Sekhiya Rules reconsidered

Note: Accompanying my book Sects & Sectarianism I wrote a series of short articles on related matters. I recently came across these, tidied them up, and present them here for your enjoyment.

Pachow and Prebish both regard the differences in the sekhiya (training) rules of the pāṭimokkha as evidence for the antiquity of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. Prebish further argues, based on the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, that the differences in sekhiya rules were the decisive factor in causing the first schism between the Mahāsaṅghikas and Sthaviras. I have elsewhere given reason why the arguments for the antiquity of this Vinaya are not well established. Here I will consider the sekhiya argument in a little more detail. The rules themselves are translated in Pachow, pp. 46ff.; his discussion of the historical evolution is on page 38.

The most obvious objection to the theory that the sekhiyas played a decisive role in sectarian formation is that they are trivial. A glance at the rules below will show a typical sample of sekhiya rules. They concern details of deportment and etiquette only, the more serious moral rules being found in the major sections of pāṭimokkha rules. Prebish confronts this argument head on, quoting John Holt from his Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka, pp. 102–3:

‘The rules are much more than mere social etiquette … The motive which generated their inclusion into the disciplinary code was simply this: perfect control of inward demeanor leads to perfect control and awareness of outward expression, even the minutest public expressions.’

Holt and Prebish also opine that the sekhiyas, in determining deportment, are motivated by the concern that the bhikkhus’ behavior be appropriately inspiring for the lay community, a crucial concern in maintaining essential lay support.

These opinions on the principle that motivated the sekhiya rules are quite sensible in themselves. But their application to the current case is a simple logical error. The sekhiyas are an expression of an important principle; but they are not important expressions of that principle. Regardless of how significant mindfulness of one’s minute actions is, and regardless of how important monastic deportment might be for the lay community, changing a few sekhiya rules will not make much difference. Any of the lists of sekhiya rules that currently exist would manifest these principles perfectly adequately.

An example might make this clearer. In our society, we regard it as an important principle to adhere to the laws laid down by duly elected authorities. But if my local Council decides to change the parking fine for the No Standing spot in front of my house from $30 to $40, this is a trivial expression of that principle. No-one, not even the Councilors, would argue that the difference between these fines was of great importance. Even though the principle of obedience to elected authority is of great importance, the decision to make the fine $30 or $40 will not significantly affect that principle.

Prebish argues that the additional rules found in the Theravāda Vinaya are comparable to the ‘ten points’ of dispute in the Second Council. This is not, of course, because there is any close relation between the two groups, but because several of the extra sekhiyas concern eating, and so do some of the ten points. This in itself is so general as to be meaningless, but Prebish takes his search one step further, regarding it as ‘equally’ relevant that the remaining five points concern ‘matters of individual and communal respect’. (Prebish 194)

I am not quite sure how he reaches this conclusion, as it is well known that the main issue at the Second Council was whether bhikkhus could use money. This was regarded as a very serious matter, and Yasa quotes many passages from the Suttas and Vinaya in support of his objection to this practice. Other serious matters discussed at the Second Council include anumatikappa (whether it was allowable to conclude a formal act of the Sangha and obtain consent from absent bhikkhus afterwards), āvāsakappa (whether it was allowable to hold separate saṅghakammas in the same monastery), and āciṇṇakappa (whether it was allowable to follow the precedent of one’s teachers). These are all complex and important matters involving central legal procedures of the community. They are not ‘matters of individual and communal respect’ and have nothing to do with the sekhiyas, but are issues of an entirely different order.

Prebish is apparently led to the sekhiya thesis because he believes that the Śāriputraparipṛcchā speaks of the increase of the number of Vinaya rules. 1 This makes the sekhiya theory inevitable, since this is the only section of the pāṭimokkha that significantly differs in number between the different versions, and indeed the Mahāsaṅghika versions are shorter than any existing Sthavira versions. But the Śāriputraparipṛcchā speaks not of the number of rules, but only of the enlargement of the Vinaya. Nowhere does Prebish consider the possibility that this enlargement might be something other than sekhiya rules, or that it might be an aspect of Vinaya other than the pāṭimokkha.

Even if we were to consider the sekhiya theory as one possible explanation of the Śāriputraparipṛcchā’s narrative, Prebish’s comparative analysis of the number of sekhiya rules fails. Prebish utilizes for his analysis only the Sanskrit Mahāsaṅghika and the Pali. But he himself emphasizes that : ‘… the Theravādins can in no way be historically identified as the Sthaviras of the first schism.’2 This is perfectly true—the additional rules could have been added at any time in the redaction history. Prebish’s method tells us nothing about the comparison between the root Mahāsaṅghikas and the root Sthaviras.

