline when one has seen a transgression as a transgression, makes amends in accordance with the Law, and practices restraint in the future.”: “Vuddhi hi esā ariyassa vinaye yo accayaṃ accayato disvā yathādhammaṃ paṭikaroti āyatiṃ saṃvaraṃ āpajjati,” M I 440, Vin I 315 etc. Cf. Pār 4: “… visuddhāpekkho …”: “desiring purification.”
The explanation given in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośabhāṣya IV 16 is: “… pāpasya tena prātimok ṣaṇād utsarjanād ity arthah”: “… because of that prātimok ṣaṇa, abandoning/expelling of evil, thus is the meaning.”; see BV xxxv. Prātimok ṣaṇa is an action noun.
Horner, BD I xii–xiv, giving the interpretations and derivations of various scholars, argues that the meaning of being bound by the restraint of the Pātimokkha, “Pātimokkhasaṃvarasaṃvuta” (Vin IV 51, D I 62 etc.), originally was of more importance than the meaning of freeing from remorse through confession. Horner quotes PED 450, which takes pātimokkha to have the same meaning as paṭimokkha at J V 25: “taṃ saṅgaraṃ paṭimokkhaṃ na muttaṃ”: “that promise to be obliged has not been released.” PED explains it as the directional prefix paṭi: against, opposite (the a lengthened in the cpd) + mokkha: to be released, the future passive participle (f.p.p.) of the causative of muñcati, = Skt: mokṣya (see PED 451), thus: “that which should be made binding, obligation.” It is derived from the verb paṭimuñcati: to fasten, bind. Cf. the past participle paṭimukka “bound down/fastened
, e.g. S IV 91: “*paṭimukkassa mārapāso* .”
Childers, CDPL 363, also favours the etymology based on the future past participle noting that this is an appropriate name for a collection of precepts, or a criminal code. Olivelle, 1974, p.43, also supports this etymology and meaning, and concludes: “Saṃvara is a restraint, a bond. Pātimokkha is here taken to be a saṃvara …”
Hinüber, 1985 p.61, gives two other references, besides the above mentioned one of J V 25, to support the f.p.p. etymology: J V 166: “Yaṃ (sc. bandhanaṃ) natthuto paṭimokkh`assa pāse”: “(the bondage) which was tied through his nose (of the nāga) in a noose.” and D I 12 & 181: “osadhīnaṃ paṭimokkho”: “the binding on of medicinal herbs” (as wrong livelihood). Hinüber argues that paṭimokkha probably is an adjective meaning “to be bound, connected” and a substantive meaning “binding,” the opposite of vimokkha “release.” The Pāḷi is here is close to the Vedic usage, which only has prati-muc in the meaning of “tightening, fastening.” In the time of the Epics the meaning “releasing” arose and this appeared to be the only meaning acceptable to the commentators.
Some additional support for this meaning suggested by these scholars might be found in the simile of Vin I 8f, see below, in which the disciples of previous Buddhas who let the brahmacariya disappear are likened to loose flowers on a board that are scattered by the wind since they are not tied together by a thread: “suttena asaṃgahitattā.”
This meaning also fits the passage describing the introduction to the Pātimokkha by the Buddha according to Hinüber.
Vin I 102: “Yaṃ nūnāhaṃ yāni mayā bhikkhūnaṃ paññattāni sikkhāpadāni tāni nesaṃ pātimokkhuddesaṃ (= Be; Hin: paṭimokkhuddesaṃ) anujāneyyaṃ, so nesaṃ bhavissati uposathakamman-ti. Anujānāmi bhikkhave pātimokkhaṃ uddisituṃ.”: “Why shouldn’t I allow those training precepts decreed by me as the Pātimokkha recitation for them? It will be the legal act on the Uposatha for them.”
Hinüber suggests that paṭimokkhuddesa, “recitation of what is binding” or “obligatory recitation,” might have been the original reading, but was changed in the course of transmission to pātimokkh’uddesa, “Pātimokkha recitation,” under influence of the newer meaning. He notes that paṭimokk’huddesa means a binding obligation to regularly recite the rules, in the same sense as “saṃgaraṃ paṭimokkhaṃ.” (Hinüber reads paṭimokkhuddesaṃ in his quotation of the text but this is not found in any edition and therefore is speculative.)
Before the formulation of each training precept given in the Suttavibhaṅga the Buddha said: “Evañ-ca pana bhikkhave imaṃ sikkhāpadaṃ uddisseyyātha: …“: “And thus, bhikkhus, you should recite this training precept: ….” This passage shows that from the time when the very first rules were laid down the rules given in the Suttavibhaṅga were specifically laid down to be recited as part of the Pātimokkha recitation. It also indicates that the Pātimokkha was already recited when new rules were still laid down and therefore there was still no fixed amount of rules included in it.
The term pātimokkha also refers to a short verse-discourse, given by the Buddha Vipassī to his bhikkhus, D II 49–50, in which the basic principles of the Instruction of Buddhas, including pātimokkhasaṃvara, are enumerated. It is referred to in the commentaries as the ovādapātimokkhuddesa, e.g. Kkh 15. This enumeration might support that pātimokkha means “obligation.” For more on the ovādapātimokkha, see Olivelle, 1974, pp.47– 50, who suggests that the verses, which are also found elsewhere in the Canon and not called a Pātimokkha there, capture in brief the spirit behind the rules.
It is possible that the term pātimokkha has more than one meaning as wordplays are not uncommon in Pāḷi. For example, it might convey that confession frees (muccati) one from remorse, thus opening up the entrance (mukha) to wholesome states. See BD I xii–xiv for more on the meanings and etymologies of Pātimokkha.
In the Sanskrit Buddhist traditions the Pātimokkha is always referred to as the prātimokṣasūtra, but there is not a single reference to a pātimokkhasutta in the Pāḷi Canon. It is also not found in the commentaries and the subcommentaries. The attachment of sūtra to prātimokṣa might have originated from a misunderstanding of the usage of the word sutta in the Pātimokkha (Pāc 73 and the Pātimokkha conclusion) by the Sanskrit editors/translators; see the note on suttāgata below.
Sometimes the Pātimokkha is referred to by way of synonyms in the rules and section introduction and conclusions contained in the Pātimokkha, i.e., sutta (Pāc 73, Vin V 123: suttuddesa), uddesa (section introductions and conclusions, Sd 12, Pāc 73. Cf. Vin III 26 and A I 230. ). It is referred to as mātikā in the commentaries (i.e., Kkh); see the note on sutta below.
Yes, yes, I know, too long and too obscure. Here are two of the main meanings given above: