Structure of suttavibhanga


The suttavibhanga means ‘The Patimokkha rules expounded in detail’ from the words sutta, which means ‘Patimokkha rule’ and vibhajati, which means to 'deal with something in detail'. The suttavibhanga comprises the first three volumes of the PTS translation.

The khandhakas - mentioned here in passing - are ‘the chapters of the Mahavagga and Cullavagga’, the fourth and fifth volumes of the PTS translation of the Vinaya texts. The Mahavagga has ten khandhakas (i.e. chapters); the Cullavagga has twelve. Each chapter is called a khandhaka because it is a collection of stories, incidents and legal aspects on a common theme.

The seven sections

The suttavibhanga to each rule has up to seven sections. The brief comments here will be supplemented in the individual rules.

The story

The events that led to the rules, if they were remembered, became the stories to the rules; if they were not remembered, a fictional story was created, a simple template structure, or a fabulous story, often involving the group of six monks or Venerables Udayin or Upananda - to illustrate this, compare the story to Mahasanghikas' and Sthaviras' Parajika 5. Sometimes the story is invaluable to understanding the rule.

The rule

The rules were composed by the Buddha. Many rules evolved in several stages by addition of clauses. Oral tradition does not allow material to be subtracted.

Word analysis

Each word analysis was probably composed soon after its respective rule was finalised, and before the events of the illustrative stories. We know this because, in the case of Parajika 2, some effort was made to change the word analysis in the Buddha's lifetime when dramatic alterations needed making to the rule. Therefore many of the word analysis may have been composed by Venerable Upali.

Illustrative stories

The events of the illustrative stories must have taken place over the whole length of the Buddha’s lifetime, some of them many years after each rule had been laid down. The illustrative stories include judgements made by the Buddha, some of which make important amendments to the rule. After Sanghadisesa 5, there are no illustrative stories; perhaps that material was lost.

Some stories obviously do not involve the Buddha. These stories are commonly placed towards the end of the list of stories. These two facts together suggest that such stories happened after the Parinibbana, during the period when the illustrative stories were being compiled for final editing. For instance, of the stories not involving the Buddha, two involve Venerable Upali: case 147 of Parajika 2; and case 52 of Parajika 1.

Similarly, with the nuns stories. There are seven stories total in which nuns are the protagonists. Parajika 1, cases 13, 15, 71; Parajika 2, cases 30, 145, 146; Parajika 3, case 103. These are commonly placed at the end of the list of illustrative stories. This may have happened deliberately, adding them only after most of the stories involving monks had been finally collected. No illustrative stories were preserved in the nuns’ rules.

The last case of Parajika 2, case 150, is the only illustrative story in Vinaya that is obviously judged by neither the Buddha nor Venerable Upali. It seems to be the last addition to the list of stories in that rule. This all suggests it may have happened after the Parinibbana, and even after Venerable Upali’s death. It was included, probably because of its superficial importance – it is one of the two illustrative stories in which theft was not judged to be a parajika offence. Which makes it very unusual.

No-offence clause

The no-offence clause is, broadly speaking, a summary of the judgements in the illustrative stories, so must have been composed after that section was closed. Some of the expressions in the clause may refer to the lost illustrative stories of Sanghadisesa 6 onwards. Some judgements from the illustrative stories have been excluded, which I mention as part of the discussion of individual rules. Not all the comments in the no-offence clause appear to be the Buddha’s words; perhaps personal opinions, and not always in harmony with the rule. These aspects make the clause seem less than official and make it seem likely it was composed many years after the Parinibbana when the respect for preserving the unadulterated words of the Buddha was weakening. However, the no-offence clause is found in every rule, including the nuns' rules, which show that it was considered an important aspect of the rule, more important than the rule elaborations and cycle of permutations which are missing in many rules.

Rule elaboration

The rule elaboration is a classification table reminiscent of Abhidhamma texts, so may have been composed in that era, a hundred years or so after the no-offence clause. It only appears in nine rules, down to Sanghadisesa 5, but also in Pacittiyas 1-3. It is usually preceded by a key, which it then sets out to explain in detail.

