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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

What is Vinaya?

Vinaya is the disciplinary code for self training laid down by the Buddha for monks and nuns to observe. Vinaya plays a pivotal role in their monastic way of life.

The Buddha did not formulate the code of discipline in a single exercise. However, He instituted certain rules as and when the need arose. Vinaya Pitaka and its commentary contain many significant stories about how and why certain rules were laid down by the Buddha. According to the Buddha the best form of Vinaya was to discipline the mind, words and action. The early disciples of the Buddha were highly developed spiritually and they had little need for a set of rules to be imposed upon them. However, as the monastic order (the Sangha) grew in numbers, it attracted many others, some of whom were not so highly developed spiritually. There arose some problems regarding their conduct and way of life such as taking part in lay activities for their livelihood and yielding to temptation for sense pleasure. Owing to this situation, the Buddha had to lay down guidelines for the monks and nuns to follow so that they could distinguish the difference between the life of monks and laymen. The holy order of the monks and the nuns was a well-established religious order when compared with other existing acetic practices at that time.

The Buddha prescribed all the necessary guidance to maintain the holy order in every aspect of life. When the Buddha passed away, these rules were collated so that the Order could be organized around them. The code of conduct prescribed by the Buddha can be divided into two broad areas. These are Universal Moral Codes, Lokavajja, most of which are applicable to all members of the Order and lay people alike for leading a religious life. Certain other disciplinary codes or rules which can be instituted to meet the existing cultural and social constraints of the country at any one time are called Pannatti Vajja. In the first category are the Universal Laws which restricted all immoral and harmful evil deeds. The second category of rules applied almost directly to the monks and nuns in the observance of manners, traditions, duties, customs and etiquette. Breaking of moral codes pertaining to the Lokavajja create bad reputation as well as bad kamma, whereas violation of disciplinary codes based on social conditions do not necessarily create bad kamma. However, they are subject to criticism as violation in any form pollute the purity and dignity of the holy Order. These rules were largely based on the socio-cultural situation or way of life prevailing in India 25 centuries ago.

According to the Maha Parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha had proclaimed that some 'minor' rules could be altered or amended to accommodate changes due to time and environment, provided they do not encourage immoral or harmful behavior. In fact, during the Buddha's time itself, certain minor rules were amended by the monks with His permission. The Buddha also advocated that sick monks and nuns be exempted from certain Vinaya rules. However, once the rules had been enumerated by the disciples in the First Council, convened three months after the passing away of the Buddha, it was decided that all the rules should be maintained in toto because no one was certain as to which of the rules should be altered. Finally, the disciples decided to uphold all the precepts prescribed by the Buddha. As time went on however, the rules became fossilized and some orthodox disciples insisted that the rules should be followed strictly to the letter rather than in the spirit. It was precisely to prevent rigid adherence to mere rules of this kind that the Buddha did not appoint a successor to take over after Him. He had said that the understanding of the Dhamma and upholding of the Dhamma as the master should be enough to help one lead a holy life. Another reason why the early disciples did not agree to change any of the precepts was that there was no reason or occasion for them to do so within such a short period of time after the passing away of the Buddha. This was because, at that time, most of those who had renounced their worldly life had done so with sincerity and conviction. However, when the social conditions started to change and when Buddhism spread to many other parts of India and other countries, the decision made by the disciples not to change any precepts in the First Council became a very big problem because some of the rules could not be adapted to meet the political and economic changes under varying circumstances.

Development of Sangha Community

The Sangha community, in the course of time, evolved themselves into several sects, many of whom, while adhering to some major precepts as laid down by he Buddha, had, however, tended to ignore some of the minor rules. The Theravada sect appeared to be more orthodox, while the Mahayana and some other sects tended to be more liberal in their outlook and religious observances. The Theravada sect tried to observe the Vinaya to the very letter despite of changing circumstances and environment. Minor changes of the precepts had, however, taken place from time to time, but were not officially recognized even amongst the members of the Theravada sect. For instance, we can look at the rule regarding the partaking of food after the stipulated time of the day. The Theravada sect has not openly acknowledged the fact that certain variations could be allowed under special circumstances. Whilst members of other schools adapt themselves to the wearing of robes with appropriate colour and pattern, the Theravada sect has continued to adhere to the use of the original robes that were traditionally prescribed despite the changed social and climatic conditions. Many of practices of the monkhood are clearly understood only by those who are born into traditional Buddhist cultures.

At the other extreme, there are some monks who insist on observing the very letter of the Vinaya code rather than in its spirit, even though such action would embarrass the people around them. For example, more and more Buddhist monks are being invited to western countries where the culture of the people and the climatic conditions are so vastly different from that in Asia, but which could be regarded as strange and exotic elsewhere. Here again the monk must apply his common sense and try not to make a mockery of himself in the eyes of the people. The important rule to be observed is that no immoral, cruel, harmful and indecent acts are created and that the sensitivities of others are respected. If the monks can lead their lives as hones, kind, harmless and understanding human beings by maintaining their human dignity and disciplines, then such qualities will be appreciated in any part of the world. Maintaining the so-called traditions and customs of their respective countries of origin have little to do with the essence of the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha.

Then, there is another problem. Many people, especially those in the West who have accepted the Buddhist way of life, having read the Vinaya rules in the texts, think that the monks must follow all the rules in toto in any part of the world, in exactly the same manner as they were recorded in the texts. We must remember that some of these rules which were practised in Indian society 25 centuries ago are irrelevant even in Asia today. It must be clearly borne in mind that the Buddha instituted the rules only for the members of the Sangha community who lived in India, in fact in the region where He lived. Those monks never had any experience of the way of life in another country. Their main concern was with the spiritual development with the minimum of disruption and annoyance to the society where they lived. But if they lived today, they may experience many other new problems, if they strictly observe all the rules in a country where people cannot appreciate or understand them.

