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Which is foremost - Dhamma or Vinaya?

Though both the Dhamma and Vinaya were laid down by the Buddha, there are times when they come into apparent conflict.

The earliest of such conflicts occurred in Kosambi and is recorded in MN128 and the Khandaka

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At that time, it is said, two Brothers lived in the same house, the one versed in the Vinaya, the other in the Sutras. The latter of these one day having occasion to visit the lavatory went out leaving the surplus water for rinsing the mouth in a vessel. Afterwards the one versed in the Vinaya went in and seeing the water came out and asked his companion if the water had been left there by him. He answered, “Yes, Sir.” “What! do you not know that this is sinful?” “No, I was not aware of it.” “Well, Brother, it is sinful.” “Then I will atone for it.” “But if you did it inadvertently and heedlessly, it is not sinful.” So he became as one who saw no sin in what was sinful. The Vinaya scholar said to his pupils, “This Sutra scholar, though falling into sin, is not aware of it.” They on seeing the other Brother’s pupils said, “Your master though falling into sin does not recognize its sinfulness.” They went and told their master. He said, “This Vinaya scholar before said it was no sin, and now says it is a sin: he is a liar.” They went and told the others, “Your master is a liar.” Thus they stirred up a quarrel, one with another. Then the Vinaya scholar, finding an opportunity, went through the form of excommunication of the Brother for refusing to see his offence.

Similar questions have cropped up regularly ever since, with Dhamma followers and Vinaya followers being divided into two opposing camps.

Two such recent examples from our own forum are

and the ensuing discussions seem to me to follow the same predictable path as the very first Dhamma/Vinaya conflict. We aren’t very much different from the the monks and laypeople of Kosambi! :thinking: :upside_down_face:

Dhamma followers attempt to use Dhamma principles such as investigating what is skillful, what kind of result does it lead to, is it for the welfare of self and others etc. They become upset when the letter of the Law seems to be in direct contradiction to what might be reasonably expected using Dhamma principles. The seeming pliability of the Vinaya in service of questionable goals such as denying women full ordination etc makes it even more suspect to modern sensibilities. Being seen as an old fashioned relic, there are calls for the Vinaya to be updated in line with the Buddha’s last directions.

Vinaya followers attempt to answer controversies by invoking the letter of the Law, looking for previous rulings which seem to resemble the present question, etc. They consider the Vinaya to be a clearly defined set of rules which should be strictly followed. The fuzzy thinking of Dhamma principles seems alien to the logical eyes of the Law. The calls for changes to the Vinaya seem apt to be the province of muddled thinking and betray a lack of respect for the Buddha’s directions and the past efforts of Sangha.

IMO, the Northern traditions seems more flexible when it comes to changing Vinaya rules in line with modern requirements whereas the Southern traditions seem likely to oppose change in favor of the status quo.

With the gradual evolution of an authentic Western tradition, it seems to me that sooner or later we will need to address the issue of which is foremost - Dhamma or Vinaya?

But can we answer this satisfactorily?


(Views are personal and not reflective of any official forum policy)

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Of course, only monastics will be truly able to answer this question, but in my humble opinion the two go hand in hand.
But it is important to distinguish the function of the one from the other’s:

The Dhamma is the practice to be cultivated, while the Vinaya assures the best conditions for the cultivation of the Dhamma.

Without one it becomes much more difficult to fulfill the other.
The Dhamma becomes very difficult to apply without the Vinaya (as in lay life), and the Vinaya becomes a set of empty rules without the Dhamma.

It is only when these two functions get mixed up that problems arise, I feel.

‘The Buddha has rid us of so many things that bring suffering and gifted us so many things that bring happiness! (MN 66)

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Thanks @faujidoc1 for starting this topic. It is something that has occupied me for quite sometime. I actually started framing a topic about this question yesterday. This was my way of conceptualising the issue. It was very interesting reading your view about the two approaches Dhamma follower/Vinaya follower, as traits of the person… My own conceptualisation was in lines of purpose or function of the material. I’ll just copy in what I was formulating… :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

Vinaya; Did it evolve from a Training/Practice guide to a Management tool?

I’ll start this with an apology… I’m a bit confused and am trying to find a bit more clarity and ease in how to think about and implement aspects of the Vinaya. One thing that I find quite interesting is that the more I read the Suttas, the clearer they are and the less questions I have, in direct opposition to how I find the Vinaya - the more I read, the more questions I have, and the more I find parts of it to be at odds with the fundamental teachings of the 4NT’s. Overall, I am left with the impression that the vast majority of it is for the expediency of ‘managing’ the sangha and sangha/lay relationships. This is important because while the conditions conducive to diligent practice are relatively static (those that give rise to Sila, Samadhi and Panna), the conditions pertaining to the rest are very context specific. Therefore things that were useful in the socio-economic and cultural context 2500 years ago, have changed significantly… and can’t be smoothly transposed to todays context.

