What is the reason for following all the rules of the Vinaya?

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The precepts for lay people make sense to me overall, and they are generally in agreement with those of other religions and with basic common sense (except perhaps the one about intoxicants since it’s not clear why drinking half a glass of wine is worst than smoking or chewing betel nut which Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Maha Bua did).

But many of the rules for nuns and monks seem pretty strange and perhaps anachronistic. So what is the reason for following all the rules of the Vinaya for monastics? Is it because these rules are wise and still valid today, in spite of the fact that they were designed for Indian society 2500 years ago, or is it because by following these rules (even if many of them don’t make any sense - for example why can you have cheese but not milk in your tea in the afternoon?) monastics let go of their judgement and their decision-making, and so of their ego?


dasa atthavase paṭicca tathāgatena sāvakānaṃ sikkhāpadaṃ paññattaṃ – saṅghasuṭṭhutāya, saṅghaphāsutāya, dummaṅkūnaṃ puggalānaṃ niggahāya, pesalānaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ phāsuvihārāya, diṭṭhadhammikānaṃ āsavānaṃ saṃvarāya, samparāyikānaṃ āsavānaṃ paṭighātāya, appasannānaṃ pasādāya, pasannānaṃ bhiyyobhāvāya, saddhammaṭṭhitiyā vinayānuggahāya.

The blessed one layed down training rules for the following ten reasons: for the well-being of the Order, for the comfort of the Order, for the restraint of bad people, for the ease of well-behaved monks, for the restraint of corruptions in the present life, for avoiding corruptions in future lives, to give rise to confidence in those without it, to increase the confidence of those who have it, for the continuation of the true Teaching, and for supporting the training. ( First preliminary ruling )

Therefore each of these rules has one or few reasons to be layed down. The society of saṅgha is a communist and democratic one where each and every monk get equal rights. In this society all the properties belongs to saṅgha. Thus there are no private properties. A set of rules is required for the continuation of the saṅgha society.

Rules such as not taking food in afternoon and night has almost no benifits to the society, but to the person. If one can understand rules properly he can use the rule to discipline himself. With this particular rule one can reduce his craving towards food and that helps him to have healthy life.


The question seems a little ambiguous. Are you asking:

  1. For what reasons ought a bhikkhu to observe the whole of the Vinaya conscientiously?


  1. For what reasons do [some] bhikkhus observe the whole of the Vinaya conscientiously? What are their motives for doing so?


It’s a very interesting distinction, thanks for the remark. I meant 1. For what reasons ought a bhikkhu to observe the whole of the Vinaya conscientiously? In other words why is it supposed to beneficial? Is the content of all rules beneficial in itself (even the ones on etiquette, on how to wash and handle your bowl, on eating all the chocolate you like after noon but not most other foods…), or is the fact of following externally imposed rules (even when they seem absurd) and so abandoning your will that is beneficial?
However 2 is also interesting if you’d like to comment on it, though I was really thinking of 1.


This topic begins with open-ended questions for which a single and satisfactory answer may not be found or elected by who started the thread.

I therefore suggest the topic is moved to the Discussion category. This would allow people to discuss and discover the topic of how the Vinaya rules fits in the big picture of the Four Noble Truths and the ennobling tasks those point to.



ok I do not know how to move it. Do I have to post again the OP in the Discussion?


I think I moved it.


Why can you drive at 60 km/h, not 50 km/h on that particular stretch of road? Why is the age for voting 18? Why is there a $500 fine for using a nuclear weapon in Chico, California?

Law books are full of anachronisms and oddities. It’s a function of how they come about. Cases appear at certain times and places, with a certain context, and the law is created. Over time, many laws come to exist just “on the books” without being seriously implemented. Communities evolve ways of dealing with and living with unintended consequences of rules, sometimes doing so gracefully, sometimes gracelessly.

Why are all those rules just kept on the books? Well, who is going to take them off? How is anyone going to decide what is truly irrelevant and what is not?

