In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prātimokṣa/Pātimokkha

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Philological Analysis
  • Commentaries
  • Comparative Studies
  • Textual Criticism
  • Contemporary Studies

Buddhism Prātimokṣa/Pātimokkha
Karma Lekshe Tsomo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0068


The prātimokṣa (Pāli: pāṭimokkha), the Buddhist monastic code of discipline, is a corpus of disciplinary rules to be observed by the monastic community: bhikṣu (fully ordained monk), bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained nun), śrāmaṇera (novice monk), srāmaṇerikā (novice nun), and śikṣamāṇā (female trainee [for full ordination]). Together with individual monastic constitutions, the prātimokṣa signifies the exemplary standard of pure conduct to be observed by the monastic community (sangha) as the foundation for achieving liberation. Etymologies of the term differ. Prāti means toward and mokṣa means liberation. Tibetan scholars define the term as individual liberation, commencement of liberation, and especially excellent liberation. Preceded by rituals of confession, the Bhikṣu and Bhikṣunī Prātimoṣa Sūtras are recited bimonthly in bhikṣu and bhikṣunī assemblies to restore the purity and unity of the sangha. The precepts include moral constraints, guidelines for disciplined behavior and harmonious communal living, and rules of etiquette. Over time, varying interpretations of the precepts led to different schools of vinaya, each with its own prātimokṣa. The Theravada school holds that the Pali canon was largely the work of the Buddha and his immediate disciples, collected at a council held shortly after the Buddha’s death. This is not supported by historical evidence. According to scholars, the precepts developed over a long period of time in response to specific instances of misconduct or impropriety, and were written down during the first century BCE. There are seven categories of precepts, arranged according to the seriousness of the offense. The prātimokṣas of all schools include five categories of precepts that are common to both bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs: (1) parajika (defeats that entail expulsion from the sangha), (2) sanghavasesa (remainders that entail suspension), (3) nihsargika-patayantika (abandoning downfalls that entail forfeiture), (4) patayantika (propelling downfalls or lapses), and (5) saiksa (faults or misdeeds). There is one additional category for bhikṣus, the two aniyata-dharma (individually confessed downfalls), and one for bhikṣuṇīs, the eight pratidesaniya (offenses requiring confession). The seven adhikarana-samatha (methods of resolving disputes) are included in the prātimokṣas of both bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. The four primary transgressions (pārājika, or defeats) for bhikṣus are killing a human being, taking what is not given, engaging in sexual intercourse, and falsely claiming to have attained supernormal powers. Bhikṣuṇīs have four further pārājikas, which vary in different schools of vinaya. The three main sangha rites to be observed by Buddhist monastics are the bimonthly purification of transgressions (upavasatha/uposatha), the commencement of the summer retreat (varṣopanāyikā/vassūpanāyikā), and the lifting of restrictions of the summer retreat (pravāraṇā/pavāraṇā). Transgressions were handled by confession, expulsion, penalties, forfeiture, or censure, in relation to the severity of the offense.

General Overviews

The prātimokṣa section of the vinaya-piṭaka includes the precepts that regulate monastic life. The bhikkhu and bhikkhunī pātimokkhas of the Pāli canon are observed in South and Southeast Asia and have been translated in various Asian and European languages. Nine other schools of bhikṣu and bhikṣunī pātimokṣa are recorded, of which only two are living traditions: the Dharmaguptaka (translated into Chinese) and the Mūlasarvāstivāda (translated into Tibetan). According to the story, Seniya Bimbisāra, the king of Magadha, observed that other sects attracted people and gained adherents when they assembled every fortnight and suggested to the Buddha that his followers do likewise. Thereafter, the bhikṣus began meeting every fortnight, but sat silently. People who had gathered to hear the dharma were disappointed and criticized them for remaining silent. The Buddha then told the bhikṣus to expound the dharma and gradually these gatherings became occasions to recite the rules of training that he had set forth. The bimonthly gathering is a rite of purification and an opportunity to affirm the unity of the sangha, after acknowledging transgressions and imposing sanctions. The pāṭimokkha/prātimokṣa sutra is usually recited by the most senior bhikkhu/bhikṣu or bhikkhunī/bhikṣunī present, calculated by the number of vassa observed (years of ordination). A number of translations of the pātimokkha/prātimokṣa sutras for Buddhist monks and nuns have been translated into European languages. Among them, Bechert 1979 gives a comprehensive overview of Sanskrit vinaya literature in German. Prebish 2000 gives a helpful introduction to vinaya literature and to the function of the pāṭimokkha based on Sanskrit sources, in English. The summary in Ariyesako 1999 is an accessible introduction to the monastic way of life and a compilation of guidelines for proper behavior to be observed by the laity in the presence of monks (how to bow, make offerings, etc.). Gyalpo 1996 and Thrangu Rinpoche 1990, by contrast, are commentaries written specifically for monks, since in the Tibetan tradition only ordained monastics are allowed to study the vinaya. The introduction to the pātimokkha in Vajirañāṇnavarorasa 1969–1983 is also written specifically for monks, with a brief mention of nuns. Dutt 1984 and Hazra 1988 provide useful historical introductions that explain the establishment and development of the pātimokkha.

