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.

Buddhist Preta Ceremony


Buddhist Preta Ceremony

October 31, 2016

Consecration of Sacred Space

Recite the Vajrasattva Mantra to purify the place.


 Circumambulate counterclockwise three times, finishing in the east, facing west, chanting in unison “Om Vajrasattva Hum” with lit incense in folded hands.

Calling the Pretas

Facing toward the centre, raise hands in attitude of prayer and salutation.

Oh, all ye hungry ghosts of the departed, bereft of sustenance, devoid of subsistence, experiencing the pain of lack, hear our voice(s) and attend, come to us and partake of this food and drink, which we offer to you in the spirit of love.

Transfer of Merit

To ye we offer the merit of this act, by the power of our compassion, by the saving power of the Buddhadharma, to ease the pain of all suffering beings in the realm of the departed ones and wherever suffering exists.

Offering Food

 Each one in turn goes to the centre, places their food (vegetarian) on a clean plate, recites the blessing mantra seven times, snaps their fingers to attract the pretas and tips the food onto clean ground.

Blessing mantra: OM AH HUM.


Circumambulate three times clockwise, tossing rice into the air.




Further Reading

Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/kariyawasam/wheel402.html

Buddhist Holidays, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_holidays

Early Buddhist Ceremonies, http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/budceremonies.html

Feeding the Dead, https://www.academia.edu/1963905/Feeding_the_dead_Ghosts_materiality_and_merit_in_a_Lao_Buddhist_festival._In_Williams_P._and_Ladwig_P._eds._Buddhist_Funeral_Cultures_of_Southeast_Asia_and_China._Cambridge_University_Press_2012_pp._119-142

From Preta to Hungry Ghost, http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/R401-150617-From-preta-to-hungry-ghost-RB124-rev.pdf

Ghosts in Tibetan Culture, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghosts_in_Tibetan_culture

Hungry Ghost Ceremony, http://www.vzc.org/ceremony_hungryghost.html.

Hungry Ghost, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungry_ghost

Preta, New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Preta

Preta, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preta

Significance of the Ritual Concerning Offerings to Ancestors in Theravada Buddhism, http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Significance_Of_The_Ritual_Concerning_Offerings_To_Ancestors_In_Theravada_Buddhism

Six Realms of Existence, http://buddhism.about.com/od/basicbuddhistteachings/tp/Six-Realms-of-Existence.htm

Six Realms of Existence, http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/six-states.shtml

Synopsis of Buddhist Prophecies

Dates based on Pali sources italiczed.

NOTE: Parinibbana = 400 BCE (approx.) is assumed. “What seems to be certain is that the Buddha died approximately at the age of eighty some time between 410 and 370 BCE” (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

400-2600 CE: Three 1,000 Year Periods (3,000 year cycle).[1]
400-600 CE: Age of the Righteous Law.
600-1600 CE: Age of the Counterfeit Law.
1600 CE: Age of the Decay of the Law.
400 BCE-2100 CE: Five 500 Hundred Year Periods (2,500 year cycle).[2]
400-100 CE: Hinayana. “Correct law.”
100 CE-600 CE: Mahayana. “Meditation.”
600-1100 CE: Vajrayana (Tantra). “Religious knowledge.”
1100-1600 CE: Degenerate age (mappo). “Monasticism.”
1600-2100 CE: Degenerate age (mappo). “Fighting and reproving.”
400 BCE-4600 CE: Five 1,000 Year Periods (5,000 year cycle).[3]
400 BCE-600 CE: “Analytic-knowledge” arhants.
600-1600 CE: “Dry insight” arhants. End of the age of arhantship.
1600-2600 CE: Non-returners.
2600-3600 CE: Once-returners.
3600-4600 CE: Stream entrants.
600 CE: End of the Sangha.[4]
800: Padmasambhava.[5]
1012: Beginning of the Degenerate Age (mappo).[6]
1027: Kalachakra Era (KE).[7]
16h cent.: Age of Science (satthanantarakappa, “scientific revolution” or “sword-interval”).[8]
1600: End of the Age of Arhants.[9]
1908: Dharma Transmission to the West.[10]
1927. Aniruddha (Tib. Magakpa) (1927-2027) – Who Draws and Binds the Entire Three Worlds.[11]
2000. Padmasambhava + 1,200 years.
2012: Mappo + 1,000 years.
2027. Kalachakra Era + 1,000 years.
2064. 2424 – 360 years (= 1 deva year).
2100: Midpoint of the Buddhasasana. “Invisible” or esoteric Buddhism.[12]
2327. Raudra Chakrin (Tib. Dakpo Khorlocen).[13]
2424: Age of Aquarius. Shambhala.[14]
2600: End of the Ursa Major or udumbara cycle (3,000 years).[15]
4600: End of the Buddhadharma.[16]
80,000 CE?: Maitreya (Metteyya).[17]
1-8 billion CE. Seven Suns.[18]