Communities evolve systems of interpretation. The cheese/milk distinction you raise is one of them: actually the Vinaya does not discuss the allowability of either of these things. It is just customs that have evolved in particular traditions.

Nothing is surer than this: whatever “reform” anyone might make to the Vinaya, it will end up re-creating exactly the same situation in no little time.

The real mystery is not that a 2500 year old system of monastic law has some quirks to it, but rather: how is it that there are so few? How is it that almost all the rules are still quite straightforward and meaningful, and can still provide the basis for a spiritual life in such different cultures all over the world today? How is it that if we look at the actual problems current in the monastic communities today, the real issues, so many of them can be traced to ignoring or misreading the Vinaya, and can be solved by going back to the far more progressive, simpler, and more egalitarian system proposed in the Vinaya itself? Why is it that the changes that we have made have, almost without exception, been for the worse?


Thank you for your answer.
I would say that in general speed limits are there to minimize the occurrence of accidents, though perhaps sometimes absurdly low limits are introduced so that the police can fine motorists and the state or regions can make some money :grin:
Joking apart, you can drive at 50 or 60 Km/h because at roughly that speed it is thought to be safe. The exact speed is impossible to determine, but you can roughly determine the range of speeds in which it makes sense to have a limit.
Now, if the road is completely changed (instead of a dirt road it is transformed into a 3 lane motorway), the speed limit might go up to 120-130 Km/h. The 50 or 60 Km/h has become obsolete and absurd, and the legislator acts accordingly.
In the same way, if the material used for making bowls changes from clay to metal, the rules related to bowls become obsolete. One example is the rule that prohibits placing the bowl close to the edge of the table, because a metal bowl (unlike the one made of clay) won’t break if it falls - I am taking this example from a book I recently mentioned here but since it is infamous in the opinion of many, I won’t mention its title…
A second example (but I am not 100% sure of the origin of this rule) is the rule of not eating after noon. If I understand correctly this rule originated from the fact that it was not safe to go on alms round in the afternoon and evening at the time. (So incidentally it has nothing to do with self restraint, since simple scientific studies show that hunger arises at the times one is used to eat; if one adapts to eating only in the morning, after a little while they’ll no longer feel hunger in the afternoon and so won’t have any cravings to restrain). But my point is that since today in western monasteries people bring food to the monks and it’s not dangerous to travel in the afternoon, one could arguably say that this rule is obsolete too. If one wants to eat only in the morning for health reasons, that’s fine (many lay people eat one meal a day, Twitter’s CEO is a famous example and this practice is particularly trendy among busy people in Silicon Valley nowadays), but if you say that you do it for self restraint or health reasons, and then load up on chocolate or honey in the afternoon, it does not make any sense to me.


I notice that here, as in the case of pulling the plug with Ajahn Chah, you seem to argue in favor of immobilism out of fear of making a mistake in taking action.
Perhaps it’s related to the understanding of karma in EBT and to the fearing of doing anything because you are afraid of making a mistake and suffering the consequences?
I tend to believe that it’s better to have the courage of making a decision if that is likely to improve things, but then perhaps it’s my western conditioning that makes me think this way.
Ironically, the very same argument you use here (one should leave things as they are) is the one that monastics in the United Kingdom I have chatted to use to criticize you, saying that analyzing the EBT and discussing the question of their authenticity using rational arguments was dangerous!


This is an excellent point. And a good teaching in letting go of the fault finding mind. :smiley:
I am too ignorant of the history of the Sangha to argue whether it was really these rules that made it prosper for so long and that

provide the basis for a spiritual life in such different cultures all over the world today

I would just note that Buddhism has prospered in many cultures in spite of the rules not being observed (Zen monks don’t have to observe all the restrictions about sexual activity, they can even marry! Tibetan monks I’ve seen always carry money. And more generally I understand that the Forest tradition in Thailand represented a revival of monasticism based on the Vinaya, which would mean that the vast majority of the Sangha in Thailand had not been following it). But I am particularly ignorant on this question so I might not have understood it properly.


