Monastic Life – Chapter 25: The Evolution of Ordination

The sangha came into existence when the group of five who heard the Buddha’s first sermon requested his permission to go forth and be ordained. The Buddha ordained them simply by saying to each of them,

*Come, monk’ (ehi bhikkhu). This same simple formula was used for the next group to hear the dharma, the young brahman Yasa and his four friends, and then a larger group of fifty of Yasa’s friends. All became arhats. The Buddha then instructed them to go out in different directions to teach the dharma, and he granted them permission to ordain others. They were not to say *Come, monk’, however. Instead, those who sought admission to the order had to repeat the refuge formula three times, *I go for refuge to the Buddha. I go for refuge to the dharma. I go for refuge to the sangha.’ Such an arrangement would grant entry to the order of monks to anyone who sought it. This apparently created problems, and a new system was instituted that bestowed the right to confer admission to the members of the sangha, resulting eventually in the well-known ordination ceremony described in the next chapter. The transition, however, was not a smooth one, as the following selection demonstrates; it resulted from a series of modifications as various difficulties presented themselves.

This section illustrates an important characteristic of the vinaya, the code of monastic discipline. The Buddha did not formulate rules hypothetically. Indeed, in the early sangha there was no real need for rules because all of the monks were arhats or destined to become arhats. But as the order grew, problems developed that required regulations to prevent their occurrence in the future. Thus, for every rule there is a narrative describing the circumstances of its creation.

The vinaya, then, far from being an austere legal code, is a rich source of insight into the concerns of the community, regardless of whether one accepts the tradition’s claim that each of the rules was established by the Buddha himself after a specific historical incident.

The circumstances that surround the formulation of a rule are often humorous; the rule that a person must request ordination prior to being ordained arose after a monk, chastised for his bad behaviour, replied that he had never asked to be a monk in the first place. Sometimes a rule made in response to one problem had to be revised when it created another. After a monk explained that he had become a monk because he saw how well the monks ate, the Buddha made a rule that the spartan conditions of monastic life had to be explained to those seeking admission prior to their ordination. When a potential monk heard such an explanation, he replied that he had wanted to become a monk before learning of the lifestyle, but now had changed his mind. The Buddha therefore amended the rule, requiring that the sparse requisites of monastic life be explained not before, but after ordination. The other accounts below provide the circumstances leading to the rule that ordination requires the permission of at least ten monks, rather than two or three; then the permission of at least ten monks who have been monks for at least ten years; and then the permission of ten monks of good standing who have been monks for at least ten years.

The selection is drawn from the Mahavagga large section’) of the Vinaya Pitaka (‘Basket of Discipline’) of the Theravada tradition.

Now at that time a certain monk, immediately after he was ordained, indulged in bad habits. Monks spoke thus: ‘Do not, your reverence, do that, it is not allowed.’ He spoke thus: ‘But, indeed, I did not ask the venerable ones saying, “Ordain me”. Why did you ordain me without being asked [to do so]?’ They told this matter to the Lord. He said: ‘Monks, you should not ordain without being asked [to do so]. Whoever should [so] ordain, there is an offence of wrong-doing. I allow you, monks, to ordain when you have been asked [to do so].

‘And thus, monks, should one ask [for it]. That one who wishes for ordination, having approached the order, having arranged his upper robe over one shoulder, having honoured the monks’ feet, having sat down on his haunches, having saluted with joined palms, should speak thus to it: “Honoured sirs, I ask the order for ordination; honoured sirs, may the order raise me up out of

compassion.” And a second time should he ask… And a third time should he ask.

‘The order should be informed by an experienced, competent monk, saying: “Honoured sirs, let the order hear me. This [person] so and so wishes for ordination from the venerable so and so. So and so asks the order for ordination through the preceptor so and so. If it seems right for the order the order may ordain so and so through the preceptor so and so. This is the motion.

