Thought experiment - a genderless vinaya

The vinaya as is is faces some significant problems. For those with serious aspirations to ordain, the gender discrimination can be a huge barrier, and raise many doubts and questions as to the Buddha’s wisdom in establishing such rules, and the current sangha’s wisdom in following them. This is not only an issue for nuns, who are subjugated, but also for monks, who don’t want to be put in the role of the oppressor; and a gendered patimokkha leaves no place at all for people who don’t identify with either gender. It also destroys faith in the sangha among laypeople who do not want to support such a system, and thus is a major impediment to the flourishing of Buddhism.
Many feel that the patimokkha is such a misfit in today’s world that they have put it aside altogether. Such monastics often find it hard to keep up the discipline of serious practise and end up leading lifes not much different from lay people.
We’ve had many discussions about the patimokkha rules already on this forum. But are there actual alternatives?

Then a certain Vajjian monk … said to the Blessed One, “Lord, this recitation of more than 150 training rules comes every fortnight. I cannot train in reference to them.” … “Then train in reference to those three trainings: the training in heightened virtue, the training in heightened mind, the training in heightened discernment. (AN3.84)

In the early suttas there are many descriptions of “heightened virtue” for monastics, most prominently repeated over and over again in the gradual training. These are ungendered, fairly comprehensive, and are at least as early, if not earlier, than the patimokkhas. To a large extend, these passages are also applicable universally, independent of culture and modern developments. And it would be quite easy to recite these passages on uposatha days, and confess transgressions of the rules mentioned there.
Since every Buddhist monastery is independent and local sanghas make their own choices, any monastery could decide on its own to switch over to keeping these rules instead. There would be no need to wait for any universal approval. Of course, most monasteries would still prefer to keep the standard patimokkha, so practitioners could freely choose where they would like to ordain and what method would suit them best.

The Buddha allowed for minor rules to be abandoned after his passing (DN16), and stated that disputes about livelihood and patimokkha should be considered as mere trifles (MN104). So in adapting rules that no longer fit today’s society, we would be following the Buddha’s instructions. These questions don’t imply the the monastics who discuss them are not serious about vinaya. In fact, it is because they are very serious about vinaya, that they are concerned with its problems and try to find solutions that are within the scope of what is covered by the EBTs.

Here’s the passage on morality from the gradual training, p. ex. at MN27:

“Having thus gone forth and possessing the monastic’s training and way of life, abandoning the killing of living beings, they abstain from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious, merciful, they abide compassionate to all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, they abstain from taking what is not given; taking only what is given, expecting only what is given, by not stealing they abide in purity. Abandoning incelibacy, they observe celibacy, living apart, abstaining from the vulgar practice of sexual intercourse.
“Abandoning false speech, they abstain from false speech; they speak truth, adhere to truth, are trustworthy and reliable, persons who are no deceivers of the world. Abandoning malicious speech, they abstain from malicious speech; they do not repeat elsewhere what they have heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor do they repeat to these people what they have heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus they are persons who reunite those who are divided, promoters of friendships, who enjoy concord, rejoice in concord, delight in concord, speakers of words that promote concord. Abandoning harsh speech, they abstain from harsh speech; they speak such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable, as go to the heart, are courteous, desired by many and agreeable to many. Abandoning gossip, they abstain from gossip; they speak at the right time, speak what is fact, speak on what is good, speak on the Dhamma and the Discipline; at the right time they speak such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.
“They abstain from injuring seeds and plants. They practise eating only one meal a day, abstaining from eating at night and outside the proper time. They abstain from dancing, singing, music, and theatrical shows. They abstain from wearing garlands, smartening themselves with scent, and embellishing themselves with unguents. They abstain from high and large couches. They abstain from accepting gold and silver. They abstain from accepting raw grain. They abstain from accepting raw meat. They abstain from accepting sex and marriage partners. They abstain from accepting men and women slaves. They abstain from accepting goats and sheep. They abstain from accepting fowl and pigs. They abstain from accepting elephants, cattle, horses, and mares. They abstain from accepting fields and land. They abstain from going on errands and running messages. They abstain from buying and selling. They abstain from false weights, false metals, and false measures. They abstain from accepting bribes, deceiving, defrauding, and trickery. They abstain from wounding, murdering, binding, brigandage, plunder, and violence.
“They become content with robes to protect their body and with almsfood to maintain their stomach, and wherever they go, they set out taking only these with them. Just as a bird, wherever it goes, flies with its wings as its only burden, so too the monastics become content with robes to protect their body and with almsfood to maintain their stomach, and wherever they go, they set out taking only these with them. Possessing this aggregate of noble virtue, they experience within themselves a bliss that is blameless.

