Towards a pratimoksa for the West

When the Buddha achieved final emancipation (parinirvana) one of his final instructions was that the sangha could abolish the minor rules of conduct. By so doing the Buddha himself acknowledged that the rules of conduct, called the pratimoksha or patimoksha (lit. “the path of emancipation”) are relative and contingent. Therefore, attachment to the rules of conduct is adharmic. The Buddha’s permission to change the rules of conduct may be understood from two points of view. Was the Buddha’s permission associated with a single decision that should be binding upon all subsequent generations forever, or an ongoing and progressive invitaton to amend the rules as external circumstances warranted? The first aspect is adharmic because it posits the error of self-identity, denies the inevitability of change, and is based on attachment. Therefore the Buddha’s permission must be progressive and ongoing. Now the Buddhist sangha is divided, so no decision can be made. Are we then to remain in attachment to the rules, denying the truths of non-self and flux? Is this not an adharmic state to be in? The only conclusion that follows from the foregoing is that there are no rules because, where there are many sanghas, there is no sangha. This was prophesied by the Buddha himself. [1]

When the Buddha referred to the rules of conduct he called them elementary and inferior. At the same time they are necessary, as the vas in which the fruits of spirituality are cultivated or the matrix into which the seeds of dharma are cast. When one looks at the Vinaya one sees immediately three facts:

  • there are lots of rules;
  • many rules of conduct are clearly relative and situational in nature, having arisen in response to specific historical circumstances and relevant to specific situations in the past having little or no real relationship with Spiritual cultivation;
  • others represent deep and profound moral truths that may rightly be called Spiritual.

This must be what the Buddha referred to as the major and minor rules.

Clearly the only possible resolution to this crisis is the adoption of a new Pratimoksha. Perhaps this Pratimoksha will be picked up by the Western sangha as it gains greater autonomy from its Asian roots and begins to evolve new combinations and permutations leading to fresh revelations and new and different lineages proper to the next millenium. The Western Buddhist Pratimoksha is not too different from the ten precepts that constitute bodhisattvahood (according to this view any person who follows the Bodhisattva Precepts should be considered to be ordained).[2] A Nyingma lama has stated that following the ten precepts is a sufficient basis for realization. According to the Tantras, it is an universal law that as the degenerate ages progress they attract the Spiritual forces, which appear in numerous places and surprising guises. Moreover, less work generates greater karmic merit, just because the overall tenor of the environment is so low. This indirectly benefits dharma practitioners. Why then demand that a Buddhist monk be unable to laugh in public? Is laughter adharmic? Will laughter inhibit the potential to achieve enlightenment? [3]


  1. The Buddha predicted that after a thousand years the sangha would fall into decline. This corresponds to the Fourth Buddhist Council held in 78 CE, which became the root of the division into Theravada and Mahayana. As a consequence only the Esoteric schools preserve the true dharma, all popular or religious schools having fallen into degeneracy. In the degenerate age, true dharma is hard to find and has been replaced by scholasticism, fundamentalism and superficiality. The true teachers practice the dharma covertly and transmit it directly from mouth to ear secretly, from individual to individual. Even if it were spoken aloud, it would not be understood but would be laughed at and rejected as nonsense by the crowd (puthujjana). We are cast adrift amongst a sea of people who have no sense of the spiritual. We are lost.
  2. “no detailed regulations had yet been formulated at the time of the Buddha’s death. What we call the Patimokkha, a set of more than two hundred rules governing monastic life, was in the earliest period a very simple formulation.” Hajime Nakamura (2005), Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei), p. 289, n. 93.

  3. Sekhiya 11 and 12 make it an offence to laugh loudly while being motionless or seated in an inhabited area.


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