Many of you know, and hopefully all of you who are monks know, that there are four rules of monastic discipline which, if any one them is transgressed, result in a Theravada Buddhist monk being automatically disqualified from the Bhikkhu Sangha for the rest of his life; re-ordination is not allowed in such a case. The four disqualifications, called pārājika, are 1) having S-E-C-K-S with somebody, "even with an animal"; 2) Intentionally stealing ("taking what is not given") anything valuable enough that one could be arrested for doing it; 3) Deliberately causing the death of another human being, which would include hiring an assassin, using black magic, and persuading someone to commit suicide; and 4) Deliberately lying about having attained "superhuman mental states," for example claiming to be enlightened, when one knows one is not, for the sake of becoming famous. Traditionally they are said to be listed in ascending order of seriousness.
There is a secret, fifth pārājika rule that even many monks don't know about: If a monk somehow is castrated or "neutered," even if it is by accident, he automatically stops being a bhikkhu and cannot be re-ordained (unless he somehow regains what he lost).
The one rule in particular that I intend to discuss in this article is number two, intentional theft. At every monk's ordination the four pārājikas are explained to him, and he is told that if a monk steals a coin called a pāda, anything worth a pāda, or anything worth more than a pāda, he is excommunicated and, as a yellow leaf that falls from a tree cannot be rejoined to the tree and continue to live, he cannot be rejoined with the Sangha of monks. The exact wording of the rule, in English translation, is as follows:
"And whatever bhikkhu, with intention of theft, takes what is not given from a village or a forest, in such a manner of taking what is not given that the authorities, having caught a robber, would execute him or imprison him or banish him, saying "You are a robber, you are a fool, you are an idiot, you are a thief," then this bhikkhu, taking what is not given in such a manner, is also excommunicated and no longer a member of the Community."
Pārājika rules being of such great consequence, there are extremely minute details in the books of discipline regarding what is and is not a theft entailing excommunication. For example, if a monk starts to steal something so that part of it has been lifted but part of it is still touching whatever it was resting on, then he has not yet committed pārājika, but is guilty of a lesser offense (called thullaccaya, a serious transgression) which may still be confessed and atoned for. Another example: If a monk steals something of little value, but worth more than a pāda, like honey, a little bit at a time, then whether or not he is guilty of pārājika depends on whether he does it according to an overall plan or whether he steals something less than a pāda again and again, each time with a fresh intention.
Sometimes the considerations can be very complicated. There is a story in the commentarial literature about a monk who picked up a roll of cloth at a crowded marketplace and made off with it. He was later struck with remorse and confessed the deed to a senior monk. The elder then went off in search of the owner of the cloth, and when he found him he asked a few questions. He returned to the penitent thief and told him that he had not committed pārājika at all because the owner of the cloth had dropped it and had given it up for lost---and thus technically the cloth was without an owner. The books of discipline, being essentially law books, contain many, many pages of such sample cases.
It was probably this need for crystal-clear certainty with regard to what is and is not an offense that caused the rule to be defined, even before the Canon had reached completion, in accordance with the value of a pāda. It was apparently a common coin in ancient India, and so was a convenient criterion.
The trouble is that we don't use pādas any more; and the value of one is questionable. Which is not so good in a case of such great consequence, potentially, to the Sangha.
The section of the commentary corresponding to this rule simply states that a pāda is one fourth part of a kahāpaṇa (in Sanskrit kārṣāpaṇa, a coin which was the standard unit of currency in northern India for centuries). Elsewhere in the commentary, if my memory serves me correctly (I'm too lazy to look it up), all the further information that is forthcoming is that the kahāpaṇa in question is the nīla, or blue, kahāpaṇa.
In the medieval to modern sub-commentarial literature, however, there is a statement that the kahāpaṇa which the fateful stolen pāda is one-fourth of is a coin consisting of five unhusked rice grains' weight of gold, five of silver, five of copper, and possibly five of iron (the authorities did not agree on the iron). Using the sub-commentary as an authority and calculating the value of a kahāpaṇa by the current value of gold and silver, some scholar monks determined that it was worth the modern equivalent of around US $60, and thus a pāda would be worth around $15. This was about 15 years ago when gold was approximately $600 per troy ounce; now it is more than 2½ times that much. A kahāpaṇa would now be worth about $150. So this is the official party line in Theravada Buddhism as far as I can tell. A monk can steal anything worth less than about $37 and not be excommunicated.
This strikes me as hardly likely for a number of reasons. First of all, $37 is a considerable amount of money, and it is hard to believe that a monk could walk into a store, steal a book worth $35, be arrested, convicted, and fined for shoplifting, and be called a thief, a fool, and a knucklehead besides by the judge---and still not be guilty of a pārājika offense.