Of course, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to approach the original texts. But one method would be to compare the number of rules held in common by the Sthavira schools with the number of rules held in common between the Mahāsaṅghikas. This procedure, though crude, at least might tell us something useful. As it turns out, there are about 55 sekhiya rules held in common by three-quarters of the Sthavira pāṭimokkhas, and about 60 in common among the Mahāsaṅghika.3 This would suggest that the root Sthaviras and the root Mahāsaṅghikas had a section of about 50-ish sekhiya rules. I am not claiming that this is in fact the case, merely that it is one possible approach. I am not at all convinced that there ever was a unitary group of sekhiya rules, but feel that it is more likely that these were originally more of the nature of local monastic regulations, and may well have varied from the earliest times.

It is almost certainly fruitless to think we can identify the textual expansion spoken of by the Śāriputraparipṛcchā. After all, all the Vinayas have been expanded in countless ways. How can we ever know, without far more context than the text gives us, that one particular expansion is the one the Śāriputraparipṛcchā refers to? Nevertheless, we might consider a few possibilities. At least this will show that the sekhiya theory is not the only possibility.

  • Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. This is by far the largest of the Vinayas, and is plausibly identified with the Mathuran Vinaya of the school of Upagupta. If we are right in thinking that the Śāriputraparipṛcchā’s strategy is to usurp the charisma of Upagupta, perhaps we should see this as a local dispute. The Mahāsaṅghikas objected to the wholesale interpolation of Jātakas and Avadānas, as well as other late material, in this Vinaya. This suggestion gains some plausibility in that the existing Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya in Chinese has in fact removed most of its narrative material, although this does not apply to the Hybrid Sanskrit Lokuttaravāda Vinaya, or at least the existing portions of it.
  • Parivāra. The Dīpavaṁsa lists the Parivāra among the texts rejected by the Mahāsaṅghikas. This is a Vinaya compilation that may certainly be considered an addition to the Vinaya. But the Dīpavaṁsa merely mentions this among many non-Vinaya texts, so it is not a specially Vinaya dispute. In addition, we are fairly confident in seeing this section of the Dīpavaṁsa as a later product of the disputes with the Andhaka schools, and there seems no reason to connect this with the Śāriputraparipṛcchā. Nevertheless, the fact remains that these two primary texts associate the schism with a dispute over the extent of canonical texts, so we should not rule out a possible link.
  • Skandhaka. Frauwallner has famously demonstrated the connections between the existing Skandhaka sections of the Vinayas, claiming they stem to a pre-sectarian text dated around the time of the Second Council. One of the major difficulties with his theory is the fact that the Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka differs substantially from the Sthavira. Frauwallner tries to escape this problem by showing that the existing Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka is based on a similar structure to the Sthavira Vinayas, but has been later adapted after the schismatic period. Recent work, however, demonstrates that at least some of the variant details in the Mahāsaṅghika Skandhaka are related to the so-called ‘Vinaya-mātikās’, which may be even earlier than the Skandhakas.4 The state of play is inconclusive, but we suggest that the attempts by the Sthaviras to forge a new Skandhaka literature may be what the Śāriputraparipṛcchā is referring to.

These few suggestions are not meant to exhaust the possible options. But there is probably not much point in pursuing the matter further. For what it’s worth, I think the Mūlasarvāstivāda theory is the most plausible.

Returning to a consideration of the sekhiya rules themselves, let us review the information provided by Pachow, in a slightly different form. Here are the relevant rules, but I reverse his order, giving the Mahāsaṅghika first. This is in order to compare with the situation in the set of rules I will consider subsequently. The rules left out of Pachow’s analysis are left blank.

Mahāsaṅghika sekhiyas Sarvāstivāda
3. Going well-covered 17
4. Going without casting glances 21
5. Going with little sound 27
7. Going without head covering 31
8. Going without tucking up robe
10. Going without arms akimbo 35
14. Sitting well-covered 18.
15. Sitting without casting glances 22.
16. Sitting with little sound 28
18. Sitting without head covering 32.
19. Sitting without tucking up robe 41.
22. Sitting without arms akimbo 36.

Pachow notices that these rules are reorganized systematically, that is, the Mahāsaṅghika has all the rules, and then repeats them changing the verb from ‘going’ to ‘sitting’, while the Sarvāstivāda alternates ‘going’ and ‘sitting’. Pachow suggests that this arrangement is better for memorizing and hence is likely to be a rearrangement on the part of the Sarvāstivāda. This argument is very tenuous. I’ve been reciting pātimokkha for over ten years, and can zip through the whole 227 rules in half an hour or so. I’ve also memorized dozens of suttas. And as a living member of the oral tradition, I can say with some confidence that the difference in the two arrangements in these few rules is negligible.

Let us compare this group with the following section of the sekhiyas. Here are the rules, this time in the Pali version.

