“They are worthy of veneration with palms joined together.
They are worthy of receiving prostrations.
They are a glorious field of merit.
They provide a great purification of offerings.
They are an object of generosity.
They are in every way the greatest object of generosity.”

—Excerpt about the Sangha, from Sutra on the Recollection of the Three Jewels

“In any case, what we need to think about is, in the early ancient times, the lifestyle of the monastics was actually very simple, but it would be difficult for people of this era to practice, or to be like them. This is important to consider. It was a very sacred way. If it was something that everyone could do, then there would be no reason to think that it is sacred or special.”

—17th Karmapa on the lifestyle of the Early Buddhist Sangha (2022)


Since August 1st 2022, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has been giving online teachings on the Origins of Secret Mantra, which will continue for five weeks (for playlist of teachings so far, see here) and has now completed six days of teaching.

On the first day, (for video see here) the Karmapa continued from last year’s teaching, first summarizing the teachings he covered generally last year. He then presented nine main topics he would discuss this year about Early (or Original) Buddhism:

  1. The formation of the Sangha, Vinaya discipline and monastics
  2. The first council: how the scriptures of early Buddhism developed (sutras and Vinaya)
  3. Buddhism after the Buddha’s parinirvana
  4. The second council and the split into the main schools
  5. The age of Emperor Ashoka (the third council)
  6. The contents of the scriptures
  7. The texts of early Buddhism
  8. Points of early Buddhism related to secret mantra
  9. The date of the Buddha’s parinirvana

For the first few days, the 17th Karmapa has given a detailed presentation on the first of the nine topics: ‘The formation of the Sangha, Vinaya discipline and monastics’. Here is a full, yet edited transcript of Day One, based on the oral translation and original Tibetan (the Kagyu Office published summaries, often miss, or edit out important details in my view, that can also affect the meaning). 

On Day One the following topics were discussed (I have prepared a pdf of this teaching, which can be downloaded here):



2)     THE FOUR-FOLD BUDDHIST COMMUNITY –  male and female householders and monastics. 

2.1 HOUSEHOLDERS/LAYPEOPLE and the meaning of the word upāsaka and upāsikā and the Tibetan translation of that term.



















In particular, the 17th Karmapa emphasized the extremely sacred and simple mode of living and sustenance of monastics at that time and how difficult it would be for people nowadays to follow such discipline.  For example, always wearing simple clothes, begging for food without any bias, not eating meat (unless it was offered by a donor) and sleeping wherever one could find a place to lay one’s head. He stated that he did not think monastics would be able to live such a lifestyle today. However, perhaps he was only talking about Tibetan Buddhist monks, as there are still monks in the South-East Asia (such as Thailand, and even in India) that do still beg for alms and have very simple lives, meditating in forests and so on. Although, judging by this recent NY Times article, obesity in Thai monks is becoming a major issue.

One almost felt the Karmapa’s nostalgia for that simple and pure time, as he ended the teaching with the quote cited above, ‘It was very sacred. If everyone could do it, then there would be no reason to call it sacred or special.’ 

Music?Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone and Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) by Paul Young (for wandering mendicant, not for the trails of broken-hearted women….if one is a monastic :-)).

Transcribed and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 16th August 2022.


‘The formation of the Sangha, Vinaya discipline and monastics’

17th Karmapa Summer Teaching (Day 1, 2022)

“Last year, I spoke about various topics generally, such as the spread of civilization within the Indian subcontinent, how the cultures were established, the appearance of the Vedic period and the view and philosophy in the non-Buddhist philosophy, such as the Upanishads, about how the Buddha appeared in the world, and how he turned the wheel of Dharma. I spoke a bit about how the teachings continued to spread after the Buddha passed away. In particular, how the Buddha’s teaching spread during the time of the Emperor Ashoka.


So, this year, I would like to speak about the early Buddhism relating to nine different points:

  1. The formation of the Sangha, Vinaya discipline and monastics.
  2. Buddhism after the Buddha’s parinirvana
  3. The second council and the split into the main schools
  4. The age of Emperor Ashoka (the third council)
  5. The contents of the scriptures
  6. The texts of early Buddhism
  7. Points of early Buddhism related to secret mantra
  8. The date of the Buddha’s parinirvana

If we have enough time, then there is another major topic I would like to present, about the time of the 18 different schools of Buddhism. If there is still time, then I will speak about the spread of the Mahayana.  I probably will not be able to get to the discussion of the spread of the Mahayana due to time constraints. In any case, in the summer teaching, these are the main points that I would like to discuss. But of course, as I discussed them, there are going to be some changes. It is possible that I might add some things. Also, there are some things that I may find I am unable to speak about. In any case, this is generally what I would like to speak about.

1)     What is meant by ‘Early [or Original] Buddhism’?

So now, when we talk about early Buddhism, we are going to talk about the earliest or the original form of Buddhism. What is meant by this is ( there are many different positions about this) is the time that the Buddha achieved enlightenment to turn the wheel of Dharma, the beginning of Buddhism. Then from that time on,  until the two main schools developed, that period in between those positions, we can call either the early or original Buddhism.  It is from the time the Buddha’s teachings began to spread until the different schools developed. So, within that original time of the spread of Buddhism, how did the Buddhist Sangha develop? How did the sangha discipline and rules of the Vinaya appear? How did monasteries develop?

2)     THE FOUR-FOLD BUDDHIST COMMUNITY –  male and female householders and monastics

The first thing that we need to understand is what we call the four-fold community. There are two groups of the Buddha’s students:

  1.  householders, the lay people, and
  2. monastics.

These can be further divided into male and female, making four groups.

2.1 HOUSEHOLDERS/LAYPEOPLE and the meaning of the word upāsaka and upāsikā and the Tibetan translation of that term
Japanese scholar, Akira Hirakawa (1915-2002),_A.