There is also p. ex. the passage on morality from DN1, sections 1.8-1.28, which goes into more detail.


This is probably a bit an unconventional idea - but actually, why not…? :heart_eyes: :hushed: :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


I think this is interesting. But what about forfeiture offences?


I think it’s the most brilliant and sensible idea I’ve ever heard of.
If there were such a place, such a sangha, and the requisites could be obtained, I would ordain there in a second.
I’ve spent two years thinking about this, and the issues you’ve brought up are my main barriers.

A question - what is your reasoning for shifting to a new set of morality guidelines, rather than applying the bhikkhu patimokkha to both sexes? Obviously, I get there are still issues with the bhikkhu vinaya (even some sanghadisesas are almost never kept), but the bhikkhu patimokkha has been lived through and somewhat practiced for a much longer time, and would retain some of the ‘sanctity’ that is felt to be a requirement for recognition by some Buddhists.


I feel really sorry for the monastics today who have to try to make sense and follow hundreds of rules most of which do not come from the Buddha as the Vinaya was progressively developed up until two hundred years after the Buddha passed away.
Remember that the Vinaya did not exist at the beginning of the Buddha dispensation and for many years which means that it was not necessary for the many monastics who progressed on the 4 Stages and became Arahats.
De facto there are many minor rules that are currently not followed (e.g. taking shower) so shall we call the monastics hypocrites because they don’t follow 100% of the rules?
To come back to the issue of gender, it would be interesting to find out why the Buddha was so reluctant to allow women in the order and then when he did why these subordination rules were put in place. For me the Buddha was not “perfect” he was a man of his culture and becoming an arahat did not remove all his cultural reflexes.


Well, of course the details would have to be worked out. I only gave a rough idea… So I think the rules about not killing etc should probably remain parajikas and lead to expulsion if broken.
As for forfeiture, the gradual training mentions things like not accepting gold and silver etc. So if you break that rule, you’d have to give it up.
So you could still grade the rules according to severity and impose different degrees of consequences.


I thought it was better to move to a new system that is gender-neutral, rather than adapting a set of rules intended for a subgroup to all monastics. There are quite a few rules that are gender-specific in the bhikkhu patimokkha as well. But of course, I’m only trying to start a conversation, not to present a ready-made solution… So sure, it’s something that could be tried out as well.
I just think there is a precedent in the suttas for not following the patimokkhas and training in higher virtue instead. I don’t know of any precedent for non-males taking up the bhikkhu patimokkha.


Ah yes, of course. Interesting, very good!


Reaserch has been done on this and it is not certain that he was reluctant at all, or that he put these subordiation rules in place. It has been addressed in other threads, so I’ll try not to derail this one. In any case, they don’t fit today’s society and cause real harm for real people, so we should think about alternatives.


Probably some of these very beautiful aspects of the vinaya should be kept, like how to make sanghakammas, how to make decisions etc.


These are mostly not found in the patimokkha. And the patimokkha is the main issue, because it is gender-separated. But yes, any community needs procedures, and it’s a good idea to keep the existing ones as much as possible.

But the issue of sanghakamma would need to be addressed. As it is, the male and female sanghas are independent and can’t do kammas together. So a community with people who don’t identify as either group would have to look into this.

I have lived with a community where monks and nuns did confession with each other (it was too small a community to do actual sanghakammas) and it did not lead to problems.


Yes, that’s true of course.

Fascinating where this may still lead… Actually I find it’s a brilliant idea! :star_struck:

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I just re-read your post and felt like this deserves a comment.
If you were to start such an ungendered community, you could not hope for universal recognition of the whole Buddhist world. Traditionalists would not accept you, and you should be clear from the start that you would have to put up with some criticism.
But just as with bhikkhuni ordination, someone has to start somewhere… All you need is a community of like-minded monastics, and a community of supportive laypeople who will not be swayed by traditionalist criticism.


