Vinaya rules and origin stories

This is a question for Ajahn @Brahmali and I’m sure that @Gabriel_L has also come across this while translating the Vibhaṅga into Portuguese.

Sometimes, origin stories in the text don’t seem to match the rule that was laid down as a result.

For instance, in Nissaggiyā Pācittiyā 15, the origin story relates that the Buddha wants to go on solitary retreat and does not want to be disturbed. So the city-monks determine among themselves that they will not disturb the Buddha. Meanwhile, a forest-dwelling monk, who is unfamiliar with the rule that the city-monks have laid down, approaches the Buddha for teachings. The Buddha makes a rule that forest-dwelling monks are allowed to come and see him at any time.

When the city-monks hear of this, they also discard their blankets and become forest-dwellers, so they can be closer to the Buddha. When the Buddha returns, he sees all the discarded blankets.

The rule that is subsequently laid down is rather peculiar and seems to have nothing to do with the origin story:

‘If a monk is getting a sitting-blanket made, he must incorporate a 25 centimeter piece from the border of an old blanket in order to make it ugly. If he gets a new sitting-blanket made without incorporating a 25 centimeter piece from the border of an old blanket, he commits an offense entailing relinquishment and confession.’”

This is only one example where the rule does not clearly follow from the origin story. Ajahn @Brahmali, could you please explaining this?


Interesting indeed. I have not yet got to NP15 but so far what I have been translating all makes sense!

Definitely some stories are really crazy, but in the end it all serves to inspire a deep sense of admiration and gratitude to the Blessed One for all his compassion and wisdom when dealing with the crazy monks he had around him back then! :no_mouth:


Yes, this is actually quite interesting. I have just written a paper with Ven. Analayo (not yet published) on the role of the origin stories in the Vinaya Piṭaka. My contention there is that the vast majority of origin stories fit perfectly with the rules they belong to. But the closer you look at this, the more you start to wonder. It seems that there are actually quite a few origin stories that are slightly at odds with the rules. So why is this the case, and what might the implications be?

The first point to make is that although the introductory narratives may not fit the rules perfectly, they are still closely related. Take bhikkhu pārājika 4. The rule is about falsely claiming supernormal powers for oneself, but the origin story is about falsely claiming that others have supernormal powers. The two are closely connected, but technically the rule does not follow from the origin story. This fact of a close relationship that doesn’t quite work is particularly interesting, and you find this with a number of rules: bhikkhu pārājika 2, bhikkhu pārājika 3, bhikkhu nissaggiya pācittiya 4, and probably others that I haven’t considered.

It has been suggested by scholars (I can’t remember who) that this slight mismatch between some origin stories and the rules is a sign of the lateness of these origin stories. I am not sure if this follows. If the origin stories were created artificially to match the rules, wouldn’t they have been created to fit the rules perfectly? That’s what I would do if I were in charge of such creation.

In fact, some of the origin stories - such as those for the sekhiya rules, the least important rules in the pātimokkha - do have a number of characteristics of being artificially created: the rules are almost identical in phrasing, it is always the group of six monks who are the perpetrators, the stories are very short and pro forma. And tellingly, the origin stories simply state that the monks in question just did what the rule prohibits. So the fit between origin story and rule is perfect.

So it seems that a perfect fit may in fact be a sign of lateness. Indeed, it’s what you would expect if someone had simply made up a story to fit a rule. But how then do we explain that earlier origin stories deviate slightly from the rules they comment on? Actually, the more I think about it, the more natural I think this is. It seems to me that the Buddha would have reacted to monks’ and nuns’ misbehaviour by laying down suitable rules, not necessarily rules that precisely reflected what the monks had done. The Buddha was concerned with safeguarding the Dhamma for the benefit of all, and he would have tailored the rules to this purpose. The Vinaya is not like a code of law, where the law is written in response to precise misdemeanours. The Vinaya is really an extension of the Dhamma and serves the purpose of supporting the liberation of human beings. We probably should not expect the origin stories to always fit the rules perfectly.

Another possible source for the discrepancy comes from the fact that the origin stories were added some time after the rules were laid down. (This is generally accepted.) I think it is likely that in many cases the Sangha would still have had a memory of the actual events that led to the laying down of a particular rule. But the memories being memories, they would have been distorted, especially since these stories would not have been handed down through the standard process of oral transmission. The combination of an unreliable memory and trying to faithfully record the original events may have led to origin stories that did not properly reflect what actually happened and thus did not properly fit the rules they belonged to. In sum, I believe the imperfection of an origin story may in fact be a sign of its authenticity.