The disciplinary code for lay devotees show how a layman can live a virtuous and noble life without renouncing the worldly life. The Buddha's advice to lay people is contained in such discourses as the Mangala, Parabhava, Sigalovada, Vasala and Vygghapajja and many other discourses.

Many Vinaya rules apply only to those who have renounced the worldly life. Of course a layman may follow some of the rules if they help him to develop greater spirituality.

Changing Society

When society changes, monks cannot remain as traditionalists without adapting to the changes, although they have renounced the worldly life. People who cannot understand this situation criticize the behavior of certain monks because of those changes.

However, when the monks want to amend even certain minor precepts, they would have to do it with the sanction of a recognized Sangha Council. Individual monks are not at liberty to change any Vinaya rules according to their whims and fancies. Such a Council of Sangha members can also impose certain sanction against monks who have committed serious violations of the disciplinary code and whose behavior discredits the Sangha. The Buddha instituted the Council to help monks to prevent evil deeds and avoid temptation in a worldly life. The rules were guidelines rather than inviolable laws handed down by some divine authority.

In Asian countries particularly, monks are accorded great respect and reverence. Lay people respect them as teachers of the Dhamma and as men who have sacrificed the worldly life in order to lead a holy life. Monks devote themselves to the study and practice of the Dhamma and do not earn a living. Laymen, therefore, see to their material well-being while they in turn look to the monks for their spiritual needs.

As such, monks are expected to conduct themselves in such a way that will earn them the respect and reverence of the public. If, for example, a monk is seen in a disreputable place, he will be criticized even if he is not involved in any immoral action. Therefore, it is the duty of the monks to avoid certain uncongenial surroundings so as to maintain the dignity of the holy Order.

If a monk does not respect the feelings of his lay devotees and behaves according to what he alone thinks is right, then the lay devotees are not bound to look after his needs. There are many instances recorded in the Buddhist Texts that even during the Buddha's time, lay devotees had refused to look after arrogant, quarrelsome or irresponsible monks. Monks can be criticized for doing certain worldly things which only lay people are at liberty to do.

Dhamma and Vinaya

Many people have not yet realized that the Dhamma, the Truth expounded by the Buddha, is not changeable under any circumstances. Certain Vinaya rules are also included into the same category and they are not subject to change under any circumstances. But some other Vinaya rules are subject to change so as to prevent certain undue inconveniences. Dhamma and Vinaya are not the same. Some monks try to observe certain traditions rigidly as if they are important religious principles although others cannot find any religious significance or implication in their practices. At the same time some selfish and cunning persons may even try to maintain certain outward manifestations of purity, in order to mislead innocent devotees to regard them as pious and sincere monks. Many so-called Buddhist practices in Asian countries that monks and others follow are not necessarily religious precepts but traditional practices upheld by the people. On the other hand, certain manners introduced for monks to observe as disciplines truly maintain the dignity and serenity of the holy Order. Although religious traditions and customs can create a congenial atmosphere for spiritual development, some Vinaya rules need to be amended according to changing social conditions. If this is not done, monks will have to face numerous problems in the course of their survival and in their association with the public.

Some lay people criticize monks for handling money. It is difficult to carry out their religious activities and to be active in modern society without dealing with money. What a monk must do is to consider himself as unattached to the money or property as personal belongings. That is what the Buddha meant. Of course, there may be some who deliberately misinterpret the rules to suit their material gain. They will have to bear the consequences of their own inability to gain spiritual development.

However, those who choose to confine themselves to an isolated area for meditation for peace of mind, should be able to carry out their religious duties without hindrance from worldly things which can become burdensome. But they must first ensure that they have enough supporters to attend to their needs. While there can be such monks who wish to retire completely from society there must be enough monks in society to attend to the numerous religious needs of the general public. Otherwise, people may think that Buddhism cannot contribute very much in their day to day lives.

Characteristic of a Monk

Among the salient characteristics of a monk are purity, voluntary poverty, humility, simplicity, selfless service, self-control, patience, compassion and harmlessness. He is expected to observe the four kinds of Higher Morality, namely:

Patimokkha Sila -- The Fundamental Moral Code (major offenses related to immoral, cruel, harmful and selfish activities.)

Indriyasamvara Sila -- Morality pertaining to sense-restraint.

Ajivaparisuddhi Sila -- Morality pertaining to purity of livelihood.

Paccayasannissita Sila -- Morality pertaining to the use of requisites pertaining to life.

These four kinds of morality are collectively called Sila-Visuddhi (Purity of Virtue).

When a person enters the Order and receives his ordination he is called a Samanera _Novice Monk. He is bound to observe Ten Samanera Precepts with certain disciplinary codes for leading a monastic life until he receives his higher ordination?Upasampada _ to become a Bhikkhu or fully fledged monk.

A bhikkhu or monk is bound to observe the above-mentioned four kinds of higher morality which comprise 227 rules apart from several other minor ones. The four major ones which deal with celibacy and abstinence from stealing, murder, and false claims to higher spirituality must strictly be observed. If he violates any one of these, a monk is regarded as a defeated person in the Sangha community. He will be deprived of certain religious rights by the Sangha community. In the case of other rules which he violates, he has to face many other consequences and make amends according to the gravity of the offence.


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Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/

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