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The Vinaya in Modern Times

The Tripitaka (“three baskets”), otherwise known as the Pali Canon, the earliest collection of the Buddha’s teachings, is composed of three parts: the Sutras or teachings of the Buddha, the Abhidharma or “higher teachings”, and the Vinaya or rules of monastic conduct.  They contain the basic teachings of the Buddha on the training in concentration, discriminating knowledge and discipline, respectively.  The Tibetan version of the Tripitaka consists of over a hundred volumes, each one totaling more than 600 pages.

Originally, there was no need for a disciplinary code for monks as the first monks were highly motivated, mature, spiritually honest and committed to the simple wandering life.  They tended to attain realization quickly.  It was only when the ordained sangha grew and monastic communities began to multiply that the need for rules of conduct became evident.  Rules were created as the Buddha saw situations arise that required them.  For instance, one rule states that one must always look at one’s seat before sitting in it.  This rule is said to have arisen from an incident in which a monk was invited to a lay person’s house for dinner and sat on his chair without looking.  In so doing, he sat on the host’s baby.  What happened to the poor baby is unwritten, but the result was another rule being added to the list.

Monks today carry 225-253 vows (depending on the tradition), while nuns carry 311-348.  The reason for the discrepancy stems from the fact that the Buddha originally resisted creating a community of nuns all together.  He felt that the society in the Indian subcontinent was not ready to accept females as equals.  Eventually, through the persistent urging of his wife, Yashodara, after their son, Rahula, became a monk, the Buddha relented and created a community of nuns, and Yashodara was one of the first 500 women ordained (she later attained Arhantship).  But women were still not fully accepted as equals, and more disciplinary rules were created for them as a result.

As Buddhism moves into the 21st Century and the West, it is important to review the role of the Vinaya and its place in modern Buddhism.  The first thought that comes to mind is that many of the rules in the original Vinaya, such as how much black wool a monk may own, are obviously hopelessly out of date.  Also the injunction against handling money seems virtually impossible to comply with, particularly for those ordained who live outside of a monastery setting.  Also there are no rules regarding the use of cell phones, computers, social networking and so forth.  Does that mean the Vinaya is outdated?  Should it just be discarded?  What does the Vinaya offer, if anything, for lay Buddhists?  How strictly should the rules be followed, or should they be followed at all?  Western Buddhists in particular struggle with all these questions and more as they attempt to assimilate this ancient tradition into a world that is very different from the one that Lord Buddha inhabited.

In the first place, the Vinaya should not be thought of as just a set of rules, like the Buddhist Ten Commandments, that must be followed blindly.  Indeed, one of the Ten Fetters that bind us to cyclic existence is the foolish fondling of precepts and practices where one essentially turns off one’s mind and practices by rote (silabbata paramasa).  Rather than quibbling over the wording of the Vinaya it seems more important to understand the deeper principles that underlie it.

Given that Western society has neither the means nor the interest to understand the traditional role of Buddhist monasticism, and given the fact that lay Buddhists often assume both teaching and leadership roles in Western Buddhist groups much more often than in traditional Buddhist societies, monks and nuns often have difficulty in identifying exactly what their role should be here in the West.  We struggle with how to preserve the essence of the teachings while implementing the changes necessary to plant the Dharma in the West.  The Vinaya can provide guidance and sustenance for both the lay and ordained communities during this difficult time of adaptation and change.

It should be remembered that the rules contained in the Vinaya were formulated by the Buddha in order to create the optimal conditions for attaining realization by moving away from desire and into a life of Dharma, not to make a rigid list of rules to make one’s life difficult.  The root meaning of the word “Vinaya” is not discipline, but “to remove or lead out from”.  In other words, to remove oneself from the fetters of desire and attachment while leading oneself towards realization.  Therefore the heart of the Vinaya is the motivation we have to do exactly that, not the particulars of each and every rule.  Indeed, Penor Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, once instructed a newly ordained group of gelong (bhikkshu) monks that to keep the ten basic vows of the novice monk (not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to have sex, not to use mind-altering substances, not to dance, not to listen to music, not to sleep in a high place, not to wear jewelry or other body adornment and not to eat after noon) are equal in merit to keeping all 253 vows of the gelong in the time of the Buddha.  That is because these are degenerate times when it is extremely difficult simply to obtain ordination and even more difficult to hold the vows.

The Vinaya shows us that the discipline of mindfulness is essential to making progress on the path. Without it we simply wander lost, just as we have done for countless lifetimes, and there is no benefit.  This is what is important about the Vinaya.  This is also why the Vinaya is important to the lay community as lay ordination also comes with its own set of vows.  Unfortunately many lay practitioners ignore these vows or give them only passing notice as they are more ambiguous than the vows of ordination and thus easier to gloss over or forget.  By studying the Vinaya and reminding ourselves of its importance as one of the three pillars of the teachings, we can maintain our balance even in the most difficult of times.

There is a tendency in Western Buddhism in particular to not only misunderstand the meaning of the Vinaya but also to use it as something to hide behind and for obfuscation.  It has been used by some as a means of attacking other Buddhist schools or centers, accusing their ordained of breaking vows by, for example, selling meat as part of their livelihood or handling money.  Others have used the Vinaya as a way to cover up their own lack of spiritual honesty and breaking of spiritual commitments.  For example, turning one’s back on one’s own root guru is considered a most serious breakage in Tibetan Buddhism, and claiming to be still keeping true to the Vinaya after committing such a breakage seems to be totally missing the point.  Such misuse of the Vinaya is just as harmful as falsely claiming to be enlightened or teaching what one does not actually know or understand.  It can only lead to creating confusion in the minds of people new to Buddhism and schism between the various schools of Buddhism.

Keeping the rules of the Vinaya differs greatly from tradition to tradition.  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, it is not considered to be a breakage to eat meat or to eat after noon, while in the Theravadan tradition it is.  In Japanese Zen, most so-called monks do not carry the vow of celibacy, a result of a political decision made during the Meiji era.  Comparing one school against another and declaring one to be superior based on this or any other criterion is pointless and harmful to Buddhism in general, particularly here in the West where people do not have the cultural and spiritual background to effectively judge.   We can only encourage all those who follow the path of Lord Buddha to keep their opinions about other traditions to themselves, or even better, to root out such judgment and negativity at their root.


Everyone Needs Vinaya, by Santikaro Bhikku, http://www.suanmokkh.org/archive/sk/pdf/enVinaya.pdf

The Tibetan Tripitaka, http://www.rangjung.com/gl/Tripitaka.htm

The Ten Fetters, http://sped2work.tripod.com/fetters.html

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