Recently I was recruited as Sangha technical advisor for a new Buddhist ashram to be constructed in the highlands of central Bali. Monasteries can be extremely simple; so with regard to the monastic area of the ashram, the only technical advice really required concerns the formal ecclesiastical precinct, or sīmā. So lately I've been brushing up on the subject of sīmās.
According to the Pali text Vinaya Mahāvagga, in the chapter on Uposatha, monks were uncertain as to how to know whether they were in the same congregation as other monks living nearby—that is, whether or not they should perform formal acts of the Sangha together. They brought this matter to the Buddha, who said, "Bhikkhus, I allow an ecclesiastical precinct (sīmā) to be authorized. And thus, bhikkhus, should it be authorized: First, boundary markers (nimittā) should be announced—pabbatanimittaṁ (a mountain or hill), pāsāṇanimittaṁ (a rock), vananimittaṁ (a forest or grove of trees), rukkhanimittaṁ (a single tree), magganimittaṁ (a path or road), vammikanimittaṁ (a termite mound), nadīnimittaṁ (a river or stream), udakanimittaṁ (any body of water)…." And after this a formal act of the Sangha is conducted to authorize the new precinct.
There are a few other kinds of sīmā that are more or less "automatic," and do not require a formal act to authorize them. For example, monks living within the boundaries of a village or town may use those boundaries as a gāmasīmā, or "village sīmā." Monks living in a remote forest area may use an automatic sīmā with a radius of seven abbhantaras, an abbhantara allegedly being a unit of measurement about 14m in length. Also, monks completely surrounded by water may use a kind of water sīmā with a radius equivalent to the distance a man of average strength can fling water in all directions. (I once used this sort of sīmā in Yokohama Bay, in Japan; the sayadaw I was with had a boat rented so we could do uposatha inside a valid sīmā.)
an illustration from ven. U Silananda's book,
showing a kind of water sima
(the circle around the raft represents the sima boundary,
defined by the distance a man of average strength
can fling water in all directions)
All the monks who live within the same agreed-upon boundaries are considered to be of one congregation, and are thus required to participate in the same formal acts, or at least to agree to them. (Interestingly, the main definition of a schism, or saṅghabheda, is a situation in which two separate communities of monks perform separate formal acts within the same sīmā.) Thus it is clear that a sīmā was a kind of parish—the size of some of the allowable boundary markers (a mountain, a forest) indicates this, as does the fact that the maximum allowable size for a sīmā is three yojanas on a side; so assuming purely for the sake of argument that a yojana equals 15km, the maximum allowable ecclesiastical precinct or parish would be about 2000 square kilometers, or 780 square miles. This maximum limit is to prevent monks from being unable to arrive easily at the congregation place within a single day. There is another rule which specifies that a sīmā may not be divided by a river unless there is a permanent means of crossing it, such as a bridge or ferry. This also is to ensure that monks living within the sīmā can reach the scene of a formal act without undergoing an ordeal.
At the other end of the scale, the minimum allowable size is just big enough to allow 21 monks to sit together. This is because the largest formal act of the Sangha (called abbhāna) requires a minimum of 21 monks to participate in it. But despite this relatively tiny minimum size, still it is clear that the original purpose of a sīmā was to be a territory or "home turf" determining which monks were members of the same community.
Ironically though, if one goes to a monastery in Myanmar one will find that a sīmā, or thein, usually refers not to any bounded territory within which a community of monks resides, but rather to a single building, the monastery's congregation hall—which, as often as not, has zero monks residing there. So the average ecclesiastical precinct has come to have a total population of zero. This situation is the inevitable result of corruption in Vinaya, which in this particular case is largely due to a peculiar glitch in the monastic rules themselves, unforeseen by the ancient formulators of the Theravadin monastic code.
This appears to be an opportune point at which to point out that this article is not intended to be a comprehensive exposition on sīmās. As far as I know, no such comprehensive exposition exists in the English language, unless maybe it is in volume III of the English translation of the Vinayamukha, authored by the Thai Sangharāja ven. Vajirañāṇavaroraso. The definitive work in Burmese is considered to be a book entitled သိမ် သင်တန်း (Thein Thintann), by ven. Sayadaw U Sīlānanda. Otherwise, curious monks should consult the Vinaya itself and its commentaries, the latter especially with regard to how to do the boundary marker announcements. The main purpose of this article is to discuss how the concept of sīmās has been corrupted, and how the Sangha can cope with the corruption in order to keep things legal and "ritually pure." Consequently this article may be of little or no interest to laypeople.
