When the Little Buddhas are no more: Vinaya transformations in the early 4th century BC

It would be interesting to hear opinions on this work, especially from scholars of Early Buddhism and Vinaya. The article essentially argues that the Pātimokkha was only declared to be buddha-vacana with the addition of the sutta-vibhanga and related mythology (esp. the Verañja-kanda) around the time of the Second Council for the sake of the long lasting of the Sangha and strict practice in line with the forest ascetics of old.

There are a couple of nuances I think could be re-framed without dismissing the thesis. For example, I think references to the term pātimokkha may not necessarily be later, but that the term itself had a different meaning before the recitation (pātimokkhuddesa) or the conversion of it into a legal string of rules (pātimokkha-sutta), as is implied in the Verañja-Kanda and also supported by the frequency of the term used not for something recited but rather as behavior that one embodies.

Moreover, I don’t see the character of Mahākassapa and other forest ascetics in later Early Buddhist mythology as representing a separate voice from the Second Council reformists, who were scholars or city monks instead. Rather, I think the fact that they may have been highly learned and scholastic is more reason for them to idealize and long for the strict forest ascetic ideal, and this also lends credibility to their wanting to enforce strict discipline for the sake of the Sangha’s endurance.

As for the general thesis: thoughts, supporting evidence, and/or counter-arguments?


I would argue that the Sage of the Sakyan was never an authoritarian ruler of the Sangha, that is, a law-giver, and he never would have taught the dogmatic and ecclesiastical Vinaya that is currently presented in the Vinaya Pitaka at all,

“What more does the Order want from me, Ānanda? If there is anyone who thinks: “I shall lead the Order, or “The Order should refer to me”, let him make some statement about the Order, but the Tathagata does not think in such terms. So why should the Tathagata make a statement about the Order?

And he only recommended the way the Holy life should be lived, as showed in the Sila-Khandha of the Digha Nikaya, which I believe is the basis, the constitution I might say, that the afterward Vinaya Compilation was developed upon, by the later generations of monks.

On a later occasion, abandoning a small or a large fortune, abandoning a small or a large circle of relatives, he shaves off his hair and beard, puts on the yellow robe, and goes forth from the home life into homelessness.
Having thus gone forth and possessing the bhikkhu’s training and way of life, abandoning the killing of living beings, he abstains from killing living beings; with rod and weapon laid aside, conscientious, merciful, he abides compassionate to all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given; taking only what is given, expecting only what is given, by not stealing he abides in purity. Abandoning incelibacy, he observes celibacy, living apart, abstaining from the vulgar practice of sexual intercourse.
“Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech; he speaks truth, adheres to truth, is trustworthy and reliable, one who is no deceiver of the world. Abandoning malicious speech, he abstains from malicious speech; he does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor does he repeat to these people what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus he is one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord. Abandoning harsh speech, he abstains from harsh speech; he speaks 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, he abstains from gossip; he speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks on what is good, speaks on the Dhamma and the Discipline; at the right time he speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.
“He abstains from injuring seeds and plants. He practises eating only one meal a day, abstaining from eating at night and outside the proper time. He abstains from dancing, singing, music, and theatrical shows. He abstains from wearing garlands, smartening himself with scent, and embellishing himself with unguents. He abstains from high and large couches. He abstains from accepting gold and silver. He abstains from accepting raw grain. He abstains from accepting raw meat. He abstains from accepting women and girls. He abstains from accepting men and women slaves. He abstains from accepting goats and sheep. He abstains from accepting fowl and pigs. He abstains from accepting elephants, cattle, horses, and mares. He abstains from accepting fields and land. He abstains from going on errands and running messages. He abstains from buying and selling. He abstains from false weights, false metals, and false measures. He abstains from accepting bribes, deceiving, defrauding, and trickery. He abstains from wounding, murdering, binding, brigandage, plunder, and violence.
“He becomes content with robes to protect his body and with almsfood to maintain his stomach, and wherever he goes, he sets out taking only these with him. Just as a bird, wherever it goes, flies with its wings as its only burden, so too the bhikkhu becomes content with robes to protect his body and with almsfood to maintain his stomach, and wherever he goes, he sets out taking only these with him. Possessing this aggregate of noble virtue, he experiences within himself a bliss that is blameless.

