Were going forth and full ordination separate things?

In a number of places in the suttas, we encounter the situation where a wanderer of another sect requests ordination. The Buddha cautions them that they must wait for four months, at the end of which time the mendicants, if they’re satisfied, will give the going forth and full ordination.

In his notes for SN 12.16, Ven Bodhi says that the going forth is the initial ordination as a novice, while full ordination is when the novice becomes a bhikkhu. This is, of course, the conventional wisdom, as practiced in all schools.

However I have long believed that this is incorrect, and this passage offers evidence for this. It seems to me that originally pabbajjā and upasampadā were the same thing, and only gradually was pabbajjā associated with novice ordination. Furthermore, it seems impossible that all mendicants would first ordain as a novice. Novice ordination is for children.

The passage on the ordination of one who formerly followed another path says nothing of novice ordination. Rather, it specifies that after the four months have passed the mendicants give the pabbajjā and upasampadā into the state of a bhikkhu.

Catunnaṃ māsānaṃ accayena āraddhacittā bhikkhū pabbājenti upasampādenti bhikkhubhāvāya.

Now, the detailed explanation of this procedure is given in Khandhaka 1 of the Vinaya. However, the situation there is different.

In the Vinaya passage, when they request ordination, they first recite the three refuges. Although the terms are not actually mentioned here, this clearly constitutes the pabbajjā as a novice. They then request the upasampadā. Here, the pabbajjā is omitted, since it has already happened. Only then does the Sangha administer the four months probation.

Thus in the suttas the pabbajjā happens after the four months, while in the Vinaya it happens before. This is a clear contradiction, and it shows that we can’t automatically read ideas from the Vinaya back into the Suttas.

The Vinaya represents a later stage of development, where the ordination procedure had become more complex. In the suttas, we should usually treat pabbajjā and upasampadā as synonyms. Of course, in such a fluid situation this might not be always true, but I think it is the normal case.


Yes, I would agree with this: pabbajjā and upasampadā are used as synonyms in the suttas.

There is another argument that may also support this conclusion. In the suttas the word sāmaṇera is used only rarely, and mostly in passages that appear to be quite late. In earlier passages we instead find the more obscure term samaṇuddesa, “one who has the characteristic of an ascetic.” Although this is glossed as sāmaṇera by the commentaries, the very name would seem to indicate a person who has not been properly ordinated into the Sangha. I suspect that at a later time it was felt necessary to formalise these people’s status vis-a-vis the monastic order, and this may have been one of the contributing reasons for creating a distinction between pabbajjā and upasampadā.

Who, then, were these samaṇuddesas? Perhaps they were ascetics who had just decided to go forth on their own, with no formal connection to any particular religious order. In the case of the samaṇuddesas mentioned in the suttas, they were obviously followers of the Buddha, but their affiliation was perhaps of a looser kind.


Do you know of any counterexamples in the suttas, where pabbajja and upasampada are clearly different?

Would this not be rather “someone who has been appointed as a samana” or “appointed by the samanas” or perhaps “appointed to become a samana”?

It would be interesting to use this to examine how the process of ordination evolved in the Vinayas.


No. I have understood them to be synonymous for quite a while now, and so I probably would have picked it up if there were clear instances to the contrary.

Uddesa seems to be quite a flexible word. When you suggest “appointed”, I suppose you are thinking of uddesabhatta, “an appointed meal”. However, I am not sure if this is a root meaning of the word or just a translation suited for this particular context. The Pali might actually mean something like “a meal with characteristics” or, perhaps more likely, “a designated meal.” The meaning “characteristic” seems quite well established, as in yehi ākārehi yehi liṅgehi yehi nimittehi yehi uddisehi nāma-kāyassa paññatti hoti.

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O yes, I know it can mean characteristic, it just felt more connected with the idea of “pointer”, perhaps connected with uddissa or whatever. But then we also have such terms as gihivyañjana, so perhaps that is it after all.

In AN 4.73 we have:

bhikkhūsu bhikkhunīsu upāsakesu upāsikāsu antamaso ārāmikasamaṇuddesesu

Note that here the samanuddesa comes at the end of the list, whereas the samanera invariably comes before upasaka, upasika. In AN 5.80:


Where, as I’ve discussed in Should monks beware of living with novices?, it seems to mean female novices. Historically, this places the samanuddesa beside the sikkhamānā, so at the very least it can’t pertain to the earliest period, as it clearly took some time to develop the idea of sikkhamānā. Whether this means it was after the Buddha’s death is harder to say.


