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Introduction to the Patimokkha Rules

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Copyright © 1994 Thanissaro Bhikkhu

In recent years more and more Westerners have come into contact with Theravada Buddhist monks, and many have become curious about the rules governing the monks' life. This introduction is meant to help satisfy that curiosity by giving a brief explanation of the rationale behind the rules and their enforcement, and by providing summaries of the rules, classed according to topic. Anyone interested in more information on the rules and their interpretation may look into the book,The Buddhist Monastic Code: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained.

Readers may also wish to refer to the complete list of Patimokkha rules.



One of the first questions that many people ask is why the monks have rules in the first place. Since the Dhamma aims at freedom and depends on self-reliance, wouldn't it be better to let the monks develop their own innate sense of right and wrong unfettered by legalisms?

The answer to this question lies in the fact that the monks form a Community, reliant on the support of lay Buddhists, and anyone who has lived for any time in a communal situation knows that communities need rules in order to function peacefully. The Buddha, in laying down each rule, gave ten reasons for doing so: for the excellence of the Community, the peace of the Community, the curbing of the shameless, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of pollutants related to the present life, the prevention of pollutants related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma and the fostering of discipline.

These reasons fall into three main types. The first two are external: to ensure peace and well-being within the Community itself, and to foster and protect faith among the laity, on whom the monks depend for their support. The third type of reason is internal: to help restrain and prevent mental pollutants within the individual monks. This last point quickly becomes apparent to anyone who seriously tries to keep to the rules, for they encourage mindfulness and circumspection in one's actions, qualities that carry over into the training of the mind.

Rules, however, are not the only way to express ethical norms, and the Buddha also made use of principles and models in teaching the virtues he wanted his following to develop. The rules thus function in a wider context than simple legality, and work together with the principles and models formulated by the Buddha to provide a complete training in behavior, with each side making up for the weaknesses of the other.

Principles and models serve as personal, subjective standards, and tend to be loosely defined. Their interpretation and application are left to the judgment of the individual. Thus they are difficult to enforce when an individual has blatantly overstepped the bounds of proper behavior.

Rules serve as more objective standards, and thus are more enforceable. To work, they must be precisely defined in a way acceptable to the Community at large. This precision, though, accounts for their weakness in general as universal guides to behavior. To begin with, a clear, practical line must be drawn between black and white, i.e., between what is and is not an infraction of the rule. In some cases, it is difficult to find a practical break off point that corresponds exactly to one's intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, so it is sometimes necessary to include the areas of gray either with the black or the white.

Secondly, the more precisely a rule is defined to suit a particular time and place, the less well it may fit other times and places. This is where principles and models come in: They indicate the spirit of the rules and aid in applying them to differing contexts.

Thus as you look at the rules and contemplate them, you should keep in mind that they function in a larger context: the teachings and practice of the Dhamma as a whole. The Buddha's own name for the religion he founded was Dhamma-Vinaya, so remember that neither half was meant to function without the other.

Origin of the Rules

The Buddha did not set out a code of rules all at once. Instead, he formulated rules one by one, in response to particular incidents. The Canon reports these incidents in each case, and often a knowledge of these "origin stories" can help in understanding the reasons behind the rules. For instance, the origin story to the rule forbidding lustful conduct between monks and women shows that the Buddha did not view women as somehow inferior or unclean. Rather, the rule comes from an incident where a monk was fondling the wife of a Brahmin who had come to visit his hut, and the Buddha wanted women to feel safe in the knowledge that when visiting monasteries they would not be in danger of being molested.

Some of the stories are classics of Buddhist literature, and show a dry, understated sense of humor together with a perceptive insight into human foibles. The element of humor here is very important, for without it there can be no intelligent set of rules to govern human behavior.

As time passed, and the number of rules grew, some of the Buddha's followers, headed by Ven. Upali, gathered the major rules into a set code -- the Patimokkha -- that eventually contained 227 rules. The minor rules, which came to number several hundred, they gathered into chapters loosely organized according to topic, called Khandhakas.

The Patimokkha as we now have it is embedded in a text called the Sutta Vibhanga. This presents each rule, preceded by its origin story, and followed by what permutations, if any, it went through before reaching its final form. The rule is then analyzed into its component elements, to show how the factors of effort, object, perception, intention and result do or do not mitigate the penalty assigned by the rule. The discussion then concludes with a list of extenuating circumstances for which there is no offense in breaking the rule.


The system of penalties the Buddha worked out for the rules is based on two principles. The first is that the training aims primarily at the development of the mind. Thus the factors of intention and perception often determine whether or not a particular action is an infringement of a rule. For instance, killing an animal accidentally is, in terms of the mind of the agent, very different from killing it purposefully, and does not count as an infringement of the rule against killing.

