Nissaya and Dhutanga in Buddhist Tradition


by JAYEBTA GANGULY - Lecturer in Chinese, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan

At the outset, it is said that Gotama Buddha (circa 563 B.C.-486 B.C.) adopted many ideas from contemporary sects or from their predecessors and modified them in a manner to be consistent with his Doctrine (saddhamma) and the principles of his organization (sangha). For example, the Nissaya (ascetic way of life) refers to the four resources of a monk’s life, viz. begging for alms, wearing clothes collected from rubbish heaps, living under trees and using natural drugs as faeces and urine. In other words, a general layout of asceticism.

Asceticism in India has a legacy since the pre-Vedic period. Some rigorous but widespread practices of asceticism have been the characteristic feature of Indian culture. The main idea behind the conception of asceticism is deliverance from samsara, the continuous cycle of birth and death and its consequent pain and suffering. For a chronological study of the Indian culture, some evidences may be cited.


The beginnings of these ascetic practices and their gradual development till their adoption into the Buddhist organization in the form of Nissaya and Dhutanga may be traced out.

(i) Among the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization excavated at Mohenjodaro, the figure of a three-headed person seated in a meditating posture has been excavated. Is it not a clue to the existence of asceticism and Yogic practices in the pre-Vedic period? It is probable that the concept of a Yati had already originated there. Yati may be derived from the root yat (to strive) or yam (to restrain, to subdue, to control). Yati in the sense of a striving person bears affinity with the concept of samana in Buddhism.

(ii) During the Vedic period (circa 1500 B.C. downwards) the asrama (hermitage) could grow for ascetic practices. The word ‘tapas’ (equivalent to asceticism) in its technical sense occurs in the tenth mandala of the Rig Veda among the later hymns.

(iii) In the Upanisads, the renunciation of worldly pleasures has been regarded essential for the purification of one’s mind. (Chandogya Up. 8.5) Tapas here has also been associated with the third asrama (Vanaprastha} and the subsequent way of life Sannyasa (caturthasrama) of the anchorite in the forest. Evidently the introduction of this kind of ascetic practices was nothing new to Buddhism. These were already prevalent among the contemporary sects such as the Jainas, the Ajivikas, etc.


Nissaya (Skt. Nisraya) corresponds in meaning to Sanskrit asraya, “to sit on, or that on which anything depends.” “Nissayam Karoti” in Pali means to rely on. In the Vinayapitaka, to take one’s stand in “Nissaya” refers to the four resources of life on which a monk depends. In addition to this, “Nissaya” has also been used in the sense of “tutelage” Chinese “yi chih" for Nissaya suggests “to depend and rest upon”. According to Tibetan sources, in addition Nissaya also refers to the religious exercise of a monk confirming to monastic discipline.

Moreover, “Nissaya” in the sense of “tutelage” does not appear irrelevant when a novice learns how to lead a way of life for sanctification from an elderly monk. That means a “saddhiviharika” being attached to an “upajjhaya”, becomes conversant with the right way of life as taught by the Buddha.

Dhutanga Etymologically Pali “Dhutanga” or dhutanguna (merits attained by cleansing may be derived from the dhu+( meaning to wash, clean, purify, sprinkle). It refers to “a set of practices leading to the state of or appropriate to a dhuta, that is to a scrupulous person" or "precepts by which the passions are shaken or quelled”. The Chinese commentary elaborates with an analogy of shaking off dust from clothes by fluttering. Its Tibetan rendering refers to the virtue for the purification of the mind. Edgerton (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary) gives dhuta-guna as “the qualities of a purified man”. Not only the action for purification and attainment but also seven-fold aims are pointed out in the dhuta-guna-­nirdesa of the Vimuktimarga


As discussed above, the four Nissayas as enumerated in the Pali Vinayapitaka of the Theravadins are:

  1. Pindiyalopabhojanam -literally suggests pinda - a lump of food, and alopa = a piece, a bit of food, morsel, esp. bits of food fathered by bhikkhus. “Pindiyalo­pabhojanam” is the general practice of collecting cooked food offered by the householders to the monks in course of their daily begging rounds (pindaya carati). In the Patimokkha Sutta and the Vinayavastu, occasional references of unmannerly behaviour regarding the acceptance of provision in a monastery or outside tends to monastic indiscipline. The monks used to go on their begging rounds after their morning service in the forenoon. It is interesting to note that the monks belonging to the Theravada tradition in India, Sri Lanka, Burma and S.E. Asia, eagerly observe the rules. However, relaxations may also be observed among the monks related to the Non-Theravada tradition. Different traditions have also been preserved regarding the conception of meat-eating in Buddhism. One who observes the vow of “pindiyalopabhojanam” is known as "pindaparika”.