I’m interested in hearing opinions of those who are familiar with the Vinaya from a practical point of view, rather than discussion about dogmatic adherence to doctrine… ie this topic isn’t about whether the Vinaya is good or bad, or whether it should or shouldn’t be adhered to, but about the underlying purpose and structure, as well as it’s evolution, in an attempt at greater understanding.

It is clear to me that many of the rules have a basis in setting the best conditions for practice to yield fruit (basically the 10 precepts and similar). This makes sense, but also contrasts with many other rules for which I cannot see any ‘direct’ relationship with providing good practice conditions ie, some seem to be about training and others seem to be about managing a communal environment and monastic/lay relations. The issue that I have is that these two aspects are quite 'inter-mixed, yet have a fundamental difference in purpose and implications for practice in different settings, and thus a different weighting as to importance regarding the goal of practice – Liberation.

So one question I have, that leads on from reading the way the vinaya rules were developed is, can we infer that the earliest rules were concerned with practice and training and the further along in time we go, as the Sangha grew, more rules were added that were more and more about ‘management’ and less about the conditions required for successful individual practice? Ie ordination guidelines and permissions etc etc.

I’m interested in understanding the Vinaya in terms of EBT… in terms of what the Buddha himself laid down, and what came later (even what the Buddha laid down in the beginning before the sangha had grown to thousands). Sometimes, it feels like the Vinaya grew simply to make rules for those without the wisdom to know how to implement the 10 precepts …

Here are two relevant quotes, about what can be considered EBT in the Vinaya, as a reference point.

And from Bhikkhu @Brahmali 's introduction to his translations of the Vinaya

SuttaCentral.

Comparative study of the various pātimokkhas makes it clear that these texts in large part go back to the pre-sectarian period of Buddhism (Pachow, 2000). As for the rest of the material in the Suttavibhaṅga, academics normally consider this material to be significantly younger than the pātimokkha rules (v. Hinüber, 2000: 13f), but it is nevertheless likely that some of it goes back to the earliest period (Pachow, 2000: 14ff). In the absence of more detailed research, it seems prudent to regard the pātimokkha as the only part of the Suttavibhaṅga that belongs to the Early Buddhist Texts.

But even this overstates the case, for it is clear that not even all the pātimokkha rules belong to the earliest period (Pachow, 2000). This is true of many, perhaps all, of the most minor rules of the monks’ pātimokkha, the sekhiyas, but especially of the rules for the nuns, many of which vary considerably between the different schools, making it likely that they stem from the sectarian period.

Now I realise that this has a number of complications… and probably millions of practitioners over the past 2500 years have sought to separate out ‘optional’ rules from the core absolutely necessary rules for the successful following in the footsteps of the Buddha on the N8FP. But still - the more of it I read, the less satisfactory I find it. (Note; satisfactory from the perspective of creating conditions conducive to practice – that the focus goes to the adherence to rites and rituals, rather than cause and effect of conditions)

Even worse, (taking the question of ordination out of the picture and only looking at it from a practice/training perspective) I find many of the rules can actually be hindrances, and many express a lack of inclusivity, that while understandable from a ‘management’ perspective, are non-sensical from a personal practice perspective, eg… that a person missing a hand cannot be ordained… I cannot see how the loss of an appendage can be a barrier to practicing well and to full awakening. It is clear that having a person with limitations may be a burden to the Sangha - and the ‘management’ implications are clear, but they should not be confused with ‘practice’ and the potential of a person to practice well or attain awakening.

Sure the person missing an appendage can practice without ordination, but there is a tension when this is taken in context of un-ordained people not being able to attain full awakening… it seems to mix up an understandable set of ‘management’ protocols, with the prescriptions for training for the abandoning of ignorance and craving…

Does ill will and craving prevent someone from Liberation? - Yes - And it is clear why this is the case. Does ‘not having a hand’ prevent someone from Liberation? - No - so the prohibition from ordination must be about management…

It would seem to me that it would be useful to view the Vinaya from this kind of perspective. Some of the ‘management’ type issues have altered significantly over the last 2500 years :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: (like riding a bicycle) or a woman travelling alone. And unfortunately in quite a few cases adhering to these aspects causes significant hindrances to practice. I find that without full comprehension, of what look like inconsistencies, the otherwise beautiful internal consistency of the suttapittaka appears somewhat compromised…

Looking forward to hearing other perspectives and ways that practitioners have reconciled these things :slight_smile:

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Dhamma is for individual liberation, Vinaya is for conduct optimization to propagate Buddha’s teaching long and pure.
Individual is alright to just follow sutta in order for self liberation.
To keep unquestionable lineage of Buddha’s teaching, vinaya is the key.

I was able to identify Thai Forest Monks are carrying unaltered Dhamma spoken by Buddha himself, by looking at monks’ conduct in following Vinaya texts.

