Monastic Life – Chapter 30: Making New Monastic Rules

Some Buddhist texts and doctrines travelled from India to other parts of Asia more easily than others. One genre of texts that did not make the transition without difficulty was the codes of monastic discipline, especially in their movement to China. Chinese monks faced the initial problem of not knowing what rules they should follow; a complete version of the rules of monastic discipline was not translated into Chinese until the beginning of the fifth century. Prior to that time, foreign monks served as role models for the Buddhist monastic life in China, but the leaders of Chinese monastic communities were often forced to improvise rules. The various descriptions of infractions, especially the more minor infractions, contained cultural references and vocabulary that were often impossible to translate into Chinese; some Sanskrit terms had no correlate in Chinese and were simply rendered phonetically. The ethical codes also described situations and practices that were inapplicable simply because they did not exist in China. To further confuse the situation, there were a number of Buddhist monastic codes in India and they differed on many points. When these texts were translated into Chinese and the differences became apparent, it was unclear which version should be regarded as orthodox.

As the monastic tradition became well-established in China, it became clear that the Indian codes of conduct, required for all true  monks, required supplementation. Additional regulations were formulated to govern the daily life of a monastery, regulations that the monks of that monastery were expected to follow while maintaining their monastic vows. These local regulations, often dealing with more practical matters in the life of the community, were more widely known and understood than the often arcane Indian code, even for monks who had received full ordination.

One of the more famous sets of regulations appears in a text called Establishing Monastic Regulations (Li zhifa), written by the great Chinese master Zhiyi in 597 (see chapters 32 and 40). It provided a set of basic disciplinary guidelines for his Xiuchan Monastery on Mount Tiantai. This work is one of the earliest examples of an integrated code for monastic procedure in China, making it a predecessor to the distinctive genre of’pure rules’, monastic codes that gained such prominence during the Song period (960-1279). Zhiyi’s work served as a model for a distinctive style of Tiantai monastic life and institutions that came to be spelled out in detail in later, more elaborate Tiantai monastic codes. It serves here as an example of the trend towards the localization of the Buddhist mendicant ideal in the institutional form of the monastery that became so basic to later East Asian Buddhism.

The text reflects the very practical concerns of a growing monastic community. One will note that Zhiyi looks back with some nostalgia on the early days of his community when no rules were required, and laments the quality of the new monks, whose misbehaviour has necessitated the formulation of the regulations he set forth. It is said that in the early days of the sangha in India no rules were necessary because all the members of the sangha were destined for nirvana and their behaviour was, therefore, naturally correct. It was only when the sangha grew that the Buddha decided it was necessary to establish a monastic code.

A new robe that has no holes needs no stitching to repair it. When virtues planted in former lives have already begun to ripen it is pointless to try to increase them with threats of punishment. From the time when I first entered the Buddhist path, through the period of my residence in [the capital at] Jinling, down to the time when I first withdrew to Mount Tiantai, the devotees of the dharma who came to me took responsibility for their own practice of the way. They did not even need soft words to encourage their progress, how much the less the imposition of specific rules to discipline them. However, upon my recent return to Mount Tiantai I find that students who have come lately are like wild monkeys and horses. If you do not tether them firmly they grow worse by the day and month. In my effort to make something of them I lose two for every one that I tame. That I choose to apply the whip is merely to teach them shame, not because I personally delight in causing them pain. In the tract below I have outlined ten basic points to guide students in their training. Henceforth should irregularities arise the assembly [of monks] should take up the matter collectively and emend [these regulations] as it sees fit.

Item One: [Spiritual] capacities are not all the same. Some individuals achieve the way through practising alone. Others attain liberation by resorting to [practising in] a monastic community.

For those who choose to rely on the monastic community, three courses of practice are open. The first is seated meditation according to [the collective routine of the community’s] halls. The second is [individual practice of] repentance in a separate sanctuary [removed from the regular community routine]. The third is service as an administrator of monastery affairs.

Persons engaged in these three modes of practice must be in full possession of the requisite equipment of a Buddhist mendicant, such as the three robes and six items. So long as they are willing to take up one of these activities, they will be allowed to enter the community. If they are lacking with respect to any of the robes or mendicant’s equipment or they refuse to have anything to do with these [three] activities, they may not remain with us.

Item Two: Monks who [choose to] resort to the [community’s] hall basically take the [daily schedule of] four periods of seated meditation and six intervals of ritual veneration of the buddhas as their regular routine. It is not permitted to miss any of these ten scheduled periods of veneration and meditation. Monks who have just completed a period of separate [retreat] practice may recuperate for three days. But beyond that they must return to the ten intervals of the community’s routine.

A person who arrives late for worship of the buddhas is to be punished with three prostrations and confession before the assembly for each interval violated. If the entire service is missed, the punishment is ten prostrations and confession before the assembly. Anyone who misses all six periods is to be punished with a period of service [under the direction of] the preceptor. The same applies for the four periods of seated meditation. Incapacity due to illness is excepted; but punishment will be withheld only if the managerial monks have been informed beforehand.