ārāmiko vā samaṇuddeso vā sahadhammiko

Where sahadhammiko is a variant. If it is included it shows the samaṇuddesa was not a sahadhammika.

Apart from this, and the Vinaya passages, I think it’s only used as an appellation for a few individuals, so we don’t get any more context.

One thing, I’m not aware of any context that precludes the idea that the samaṇuddesa and sāmaṇera were essentially identical. In fact since our contexts always have one or the other, does this not suggest they have the same meaning, and it is, after all, just a terminology shift?


Perhaps not precluding, but the quote you supply just above is at least indicative:

You also quote the following:

At MN 11 sahadhammika is very broad: sahadhammikā kho pana piyā manāpā—gahaṭṭhā ceva pabbajitā ca, “But Buddhists are dear and beloved: both householders and those gone forth”. If this is the relevant understanding for the phrase you quote, one would be forced to conclude that a samaṇuddesa is not ordained into the Sangha, and perhaps not even a Buddhist proper.

There is also the curious fact that Cunda is always called a samaṇuddesa, as in MN 104, SN 27.13, and DN 29. MN 104 and DN 29 are perhaps particularly significant since they were probably spoken towards the end of the Buddha’s life. It seems that Cunda was well known at this stage and presumably had quite a bit of seniority, and yet he was not a bhikkhu. If the sāmaṇera status was just a stepping-stone for the full ordination, Cunda would be expected to be a bhikkhu.

Then we have the samaṇuddesas Aciravata (MN 125) and Sīha (DN 6). Since they are mentioned by names, they are presumably quite prominent. Would we expect such prominence if they were just young boys, or adults ordained only recently?

But then we have idāni imaṃ āyasmantaṃ ārāmiko vā upaṭṭhahissati samaṇuddeso vā. Taṃ tamhā samādhimhā cāvessatī, “Now a monastery attendant or a samaṇuddesa goes up to that venerable. Because of that, he emerges from that stillness.” Here I would have to admit that sāmaṇera probably fits the context better.

The evidence is not strong one way or the other, but I still feel it favours the view that samaṇuddesas were not equivalent to sāmaṇeras.


Isn’t the story that Cunda became well known as a novice and so the name stuck? But i agree, it seems unlikely all these were boys. Perhaps the confusion about ordination arose because the categories of samanuddesa, grown men “marked as samanas” became conflated with samanera, boys intending to ordain when they come of age.

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I just noticed another case that seems to confirm this. In the Susima Sutta (SN 12.70), the Buddha tells Ananda to give Susima the going forth. Then it is said he got the pabbajja and upasampada:

“Tenahānanda, susimaṃ pabbājethā”ti. Alattha kho susimo paribbājako bhagavato santike pabbajjaṃ, alattha upasampadaṃ

The passage is curious for a number of reasons, not least that there is no mention of the four month probation usually required in such cases. Still, on the face of it, it seems to support the idea that there were not two separate ordinations.


Here is another one. In the section on ordination by messenger in the Bhikkhunī-khandhaka, we find the following:

At that time the courtesan Addhakāsī had gone forth (pabbajitā) among the nuns. She wished to go to Sāvatthī to get the full ordination in the presence of the Master. But some scoundrels had heard about this and they infested the road. Addhakāsī found out about this, and she sent a message to the Master: ‘I wish to receive the full ordination. What should I do?’ In this connection the Master gave a Dhamma talk, and then addressed the monks: ‘Monks, I allow ordination by messenger.’

That messenger nun should approach the Saṅgha, put her upper robe over one shoulder, pay respect at the feet of the monks, sit on her haunches, put her hands in añjali and say: ‘Venerables, so-and-so desires to be ordained under so-and-so. She is fully ordained on one side (ekato-upasampannā) in the Bhikkhunī-saṅgha, and she is pure. She is unable to come because of an obstacle. …’

Here it certainly seems as if the pabbajjā is treated as equivalent to the upasampadā on the bhikkhunī side. A weakness of this suggestion is that the text starts off with a specific event, but then gives a general description of the ordination procedure. There is not necessarily a direct connection between the two. However, if we assume that the editors knew what they were doing, then I think we are still justified in seeing pabbajjā here as equivalent to upasampadā.


