I frequently encounter the “armchair ascetic”, people who mistake themselves for pseudo-monastic renunciants just because they practice a few extra precepts here and there. This is troubling to me as a monk, because there are things one can only understand about monastic renunciation when one actually has done it; such as having no money, relying on almsfood, giving away your possessions etc. It’s easy to do this for a few days on retreat and feel a bit spiritually smug, but doing it for real is quite different! I recommend people try it out for themselves
I feel that armchair ascetics often diminish what it means to actually renounce and follow the monastic precepts by underestimating the substantial complexity involved, and they also overestimate their own (untested) views of what’s it like to be a renunciant or monastic; or what it should be like as they see it. There is a touch of the conceit of superiority, because they feel they follow more precepts than the ordinary Buddhist, and think more is better. But this of course it not the point.
It’s important to understand that the precepts are not commandments, but training rules, guides to skillful behaviour. When people talk of “breaking” or “transgressing” or “violating” the 5/8 precepts as if it will send them straight to hell, or use it to divide people into good and bad categories, I fear it is a big misunderstanding of the purpose of observing these trainings. It is not only the precept that matters but what the mind is being trained in and towards. Things are more complicated…
It’s actually quite easy to keep negatively formulated rules, (don’t do this, don’t do that) but it’s much harder to consciously cultivate the positive counterparts to those rules. For example not killing is fairly easy, but having a mind full of loving kindness, and non-harm, giving the gift of fearlessness to all beings, that is more difficult. Everytime we don’t kill a mosquito we shouldn’t feel satisfied for merely following a rule, but understand and consciously reflect on how the precept is transforming our mind towards these beautiful states of non hatred and non harm. Similarly, the negative formulations of the other precepts also have their counterparts in positive qualities that we can practice and it is this conscious cultivation that leads to the development of the mind, not the mere observation of the rule itself. Even a baby can unintentionally practice the 5 precepts! The true perfection of these qualities, however, is no mean feat, which is why even 5 precepts are difficult to practice properly.
Whilst aligning ones own lay practice with that of monastics might make sense in some ways, I feel it is an unnessecary and misguided approach. As a monk, I see how the whole of our rules and our monastic environment support us, protect us, and guide us.
I’ve noticed that some people have rather idiosyncratic interpretations of the Vinaya rules and misunderstand their origin and purpose, so this is a bit of a problem too. Rather than taking something from the Vinaya in a hotchpotch, piecemeal way, thinking that following more rules will necessarily improve your virtue or deepen your practice, it’s probably better to focus on the 5/8 precepts and perfect those first. At the same time, cultivate other beautiful qualities that the Buddha recommend for laypeople, like generosity and see how these mindstates benefit your meditation.
The story of Visākhā in the Mahavagga shows us that a layperson practicing generosity can lead to very high states of mental development. As Visākhā says about recollecting her generosity:
When I recall that, I will feel glad. The gladness will give rise to joy, and the mental joy will make my body tranquil. When my body is tranquil, I will feel bliss. And when I feel bliss, my mind will be stilled. In this way I will develop the spiritual faculties, the spiritual powers, and the factors of awakening.
Visākhā saw clear reasons for her practice and understood the far reaching consequences of her actions. These types of practice, like cāgānussati (recollecting generosity), sīlānussati (recollecting virtue), are more in line with understanding the practices and precepts as trainings that give results, rather than mere proscriptions… And far more beneficial than taking on random precepts from the Vinaya!