Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Quitting the Dhamma: The Ways of Forsaking the Order According to the Early Vinaya

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Quitting the Dhamma: The Ways of Forsaking the Order According to the Early Vinaya

Article excerpt


In this paper, I argue that in the early Vinaya, contrary to the commentarial tradition:

1. Two ways of forsaking the Order, equally valid, co-exist; and

2. Nuns may be re-ordained after leaving the Order without guilt.


Like many organizations that consist of voluntary members, the Buddhist Order provides its members the means to leave it if they wish to do so. There have seemingly been two methods to accomplish this:

1. One method is indicated by many variant words derived from vi + [check]bham (Skt. Vi + [check]bhram), which literally means "to wander about, to go astray," and in the Vinaya context, "to forsake the Order" (PED "Vibbhanta," "Vibbhamati"). We can find such words as verbal forms vibbhamati, vibbhami, vibbhamissati, etc., or as primary derivatives vibbhamitva, vibbhanta, etc.

2. The other is called "the formal disavowal of training" (sikkhapaccakkhana), and its details are given by canonical commentary (Vin III 24-28; Horner vol. 1, 43-47).

Regarding these methods, Rhys Davids and Oldenberg note: "The difference between vibbhamati (he returns to the world) and sikkham paccakkhati (he abandons the precepts) seems to be that the former is an informal, and the latter a formal, renunciation of the Order" (275). But it has been unclear hitherto whether these two methods can co-exist or whether one has been superseded by the other, and, if they can co-exist, how they work together.

I am revisiting this issue in this paper. For reasons explained below, I call the first method "the physio-social way," and the second, "the legal way."

The Physio-Social Way

We can understand how this method works from clues available in the extant Pali Vinaya:

tena kho pana samayena annataro Bharukacchako bhikkhu supinante
puranadutiyikaya methunam dhammam patisevitva assamano aham
vibbhamissamiti Bharukaccham gacchanto antara magge ayasmantam Upalim
passitva etam attham aro cesi. ayasma Upali evam aha: anapatti avuso
supinantena 'ti. (Vin III 39)

Now at that time a certain monk of Bharukaccha, having dreamed that he
committed sexual intercourse with his former wife, said: "I am not a
(true) recluse, I will leave the Order [vibbhamissami]," and going to
Bharukaccha, and seeing the venerable Upali on the road, he told him
this matter. The venerable Upali said: "There is no offence, your
reverence, since it was in a dream." (Horner vol. 1, 60-61)

It is clear that the story happened at a time when the rule of First Defeat prohibiting sex for monks had already been prescribed but the spirit of the rule--in this context, that real sex and wet dream sex are legally different --had not yet become clear to everyone. This is why this monk thought he had committed the First Defeat, and lost his monkhood, after dreaming that he had had sex with his former wife.

Moreover, matters did not end when he decided he was no longer a monk; he must still leave the Order (vibbhamissami). But what does the phrase "leaving the Order" mean? Given that he thought he was no longer a true monk, leaving the Order in this context could not involve any legal procedure binding on only true monks; rather, it seemingly means what the public expects a monk to do when the latter leaves the Order: to leave the monastic environment physically and socially. (2)

The monk in our story did attempt to leave the monastic environment by starting a journey to Bharukacchaka, his home town, before meeting Venerable Upali, who corrected his mistake.

Next, let us look at another piece of evidence:

tena kho pana samayena Sundarinanda bhikkhuni Salhena Migaranattuna
gabbhini hoti. yava gabbho taruno ahosi tava cchadesi, paripakke gabbhe
vibbhamitva vijayi ... (Vin IV 216)

Now at that time the nun Sundarinanda became pregnant by Salha,
Migara's grandson. Until the embryo quickened she concealed it; when
the embryo was matured, having left the Order [vibbhamitva], she gave
birth . … 
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