It’s a little unfortunate that Wynne doesn’t get a general description of the other Vinaya parallels to the introduction, though he apparently got some help with the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. The Mahisasaka Vinaya has a very similar story, organized in the same way as the Theravada and Dharmaguptaka stories. And it also confirms that the hostility of the priest at Veranja must be a later Theravada addition. In the other two versions, Mara causes him to forget about his commitment to the Buddha, but otherwise he is well meaning and friendly. In the Mahisasaka version, he apologies at the end and makes amends.

So, Wynn’s right that in one branch of Buddhism - the Theravada-Dharmaguptaka-Mahisasaka branch - this was apparently an old story. However, it doesn’t appear in the other two that still exist - the Mahasamghika and Sarvastivada.

The Mahasamghika Vinaya sheds some light, though, on part the story. It doesn’t include the introduction about the Sangha being left without food in Veranja. It begins, instead, with Sariputra asking the Buddha to teach the Vinaya before it was time to do so. That part of the story is very closely replicated, independent of what comes before it in the Theravada Vinaya. So, it would appear that that part of the story is older than the framing narrative. The Mahasamghikas expanded on this core of the introduction in a different way: They tell us why Sariputra was so eager to have the Vinaya taught with a past life story about him doing the same thing when he was the minister advising a wheel-turning king.

After the past life story explaining Sariputra’s request, the Buddha travels to a place where the Buddha Kasyapa had once sat and smiles when he recognizes it. Sariputra then asks him to sit there too so it’d be a place where two Buddhas have sat. Etc. There’s similar stories in Pali suttas, I believe, if my foggy memory isn’t failing me at the moment. However, in this case, the occasion is when the Buddha tells Sariputra about ten benefits that teaching the Pratimoksa has. This concludes the introduction.

Neither of the Sarvastivada Vinayas include a similar introduction. The Mulasarvastivada Suttavibhanga begins only with a set of verses, then it moves on to the Sudinna story. Which is telling because that Vinaya preserves more myth and avadana tales than any of them. So, one would think an introduction like we see in the Theravada or Mahasamghika Vinaya would be there if it were not a sectarian creation.

So, then, I would suspect that the part of the story involving Sariputra is the oldest part and the story about Veranja before it was added later by one branch of Buddhism - perhaps Wynne is correct that it was sometime around the second council. The Mahasamghika introduction doesn’t have any material that could be connected to the second council, so it tends to disprove Wynne’s thesis that the Pratimoksa developed at that point. There was a major branch of Buddhism that didn’t connect those dots, overtly or covertly.

Further on, Wynne brings up differences between the Pali Majjhima Nikaya and it’s parallels in the Chinese Madhyama Agama. He doesn’t, however, seem conscious of the fact that MA is a Sarvastivada Agama. We’ve already seen that the Sarvastivadins didn’t seem that interested in establish the Pratimoksa as the root of the Vinaya the way other schools did. So, these differences are not quite as telling as he is making them out to be. What would a Dharmaguptaka or Mahasamghika Madhyama Agama parallel look like? We’re not likely to ever know, unfortunately. We’re stuck comparing Theravada to Sarvastivada passages when it comes to MA and SA, which is problematic when later sectarian divergences get in the way.

Another problem with that section is that he is only looking at specific parallels in Chinese sources to certain passages in Pali suttas. This is too narrow and doesn’t capture all the information that exists in those Chinese sources. I.e., just because the word Pratimoksa doesn’t occur in a couple sentences in a Chinese Agama doesn’t mean the pericope being investigated doesn’t occur elsewhere in the same Agama. But it does appear to make an argument against a thesis because these fine details usually do vary in specific passage parallels, and the actual occurrences that may exist in Chinese are ignored. This is the reason we have to translate these sources so that Indic scholars will stop doing this sort of thing and telling themselves they’ve made use of Chinese sources to bolster their arguments. Actually, they are engaging in confirmation bias by citing only parallels that support an argument, as far I can tell.

So, overall, I don’t think his argument is very strong that the Pratimoksa is a post second council development. The intro to the Theravada Vinaya may be, but I don’t think that says much about the origins of the Pratimoksa given what we see in other traditions. We really need more holistic studies of issues like this, but they are difficult because of language barriers and the academic dislike of translations.


Thank you for the very informative reply!

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But the second council took place within 100 years after the Buddha’s passing when Buddhism hadn’t split into different schools yet. So if the story is found only in one branch, it can’t have been added at the second council. It must be hundreds of years later.

Thanks for pointing this out! Fully agree that translations are important, both of the agamas and the vinaya texts. There’s so much still to discover and to learn.