Ethics in the Pali Canon

The following talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center, Second Life on Saturday, June 7, 2014.


Nobody listened to Him, that is why there is Buddhism.

Krishnamurti (1981)


Comparison of the Pancha Sila and the Patimokkha

Ethics Are Elementary and Inferior

Attachment to the Rules Is an Error

The Lesser and Minor Rules May Be Abolished


Many Rules Have Nothing to Do with Spiritual Development

Rules May Be Ignored in Matters of Health and Sickness

The Sangha Should Reflect Social Values

Intention, Not Action, Is the Cause of Karma

Following the Vinaya Is Not a Precondition of Enlightenment

Conclusion: Towards an Essential Vinaya


Categories of the Patimokkha




Contemporary religious Buddhists, in both Asia and the West, put great stock in the following of rules. This refers especially to the Five Precepts (Pancha Sila), also called Pansil, followed by the laity, and the Pāṭimokkha rules of the Vinaya. The latter are followed by the members of the sangha. Therefore, it is interesting to find that this attitude does not square with the teachings of the Buddha as declared in the Pali Canon. Also, the rules themselves – i.e., the Pancha Sila and the Pāṭimokkha – do not correspond with each other very well. The common attitude towards the precepts collectively is that they are “training rules” that purify karmic obscurations and concentrate the mind. The latter is the literal meaning of “vinaya” – i.e., vi – intensification, + naya – negation, similar in meaning to the term niyama in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. However, a great number of the Pāṭimokkha rules have nothing whatever to do with spiritual development as such. Rather, they represent an ad hoc code of behaviour that developed over the course of the Buddha’s life in response to the day-to-day circumstances of the communal life of the sangha. Many religious Buddhists seem to believe that the rules are moral absolutes, and therefore necessary preconditions of spiritual development. Nevertheless, the Buddha himself stated that the rules should not compromise good health and that the rules may be abrogated in the event of poor health. In addition, in the very first sutta of the Pali Canon, the Buddha warns against attachment to the rules; he also declares that ethical considerations are “elementary and inferior.” At the end of his life, just prior to the parinibbana, the Buddha further stated that the “minor and lesser rules” may be abolished. We even have the cautionary example of Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin, who criticized the sangha for laxity and attempted to institute a sangha characterized by much stricter observances, including mandatory vegetarianism, which the Buddha specifically rejected. Devadatta was so filled with self-righteous hatred that he attempted to murder the Buddha, but his sangha fell into abeyance.


Pansil consists of Five Precepts, viz., no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual wrongdoing, and no alcohol. When we compare this formula with the Vinaya, we find that three of the four parajikas (defeats), the most serious level of offence, correspond, but in a different order, viz., no sexual wrongdoing, no stealing, and no killing. The fourth defeat is claiming a spiritual attainment that one does not possess, which is a form of lying. However, neither lying in general nor consuming alcohol is mentioned. The next reference to lying occurs in the 13 sanghadisesas (rules requiring a meeting) in the context of making unfounded charges against another bikkhu with the intention of having him disrobed, but lying in general does not appear until the 92 pacittiyas, the minor rules calling for confession only, and alcohol is not mentioned until the 51st item in the same group, followed by tickling. It seems that what we are seeing here is a movement form a significantly more liberal Vinaya to increasing emphasis on rules as the sangha became increasingly intolerant over time. We also see this phenomenon taking place after the Buddha’s death, leading ultimately to the schism between the Hinayana and the Mahayana. What is clear is that the original monastic rules were far more liberal and less inflexible than the later sangha came to believe, and that the consumption of alcohol in particular was a minor matter or even a matter of no significance, given that the Buddha himself was willing to see it abolished. Thus, it appears that calls for the return of the sangha to the original rules that one hears in various quarters today are far from the spirit or intention of the historical Buddha as described in the Pali Canon and are in fact a symptom of the degeneration of the age (mappo) at the nadir of the Buddhadharma, precisely contrary to what fundamentalists claim to intend.


