A Manual of the Dhamma

The Three Types of Monks Defined

The lay people asked this question in the following sense: different kinds of Buddhist monks can now be found: scrupulous monks (lajjī), who possess moral conscience; shameless monks (alajjī), who possess no moral conscience, and immoral monks (dussīlo), who are depraved and evil. They want to know the essential characteristics of each type for classification according to the Pāli texts, commentaries, and subcommentaries.

The three types of monks have been mentioned in the Parivāra Pāli (Vinaya Pitaka) as follows:

    “Sañcicca āpattim nāpajjati, āpattim na parigūhati.
    Agatigamanañca na gacchati, ediso vuccati lajjī puggalo.”

The meaning is this: “They are aware of the Vinaya rules and, with no thought of transgression, refrain from breaking them. If they transgress some rules due to human weakness, they never conceal their offences. Moreover they do not follow the four wrong courses (agati).1 Such monks are called scrupulous individuals (lajjī puggala) — monks with moral conscience.” (From now on they will be called scrupulous monks.) These are the three factors or characteristics of a scrupulous monk. The clarification is as follows:

  1. When a scrupulous monk knows that any action is a transgression of the Vinaya rules, he refrains from it.
  2. However, he might sometimes break some Vinaya rules knowingly or unknowingly due to his untamed mind. He never hides the facts and always purifies his morality according to the rules within a day.
  3. When he has to distribute property or decide cases, he avoids the four wrong courses, i.e. he always acts or decides justly and impartially.

A monk having these three factors or characteristics is called scrupulous. This is the meaning of the text quoted above.

The three factors or characteristics of a shameless monk are stated in the Parivara as follows:

    “Sañcicca āpattim āpajjati, āpattim parigūhati.
    Agatigamanañca gacchati, ediso vuccati alajjī puggalo.”

This text says that a shameless monk is one who, with the knowledge of the Vinaya rules, transgresses them and commits evil. Having committed evil, he then conceals his actions. Moreover, he follows the four wrong courses. Such a monk is called shameless.

The meaning is as follows:

  1. A shameless monk, knowing that any action is contrary to the Vinaya rule, breaks the precepts wilfully.
  2. Whether by his awareness of Vinaya or by his transgression through ignorance, he conceals his faults, though he knows he has broken the Vinaya rule. That is, he does not attempt to purify his faults in the way prescribed.
  3. When distributing property among monks, or in deciding cases, he follows the four wrong courses.

If even one of these factors is present, such a monk is shameless.

Here, a detailed explanation is necessary. The Vinaya Commentary says: “One who is shameless from the start does not exist.” So shamelessness is impermanent. In other words no such individual as a permanently shameless monk exists. The commentary says that at the time of ordination a monk cannot be classified as shameless, but he may become shameless according to his mental attitude at any given moment. No monks are permanently scrupulous or shameless based on social class, religion, nationality, etc. A monk may become shameless ten times, or scrupulous ten times within a few minutes. It is possible that within a single sitting a monk may become shameless or scrupulous ten times alternately.

How is this possible? Several Vinaya rules can be broken repeatedly within a short time, so a monk may be classified as shameless more than ten times. Even within a short period, thousands of precepts may have to be observed, which some monks do no know about. Due to his wrong attitude or carelessness, a monk may break them very often. So for that duration he must be classified as shameless. On the other hand if he becomes ashamed whenever he transgresses the rules, realises his fault, confesses it, and determines not to repeat it, he becomes a scrupulous monk again.

Clearly, scrupulous and shameless categories cannot be associated with race, religion, or culture, nor can any monk be permanently classified as scrupulous or shameless. Nevertheless, if a monk does not follow the principles of the monastic discipline throughout his life he should definitely be classified as a shameless monk.

The Vinaya Commentary says that a shameless monk remains shameless only when shamelessness appears in him, and when he possesses one of three factors without confession and purification. As soon as he does these things, he immediately regains the status of a scrupulous monk. In the Sāratthadīpanī subcommentary the following important explanation is found:

    “Ādito patthāya hi alajjī nāma nātthi’ti iminā ditthāditthesuyeva asankhā na kātabbati dasseti.”

    “Herein: ‘One who is shameless from the start does not exist’ means that one must not cast doubt or suspicion on a monk whenever one sees him, thinking that he is shameless. This attitude should not be taken.” This is the advice of the subcommentary.