All or almost all ecclesiastical acts in Burmese monasticism have become corrupt, and the situation appears to be only slightly better in Thailand; I'm not sure what it's like in Sri Lanka, but I would guess that it's not so good there either. But the fact that a Sangha's "home territory" has shrunk down to a single building which may be home to nobody is not entirely the fault of the Burmese, or the Thais. It's due in part to the likelihood that ancient Indian monks did not realize that Buddhism would exist for more than 2500 years, and that the boundary markers of sīmās could be forgotten or could even disappear altogether, with no way of knowing whether there is or is not a pre-existent sīmā in a given place, and no convenient way of eliminating one if there is one. A sīmā has no expiration date, even though its boundary markers may have been trees, roads, ponds, or termite mounds that ceased to exist centuries before.
The establishment of a new sīmā, as mentioned above, involves first naming all the boundary markers in all (eight) directions; but although there is a formal act for abolishing an old sīmā, it does not mention any boundary markers. The key words in the act of abolishment are simply, in Pali, "That sīmā agreed upon by the Sangha as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance—that sīmā is abolished as the area of common communion, of one uposatha observance." The assumption is that the boundaries of the sīmā to be abolished are known, and that by performing this formal act within those known boundaries, the act is accomplished. There is no provision for invisible, forgotten, ancient sīmās.
The Vinaya explicitly specifies that no new sīmā may be authorized which overlaps with an old one. Such a sīmā is invalid. Consequently, especially in Asia, before a new sīmā is established, a very complicated ritual is performed to ensure that there are no invisible, pre-existing sīmās overlapping with the intended new one, which might invalidate it. This ritual is very labor intensive, and is by far the most difficult part of creating a new sīmā.
The way it is done in Burma is that the entire ground which will contain the new "precinct" is divided up into rectangles a few feet on a side, and a formal act of abolishment is performed inside each rectangle, just in case an ancient, invisible sīmā is there. Thus new sīmās tend to be scarcely bigger than the area of a single building; dividing up 2000 square kilometers into little rectangles and doing formal chanting in each one simply is not feasible.
Of course, an obvious solution to this problem would be to change the words of the formal act, stating that any sīmā existing within such and such boundaries is officially abolished. There may be some Sanghas that have actually tried this. But the trouble is that conservative Asian theras may consider such a deviation from the actual words of the Vinaya to be invalid; and if a sīmā is suspected to be invalid, all formal acts conducted within that sīmā, including the ordinations of new monks, could also be suspected of invalidity. A sīmā must be like Caesar's wife—above suspicion. Thus a new ecclesiastical precinct must have two qualities: it must be valid according to Vinaya, and it must also be uncontroversial and acceptable to as many monks as possible, preferably all of them. If Burmese sayadaws consider Thai sīmās to be invalid, or if Thai ajahns consider Burmese ones to be invalid, or Western monks consider both types to be invalid, it simply breeds problems. So it's best to be as conservative as possible when making sīmās.
As it turns out, I am one of those aforementioned Western monks who considers most sīmās in Burma and Thailand to be pretty much invalid. The situation has to do not with abolishing old sīmās, or with the tininess of new ones, but with the boundary markers used, the nimittā.
For some bizarre reason that I can only begin to guess at, the standard method for establishing a new sīmā in Myanmar is as follows: After any old sīmā is abolished (which abolishment also may be invalid, although I'll get back to that), holes dug where the boundary markers are to be are filled with water, again and again, until the ground is saturated and the water doesn't immediately seep into the ground and disappear. Then the formal act is conducted after declaring these holes full of water as udakanimittā, or bodies of water used as boundary markers. A few hours later the water is gone, and the Burmese set up marble or concrete posts to show where the real boundary markers are supposed to be. But of course the boundary markers have evaporated, and are nonexistent. There used to be an ancient commentary which specified that any water boundary marker should have water in it all year round, like a pond or a well, in order for it to be a valid marker. The official Theravadin commentary, however, rejects this, claiming that a water boundary may be nothing more than a temporary mud puddle that animals have wallowed in. (It is interesting, and justifiable, that the venerable author of the Vinayamukha declared the orthodox commentator to be "shameless" for having said this.) Clearly, in order for something to be a boundary marker or nimitta it should not only not be easily movable, it should not be invisible! This is simply common sense. Consequently, at my own ordination at a Burmese monastery in California, I disregarded the nonexistent water nimittā and relied on one of those automatic sīmās, like maybe the seven-abbhantara one.
Based on what I have been told, the situation in Thailand is hardly better. I have been informed that boundary markers in Thailand are often pāsāṇanimittā, or rock markers. The thing is, though, that the rocks are the size of cannonballs, and are buried in the ground where no one can see them—with quasi-markers similar to the ones the Burmese used to show where the small, invisible rocks are supposed to be. Again, it is hardly to be expected that a boundary marker which nobody can see would be a valid marker. Also there is the issue of how small a rock can be and still be a valid nimitta. Obviously, it should be large enough not to be easily moved, unlike a pebble or a cannonball. The commentary suggests the size of an ox as reasonable, although the size of an elephant would make the rock a hill, not just a rock. Hills are allowable markers too, though. Better too big than too small.