1. Lotus Sutra. See “Three Ages of Buddhism” (Wikipedia).
2. “After my Nirvana, in the first 500 years, all the Bhikshus and others will be strong in deliberation in my correct Law. … In the next or second 500 years, they will be strong in meditation. In the next or third 500 years, they will be strong in ‘much learning,’ i.e. bahusruta,religious knowledge. In the next or fourth 500 years, they will be strong in founding monasteries, &c. In the last or fifth 500 years, they will be strong in fighting or reproving. The pure (lit. white) Law will then become invisible.” Muller adds, “The question therefore amounts to this, whether in that corrupt age the law of Buddha will still be understood? And the answer is, that there will be always some excellent Bodhisattvas who, even in the age of corruption, can understand the preaching of the Law.” “Invisible” dharma is esoteric dharma. Mahasannipata-sutra, quoted in F. Max Muller, trans., Buddhist Mahayana Texts, pp. 115-16. See also Wikipedia, Mahasamnipata Sutta.
3. “The good Dhamma of penetration (pativedhasaddhammo) will last five thousand years. The Dhamma of learning (pariyattidhammo) will also last this long. For without learning, there is no penetration, and as long as there is learning, there is penetration” (quoted from the Manorathpurani in Bodhi, trans., The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1805, n. 1747). Each millennium represents a progressive diminution in dharma attainment, passing through five stages of analytic knowledge, dry-insight arhantship, non-returning, once-returning, and stream entering. (“Dry insight” appears to refer to attainment without jhana.) Edward Conze cites a Burmese Theravadin sutta, dated to the mid-13th century by Andrew Dicks (“Enlightening the Bats”) called the An[a]gatavamsa to the effect that “when the Dispensation of the Perfect Buddha is 5,000 years old, the relics, not receiving reverence and honour, will go to places where they can receive them. As time goes on and on there will not be reverence and honour for them in every place. At the time when the Dispensation is falling into (oblivion), all the relics, coming from every place: from the abode of serpents and the deva-world and the Brahma-world, having gathered together in the space round the great Bo-tree, having made a Buddha-image, and having performed a ‘miracle’ like the Twin-miracle, will teach Dhamma. No human being will be found at that place. All the devas of the ten-thousand world system, gathered together, will hear Dhamma and many thousands of them will attain to Dhamma. And these will cry aloud, saying: ‘Behold, devatas, a week from today our One of the Ten Powers will attain complete Nirvana.’ They will weep, saying: ‘Henceforth there will be darkness for us.’ Then the relics, producing the condition of heat, will burn up that image leaving no remainder. This, Sariputta, is called the disappearance of the relics” (quoted in Buddhist Texts through the Ages, pp. 49f.). This five-thousand year schema is also repeated in the Surangama Sutra, an eighth-century Mahayana Ch’an sutra. See also Piya Tan, “The Dharma-Ending Age.”
4. “The Exalted One declared that because of the founding of the Order of Nuns the dispensation would last only five hundred instead of a thousand years” (Hermuth Hecker, “Ananda: The Guardian of the Dhamma”). The Buddha subsequently “corrected” this by introducing the eight “heavy rules” (garudhammas) restoring the original longevity of the sangha to one thousand years. See Piya Tan, “The Dharma-Ending Age.”
5. “Buddha Shakyamuni actually predicted Guru Padmasambhava’s appearance. Nineteen different sutras and tantras contain clear predictions of his coming and activities” (Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche, “The Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava”). See esp. the Mahaparinirvana Sutra: “Impermanence is the nature of all created phenomena. Death being inevitable, the time for my passing into Nirvana has arrived. Of this you should not grieve. Twelve [hundred] years after my passing, there shall come forth a man, the Lake-born Lotus, from north-west Uddiyana. . . it shall be he who will promulgate the way of Secret Mantra.”
6. Padmasambhava prophesied that the mappo would begin with the appearance of the first terton, Sangye Lama (1000-1080). This period saw the appearance of the Indian Kalachakra (1012) and its dissemination in Tibet (1027), which became the basis of the Kalachakra Era (KE). See Wikipedia: Padmasambhava, Mappo, Terton, Kalachakra.
7. Kim Lai, “Tibetan Astrology.”
8. DN 26. The word sattha is also related to Sanskrit svasta, related to swastika, referring perhaps to the generally destructive, anti-human effects of the ideology of scientific materialism (which includes philosophical materialism, Newtonian science, industrialism, social Darwinism, communism, fascism, capitalism, “scientism,” and technocracy), which are by no means past. We are therefore technically still in this “fascist” period dominated by the asura mode of consciousness that has come to dominate the ego as a result of the collapse of the transcendental function. Buddhologist A.K. Warder (University of Toronto) identifies the sword interval with a series of major wars (Indian Buddhism).