According to a text on grammar written during the early translation period, it was probably around 814 C.E, called the Grammar in Two Volumes. It is a very important text about the translation of words from Sanskrit into Tibetan. For example, it describes when translating the word Upāsaka into Tibetan, the Tibetan term Genyen, which means someone who has taken the five precepts (labpa), and is near to the result of Arhatship. They are called ‘approaching virtue’ or Genyen in Tibetan. So, it is considered to be someone who takes the five precepts and are clearly on the path to the result of Arhatship.  

The modern Japanese scholar called Akira Hirakawa asserts that the meaning is someone who attends or serves. He says that you if you translate it directly without giving much explanation, but if you actually translate the word itself, then the meaning is someone who attends to someone or who pays respect and service.  Who are they attending, who are they serving? That is the question that comes up. Who are they serving? Well, they are serving the monastics. Also, the monastics also need the requisites for their livelihood. And so, the supplies are the people who provide them with supplies or the householders. Likewise, the householders then go to the monastics and ask for guidance and Dharma teachings. So, that even while they remain living in the household, they can practice the Dharma. Generally, this is the understanding of the word Upāsaka. According to the same Japanese scholar, the point when they are given the name of Upāsaka, is when they go for refuge to the Three Jewels. The moment they asked for that, from the moment that they take refuge, only then are they called by the names Upāsaka.

However, in our Tibetan tradition and the Treasury of Abhidharma, there is a question of whether one becomes a lay-practitioner merely by taking the refuge or not, there are different points in two traditions of the Great Exposition, Vaibhashika.

We use the term in Tibetan Kache, or Kashmir for Muslims, but that is not their actual name. When the Muslims first came to Tibet, they all came from Kashmir and because of that they would say: ‘Oh, we came from Kashmir’. So, the Tibetans began to call them Kashmiris (Khache). The word Khache in Tibetan is the old Tibetan word for Kashmir but it is not actually the name for the religion of Islam. That was a bit of a digression on my part, and indicates the Kashmiri Vaibhashika, the great exposition of people who lived in Kashmir region.

 And then there were the Aparāntika Vaibhashika, people who lived in the areas of central Tibet, or central India. Those masters said that people get the name Upāsaka or ‘approaching virtue’, at the moment of taking the vows for refuge. Particularly, those people with the strongest faith and devotion would in addition to taking refuge, also take the five precepts of a new passbook. And so, these are what we call a pass.


Bangladeshi samaneris on their daily alms round. From Sramoni Sangha, Facebook

As for monastics, there are also male and female, of course, and novices and so forth, but the main monastics are, are called Gelong and Gelongmas. So, in Sanskrit, and Pali, they are called bhikshus. The females are called bhikshunis which in Tibetan is Gelongma.

  1. Ritualistic meaning – four-part motion and request

So, I am going to talk about the meaning of bhikshu. According to the Grammar in Two Volumes, those who are motivated by and seek nirvana, who are fully ordained by the ‘four-part motion with a request’ (ref Upacara ritual) and who live on alms in accord with the dharma are called bhikshus. There are six great masters who gave explanations of the Vinaya and who spoke about five different types of bhikshu. There was not any discussion of the five different types of bhikshus during the time of early Buddhism. However, in the Grammar in Two Volumes, it primarily speaks about those who are fully ordained by the four-point motion and request.  

  • A beggar/mendicant – begging for their food and livelihood or the Tibetan term ‘taking up virtue’

However, the Japanese scholar, Akira Hirakawa says that if you translate Bhikshu into English, means a mendicant, someone who goes begging. That is the literal meaning of the word. He says someone who is like a beggar and goes begging for alms.  However, when we translate it into Tibetan, if translate it as a beggar, then that is not a nice word. So, they made a nicer word, called Gelong, which means ‘requesting/taking up virtue’. If one says ‘beggar’ one might think they are like a pauper and it does not sound good. So, they translated it to someone who is ‘requesting/taking up virtue’, they made a slightly nicer name.

Another reason they are called mendicants, or bhikshus, is that bhikshus are dependent entirely on the offerings of the faithful members of the public for their livelihood. They did not have any other facilities of their own. They did not keep anything with themselves. And whatever they need in a single and in a day, the food and so forth that have to go and beg for it. They had to live begging for alms. For that reason, they are called mendicants, or pictures.

From another perspective, another point is that they focus their mind single pointedly on Dharma practice. If you normally think that you need to work and earn some money, and gather some wealth, and so forth, then because of that, you have so many different things you are doing with your body, speech, and mind. So, people are spending so much of their time, earning money, and gathering wealth. However, bhikshus do not have time to that because they are devoting themselves entirely to the practice of dharma, and focusing their minds entirely on that. For this reason, they are also called mendicants. So, these are the two meanings of the word.

In order to become a bhikshu, one has to the vows of full ordination. That is the main meaning of the word bhikshu. One must take the 253 vows of full ordination, which means abiding by a very strict discipline. The combined group of four: bhikshus, bhikshunis, (male and female monastics) upāsakas, and upāsikā (male and female lay practitioners) is called the fourfold community of Buddhism.  



Next, we should speak about the Sangha and what the term Sangha means: such as people who have the aim is to practice the Dharma, when there are many people with faith in the Dharma naturally gathered together? It is not like someone calls them together, instead people have longing for the Dharma and they come together and they gather in a single place. They consider the teachings of the Buddha to be the most important and they put it into practice, just as the Buddha taught and practiced meditation this way. So, the assembly, or order of those who have emphasized the teachings this way, is called the Buddhist Sangha.

When you talk about Sangha, the word is Sangha. Now, if you take a very loose understanding of this, the word Sangha it can mean all of the fourfold community, the monastics, and laypeople, all four of the different types of students may be called by the name Sangha.

