On the Relationship Between the Mahayana Precepts and the Vinaya

(from Buddhist Self-Ordination: A Dharma Strategy for the West and Dharma Notes, first edition)

In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, recounting the last days of the Buddha, in his final exhortation to the Sangha, the community of monks, the Buddha made two statements concerning the Vinaya, the monastic rules of the Sangha, translated in these quotations as “Discipline” and “rules” respectively.

For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone. …

If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules.

Because it did not occur to Ananda, to whom the Buddha was speaking, to ask which aspects of the Discipline were the “lesser and minor rules,” the Sangha at that time chose not to abolish any of them. The original 227 rules of the Vinaya, called the pratimoksha, are still followed by monks of the Theravada tradition. These are summarized in The Manual of the Bhikkhu, by Ven. Dhamma Sami, and include such rules as:

  • Not to accept carpets containing silk or made entirely from the wool of a black sheep;
  • Not to carry wool for more than three days;
  • Not to ask for a new bowl when one’s existing bowl has less than five cracks;
  • Not to lie down in a building in which there is a woman;
  • Not to teach dhamma to women, someone holding an umbrella or a stick, a person wearing shoes or sandals, or a person in a vehicle, lying down, or wearing a head covering;
  • Not to leave a mattress or a chair outside;
  • Not to install oneself in a bed or on a chair placed on a floor with broken planks;
  • Not to build a roof having more than three layers;
  • Not to tickle, or play in water;
  • Not to wash more often than twice a month;
  • Not to make a needle, or cause one to be made;
  • Not to make a high bed, or cause one to be made;
  • When travelling through inhabited areas, to keep the gaze lowered and not to laugh, speak in a loud voice, lift one’s robe, or swing one’s arms, body or head, or place one’s hands on one’s hips, cover the head, or stand on tiptoes, or sit with one’s arms wrapped around one’s legs;
  • Not to speak when one’s mouth is full, or throw pieces of food into the mouth, or make noise or stick the tongue out while eating;
  • Not to urinate while standing.

There are also many rules about the monk’s robe, relations with nuns and laywomen, teaching the dharma and eating.

Fundamentalism is a wrong view that is present in all religions and religious Buddhism is no exception.[1] Some Buddhist fundamentalists seem to believe that the universe is a machine and that following the rules themselves are the means of liberation, much as certain Jews, Christians, or Moslems believe that by following a set of prescribed laws they will be admitted to heaven when they die. The fundamentalist view is contradicted by the facts that the Vinaya did not always exist and that it evolved over the course of the Buddha’s life, and the Buddha’s own statement, made at the conclusion of his life, that the lesser and minor rules may be ignored. For these reasons, monastic fundamentalism is an “adharmic” and erroneous view. The Vinaya rules are merely relative means (upaya), not the means of liberation in and of themselves. One may follow all of them perfectly and still be unenlightened, or vice versa.

Clearly, many of these rules are historically determined and contingent. For example, the rules concerning water are contingent on the non-recognition by the science of the time that all water contains innumerable living organisms. Therefore, it is literally impossible to avoid taking life. If literally not killing were an objective requirement for enlightenment, not even the Buddha was enlightened, because existence itself involves killing, whether intentional or not. The moment one realizes that the rules have to do with intention and not objective behaviour, one’s whole view of the Vinaya is profoundly transformed. This, however, is the correct, dharmic view, since dharma, being true, cannot contradict science.[2]

At the same time, neither can we ignore the Vinaya entirely. The Buddha himself stated that the rules (along with the dharma) are the Master in his absence. For this reason, the enlightened masters and saints of the Mahayana studied the Vinaya, and through that study, they identified the essential principles of the Vinaya that are truly binding upon the true disciple of Lord Shakyamuni. These are the eight Mahayana precepts:

  1. Not harming;
  2. Not stealing;
  3. No sexual wrongdoing;
  4. Not lying;
  5. No drunkenness;
  6. Not elevating the self;
  7. Eating only when the sun is waxing (an Ayurvedic practice for the maximization of health);
  8. No empty and vain shows, entertainments, or self-decoration.

When one studies the historical Vinaya texts in the context of the Mahayana tradition, one sees clearly that the Vinaya rules are simply elaborations of these eight essential principles. For example, “not killing” includes all of the following, which are all separately itemized in the Vinaya:

  • Not to dig in the earth;
  • Not to destroy plants;
  • Not to pour water containing insects on the ground, or use water containing living things;
  • Not to watch an army departing for combat, sleep amongst an armed troop, for watch military activities;
  • Not to kill animals.

And so on. To itemize them all would go beyond the scope of this essay. They are easy enough to work out for oneself (see “Synopsis of the Vinaya“).

Even the Mahayana precepts are contingent and relative, however. One theme that recurs in the Vinaya is exceptions made if one is sick or curing sickness. For example, the original rule concerning alcohol has been extended to all drugs, with the exception of drugs taken as medicines. It is apparent from the wording of this rule that its original intention was to avoid clouding the mind and impairing judgment, i.e., drunkenness. Since we now know that alcohol has medicinal properties, drinking two glasses of wine per day, but not to the point of intoxication, for the sake of one’s health, probably does not violate the precepts. Similarly, ordained followers of the Ngakpa or householder tradition and other Mahayana and Tantric traditions, including priests, may marry, the prohibition on sexual activity really being a prohibition of licentiousness and promiscuity. In Tantra, sexual yoga can even be a means of liberation. In the Tibetan Mahasiddha tradition, some practitioners consume drugs like cannabis and datura. Some great lamas have consumed alcohol. Time is too short, samsara too vast, and the dharma too rich and profound to waste time on organizationalist sectarian and fundamentalist religious agendas.


[1] Buddhism, properly understood, is not a religion. The English word “religion” refers etymologically to conduct indicating belief in a divine power, especially a state of life bound by monastic vows, characterized by devotional and ethical  observances, from Latin religio, ‘reverence for the gods.’ Buddhism specifically rejects theism in any form. The practices of Buddhism are not primarily devotional, and ethics are secondary as well. Buddhism is, moreover, not based on belief. The Buddha himself decried mere belief and instructed his disciples to test the validity of everything he said and did through the exercise of reason and direct experience. Buddhism, properly understood, is an experiential spiritual philosophy that provides the practitioner primarily with the means of achieving spiritual self-perfection, and secondarily presents the resulting insights concerning the nature of the world, living beings, and spiritual experience itself to those who comprehend and follow the path laid out to the end. Thus, Buddhism is nothing less than the science of enlightenment, perfectly understood. As such, it is the priceless treasure of humanity, but only if it is understood.

[2] Kalu Rinpoche tells a wonderful traditional Tibetan story that makes this point in Secret Buddhism: Vajrayana Practices, translated by François Jacquemart and Christiane Buchet (San Francisco: ClearPoint Press, 1995). See “The Buddha’s Tooth” on pp. 137ff.