Only when one sees a monk doing an immoral deed, can one classify him as shameless at that time and place, and at no other. Moreover, one can doubt this monk’s behaviour then only, and so entertain suspicion. If one does not really see a monk’s act of immorality, no suspicion should be entertained. This is the meaning of the Pali text, commentary, and subcommentary.

Four Kinds of Transgression

The phrase “sañcicca āpattim āpajjati” means intentional transgression of the Vinaya rules (that is, with knowledge of the discipline). In detail, four classifications cover all types of offence:

  1. Transgression with knowledge of the rule.
  2. Transgression without knowledge of the rule.
  3. Transgression with knowledge of the object (things or matter to be transgressed).
  4. Transgression without knowledge of the object (things or matter to be transgressed).

The explanation is as follows: In the Vinaya Pitaka, the Buddha prohibited monks from eating ten types of meat.2 If a monk breaks this Vinaya rule, he commits an offence. He breaks this prohibition proclaimed by the Buddha for all monks. If a monk knows this Vinaya rule, he achieves the status of one who knows discipline. If he does not know this Vinaya rule, he is classified as one who is ignorant of the Buddha’s prohibition. Both concern the rule in the sphere of “knowing” or “not knowing.” When a monk fails to understand whether any particular meat is allowable, the case is concerned with the object (vatthu). Then he has knowledge or ignorance of the object.

Likewise, regarding the acceptance of gold, silver, and money, a monk may or may not know the rule concerned. Thus, he may be knowledgeable or ignorant regarding the Vinaya. Similarly, regarding the object that should be shunned, classification calls for two cases: knowledge of object and ignorance of the object.

In Vinaya the technical term ‘āpatti’ means fault, offence, committing, and transgressing. Herein, two classes of offence can be found: an offence according to the world, and an offence against the Vinaya rule.

The first type of fault includes killing sentient beings, stealing, and so on. These misdeeds are regarded as unwholesome everywhere so this transgression is known as a fault according to worldly ethical principles.

Regarding the second type of offence, it relates to the breaking of Vinaya rules such as not digging the ground, cutting trees and grass, etc. Such offences, though not evil in the moral sphere of the everyday world, are offences against the Vinaya. The rules for monks taught by the Buddha belong to the faults according to the Vinaya rules for ordained monks.

A detailed examination is necessary for each of these two types.

A monk who has transgressed the worldly prohibition with knowledge and volition becomes a shameless monk. If he breaks a moral principle without knowing it, sometimes he falls into an offence against the Vinaya rule as he knows the object of his transgression. Then he becomes shameless too. Examples of these shameless offences are killing, taking liquor, drugs, etc. He is guilty on both counts, a worldly offence and a Vinaya offence.

However, breaking some training rules occasionally does not amount to a Vinaya offence. Since a monk is free from any offence mentioned in the Vinaya, he cannot be classified as shameless.

Most training rules (sekhiyā) and prohibitions in the Mahāvagga and Cūlavagga Vinaya texts are not offences if one is unaware of them, even if one transgresses the rule. If one knows the rule, but one is ignorant concerning the object, it is an offence against some rules, but not all. In breaking a rule while ignorant of the object, though an offence is sometimes committed, a monk is not thereby shameless. An example of this is a monk drinking liquor. If a monk does not know that he has taken liquor, thinking it to be medicine, it is an offence. However, he cannot be called shameless even though he commits an offence. If a monk kills a sentient being not knowing it has life, he destroys life unintentionally. In this case he does not transgress the Vinaya rule, and he is not shameless either.

A monk becomes shameless only when knowledge of the rule and knowledge of the object are both present. In breaking the rule with knowledge of the rule, but ignorant of the object, he is not shameless. Likewise, a monk remains scrupulous if knowledge of the object is present, but he is unaware of the rule. He does not become a shameless monk. If he knows neither the rule nor the object, and commits an offence, he cannot be called shameless.

The above explanation is given to clarify the meaning of “intentional transgression of the Vinaya rules,” and to show the characteristics of a shameless monk.

The second factor is “āpattim parigūhati,” which means that when transgressing the Vinaya rules a shameless monk conceals his fault. Concealing is characterised by ten factors as follows:

  1. Transgression of the Vinaya rule or prohibition.
  2. Knowledge of transgression or guilt.
  3. Presence of a well-wisher (a monk) nearby.
  4. Presence of a companion monk among them.
  5. Absence of any danger.
  6. Awareness that there is no danger.
  7. Physical possibility exists to cure or purify the offences by confession and following the procedures laid down for that offence.
  8. Awareness that physical competence in making confession exists.
  9. Presence of an attitude to cover up the fault until after dawn.
  10. Hiding the fault until after the next dawn.