Erm… What do you mean by genderless Vinaya: universal set of Vinaya rules for all genders (except minor hygienic ones) or mixed-gender monastic communities? The latter doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, even though there is anecdotal evidence that it worked out just fine in your particular case. For me, if I were a monk that would actually be a huge issue. Universal Vinaya rules could theoretically work well, though, with some adjustments made.

As for substituting the Patimokkha for vitue passages from the Suttas… I think it is highly unrealistic and too idealistic of us to expect this to work. The modern Vinaya is very similar to the Christian Canon Law in that it is, well, a law code. I think it is fair to say that it is outdated in some respect (even though it is a matter of discussion in which ones exactly), it is certainly not very flexible and palatable to modern sensibilities in the West and many of its rulings are not practiced in the East, but it is still a code of law. Yes, Vinaya has a spiritual dimension, and including the passages on the higher virtue into the Patimokkha or basic Vinaya training could be beneficial. At the same time, I believe you would agree it is sheer non-sense to think that we can cancel the Penal Code, substitute it with the Declaration of Human Rights and expect people not to commit any crimes any more or the courts of law to work just as they used to. It is just not going to happen. In the best case scenario, we will have to introduce a new Penal Code or re-introduce the old one.

As I said, it is up to every individual monastery to make up their mind. So some might be men-only or women-only communities that prefer to follow a non-gendered set of rules. Some monasteries might want to have fully inclusive communities. I certainly wouldn’t want to tell anyone how they should run their communities.

Everyone should pick the community that suits them best. If it is male-only for you, then it’s great that you are clear about it and can make your choice accordingly.

Probably you didn’t read my reply to Pasanna. I did say that the offenses could be graded according to severity and have different consequences, including expulsion.
But in the end, the vinaya is not a penal code. Everyone commits voluntarily, and every penance - whether that is confession or manatta - has to be undertaken voluntarily. There are no penalties, and only in very severe cases can the sangha impose a temporary suspension/expulsion. In any case, such procedures are not found in the patimokkha. They are in the khandhakas and could be kept, even if the patimokkha is abandoned for a training in higher virtue.

Breaking the rules is not a crime. The rules are trainings and it is expected that people occasionally break them. It’s no big deal, there is no court of law in the sangha. You yourself recognize your mistake, sort it out, and keep training.


Sure, why not. Unless there is no talk, explicit or implicit, about ‘regressive lay people’ not willing to support or acknowledge such communities (e.g., I wouldn’t do it), I totally agree they should have the right to exist and should not be attacked by people opposing them. I would expect that realistically that would not happen and there would be unfair criticism and generally unfavourable opinion on each other on both sides. Besides, realistically, having vastly different Vinaya standards in different monasteries would accelerate the process of increasing sectarianism in the modern Buddhist community and deepen the divides between various ‘factions’;, whether we want it or not. It is a natural process anyway, but I think the Early Buddhist history shows us that the Vinaya controversies are generally more toxic than the Dhamma ones.

I would disagree. It is a law code, the only difference to the ‘real’ penal codes being that the punishment (or rather penance) is mostly self-inflicted. Of course, breaking the rules is not a crime, just like breaking the Canon Law in Christianity. Just like in Buddhism, very many Canon Law rulings are blatanlty ignored by the modern church. Still, the Canon Law remains Canon Law. Just like the Canon Law, the Vinaya is a quasi law code (cf. the Palis use of the word ‘Vinaya’ in the sense of ‘yerminology’, ‘rules of logic’ or to Greek kanōn ‘rule’ or general meaning of vineti as ‘guide, train’. What do we need, in other words? We need detailed guidelines describing desirable behaviour we expect from a bhikkhu or bhkkhuni. These guidelines should be divided in different sections according to the severity of an offense; they also should describe corresponding penances and / or communal actions by the Sangha. I think we do have such guidelines, they are called ‘patimokkha’. Yes, there are outdated patimokkha rules, there are sexist patimokkha rules, this is something to discuss, but replacing the patimokkha wholesale instead of possibly reforming it where it is absolutely necessary is just an unncessary roundabout way to the same destination, apart from the question why the Buddha didn’t do it in the first place.

