When did Buddhist monastics first use dwellings?

I have recently been asked about the history of the use of dwellings among Buddhist monastics. It is often assumed, reasonably enough, that there were no dwellings in the earliest period of Buddhist history. Those with a purist bent tend to idealise this period as giving the most authentic expression of Buddhist practice. But is it really possible to divide Buddhist history neatly into an initial period characterised by the wandering monastic and a later one characterised by settled monasticism? Although I think there is some truth to this distinction, I also believe the reality, as it tends to be, is much more complex. It seems to me that the two kinds of lifestyle must have existed together almost from the very beginning of Buddhist history. I will make my case below. Please bear in mind that this is more a series of off the cuff remarks than a proper study. For this reason I welcome alternative points of view, and indeed feedback of any kind.

But first of all, here is the actual question that my little essay is a response to:

I wonder if I may bother you with a question which has long puzzled me. … It concerns the Sangha’s use of overnight residences. They seem to be first introduced in Cullavagga VI (Vinaya II, pp.146 ff.). Having got the Buddha’s permission to construct overnight dwellings, a merchant of Rājagaha is there said to construct 60 of them in one day. The Buddha allows them to be of five types. Neither that there were five types at the outset, nor that the first ones were constructed at the rate of 60 a day, sounds plausible. Do you have an idea to what extent we can trace the development of the Sangha’s possessing and making use of dwellings? Obviously there were none at the beginning. But does that apply to nuns? It seems to me that for nuns to pass the night somewhere which is accessible to anyone would be quite dangerous.

And here is my reply:

The origin stories in the Vinaya are interesting. I fully agree with you that the story that leads on to the allowance to build dwellings stretches credulity. And of course this is true of many of the origin stories, including those that introduce the pātimokkha rules. Some of the stories are not even good matches to the rules they relate to. Scholars, including Oldenberg I believe, have argued that the origin stories were added later, at a time when the rules were sometimes poorly understood by the monastic community, and thus the discrepancy between rule and story. Although I agree that the stories were probably added a long time after the rules were formulated, I find the idea that the ancient Indian monastics did not understand the rules slightly patronising. It sounds to me like a leftover from Victorian times when people actually thought that non-European cultures were intellectually inferior. The idea that a modern scholar or monastic should understand these rules while the ancient Indian monastics did not sounds entirely implausible to me. If anything, it should be the other way round. We need a better explanation for the occasional disconnect between origin story and rule.

The general consensus among scholars is that the origin stories (and the rest of the Sutta-vibhaṅga, for that matter) are later than the rules. I have no doubt that this is generally correct. This relative lateness of the origin stories implies that they were not systematically memorised from the very beginning. At some point after the Buddha had passed away, the Sangha must have decided on the need to incorporate origin stories in the vinaya corpus. But because they had not been systematically memorised and transmitted, I expect there would have been errors, sometimes serious ones, in trying to reproduce what had actually taken place in the earliest period.

It seems to me that if the origin stories had been invented by later generations of monastics, as is sometimes suggested, then instead of seeing a mismatch between story and rule, we should expect a very good match between the two. An artificially constructed origin story would surely be created in such a way that it would naturally lead on to the rule. The fact that this is not what happens suggests to me that the monastics were trying to recall events that had been partly lost to memory. Because they wanted to be as faithful as possible to the actual historical events, they did not try to edit their flawed memories so as to create more plausible origin stories. In this way we are left with the occasional disconnect that is visible to the present day. This, to me, is a likelier explanation for the observed inconsistencies than what has previously been suggested.

That’s a bit of background to your question about monastic dwellings. As you suggest, the specific origin story in the Cullavagga is quite likely not historical truth, yet it may contain some remnant of what actually happened. With that in mind, I will look more closely at your specific enquiry.

