What does it mean?
The rules for monks and nuns laid down by the Buddha.
Why does it matter?
The pattimoka might be the longest lived set of rules in history. A huge percentage involve eating. Reading the Pattimoka has some interesting surprises. For example, there is nothing about meditation. Bupkis. On the other hand, there are dozens of rules about robes. Here’s another: monks don’t actually have to shave their heads, only keep the hair less than 2 knuckles long.
It even made me laugh a few things. For example, there is a rule that you can’t put your whole hand in your mouth. Apparently this was a problem in ancient India. Another rule states that you can’t defecate while standing up. Did this really come up? I can just image the Buddha coming up on a monk just standing there doing his business, slapping his forehead and thinking, “Do I really have to make a rule about this?” Now for 2500 years monks have had to chant, “Don’t poop standing up.”
The punishments for breaking the rules are telling. Most of them just require acknowledging the mistake. Others require continual meetings with a large assembly of monks. The four worst mean being kicked out of the order of monks. This is as bad as the punishments get.
I was touched when I considered that almost all of the rules seem to be in place to protect the laity. Being a monastic puts someone in a potentially powerful position in a community, and these rules are largely there to assure that no monk takes advantage of that position.