‘“Honoured sirs, let the order hear me. This [person] so and so wishes for ordination from the venerable so and so. So and so asks the order for ordination through the preceptor so and so. If the ordination of so and so through the preceptor so and so is pleasing to the venerable ones, let them be silent; he to whom it is not pleasing should speak. And a second time I speak forth this matter. And a third time I speak forth this matter. So and so is ordained by the order through the preceptor so and so. It is pleasing to the order, therefore they are silent. Thus do I understand this.”’

Now at that time at Rajagaha a succession of meals of sumptuous foods came to be arranged. Then it occurred to a certain brahman: ‘Now, these recluses, sons of the Sakyans, are pleasant in character, pleasant in conduct; having eaten good meals they lie down on beds sheltered from the wind. What now if I should go forth among these recluses, sons of the Sakyans?’ Then that brahman, having approached [some] monks, asked for the going forth. The monks allowed him to go forth [and] they ordained him.

The succession of meals dwindled away after he had gone forth. Monks spoke thus: ‘Come along now, your reverence, we will walk for almsfood.’ He spoke thus: ‘Your reverences, I did not go forth for this – that I should walk for almsfood. If you will give to me, I will eat, but if you will not give to me, I will leave the order.’

‘But did you, your reverence, go forth for your belly’s sake?’

‘Yes, your reverences.’

Those who were modest monks, looked down upon, criticised, spread it about, saying: ‘How can this monk go forth in this dhamma and discipline which are well taught for his belly’s sake?’ These monks told this matter to the Lord. He said:

‘Is it true, as is said, that you, monk, went forth for your belly’s sake?’

‘It is true, Lord.’

The enlightened one, the Lord, rebuked him, saying:

‘How can you, foolish man, go forth in this dhamma and discipline which are well taught for your belly’s sake? It is not, foolish man, for pleasing those who are not [yet] pleased, nor for increasing [the number of] those who are pleased.’ Having rebuked him, having given reasoned talk, he addressed the monks, saying:

‘I allow you, monks, when you are ordaining, to explain four resources: that going forth is on account of meals of scraps; in this respect effort is to be made by you for life. [These are] extra acquisitions: a meal for an order, a meal for a special person, an invitation, ticket-food [a meal provided for monks chosen by lot], [food given] on a day of the waxing or waning of the moon, on an observance day, on the day after an observance day. That going forth is on account of rag-robes; in this respect effort is to be made by you for life. [These are] extra acquisitions: [robes made of] linen, cotton, silk, wool, coarse hemp, canvas. That going forth is on account of a lodging at the root of a tree; in this respect effort is to be made by you for life. [These are] extra acquisitions: a dwelling place, a curved house, a long house, a mansion, a cave. That going forth is on account of ammonia as a medicine; in this respect effort is to be made by you for life. [These are] extra acquisitions: ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey, molasses.’

Now at that time a certain brahman youth, having approached [some] monks, asked for the going forth. The monks explained the resources beforehand. He spoke thus: ‘If, honoured sirs, you had explained the resources to me after I had gone forth, I should have been satisfied, but now, honoured sirs, I will not go forth; the resources are disgusting and loathsome to me.’ The monks told this matter to the Lord. He said:

‘Monks, the resources should not be explained beforehand. Whoever should [thus] explain them, there is an offence of wrong­doing. I allow you, monks, to explain the resources soon after ordaining [a person].’

Now at that time monks ordained through a group of two and a group of three [monks]. They told this to the Lord. He said:

‘Monks, you should not ordain through a group of less than ten [monks]. Whosoever should [so] ordain, there is an offence of wrong-doing. I allow you, monks, to ordain through a group of ten or more than ten [monks].’