27. Accept alms-food carefully
28. Accept alms-food with attention on the bowl
29. Accept alms-food with curry in proportion
30. Accept alms-food level with the edge [ of the bowl ]
31. Eat alms-food carefully
32. Eat alms-food with attention on the bowl
33. Eat alms-food evenly
34. Eat alms-food with curry in proportion

Here it is immediately apparent that the rules are grouped according to the operative verb, that is, all the rules on accepting together, then all the rules on eating together. This is the same organizational principle noticed by Pachow in the previous section of the Mahāsaṅghika, which he took to be evidence for the structural antiquity of the Mahāsaṅghika. But exactly the same structure may be found in the very next section of the Pali Vinaya. This shows that we cannot generalize on the basis of a few rules. The Pali may reorganize one section while leaving another section untouched. The Sarvāstivāda might add many rules, but leave many ancient ones, too, and so on.

To complete this little essay, I would like to briefly touch on the 12 rules of the Pali Vinaya that Prebish identifies as additional to the Mahāsaṅghika.

The first two are that one should go and sit in the village well-covered. These, while absent from the Sanskrit Mahāsaṅghika, are present in the Chinese (Pachow 218), so any argument that they are foreign to the Mahāsaṅghika tradition is tenuous indeed. The same applies to rule 30 (accepting food level with the rim of the bowl) and 40 (making morsels into balls).

The next three are that one should not sit in the village shaking the body, arms, and head. These are partially covered by one rule in the Chinese Mahāsaṅghika (rule 23 against sitting in the house without moving the hands and the legs). These three closely related rules form part of a series of pairs, as we have seen above, where the rule is repeated with a mere change in verb from ‘go’ to ‘sit’. In this case it would be easy for such rules to change from one lineage to another simply by careless redaction. This could happen either way. Rules that were originally applied to, say, just ‘going’ could be incorporated with other rules referring to ‘going’ and ‘sitting’, and hence the verbs could become artificially replicated. Or just as easily, the reciter or scribe could assume that all rules were meant to be applied to both ‘going’ and ‘sitting’, and simply abbreviate in the understanding that they should be spelt out in full. Later, this was forgotten. In any case, it is clear that the variation between the two sets of rules could easily have occurred through a simple slip in the redaction history, and these rules do not constitute a major difference between the sekhiyas of the Pali and Mahāsaṅghika Vinayas.

The next two rules are that one should eat alms-food carefully (31) and uninterruptedly (33). The first rule is a basic instruction given frequently in the Suttas, and can hardly constitute a sectarian difference. The second is an obscurely problematic phrase. The word sapadāna is of doubtful derivation, and is usually applied to walking alms-round from house to house. Its appearance in reference to eating here is, so far as I know, unique, and the rule only appears in the minority of pāṭimokkhas.

The next rule is that one should not put the whole hand in the mouth while eating (42). This is certainly sound advice. One wonders whether the absence of this rule from the Mahāsaṅghika is evidence for the early introduction of some curious local form of tantrayoga.

Rule 54 prohibits the licking of the lips. Usually a piece of advice we pick up from our mums, here the repression of lip-licking by the rigid Theravādins contrasts dramatically with the lip-licking laxity of the Mahāsaṅghika. While we might regard this as indisputable evidence of the Mahāsaṅghika’s free and easy ways, we notice that while the Pali has three rules forbidding the licking of the hands, bowl, and lips, the Mahāsaṅghikas similarly include three rules forbidding licking bowl, hands, and fingers. It would seem that separate rules forbidding licking both the hands and the fingers is a bit excessive, even for the rigorist Theravādins, so perhaps this is a mere textual confusion by the Mahāsaṅghikas. It seems their reputation as archetypal exponents of lip-licking laxity may be undeserved.

Finally, the Mahāsaṅghikas lack a rule prohibiting one sitting on the ground to teach Dhamma to one sitting on a seat. Again, this forms part of a series of formulaic rules. Another of these rules, shared with the Mahāsaṅghika, is that one on a low seat should not teach Dhamma to one on a high seat. Obviously, if one is on the ground one will be lower than someone on a seat, so this rule would be implied even if not explicit, and could not make any difference in actual conduct.

We are thus forced to conclude that the differences between the sekhiya rules as analyzed so far do not bear the weight of the conclusions that have been forced on them. While the principles on which the rules are based are of significance, the variants in detail between the rules would not constitute a significant difference either in the mindfulness training or in the decorum of the bhikkhus. The structural analysis of Pachow is so limited that it cannot be generalized beyond one small section of two Vinayas. Prebish’s extra rules in the Pali Vinaya are mostly a simple matter of redaction variation, and do not constitute a distinct difference in the Vinayas.

Works Cited

Pachow, W. A Comparative Study of the Pratimoksa. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 2000.