If the above ten factors are present until the following morning, a new offence of wrong-doing (dukkata) is committed, adding to the previous offence. Moreover, a monk thereby becomes shameless. However, if one of the ten factors is lacking, a monk should not be called shameless.

Note that if a monk has all the necessary factors to confess his offence, but fails to do so, he becomes shameless until the confession is made. So a monk may remain shameless for one day, one month, one year, ten years, etc., unless he confesses the offence and follows the prescribed procedure voluntarily. This is a significant point.

The second factor, which says “he knows he has transgressed the rules,” applies to those who do not know the Vinaya rules. Among untrained, ignorant monks, many will not be aware of their faults even if they break the rules. A few monks may not be aware of transgressions at all, while the majority may not know the rules in detail. The reason is a lack of training in Vinaya. Transgressions without awareness are not offences for such monks. So no charges of shamelessness should be made against them.

This is the explanation of the term “āpattim parigūhati.”

For the third factor the text mentions four features: he does not take a wrong course through desire, ill-will, delusion, or fear.

These four wrong courses must be considered, especially in the matter of the distribution of communal property and alms (sanghikā). Scrupulous monks should be free from these four faults as explained in the commentarial literature. However, one should note that partiality, prejudice, bribery, and corruption relate to offences only. The Vinaya teachers say that these four faults arise only when one first breaks a rule, then follows a wrong course due to bias.

However, the arising of this guilt is very subtle. In cases requiring a decision of guilty or not guilty, both sides try hard to win the case, quoting Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma. However, it often happens that one side, though knowing the correctness of the other, does not admit it and continues to argue to establish the fault of the opposite party. This unfortunate behaviour arises due to pride, conceit, and attachment. One side, lacking humility, claims its views to be according to Dhamma, though this is unwarranted. Similarly, the other side, due to pride, argues that an offence is no offence. Some proclaim no offence to be an offence. By doing so, each side commits the evil of false speech, or lying. This is the offence of taking a wrong course. This fault often arises when one quotes Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma for one’s own ends in dispute, disregarding the truth. So false speech is classified as a wrong course.

This explanation concerns the phrase “agatigamanañca gacchati” — taking a wrong course, the third factor mentioned above.

When it comes to classifying as scrupulous or shameless, those who lack knowledge of the Vinaya keep only a few precepts. So these monks have little chance of becoming shameless.

Those who are well-versed in the Vinaya, attain eminence or conscientiousness in morality. However, if non-observance prevails among monks well-educated in the Vinaya, the likelihood of becoming shameless is great. If a monk, who is well-trained in the Vinaya, accumulates many followers and great material wealth, he can do much damage to the Buddha dispensation, unlike an ignorant monk. This well-educated monk is like an armed robber or thief who enters a treasure-house and steals its contents.

Here ends the section on the characteristics of scrupulous and shameless monks in brief.

Characteristics of an Immoral Monk

The technical term “immoral (dussīlo)” means a totally depraved monk who commits an offence of defeat (pārājika). The dutthadosa sikkhapada states “If a monk, being angry, and wanting to make another monk disrobe, falsely accuses him of defeat, he commits an offence requiring a formal meeting of the Sangha.” He commits a serious evil by his accusations against an immoral monk who has committed an offence of defeat. If a monk, without the aim of expelling an immoral monk, merely accuses or belittles him so that his honour and power will be extinguished, he commits an offence requiring confession (pācittiya āpatti). Even if he abuses or speaks ill of an immoral monk, he transgresses the pācittiya rule.

Accusation with Charges of Defeat

Words spoken against an immoral monk with the following charges mean “speaking ill or accusation.”

    “You have committed an offence of defeat.”
    “You possess no moral conduct.”
    “You are not a monk at all.”
    “You are not a son of the Sākyan clan.”

Such expressions used against a monk are charges of defeat as mentioned in the commentary.

The term “shameless” (alajjī) includes an immoral monk who has fallen into an offence of defeat. However, the text says that a shameless one transgresses minor offences (dukkata). So the term “shameless” covers both great and small offences. Therefore if a monk speaks ill of someone only as “shameless” he escapes the serious offence of Sanghadisesa. As the Vinaya texts and commentaries give precise examples, only those monks who have committed an offence of defeat should be classified as “immoral.”