Similarly, rules in the vinaya are introduced to prevent accidents occure in your mind which are sometimes harmful to oneself or the entire sanga community.

Eating at wrong time
Mendicants, I abstain from eating at night. Doing so, I find that I’m healthy and well, nimble, strong, and living comfortably. You too should abstain from eating at night. Doing so, you’ll find that you’re healthy and well, nimble, strong, and living comfortably.(At Kīṭāgiri)

Here, one should consider why he has to be healthy, nimble, strong and live comfortably. The monastic rule is designed for an ideal society who seeks nibbana, where they have to practice meditation in the day time as well as in the night. To meditate, they should have a mind which is nimble . If someone has eaten too much he feel asleep, his mind is lagging which makes it difficult to be mindful. Also eating afternoon or night makes one’s body to feel heavy which makes sitting meditation difficult. Therefore a person who practice meditation should have a light meal. Having one meal in the morning a day helps him to keep his mind active and strong which facilitates mindfulness meditation.
When we consider the problem with dairy products oil and sugar allowed in the afternoon and night from the vinaya, it is important to see the facts mentioned in the origin of the allowing.

These five medicines, that is to say ghee, fresh butter, oil, honey, molasses, are medicines and are also agreed upon as medicines, and although they serve as nutriment for people yet they cannot be reckoned as substantial food (On five medicines)

These medicines serve as nutriment for people yet they cannot be reckoned as substantial food. They work as nutriment, with a small amount which makes it possible to get rid of hunger yet not feel heavy. This is important to have a nimble and comfortable body and mind to practice meditation. In my opinion there is no point of obeying to this rule since one does not practice meditation or mindfulness unless he wants to have orher benifits such as being healthy.

Monks use metal (iron) bawls as well as clay bawls. If a clay bawl i splaced close to the edge of the table it may fall and break apart, as you said a metal bawl would not break into pieces however, the paint can be cracked and the bawl can be damaged. As the process that used to paint bawls with roasted oil is difficult and time consuming, a monk must try to avoid damahes as much as possible. Indirectly almost al the small rules (sekiya) helps a monk to be mindful in day-to-day life and helps to be a thoughtful (sampajānakāri) monk.

One should read origins of each of these rules before judging them.


If you are honestly interested in letting go of the fault finding mind, I’d suggest not looking at the Vinaya. :slight_smile: I think without the experience of living in a community following the rules, the vinaya will be like dry tinder for the fires of faultfinding. :fire::fire::fire:

Sometimes it takes years living under the rules to appreciate their value. Other things become clear right away. Think you can’t damage a metal bowl by knocking it off the table? Give it a try.

Say you inherit the entire workshop of a skilled carpenter who has passed away. If you don’t know anything about carpentry and you go into the shop and just start pitching everything that doesn’t look useful, you’ll be missing out on solutions to problems you don’t even know you will have. Sure they may take up a little space now, but once you learn how to use them you’ll be glad you kept them around.

Many people trust the Buddha as they would a skilled carpenter who has given us a valuable store of tools. After learning how to use some of the basic tools, faith is established that things that may not make sense right away will make sense later. And if you live in a community of aspiring master carpenters, you get to learn how to use the tools more quickly. This is the framework of the master/apprentice relationship that was common in the past but has been much reduced in modern society and has been replaced with students who are highly critical of their teachers.

The criterion for judging the usefulness of the vinaya is not “Buddhism prospering.” It is in fact much easier to build and run temples if the monks can handle money and cook their own food. But does that equal success in the goal of the teachings?


thank you for your message and the reference. I will need to reflect on it; at the moment it is not clear to me why oil for example is not considered substantial food, since it is the most calorie dense food (together with tallow, also mentioned in the text you link to) in existence (900 Kcal for 100g). It surely cannot be due to its being in a liquid form (which is simply due to its chemistry and the predominance of unsaturated fat which does not solidify at room temperature); besides, butter which is solid is also not considered a substantial food; so I will need to reflect on that text and definitions.
Concerning the facilitation of meditation, I will also need to understand this better. Ajahn Appichato on Youtube advocates eating fruits and veggies for good meditation, whereas other teachers advocate a completely different diet.