So what then about bhikkhu nissaggiya pācittiya 15 (NP15)? This rule has a very interesting origin story, since so much of it, as you rightly point out, has very little to do with the rule. I think a lot of what we see in this story is an expansion of the Vinaya through the adding of new material. This is not unique to this orign story. A number of them contain sanghakammas (basic legal procedures of the Order) and other rules that are only found there. (Again, see the study I am about to publish with Ven. Analayo.) In other words, the origin stories contain unique Vinaya material which makes them an important source for our understanding of how to practice as monastics. Some of this material is not really relevant to the pātimokkha rules, but was probably included as a convenient way of making it part of the Vinaya.

This, I believe, is true for NP15. Much of what we see in this story has nothing to do with the actual rule. It is included because it is important for our understanding of the Vinaya and this was a convenient place to put it. In fact, it could well be that the events described were actually related to the laying down of NP15.

The actual part of the origin story that deals with the rule is only the very last part. The point, I think, is that because the monks were discarding their blankets, the Buddha laid down a rule to ensure the blankets were not simply wasted. In this case I would say the match between the origin story and the rule is arguably quite good.

All quite interesting, I think. I believe we may well be seeing traces of authenticity in these origin stories. All of which is a far cry from how many academics would view this. And if we can find signs of authenticity in such secondary material, this supports any claims of much greater authenticity for the primary sutta and vinaya material.


Thanks, Ven, that makes a lot of sense. It is a specific case of a more general rule, which Rhys Davids mentioned in a legal context: if someone relates something that argues against their own interests, it should be given extra weight. In general, as you say, the Vinaya is highly cohesive, which is what makes such occasions stand out.

One crucial issue here, though, is that we are—still!—lacking comprehensive comparative studies of the origin stories. My own minor forays into this area showed that the origin stories were much less consistent than the rules, and less consistent than the suttas in general. However, this only dealt with a few bhikkhuni rules, and it is too early to generalize on this with any confidence.

The other area that should be investigated more deeply is the comparison between Vinaya and Abhidhamma. It is striking how many of the formalisms we see in Vinaya are shared with the Abhidhamma. But again, it is too early to say with any confidence exactly what the relation is. Perhaps the Abhidhammists borrowed from the Vinaya, or maybe they influenced each other. Having said which, such details pertain mostly to those parts of the Vibhanga apart from the origin stories, as the Abhidhamma, of course, has no stories.

As we can be fairly confident that the sekhiyas were a later addition to the patimokkha, we should probably treat them as the prime example of such artificial creation. That is, start by analyzing how the sekhiyas are formed, and things that are different from that might be a sign of earliness.

Indeed, the rules may prompt a more reflective and broader response. But I would think this is, in fact, the norm when creating laws. They might be prompted by a specific circumstance, but the final rule or legislation may be broader or have a different scope. If someone is driving dangerously fast on an unrestricted road, you don’t say, “How fast exactly were they driving? 87 kph? Okay, let’s make a law prohibiting driving at 87 kph!” You look at what the generally safe speed is and make a law to enforce that.

Another factor, which we perhaps don’t consider enough, is different perspectives. You can have two people at the same event, and immediately afterwards they might give quite different accounts, depending on what they noticed. Both may be “true”, but each offers a partial account. So the differences in origin stories may, in addition to the other variables, also represent different points of view, as told by different people.


Thank you for your detailed answer Ajahn!
We are looking forward to reading your paper when it is finished.


Thanks for that. You are certainly right about the potential differences in the different recensions, and anything we say should be tempered by our lack of knowledge in this area. We do know, however, that some of the origin stories are shared across the traditions, such as the mass suicide/murder story of pārājika 3. And this happens to be one of the stories that is not a perfect fit for the rule.


Thank you, Bhante, for such a thorough response here and for this sentence in particular which is so fundamental.

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Hello again everyone,

I was reading this rule again today and strangely it seems to fit (today at least!), hence I’m back on this topic :smiley: :

Origin story key take away (from my understanding):

  • Only forest dwelling, rag-robe wearing monks are allowed to see the Buddha whenever they want
  • Monks from the order at Sāvatthī want to become forest monks based on the high prasies from the Buddha
  • They cannot go to the forest with their nice blanket
  • They live the gracefully donated blankets behind

So the rule may be set to prevent the donated blankets from being wasted and set aside by monks that decide to become rag-robe wearing monks.

If a piece of an old blanket is incorporate (by default) it can be used by any rag-wearing monks and any other monks, instead of being discarded whilst perfectly usable (en-masse, per this origin story).

Now, it would be interesting to see how the monks dealt with their robes when they went from the order at Sāvatthī to become forest monk (per pi-tv-bu-vb-np15)…

But at least it makes some sense in this manner (if not to you, it does to me now, but may be not tomorrow!).