The Brahmajala Sutta, called the All-Embracing Net of Views, is the first sutta of the Pali Canon. In it, the Buddha responds to a conversation between two Brahman wanderers, Suppiya and the youth Brahmadatta. They are discussing the behaviour of the Buddha and his disciples. Interestingly, it is the youth who defends the Buddha, but his elder disdains him. Thus, from a discussion on how his disciples should reply to those who criticize or praise the Buddha and his disciples, the Buddha segues into a discussion of virtue, commencing with the following remarkable statement:

7. It is, bhikkhus, only to trifling and insignificant matters, to the minor details of mere moral virtue, which a worldling would refer when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata. And what are those trifling and insignificant matters, those minor details of mere moral virtue, to which he would refer?

8. “Having abandoned the destruction of life, the recluse Gotama abstains from the destruction of life. He has laid aside the rod and the sword, and dwells conscientious, full of kindness, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. It is in this way, bhikkhus, that the worldling would speak when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata.

Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned taking what is not given, the recluse Gotama abstains from taking what is not given. Accepting and expecting only what is given, he dwells in honesty and rectitude of heart.’

Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned unchaste living, the recluse Gotama lives the life of chastity. He dwells remote (from women), and abstains from the vulgar practice of sexual intercourse.’

9. Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned false speech, the recluse Gotama abstains from falsehood. He speaks only the truth, he lives devoted to truth; trustworthy and reliable, he does not deceive anyone in the world.’

Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned slander, the recluse Gotama abstains from slander. He does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide others from the people here, nor does he repeat here what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide these from the people there. Thus, he is a reconciler of those who are divided and a promoter of friendships. Rejoicing, delighting, and exulting in concord, he speaks only words that are conducive to concord.’

Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned harsh speech, the recluse Gotama abstains from harsh speech. He speaks only such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, endearing, going to the heart, urbane, amiable, and agreeable to many people.’

Or he might say: ‘Having abandoned idle chatter, the recluse Gotama abstains from idle chatter. He speaks at the right time, speaks what is factual, and speaks on the good, on the Dhamma and the Discipline. His words are worth treasuring: they are timely, backed by reason, definite and connected with the good.’

10. Or he might say: ‘The recluse Gotama abstains from damaging seed and plant life. He eats only in one part of the day, refraining from food at night and from eating at improper times. He abstains from dancing, singing, instrumental music, and witnessing unsuitable shows. He abstains from wearing garlands, embellishing himself with scents, and beautifying himself with unguents. He abstains from accepting gold and silver. He abstains from accepting uncooked grain, raw meat, women, and girls, male and female slaves, goats and sheep, fowl and swine, elephants, cattle, horses and mares. He abstains from accepting fields and lands. He abstains from running messages and errands. He abstains from buying and selling, and from dealing with false weights, false metals, and false measures. He abstains from the crooked ways of bribery, deception, and fraud. He abstains from mutilating, executing, imprisoning, robbery, plunder, and violence.’

It is in this way, bhikkhus, that the worldling would speak when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata.

The translation “worldling” does not quite capture the quality of inferiority of the puthujjana as one who has not heard, i.e., does not understand, the dharma. The Buddha’s list of ethical virtues, which he regards as elementary and inferior (“trifling,” “insignificant,” and “minor” in this translation) and therefore the least of his disciples’ attainments, is all that the ignorant puthujjana is able to realize. These include the first four major virtues of the Pancha Sila, viz., no killing, no stealing, no sex, and no lying. The Pali phrase is appamatakam oramattakam silamattakam – literally, “negligible and worldly measures of moral practice.” We might even use the words “superficial” or “exoteric.” Interestingly, alcohol is nowhere mentioned. The Buddha goes on to catalogue virtually all the rules to which the monks are subject, still under the rubric of “those trifling and insignificant matters, those minor details of mere moral virtue, to which [the puthujjana] would refer.” In subsequent sections, he contrasts these ethical and moral rules and observances with “those who would rightly praise the Tathāgata in accordance with reality would speak.” The implication is that praising them for mere ethical observances is actually wrong. He describes these as “other dhammas, deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful and sublime, beyond the sphere of reasoning, subtle, comprehensible only to the wise, which the Tathāgata, having realized for himself with direct knowledge, propounds to others.” In other words, as discussed by Peter Masefield in Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon (1986), ethics, i.e., karma, is the religion of the puthujjana, which is inferior to the religion of the Arhats (“the wise”), which consists of direct spiritual knowledge or gnosis and its results.