One thing I notice from the reference you give, is that the Buddha was not infallible when making these rules. He made a first rule in response to some problems, and when he found that it did not solve the problems satisfactorily he made further rules.
So this was an ongoing process, what I would describe as a bottom up approach, rather than a dogmatic top top down approach of laying down from the start infallible rules.
I remember reading an article by Ajahn Amaro saying that the Theravada tradition was conservative because there was no point in trying to improve on the rules made by the Buddha. At the time I thought: if the Buddha made those rules for the society of India in 500 bc, perhaps there is some point after all. Now that I realize that the Buddha worked by trial and error when making these rules, to respond to practical situations, I think there might be even more of a point. The situations arising today in various cultures are pretty different to those which arose 2500 years ago in India.


The answer of the Buddha to Sariputta’s worries that harm may be done to the order, if no rules of conduct are prescribed in time:
“Wait, Sariputta, wait! The Tathagata will know the right time. The teacher will not prescribe any rule to his pupils, he will not recite the Patimokha as long as no factors leading to defilement (asavatthaniya dhamma) appear in the order.”

Without vinaya there is no order (sangha), and without the community of bhikkus there is no Buddhism. However, the rules are prescribed only after an offence has been committed. Thus rules are derived from experience and based on the practical need to avoid certain forms of behavior in future. This means at the same time that the cause for a rule is always due to the wrong behavior of a certain person.
There is a simile in commentaries for this particular aspect; If someone tries to cure a blister which is to be appear in the future, he has to cut down a healthy skin, would patient be convinced with this kind of treatment? What if the treatment is done after the appearance of the blister? The patient would be willing to have the treatment. Similarly, the rules are prescribed only after an offence has been committed. Thats why some of the rules are changed accordingly.
Thus, it is not much appropriate to identify the way of rule making as a trial and error method.


This is not because of that they know the risk of misbehavior. You would rather say they do not have intentions to break rules since, they are enlightened. They lack sinful thoughts such as craving, passion, hatread, delusion, etc. They are inherently equanimous to the world. However, there are some rules prescribed after a wrong behavior of an arahant (enlightened).

  1. The training rule on nuns’ dwelling places : Chullapantaka Thero
  2. The second training rule on the same sleeping place: Anurudda Thero


When we talk about the vinaya rules in general, we may explain that monastics “don’t eat substantial food in the afternoon.” However this is an overly simplified and imprecise way to explain it.

Oil, ghee, and sugar are allowed precisely because they can provide calories. Although the texts don’t mention it, that I know, we can also see that they are rather self limiting. It’s hard to overindulge in those things without getting sick.

As well, f you look at the methods of ayurvedic medicine that was used at the time, you can see that things like ghee and oil were often “vehicles” for administering medicine. So to understand the rules on food and medicine, it helps to have an awareness of those methods and how they were used at that time. Fortunately the medicines that worked in the time of the Buddha still work, so they are convenient for the monastics.

I’m curious what vinaya books you are reading to learn about the rules.


I started reading the Vinaya itself but was put off by all the stories of self penetration, zoophilia, urinating in a bucket and throwing the urine on lay supporters (by accident) etc.
So I did not read the whole of it and some of these questions are based on stories I heard at a monastery (for example there was a funny story about an English monk (the English are used to tea with milk) going to see Ajahn Sumedho to ask him why on earth they could have cheese but not milk in their tea); as you realize the question about oil comes from the link Amatabhani provided.


May I suggest that you look at the book I recommended in a previous thread. It is written for lay people and tends to avoid the zoophilia stuff.