A Manual of the Dhamma

Should Lay Persons Learn the Vinaya?

    “Should lay persons learn the Vinaya? Does this agree with the Mangala Dhamma that advises one to be well-trained in discipline (vinayo ca susikkhito)? What are the good or bad results of this act? Kindly give evidence or examples to prove a definite point.”

In the Mangala Sutta the Buddha teaches that one should be well-trained in Vinaya. The meaning of this Mangala Dhamma is that laity should learn a lay person’s discipline properly, that is, to learn it wisely. For laity there are disciplinary rules to learn civility and gain prosperity, such as the characteristics of a good man, the universal code of ethical conduct, the rules of a householder, etc. They should be learnt and practised wisely.

For monks, too, there are Vinaya rules to know and observe so that the factors of a scrupulous and good monk will be achieved in full. The aim of learning discipline is to make one a scrupulous, modest, and good monk. So the monks’ code of conduct is for homeless persons, but it is different from the homeless lay person’s code of conduct (Anāgārika Vinaya). Each group must follow the appropriate code of conduct. Householders must follow their rules to become moral and good, and monks must follow their Vinaya without transgressing any rule, whether partially or completely. No taint should be overlooked. This means the correct and full observance of Vinaya so that the benefits in this life and hereafter are achieved in full. Since blessings arise for monks it is called a blessing. The text does not mean that laity should learn monks’ Vinaya to obtain blessings.

The term “well-trained in discipline” is explained in the commentary on the Mangala Sutta as follows: “There are two kinds of Vinaya, one for laity and the other for monks. The lay Vinaya means avoidance of the ten unwholesome kammas. A lay person shuns these ten evil kammas with a pure heart and humble attitude. With the aim of not spoiling his morality he respectfully observes the training in full. This is the meaning of the term ‘well-trained’.”

Regarding the monks’ Vinaya, the commentary explains that a monk must observe the seven classes of rules with complete confidence. If he has no defects he gets the honour of practising well. Moreover he becomes truly learned by this means. Besides the seven classes of offences, the rules for monks include the morality of fourfold purification. By observing these four trainings a monk can reach the highest stage of sanctity, the perfect purity called Arahantship. If one diligently practises the rules to reach this noble aim, one is called “well-trained.”

So the commentary clearly shows that a lay person must learn a lay person’s Vinaya. For monks there is the code of conduct described in the Vinaya Pitaka. If lay people and monks both learn and practise their respective codes of conduct they are called “well-trained in discipline.” The advice in the Mangala Sutta does not convey the sense that laity should learn the monks’ Vinaya. The term “well-trained” does not mean mere academic study. Academic knowledge is useless in this sphere. What “well-trained” means here is that a monk diligently follows the Vinaya rules in practice. So “to be well-trained” also means “to be learned.” The main point is that without following the Vinaya rules devotedly one does not deserve to be called “learned.” Mere academic knowledge becomes useless if it is not put into practice.

The discipline for lay people is clearly mentioned in the Sutta Pitaka. In brief, a lay person must shun ten unwholesome kammas and cultivate ten wholesome kammas. The ten unwholesome kammas are called “dasa akusala kammapathā.” The ten wholesome kammas are called “dasa kusala kammapathā.” Here the words “well-trained in discipline” encompass two factors: purification of defilements, and devoted practice of moral discipline. These two essential factors should be learned and practised by the laity.

As regards the factor of “purification of defilements” one should study the Book of Tens in the Gradual Sayings to know the practical significance in detail. The Pāli text in the Anguttaranikaya explains the four factors of defilement for breaking the first precept. “One kills by oneself. One advises, urges, or incites others to kill. One speaks in praise of killing. One consents to the act of killing.” The first two factors are obvious and need no explanation.

I will explain the factor “One speaks in praise of killing.” In Buddhism, every ethical precept and moral duty is a profound matter to know and practise with wisdom and insight. An ordinary person, seeing how riches increase for those who make their livelihood by selling meat often speaks in praise of these men becoming rich. Some may utter words in support of killing. Such praise of killing amounts to two defilements of his morality. The person breaks the non-killing precept and defilements also arise. If another person, on hearing praise spoken, follows the occupation of a fisherman or slaughterman, one who praises their actions transgresses the precept that says “I undertake to abstain from killing living beings.” Even though he does not actually do the killing, he has expressed approval of killing, and his motive is to prompt others to kill. So, like the killer himself, the supporter is also guilty of killing.