Similarly, in the third book of the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha declares that any monk who follows the essential principles of the Vinaya is absolved of any violation of the minor and lesser rules: “Whatever minor, trifling observances he may transgress, he is cleared of them. Why so? I do not declare him to be rendered unfit because of them, for he strictly observes the rudiments [adibrahmacariyakani] of the holy life, the constituents of the holy life” (AN, iii, 9, 85, trans. Hare). Such a one is even capable of emancipation!


The Buddha also speaks of the error of attachment to rites, rituals, and rules (sīlabbata-parāmāso) in the Sutta Pitaka’s list of ten fetters. This is identified in the Saṅgīti Sutta and the Dhammasaṅgaṇi as one of the three most important fetters, along with belief in a self and doubt. This is also the essence of the Buddha’s criticism of Brahmanism, concerning which he is utterly derogatory. When the Buddha criticizes Brahmanism, he is not merely criticizing the beliefs of an opposing sect; he is criticizing the phenomenon by which original and originating spiritual truths degenerate into mere observances – rites, rituals, and rules. In other words, the Buddha is attacking the very concept of religion itself! Of course, Buddhism itself, as an historical phenomenon, is not immune to this process of degeneration; we may refer to a process of spiritual entropy. Today, Buddhism too has become a religion. Rites, rituals, and rules have replaced the interior and spiritual realities to which they attest. Slavish adherence to the letter of the Vinaya is just another example of this. The Buddha addresses this explicitly in the third book of the Anguttara Nikaya. He agrees with Ananda’s otherwise paradoxical insight “that moral practice, way of living, sanctity of life, and excellence of service which increase unprofitable states and decrease profitable states in him who observes them, – such moral practice and so forth are without fruit. But those which have the contrary result do have this fruit” (AN iii, 8, 78, trans. Hare). The meaning is that these practices do not in themselves result in emancipation but are merely supports.


The Mahaparinibbana Sutta, called the Last Days of the Buddha, recounts the Buddha’s final teachings and death (parinibbana). In the Final Exhortation, after instructing Ananda and the rest of the sangha to follow the Dhamma and the Discipline (Vinaya) as their Master after the Buddha’s death, the third instruction of the Buddha to the sangha was: “If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules.” However, because Ananda did not think to ask the Buddha which offences he was referring to, the sangha at that time chose not to abolish any of them. The question then becomes, are we to be chained to this decision, made 2,500 years ago, forever? I do not believe that this was the Buddha’s intention, based on the evidence of the texts.

In fact, the Buddha implies that the entire Vinaya could be replaced. In the third book of the Anguttara Nikaya, a monk from the Vajjian clan complains to the Buddha about the Vinaya: “Lord, the recital I have to make twice a month amounts to more than a hundred and fifty rules [ultimately, the Vinaya included 227 rules in the Theravadin redaction]. Lord, I can’t stand such a training.” Rather than rebuke the monk, the Buddha replied, “Well, monk, can you stand the training in the three particulars: That in the higher morality, in the higher thought and that in the higher insight?”  Thus, the Buddha gave the monk permission to abandon the rules of the Vinaya in exchange for training in the higher morality, thought, and insight. “Then,” the Buddha said, “when you are proficient in the higher morality, thought and insight, then lust, malice and delusion will be abandoned by you. When you have abandoned these you will not perform any wrong deed, you will not follow any wicked way” (AN, iii, 9, 83, trans. Hare). In other words, action follows from intention, and intention from wisdom, so the cultivation of wisdom directly is an effective alternative to the Vinaya. This became the basis of the Prajnaparamita. Rules are merely skilful means (upaya), not moral absolutes.