However, during the earliest Buddhist period, the organized community of the Sangha only included the monastics. So, the organized, developed community only applied to the monastics and the householders were not really considered part of the Sangha community. If you have any further gathering of the male pictures and that was called a picture of sangha, so many pictures are gathered together that is called a sangha, and assorted Sangha.


Now in Tibetan, we say, when there are four or more individual bhikshus gathered together, this is a bhikshu sangha.  If there is only one individual who is not a bhikshu, it is not a sangha and the same if there are only two or three. Only when there are four or more can they be called by the name of sangha.  In any case, if you have four or more Bhikshus gathered together, then they can be called a Bhikshu sangha and if you have a gathering of four or more Bhikshunis that can be called a Bhikshuni Sangha. The general name for the two of these were called the dual Sangha, the two communities of the Sangha. This is the name that was given to them.

The Bhikshu and Bhikshuni sangha did not live in the same place and lived separately and administered their own communities.  It is not like the two communities just gathered together and mixed in one single place and the Bhikshus were administering the Bhikshuni nuns. What it means is the custom was to call the monastic Bhikshus by the word Sangha, but the lay practitioners were not generally called the Sangha.  


Sangha is a Sanskrit word, and it was translated into Tibetan as Gendun. So, this translation is translating the meaning in Chinese and Japanese to use the word Sang. This word Sang comes from the Sanskrit word Sangha. This can sometimes be used to refer to a single monastic, this does occur. However, as for the meaning of the word Sangha, it means the assembly of a gathering, a gathering of many people, that is what we call the Sangha. A single individual cannot be called by the term Sangha.

As a way for you to understand that there is a commentary on the 100,000-line Prajnaparamita Sutras attributed to Nagarjuna. Now, this is not in Tibetan, but it is preserved by the Chinese. What it says in this, and I am not going to read the words, literally it says: “Why is it called the Sangha? “So why do you call the Sangha, Sangha?

The meaning of the word Sangha is an assembly or a gathering. For example, if there are many trees together, we call it a forest but you do not call a single tree a forest. Similarly, if you remove the trees from the forest, there is no forest anymore, right? Similarly, the individual Bhikshus are not called Sangha. If there are no Bhikshus, then there is no more Sangha. So, basically the group or the assembly of many bhikkhus is what is called a sangha. It means a group.  However, in Tibetan, the word Gedun, there is no clear idea whether it means a group or an individual, or an organization, but the meaning of the word Sangha in Sanskrit means a group.


During the time of the Buddha in India, there are political groups, to some extent like political parties we have these days. Likewise, there are also business communities, business groups, and these are called Sanghas. That was the tradition at that time. Likewise, the word Sangha was also used for a group of people gathered for religious purposes and so on.  So, for that reason, the gathering of many people who wanted to practice the Buddhist teaching were called the Sangha. That is what we mean by Sangha.

Sometimes, there is also the word gaṇa that appears for the Sangha and this is most frequent in the Mahayana sutras such as this word the bodhisattva-gaṇa. This just means a group of bodhisattvas or the assembly of bodhisattvas.

That means the Sangha term is not only in Buddhism, when they speak about the organization of the Sangha, as in the Buddha Dharma and Sangha. It is not only a Buddhist phenomenon. Particularly during the time of the Buddha, there were many different sanghas, or many different groups. There were the Sanghas within religious communities in the broad political religions, in the Jain religion or Hindu tradition. Likewise, before the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he started with the non-Buddhist teachers such as those of Ālara Kālāma and Udraka Rāmaputra. Also, during that time there were very well-known teachers who primarily practiced austerities and they also had organizations or gatherings and assemblies of people that they were called Sanghas.

Now, if I elaborate on this a little bit here, if we wanted to have a good understanding of the word Sangha, we can understand how is it that a sangha needs to be established, how we can maintain a sangha, how we can preserve and improve the Sangha. We often recite the sutra, The Recollection of the Three Jewels. Within this it says, in the section on the recollecting the three, the jewel of the Sangha, it says[1]:

“As for the Sangha of the Great vehicle, they engage thoroughly. They engage with awareness. They engage straightforwardly. They engage harmoniously.”

Now, the others I do not need to describe, but when we talk about engaged harmoniously.  What does this word harmoniously here mean? It means that their discipline and views are harmonious. They keep the same discipline and they also have the same correct view of believing in the karmic cause and effect, and faith and belief in the Three Jewels. For that reason, they are people who have the same aims, the same aspirations, and the same views. That is why they are harmonious and that is why we say ‘harmoniously’. Also, it speaks about this in the Grammar of Two Volumes. That the disciples are harmonious in both discipline and views and so they are engaged in harmony.


As for the topic of harmony in the Chinese tradition, they speak about these six qualities of harmony. However, these six qualities of harmony are not described in the Tibetan tradition much. However, within our Tibet Tengyur there are six great commentators on the on the Vinaya from the Indian tradition, and so one of them was written by a Master Viśeṣamitra, he speaks about the six types of harmony. Now, this is a little different than the six qualities of harmony that are described in Chinese Buddhism, but it was sparked by the Viśeṣamitra. Both were very similar. So, these are the six types of harmony:

  1. signs (that is in their robes),
  2. their actions,
  3. their discipline,
  4. their view,
  5. their rituals and
  6. their lifestyles.

They are the same in flavour.

These are the six different ways that they all are in harmony with each other and all harmonious. Now often we recite a, maybe there is a pair that recite this when we talk about the ‘blessings of the indivisible wishes of the Sangha’. And we say, by ‘the blessings of indivisible wishes of the sangha’, I said, everyone, all the members of the sangha, have the same intentions and they have harmony of their minds.

So, this means that whether it is in terms of their discipline, they are harmonious and the same. So that was a very good gathering. It is somewhere no one else can worm their way in and create dissension within them. So, because there is no disharmony in the Sangha, then they are able to practice and strive for virtue together.