The rule elaboration rarely addresses the rules, so cannot be used to interpret them. Nonetheless, it attempts to make lists that are comprehensive as well as entertaining, even if not particularly relevant. For instance, Parajika One makes it an offence to have intercourse with a woman or an animal, but the rule elaboration tells us that there are three kinds of females, three kinds of intersexuals, three kinds of eunuchs, three kinds of males, three entrances in females, three entrances in intersexuals, two entrances in a eunuch. Sanghadisesa 5 is about conveying proposals of romance, but the rule elaboration lists the ten types of wives. These lists are much briefer than the cycle of permutations which follow.

Cycle of permutations

This is a commentary on the rule elaboration, and therefore the final addition to the suttavibhanga. In the major rules the cycles are long and repetitive - reminiscent of Mrs Rhys Davids description of Abhidhamma. Its main task is to allocate offences for the situations described in the rule elaboration. It tries to be comprehensive by reducing information to lists of abstract qualities and circumstances, so it usually lacks the entertaining quality of the rule elaborations.

But dabbling with the abstract can lead to puzzling results. For instance, in Sanghadisesa 1 the cycle describes monks trying to ejaculate semen of different colours and consistencies. Another list has them ejaculating semen which is simultaneously four colours and six consistencies. This tells us that the author was more of an abstract thinker, not particularly concerned with the problem of preserving absurd and protracted lists for hundreds and thousands of years. Indeed, the fact that they survived this long exercise says something about the dutifulness of the reciters and scribes.

After Sanghadisesa 5, when the rule elaborations finish, the cycles become suddenly dull and formulaeic - though imaginative dukkata and thullaccaya offences are sometimes included to add a slight sparkle. Thus, where Pacittiya 7 says teaching Dhamma at length to a woman without a man present is pacittiya, the cycle adds that teaching a female yakkha, a female ghost, a eunuch, or an animal in a woman’s form are also offences.

All the monks rules have cycles, but in the nuns' vibhanga, only 72 of the 130 rules have them.

Relationship between the sections

Where these sections share a common theme, the gradual development of an idea can be seen.

In Parajika 1, the word magga gets coined by the author of the rule elaboration, who said that women have three maggas (anus, vagina, mouth) whereas men have just two (anus, mouth). This leads to the coining of the word amagga by the author of the minor cycle of permutations, who then analyses the sexual contact possible between maggas and amaggas.

In Sanghadisesa 5, the rule elaboration lists 10 types of wives; the cycle of permutations lists the combination of offences possible with each type of wife.

Pacittiya 5 says if a monk lies down in a sleeping place with an unordained person for more than two or three consecutive nights, it is an offence of pacittiya. The Word Analysis defines 'sleeping place' as a place that is either fully roofed and fully walled-round; or mostly roofed and mostly walled-round (sabba-cchannā, sabba-paricchannā, yebhuyyena-cchannā, yebhuyyena-paricchannā). The no-offence clause says that it is therefore no offence if the building is mostly unroofed, mostly unwalled round (yebhuyyena acchanne, yebhuyyena aparicchanne). The cycle of permutations gets the last word: it is a dukkata offence if it is half-roofed, half-walled-round (upaḍḍhacchanne upaḍḍhaparicchanne).

Illustrating the divisions of the Pali suttavibhanga

Examples of the divisions of the Pali suttavibhanga can be seen in Appendices 18, 19, 20 and 21.

Points for discussion

  • What is the suttavibhanga? What does the word ‘suttavibhanga’ mean?
  • Which parts of the suttavibhanga are probably the words of the Buddha?
  • Which parts were probably composed during his lifetime?
  • Is the rule elaboration associated mainly with the major rules or the minor rules?
  • What is the relationship between the cycle of permutations and the rule elaboration?
  • Which part of the suttavibhanga was probably composed last?
  • What are the two volumes of the khandhakas? Which one is longer?     |     © 2008, Bhante Varado     |     Install the Gentium font