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Monastic Guidelines in South and Southeast Asia

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In Sri Lanka, a number of monastic ordinances called katikāvatas or katikāvattas survive. Several of these were preserved as inscriptions and others in manuscripts.


The katikāvatas are agreements on the rules of conduct for the monastic community, often laid down by the monastic leader with the most authority.

The rules were decided on at an assembly of the saṅgha held specifically in order to reorganize the monastic community as a whole or a particular individual monastery.

These reorganizations mostly happened with the support of the king; some katikāvatas thus bear the name of the king in question. The texts were written to establish stability within the community and to respond to contemporary practical issues faced by the saṅgha (Blackburn, 1999, 286–287).

Some make a distinction between katikāvatas for a specific monastery (vihāra katikāvatas) and those composed for the entire community of monks (sāsana katikāvatas; e.g. Rammandala, 1880).

The former consist of rules mostly to do with the administration of a particular monastery, whereas the latter, which were promulgated by kings or local chieftains, contain a long historical introduction and focus more on the behavior of monks.

An example of the sāsana katikāvatas is one written by Mahākaśyapa at the occasion of the sāsana reform by the Sinhalese king Parākramabāhu I (1123–1186), which came about by royal order and not by a monastic council.

That it was accepted by the monastic community shows the authority of the king over monastic mat- ters. The first katikāvata promulgated by the monastic community without any royal interference can be dated as late as 1853 (Wijetunga, 1970, 4–7).

The organizational structure of the Parākramabāhu I katikāvata has formed the basis for the organization of the saṅgha in Sri Lanka and other Southeast Asian Buddhist countries.

Its contents deviate in some instances from the Vinayapiṭaka, and it even adds some new rules that directly contradicted the Vinayapiṭaka (Bechert, 1970, 765; for the text, see Wickremasinghe, 1928, 256–283).

N. Ratnapala has provided translations and analyses for a number of the sāsana katikāvatas, the earliest of which dates back to the 12th century (Ratna- pala, 1971, 6–13). No extensive study on the vihāra katikāvatas has yet been conducted.

In Sri Lanka, inscriptions on granite slabs estimated to date to the 9th century have been found near ruins of monasteries. These are not explicitly called katikāvatas or named otherwise but clearly contain regulations intended to guide monks and laypeople that lived within the monastic compound or areas belonging to it.

The Abhayagiri Inscription – written in Sanskrit – is one such example. This reveals that from the early 9th century, rules were laid down both for monks and for lay staff of the monastery (Wickremasinghe, 1912, 1–9).

Another such source is the Mihintale Slab Inscription written in Sinhalese in the early 11th century. This states that it bases itself on the rules of the Abhayagiri as well as on those of the Cetiyagiri Monastery. It furthermore details the ideal daily routine of monks and offers very particular information on how servants and monastic property should be managed (Wickremasinghe, 1912, 98–113). R.A.L.H.

Gunawardana utilized the above-mentioned and other similar inscriptions for his superb book on the monasticism and economy in Sri Lanka, exactly because they contain a wealth of information on the economic and social role of Sinhalese monasteries from the 9th to the 13th century (Gunawardana, 1979).

The Sinhalese monastic guidelines also contain information on the monastery’s scholastic schedule and the education of monks more gener- ally (e.g. Kitsudō, 1981, 309–325).

While there is no lack of locally produced Vinaya commentaries, handbooks, and manuals in other South and Southeast Asian countries where monastic Buddhism had a presence. (see e.g. von Hinüber, 1996, 154–159; Kieffer-Pülz & Peters, 2009, 275–292; Lammerts, 2014), organizational guidelines for individual monasteries or monastic communities as can be found in Sri Lanka, China, Japan, and Tibet do not appear to exist.

The extant Pāli, vernacular, and bilingual material from countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia that pertain to features of monastic organization such as ordination, property, administration, and judicial matters requires further attention from scholarship.