The exalted extract of the Vinaya

As part of the Authenticity Project, I’ve been going back over the Asokan edicts. Here at the Buddhist Library in Sydney, they have the original publication of the edicts, with pictures, text, translations, and everything: a wonderful old resource, much better than anything available on the web.

I’ve looked into the question of the texts recommended by Ashoka in the Bhabra edict. As is well known, Ashoka recommends a list of texts for the Sangha and lay followers to study. The texts are all obviously part of the early Buddhist canon, yet it is not possible to identify them all easily. This is because the Suttas have never had universal, unique names.

Several attempts to identify them have been made. Probably the best known in Buddhist circles is that of Ven Thanissaro, who did a nice discussion and translation some years ago. As I reviewed them, however, I have become convinced that he is mistaken in his identification of the first of the texts, and that earlier scholars had it right.

The text is the “Vinayasamukase”, which could be rendered the “Extract of Vinaya” or the “Praise of Vinaya”; the root meaning is something like “drawing up”. Thanissaro says that the term vinaya-samukkamsa occurs only once elsewhere in the canon, in the obscure Parivara. With no explanation in the text itself, he relies on the commentary, which identifies these with the “four great standards”, which were laid down originally as a guide to what may be considered as allowable foods in the afternoon. The commentary makes this identification, no doubt, because the following sets of dhamma deal with allowable types of food. But this is a very weak link, as the text in question, the Ekuttarikanayo, is just a list of often unrelated numerical sets; and the term sāmukkaṃsā has nothing to do with the four great standards, a problem that the commentary and sub-commentary address with a convoluted explantion.

Moreover, the text does not even mention the vinaya-sāmukkaṃsā, merely the cattāro sāmukkaṃsā. At least, that is what the VRI text has, perhaps Thanissaro had a different reading. Regardless, one should not rely on such a doubtful text.

It is curious that the term is not further explained, unlike almost all the other terms in this section. I suspect this is because the author expected the reader to be familiar with it and thought no explanation was necessary.

This brings us back to the frequent use of sāmukkaṃsā in a quite different sense: the sāmukkaṃsikā teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, origin, cessation, path (yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, taṃ pakāsesi dukkhaṃ samudayaṃ nirodhaṃ maggaṃ). This is part of a standard passage, where the Buddha gradually leads a person on to higher and higher teachings and reveals the Four Noble Truths when they are ready. In this context, the meaning of sāmukkaṃsā as either “extract” or “exalted” fits well.

Several early scholars (e.g. H. G. A. van Zeyst in Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, Vol. II, Fascicle 2, S. 178 – 187) identified the vinayasamukase with this passage, and further, with the Buddha’s first sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, of which the passage may be regarded as a “summary”. This identification is made in the commentary to the Nettipakarana: Idaṃ dhammacakkanti yāyaṃ bhagavato catusaccavasena sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, idaṃ dhammacakkaṃ.

This is a far more plausible suggestion than Thanissaro’s idea that the very first of Ashoka’s recommendations for the Sangha is how to work out what they can eat in the afternoon!

The question arises, then, as to why this is called the “Vinaya”-extract. Well, the text in question occurs several times in the Vinaya in the period just after the Buddha’s Awakening, which is a very famous passage. More generally, though, vinaya only gradually came to have its specialized meaning of “monastic discipline”, and in early texts means “education”, “training”, and often just means the same as “dhamma”.

The “four noble truths” fit in well with the “four sāmukkaṃsā” in the Parivara, and there is little wonder that such a well-known term should have needed no explanation.

All in all, then, the early scholars were right: Ashoka recommended that the Sangha and laity “frequently listen to and reflect on” the four noble truths as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavatana Sutta.

8 thoughts on “The exalted extract of the Vinaya

  1. Sadhu Bhante!

    This ia indeed a very good start!

    I would like to know if you can confirm some translations of some specific edicts which suggest trading meat/fish and/or fishing/hunting were forbidden at least in the uposatha days during Asoka’s rule?

    If you read the same from the original we might have hint of how vegetarianism, as a consequence of the Path, was part of the mainstream’s understanding of Buddha-dhamma

    • Hi GNL,

      There is definitely a link there. Ashoka is the only monarch that I know of to have such a strong policy of kindness to animals. He banned sacrifice, which must have seriously annoyed the brahmins. There are many mentions of animal welfare in his edicts; he regarded them as citizens, it seems, just as the people in his realm. You can read the edicts online here:

      As far as I know, the translations are generally pretty good, although there are knotty linguistic issues. One relevant problem that was solved by KR Norman was whether Ashoka abolishied capital punishment: he did.

    • What about Asoka’s murder after his conversion? See, Strong,J (2008) The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of Asokavadana,p.232.

      “At that time, an incident occurred which greatly enraged the king. A follower of the Nirgrantha (Mahavira) painted a picture, showing Buddha prostrating himself at the feet of the Nirgrantha. Ashoka ordered all the Ajivikas of Pundravardhana (North Bengal) to be killed. In one day, eighteen thousand Ajivikas lost their lives.

      A similar kind of incident took place in the town of Pataliputra. A man who painted such a picture was burnt alive with his family. It was announced that whoever would bring the king the head of a Nirgrantha would be rewarded with a dinara (a gold coin). As a result of this, thousands of Nirgranthas lost their lives.” (S. Mukhopadhyaya: The Ashokavadana, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi 1963, p.xxxvi)

    • Hi Rahul,

      Quote from Asoka’s Pillar Edict 7:
      “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, speaks thus: My Dhamma Mahamatras too are occupied with various good works among the ascetics and householders of all religions. I have ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Sangha. I have also ordered that they should be occupied with the affairs of the Brahmans and the Ajivikas. I have ordered that they be occupied with the Niganthas.[43] In fact, I have ordered that different Mahamatras be occupied with the particular affairs of all different religions. And my Dhamma Mahamatras likewise are occupied with these and other religions.”

      Also refer to his edict on toleration: Rock edict 12 or how about this from rock edict 7 “Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all religions should reside everywhere, for all of them desire self-control and purity of heart.”

      IMHO Asokavadana abounds in pious fabrications of a lesser mind.

    • Hi Rahula,

      I very much doubt these incidents happened, as they run so contrary to the tenor of the edicts themselves.

      Of course, one of the most remarkable details in the edicts is Asoka’s own admission of his vilence against the Kalingas. It seems that, while he repented so movingly, the aura of violence hung around his name, and legends such as the ones you allude to became attached to him.

  2. Thanks for this post, Bhante!

    I have always wanted the first sermon to be part of Asoka’s edict but didn’t know how the phrase could refer to it. Though I was very happy even with Ven.Thanissaro’s identification(anyone brought up in a conservative family which tries make sense of old rules for modern situations would realize the sheer brilliance, foresight and simplicity of the four standards) , I am elated that the four noble truths and thereby the path are mentioned in the edict..

    1. The Nettipakarana quote fully convinced me but just to make your argument complete can you add a couple of phrases as examples – where vinaya means just the noble path? I immediately thought of the stock phrase ‘vuddhi hesaa ariyassa vinaye etc’ which is one of my favorites.

    2. What are your thoughts on ‘upatisa pasine’ of the edict? I don’t think Ven.Thanissaro’s identification fits the general trend of Asoka’s choice texts(in terms of content)..I rather feel it is the Sariputta sutta in the sutta nipata which is called ‘therapanha/puttha’ is the uddaana verse. Ven. himself mentions that some early scholars identified upatissa’s questions with this sutta.

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