  • Ariyesako, Bhikkhu. The Bhikkhus’ Rules––A Guide for Laypeople: The Theravadin Buddhist Monk’s Rules Compiled and Explained. Kallista, Australia: Sanghaloka Forest Hermitage, 1999.

    A compendium of the rules for monks with useful commentary about etiquette, customs, and the implementation of monastic rules in everyday practice.

  • Bechert, Heinz, ed. Systematische Übersicht über die buddhistische Sanskrit-Literatur. Teil 1: Vinaya-Texte von Akira Yuyama. Wiesbaden, West Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1979.

    A systematic survey of Sanskrit Buddhist texts on vinaya, in German.

  • Dutt, Sukumar. Early Buddhist Monachism. 2d ed. New Delhi: Manoharlal, 1984.

    An introduction to the early development of the Buddhist sangha. Includes historical background, an account of the Second Buddhist Council, the origins of the Mahāsānghika, and development of the early Buddhist schools.

  • Gyalpo, Ngari Panchen Pema Wangyi. Perfect Conduct: Ascertaining the Three Vows. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996.

    Commentary by Dudjom Rinpoche. A translation of Ascertaining the Three Vows (sDom-gSum rNam-Nges) by Panchen Pema Wangyal (b. 1487–d. 1542), with extensive commentary on the three levels of precepts—prātimokṣa, bodhisattva, and tantric—as practiced in the Tibetan tradition.

  • Hazra, Kanai Lal. Constitution of the Buddhist Saṅgha. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1988.

    A summary of the historical context and subsequent development of the Buddhist sangha in India, with detailed descriptions of sangha kamma, the rituals and procedures that regulated monastic life, with a dated but useful bibliography.

  • Prebish, Charles S. “Vinaya and Pratimoksa: The Foundation of Buddhist Ethics.” In Studies in History of Buddhism: Papers Presented at the International Conference on the History of Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA, August 19–21, 1976. Edited by A. K. Narain, 249–253. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 2000.

    An analysis of the structure and contents of the vinayapitaka, including the various categories of precepts, penalties for infractions, and a summary introduction to vinaya literature, divided into paracanonical (prātimokṣa is included here), canonical, and noncanonical vinaya literature. Certain “problematics” are then addressed, namely, the meaning and function of the prātimokṣa, its development as ritual liturgy, and a comparative analysis of extant prātimokas.

  • Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenchen. The Tibetan Vinaya: A Guide to Buddhist Conduct. Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1990.

    An exposition of the rules of conduct for bhikṣus contained in the Mulasarvastivada vinaya, as practiced in the Tibetan tradition.

  • Vajirañāṇnavarorasa. The Entrance to the Vinaya. 2 vols. Bangkok: Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya, 1969–1983.

    A translation and commentary on the Pāli bhikkhu pāṭimokkha. The first volume explains the upasampada rite of becoming a bhikkhu, the various categories of precepts, the adhikarana methods for settling disputes, and units of measurement. The second volume provides extensive commentary on robes, duties, rites, and other issues of daily monastic life, with a glossary of vinaya terms.

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