Sekhiya Rules Reconsidered


Pachow and Prebish both regard the differences in the sekhiya (training) rules of the pāṭimokkha as evidence for the antiquity of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya. Prebish further argues that the differences in sekhiya rules were the decisive factor in causing the first schism between the Mahāsaṅghikas and Sthaviras. I have elsewhere given reason why the arguments for the antiquity of this Vinaya are not well established. I have also briefly given my reasons for not regarding the sekhiya argument as decisive. Here I will consider the sekhiya rules in a little more detail. The rules themselves are translated in Pachow, pp 46 ff; his discussion of the historical evolution is on page 38.

The most obvious objection to the theory that the sekhiyas played a decisive role in sectarian formation is that they are trivial. A glance at the rules below will show a typical sample of sekhiya rules. They concern details of deportment and etiquette only, the more serious moral rules being found in the major sections of pātimokkha rules. Prebish confronts this argument head on, quoting John Holt from his Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka, pp102-3:

‘The rules are much more than mere social etiquette… The motive which generated their inclusion into the disciplinary code was simply this: perfect control of inward demeanour leads to perfect control and awareness of outward expression, even the minutest public expressions.’

Holt and Prebish also opine that the sekhiyas, in determining deportment, are motivated by the concern that the bhikkhus’ behaviour be appropriately inspiring for the lay community, a crucial concern in maintaining essential lay support.

These opinions on the principle that motivated the sekhiya rules are quite sensible in themselves. But their application to the current case is a simple logical error. The sekhiyas are an expression of an important principle; but they are not important expressions of that principle. Regardless of how significant mindfulness of one’s minute actions is, and regardless of how important monastic deportment might be for the lay community, changing a few sekhiya rules will not make much difference. Any of the lists of sekhiya rules that currently exist would manifest these principles perfectly adequately.

An example might make this clearer. In our society, we regard it as an important principle to adhere to the laws laid down by duly elected authorities. But if my local Council decides to change the parking fine for the No Standing spot in front of my house from $30 to $40, this is a trivial expression of that principle. No-one, not even the Councillors, would argue that the difference between these fines was of great importance. Even though the principle of obedience to elected authority is of great importance, the decision to make the fine $30 or $40 will not significantly affect that principle.

Prebish argues that the additional rules found in the Theravāda Vinaya are comparable to the ‘ten points’ of dispute in the Second Council. This is not, of course, because there is any close relation between the two groups, but because several of the extra sekhiyas concern eating, and so do some of the ten points. This in itself is so general as to be meaningless, but Prebish takes his search one step further, apparently regarding it as ‘equally’ relevant that the remaining five points concern ‘matters of individual and communal respect’. (Prebish 194)

I am not quite sure how he reaches this conclusion, as it is well known that the main issue at the Second Council was whether bhikkhus could use money. This was regarded as a very serious matter, and Yasa quotes many passages from the Suttas and Vinaya in support of his objection to this practice. Other serious matters discussed at the Second Council include anumatikappa (whether it was allowable to conclude a formal act of the Sangha and obtain consent from absent bhikkhus afterwards), āvāsakappa (whether it was allowable to hold separate saṅghakammas in the same monastery), and āciṇṇakappa (whether it was allowable to follow the precedent of one’s teachers). These are all complex and important matters involving central legal procedures of the community. They are not ‘matters of individual and communal respect’ and have nothing to do with the sekhiyas, but are issues of an entirely different order.

Let us review the information provided by Pachow, in a slightly different form. Here are the relevant rules, but I reverse his order, giving the Mahāsaṅghika first. This is in order to compare with the situation in the set of rules I will consider subsequently. The rules left out of Pachow’s analysis are left blank.


Mahāsaṅghika sekhiyas


3. Going well-covered


4. Going without casting glances


5. Going with little sound




7. Going without head covering


8. Going without tucking up robe




10. Going without arms akimbo








14. Sitting well-covered


15. Sitting without casting glances


16. Sitting with little sound




18. Sitting without head covering


19. Sitting without tucking up robe






22. Sitting without arms akimbo



Pachow notices that these rules are reorganized systematically, that is, the Mahāsaṅghika has all the rules, and then repeats them changing the verb from ‘going’ to ‘sitting’, while the Sarvāstivāda alternates ‘going’ and ‘sitting’. Pachow suggests that this arrangement is much better for memorizing and hence is likely to be a rearrangement on the part of the Sarvāstivāda. His argument, while rational, is highly tenuous. As a monk who has recited pātimokkha for over ten years, I would say that in the context of memorizing the pātimokkha as a whole the difference in the two arrangements in these few rules is negligible.

Let us compare this group with the following section of the sekhiyas. Here are the rules, this time in the Pali version.