There are a few rules where the factors of intention and perception make no difference at all -- such as in the rule forbidding a monk to drink alcohol -- but they almost always deal with situations where one would be expected to be mindful and perceptive enough to know what's going on, and so these rules too help in the training of the mind.

In any event, the system of analyzing each offense into the factors of effort, object, perception, intention and result shows how adherence to the rules leads directly to the development of concentration and discernment. If a monk is careful to view his actions in terms of these factors, he is developing mindfulness, an analytical approach to events in the present, and persistence. These are the first three factors of Awakening, and form the basis for the remaining four: rapture, serenity, concentration and equanimity.

The second principle used in determining penalties is based on the Buddha's observation to Ananda, one of his chief disciples, that friendship and companionship with the good is the whole of the religious life. Anyone who approaches the Dhamma seriously should be wise enough to realize that without the opportunity of associating and learning from people who are experienced on the path, it is well nigh impossible to make any progress on one's own. The monks are thus expected to value their good standing vis a vis the well-behaved members of their group, and so the system of punishments worked out by the Buddha revolves entirely around affecting the offender's status within the Community.

The Patimokkha classifies its rules into seven levels:

If a monk breaks one of the four most serious rules -- the parajikas (Pr) -- he is expelled from the Community for life. If he breaks one of the next most serious classes of the rules -- the sanghadisesas (Sg) -- he is put on probation for six days, during which time he is stripped of his seniority, is not trusted to go anywhere unaccompanied by four other monks of regular standing, and daily has to confess his offense to every monk who lives in or happens to visit the monastery. At the end of his probation, twenty monks have to be convened to reinstate him to his original status.

The next three levels of rules -- nissaggiya pacittiya (NP), pacittiya (Pc), and patidesaniya (Pd) -- entail simple confession to a fellow monk, although the NP rules involved an article that has to be forfeited -- in most cases temporarily, although in a few cases the object has to be forfeited for good, in which case the offender has to confess his offense to the entire Community.

If a monk commits an offense and refuses to undergo the penalty, the Community may decide how seriously they take the matter. Since there is no monks' police beyond the individual's conscience, it may often happen that no one else knows of the offense to begin with, and nothing is done. If however it becomes common knowledge, and the Community regards it as a serious matter, they should talk privately with the monk to help him see the error of his ways. If he is recalcitrant, they may strip him temporarily of his status, either by censuring him, stripping him of his seniority, driving him from the Community, or suspending him from the Order of monks as a whole. If the offender sees the error of his ways and reforms his behavior accordingly, the Community may return him to his former status.

Now of course there may be some hardened souls among the monks who are unfazed by punishments of this sort, but we should note that the Buddha saw no use for physical coercion in enforcing his rules. If a monk had to be physically forced into abiding by the training, his heart wouldn't be in it, and there is no way that he could benefit from it. Such monks the Buddha considered beyond the pale, although he allowed them to stay on in the Community in hopes that eventually their conscience would get the better of them. In the meantime, the law of karma would guarantee that in the long run, they would not be getting away with anything at all.

The final two levels of rules in the Patimokkha do not give a particular penalty. The sekhiya (Sk) rules -- dealing primarily with etiquette -- simply state that one should work at following them. The Sutta Vibhanga explains that if one oversteps them out of disrespect, one should confess the fact. The adhikarana samatha (As) rules are not so much rules as they are principles to follow in dealing with issues that arise in the Community. If monks try to settle an issue without following these principles, their decision is invalid, and they must confess their wrongdoing to other monks who took no part in the decision.

Rule summaries

With this background, we may now look at the content of the rules. What follows is a list summarizing the basic meanings of the rules, organized into five major categories: dealing with Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Communal harmony and the etiquette of a contemplative. The first three categories -- the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path that make up the training in heightened virtue -- are especially useful for showing how the rules relate to the Buddhist path as a whole.

These five categories are not sharply distinct types. Instead, they are more like the colors in the band of light thrown off by a prism -- discernably different, but shading into one another with no sharp dividing lines. Right Speech, for instance, often shades into Communal harmony, just as Right Livelihood shades into personal etiquette. Thus the placement of a particular rule in one category rather than another has been a somewhat arbitrary process. There are a few cases -- such as Pacittiyas 46 & 84 -- where the reason for placing the rule in a particular category will become clear only after reading the detailed discussions in BMC.

Each rule is followed by a code giving the rule's number in its section of the Patimokkha.

If you count the number of rules in the list, you will see that they do not quite equal 227. This is because there are a couple of cases where I have condensed two or three Sekhiya rules into one summary.

Right Speech

MN 117 defines wrong speech as lying, divisive speech, abusive speech and idle chatter.