Devadatta was a Buddhist monk, cousin, and brother-in-law of the Buddha, and brother of Ananda. Devadatta was a Koliyan. He is said to have parted from the Buddha’s following with five hundred other monks to form their own sangha. Most of these are said to have been Shakya clan relatives of both Devadatta and Siddattha. Devadatta became obsessed with his own worth. He began to have thoughts that it was he who should lead the Sangha, not the Buddha. Shortly thereafter Devadatta asked the Buddha to retire and let him take over the running of the sangha. The Buddha retorted that he did not even let his trusted disciples Sāriputta or Moggallāna run the sangha, much less one like him, “who should be vomited like spittle.” The Buddha gave a special act of publicity about him. He warned the monks that Devadatta had changed for the worse. Seeing the danger in this, Devadatta approached Prince Ajātasattu and encouraged him to kill his father, the good King Bimbisāra; meanwhile, Devadatta would kill the Buddha. Devadatta then tried to kill the Buddha himself by throwing a rock at him from above, while the Buddha was walking on the slopes of a mountain. As this also failed, he decided to have the elephant Nāḷāgiri intoxicated and let him loose on the Buddha while the Buddha was on alms round. However, the power of the Buddha’s loving-kindness (metta) overcame the elephant. Devadatta then decided to create a schism in the order. He collected a few monastic friends and demanded that the Buddha accede to the following rules for the monks: that they should dwell all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of a tree, and abstain completely from fish and flesh. The Buddha allowed the monastics to follow all of these except the last if they so wished. The Buddha refused to make any of these rules compulsory, however, and Devadatta went round blaming him, saying that he was living in abundance and luxury – similar to the accusation made by the Group of Five before the Buddha’s enlightenment. Devadatta then decided to create a schism and recite the training rules (pātimokkha) apart from the Buddha and his followers, with five hundred newly ordained monks. The Buddha sent his two chief disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna, to bring back the erring young monks. Devadatta thought they had come to join his sangha. He asked Sāriputta to give a talk, then fell asleep. Then the chief disciples persuaded the young monks to return to the Buddha.

The foregoing account makes the Buddha’s attitude to the monastic rules clear. He explicitly sought the middle way between extremes and, in particular, the Buddha rejected strict vegetarianism altogether.


The all-too-common view accepted by some Buddhists, both in Asia and the West, that the value of one’s spiritual practice is a function of the number of rules that one follows has resulted in a rather competitive and denigrating view of Buddhist teachers. This is directly contradicted by a common-sense evaluation of the rules themselves. To illustrate my point, I will summarize below a number of rules that, I would suggest, have nothing whatever to do with spiritual development, other than the spiritual value of hypervigilance itself.[1] However, hypervigilance does not reflect the value of the rule as such. For example, the anghadisesas (rules requiring an initial and subsequent meeting of the sangha) include the following: “Building a hut without permission from the sangha, or building a hut that exceeds 3 x 1.75 meters in size.” If someone believes that building a hut without permission of the sangha or beyond a specified area is a necessity of spiritual development, I am afraid I must dissent. The following is a list of the entire nissaggiya pacittiya (confession with forfeiture). To my mind, only #19 and 20 have anything at all to do with spiritual development, whereas #30 clearly falls into the general category of stealing and is therefore redundant.

1. Keeping an extra robe for more than ten days after receiving a new one.

2. Sleeping in a separate place from any of his three robes.

3. Keeping an out-of-season robe for more than thirty days when one has expectation for a new robe.

4. Getting an unrelated bhikkuni to wash your robes for you.

5. Accepting robes from a bhikkuni as a gift.

6. Accepting robes from the laity, except when one’s own robes have been destroyed, or one is asking for the sake of another bhikku.