First of all, I don’t think it is enough to rely on the Vinaya to answer this question. We need to bring in all the earliest texts and use whatever information touches on the matter. One such piece of information is the fact that ascetics of other traditions seem to have used dwellings before Buddhism arose. Here are some examples:

“Once ( bhūtapubbaṃ ), Assalāyana, when seven brahmin seers were consulting together in leaf huts in the forest …” (MN 93)
“Once upon a time ( bhūtapubbaṃ ), a certain fire-worshiping matted-hair ascetic settled in a leaf hut in a wilderness region.” (DN 23)
“‘They set aside bad, unskillful things’ is the meaning of ‘brahmin’, the first term to be specifically invented for them. They built leaf huts in a wilderness region where they meditated pure and bright, without lighting cooking fires or digging the soil. They came down in the morning for breakfast and in the evening for supper to the village, town, or royal capital seeking a meal. When they had obtained food they continued to meditate in the leaf huts.” (DN 28)
“Once upon a time, mendicants, several hermits who were ethical, of good character, settled in leaf huts in a wilderness region/by the ocean.” (SN 11.9+10)

Much of this is mythological in nature, but I believe it is reasonable to think that it reflects a generally accepted view that ascetics/sages often lived in huts before the advent of Buddhism. If this is correct, it makes me wonder whether there was any real necessity for the Buddha to specifically allow dwellings. Important aspects of Buddhism - such as the robes, the shaven head, the uposatha ceremony, and more - were taken over from the existing samaṇa movement. The Buddha would often put in place limits on these things - such as allowable materials, sizes, and colours of the robes - but there seems to be no reason why he would have to legislate their very use. I would suggest the same is true for dwellings, that is, that dwellings were simply used as a matter of course because it was an existing practice among the samaṇas. So it seems likely to me that Buddhist monks used dwellings from the very beginning, while no doubt substantial numbers also lived in the open.

The early use of dwellings is also suggested by the early establishment of monasteries. According to the account in the Vinaya, the Veḷuvaṇa (The Bamboo Grove) was given to the Sangha soon after the Buddha’s awakening and just before the ordination of Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna. If we can trust the chronology in the Vinaya (a big if!), then it seems the Jetavaṇa was given not too long afterwards. Once the Sangha had become a property owner, it would seem natural to construct dwellings on these properties. If these properties were not used in this way, their acquisition would not make much sense, since the monks might as well have stayed in the forest. So this too suggests the fairly early construction of monastic dwellings.

Here are a few more arguments that point in the same direction:

  • The Vassakkhandhaka prescribes proper dwellings with doors to be used by monks during the rainy season. It seems reasonable to assume that the obligation to stay put during the rainy season was laid down as a requirement fairly early on, since this too was a generally accepted practice among ascetics, even among some lay people.
  • The biography of the Buddha found in the Mahakkhandhaka suggests he started using huts very soon after his awakening. For instance, when he met the fire-ascetic Kassapa brothers, he asked to stay in their fire hut (Mv.1.15.1).
  • When people came to see the Buddha, they are regularly depicted as approaching his dwelling (vihāra) and knocking on his door. This description is found in a number of suttas. The Buddha is also frequently described as entering his dwelling or as sitting down in its shade.
  • There are a large number of references in the suttas to monks using empty dwellings for their meditation practice, with 15 individual suttas of the Majjhima Nikāya mentioning this. There are a number of further instances in the Saṃyutta and the Aṅguttara. In other words, the idea of using dwellings for meditation is so widely integrated into the suttas that it seems likely to have been part of them from very early on.
  • There are very few references anywhere to monks sleeping outdoors. A rare reference is found at AN 3.35, where the Buddha is said to have slept on a pile of leaves in mid-winter. Apart from this, most references to the Buddha dwelling in the open concern the time before his awakening, especially while he was pursuing ascetic practices.
  • The origin story to pārājika 2 shows how Dhāniya built grass huts and then a clay hut. It seems likely the pārājikas were among the first rules to be laid down and so this origin story may hark back to the earliest days of Buddhism.

None of the above arguments is particularly strong in its own right, but taken together I think they give a picture that is fairly consistent, which is that it seems likely that dwellings for the monastic order existed from early on in Buddhist history, perhaps from the very beginning. If this is correct, and we further estimate that the order of nuns was established a few years after the Order of monks, then it does not seem unreasonable to conclude, at least provisionally, that the nuns would have been able to use dwellings as soon as the first nuns were ordained.


@Brahmali Ajahn, it does seem consistent and not unlikely.