Those monks who do not commit any offence of defeat, but who occasionally break other precepts are not immoral monks, though they are shameless if the requisite factors are present. Apart from offences of defeat, other offences do not confer immoral status, so “shameless” and “immoral” monks are clearly quite different. The way to distinguish them has been explained already.

In the Vinaya Commentary the term “dummankū — wicked” is used in the phrase “Dummankūnam puggalānam niggahāya — for the restraint of wicked men.” So a shameless monk can also be called “wicked.” Among shameless monks two distinct types can be defined: immoral and shameless (dussīla alajjī) and ordinary shameless monks (samanya alajjī).

In the matter of offences of defeat one must classify a monk as immoral and shameless. In cases dealing with other offences only the ordinary shameless (samanya alajjī) classification appears, which is called “wicked.” For a defeated monk is definitely an immoral monk, not just a shameless one.

The term “wicked” has been explained in two ways in the Vimati Tīkā, a Vinaya subcommentary. It says that after committing an offence of defeat a monk becomes a totally bad one — that is completely without moral conduct. If a monk breaks only the other rules, partially he is good. Total depravity cannot be assigned to him. He is immoral only to some extent. So he is partially moral and partially immoral. Even those monks who commit light offences of wrong-doing or wrong speech, fall into the category of immoral (dussīla).

It is clear, according to this subcommentary, that a monk can more easily become immoral than shameless. So this explanation is unreasonable. This explanation is contrary to the teaching of the great commentaries and famous subcommentaries, which unanimously declare that an immoral monk lacks morality — “dussīlassati nissīlassa dussīlo’ti” (commentary on ‘nissīlo’). All the great Vinaya commentaries agree in commenting on the words “asamano asākyaputtiyo” from the Dutthadosa Sanghādisesa precept that an immoral monk lacks all morality. So the Vimati Tīkā’s words are against the spirit of the great commentaries and subcommentaries. It is not surprising that competent Vinaya masters reject this exposition of the Vimati Tīkā.

The term “dussīla puggala — an immoral individual,” means one who has transgressed a Pārājika rule and so lacks all disciplinary virtues — a defeated monk. As long as this defeated monk does not admit his offence and still associates with genuine monks, accepting food and other alms, he is automatically classified as immoral. If he confesses his fault, he immediately escapes from the category of immoral, and also from a monk’s status.

Legal Status of Immoral Monks

An immoral monk, at the time of his confession, becomes free from the stigma of “immoral” by renouncing his monkhood. However, an immoral monk may refuse to admit his guilt, and continue to live as a monk. Is he still a monk? Is this immoral person still a monk before the time of admission of guilt? The answer is that he retains the appearance of monkhood, but with the stigma of immorality. He is still a monk, though in appearance only.

The answer is correct. Evidence can be found in the Vinaya Pitaka. In the Sanghādisesa rules an immoral monk may claim that he is still a monk, although he has committed an offence of defeat. If he does not confess his fault he is still in possession of “patiññā,” that is, he retains the idea “I am a monk.” If a monk accuses him of defeat, without seeing, hearing, or suspecting anything, he is just as guilty as if accusing a scrupulous monk, and falls into a Sanghādisesa offence. If a monk makes such accusations regarding an immoral novice, he falls into an offence of wrong doing. This is the first proof of the correctness of the answer.

If a monk dwells under the same roof for more than three nights with a layman or a novice, he is guilty of an offence of pācittiya. However, if he lives in the same dwelling with a fallen monk there is no offence, so it as if he were a genuine monk. The reason is that the outward sign of monkhood is still present in the immoral monk. This is the second proof for the correctness of the answer.

If a monk abuses a layman or novice, it is an offence of wrong-doing. If a monk abuses a fallen monk, who has not confessed his guilt, the abuser falls into an offence of pācittiya. In this case abusing a fallen monk is equivalent to abusing a genuine monk. This is further proof of the effect of an immoral monk claiming a monk’s status.

Neither a layman nor a novice fulfils the requirements for conveying one’s purity to the Sangha (chanda-pārisuddhi),3 but a fallen monk does because the outward appearance of monkhood is present. This is yet another proof.

So it is clear that although he not a true monk, an outward sign (linga), or idea (patiññā) exists because of the power of Vinaya.