I remember once a Western monk I knew mentioning that at one Western monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition the Sangha used big concrete blocks as boundary markers for their sīmā. He considered this to be invalid, not considering concrete to be rock, or any of the other allowable kinds of markers. But it seems to me that concrete is pretty clearly a kind of artificial rock—man-made, but still rock. So if it's too big to be moved, I would consider it to be valid. But the fact that some monks would consider it invalid may be sufficient reason for seeking a different kind of marker. Again, a sīmā must be above suspicion.
All in all, the best, most uncontroversial nimitta to use would be a tree. It's clearly allowable in accordance with the ancient Indian texts, and nobody is going to argue with it. One just doesn't argue with trees. The only limitation is that it must be a kind of tree with its hardest wood, its heartwood, on the inside; in other words, bamboo and palm trees are not allowable rukkhanimittā. And banana trees, having no hard wood at all, are completly out of the question. (Incidentally, the new sīmā planned in Bali will be completely surrounded by a moat, and thus will have water nimittā all the way around. I've never seen a sīmā like that before; and considering that the congregation hall will be designed like a temple besides, if it ever materializes it will be very cool. My idea is to enter the hall by crossing a narrow bridge and passing between two fires—a symbolic purification thing. But I digress.)
It may be assumed that Theravada Buddhist monasteries being constructed in non-Buddhist Western countries need not bother with abolishing any ancient, invisible sīmā before establishing a new one, considering that it is extremely unlikely that there have ever been sīmās officially established there before modern times. If this is the case, then I don't see any good reason why new Western monasteries should not establish sīmās which encompass the entire monastery, in accordance with the original purpose of sīmās. On the other hand, there is still the issue of conservative Asian monks suspecting the validity of a new sīmā established without making sure there are no old ones already established there. For example, some monks consider sīmās established even in the dispensations of prehistoric Buddhas to be still potentially valid. If so, then no place on earth, including the continent of Antarctica, would be guaranteed of having no invisible ancient sīmā which could muck up (invalidate) the establishment of a new one. Also, it is known that monastic Buddhist missionaries came to western North America with a Chinese expedition well over a thousand years ago, long before Columbus ever discovered the place; so in North America at least there may actually be a few invisible ancient sīmās. But in my opinion most Sanghas in countries that have never been Buddhist needn't worry too much about ancient sīmās, and may as well establish new ones without going through the laborious abolishment rituals beforehand. But doing the abolishment may be the only way to create 100% confidence in the most conservative of Asian theras. As for myself though, I'm way too skeptical ever to arrive at 100% confidence in anything.
As mentioned above, Burmese Sanghas divide up the area intended for a new sīmā into little rectangles, and chant the formal acts of abolishment inside each rectangle. In ven. U Sīlānanda's definitive Burmese book, he points out that since the smallest possible sīmā is just large enough to accommodate 21 sitting monks, the rectangles for abolishment need be no smaller than this. This used to make good sense to me, and seemed to make the abolishment process easier…until I realized that there is one complication with it. What if the area of an intended new sīmā really does have an invisible, very small, ancient sīmā contained within it, and what if the rectangles drawn on the ground bisect this small sīmā? Then when the Sangha is doing the formal act of abolishment inside each rectangle, some of the monks may be inside the ancient sīmā, and others outside of it; and thus the formal act may be invalidated by having some of the monks outside the sīmā and an insufficient number within it. A minimum of four bhikkhus must be within the boundaries, and within arm's reach of each other, in order for the formal act of abolishment to be valid. So it seems that in order to avoid this possibility and to ensure that the abolishment of any tiny invisible sīmās is valid, the rectangles should be just big enough for four or five bhikkhus to squat within them and do the ritual ceremonies. Maybe in future if there is ever another Great Council, this glitch in the monastic rules could be straightened out somehow; and maybe that troublesome bhikkhuni issue could be officially settled also. Then again, the monks who participate in Great Councils tend to be too conservative to deal with controversial issues, and content themselves with little more than rearranging Pali punctuation marks.
There is one other way that I know of for creating a large sīmā without having first to divide up the entire area into little rectangles, and that is to establish a gāmasīmā, or village parish. This is done sometimes in Myanmar. The way it is done is to have the government officially declare the precints of the monastery to be its own village. This may work in a Buddhist country like Myanmar, but whether politicians in Western countries would give enough of a damn officially to declare a Buddhist monastery its own village is another matter. It may be worth a shot, though. One disadvantage of a gāmasīmā, however, like all "automatic" sīmās, is that the priviledge of avippavāsa does not apply, that is, the right of any bhikkhu inside the sīmā to be separated from any of his three robes at dawn without committing a nissaggiya pācittiya offense. But nowadays even strict and "exemplary" bhikkhus tend not to follow such rules about being with all three robes at dawn, etc. The Byzantine complications of Theravadin monastic discipline render corruption and laxness a virtual inevitability in the Sangha. But still, the validity of ordinations is a relatively important issue, so all this stuff about precincts and little rectangles may not be totally irrelevant.