However, mere praise without inciting others only amounts to the defilement of morality, even though another person may follow a wrong occupation or do unwholesome deeds. In this case, one who praises the act merely defiles the precept.

The fourth factor is being pleased or expressing approval when one hears about the killing of murderers, or robbers after their arrest, or if they are killed while being arrested. It also means being pleased about the killing of wild tigers, elephants, snakes, etc. Other cases include: satisfaction on hearing news about the death of one’s enemies. Longing for the destruction of bugs, cockroaches, flies, ants, rats, or other pests also means defilement of one’s precepts. Some people are pleased when animals are killed, because they are gluttonous. They willingly express support and pleasure at the killing of animals. Though this does not amount to killing, they taint themselves with approval, which spoils the moral precept.

Some people give an excuse and express enjoyment by saying that the meat and fish are for almsgiving. One should analyse each case carefully to know its true nature. One must consider the state of mind. Those who express approval of killing for almsfood or a feast should examine their motives. These grey areas need scrupulous consideration.

For ceremonies and festivals some kill the animals themselves, some take delight in it, and others praise these acts. Some monks, who want to eat good food, hope for it. So killing by indirect orders is done to satisfy the wishes of monks and guests. Butchers and fishmongers wait for this indirect sign from the servants of donors who wish to feed thousands with sufficient meat and fish.

The factors for guilt regarding the precept of not killing are listed in the commentary. It is stated that one of the factors of guilt is “giving indirect signs, or hinting.” So in the above instances, servants of the donors either break the precept or defile it. As for the commission of evil kamma (that leads to hell) one must consider all the factors of a particular case. Some borderline cases are difficult to judge decisively.

If the servants are guilty of full transgression, donors cannot be free from evil kamma, and recipient monks and guests also cannot be free from blame. If meat is doubtful on three counts: seeing, hearing, or suspecting the act of killing, monks must not eat it. To be allowable within the Vinaya rules, meat must be free from all three factors. If a monk knows that an animal was not killed for him, he has no doubt, and so this meat is pure in all three ways. Only this type of meat and fish is allowed by the Buddha. If a monk eats meat when he is doubtful about its origin, it is a Vinaya offence. Those who offer such doubtful almsfood, receive mixed results if they mix good and bad kammas in their meritorious deeds.

Mixed Kammas Give Mixed Results

As mentioned earlier, one who does deeds with mixed motives gets mixed results. Due to his generosity he gains wealth, influence, and power. However, due to the accompanying unwholesome kamma he suffers untimely death. Kings slay him to confiscate his immense wealth, his property is stolen frequently, his house is burnt down, or he suffers from various diseases. Why is this? When he performed good deeds it was associated with some unwholesome kamma. So an unblemished result is not possible for a whole series of lives. This type of kamma is a mixture of black and white. In other words, such moral deeds have been planted with poison at their bases, so to speak. So the four factors of the immoral deed of killing will be present in such a deed. One should note that if only one factor is present, morality is stained, which is the minimum bad effect. Moreover a person destroys the factor of being well-trained in discipline. That is why the crucial words, “Well-trained means purification of defilements, and devoted practise of moral discipline”1 are used in the Mangala Sutta commentary.

A lay person must observe the five moral precepts to the best of his or her ability. He or she must know the nature and factors of evil and good deeds in each case.2 Four factors will amount to either unwholesome or evil kamma in the first precept. The remaining nine misdeeds, if transgressed with the four factors,3 amount at least to unwholesome kamma: stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slandering, harsh speech, idle chatter, ill-will, covetousness, and wrong view. So the ten evil deeds become forty in total, with each factor promoting unwholesome or evil kamma.

Those who abstain from each evil deed, in all four aspects, are the practitioners of the Mangala Dhamma “well-trained in discipline.” They become truly modest, scrupulous, and good people. The Buddha taught the ten evil deeds with the four factors and their characteristics. One must observe them fully to be free from taints and the four corresponding evils kammas.

The essential factors according to the teaching “devoted practise of moral discipline” are explained in the Sīgalovāda Sutta, which is commonly called “the lay person’s discipline.” In it one will find a householders’ duties and virtuous conduct explained in detail. Like the Mangala Sutta, the Sīgalovāda Sutta is famous.