7. Accepting too many robes from the laity when one’s own robes have been destroyed.

8. Accepting a robe from a layperson after telling them that their robe is too cheap for you.

9. Accepting a robe from the laity after asking two or more of them to pool their funds in order to buy a nicer robe.

10. Accepting a robe after coming to the treasurer to get the robe more than six times (since this indicates an excess of desire).

11. Owning a blanket or rug made of silk.

12. Making or accepting a blanket or rug made from pure black wool.

13. Making or accepting a blanket or rug made from more than 50% black wool.

14. Making or accepting a blanket or rug fewer than six years after you last made or accepted one.

15. Making or accepting a sitting rug without incorporating at least one old piece of felt 25 cm. square, for the sake of discoloring it.

16. Carrying raw wool for more than 48 km.

17. Getting a bhikkuni to wash, dye, or card raw wool.

18. Accepting gold or money, or telling someone how to donate it.

19. Buying or selling goods.

20. Trading goods with anyone besides other bhikkus.

21. Keeping an extra alms bowl for more than ten days after receiving a new one.

22. Asking for a new bowl when your old bowl is not beyond repair.

23. Taking a medicine from storage for more than seven days.

24. Using a rains-bathing cloth before the last two weeks of the fourth month of the hot season, or accepting one before the fourth month.

25. Taking back a loaned robe out of anger.

26. Getting thread and getting people to weave thread for you.

27. Receiving cloth after telling its weavers to increase the quality for you.

28. Keeping robes past the end of the season after accepting them during the last eleven days of the Rains Retreat (Vassa).

29. Being separated from your robes for more than six nights if you are living in a dangerously distant village and need to separate yourself from your robes after the Rains Retreat.

30. Persuading a donor to give gifts to oneself, when they were previously intended for the sangha at large.

The 92 pacittiya rules entailing confession, which I will not list here, also include many rules like this. These include the minor rules that the Buddha said might be abolished.


The Vinaya rules are not moral absolutes. The Buddha put matters of health and physical well-being above the Vinaya. For example, a sick monk is permitted to consume special foods that might not otherwise be permitted, be attended by a female physician, take food at times that would not normally be permitted, and, perhaps most significantly of all, a sick monk may take drugs if necessary for health. The Buddha is quite liberal in this regard. For example, in the following passage he allows not only remedial treatments, but also preventative ones: “Properly considering medicinal requisites for curing the sick, I use them: simply to ward off any pains of illness that have arisen, and for the maximum freedom from disease.”

Today we know in fact that a varied diet consisting of a certain number of calories is required daily for good health, and that marijuana and alcohol have real medicinal value. Even the Qur’an recognizes the medicinal value of alcohol! Consequently, it follows that the rules of the Vinaya, insofar as they prohibit such things, should not apply if such things are pursued with the intention of “the maximum freedom from disease.” Knowledge changes and Buddhism must always be based on truth, as the Dalai Lama has said. It also follows from the foregoing that any practice that harms health is contrary to the Buddhadharma. 


In An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (2000), author Peter Harvey argues that social acceptability was a key concern for the sangha, since the sangha depended on material support from lay society. Similarly, Richard Gombrich states that “often the reason why the Buddha formulates a vinaya rule is to placate public criticism” (What the Buddha Thought (2009), p. 52). This shows that the monastic rules are culturally and historically contingent, at least in part. Therefore, one may argue that the sangha should be responsive to the social norms of the societies in which it finds itself. Today, for example, we no longer believe in the inferiority of women and homosexuals. Therefore, monastic rules that discriminate against these groups should be abolished.


The Buddha was critical of the Jain view that action causes karma in much the same way that the Christian is critical of the Jewish/Islamic view that spirituality is all about obedience to a code of ethics. Karma means “action” or “doing,” but in Buddhism the term refers specifically to those actions that spring from unenlightened intention (cetana). In the Nibbedhika Sutta, the Buddha says: “Intention I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect.”

