Adapting the Monastic Vinaya to Australian Society by Ajahn Brahmāli

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Living Buddhism is not just an ancient belief system superimposed on modern societies; it is itself shaped by the forces of history and culture. This is true both of the Dhamma and the vinaya. Each generation of Buddhists adds a new layer of understanding and interpretation to the traditions they have inherited. The new layer will reflect their own circumstances, their cultures and their place in history. I do not say this simply to furnish Buddhists with a carte blanche to do as they please with our ancient heritage. On the contrary, I say this as an observation of how Buddhist history actually has unfolded. I will briefly discuss a couple of examples from Theravada Buddhism.

Probably the two most influential vinaya manuals for Buddhist monks in Thailand are the Pubbasikkhā and the Vinayamukha. As far as I know, neither of these manuals is used outside of Thai Buddhism, and I believe they are virtually unknown outside of Thai monasticism. The Pubbasikkhā was written in 1860 by a monastic disciple of King Mongkut, while the Vinayamukha was penned in the early 20th century by the monastic Prince Vajirañāṇa, who was a son of King Mongkut and also the saṅgharāja of Thailand. Because Thailand is a very staunchly royalist society, both of these vinaya manuals became very influential, and their interpretations are normative for the vast majority of the Thai Sangha. So this is a case, then, where manuals that are peculiar to Thai Buddhism, and therefore are products (at least in part) of Thai culture and society, have shaped the Thai practice of the vinaya. That is, local culture has influenced the interpretation and the practice of the vinaya.

In Sri Lanka this is even more clear. No single country has had a greater influence on our interpretation of the vinaya (and the Dhamma for that matter) than Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is the home of the main vinaya commentaries, the Samantapāsādikā and the Kaṅkhāvitaraṇī, and a large number of vinaya ṭīkās, the sub-commentaries. Although Sri Lankan and Indian cultures have a lot in common, it is obviously highly significant that these commentaries where finalized almost 1,000 years after the Buddha. It is inconceivable that these works were not affected by the changes in social conditions that must have taken place during this period. Indeed, the commentaries often discuss contemporary circumstances and how the vinaya should be applied to them. Further, the Samantapāsādikā sometimes cites older vinaya commentaries or the opinions of various theras (elders), and then decides on controversial points. It is obvious that the judgements and opinions of Buddhaghosa, that thus form part of the Samantapāsādikā, are a product of his own conditioning, including the society and times in which he lived.

It is not surprising, then, that modern vinaya experts sometimes disagree with opinions put forth in the commentarial literature. For example, in the Vinayamukha, Prince Vajirañāṇa in many instances expresses his disagreement with the Samantapāsādikā. And this is not just confined to Prince Vajirañāṇa. Almost anyone who has studied the vinaya in any depth will sometimes have had to question whether the Samantapāsādikā’s, or for that matter any other vinaya manual’s, interpretations make sense. Since we presumably all agree that the Samantapāsādikā and other commentaries are not literally the word of the Buddha, perhaps we can also agree that such questioning of the commentaries is actually quite legitimate. In fact, I would go much further. I would say that questioning the commentaries is not only legitimate, it is necessary if Buddhism is going to stay relevant in the modern world. If my conclusion that the commentaries are a product of their own time and place – and that they thus give a narrow and restricted interpretation of the vinaya – is correct, then we must look at the commentaries with fresh eyes and not tie ourselves to outdated interpretations that are at odds with what is acceptable and relevant for our own society.

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This is all very theoretical, so let me give an example. According to saṅghādisesa 2 of the bhikkhu pātimokkha, a bhikkhu cannot touch a woman if he is motivated by desire. In other words, touching a woman for any other reason is not an offence. The commentary then introduces the idea of anāmāsa, things never to be touched by a bhikkhu, of which women is one. If this is taken literally, it would mean that a bhikkhu cannot help a woman who is mortally wounded, e.g. in a car accident. Most people in Australia, myself included, would say you have a duty to help someone in a life-threatening situation, and that not to do so would be immoral. Thus the commentary is out of tune with cultural expectations in Australia. But the idea of anāmāsa is not only problematic in such life-and-death situations. For example, it might be asked why, in a handshaking culture such as Australia’s, it should not be acceptable for a bhikkhu to shake the hand of non-Buddhist women. Indeed, if one disregards the commentarial idea, this would normally not be a problem. Again, we need to reconsider the commentarial position. Of course, saṅghādisesa 2 still needs to be kept; we just need to follow what the rule actually says rather than the commentarial interpretation.

So perhaps we can agree that the vinaya commentaries do not always need to be followed down to every detail. But I would propose that we need to go even further. I would suggest that we need to take seriously the modern scholarship on the evolution of the vinaya piṭaka itself. Some of the most respected modern academics, such as Professors K.R. Norman and Oskar von Hinüber, argue persuasively that the vinaya piṭaka is a document that was compiled over a long period of time. They have argued that the most ancient part of the vinaya piṭaka is the pātimokkha rules. The material that surrounds the rules, known as the vibhaṅga, accrued over several centuries. We also know from the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta that the Buddha said we should not add rules to what he himself had laid down. Putting the two together, the unavoidable conclusion is that the vibhaṅga material, too, is simply an interpretation of the word of the Buddha. Because the vibhaṅga consists of the opinions of unknown monks who lived after the Buddha passed away, this material cannot be absolutely binding.

This argument, in my opinion, is solid enough to be taken seriously. In no way, however, do I mean this as a licence to throw out ancient interpretations and supplant them with our own ideas. Rather, all I am saying is that when ancient interpretations stand in the way of Buddhism being accepted in new lands, it is acceptable to inquire whether other interpretations that do not violate the word of the Buddha can be found. Indeed, even monastic luminaries like Prince Vajirañāṇa sometimes disagreed with opinions found in the vinaya vibhaṅga.

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Let me give another example. This example may seem trivial, but I think it is important to show the kind of alternative interpretations I have in mind. The vinaya contains a prohibition against monks killing or damaging plants or seeds. This can cause problems for monks wishing to eat fruit. To get around this, the Theravada vinaya contains a procedure to make “allowable” any plant or seed that still has the potential to grow. This procedure is given in outline in the canonical vinaya and then explained in considerable detail in the commentaries. The basic idea is that if you ritually damage the skin of a fruit with a knife, then the fruit becomes allowable to eat and it no longer matters if you chew the seeds. Just to be absolutely clear: this is purely a ritual, a ritual that somehow makes an otherwise unallowable action allowable. This kind of purity through ritual is essentially indistinguishable from the type of brahmanical practices that the Buddha so emphatically rejected. The Buddha made it clear that purity depends on intention, not on ritual. And yet here, in one of history’s little ironies, Buddhism has effectively reverted to a practice rejected by the Buddha! When people ask me why we do this ceremony, I often don’t know what to say. If we are concerned about the well-being of Buddhism in Australia, the only reasonable solution is to abandon such practices. And perhaps our brothers in Asia will have to consider the same.

To sum up, we need to be more flexible in our use of the vinaya. We need to distinguish more clearly between the word of the Buddha and later interpretations that are bound to particular cultures and particular times. This view of the vinaya is likely to give us all the flexibility we need to adapt its ancient standards to Australian and modern society. In this way, we will ensure that Buddhism is given the best possible chance to thrive in our modern times and diverse societies.