The Gendun, or wishing for victory means that they are the same in wishing for virtue, they cannot be defied in this. So, the meaning of the word Sangha, when you translate the word Sangha into the meaning, it means that people have the same wish and their same focus on virtue. So, they come together and are called the Gendun or the Sangha. 

Likewise, when we go for refuge, we say the noble Sangha, the supreme of assemblies. The reason we say the supreme of assemblies, is as I mentioned before is that the word Sangha means like a group or an assembly, or a society. Now, there are many different groups in society, political groups, business groups, there are many different types of groups. Among all the different types of groups, the Sangha is the best of these groups. The reason why it is the best is because it has features or properties that the other sanghas/ groups do not have. These are the harmonious views and the harmonious discipline. So, the people within this group I have, unlike other groupings, keep the same discipline. So, for this reason they are something that everyone should feel faith and devotion for. So, they are called the supreme of assemblies, because of the supreme of all assemblies is the sangha of Buddhist monastics.  If they have that same harmony in view and harmony in conduct, then it says in the Sutra of Recollection of the Three Jewels:

“They are worthy of veneration with palms joined together.

They are worthy of receiving prostrations.

They are a glorious field of merit.

They provide a great purification of offerings.

They are an object of generosity.

They are in every way the greatest object of generosity.”

When you have such a great Supreme sangha, then no matter who you are, if someone joins their hands in prayer, it is worthy. If they prostrate it is worthy of this prostration that is the type of group that it is. 

The six qualities of harmony are not really spoken about in Tibetan, but the followers of the Buddha the monastics must have really had the same aims, the same views, and the same wishes. Many people like this gathered and stayed in a single place. The reason why they would all gather, is that they have the same aim. They are keeping the same discipline. They are all taking the same views. If we were able to understand this, well, I think it is very beneficial for us. 

Then, as it says, In the Pratimoksha Sutra: 

“Harmony of the sangha is happiness, the discipline of harmony is happiness.” 

This is not something we just recite with our words; this is something that we need to put into practice. We need to make all the disharmony in the Sangha resolved into harmony, we need to increase the harmony so that it can be even more harmonious than before. If we can do that this is extremely beneficial. The fundamental meaning of Sangha means that our wishes are harmonious that our minds are harmonious. 

[So now we will take a 30-minute intermission. Now usually what we do, everyone goes off. during the breaks. These days, when you think about all the different situations the world, we are going to do it differently. We do not know what is going to happen, there are many different wars, no one no one knows what is happening. So, I think it is good for us to recite prayers. So, during the 30 minutes of intermission, we will recite the text and we will have the recite 21 Taras for one week, and next week, we will recite something else, maybe something like the spontaneous fulfillment of wishes or clearing the path of obstacles. Each week, we will have different texts to recite, and we will prepare this for you. So, if you need to go to the bathroom, then you may get up and go. The rest of you, if you do not really need to go to the bathroom, then you can just remain and recite the this, we have recorded the prayers and you can recite it. ]


I will now speak about the prerequisites and the procedures of taking ordination. About how at the time of early Buddhism, during the original period when the Buddha’s teachings spread, how the procedures of being ordained occurred, what prerequisites you had to have and what the procedures were.

To speak about the earliest Buddhist Sangha, would you be able to give an answer who they are or not? The earliest sangha was when the Buddha gave his first teaching at the Rishipatana Deer Park in Sarnath, the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. At that time, there were five followers of the Buddha who were gathered around him. These five included Koudanna and others. In Buddhism we call them the ‘good group of five’ and these are the earliest Sangha, or the earliest group of Buddhist practitioners.

After that, there are many others who followed the Buddha and went forth. If we look at it according to the Vinaya that was translated into Tibetan from the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition, there was Kirti and his four siblings. So, the five of them went forth and they are called the next, or the ‘near group of five’.

Following that, there were five youths from the region of Varanasi who came to the Buddha and took full ordination. Following that there was the good group of 60. After that, the largest group of people taking ordination were the students of Urubilvā Kāśyāpa. He was a non-Buddhist teacher who was rather well known at that time. He also had many followers, around 1000 students that he brought to the Buddha. He developed faith in the Buddha and began to follow the Buddha, so he also brought his 1000 students along with him. They all went forth to the Buddha, or they all went for refuge to the Buddha and took vows. So, the Buddhist Sangha very swiftly became very big at the beginning.

Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2

It is different than how it has happened for the other types. Before that, there were just a few and then Urubilvā Kāśyāpa followed Buddha and then suddenly there were many sangha. Following that there were Shariputra, Maudgalyayana, and Maha Kaśyāpa and other great Bhikshus. And so, all the great Arhats appeared, and not only was it very a large, but it was also very stable.

Later, there is the Indian King Bimbisara, He was one of the most important kings in India at that time. Also, there was the householder Anathapindada, a wealthy merchant, who was also extremely generous and very rich.  So, following those two, many other influential people also went for refuge to the Buddha and so, the main sponsors of the Buddha also became very influential. One was a king and another was a very rich businessman, a merchant. For that reason, there became more and more donors to the sangha as well. So, for many such reasons, within a few years of the Buddha achieving enlightenment, the sangha reached a considerable size.  The Tibetan Vinaya scriptures record that when Bimbisara sponsored the Sangha, there were 1253 Bhikshus, this is a very large Sangha that he sponsored.



When the Sangha was first established what people who wished to have an ordination would have to do, they had to go and see the Buddha and explain the reasons and their aims for going forth. If they did that, then the Buddha would allow all of those who wish to go forth. He basically let almost all of them go forth. After they gained that permission, the posture and the person asking for it would go to one of the elder Sangha, someone who had seniority in terms of the date they took their vows and take the refuge vows and recite it three times, and they would also then take 10 precepts. 