Let us imagine the Bhikkhu patimokkha is adopted for both sexes (I think right now the Vinaya runs along the divide between the sexes and not genders) and let’s ignore the possiblity of mixed-gender communities for a minute. Why shouldn’t the Sangha just continue doing what it is already doing? I mean, there are huge differences in how the Vinaya is implemented in the monastic practice, not only between different monastic communities, but often also within the single monastic community. As I said above, just like in the Christian Canon Law, many patimokkha rules are ignored either all the time or very frequently, even though no-one cancelled them. In fact, apart from the gender issues we are already having a situation you would like to achieve in the end, so why fix it f it ain’t broke (again, this is not about the gender issues)? In other words, I am totally with Cara on that issue :grinning:

Last but not least, different Vinaya rules would make the Patimokkha Recitation a huge pain in the neck, and this ceremony has a paramount symbolical importance in establishing and representing the unity of the Sangha around the globe. Sure, we can substitute the patimokkha with the virtue passages, but what for? Again, why fix what is not broken?

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The word vinaya is better translated by something like “education”, not “law”.


There is no such thing as unity of the Sangha around the globe today.

We already have that situation today. A very large portion of monastics would not do the patimokkha recitation with a very large portion of other monastics, or even consider them properly ordained.

Sure, if a community can agree how to reform them, let them do it. But that would also be a different patimokkha to what the rest of the monastieries keep, so also lead to dissention. And the Buddha did do it in the first place, that was the point I made in the OP. He allowed to replace the patimokkha with training in higher virtue. He did not allow replacing the bhikkhuni patimokkha with the bhikkhus’, as you suggest.

I’m not sure if I understand you correctly. Are you saying, since the patimokkha rules are not followed to a large extend anyway, they don’t need to be reformed, we just keep the dysfunctional ones and ignore them? And my suggestion to actually follow rules from the gradual training would be the same thing?
If we followed the gradual training, we’d expect monastics to be actually committed, not to just recite an ancient code that nobody keeps. The rules would be totally applicable to their lives, without ancient cultural baggage. And there are a lot of problems with the thought of committing to a monastic code that you are not going to follow. There is a lot of insincerity there, and this is a problem for people who just want to be honest and open about their practise, and would like to honour the commitment they have taken up with ordination. Honest people may well find this a barrier to ordination.

Besides, which rules in the bhikkhu patimokkha would you like to keep that are not in the gradual training or the section on morality of DN1?


Or ‘guide’ or ‘terminology’ (cf. ariyassa vinaye vuccati loko). Or ‘principles’. Quite similar to the original meaning of the Greek ‘Canon’.

Sure, let’s make it even worse, then :grinning:

I mean, it was done at least once. Do you like the results?

Exactly, I think it is the same thing, and yes, we should keep the Patimokkha even if many rules are ignored by many communities.

I expect the monastic to be actually committed to their practice, and I expect them to recite an ancient code that is a symbolical representation of them belonging to the Sangha because for me, as for very many other people, the ancient cultural baggage and its symbolical value, is also very important. My point is, you oversee the fact that patimokkha has a value going far beyond its initial pedagogic purpose, very much like monastic robes, for example.

Which is solely a matter of personal responsibility, not communal, just as you said above. Ideally, the entire Sangha should commit to the entire patimokkha and follow it. Each monastic person makes a personal decision to break some of the rules he or she accepts as part of the Patimokkha, either under some sprecific conditions or unconditionally. I mean, a nun or monk is solely responsible for their being insincere, not the patimokkha. And if someone considers it vital not to follow an insignificant patimokkha rule, I think one can always be sincere and open about this: ‘I don’t follow this rule as I consider it obsolete but I recite it as a symbolic act highlighting my connection with the previous generations of the Sangha and other parts of the Sangha around the world. You can call it the Sangha’s cultural baggage.’

And sure, if monks or nuns would follow the gradual training, it would be pretty much equivalent to following the patimokkha, just as following the Eight precepts up to one’s fullest capabilties would be almost if not exactly the same thing.

The big one is drinking alcohol. The lesser ones are meta rules concerning the relationship of a Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni with Patimokkha (why all these lesser rules? etc.)

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What are you referring to?