27. Accept alms-food carefully

28. Accept alms-food with attention on the bowl

29. Accept alms-food with curry in proportion

30. Accept alms-food level with the edge [of the bowl]

31. Eat alms-food carefully

32. Eat alms-food with attention on the bowl

33. Eat alms-food evenly

34. Eat alms-food with curry in proportion


Here it is immediately apparent that the rules are grouped according to the operative verb, that is, all the rules on accepting together, then all the rules on eating together. This is the same organizational principle noticed by Pachow in the previous section of the Mahāsaṅghika, which he took to be evidence for the structural antiquity of the Mahāsaṅghika. But exactly the same structure may be found in the very next section of the Pali Vinaya. This shows that we cannot generalize on the basis of a few rules. The Pali may reorganize one section while leaving another section untouched. The Sarvāstivāda might add many rules, but leave many ancient ones, too, and so on.

To complete this little essay, I would like to briefly touch on the 12 rules of the Pali Vinaya that Prebish identifies as additional to the Mahāsaṅghika.

The first two are that one should go and sit in the village well-covered. These, while absent from the Sanskrit Mahāsaṅghika, are present in the Chinese, (Pachow 218) so any argument that they are foreign to the Mahāsaṅghika tradition is tenuous indeed. The same applies to rule 30 (accepting food level with the rim of the bowl) and 40 (making morsels into balls).

The next three are that one should not sit in the village shaking the body, arms, and head. These are partially covered by one rule in the Chinese Mahāsaṅghika (rule 23 against sitting in the house without moving the hands and the legs). These three closely related rules form part of a series of pairs, as we have seen above, where the rule is repeated with a mere change in verb from ‘go’ to ‘sit’. In this case it would be easy for such rules to change from one lineage to another simply by careless redaction. This could happen either way. Rules that were originally applied to, say, just ‘going’ could be incorporated with other rules referring to ‘going’ and ‘sitting’, and hence the verbs could become artificially replicated. Or just as easily, the reciter or scribe could assume that all rules were meant to be applied to both ‘going’ and ‘sitting’, and simply abbreviate in the understanding that they should be spelt out in full. Later, this was forgotten. In any case, it is clear that the variation between the two sets of rules could easily have occurred through a simple slip in the redaction history, and these rules do not constitute a major difference between the sekhiyas of the Pali and Mahāsaṅghika Vinayas.

The next two rules are that one should eat alms-food carefully (31) and uninterruptedly (33). The first rule is a basic instruction given frequently in the Suttas, and can hardly constitute a sectarian difference. The second is an obscurely problematic phrase. The word sapadāna is of doubtful derivation, and is usually applied to walking alms-round from house to house. Its appearance in reference to eating here is, so far as I know, unique, and the rule only appears in the minority of pātimokkhas.

The next rule is that one should not put the whole hand in the mouth while eating (42). This is certainly sound advice. One wonders whether the absence of this rule from the Mahāsaṅghika is evidence for the early introduction of some curious local form of tantrayoga.

Rule 54 prohibits the licking of the lips. Usually a piece of advice we pick up from our mums, here the repression of lip-licking by the rigid Theravādins contrasts dramatically with the lip-licking laxity of the Mahāsaṅghika. While we might regard this as indisputable evidence of the Mahāsaṅghika’s free and easy ways, we notice that while the Pali has three rules forbidding the licking of the hands, bowl, and lips, the Mahāsaṅghikas similarly include three rules forbidding licking bowl, hands, and fingers. It would seem that separate rules forbidding licking both the hands and the fingers is a bit excessive, even for the rigorist Theravādins, so perhaps this is a mere textual confusion by the Mahāsaṅghikas. It seems their reputation as archetypal exponents of lip-licking laxity may be undeserved.

Finally, the Mahāsaṅghikas lack a rule prohibiting one sitting on the ground to teach Dhamma to one sitting on a seat. Again, this forms part of a series of formulaic rules. Another of these rules, shared with the Mahāsaṅghika, is that one on a low seat should not teach Dhamma to one on a high seat. Obviously, if one is on the ground one will be lower than someone on a seat, so this rule would be implied even if not explicit, and could not make any difference in actual conduct.

We are thus forced to conclude that the differences between the sekhiya rules as analyzed so far do not bear the weight of the conclusions that have been forced on them. While the principles on which the rules are based are of significance, the variants in detail between the rules would not constitute a significant difference either in the mindfulness training or in the decorum of the bhikkhus. The structural analysis of Pachow is so limited that it cannot be generalized beyond one small section of two Vinayas. Prebish’s extra rules in the Pali Vinaya are mostly a simple matter of redaction variation, and do not constitute a distinct difference in the Vinayas.


Works Cited

Pachow, W. A Comparative Study of the Pratimoksa. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 2000.

Prebish, Charles S. "Saiksa-Dharmas Revisited." Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies. Ed. Paul Williams. London: Routledge, 2005. 186-198.