Justification for Vinaya Fundamentalism

Thanissaro and other Theravadin fundamentalists claim that strict Vinaya practice helps promote harmony within the Sangha. There is little historical evidence to justify this claim. Thanissaro’s book contains many sentences like: ‘At points where the ancient commentaries conflicted with the Canon…’ ‘One of the difficulties in trying to collate all the various texts is that there are points on which the Vibhanga is at variance with the wording of the Patimokkha rules, and the commentaries are at variance with the Canon’, ‘[T]here are many areas on which the Vibhanga is unclear and lends itself to a variety of equally valid interpretations’, etc. Of course, for those who have ‘made the Way itself the main thing’, differences and contradictions in minor rules would be no problem. But pedantic hairsplitting minds can zoom in on such molehills and turn them into veritable mountains, and this is what Theravadins have usually done. Most of the divisions within the Theravada Sangha have come about due to quarrels over points of Vinaya. These quarrels characteristically involved extraordinarily minor matters, some of them dragged on for decades and they often led to acrimony, hatred and even violence. Thanissaro quite correctly says: ‘For some reason, although people tend to be very tolerant of different interpretations of Dhamma, they can be very intolerant of different interpretations of the Vinaya and can get into heated arguments over minor issues…’ For some reason! Take what were provisional rules meant to address a specific problem, attribute them to the Enlightened One, turn it into moral absolutes, then claim that scrupulous adherence to them is essential for awakening, and it is almost inevitable that people will quarrel over them.

In the 12th century the great Sri Lankan king Parakramabahu I spent years trying to unite his country. When he finally succeeded and made himself king, one of his first tasks was to try to unite the Sangha. This proved to be even more difficult than all the campaigns he had fought and in exasperation he said as much. He couldn’t even get monks of the various sects to sit down with each other. With a combination of threats, bribes and force, he eventually united them, but almost as soon as he died they broke up once again into squabbling factions. The Ekamsika Parupanu (One Shoulder Both Shoulders) Dispute in the 18th century over the proper way to wear a robe went for over a 100 years. The Adhikamasa Vadaya Dispute in Sri Lanka in the 19th eventually embroiled the ecclesiastical authorities of both Burma and Thailand and was due to a piece of wood supposedly making a sima invalid. This dispute raged for 30 years and was never really resolved. Another dispute that further rent the Sri Lankan Sangha arose due to disagreements about, amongst other things, the proper way to offer food to monks. In 1941 as a part of a determined effort to unite the Sangha in that country, the Thai government built a monastery where monks of the two sects could live together as ‘an example of unity and harmony.’ As is the norm, interminable bickering over Vinaya soon scuttled the scheme. The same pattern is repeated again and again in Theravadin history. I have been told that disciples of a certain famous Thai teacher now popular in the West, once even refused to participate in a ceremony attended by the king unless they were seated separately from monks who had a slightly different Vinaya practice.

Another justification for Vinaya fundamentalism is, as Thanissaro states, that it can ‘foster mindfulness and circumspection in one’s actions, qualities that carry over into the training of the mind’. The claim here is that the rules can lead to one becoming more mindful, or that they might even be a meditation in themselves. This is quite true but it is also true that one could reverse some rules or have completely different rules and they could be just as conducive to mindfulness. The point is the mindfulness, not the object or behavior one is mindful of. It is equally true that the rules could be practiced in an overly fastidious way where all attention was on outward form rather than inward transformation and in reality, this is what more usually happens. Some say that strict Vinaya frees a monk from anxiety and worry, thus helping the practice of meditation. According to this view a monk’s every action is clearly set out and he knows how to behave in every situation, thus freeing him to concentrate on the more important things. Anyone who has ever spent time with fundamentalist monks will know how untrue this is. I once shared a room with a young Australian monk who was very strict about Vinaya. One day I came back to the room and noticed that he was more morose than usual. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘I have been impure for a whole year without confessing it’ he said. ‘Which rule have you broken?’ I asked. ‘Nissaggiya Pacittiya 18,’ he replied, the rule against touching gold or silver, i.e. money. His confession surprised me because I knew that he was extremely strict about this particular rule. ‘But I’ve never seen you break that rule.’ I said. He hung his head and said: ‘I’ve been doing it ever since I’ve been a monk.’ ‘How? When?’ I asked. He opened his mouth and pointed to a gold filling on one of his back teeth which he had apparently only just remembered.

One rule states that a monk should not use Sangha property without putting a cover on it. This seems like a sensible rule, but combine it with that obsessive tendency common to Vinaya fundamentalists and it can become a major problem. I knew a monk, again an Australian, who was constantly agonizing over this rule. He was a very restless sleeper and in the mornings he would inevitably wake up finding that his sheet had come loose during the night and his body was touching the bed, that is, touching Sangha property. Even when he woke up with no part touching the bed, he would worry that he might have done so during the night. One morning he was so overwrought that he was literally on the verge of committing suicide and had I or another monk not been with him he may well have done so. As a brief aside, I have noticed two other things about Vinaya fundamentalists. The first is that they seem to have a higher rate of disrobing than the more ‘lax’ monks. Secondly, and this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with psychology, when they finally disrobe they often go wild and not uncommonly even give up Buddhism altogether. It is a case of first one extreme and then the other. The two monks mentioned above both soon disrobed, one turned against Buddhism with a vehemence and the other gradually drifted out of it.

It is not uncommon for strict monks to regularly confess to having broken some of the more obscurely stated rules even when they have not knowingly done so, just to free themselves from the anxiety that they might have broken them. It is said that when King Monkut was a monk he ordained and disrobed again nearly 30 times because he wasn’t quite sure that his ordination ceremony had been conducted correctly and that he was therefore a ‘real’ monk. Vinaya fundamentalists seem to spend much of their time ruminating on the minutiae of the more obscure rules, nervously watching the clock and discussing which of numerous hypothetical scenarios would or would not constitute an infraction of the rules. The conversation can range from such subjects as whether swallowing toothpaste while cleaning one’s teeth would be breaking the rule against eating after noon, to discussing how to calculate when to stop eating if one were living above the Arctic Circle where a day can be several weeks long. Then there is the matter of whether putting a handkerchief on a chair and sitting on it would make a monk higher than lay people in the room sitting on the same type of chairs. I know of a monastery in Europe where two jars of honey are kept in the kitchen, one labeled ‘Morning Honey’ and the other ‘Afternoon Honey.’ The reason for this curious arrangement is thus. Monks should not eat solid food after noon but they are allowed to have honey (Nissaggiya Pacittiya 23). While a monk is putting honey on his morning toast a tiny crumb of bread might end up in the jar. If while having some honey in the afternoon he were to ingest this crumb he would be breaking a rule. To avoid such an enormity two jars are provided and kept separate. Making such arrangements suggests a level of concern out of all proportion to the rule’s importance and the size of the tiny crumb that might be accidentally ingested. Far from putting one at ease, fundamentalist Vinaya practice not uncommonly leads to anxiety, worry, guilt and obsessive behavior. Another justification for strict Vinaya is that in disallowing a monk to ask for anything it encourages acceptance and egolessness. Again this could be true, but more commonly the opposite seems to happen. Strictly observant monks usually become very adept at getting exactly what they want and having their own way no matter what the rules say. There are many ways to skin a cat; hinting, insinuation, a mournful look, a grimace, and as we will see below, Theravada has evolved a whole culture of getting around the rules.