They would make the commitment to keep these 10 precepts and then they would become a member of the Buddhist Sangha. As for the 10 precepts, these are 10 vows that one must keep. So, the Buddha called his people the Sramanas. In India, these are sometimes called novices but they are called Sramanas. The meaning of the word is ‘people who are on their way to becoming Bhikshus, they are close to that and are called the shaman era. 

Or one can also say the people who serve the Bhikshus, and so they are called the Getsul in Tibetan. In any case, they basically had to keep these 10 precepts. These 10 include giving up: 

  1. taking life,
  2. taking that which is not given,
  3. unchaste conduct,
  4. significant lies,
  5. alcohol,
  6. high and large seats,
  7. perfume and jewellery;
  8. song and dance,
  9. accepting gold and silver,
  10. eating food at inappropriate times.

These 10 precepts became the most important of all the different Buddhist rules and precepts. Later researchers have recognized these 10 precepts as the most important and the basis for all the later precepts. Not only were there different precepts, there are also different rules about one’s robes and so forth. For example, there was the need to shave your head and facial hair, the necessity of wearing the three Dharma robes and wearing average/simple clothes, not luxury or fancy clothing at all. This practice was established at that time too.

Was everyone who wished to go forth allowed to go forth and become Buddhists? As I said before, people would go to the Buddha and say ‘I wish to go forth my aim for going for refuge is this’ and so on. If one explained this well, then he would let most of them go forth, most of them had the Buddha’s permission. 

Likewise, at that time, there were great distinctions between the castes. Some of the lower castes were not allowed to do certain types of jobs, however, in the Buddhist community, it made no difference if someone was lower caste or not. There was a no distinction of caste or social status. All were allowed to go forth.


However, before one could go forth, there were a few tests that you had to go through to see whether you had all the requirements, to see if there are any adverse factors, or if there are any positive and negative factors.  For example, in order to be fully ordained, there are around 20, different requirements for full ordination such as you must be at least seven years old, if you are not seven years old, then you are not allowed to go forth. Likewise, if your parents are living, or if someone is not in debt to someone else, if you are someone like that, or if you are someone who was a government worker, or a soldier or someone else’s servant, people such as that had to get permission from their master, or from their parents and so forth. If they got permission, then they could go forth. They could not go forth if they did not have permission. You had to ask permission from your parents. If you had just run away and without permission from your parents, that did not work. Likewise, people had very severe illnesses, also people who had impaired faculties or disabilities or disabled limbs, or if people are extremely old, that they were on the point of death, they are also not allowed to go forth. 

The main reason for this is, from one perspective, if there is someone who has a debt comes, then someone would come over to make problems with that person who is in debt. The second point is if you have many people with impaired faculties, or many ill people on the Sangha, then the quality of the Sangha would not be so good because people would have to be serving the ill people. To have someone to help the person, that helper would have to be a member of the Sangha and that person would have no opportunity to do any listening, contemplating, and meditating because they would be spending their entire time helping the sick monk. 

Also, there are people who would go forth only for the sake of food and clothing. So, for that reason, there were certain prerequisites for going forth. This was the procedure that was made. Among these, the requirement that children must have their parents’ permission to go forth, that must have been from a very early time. This likely originated at the time that the Buddha’s son, Rahula went forth. 

Likewise, it is at the request of Kings Shuddhodhana that the Buddha made a rule the members of the Kings retinue and servants, and those with severe illnesses and those abandoned or wanted by the government or criminals, thieves whose names are on a government Registry, or criminals or people who are in debt, or people that are the servants or slaves of other people were not allowed to go forth. 

So, in general, everyone could go forth. However, it could not be just anyone at all. They had to be examined first to see whether they had all the prerequisites. 


When a person had gone forth and taken the novice vows, if they lived within the sangha, after they achieved the age of 20, if they have all the requisites and are worthy of it, they could be given the full ordination. 

First, it was the Buddha himself who gave all the vows.  Later, as the Sangha grew and got larger and larger, and there more and more Bhikshus, here are people in outlying lands and remote areas, who also wanted to enter the Sangha. So, if there were people from remote places and outlying lands and the Buddha was unable to go himself, if that was the situation, the Buddha designated other people and gave them the responsibility of giving the vows 

According to the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya scriptures that are preserved in Tibetan, what it says is that, at first all the monastic vows could only be taken in the presence of the Buddha. One could not take them from anyone else, everyone had to take the vows from the Buddha. So, this is the tradition at the beginning. Now, as I said before, some were coming from long distances to take the vows. There are many such people and some of these people encountered very mortal dangers, or the danger of being killed. They would they would meet bandits or carnivorous animals. So, because their lives were endangered, the Buddha said you do not necessarily have to come to me. You can also, wherever you are, if there is a sangha there, then the sangha can all gather there, all the Bhikshus there can all gather. That is a sangha.  Then, if you recite the promise of keeping the Bhikshu vows three times in the presence of an elder Bhikshu, then you can take the vows in the presence of three elders of the Sangha.

So, we talk about the early and later rituals, this is the early rituals. We do have these terms of the early and the later rituals for ordinations. We must look at when these terms were written or originated. We have to see whether this is a term that was used in early Buddhism, the terms of early and the later ordination rituals. Probably it was not, it is probably a term that was developed later. 


Then there was this new Bhikshu, who had just taken the vows and needed someone to take care of them to look over them. So, they needed someone to look after him. So, there was the Khenpo and the Upadhyaya was like the mentor, or the person who is maybe looking after the new monk.  Sometimes the Khenpo would not have time, or are there times when the Khenpo was not there. So, at that point, the new Bhikshus would also at some point, some of them would remember their homes and missed their parents, and they became very unhappy. So, they needed someone who was always there to look after them and take care of them and give them guidance. So, they were assigned a tutor or an Acharya. So, the Acharya here is when the Khenpo was not there or had no time, this person was their substitute. In terms of the Dharma, the Khenpo, and the Acharya were like the substitutes for your loved ones and parents.

