Shortly after the riots in Sri Lanka in July 1983 I happened to be staying in a monastery in Bandarawela district whose abbot was well-known for his anti-Tamil sentiments. One morning a group of men sat at his feet excitedly discussing the recent events. The abbot was giving his opinion and I recall one of the things he said was that the Tamils should be driven out and that if they didn’t go they should all be killed. As he proceeded he talked in an increasingly loud and violent manner. After about an hour of this a laymen in the front of the audience caught his attention and tapped his watch. The abbot looked up at the clock, saw that it was 11.35 am, drew his tirade to a close and hurried off to have his dana. The audience had clearly agreed with what the abbot had been saying but there certainly would have been mutters of disapproval had he not finished eating before noon. When the notorious monk Buddharakshita was in prison awaiting trial for assassinating the then prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1959, the prison routine was changed so that he could have his dana before noon and most people thought this only proper. This ‘addiction to trivia,’ to use Thomas More’s phrase, is pervasive amongst Theravadins and blinds them to what really matters.
To take another more shocking example. It had recently come to public attention that some monks in the poor northeast of Thailand help procure girls for the flesh pots of Bangkok. Agents from the brothels sponsor religious ceremonies in monasteries, the locals flock to them, the recruitment takes place and the abbot gets his cut according to how many girls are ensnared. To ease the girl’s guilt and hesitation the monks tell them that becoming a prostitute is due to their past bad karma which they can lessen if they send some of their earnings back to the monastery, which many do. 
Apparently this sort of thing has been going on for years and it could only happen because monks and local people don’t see it as contrary to the letter of the Vinaya. And indeed the monks who participate in this loathsome business could argue as much. If the money ‘donated’ to the temple is handed to the steward in the proper way, what rule has been broken? If the Vinaya is in danger of being breached during the negotiations with the brothel agents this can be easily avoided by ‘wording it right’. And if the result of all this is exploitation and misery, what has that to do with the monks? According to both the Vinaya and Theravadin orthodoxy, monks are meant to work for their own salvation and not get involved in worldly matters. But one thing is certain. If a young monk from one of these procuring monasteries were seen shaking hands with a female tourist, eating a biscuit in the afternoon or kicking a football, there would be an outcry and he would face considerable disapproval. But the fact is that these and other shameful or absurd practices go on and no one, including the ecclesiastical authorities, worry too much about it as long as the outward form of the Vinaya is conformed to. When Shanti Asoka’s controversial founder Phra Phutirak advocated somewhat unconventional Vinaya practices, Thailand’s ecclesiastical council very quickly called on the secular arm and had him forcibly disrobed. To the best of my knowledge the procurer monks from the northeast have never been disciplined, although since their exposure by the press they are probable a bit more discreet
The truth is that in Theravada following the letter of the Vinaya is more important than teaching the Dhamma, it is more important than inconveniencing others, it is more important than kindness or meditation and it is more important than taking a moral stand. Indeed, Theravada makes it clear that following the Vinaya is more important than life itself. In the commentaries there is the story of a nun who fell into a pond where she was grabbed by a crocodile. A man who saw this ran to help the woman but when he extended his hand so that she could grab hold of it and be pulled to safety she refused to take it because of the rule that says monks or nuns are not allowed to touch someone of the opposite sex. The nun was consequently eaten by the crocodile. In any other tradition such a story would be used to illustrate the second of the Ten Fetters – the ritualizing of morality and rules, but in Theravada this nun is held up as a model of virtue. It is true that in one place Buddhaghosa says that a monk might consider breaking a minor rule for the sake of compassion, one of the few feeble glimmers of light in his otherwise dreary writings. But the problem is this; if the arahats at the First Council couldn’t figure out which were the important rules and which the minor ones, how is an ordinary unenlightened monk to know? A much better course is to forget about compassion and follow all the rules unbendingly, or at least their outward form. And this is exactly the course that Buddhaghosa more usually advises. For example, he says that even if one’s mother falls into a raging river one must under no circumstances attempt to save her if it means making physical contact. Again, he says that if a monk falls into a pit he must not dig himself out even to save his life as this would be breaking the rule against digging the earth. Now when such petty rules are thought to be more important than the lives of others, more important even than one’s own life, is it surprising that they are given so much attention that the things that really matter are considered insignificant by comparison?
Mahayana arose in part as a protest against exactly this type of mean-spirited egoism and pettifogging. The Bodhicariyavatarapanjika says that compassion and the welfare of others should always come before adherence to minor rules and sometimes even to major ones. ‘Having realized the highest truth, he should be committed to the welfare and happiness of other beings. And if someone should object and say: ‘How can he avoid committing an offence while doing something that is forbidden?’ the reply is that the Lord taught that what is forbidden may be performed by one who perceives with the eye of knowledge the benefits of others therein…But this does not apply to everyone; only to those who practice compassion to the highest degree, who is without selfish motive, who is solely concerned with the interest of others and fully dedicated to this ideal. In this way there is no offence for one who is skilled in means and who works for the interest of others with wisdom and compassion.’
- Bangkok Post, 11, Feb. 1991. [back]