Monday, November 30, 2009

The Two Buddhist Schools on Rules

Processon of monastics representing all traditions, Vesak 2009, Orange County (WQ)

There are two distinct Buddhist traditions, the older more "orthodox" Theravada and the newer, more "reformed" Mahayana. (Other traditions, like Zen and Vajrayana, are actually forms of Mahayana Buddhism). People rarely make the distinction because the separation is not absolute. Most of what is known about Buddhism is less to do with the historical Buddha and more to do with the Mahayana school and its teachings.
Buddhist monastics, known as the Sangha, are governed by 227 to 253 rules depending on the school or tradition for males (bhikkhus). There are between 290 and 354 rules, depending on the school or tradition, for females (bhikkhunis). These rules, contained in the Vinaya, are divided into several groups, each entailing a penalty for their breech, depending on its seriousness.

Four rules for males and the first eight for females, known as parajika or "rules of defeat," mean immediate expulsion from the Sangha. The four applying to both sexes are:
  1. sexual intercourse
  2. killing a human being
  3. stealing to the extent that it entails a gaol sentence
  4. claiming miraculous or supernormal powers

Nuns have additional rules related to various physical contacts with males with one relating to concealing from the Sangha the defeat of another. Before his passing, the Buddha instructed that permission was granted for the abandonment or adjustment of minor rules should prevailing conditions demand such a change. These rules apply to all Sangha members irrespective of their Buddhist tradition. The interpretation of the rules, however, differs between the Mahayana and Theravada traditions.

The Theravadins, especially those from Thailand, claim to observe these rules to the letter of the law. But in many cases the following is more in theory than in actual practice. The Mahayanists interpret the rule not to take food at an inappropriate time as not meaning fasting from noon to sunrise, like the Buddha specifies in the Vinaya, but to refrain from eating between mealtimes. The rule of fasting (from solids) from noon one day to sunrise the next might be inappropriate, from a health angle, for monastics living in cold climates such as China, Korea, and Japan.

When one examines why this rule was instituted initially, it is possible to reach the conclusion that it is currently redundant. It was the practice in the Buddha's time for mendicant ascetics to go to a village with bowls to collect alms. To avoid disturbing the villagers unnecessarily, the Buddha ordained that monastics only visit once a day, in the early morning. This would allow the villagers to be free to conduct their day to day affairs without being disturbed by ascetics requiring food. Today, however, people bring food to temples, monasteries, and nunneries or prepare it on the premises. So at least part of the original reason for the restriction may no longer apply. In any case, that is how the Mahayanists have chosen to alter the rule.

In Theravadin countries, the monastics still go on early morning alms rounds. This is, of course, more a matter of maintaining tradition than out of necessity. (It humbles and disciplines a person to recollect that s/he is dependent on the support of others -- and it is just this sort of asceticism that reform movement reject).

There is also a rule prohibiting the handling of "gold and silver," in other words, money. Mahayanists consider this rule a handicap, if it were it to be strictly observed in today's world. So they interpret it as avoiding the accumulation of riches, which leads to greed.

Theravadins split hairs on this rule in that, although most will not touch coins or cash, some might carry credit cards or check books, which they recognize as money. This skirts the letter of the rule but no way skirts the clear spirit of the rule. It is a wrongdoing to be confessed by conscientious ascetics. There is an alternative in place as laid down by the Buddha, and neither school need violate this precept: It is permissible to have money set aside for an individual monastic or collectively for those living together through a steward.

The steward is a responsible layperson (or a ten-precept observer) who handles money and requisites donated. Permissible items and needs, having been donated and deposited with a steward in a monk or nun's name, are then able to be utilized without violating the rule against handling money. More>>

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