Thank you.


Starting from AN 3.93 one can make the case that ‘paribbajaka’ was the general term for serious practitioners, and that in a sense Early Buddhism was a part of it. What is interesting about this sutta is that it describes three aspects of ascetic wanderers: food, clothes, and lodgings. We we follow up on this content throughout the suttas we can see that food and clothes are consistently used for ‘other wanderers’, and the lodgings are used in formulas where Buddhists go to meditate (and stay?).

Apart from that we have a few suttas that speak highly of forest lodgings, e.g. AN 4.262, or AN 6.43 and we have a faction of monastics who chose the forest dwelling life, e.g. Revata Khadiravaniya in AN 1.203, who seems to have favored at least empty huts (MN 32).

I think one would need to do a more in-depth research to ideally get an idea about the vihara-tradition, the forest-tradition, and for the forest monastics if they were still sleeping in huts, sheds, etc. or maybe also out in the open like other wanderers.


If 500 mendicants each had one tree. Then that would be 500 less trees for the non-monk homeless. Perhaps the prohibition was a Dhamma gift to humanity to not take resources others might use.


Thanks for supplying all these interesting parallels in Chinese. They clearly undermine any claim to historical reliability in the Pali version.

Again, I broadly agree with this. The narrative portions of the Canon are in most instances later than the word of the Buddha. According to the Canonical account of the first Council, some of the narrative material was supplied then. Other material was clearly supplied later. The extent to which this material reflects the earliest period is indeed debatable. Still, the material seems to be quite one-sided, which suggests a fairly broad consensus. It is certainly not devoid of evidential value.

One of my main arguments, however - that statements about monks using empty dwellings for meditation are embedded into a large number of suttas - is neither from the Vinaya nor is it narrative. Moreover, similar statements are found in the EBT translations into Chinese. The numerous occurrences of such statements makes this a rather strong argument, I think.

My disagreement with Oldenberg is not actually directly relevant to the matter at hand. It only concerns the reason for the existing discrepancies between the origin stories and the rules. This does not really have any direct bearing on he question of when dwellings became commonplace. I added this mostly because I wanted to try to further the debate in that area.

And just to be clear, I have a lot of respect for Oldenberg and many of the other pioneers who made the Pali Canon available to a western audience.

But the rainy season only lasted for three months of the year. The rest of the year the monks could still wander to their hearts’ delight. And many no doubt did this, as is suggested by certain passages in the Vinaya.

It is quite possible to live in a kuṭi without close association with lay people and many monks in fact live in this way. Also, living in a simple kuṭi, which normally you would not even own yourself, can hardly be called possessing a large amount of wealth and property. There are monks in the present day - and yes I know some of them - who carry all their possessions in a medium-sized shoulder bag.

My aim was not to make any sweeping statements, merely to start a conversation. I realise that my research in this instance was superficial; after all it was just a response to an email. So thank you for your input. It has added a valuable perspective. But what we really need is a proper academic thesis on this subject, as hinted at by @Gabriel.


Having a fixed and organised placed for monastics to inhabit could also be seen as a welcome development for those willing to support the community of monastic contemplatives.

From that perspective, setting up the practical boundaries and model for that to occur was an act of compassion by the Buddha for the later generations of both lay and contemplative disciples.

It only serves to strengthen the presence of the Sasana and increases the likelihood of those who get in touch with the Dhamma to be reborn in areas and regions where the Buddha and his teachings and Vinaya are still present and alive.



There’s no requirement that a kuṭi has to be permanent. In Thailand half a dozen villagers with machetes and a hammer can knock up a split bamboo kuṭi like the one pictured below in under three hours. If they know that the monk for whom they’re building it doesn’t plan to stay on after the vassa then the villagers won’t usually bother to chemically treat the bamboo (a rather lengthy process), in which case the whole structure will be devoured by termites within a year or two.