  2. Pamsukulacivaram suggests “the robes made of rags collected from a dust-heap”, preferably from cemetries. The word “civara” generally do not refer to the clothes donated by householders. In the early stage, Gotama instructed the use of “civara” as that was prevalent among the other contemporary ascetics. However, the Buddha allowed certain relaxations to this rule in course of time so that the lay devotees (upasakas) could avail the privilege of donating yellow robes to the venerable monks in order to achieve merits (punya) for donation (dana). Despite that, those who strictly observe the practice of “pamsukulacivara” are called as “pamsukulika”.

  3. Rukkhamulasenasanam literally means “having one’s seat at the foot of a tree” for meditative practices as a recluse. A monk had to dwell under a tree and was not permitted to stay under a roof. The Buddha later declared that this rule was sanctioned by him for eight months of the year as the monks had to spend the remaining four months of the year as “rainy season retreat”. The monks were thus permitted to spend these four months in residences because it was inconvenient to travel during the rainy season. One who observes the practice of “Rukkhamulasenasanam” is known as “rukkhamulika". At a later stage the Buddha also permitted the monks to live in the Vihara, Addhayoga, Hammiya, Pasada, and Guha. Author Vidhusekhara Sastri has rightly pointed out (Patimokkha, Introduction, pp 29-30) that the Buddhists were the first to introduce the custom of the monks living in such buildings and the Suttavibhanga etc. also refer to the monks residing in “tinakutis” (straw-huts) in large numbers.

  4. Putimuttabhesajjam -presupposes that a monk observing the “Nissaya” should. depend on natural medicines for health management by using faeces, urine, etc. In Early Buddhist Texts Gotama Buddha was declared as a master physician, and subsequently in later Mahayana he was extolled as “Bhatsajyaguru-vaidurya-prabha” of celestial embodiment. It may be added that the Buddha later approved the use of ghee, butter, oil, honey, molasses etc. as medicines. The use of various other kinds of medicines was gradually sanctioned by the Buddha thereafter for the monks.

It is thus evident that Sakyaputta Gotama had given preference to the early Indian ascetic way of life with respect to a recluse. As and when his organization (sangha) spread he had no alternative but to allow certain relaxations regarding the rules according to the need and propriety of his organization. The four nissayas thus remained no longer obligatory and that left room for some dissension within his organization under the leadership of Devadatta in the later days of Sakyaputta Gotama’s personal life.

By comparing the different versions of the Vinaya preserved in Chinese it may be revealed that according to the Mahasanghika Vinaya the Buddha enjoined that the four Nissayas should be expounded to the newly ordained monks before expounding the precepts to them whereas the Dharmaguptaka and the Mahisasaka Vinayas hold that the Buddha enjoined the monks first to expound the precepts and later the Nissayas to the newly ordained monks. However it is agreed upon by all the Vinayas that the newly ordained monks from different communities experienced difficulties at the outset in observing the Nissayas. The Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada Vinayas make no mention of the Nissayas.

Dhutangas In addition to the four Nissayas, the practice of the dhutangas (dhutangunas) was also prevalent in Sakyaputta Gotama’s organization. P.V. Bapat has rightly pointed out that the inclusion of the dhutangas among the norms of the Buddhist monastic way of life was made in its earliest days since the lifetime of the Buddha and later developed to its present form. The thirteen practices may be condensed into eight (as shown in Visuddhimagga and Vimuktimarga).