Now at that time monks of one year’s standing and of two years’ standing [severally] ordained the one who shared his cell. And when he was of one year’s standing, the venerable Upasena, Vanganta’s son, ordained the one who shared his cell. When he was of two years’ standing, having kept the rains-residence [the annual retreat during the rainy season], taking the one who shared his cell and who was of one year’s standing, he approached the Lord. Having approached, having greeted the Lord, he sat down at a respectful distance. Now, it is the custom for awakened ones, for lords, to exchange friendly greetings with incoming monks.

Then the Lord spoke thus to the venerable Upasena, Vanganta’s son: ‘I hope, monk, that things go well with you, I hope you are keeping going, I hope you came here with but little fatigue on the journey.’

‘Things do go well with me, Lord, I am keeping going, Lord, I came, Lord, with but little fatigue on the journey.’

Now truthfinders [sometimes] ask knowing, and knowing [sometimes] do not ask; they ask, knowing the right time [to ask], and they do not ask, knowing the right time [when not to ask]. Truthfinders ask about what belongs to the goal, not about what does not belong to the goal. Awakened ones, lords, question monks concerning two matters: ‘Shall we teach dhamma?’ or ‘Shall we lay down a rule of training for disciples?’

Then the Lord spoke thus to the venerable Upasena, Vanganta’s son: ‘Of how many years’ standing are you, monk?’

‘I, Lord, am of two years’ standing.’

‘And of how many years’ standing is this monk?’

‘He is of one year’s standing, Lord.’

‘Who is this monk as regards you?’

‘He is the one who shares my cell, Lord.’

The awakened one, the Lord rebuked [him], saying:

‘It is not fitting, foolish man, it is not becoming, it is not proper, it is unworthy of a recluse, it is not allowable, it should not be done. How can you, foolish man, when you should be exhorted and instructed by others, think to exhort and instruct another [monk]? Too quickly have you, foolish man, turned to abundance, that is to say to acquiring a group. It is not, foolish man, for pleasing those who are not [yet] pleased, nor for increasing [the number of] those

who are pleased.’ Having rebuked him, having given him reasoned talk, he addressed the monks, saying:

‘Monks, one who is of less than ten years’ standing should not ordain. Whoever [such] should [so] ordain, there is an offence of wrong-doing. I allow you, monks, to ordain through one who is of ten years’ standing or through one who is of more than ten years’ standing.’

Now at that time ignorant, inexperienced monks ordained, thinking: ‘We are of ten years’ standing, we are of ten years’ standing.’ [Consequently] there were to be found ignorant preceptors, wise [monks] who shared their cells; inexperienced preceptors, experienced [monks] who shared their cells; preceptors who had heard little, [monks] who shared their cells who had heard much; preceptors of poor intelligence, intelligent [monks] who shared their cells; and a certain former member of another sect, when he was being spoken to by his preceptor regarding a rule, having refuted the preceptor, went over to the fold of that same sect [as before].

Those who were modest monks… spread it about, saying: ‘How can these ignorant, inexperienced monks ordain, thinking: “We are of ten years’ standing, we are of ten years’ standing?” [So that] there are to be found. intelligent [monks] who share their cells.’ Then these monks told this matter to the Lord. He said:

‘Is it true, as is said, monks, that ignorant, inexperienced monks ordained, thinking:… there are to be found… intelligent [monks] who share their cells?’

‘It is true, Lord.’

Then the awakened one, the Lord, rebuked them, saying:

‘How, monks, can these foolish men, ignorant, inexperienced, ordain, thinking: “We are of ten years’ standing, we are of ten years’ standing”?. intelligent [monks] who share their cells. It is not, monks, for pleasing those who are not [yet] pleased.’ And having rebuked them, having given reasoned talk, he addressed the monks, saying:

‘Monks, one who is ignorant, inexperienced should not ordain. Whoever [such] should ordain, there is an offence of wrong-doing.

I allow you, monks, to ordain through an experienced, competent monk who is of ten years’ standing or more than ten years’ standing.’

From The Book of Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka), vol. 4 (Mahavagga), trans. I. B. Horner (Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1996), pp. 73-8.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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