Prebish, Charles S. ‘Saiksa-Dharmas Revisited.’ Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. Ed. Paul Williams. London: Routledge, 2005. 186–198.

1 Nattier and Prebish, 201, 208.

2 Prebish, ‘Śaikṣa-Dharmas Revisited’, 190.

3 Using the data found in Pachow, 217ff, but including the Sanskrit Mahāsaṅghika pāṭimokkha. I did not take the stricter standard of insisting the rules must be common to all, as I feel certain there has been some textual loss, and probably not all the rule identifications are certain.

4 Clarke.


Bhanthe, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the relevance of culture on these sekihya rules, considering that they may have originated as a response to complaints from the layity? Could it be that carrying out some of the rules nowadays might have the opposite effect of not giving rise to faith in the un-initiated -not making eye-contact, head covered etc?

Would the practical relevance be little as many Bhikkhu’s act with common sense with regard to these rules?

with metta

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Yes, surely culture is involved. One good example is the rule about not speaking dhamma while standing to people who are sitting. Obviously this doesn’t work in many modern contexts, such as lecture halls, conferences, and so on. But the point is whether it is a respectful environment.

These are not really “rules” as such, there is no penalty for breaking them. They are more simply guidelines for conduct.


Yes, that makes sense. It would interesting to think about what people think is good conduct now! Maybe a sekhiya rule against hate speech would be relevant :slightly_smiling_face:.

with metta

Well indeed. There’s plenty of other precepts dealing with hate speech.

Are these pacittiya rules? I’m not very familiar with the vinaya.

That’s right. There’s Pacittiya 2:

Which has this classic tale in the origin story.

Once upon a time, monks, there was a brahmin in Takkasilā who had an ox called Nandivisāla. On one occasion the ox said to the brahmin, ‘Go, brahmin, and make the following bet worth one thousand coins with a prominent merchant: “My ox will pull one hundred carts tied together.”’ And that brahmin did just that. Then, after tying one hundred carts together and yoking Nandivisāla to them, he said, ‘Go, you fraud; pull, you liar.’ But Nandivisāla just stood right there.

Then that brahmin became depressed because he had lost one thousand coins. And Nandivisāla said to him, ‘Why are you depressed?’

‘Because I lost one thousand coins because of you.’

‘But why did you disgrace me by calling me a fraud when I’m not? Now go, brahmin, and make the same bet worth two thousand coins with that merchant. But don’t disgrace me by calling me a fraud.’ Once again that brahmin did just that. Then, after tying one hundred carts together and yoking Nandivisāla to them, he said, ‘Go, good ox; pull, good ox.’ And Nandivisāla pulled those one hundred carts.


This is interesting. It says:

Speaks abusively: he abuses in ten ways: about caste, about name, about family, about work, about craft, about illnesses, about physical traits, about defilements, about offenses, and by insulting.

I also remember a sutta (can’t find it right now) where there is a second layer added to the five precepts ie kill and not induce others (to kill) as part of the same precept.

Came across this too by accident for the first time:

(1) Caṇḍo –– Violent Gāmaṇi
At one time the Blessed One was living in the monastery offered by Anāthapṇḍika in Jeta’s grove in Sāvatthi.
Then Caṇḍa Gāmaṇi approached the Blessed One, worshipped and sat on a side.
Sitting on a side Caṇḍa Gama樥i said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, for what reason is one reckoned as violent and another as valiant?”
Gāmaṇi, in this world a certain one’s greed is not dispelled so he rouses violence in others, showing ill temper and is reckoned as violent. A certain one’s hate is not dispelled, so he rouses violence in others showing ill temper, and is reckoned as violent. A certain one’s delusion is not dispelled, so he rouses violence in others showing ill temper and is reckoned as violent.
Gāmaṇi, this is the reason for a certain one to be reckoned as violent.
Gāmaṇi, in this world a certain one’s greed is dispelled, as a result he does not arouse violence in others showing ill temper and is reckoned as valiant. A certain one’s hate is dispelled, as a result he does not arouse violence in others showing ill temper, and is reckoned as valiant. A certain one’s delusion is dispelled, as a result he does not arouse violence in others showing ill temper and is reckoned as valiant.
Gāmaṇi, this is the reason for a certain one to be reckoned as valiant.
Then violent Gāmaṇi said to the Blessed One: “Venerable sir, now I understand, it is like something overturned is put upright, something covered is made manifest, as though the way was shown when someone has lost his way, as though an oil lamp is lighted for the darkness, for those who have sight to see forms. In this manner the Blessed One has explained the Teaching in many ways. Now I take refuge in the Blessed One. May the Blessed One remember me as a lay disciple until I live!” [Link]

with metta

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A very talented Buddhist monk was criticised by fellow monks for speking Dhamma while standing.
I think this monk does not give Dhamma while standing anymore.