That may be the case with with urban laypeople who have plenty of monks to choose from, but in my experience it’s not how things work in the countryside. In Thailand if I go on a wandering tour towards the end of the hot season, in virtually every village I stop at someone will extend an invitation to me to spend the rains retreat in the vicinity of the village and will offer to build a kuṭi for me. They don’t do this because they like me (often the invitation will be made on the very day I arrive, before they’ve even got to know me), but because of their eagerness for merit and/or their belief in the supposed apotropaic benefits that come from having a monk living in their vicinity.

Having accepted the offer of a kuṭi, ensuring the continued support of the villagers would entail no more than behaving yourself properly when under public surveillance (which would be equally true for the monk living deep in the forest under an unmarked tree).

That would surely depend on how seriously the monk takes the Vanapatha Sutta, whose instruction, in brief, is that a monk’s decision on whether to stay in a place or to leave it should be based on the success (or lack of it) he is enjoying in bhāvanā and not on whether he is well- or ill-supported. If he’s earnest about following this instruction then he will leave even a well-supported place if living there is not conducive to any diminution in the āsavas. But if he’s not earnest, then naturally he’ll go making himself “an heir to material things and not an heir to Dhamma” irrespective of whether he’s bound by the Pali Vinaya or by one of the Chinese ones.

Given that even under the Pali Vinaya a bhikkhu may still spend nine months of the year under a tree, the supposed diminution in ascesis seems a rather slight one.


There’s a sutta which says choosing the place to stay, deciding how long to stay there etc should be decided on whether it increases or decreases craving, aversion and delusion. It would be an attachment to ‘rites and rituals’ of sorts to only live in forests, and even an egotistical challenge more like survival programmes on the TV. There’s another sutta describing the simile of an elephant and a monkey where the monkey tries to imitate a great elephant bathing in a deep lake, and ends up drowning! The Buddha tells Ven Upali not to take on forest dwellings great monks are capable of living in without fear and discomfort.

With all due respect, but you just accused Brahmali of making an ad hominem argument. Ven Dhammanando’s point is a perfectly reasonable one. He wasn’t defending anything: he was pointing out that you had overstated your case.

We are very interested to learn more about the Chinese texts, and the Chinese Vinaya in particular. Yes, we feel our limitations keenly, and do what we can to overcome them. But our field is a large and complex one, so we need to work together and pool resources. We would really appreciate your help in this.


Could you please post it in it’s entirety?

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Your points of view are welcome and reasonable, and you are clearly learned. They’re just views though, not to be clung to. It’s hard to not take others’ questioning of or disagreement with our views personally, but that is our task as Dhamma practitioners. The less we take discussion about views personally, the more it remains amicable and fruitful to all parties. Might I invite you to stay and trend us in that direction?


Beautifully said!

Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu


I wonder if part of the rationale here is similar to the prohibition on speaking about spiritual attainments. The rains in India are often torrential. Living outdoors during them can, I imagine, be dangerous and unhealthy. If some monks are neverthess practicing in that extreme way, they are putting themselves in the position of being exceptional spiritual olympians, superior to the common run of monk who sensibly seeks shelter during a torrential downpour. By prohibiting this kind of behavior, the discipline prevents at least some potentially dangerous and unwholesome spiritual competition among its members, just as the Buddhist middle way foregoes other kinds of the most extreme asceticism.

That said, my best guess at the present time is that the Buddha himself went through a very long period of solitary living and homelessness, after he left his early meditation teachers. But once he took up teaching, he adapted his teaching to a samana system that already existed, which was based on traveling in groups, not alone, and accepting gifts of dwellings for temporary lodging, and the use of meditation halls and similar places for teaching and receiving visitors.

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The main question/hypothesis of @wkhtfb is interesting, and worth following, namely that the canon has an unclear relationship toward asceticism, mainly criticizing, but sometimes appreciating it. Freiberger wrote a nice paper on it here.

At the same time the paribbajakas are one of the most frequently depicted ‘group’ (not actually a coherent group but a category), and they supposedly wander and lodge alone. While Early Buddhism’s relation to the niganthas has been reviewed several times the relationship to the heterogeneous paribbajakas has not been treated well to my knowledge.

An early example is: Law - A Short Account of the Wandering Teachers at the Time of the Buddha


One interesting text is the Rhinocerous (horn) Sutta. I have read and listened to that sutta numerous times. I am increasingly struck by the shift in the sutta from extolling solitary wandering to a brief but enthusiastic praise of wandering with a spiritual friend.