9. See n. 3.
10. Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett, 1872-1923) was one of the earliest Western Buddhist monastics, the second English person and the first to lead a Buddhist mission to the West. Ananda Metteyya was invited by the Buddhologist Rhys-Davids to contribute to the Buddhist Review, authored The Religion of Burma (1911) and The Wisdom of Aryas (1923) and founded the International Buddhist Society in London. See Wikipedia, Charles Henry Allan Bennett.
11. “Aniruddha, the present Kalki king, was prophesied to rule in a time when Vajrayana Buddhism and the Kalachakra is nearly extinguished” (Wikipedia, Kings of Shambhala).
12. See n. 2.
13. “The Kalki king prophesied to appear to humans all over the world in 2424 to defeat the degenerate world rulers, establishing a planet-wide Golden Age. He is the last king prophesied in the Kalachakra.” (Wikipedia, Kings of Shambhala).
14. The identification of the appearance of Shambhala, calculated by Dr. Alex Berzin as 2424, with the advent of the Age of Aquarius so-called is based on an accepted ayanamsa of 23.85639 degrees (2000) and an axial precession of 50.265 seconds per year (which works out to 2440 CE) (original research).
15. “In Buddhist mythology, the flower was said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, and thus came to symbolize events of rare occurrence. Allusions to this symbolism can be found in texts such as Theravada Buddhism’s Uraga Sutta (Sn 1.1, v. 5) and Mahayana Buddhism’s ‘Lotus Sutra’ … In the Pali literature, the udumbara tree and its flowers are used concretely (as the tree beneath which a former Buddha gained enlightenment) … In both the Digha Nikaya and Buddhavamsa, the udumbara tree is identified as the tree under which the past Koṇāgamana Buddha attained enlightenment … The Japanese word udonge (優曇華) was used by Dōgen Zenji to refer to the flower of the udumbara tree in chapter 68 of the Shōbōgenzō (‘Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma’). Dōgen places the context of the udonge flower in the Flower Sermon given by Gautama Buddha on Vulture Peak. The udonge flower may be symbolic of mind to mind transmission between the teacher and the student, in this case, Śākyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa” (Wikipedia, Udumbara (Buddhism)).
16. See n. 3.
17. “In that time of the people with an 80,000 year life span, there will arise in the world a Blessed Lord, an Arahant fully enlightened Buddha named Metteyya, endowed with wisdom and conduct, a Well-Farer, Knower of the worlds, incomparable trainer of men to be tamed, Teacher of gods and humans, enlightened and blessed, just as I am now” (DN 26:25). The An[a]gatavamsa also predicts that Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya) will appear before the end of the age (a vast but incalculable period of time). This sutta also refers to five disappearances: of attainment, conduct, learning, outward form, and finally the disappearance of the relics that constitutes the last stage referred to above. As we are now in the middle of the third millenium of the Buddhist era, according to this schema we are in the age of learning, which will last for almost another 600 years approximately (to circa 2600 CE). This stage or age will be characterized by corrupt government, secularism, climate change, environmental degradation (also predicted in the Book of Revelation), the decline of the sangha, and the gradual disappearance of dharma from the world.
18. See Buddhist Eschatology (Wikipedia). “All things are impermanent, all aspects of existence are unstable and non-eternal. Beings will become so weary and disgusted with the constituent things that they will seek emancipation from them more quickly. There will come a season, O monks, when after hundreds of thousands of years, rains will cease. All seedlings, all vegetation, all plants, grasses and trees will dry up and cease to be…There comes another season after a great lapse of time when a second sun will appear. Now all brooks and ponds will dry up, vanish, cease to be. … Again after a vast period of time a sixth sun will appear, and it will bake the Earth even as a pot is baked by a potter. All the mountains will reek and send up clouds of smoke. After another great interval a seventh sun will appear and the Earth will blaze with fire until it becomes one mass of flame. The mountains will be consumed, a spark will be carried on the wind and go to the worlds of God….Thus, monks, all things will burn, perish and exist no more except those who have seen the path” ( AN, VII, 6.2). The Pali Canon says that this will occur after many “hundreds of thousands of years.” In fact, the events described in the sutta will occur about one billion years in the future, including the evaporation of the oceans. Earth will be uninhabitable by then. This runaway greenhouse effect will culminate in the absorption of the earth by the sun after about seven or eight billion years (other scientific models say that the earth will either burn up or drift away from the sun as a lifeless cinder). See “The Future of Our Sun and Earth.”