Making an unfounded charge to a bhikkhu that he has committed a parajika offense, in hopes of having him disrobed, is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 8)

Distorting the evidence while accusing a bhikkhu of having committed a parajika offense, in hopes of having him disrobed, is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 9)

The intentional effort to misrepresent the truth to another individual is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 1)

Making an unfounded charge to a bhikkhu -- or getting someone else to make the charge to him -- that he is guilty of a sanghadisesa offense is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 76)

Divisive speech

Tale-bearing among bhikkhus, in hopes of winning favor or causing a rift, is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 3)

Abusive speech

An insult made with malicious intent to another bhikkhu is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 2)

Idle chatter

Visiting lay families -- without having informed an available bhikkhu -- before or after a meal to which one has been invited is a pacittiya offense except during the robe season or any time one is making a robe. (Pc 46)

Entering a village, town or city during the period after noon until the following dawn, without having taken leave of an available bhikkhu -- unless there is an emergency -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 85)

Right Action

MN 117 defines wrong action as killing living beings, taking what is not given, and engaging in sexual misconduct.


Intentionally causing the death of a human being, even if it is still a fetus, is a parajika offense. (Pr 3)

Pouring water that one knows to contain living beings -- or having it poured -- on grass or clay is a pacittiya offense. Pouring anything that would kill the beings into such water -- or having it poured -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 20)

Deliberately killing an animal -- or having it killed -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 61)

Using water, knowing that it contains living beings that will die from one's using it, is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 62)

Taking what is not given

The theft of anything worth 1/24 ounce troy of gold or more is a parajika offense. (Pr 2)

Having given another bhikkhu a robe on a condition and then -- angry and displeased -- snatching it back or having it snatched back is a nissaggiya pacittiya offense. (NP 25)

Making use of cloth or a bowl stored under shared ownership -- unless the shared ownership has been rescinded or one is taking the item on trust -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 59)

Sexual misconduct

Voluntary sexual intercourse -- genital, anal or oral -- with a human being, non-human being or common animal is a parajika offense. (Pr 1)

Intentionally causing oneself to emit semen, or getting someone else to cause one to emit semen -- except during a dream -- is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 1)

Lustful bodily contact with a woman whom one perceives to be a woman is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 2)

Making a lustful remark to a woman about her genitals, her anus or about her performing sexual intercourse is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 3)

Telling a woman that she would benefit from having sexual intercourse with oneself is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 4)

Getting an unrelated bhikkhuni to wash, dye or beat a robe that one has worn at least once is a nissaggiya pacittiya offense. (NP 4)

Getting an unrelated bhikkhuni to wash, dye or card wool that has not been made into cloth or yarn is a nissaggiya pacittiya offense. (NP 17)

Lying down at the same time in the same lodging with a woman is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 6)

Teaching more than six sentences of Dhamma to a woman except in response to a question, is a pacittiya offense unless a knowledgeable man is present. (Pc 7)

Exhorting a bhikkhuni about the eight vows of respect -- except when one has been authorized to do so by the Community -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 21)

Exhorting a bhikkhuni on any topic at all after sunset -- except when they request it -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 22)

Going to the bhikkhunis' quarters and exhorting a bhikkhuni about the eight vows of respect -- except when she is ill or has requested the instruction -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 23)

Giving robe cloth to an unrelated bhikkhuni without receiving anything in exchange is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 25)

Sewing a robe -- or having one sewn -- for an unrelated bhikkhuni is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 26)

Traveling by arrangement with a bhikkhuni from one village to another -- except when the road is risky or there are other dangers -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 27)

Traveling by arrangement with a bhikkhuni upriver or downriver in the same boat -- except when crossing a river -- is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 28)

Sitting or lying down alone with a bhikkhuni in a place out of sight and out of hearing is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 30)

Sitting or lying down with a woman or women in a private, secluded place with no other man present is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 44)

Sitting or lying down alone with a woman in an unsecluded but private place is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 45)

Traveling by arrangement with a woman from one village to another is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 67)

Right Livelihood

MN 117 defines wrong livelihood as scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling and pursuing gain with gain.


Deliberately lying to another person that one has attained a superior human state is a parajika offense. (Pr 4)

Acting as a go-between to arrange a marriage, an affair or a date between a man and a woman not married to each other is a sanghadisesa offense. (Sg 5)

Engaging in trade with anyone except one's co-religionists is a nissaggiya pacittiya offense. (NP 20)

Persuading a donor to give to oneself a gift that he or she had planned to give to the Community -- when one knows that it was intended for the Community -- is a nissaggiya pacittiya offense. (NP 30)

Telling an unordained person of one's actual superior human attainments is a pacittiya offense. (Pc 8)

Persuading a donor to give to another individual a gift that he or she had planned to give to a Community -- when one knows that it was intended for the Community -- is a pacittiya offense (Pc 82)


Dhamma Essay:
Message for a Globalized World by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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