Whenever a person acts there is some quality of mental intention at its root. It is this quality, not the outward appearance of the action or the action itself, that determines the effect. If one appears to be benevolent but acts with greed, anger, or hatred, then the fruit of those actions will bear testimony to the fundamental intention that lay behind them and will be a cause for future unhappiness. The Buddha spoke of wholesome actions that result in happiness, and unwholesome actions that result in unhappiness. The Buddha also elaborated that it is impossible for virtuous action to produce unfavorable results, and for non-virtuous action to produce favorable results. If a deed is done too casually or the intention behind it is not pure, one may not be able to enjoy the benefit. There are two classes of determined deeds that always produce good or bad results respectively, and a class of deeds that may produce either good or bad results presumably depending on the context, although the Buddha did not elaborate. Good karma is described as generating merit, whereas bad karma is described as demerit, but it is always the underlying intention that is the decisive factor.


It is a common prejudice that membership in the sangha is a prerequisite of enlightenment. I have even heard a Western Tibetan Buddhist describe the sangha as a “machine” for the “production” of enlightenment, rather like an industrial assembly line. However, enlightenment is not a karmic production but rather emancipation from karma. Therefore, enlightenment cannot be “produced” by following any regime or system of rules. This is confirmed by the fact that in the Pali Canon we find numerous examples of householders becoming enlightened. Often this occurs after the passage of a very short period. If following the rules alone were sufficient to attain enlightenment, then we should expect to find the sangha teeming with enlightened beings. In fact, we find the reverse: enlightened beings are very much the exception, not the rule. Therefore, enlightened beings cannot be produced merely by observing rules. The Buddha’s theory of karmic action and effect did not encompass all causes and results.  Any given action may cause all sorts of results. The karmic results are only that subset of results that impinges upon the doer of the action because of both the moral quality of the action and the intention behind it.

Peter Masefield, author of Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon (1986), distinguishes between the puthujjana sangha and the ariyasangha. The putthujjana sangha is far more numerous. He also recognizes that the ariyasangha included not merely monks, but also numerous householders. Some of these householders subsequently joined the sangha, but not all. Therefore, the proper spiritual division of the Buddhist world is not between the laity and the sangha, as it is today, based on the pretence that sangha = ariyasangha, but between the puthujjana and the sravaka (hearer). This allows for the possibility of lay enlightened beings. One example of such is the Tibetan mahasiddhas. 


The rules of the Patimokkha are often redundant. They represents analyses of more general original rules that were then refined over time in response to particular circumstances. This is why the Buddha said that the lesser and minor rules could be abolished. He recognized their relative and contingent nature. This is recognized in the third book of the Anguttara Nikaya, where the Buddha says, “Monks, this recital to be made twice a month amounts to more than one hundred and fifty rules wherein are trained clansmen who are eager for their welfare. Now all these combine to make these three forms of training. What three? The higher morality, the higher thought and the higher insight. Herein are combined one and all of these rules” (AN iii, 9, 85). I’ve referred to these three principles already. Once we eliminate the minor and lesser rules, the rules that have no spiritual value but are culturally and historically contingent, and the rules that discriminate against nuns (bhikkunis), we find that the Vinaya may be resolved into less than ten essential ethical principles:

1. No sexual wrongdoing, especially inappropriate relations with women. For monks and nuns, this means no sex of any kind, including orgasm, except unintentionally in dreams, where no blame attaches. For the laity, this means no adultery and perhaps sexual restraint generally.

2. Not taking what is not given, which is generally equated to stealing.

3. Not killing or harming living or sentient beings.

4. No wrongful speech, especially lying, put also including harmful gossip, etc.

5. Moderate and healthful eating. Note that, contrary to some beliefs, the Buddha of the Pali Canon specifically refuses to prohibit eating meat, unless the animal has been specifically killed for one, in which case it is forbidden. If one is a monastic, this means eating only a single meal of solid food in mid to late morning. Liquids are permitted after noon.

