The Vinaya is the second book in the Pali Tipitaka and contains the 227 rules monks are supposed to follow and the procedures for the ordering of monastic communities. A separate section contains the rules for nuns. Westerners, indeed many lay Asian Theravadins as well, believe that monks follow all these rules. This is not so, it never has been, and it is only sensible that it be that way. Many rules are irrelevant or meaningless outside the ancient Indian context in which they were drawn up. What actually happens is that the majority of monks follow the rules that have traditionally been followed and ignore rules that have not traditionally been followed. It is difficult to detect any pattern in the selection of each other than that rules giving monks precedence and status are always practiced and insisted upon with the greatest conviction. Some quite useful rules are ignored completely while other seemingly useless ones are followed scrupulously. Again, certain rules are carefully observed but in the most inane way or in the letter only. Yet again, others are observed in a way that seems to defy any logic or purpose at all. For example, the overwhelming majority of monks ‘handle money,’ to use the curious Theravadin phrase. They buy, they sell, they have bank accounts, they accept donations, sometimes they even demand them, and this is looked upon as perfectly normal, although it is against the Vinaya. Some more finicky monks might insist that any cash given to them be put in an envelope so that they don’t actually have physical contact with it, thus conforming to the letter of the rule while ignoring its intent. Monks will not drink milk after midday, which accords with the Vinaya, but in Thailand they will eat cheese and chocolate in the afternoon which clearly does not. The Vinaya says that any food given to a monk must be formally offered, but if a lay person forgets to do this the monk will instruct him to do so, which infringes the Vinaya rule about asking for anything. In the better monasteries a ceremony is held twice a month during which monks are supposed to confess any infringements of the rules or inappropriate behavior. This ceremony could have great value for personal development and communal living. However, it is nearly always done in a purely perfunctory manner where the words of the ceremony are simply recited with no real confession or forgiveness taking place.
On top of all this there are a number of customary practices which are not in the Vinaya but are treated as if they were, sometimes treated as even more sacrosanct. Thus Thai monks accept gifts of money despite this being against the Vinaya, but they will never take anything directly from a woman’s hand, which is not stipulated by the Vinaya. When a monk does the first no one thinks anything of it, but if he fails to do the second he would be looked upon with extreme disapproval, perhaps even disrobed. There is one other complication as well. Which rules are traditionally followed and which are not, and the customary practices that have developed around them, differ from country to country, from sect to sect, sometimes even from one region to another within the same country. Thai monks, for example, look down their noses at their Burmese counterparts for going out with only one shoulder covered with the robe. Sri Lankan monks use aluminum alms bowls but for some unaccountable reason Thai monks consider this to be against the Vinaya. No Sri Lankan monk would dare to smoke in public because this is believed to infringe the Vinaya, but it is quite acceptable for them to chew tobacco. Thailand’s Thammayut sect likewise considers smoking to be contrary to Vinaya but Mahaniky happily do so.
The reality is that the Sangha has been running on automatic for centuries and the major factor governing most monks’ behavior is not Vinaya or Dhamma but long established traditions. Some of these traditions originate with the Vinaya and accord with it, some do not. Some are practical and sensible, many are pointless. Some could be useful if practiced with wisdom, a few are downright bad. The majority of monks conform to traditional patterns of behavior, at least while lay people are watching, and live their lives giving little or no thought to the Dhamma or the Vinaya. A much smaller number of sincere monks, understandably reacting against the slovenliness of the majority, try to follow every rule with almost fanatical exactness. This however, not only shows a serious misunderstanding of the Dhamma, it also inevitably leads to the absurdities and problems that will be mentioned below. An even smaller number of equally sincere but perhaps more intelligent monks are capable of seeing the overall intent of the monastic life – mindful, disciplined behavior conducive to understanding, and try their best to be like that without necessarily following every rule literally. Unfortunately, such monks are a tiny cohort who get no support from the unthinking tradition-bound majority and receive only sneering disapproval from the inflexible fundamentalist minority.