Ananda Metteyya (Allan Bennett). The Religion of Burma (1911).
———-. The Wisdom of Aryas (1923).
Anguttara Nikaya (AN).
Bodhi, trans. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha.
Brown, Kevin. “Anomalous Precessions.” http://mathpages.com/rr/s6-02/6-02.htm.
Buddhist Review.

Conze, Edward, trans. Buddhist Texts through the Ages.
Dicks, Andrew. “Enlightening the Bats.” http://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1808&context=etd.
Digha Nikaya (DN).
“The Future of Our Sun and Earth.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPg2toWfHAU.
Hecker, Hermuth. “Ananda: The Guardian of the Dhamma.” http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/hecker/wheel273.html#section-5.
Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche. “The Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.” http://www.turtlehill.org/khen/eman.html.
Kim Lai. “Tibetan Astrology.” http://www.tibetan-astrology.net/article.html.
Lotus Sutra.
Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
Mahasamnipata (Mahasannipatta) Sutra.
Muller, F. Max, trans. Buddhist Mahayana Texts.
Piya Tan. “The Dharma-Ending Age.” http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/1.10-Dharma-ending-age-piya-proto.pdf.
Surangama Sutra.
Thokmey, Tseten (Alexander Duncan). “Buddhist Prophecies of the 21st Century and Beyond.”
———-. “The Coming Buddha.”
———-. “The Significance of the Year 2012 in Buddhist Chronology.”
Uraga Sutta.
Warder, A.K. Indian Buddhism.
Zenji, Dogen. Shōbōgenzō.