The Buddha and the Rules

Even Thanissaro acknowledges that the Vinaya as we have it today was not taught by the Buddha. He says: ‘Historians estimate that the Vibhanga and Khandhakas reached their present form no later than the 2nd century BCE, and that the Parivara, or Addenda – a summary and study guide – was added a few centuries later…’ In saying this Thanissaro is only accepting what scholars have known for decades. Summing up these findings Von Hinuber says: ‘…the cultural environment of the first four Nikayas of the Suttapitaka is markedly older than that of the Vinayapitaka.’ When the Buddha talks about vinaya, as in the phrase ‘dhamma vinaya’, he is not referring to the Vinaya Pitaka as we have it today, any more than when he talks about abhidhamma is he referring to the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya in its present form had not come into being during the Buddha’s lifetime any more than the Abhidhamma had. For the Buddha vinaya (discipline or training) meant exactly that, disciplined mindful behavior consistent with the spirit of the Dhamma, not the complex codified set of rules that gradually developed in the generations after his passing. We do not know what the first Patimokkha was but it almost certainly consisted of a collection of verses epitomizing the Buddha’s teachings, not a collection of rules (see, D.II,48-9). During the Buddha’s time there certainly were rules, most of them probably the same as or similar to those followed by other wandering ascetics. The Vinaya Pitaka shows all the evidence of being a later compilation.

Take the rule about staying in the one place for the three months of the monsoon. It is known that wandering ascetics in India had been doing this for centuries before the Buddha. It was not so much a hard and fast rule but a convention, done mainly for convenience. By the time the Vinaya was composed this convention had hardened into a rule, the origins of which was no longer understood. Consequently, what is plainly an unconvincing story is told to explain why this rule was promulgated. Take another example. The Vinaya says that young boys can be ordained as monks. This seems to be very much at odds with what we know about the Buddha. He and his disciples renounced the world because they were deeply committed to freeing themselves from samsara for the benefit of all beings. Fully conscious of what they were doing, they turned their backs on social expectations and norms and wandered off in search of truth. Is it possible for a mere child to and think and feel like this? The ordaining of small boys strongly suggests that at the time this rule was composed joining the Sangha was already routineized and being a monk was, for some people at least, a convention or even a career. In one place in the Vinaya it is claimed that the Buddha allowed two small boys to be ordained simply because they were orphans whose parents had been generous towards the Sangha (Vin.I,78).

In the Vinaya there is a passage which reads: ‘At that time Venerable Udayin was living in the forest. His monastery was beautiful, something to see, really lovely. His private room was in the middle surrounded by the main structure and was well appointed with couch and chair, cushion and pillow, properly provided with water for drinking and bathing and with well-kept rooms. Many people came to see his monastery. A Brahmin and his wife approached Venerable Udayin and asked if they could see it. “Have a look.” he said, and taking the key and unlocking the door, he entered…’(Vin.I,118). So apparently at the time this story was recorded someone could be permanently housed in well-built, nicely furnished accommodation all secured with lock and key and still pass as an ‘forest monk’. This very clearly reflects a time when the original wandering ascetic lifestyle was, at least for some, a distant memory and a dead letter. Interestingly, Ven. Udayin’s comfortable digs sounds remarkably like what sometimes passes for a ‘forest monastery’ today in Thailand, even down to being a local tourist attraction.

But even if the Vinaya in its present form was taught by the Buddha, to continue to live in London or Los Angles in the 21st century CE by rules drawn up in northern India in the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE is neither practical or appropriate. Take Pacittiya 56 which forbids a monk from lighting a fire unless he is sick. The origin story explains the reason of this peculiar rule. Apparently, one winter’s night some monks made a fire of an old log. There happened to be a cobra in the log and after a while it sprung out frightening the monks half to death. When the Buddha came to know of this he forbid monks from lighting a fire. Is it sensible for a monk living in Toronto in 2001 not to turn on the central heating (or more likely to use hints and insinuations to get a lay person to turn it on for him) just because some monks in northern India over 2000 years ago were frightened by a snake jumping out of a burning log? A Theravadin would inevitably argue that it is and to have another opinion on this matter would be seen as proof of insincerity and probably of immorality too. When you become a Theravadin monk the first and the most important thing you have to renounce is your reason.

Let us have a look at the Buddha’s attitude to rules. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta he says: ‘If you wish, the Sangha may abolish the minor rules after my passing’ (D.II,154). This seems reasonable enough. Rules are made according to need and modified as circumstances change. The crux of this quotation would be what constitutes an important rule and what a minor one. To most people the differences between the two would be fairly clear. To abstain from killing someone (Parajika 3) or stealing from them (Parajika 2) would be, I would say, two very important rules. Lying down on a bed with detachable legs (Pacittiya 18) or having a mat made out of black wool (Nissaggiya Pacittiya 12) would be, I suggest, relatively unimportant, in fact probably irrelevant today. The Vinaya says that during the First Council when the question of changing the minor rules came up for discussion, not one of the 500 arahats could figure out which were the important rules and which the minor ones and so they decided not to change any of them. This would have to be the archetypal Theravadin story and it says much about the supposed wisdom and insight of arahats. In the Sapurisa Sutta the Buddha says: ‘Say a bad person is an expert in vinaya and he thinks, “I’m an expert in vinaya but those others are not,” and he exalts himself and disparages others. This is the Dhamma of the bad person. But the good person thinks like this, “It is not through being expert in vinaya that greed, hatred and delusion are destroyed. Even if one is not expert in vinaya one may still practice in full accordance with Dhamma, may practice correctly, may still live by Dhamma and therefore be one worthy of honor and respect.” Thus, having made the Way itself the main thing, he neither exalts himself nor disparages others. This is the Dhamma of the good person’ (M.III,39). Again, this is exactly what one would expect from the Buddha. While certain rules are of moral consequence and should be adhered to with great care, rules of etiquette and for the smooth function of communities have no moral significance and should be changed according to need. If a monk or nun ‘makes the Way itself the main thing’ he or she is practicing the Buddha’s teachings. Once a certain Vajjian monk came to the Buddha and confessed that he could not follow all the rules. The Buddha replied: ‘Then can you train in higher virtue, higher mind and higher understanding?’ ‘I can do that,’ said the monk. The Buddha then said: ‘Then train in these three things. If you can do that then greed, hatred and delusion will be abandoned and you will do nothing unskillful or engage in anything evil’ (A.III,85). Here again, the Buddha is saying that if a monk or nun is practicing the Dhamma with sincerity and integrity he or she can develop spiritually whether or not they practice all the Vinaya.