Furthermore, the ancient texts give as examples such small things as several spoonfuls of honey or a piece of meat small enough to be carried off by a bird as grounds for excommunication.
Another consideration is that in the ancient rules for nuns there are two rules discussing a coin called a kaṁsa, or "bronze," which according to the texts themselves was worth four kahāpaṇas. According to the rules, heavy cloth to make a robe should be worth no more than four kaṁsas, and light cloth for same should be worth no more than two and a half. This would make a light summer robe worth approximately $1500, which doesn't seem very likely. The very fact that the coin was called a bronze indicates that it probably wasn't worth all that much, certainly not more than a coin containing gold.
Back in the days when I was avidly studying monastic discipline this issue seemed rather important, and I tried to get to the bottom of it. Finally I found the following information in a magnificent book called The Wonder That Was India, by A. L. Basham (Sidgwick and Jackson, London 1954):
A money economy only existed in India from the days of the Buddha. That coinage was introduced from the west cannot be proved with certainty, but the earliest clear references to coined money are found in texts looking back to a period shortly after the foundation of the Achaemenid Empire in Persia [c.550 BCE], which was the first great empire to mint an official coinage, and which for a time controlled the Panjāb. The Babylonians and Assyrians managed with unstamped silver shekels, but the Achaemenid emperors adopted stamped coinage from Lydia and the Greek cities of Asia Minor, which had already employed it for a century or two. If India did not learn the use of coinage from the Persians she invented it independently, but the coincidence is too striking to make this seem probable.
The earliest Indian coinage consisted of flat pieces of silver or bronze, of irregular shape, but fairly accurate in weight. They bore no inscriptions, but a number of punch-marks, the significance of which is not finally established, but which probably included the emblems of kings who minted the coins, and control marks of local officials and merchants. Inscribed coins were not regularly minted in India until the 2nd century B.C., and though literary evidence suggests that gold coinage may have existed earlier the oldest surviving gold coins, other than one or two very rare specimens, are those of Vīma Kadphises of the 1st century A.D….(pp. 220-221)
Uninscribed, punchmarked coins were minted from the 6th century B.C. onwards, and were in circulation for many centuries. Among the earliest silver specimens are those in the shape of a small bent bar, the largest of which, the śatamāna, weighed 180 grains. Half, quarter and half-quarter śatamānas are attested.
The basic silver punchmarked coin of the usual type was the kārṣāpaṇa or paṇa, of 57.8 grains. The māṣa or māṣika weighed one-sixteenth of this, or 3.6 grains. Various intermediate weights are attested, as well as large silver coins of 30 and 20 māṣas and small half-māṣa pieces.
Punchmarked copper coins were generally based on a different standard---a māṣa of 9 grains and a kārṣāpaṇa of 144. Quarter-māṣas of copper, or kākiṇīs (2.25 grains) are attested, as well as large coins of 20, 30 and 45 copper māṣas.
Only one gold punchmarked coin is known, and it must be assumed that gold was very rarely minted before the beginning of the Christian era….(pp. 504-505)
Judging from the information above, it would seem that the coin described in the sub-commentarial literature has never been found and may never have existed, and that there were two main kinds of kahāpaṇa in ancient India, specimens of which abound in museums and can be purchased from coin dealers---which one would expect of a standard unit of currency which prevailed for centuries.
Since silver is more blue than copper, I assume that the nīla kahāpaṇa specified in the commentary is the silver one. So, if silver is one US dollar per gram, and there are 0.0648 grams to one grain, then a 57.8 grain kahāpaṇa would be worth US $3.74 by modern prices---and thus the criterion for excommunication by theft would be one-fourth of that: 93 cents. (This is assuming that the silver in ancient Indian coins was as pure as sterling silver nowadays.) Which still seems like rather a lot; twenty years ago when silver was just a few dollars an ounce a monk could be automatically defrocked for stealing anything worth more than about 18 cents.
This comes nowhere near to exhausting the issue of pārājika #2 in modern times. There are all sorts of new issues which simply didn't exist in the Buddha's day. For example there is the problem of copyright theft. Some of the photographs I put on this blog are downloaded from the Internet, and I can't be sure that they're not copyrighted. Also I'm not sure exactly what is legal or illegal in this regard. If a photo shows signs of being copyrighted I don't use it, but that is no guarantee. Fortunately a monk is not excommunicated unless he commits theft with conscious intention to commit theft. In Buddhism intention is the primary factor in ethics, and is the essence of karma itself.
An uncopyrighted (I hope!) picture of ancient silver kahāpaṇas