Would Ud 5.6 be a possible example? I’m definitely alert to the possibility of my having missed something glaringly obvious but as I read it, the two seem to be quite distinct from each other here:

"… Reverend Sir, may Master Mahākaccāyana give me the going forth.”

Then venerable Mahākaccāyana gave the lay follower Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa the going forth.

Then at that time there were few monks in the Southern State of Avanti. Then with the passing of three years venerable Mahākaccāyana, having assembled, with difficulty and with trouble, from here and there, a group of ten monks from the Community of monks, gave venerable Soṇa full ordination.

An identical account of Soṇa’s going forth and ordination is also given in Khandhaka 5#52.


Well spotted! I agree, this does look like such a case. The Vinaya account serves as an origin story for the adjustment of several rules, including those regarding ordination, in regions outside the middle country.

The separation of pabbajjā and upasampadā is generally quite established in the Vinaya, so this serves to reinforce that. It is generally agreed that the background stories in the Udana are somewhat later than the bulk of the nikayas, and this would be an example of this. Given that the Udana story is truncated, it would seem that it’s adapted from the Vinaya, with the specifically Vinaya sections edited out.

So I think this case doesn’t disprove the thesis; rather, it confirms the shift in meaning during the period of composition of the EBTs.


Splendid! If it’s alright by you, I’ll award myself points as I anticipated that this would be the most likely response. :smiley:

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I wonder if we’re both not overinterpreting this. The suffix -uddesika is commonly used to indicate age, eg. soḷasavassuddesikā. Here it cannot mean either “appointed” or “having the characteristics” but simply “of the age of sixteen”, as indeed PTS dictionary has. Assuming that the two usages are comparable, this would mean sāmaṇera and samaṇuddesa are merely verbal variants. We could perhaps use “novice” and “novitiate” if we wanted to maintain this distinction.

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An email exchange regarding the first bhikkhuni ordinations of women in Sri Lanka I had with Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni seems relevant to this thread. With permission, I am copying excerpts of that exchange here and have sent Ayya Tathaaloka the link to the thread.


I had questions from your talk on Sanghamitta. It seemed that Sanghamitta came and gave full ordination to the women of the palace and also that they had been living, at least somewhat, as renunciates at the time. I thought you said that she gave them ‘the going forth’. It seems interesting to clarify: 1) did the brother give them novice ordination? did he give them refuge and precepts (which precepts)? 2) when Sanghamitta gave them ‘the going forth’ was that both novice and full ordination? If it was novice ordination as well as full ordination, was this a repeat of what her brother did? 3) Before full-ordination was there a specified time as novice and in what form?


These are good questions, on a topic that is worthy of question, which is why i highlighted it.

The text says Sanghamitta gave them the “Pabbajja.” Giving the Pabbajja or “Going Forth” in the older strata of Buddhism means the same thing as giving the Upasampada. It is only later, with the formal introduction of novice-hood, that Pabbajja came to be a preliminary step to Upasampada, whether happening even several years earlier, or happening directly before Upasampada.

  1. did the brother give them novice ordination? did he give them refuge and precepts (which precepts)?

The text does not say that Mahinda Thera gave them the refuges and precepts. However, it does say that they undertook the ten precepts and moved to a vihara created especially for them which was then called the “Upasika Vihara”. It being called such seems to mean that they had not yet received Pabbajja from Mahinda Thera, otherwise they would be called “Pabbajita”–“Those Who Have Gone Forth,” not “Upasika”–“Those Who Draw Near”.

  1. when Sanghamitta gave them ‘the going forth’ was that both novice and full ordination? If it was novice ordination as well as full ordination, was this a repeat of what her brother did?

As above, the text says she administered the Pabbajja, and then later it speaks of all of them as bhikkhunis. There is no mention of either different stages or of the bhikkhus’ involvement in the women’s ordination at any stage, other than Mahinda’s preliminary role as an effective Dhamma teacher.

  1. Before full-ordination was there a specified time as novice and in what form?

The text only mentions that they lived in the Upasika Vihara with the ten precepts for the time period between the king’s acceptance of their petition to enter the monastic Sangha and Sanghamitta being called for, and her final arrival with a sangha of bhikkhunis from India.