Although an immoral, fallen monk has committed one of the gravest faults, if he still claims that he is a monk, his status is just like a true monk. How is this possible? This monk receives the power and command of the Buddha’s Vinaya when, at the time of his ordination, he asks for and receives the robes from his preceptor. This itself is a Vinaya power of the Buddha. Secondly, he has gone through the five Vinaya procedures, such as declaration by the Sangha (ñātti) following rules laid down by the Buddha. So, despite breaking the gravest rule, he retains the outward appearance of monkhood due to the two features he received from the Vinaya procedure, and they retain their power until his voluntary confession.

This is surprising, but correct. Once a layman asks for and receives robes from his preceptors according to the Vinaya rules, he immediately transcends the lower status of a layman. Upon taking the three refuges and accepting the robes in the way prescribed by the Vinaya, he immediately becomes a novice. This is due to the power of the Buddha’s command. Just asking for and receiving robes elevates him to a higher status than a layman, even if he fails to receive the three refuges for lack of a suitable preceptor. If he remains in this position, he is more honourable than a layman because by this one procedure he attains the features and status of one gone forth.

For bhikkhu ordination, four kammavācā recitations4 are mandatory to achieve the full status of a bhikkhu. Yet even a single kammavācā recitation is sufficient to raise the candidate to the status of a novice. He now achieves, under the power of the Vinaya procedure and ceremony, the status of one gone forth. As the kammavācā recitations are completed up to the fourth round, his gone-forth status is repeatedly established. If the preceptors, for unavoidable reasons, stop their ordination procedure at the third recitation, this person is much higher in status than a novice although he lacks full bhikkhu ordination. He now receives the features or honours of a homeless life praised by the Buddha. If the fourth kammavācā recitation is completed, it raises him up to the full status of one gone forth, as a full bhikkhu in the Sangha.

If a novice breaks one of the ten training rules for novices, he destroys both the maintenance of three refuges and his status of a novice. However, while retaining the robes, he cannot be classified as a layman. He remains in the position of a novice. Once he discards the robes, he is deemed to be a layman.

An offence of defeat committed by a monk destroys him as a genuine monk, but he does not fall into the category of a novice or a layman yet. His monk status remains if he retains the appearance of this status. Once he renounces the appearance then he must be classified as a layman. All traces of monkhood now disappear, even the outward sign of wearing the robe.

An analogy is given here. If a scrupulous monk renounces his Vinaya obligations before the Sangha in the proper way, he becomes a layman again. Similarly, a fallen monk renounces his monk status by discarding his robes, thereby becoming a layman in the full sense. Due to the power of the Buddha’s command, this fallen monk maintains his monk status if he retains the outward appearances of a monk. However, he is an immoral, fallen monk due to his serious fault. When he confesses his offences and renounces his outward appearance, he becomes a layman. As a layman, he now escapes from the charge of being an immoral, depraved monk. The main point here is that if he does not discard his robes, even if he confesses his offence, we cannot classify him as a layman yet.

According to the Vinaya, if a monk abuses a fallen monk without just cause, it is just like abusing a scrupulous monk. The resulting offence is the same as abusing a scrupulous monk, and the accuser commits a serious (sanghādisesa) offence. By understanding this subtle point, it is clear that slandering a fallen monk is worse than slandering a scrupulous layman. This is because the accused still claims to be a monk. Retaining the outward sign of a monk keeps him under the power of kammavācā; thus he is still under the power of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha too. It is not because of his serious misdeeds, but because of the power of his ordination kammavācā, which is under the sublime influence of the Triple Gem. His acceptance of this declaration and his retention of the robe give him these powerful refuges. He retains a certain status.

However, these powerful refuges cannot save him from serious evil kamma, and the resultant suffering. By his commission of an offence of defeat, and his disgraceful claim to be a monk, he gathers evil kamma day by day. In other words, his evil kamma increases if he remains in these sacred shelters. Moreover, those who abuse an immoral monk accumulate serious evil effects themselves, due to this awkward situation. Those who appreciate the power of Vinaya show respect to an immoral, fallen monk, getting great merit. These three effects must be noted carefully.



  1. Following a wrong course through desire (chandagati), aversion (dosagati), ignorance (mohagati), or fear (bhayagati).
  2. Human (manussa), elephant (hatthi), horse (assa), dog (sunakha), snake (ahi), lion (siha), tiger (byaggham), panther (dipim), bear (accham), and hyena (taraccham).
  3. If a monk is too sick to attend the Uposatha ceremony he must send his consent to the Sangha through another monk. (ed.)
  4. One motion, followed by three announcements.

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