It’s completely at odds with the dominant poetic motif of the sutta. It’s as though the author is saying in those lines: “Yes wander alone like the one-horned rhinocerous - unless you find another great horn. In which case you should definitely wander with two horns, because that would be very cool too!” It strikes me as a later insertion.

But that doesn’t disprove Brahmali’s reading, because for all we know that sutta comes from an earlier non-Buddhist or pre-Buddhist tradition, or represented only the outlook of one tendency within Buddhism.


Thank you for that. I guess it would be interesting to see if there are multiple lines of evidence that suggest relatively lessened ascetic attitudes in the Pali Vinaya.

Maybe that’s not your intention but your use of adjectives ‘snarky’ , ‘ridiculous’ across your post gave me the impression you have some sort of resentment with what you seem to take Bhante Brahmali, Theravadin Western monks and people like me who appreciated his words and article to represent. And I am really puzzled as I cannot fully comprehend where you are coming from in that aspect.

Nevertheless I write this reply as a piece of feedback and to say that this forum is a place safe enough for you to clear out whatever issues or share whatever reasons you may have for that (hypothetical) resentment.

On the technicality of your point . Again , please know and note that this place is not invested or biased to anything particular hidden agenda or particular linguistic family of EBTs.

As per A. Sujato’s reply above, most of us have limited understanding of Chinese EBTs so it is on you the opportunity to offer and share with us a broader perspective based on those.

Note that the way you do that will definitely make a difference on whether or not people will give you and your views the attention you believe they deserve.

Assuming your intention is wholesome and you come from a place of appreciation of the Buddha and his Dhamma, I strongly encourage you to make an extra effort and give a try to a more friendly, receptive and kind choice of words and tone.

With time you will find yourself making meaningful contributions to this forum and surely achieve what I assume is your objective: to expand the range of this community’s understanding and awareness of what different linguistic families of EBTs have to say on topics such as the one the OP is about. And of course, whatever interesting hypothesis we can form about how these agree or disagree on things such as the expectation or obligation to have bhikkhus and bhikkhunis taking fixed residence instead of inhabiting the feet of trees.

We have just met. We are friendly people with Buddha as our Teacher.

Be well and welcome to Central’s D&D! :slight_smile:



Having been a solitary rhinoceros for decades, I can assert the joy of meeting the spiritual friend who brought me here. Thank you, @Khemarato.bhikkhu. :pray:



~ :rhinoceros:


It is possible that the Pali Canon reflects “a more ambivalent attitude towards asceticism”. But it would take considerable research to put this hypothesis on a firm footing.

The broader question, however, is whether this is a bad thing. This depends in part on how we define asceticism. If we regard it as including self-torment, as arguably it is often understood, then perhaps the Pali Canon is on the right track.

The Buddha famously proclaimed the middle way as his very first teaching. Yet this middle way is quite elusive, with most seemingly practising one of the extremes the Buddha warned about. For instance, large numbers of Buddhists practice meditation where physical discomfort and pain are accepted as normal. To my mind this goes directly against the Buddha’s injunction to avoid self-torment. Many others tend towards sensual indulgence. The middle way can be tricky to find. It seems human beings have a natural tendency to veer to either extreme, sometimes oscillating between the two.

As @DKervick points out, spending the rainy season under a tree is likely to be difficult. For many this will be an extreme to be avoided rather than constituting a middle path. The same is true for solitude. All such practices need to be evaluated in relation to the individual pursuing them. For some people, especially those whose samādhi is well established - which normally is only a tiny minority, even among monastics - harsher living conditions may be conducive to developing the path. Yet even for such people it may not always be right. For the vast majority, by contrast, harsh living conditions are likely to stop you making progress. You have left the middle path.

It seems there has always been a tendency among Buddhists to fetishise asceticism. This goes back to the EBTs where monastics are sometimes said to undertake such practice to look good. In other words, it easily becomes an ego thing. So in my view we need to be careful with asceticism. So often it just leads you astray. The hard path to follow is the one in the middle.