So, in worldly terms, you have a father and mother. Now in dharma, the replacement or the substitute for our parents are the Khenpo and the Acharya. This is this is very clearly explained in our Vinaya and is evident in Tibetan, but these days we say Khenpo or Acharya and we do not necessarily mean the Khenpo who gives you the vows. Usually, the word Khenpo these days, means we do not necessarily stay with the Khenpo from whom we take vows. It is not like they are always continually looking after us. They do not take that responsibility, right?  If we were to practice that, according to the Vinaya, then the Bhikshu and the Acharya would be somebody, you must live with. There will be someone who can continually give you guidance. 

He primarily had that responsibility, and when he did not have the time or was absent, then the Acharya would be the be the substitute for the Khenpo. He would take the responsibility for looking after people. So how long did he have to do this? He had to spend 10 years studying one’s Vinaya with the Khenpo and the Acharya. Training in the Vinaya is giving the guidance for what you may or may not do. Basically, during early Buddhism it was not like we have these texts of the Vinaya, there was nothing like that in the early Buddhism. If it were not like that it would be so difficult because at that point, there had been no Council to combine all the Buddha’s words. So that meant the Buddha’s teachings were not written down. So, the Buddhist teachings were given to students, and everyone had to mentally remember them. Then there would be new Bhikkhus and students and every day one would have to repeat it and teach them to the new students. 

Probably around six years after the Buddha awakened to Buddhahood he returned to his homeland. When he returned to his homeland, then there was Udayi who went to welcome the Buddha. So, Udayi came to welcome the Buddha and the Buddha had Shariputra give Udayi the ordination then, so Shariputra became the Khenpo of Udayi. So, this was like a new method for ordaining Bhikshus.  So, Shariputra was told by the Buddha to become the Khenpo for Udayi. And that point, there was a new method for ordaining monks that developed, later this was called the upacāra ritual. Now, this is according to description given in the Tibetan translations of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya scriptures. 

Now, after that people who stayed within a single certain region, everyone had to get together when vows were given, everyone had to attend. Later that was not necessary and one could take the vows from an assembly of 10 Bhikshus. So, if the ten monks gathered, then you could take the vows in their presence. So, that was allowed. However, there was a noble Katayana who went to many outlying regions, and when he went to these remote places and stayed there, there were many people who wanted to go forth and become Bhikshus. Yet in those remote places, it is difficult to find 10 Bhikshus, getting the whole number of 10 together. So, when the Buddha was asked about this situation, the Buddha said that if it is like that, then it is okay to take the vows in the presence of five Bhikshus. 


I will not say too much about the way one takes the vows. Basically, the person was asking about the vows, would have to find a Khenpo. After finding the Khenpo then, they have to say ‘I’d like to take the vows’ and explain clearly their aim in taking the vows. Then the Khenpo would examine the person and see if they have all the prerequisites or not. To see if this person goes forth, how will it be and so on.  If he thought that it would be okay then they would have to find the Acharya for this action, the master of the action. Then, for maybe ten years, the person would have to spend studying the Vinaya. So, he would have to find someone who would accept the responsibility of guiding that Bhikshu for 10 years. One would have to stay there and ask for them. 

So, then you have the student, Bhikshu, the master of the action and the Khenpo who took the responsibility.  The student would have to say, ‘if the Sangha thinks it is okay to give the vows, then please give the vows.’ That is what the supplication is, which is basically asking. Then, if the gathering of the Sangha, the whole group accepted it and were all in consensus and accepted this, after the motion was recited three times, and if no one raised any objections, then the vows were given. This is what we call the four-fold action with a supplication (sol zhi le), solwa means to supplicate. So that is one of the actions of the Vinaya. Now a Bhikshu who had just recently taken the full ordination would have to become a student of that Khenpo and follow their guidance and counsel, they had to live with a Khenpo and go and follow their guidance. During that time, they had to study the Vinaya, and also had to learn how to do meditation. There in relation to the Buddhist scriptures. At that time, there were not any philosophical schools such as we have now, like  Great Exposition, Sutra, Madhyamaka as we have now, there was nothing as complicated as that during the period of early Buddhism. However, there were Buddhist scriptures and meaning of these scriptures had to be studied. 

Now, when they were studying the meditation scriptures, if there are some who have the permission of the Kenpo, who was guiding and mentoring them, then they could go search out another master who was particularly learned in that area, such as the practice of meditation. Or if there was some master who was particularly skilled in the meaning of the scriptures, they could go to them and study. In brief, the Khenpo had to care for the student like his own son. The student then had to serve the Khenpo like he was serving his own father. They had to go for alms to beg for food and robes together. And if the Khenpo or the other became sick, they had to care for each other. When they fell sick, there would not have been some other students and Bhikshus there to help them, they had to help each other. 

So, in this way, they lead their life practicing the Dharma. Later, modern researchers say first, there was the Khenpo but there were times when the Khenpo did not have time and so they needed someone to look after them, so they made the Acharya. Now, the Acharya is what we call in Tibetan the local tutor. However, in the Vinaya itself, it primarily uses just the word Acharya. So, this in summary is how the practice of having both a Khenpo and Acharya to guide and to oversee the Bhikshu like their parents developed.


Three Dharma robes. Photo from Kagyu Monlam:

There are three specific types of robes which are called the three Dhamma robes (Chogu Namsum).  These are:

1) An upper body robe, we often call this the Cho-go. Now that word Cho-go, dharma robe is giving the name for all three to one of them. Its actual name is called the upper robe (la-go), because it is thrown over the upper body. 

2) A lower body robe that you had to wear and this is called the lower robe (than-go). 