Enumeration of the Dhutangas

The Dhutangas or dhutan­gunas have been enumerated for the first time in the Milinda­Panha and their detailed exposition is found in the Visuddhimagga, subsequent non-canonical texts. The thirteen dhutangas as enumerated in the Visuddhimagga have been given below :

  1. Pamsukulikangam - Same as Nissaya 2

  2. Tecivarikangam - Not to have more than three robes suggesting the usage of three civaras after Upasampada

  3. Pindapatikangam - Same as Nissaya 1

  4. Sapadanacarikangam - to go for begging consecutively from house to house.

  5. Ekasanikangam - to have one’s meal at one sitting

  6. Pattapindikangam - to have only one bowl and take whatever is offered in it.

  7. Khalupacchabhattikangam - Not to take any food after finishing one’s meal.

  8. Arannikangam -to dwell only in forests

  9. Rukkhamulikangam -Same as Nissaya 3

  10. Abbhokasikangam -to live in an open space

  11. Sosanikangam -to live in a cemetery

  12. Yathasantatthikangam -to use whatever bed or seat is allotted to one

  13. Nesajjikangam -to refrain from lying down and keep sitting.

It is evident that the ascetic practices (dhutangas and nissayas) were prescribed by the Buddha for those enterprising persons who had abandoned the pleasures of worldly life in search of the supreme good in accordance with the mental efficacy and physical endurance of an individual. The Buddhist mendicants were expected to adhere to these practices as far as possible during their career as a monk. The followers of each of these dhutangas are classified into three grades (ukkattho, majjhimo muduko) and the followers belong to the grade according to the severity with which they observe the practices. P. V. Bapat further observes that although the dhutangas were not so highly valued in the earliest days of Buddhism, they continued to gain importance in course of time. More over, the mere observance of the practices with an impure mind was considered to be totally futile.

The elaboration of the dhutangas as shown above may be traced in the Patimokkha and canonical texts. For example, Dhutanga No. 4 (sapadanacarikangam) corresponds to Sekhiya rule No. 33 in the Patimokkha and dhutanga No. 7 (khalupaccha-bhattikangam) may be compared to Pacittiya rule No. 37 regarding vikalabhojana in the Patimokkha.

It may also be notied that Nissaya No. 4 (Putimutta­bhesajjam) finds no place in the dhutangas. This leaves room to suggest that in course of time the repulsive obnoxity of urine etc, might have stood in the way of using them obligatorily as medicine and the Bhesajjakhandhakam was subsequently added to the Vinayapitaka for health care. Eg. Faeces or stool, was prescribed to swallow for vomitting out poison, if taken. Similarly the urine of the cow was also used as a medicine for jaundice (Mahavagga 6.29).

To sum up, it may be seen that thirteen dhutangas have been enumerated in the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa, and the Chinese text of the Vimuttimarga, whereas in the later Mahayana Texts such as Mahavyutpatti, the Dharmasangraha ,and the Dvadasa-dhuta-sutra record the number as twelve.

It is evident from the above that experiences in livelihood among the monks had been a source of concern in Buddhist monasticism since its inception. Three stages in the growth of the Sangha may be traced out in this respect:

i) Ascetic stage (arannaka) when Gotama Buddha advised his monks to lead the life of an ascetic in the true sense of the word i.e. to abide by the four Nissayas. The items of the dhutangas which are common to all the traditions probably developed during this period.

ii) Growth of the aramas and viharas (Aramika)

A trend of transformation from ascetic to vihara or aramika life left room to relax to a certain ex­tent some rigid rules prescribed in the Nissayas. Some of the dhutangas were probably taken into account at this stage.

iii) Post-schismatic stage (Bhiksu Nikayottara)

During the later life of the Buddha a tendency developed towards schism in the Sangha. Subsequent to the schism in the Sangha, the items of the dhutangas varied in the different traditions. For example, the practice of namatika (wearing felt) has been included in the Mahavyutpatti and the Dharmasangraha which omit the practice of sapadanacarika (moving from house to house). The practice of yathasamatarika is not included in the Dvadasa-dhuta-sutra which is substituted by vikalabhojanavera (eating at improper time). It may be surmised from the above that each tradition derived its material from some common source and variations in the details were introduced according to the characteristics of the particular tradition such as where the school originated from etc.

The original article doesn’t have those images. Could you say where you got the images of the monastics in multi colored robes?

Not monastic, they are mendicants, and truly Pabbajita, the one who has gone forth, in the truest sense of the word, for they do not reside in any monasteries. It seems like a new movement of returning to the Sakyan Teacher’s Original Teaching and Practice has just begun in Vietnam. I will report about it in some future posts.

1 Like

Interesting. Thank you. I was afraid they were DAL E artificial images. The Vinaya prohibits wearing the colours you can see in their robes so I was confused.