6. Not engaging in trade or business, or accepting money. For the laity, this means avoiding wrong types of livelihood, corrupt or deceptive business practices, and price gouging. Five types of livelihood are specifically prohibited to Buddhist householders – these are trading in weapons, humans, flesh, spirits, and poison.

7. Many of the remaining rules can be grouped under the heading of “no ostentatious living,” for example, the avoidance of vanity, entertainments, and self-elevation. For a monk or a nun this means a vow of moderate poverty. For a householder, it means leading a simple and honest life.

8. In addition, one is not to be the cause of any of these things.

Interestingly, there is nothing here about not drinking alcohol, on which so much emphasis is placed today by fundamentalists, even to the extent of replacing the original prohibition against drinking fermented grains, i.e., what we would call today “spirits,” with all alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and non-prescription drugs, including psychedelic plant medicines. And where does the Buddha specify that prescription drugs are ok?  In the Patimokkha rules, drinking fermented grains is a minor offence only that is completely expiated by confession alone. How unlike the Pancha Sila this is, where taking any alcohol is the fifth precept of the laity, alongside killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct. Clearly, we see here a hardening of the rules and a movement towards fundamentalism in the Pancha Sila that we do not see in the Vinaya. According to the Wikipedia article on the Vinaya,

It is thought that originally, there were no rules and the Buddha and his disciples just lived in harmony when they were together. Most of the time they would have been wandering alone, but every year, during the monsoon season when travelling became impossible, the bhikkhus would come together for a few months. As the sangha became bigger and started accepting people of lesser ability who remained unenlightened, it became necessary to begin having rules.

In other words, the increasing emphasis on rules is actually a result of degeneration and decreasing merit. Therefore, it is a symptom of the mappo (the age of degeneration), at the nadir of which we now are. The current emphasis of religious fundamentalists on following rules as such, in common with Jews and Moslems, is actually a symptom of the puthujjana sangha. On the other hand, the Tibetan mahasiddhis, who follow no rules, represent the apotheosis of enlightenment for precisely this reason. This observation accords with Tibetan tradition too, which places the mahasiddhas above the monastics.

The Dharmaguptaka Vinaya is one of the three surviving Vinaya lineages, followed in China, Vietnam, and Korea. They rejected the Sarvastivadin Vinaya on the grounds that the original teachings of the Buddha had been lost, and follow their own Vinaya of 250 rules. There are six extant Vinayas: those of the Theravada, Mahasamghika, Mahisasika, Dharmaguptaka, Sarvastivada, and the Mulasarvastivada, of which only the Theravada, Dharmaguptaka, and Mulasarvastivada survive in practice. However, the scholarly consensus is that the oldest Vinaya is that of the Mahasamghikas, which subsequently developed into the Mahayana. South-east Asian Mahayana schools reject the Vinaya altogether, and follow the bodhisattva precepts only. This includes bodhisattva self-ordination based on the Srimala and Brahma Net sutras. These schools include the Japanese Saicho, Tendai, Soto Zen, Shingon, and Jodo Shu sects.


The following quotation is taken from my Review of “Rebirth as Empirical Basis for the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths,” by Prof. H.J. Sugunasiri. This essay effectively refutes rules-based soteriology within the context of Buddhism, discussed above under the heading “Intention, Not Action, Is the Cause of Kamma.”

With respect to the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering, it is doubtless true that life includes suffering, but it is also true that life includes joy. As against the fundamentalist objection to this observation that all such joys devolve inevitably into suffering, we posit the primary fact, alluded to in the texts repeatedly, that nirvana is itself not an affectively neutral state but rather a state of absolute and undying bliss and compassion. The Buddha himself experienced nirvana at the age of 35, and for another 45 years persisted in this state, immune to the suffering of life. Yet the Buddha himself was doubtless alive during all this time.