3) Then the additional robe is the saṇghāṭī [namjar] or the outer robe to be worn on top. It is different than the upper robe.  According to our Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya in the Tibetan canon, the outer robe (namjar) was only to be worn on occasions. There were seven of these occasions where one could wear the outer robe. Otherwise, outside of those occasions, one was not permitted to wear those.  Now when you were not wearing it then you had to keep the robe well and properly. The namjar or the Sangha is only for the Bhikshus.

As for the three Dhamma robes, in relation to the fabric or their colour, they should not be too fancy there should not be too bright. They should not be something that everyone feels really attracted to or that they feel grateful for. Thinking like ‘oh, that looks really good such nice clothes!’  Such as these days, a lot of people wear clothes from a fashionable brand and that make themselves look nice. They wear clothing that has the brand name all over it from the top to the bottom. So, people think ‘look at how smart and beautiful I am’, and people say ‘oh you must be really rich’.  It is not okay to do that. 

 For Bhikshu monastics, when people look at them their clothes should be appropriate for them. They should not be too nice and not something special that people look at and say ‘Oh, what an impressive person!’ Wow, what beautiful robes!’ and all that. That is not okay. Most of the monastic robes originally were made by second-hand clothes that people could not use and were thrown away. They would gather many scraps of fabrics and then sew them together. Or from faithful sponsors who would make a gift of the fabric for making the Dharma robes. Then they had to cut it into small pieces and once again sew it back together to make the Dharma robes.

Example of the yellow-brown robe referred to by Akirawa. Bikshunis wearing robes and begging for alms in Thailand.

The Japanese scholar Hirokawa Akira asserts that monastic robes must be dyed a light brown color called kāsāya before use. probably what we call like a light-yellow brown. So, the robes should be dyed a light brown before being used. According to the Tibetan Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, only robes that are red, yellow, and blue may be worn, any other color is not is not allowed to be worn. As for the Red, Yellow, and Blue, they cannot be a really bright blue, or red or a really vibrant yellow, the dyes must not be especially nice or bright. They should be dull and faded. It is said that if a sponsor donates something very bright, like a really intense red cloth, if they give that to make the three Dharma robes, you should wash it in the water to make it fade up to three times. If once is not enough and nor is a second time, you have to wash it three times so that all the deep color is lost and it becomes faded and duller.  Sometimes some fabrics have been washed three times but they are still too bright. However, if you are wearing them, it is no problem because you have tried to make it fade and you have done this three times and it did not fade, so there is no problem with that. The main point is that the color must not be very nice or bright or attractive. It should be a faded, dull colour.

Likewise, when you think about the three Dharma robes, there are the panels or the patches that make them up. The square parts, right? There are rules about how many of these patches or panels there should be on the lower and upper robe and on the saṇghāti.  So, the length is what we call the neck, and then you have got the shorter side, the width is what we call the height.  So, the different panels that are called the vertical ones are called the strips, I do not need to speak about too much about this right now. If we have time later, I can speak about it. 

Now when you speak about these things, we have probably never seen any Dharma robes, such as those that were worn during the early period of Buddhism. So it is difficult for us to really know exactly what the followers of Buddhism wore. Probably the closest are the Theravada practitioners in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Burma, and Laos. Their robes are probably closest to the robes worn during early Buddhism. The Tibetan robes are fairly close but slightly different. The most different are probably the robes in the Chinese tradition. Those I think are the furthest removed from the original robes worn by the Bhikshus. However, the level of distance from the original robes is not really that important, I am not saying that one is better and one is worse. I am talking about in terms of similarities. 


Now I will speak about how sangha members got their food, and where they stayed. So, if we just speak about the way the sangha would get their food they had to go begging, they had to go to other houses and beg for food. And after they would beg for alms, then when you knew you are going begging for food, you do not get good food. One must go to the rich and the poor people, and sometimes you might get something good and sometimes you will not get anything good. And if you get something, then you are not going to get all that much. Basically, one had to be satisfied merely by having your stomachs being filled.  As you are not hungry anymore then you had to be satisfied. Otherwise, there was not any kind of choice such as: ‘oh, my stomach’s still not full, I am still hungry, I still need to eat more’. One had to be satisfied merely having one’s stomachs being filled. Likewise, you could not criticize the quality of food or whether you like it or not. For example, saying: ‘this family’s food is tasty. They give tasty food. That other family their food is not tasty’. You cannot criticize the food because if the other person hears that, then they are going to feel upset about it. Someone comes and ask for them for food, and if you are giving them food, it is good, right? If you do not give it, then there is no loss.  You have given an answer. If in addition to that, they are also criticized for it, then there is the danger that they will be offended.  So, one cannot say what food you liked or did not like.

The Japanese scholar, Akira said that during the time of early Buddhism, when the Sangha members went on the alms rounds, they were not allowed to go to rich households much. For example, if one has the habit of going to rich households, you are going to get better and more food, right? You are going to get more and better food. According to the Vinaya, you are not allowed to go often to the rich households and would have to avoid them.  Because if you go to the rich houses, and think you are only going to get nice food and if you keep on going to the rich houses, then that is a little bit irritating for the rich people. So, there is a rule like that, according to the Japanese scholar, Akira said this (and he knows both Sanskrit and Pali and the Early Buddhist Vinaya). There is probably something about it in the Pali Vinaya scriptures. 

What is says in our Tibetan Vinaya scriptures is that one should ask for alms from whomever, whether rich or poor. For example, in a village, one must go ask for food from whatever house you come to. One cannot intentionally specifically go to house and avoid going to a poor household. At that time, when you went for begging for alms, whatever house you came to, you have to go to their door and beg for alms. 