Item Three: For the six periods of ritual worship of the buddhas, full monks must wear the robe for formal assembly. Since this robe should be free of all geometric or animal motifs, robes bearing any kind of decorative pattern are unacceptable. The monks should gather [in the hall] before the third bell has sounded, proceed to set out their seating, and – taking incense censer in hand – kneel with both knees flush before them. Persons unfamiliar with the chants may not take part in the recitations. Those without express permission to do so are forbidden to wander about or talk. If one is out of time in snapping the fingers [for homage] or in touching the head to the ground [in prostration], or one is inattentive in stowing one’s footwear or in moving to and from one’s seat, a punishment shall be assigned of ten prostrations and confession before the assembly.

Item Four: The purpose of practice in a separate [sanctuary] is to allow persons to zealously apply themselves to the four forms of samadhi when they find [the regime] of the community to be too slack. Should it be discovered that someone has entered the retreat sanctuary under false pretences, with no real intention to conform to the aims of retreat practice, the punishment will be one term of service [under the direction of the] preceptor.

Item Five: [The duty of] the administrative monk is basically to promote the stability and benefit [of the community at large]. Instead they often do it harm. They pilfer from the community to gorge and enrich themselves, taking it upon themselves to do just as they please. If even a hair’s breadth of [this sort of] violation is committed – even if one has acted for the general welfare but failed to inform others – should the truth be discovered [the perpetrator] is to be expelled from the community.

Item Six: At the time of the two [morning and noon] meals, anyone who is not currently sick, who is indisposed but not confined to bed, or who has been ill but has recently improved, must without exception come to the refectory. They are not permitted to request that meals [be brought to them]. Only two types of vessel are permitted to be used in the community: begging bowls [‘meal bowls’] of iron and pottery and vessels for sauce and oil. Cups, side-bowls, chopsticks and spoons are prohibited.

Anyone possessing [objects made of] bone, horn, bamboo, wood, gourd, lacquer, leather or shell shall not be allowed to enter the hall.

Also, making noise by clattering one’s bowl or slurping, talking with one’s mouth full, seeking special portions and privately helping oneself to sauce and vegetables are all forbidden. Anyone who breaks [these rules] is to be punished with three prostrations and confession before the community.

Item Seven: Any full monk who has received the Hinayana precepts is expressly forbidden to take fish, flesh, leeks and pungent herbs and liquor on the sly, regardless of whether he is travelling nearby, far away, in residence within the monastery, or outside the monastery. Persons who [violate this prohibition] or who eat at the unappointed times [i.e., after noon], will not be permitted to remain in the community if they are discovered. The only exception to the rule shall be persons who are acutely ill who have been prescribed [forbidden substances] by a physician, or persons who have left the temple to seek cure elsewhere. They are not to be punished.

Item Eight: The term sangha means ‘joined in harmony’. Harmony exists when people are deferential and accepting. Unity exists when they uphold a common ideal [of righteousness]. Quarrelling, angry outbursts, scurrilous accusation and scandal-mongering and dirty looks are all prohibited. If a conflict breaks out between two people, each is to be punished with thirty prostrations and confession before the assembly. Anyone who refuses to be drawn in [to a quarrel or fight picked by another] will not be punished. If there is any contact of body or limb – regardless of whether it is light or severe – the perpetrators will not be permitted to remain in the community. However, persons who refuse to raise a hand in response will be exempted from punishment.

Item Nine: Grave infractions of the precepts are to be handled according to the vinaya codes. Should a person be tricked into committing an infraction, the party deceived shall not be punished, but the one responsible for the deception shall be expelled from the community. The head of the community is not to accept any practitioner known to have committed [a grave infraction] prior to his arrival, for the reason that such an individual is by definition no longer considered to be a member of the monastic sangha. If a person is admitted to the community on personal claims to be a bhiksu but is later discovered to have deceived others about his prior violations, then the punishment shall be the same as above.

Item Ten: Relying on the sutras we set up the norms of practice; diagnosing the illness we prescribe the medicine for cure. But for those who would reject the norm and spit out the medicine these things are no use whatsoever. When someone has publicly professed contrition for [breaking] the nine items described above, but after repeated infractions and confessions shows no real thought of remorse and refuses to reform himself, then this is the kind of person who spits out the medicine. It is fitting to drive such a person from the community. If he is later able to reform himself, his return may be considered. When a person flagrantly defies the regulations and stubbornly refuses to repent, then this is one who rejects the norm. Anyone who is not willing to accord with the norms of the community must not be permitted to remain.

Translation by Daniel Stevenson of Lizhifa by Tiantai Zhiyi (c. 597 ce), contained as document No. 1 in Guoqing bailu, edited by Guanding, T 1934, vol. 46, pp. 793b19-794a17.

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

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