Therein, the duties of children, parents, teachers, etc., are taught as disciplines for householders, so it is called the householder’s Vinaya. If children practise their five moral duties to their parents they achieve the status of a good person as well as the Mangala Dhammas. Conversely, children who fail in these moral duties destroy the Mangala Dhammas and fail to achieve the status of a good person. The exposition in the commentary is very clear. Therefore everyone needs to fulfil their moral responsibilities, and to follow the path of great and noble virtues based on knowledge and insight. If customary duties concur with the teaching in the Mangala and Sīgalovāda Suttas they should be followed with devotion. Among lay people, few perform these universal moral duties in full.

This section explains the meaning of the Mangala Dhamma “well-trained in discipline” in relation to a lay person’s Vinaya. Lay people have a natural discipline called “Good conduct” (sucarita vinaya), and “Virtuous conduct” (ācāra vinaya), which they should try to maintain in full with faith and diligence. This ethical conduct was prescribed for the laity by the Buddha, so they do not need to learn the Vinaya for monks.

However, wise lay persons who want to promote the Buddha’s teachings, and are well versed in their own discipline, do need to learn the monks’ Vinaya. Why? Those who are well-trained in the householder’s discipline become truly good people, so their minds and motives are good. If they are well controlled by the lay person’s discipline, after learning the monks’ Vinaya, they will not use their knowledge unwisely. They will not defile themselves with impure physical, vocal, and mental actions. They will not accumulate evil motives and evil kammas because of this new knowledge. In the commentary it is mentioned that a wise, learned brahmin, after listening to the monks’ Vinaya rules in detail, developed a clear mind and strong faith in the Sangha. He appreciated the power and significance of the monks’ Vinaya as clear understanding had revealed its profundity.

One day a devoted brahmin heard the monks reciting their Vinaya rules. Appreciating the benefits of these numerous rules he entered the Sangha. Thus one’s own attitude and motive are crucial to evaluate the knowledge of Vinaya rules and the diverse conduct of monks.

The way for a lay person to study the Vinaya is first to learn and practise the lay person’s Vinaya, which gives culture, wisdom, and knowledge. A lay person must be dedicated to observing lay ethics with perfect integrity. If integrity is lacking, a lay person, though learned in ethics, becomes a hypocrite with sham morality. He or she becomes a bad person. This type of lay person, who learns the monks’ Vinaya, will develop a fault-finding attitude. Seeing only the offences and weaknesses of monks, he or she will blame, slander, and abuse them. So there is no benefit for such a lay person in learning the monks’ Vinaya. Since he or she fails to learn and practise the lay person’s Vinaya well, he or she lacks fundamental virtues and a skilful mental attitude. So it is futile to learn the monks’ Vinaya, since he or she will criticise the conduct of wayward monks, interfering in the affairs of others. Such a person who quotes the Vinaya texts and blames the monks, makes evil kamma because he or she lacks the virtues of a good and moral person. Due to these defects he or she takes a superior stance, uttering words of condemnation and slander. Thus, grave evil kammas result from his or her learning.

Seeing only the bad conduct of a wayward monk, he or she blames him, but this gives bad effects. Concentrating on the faults of others, he or she fails to see their virtues. If the monk has not committed one of the offences of defeat, the fundamental morality of a monk remains intact, but it is not seen by his detractor. These remaining precepts are more than nine billion. An educated lay person sees and blames the committed offences only, not the fundamental morality, which still exists. The critic does not see the virtue of this fundamental morality, but sees the defects of the monk only. Thus the evil that he or she gets in the act of condemnation is not due to the defects of the monk concerned, but due to the monk’s status that still prevails. So a critic gets numerous evils in speaking against this Dhamma.

Those with an undeveloped mind and a weak character often see the faults of others. Inevitably they slander, abuse, and use harsh words against those who commit evil deeds. They castigate monks who are of poor moral character. If this type of lay person learns the monastic discipline, he or she foolishly accumulates evil kammas due to lack of restraint. Therefore only disadvantages exist for such a person in studying the Vinaya.

Those who accuse immoral monks with unfounded charges suffer evil just as if they accused a scrupulous monk. Monks get an offence of Sanghādisesa, which is very grave. The Vinaya text declares, “Asuddha hotipuggalo aññataram pārājikam sammāpanno.” The meaning is that those who accuse monks of immorality are themselves impure. The term “immoral” means, in the final analysis, covetousness or greed, ill-will, and wrong view. Akhantī means impatience or surliness. Añāna means ignorance or delusion (moha). Kossajja means laziness or moral slackness. Mutthasati means lack of mindfulness or lack of clear comprehension.