With respect to the Second Noble Truth, that the cause of suffering is desire, in fact upon further analysis we discover that the desire of which the Buddha spoke is not simply desire per se, but rather a state of what might be called desirous attachment, craving, or clinging. From this, we conclude that the true meaning of the Third Noble Truth, that the annihilation or transcendence of suffering is achieved through the cessation of desire really means the annihilation or transcendence of attachment. This leaves open the possibility of a purely expansive, joyful enthusiasm that might appear superficially as eros but is in fact not subject to suffering because it is not based on attachment. In fact, I would suggest that this is quite similar to the compassion that the Buddha himself demonstrated in his dealings with others. It is clear that the Buddha was not indifferent to others, but in fact sought actively to positively engage them for their benefit. One might also call this state love (metta).

Finally, with respect to the Fourth Noble Truth, the so-called Noble Eightfold Path, it is commonly understood that by severing one’s bonds to life one will inevitably achieve emancipation. This interpretation is based on the naive notion that samsara or phenomenological experiential existence is like a machine, and that we can achieve nirvana simply by “turning off” the machine. Thus, the whole focus of religious practice is on renunciation, typically identified with the practice of Five, Eight, Ten, or 227 or 311 Precepts, consisting of abstinence from the so-called defilements of killing, taking what is not given, lying, sensory pleasure, and mental intoxication, etc. The fundamental idea here is that by severing the bonds of karma one can achieve emancipation. However, such a regime is impossible in practice, even for the Buddha. Therefore, if simple abstinence were the precondition of emancipation, then even the Buddha would have failed to achieve emancipation, for such a procedure is, objectively considered, impossible. In every moment of his existence the Buddha killed countless beings, for, as we now know, the human immune system, yea, even the act of breathing itself, kills countless infinitesimal living beings (viruses, bacteria, etc.). Again, with every breath and with every item of food that he ingested, the Buddha took from countless beings, not all of which could possibly have given their permission, as everything made or grown is the resultant of a complex productive system essentially infinite in extent. The Buddha lied with every word he spoke, for language inevitably distorts the underlying truth to which it attests: in the words of Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory. With respect to sensory pleasure, the Buddha existed in a body, the essential nature of which is sensation, and sensation is inherently associated with feelings of pleasure (as well as pain). Finally, with respect to intoxication, sensation also deludes the mind with respect to the essential nature of reality. Therefore, again, as a sensory being, the Buddha existed in a state of mental intoxication, simply by virtue of interacting with the sensory world, in addition to his realization of the true nature of reality. This is, of course, the Buddhist objection to Jainism and extreme asceticism itself. So long as one identifies karma with action, one has missed the point, and turned Buddhism into just another religion, which is precisely contrary to the Buddha’s intention.

Categories of the Pattimokkha

•    4 pārājika, entailing defeat;

•    13 saṅghādisesa, entailing communal meetings;

•    2 aniyaata, indefinite or undetermined rules;

•    30 nissaggiya pācittiya, entailing forfeiture and confession;

•    92 pācittiya, entailing confession;

•    4 pāṭidesanīya, entailing acknowledgement;

•    75 sekhiyavatta, trainings; and

•    7 adhikaraṇa samatha, the settlement of issues.


1.”Lack of self-control is falling away. Self-control is success.” Parivara (trans. Horner), 1.2.


Gombrich, Richard (2009). What the Buddha Thought.
Harvey, Peter (2000). An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics.
Masefield, Peter (1986). Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon.


One thought on “Ethics in the Pali Canon

  1. Het sceepphrin is ook lastig, maar ik merk wel dat ik het steeds meer los kan laten. Gelukkig. @Miranda: Dat lijkt me het meest lastige. Wanneer je kind merkt dat het niet mee kan komen, maar het zo graag zou willen. Dan is het de kunst om als ouder daar goed op in te springen en mee om te gaan. Moeilijk.

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