It is easy for me to say but for you to understand it. You may think, is this an easy way to live or not? For example, when we have the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya and during that if we said to the sangha members, ‘ now you have to go off to the Indian villages and beg for food, we’re not giving you any food today, you have to go out and beg’. The first thing is that no one would want to go. They would say ‘well, there is no food at all. I am not sure I can go. Lama Chodrag is getting sick because of this and he does not want to ask for food’. So, people might think this. At first, it is difficult for people to even want to do this. So, if they must go out and get food, most people do not even have the alms bowls. So, they go off and get a bowl, they get the little bowl and they go there. Then if you go to the Indian villages and ask them for food, you have to look, before you see how much food they have. They do not have much food; they do not have much rice or dal and all that. Also, we wear better clothes than they do with our robes.  If we go to certain places to give us food, there is a danger that they are going to talk back to us and create problems for us. Even if they give food to us, I am not sure we would even want to eat it. Because we always get used to eating good food. If we had to eat Indian village food, we probably would not want to eat it. It is not easy. 

However, during the original Buddhism, you had to go into the villages and ask for food. You had to eat whatever it was they gave you. One could not say: ‘Oh, I’d like some more, or that’s too much’. One had to take whatever they had given you and be happy with it and you have to be able to eat it before solar noon. After solar noon, you were not allowed to eat. 

If we think about meat, for example. In the time of early Buddhism, what it said is that if there was meat that you had not seen, heard, or suspected to be slaughtered for their sake, so if you have not actually seen it being slaughtered, or if you have not heard that it was being slaughtered for your sake. Or if you did not have any suspicion that it was killed for your sake, then you are allowed to eat the meat. So, this is possible in the olden days, because they did not have the same facilities like us at that time. Each family had to prepare their own food if they needed meat. They had to kill one of their own domestic animals. They could not go out to a shop or supermarket and get everything for that. It was not like now when you can buy anything you want. The old days were different, one had to prepare what you had on hand.  So that time, to eat meat that is pure in those three ways was allowed.  In particular, if there was someone who was ill, they could have meat as a substitute for medicine. 

In addition, they only had one meal a day. We call it a single seat, meaning that people only eat one meal a day. The reason for this is when they first got up in the morning you do the meditation then you have to go out for the alms round, right? You have to go and beg for foods in the villages and take back whatever food you brought. Then come back to your place and eat all the food before solar noon. If you were healthy and not sick, there are certain foods that you were not allowed to eat, like milk or milk porridge and because these are considered fine or delicious food. They were not allowed to eat the specialties because we were all very attached to delicious foods, right? it is possible they are going to waste a lot of time looking for such tasty food. So, the lifestyle at that time, when we think about it from the perspective of contemporary people, is very difficult and hard. 


Likewise, when you think about the place where they stayed, for us, the Sangha members have monasteries, and you have your own rooms where you can stay such as in dormitories.  You have a place where you stay. At that time, what did the Bhikshus have for their places? All the Bhikshus always moved from one place to another, they would travel. In the summer rains retreat, we talk about the traveling. During the rains retreat, we go traveling for about a quarter of a kilometre or two. However, that is not the way, that is just a representation. In the early days, one had to move from one place to another.  So, was there a bed waiting for you where you were going? There was nothing.  You did not know where you were going, when you would get there, and no one knew you were arriving. So, whenever you got to a place there were no places prepared for you. Where did you have to sleep? You had to sleep outside.

It is better to sleep under a roof. If there was a tree you had to sleep underneath a tree. So that was the situation during the time of early Buddhism. The good thing is that in India except for the monsoon, which is a few months in the summer, it rains infrequently and other seasons. So, if you have to sleep under a tree, it is not all that difficult. Otherwise, if it is raining all the time and you have to sleep under a tree then that is more difficult. 

The dhutanga called “living under a tree without the shelter of a roof” (Pali: rukkhamulik’anga).

Not only that, within the Sangha, there were some who, from their own initiative were much more hardcore than others. They wanted to live a more ascetic lifestyle. So, these people really wanted to take on more ascetic practices. So, this type of people all gathered together and were given the name of the 12 qualities of training. [Dhutanga) or dhūtaguṇa (Sanskrit) is a group of austerities or ascetic practices taught in Buddhism. The Theravada tradition teaches a set of thirteen dhutangas, while Mahayana Buddhist sources teach a set of twelve dhūtaguṇas.] This is how these 12 qualities of training occurred.  Some people only wore fabric that other people had thrown away; rags that had been disposed of. If a rag has been thrown out in the trash, then that is the only type of fabric they used. So, there were such people who practiced like that at that time.

If we think about it, the Sangha at that time lived like Milarepa, Food was scarce and the robes were not that nice. It is not like they are 100% like Milarepa but it is basically similar to Milarepa. They basically went around to various, unfixed locations. If we think about how we do things, what shall I say? If I say that our way is nice and happy that is kind of strange. If I said that the Bhikshus in early Buddhism were unhappy or it was not nice, whereas we are happy and have a nice time, I cannot say that. However, if you think about it, if we had to be reborn and we were born at that time, it would be difficult for us to live that lifestyle. It would be difficult even if we chose it because our society is so different than those ancient times.  The facilities in our present era are much more plentiful. So, if you insist on doing the ascetic practices, it would be kind of strange. If you are doing things completely different from nowadays and do not get along with those that is also kind of strange. So, the societies at those times were different. The Indian society at that time was different than the current society and that way worked in that society of that time. Now, if we need to work within it, there is a different way that things work in our present society.

“In any case, what we need to think about is, in the early ancient times, the lifestyle of the monastics was actually very simple, but it would be difficult for people of this era to practice, or to be like them. This is important to consider. It was a very sacred way. If it was something that everyone could do, then there would be no reason to think that it is sacred or special.””

[1] The Tibetan is: ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་དགེ་འདུན་ནི་ལེགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ། རིགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ། དྲང་པོར་ཞུགས་པ། མཐུན་པར་ཞུགས་པ།

For an English translation of the Sutra of the Recollection of the Three Jewels, see here: Noble Sūtra of Recalling the Three Jewels | Lotsawa House

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