The Four Purifying Moralities

    “Kindly give the detailed factors or characteristics of each of the four purifying moralities (pārisuddhi sīla). You may give each its characteristic, function, manifestation, and proximate cause.”

1. Pātimokkha Restraint

A monk who is an ordinary person is liable to fall into offences, and he must confess his offence with the determination to avoid it in future. The purity of restraint is re-established by this act of purification, and protects the monk against future misdeeds. In curing his offences, a monk sincerely promises, “I will not do this again.” This decisive mind must be present during confession.

2. Sense Faculty Restraint

The above two factors also co-exist in the morality of sense-faculty restraint — guarding the six sense-doors. To purify the faults in the matter of sense-faculty restraint is very subtle and difficult. One must use mindfulness at the six sense doors to get moral restraint and moral purification.

3. Two Factors of Livelihood Purification

  1. Not accepting or using unallowable food and other requisites. Only allowable food and requisites must be accepted according to the Vinaya rules.
  2. If unlawful food and things are accepted due to ignorance, a monk must quickly purify his guilt by suitable Vinaya procedure mentioned in the texts, then purity of livelihood is restored. Curing this kind of offence involves the abandonment of unlawful things and making a confession. In some cases, where breaking purity of livelihood does not amount to an offence, a monk must abandon the unlawful things, making a determination to observe restraint in the future.

4. Morality Concerning Requisites

In the sphere of observance of this morality there are three aspects: acceptance of four lawful requisites according to Vinaya rules, using them conscientiously, using them within the allowable time limit.

A monk must reflect when using food, robes, dwellings, and medicines with the above three factors. Wise reflection should be practised so that a skilful attitude and clear comprehension arise. To practise morality is difficult and profound. Why? By using a rosary, a monk normally reflects wisely on the four requisites, thus purity of this morality is gained. One might therefore think that this is easy. However, mere counting of beads and recitation of good words and thoughts are not sufficient to fulfil this morality. Mere awareness or correct mindfulness on the four requisites, though necessary, is not enough. For a monk, subtle attachment or clinging to robes, food, and dwellings are difficult to eradicate, despite recitations, counting of beads, and right thoughts. A monk needs very strong mindfulness and insight to abandon this subtle craving. So whenever he uses the four requisites he must develop the power of consideration to the full with complete awareness. Only when the four types of attachment cease, is this morality satisfactorily attained. Purity is obtained on the use of things after strenuous noble efforts. Hence customary counting of beads and mere verbal repetition cannot fulfil this morality. He must concentrate on the full meaning and significance of the Pali texts for the arising of clear knowledge. If this knowledge fails to arise, morality concerning requisites is not attained. Lacking this deep insight, four types of attachment prevail in the heart.

One can know whether this morality is attained or not by observing the behaviour of a monk. A monk who attains this moral purity has no attachment or greed. He will not accumulate possessions, wealth, or property. He will not exhibit attachment to lay supporters. He will live in any type of monastery, in every season, under difficult conditions. He will accept rag robes, alms food, dwellings under a tree, and putrid medicines, all of which were highly praised by the Buddha, though they are coarse types of simple living. If a monk chooses and selects only good monasteries, eats only good food, hopes for only good dwellings, and longs for them, he fails to achieve this sublime morality, and is impure in this respect. So a monk must know the factors leading to the attainment of this important morality and practise vigorously and systematically to get the necessary factors of achievement.



  1. “Tattha asamkilesapājjanena ācāragunavavatthānena.”
  2. Lay Buddhists should scrupulously apply the four factors to each of the ten unwholesome deeds. This exercise will reveal many defilements. (ed.)
  3. One does it oneself; one advises, urges, or incites others to do it; one speaks in praise of it; one consents to it or condones it.

© You may print any of these books for your own  use. However, all rights are reserved. You may not use any of the site content on your own website, nor for commercial distribution. To publish the books, permission must be sought from the appropriate copyright owners. If you post an extract on a forum, post a link to the appropriate page. Please do not link directly to PDF, MP3, or ZIP files.


• HOME •
The Buddha
What's New?


Mahasi Sayadaw
Ledi Sayadaw
Other Authors
Bhikkhu Pesala

• HELP •
Opera Tips
Opera Buttons
Pali Words
Map of India
Related Links
Contact Us

Unicode Fonts
Photo Gallery