By the look of vinaya, I have impression that Buddha trusts only vinaya followers to continue his lineage. That means those individuals who are highly disciplined in conduct.

Vinaya is a ‘burden’ and duty of lineage carriers. Vinaya is not important for those who wish for liberation but no interest in teaching pure dhamma.

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Even when tough time, no one is getting enlightened, but if there is a continuous line of ppl who strictly following vinaya, we can trust this line keeps sutta true and pure as spoken by Buddha. That is how vinaya makes pure dhamma long standing.

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While people may have their personal opinions on smoking and bicycles, the reality is that the text of the vinaya says nothing substantial about either of these in their modern forms (presumably smoking in the vinaya is the ayurvedic type).

If we can criticise anything from the bicycle and smoking conversations, it should be the pettiness of some modern vinaya interpretive traditions, which are (a) not all modern Theravada interpretive traditions and (b) still not the vinaya itself. If there is an apparent false dichotomy between dhamma and vinaya, it’s likely the problem of vinaya interpretation as opposed to a vinaya problem, as vinaya by definition is that which supports dhamma.

It may be reflexive to think that Mahayana may have solutions, but there are also regionally diverse Theravadas which have developed localised solutions which are in many cases already highly functional and adaptive. These local approaches may not always make into into print because they aren’t “prestigious”, but also form an important body of knowledge as to how we “do vinaya” outside of the South and SE Asian monsoon belt (and are in many cases also already within what the text of the vinaya requires).

I personally have a very happy life in the West keeping vinaya, I’m not sure how anyone could improve it in a substantial way [maybe less plastic on almsround?] (I would be happy to see more disabled, queer, indigenous, environmental, ex-untouchable and women’s exegesis, but I already largely know what the vinaya means to me personally in these areas). I also chose to do something that is quite obvious to me- which is to live where I can get alms in walking distance. My friend who was a Mahayana monk told me it’s not possible to live without money in the West and I really just laughed because we are already doing it quite satisfactorily.

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I was part of the bicycle discussion, so I’m guessing a lot of these things are directed, or are based on my posts in that thread . . .

I think a few crucial things need to be considered: I don’t believe separating people into categories of being “Vinaya-followers” and “Dhamma-followers” is a good approach at finding solutions for the issues presented. For one, there is likely almost no one who would fall under the “Vinaya-follower” group. Those who would fall under “Vinaya-follower” would mostly be monastics. Other than monastics, there are likely very few members on the forum who have studied Vinaya, or even read the Vinaya Piṭaka.

(Similarly, likely every single person would be considered a “Dhamma-follower.” The Vinaya is considered teachings of the Buddha, and therefore, a “Vinaya-follower” is also a “Dhamma-follower.”)

Secondly, whether or not there is such two classifications, I don’t think dividing people into two opposing groups, and then pitting these two groups against themselves is conducive to finding solutions, or even simply for having a constructive discussion.

It is difficult to believe that, from two recent discussions, and a few others, that the forum has somehow divided into two opposing camps. While it may definitely appear as such in those threads, in many cases, this is what can sometimes happen in any thread.

I don’t think the above is correct. How Vinaya rules are interpreted is very complex, and sometimes even strange for a non-monastic. One may simply read even just the Pāṭimokkha, and from a short reading, I’m sure the initial reaction of most would be confusion about how detailed and complex it is—with many rules having little meaning for such a person.

However, the life of a monastic is based on very peculiar circumstances, and the rules in the Pāṭimokkha—as described by the Buddha, and according to the reasons the Buddha created those rules—are similarly complex and based on that very peculiar social arrangement for monastics.

This is a false choice—there is no choice to be made between Dhamma and the Vinaya. Both the Vinaya and the Suttas are teachings of the Buddha, and therefore, Dhamma. The main difference between the discrepancy, however, is that one deals with events of the Buddha’s life, and the teachings he expounded to both monastics and lay people; while the Vinaya is a set of rules and teachings he created and taught to monastics—and only for monastics to follow.


As said above, I think the division of two groups, of “Dhamma-follower” and “Vinaya-follower” can similarly lead to further division. I personally feel responsible for my participation in the bicycle thread, and would even more so if a discussion such as this one were to result in something negative. However, regardless of my reaction or participation, I believe a discussion precisely structured as it is will likely lead to animosity and division.

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@faujidoc1, I’m not sure if you are being deliberately provocative with the thread’s title: “which is foremost - Dhamma or Vinaya”, but this is certainly a false dichotomy!


In both cases, of smoking and riding bicycles, the questions were specifically about the Vinaya rules.


I rejoice in your intention to ordain. However, knowledge of how the vinaya as it is actually applied and practiced is something one can only really learn after ordaining. As you say yourself:

So, I would humbly suggest not positioning yourself as an expert until you actually have some experience living as a monk, with the shared understanding of a lived tradition gained from being in a community and in close proximity to a learned and wise teacher. You may be surprised that there are many different approaches to practicing the vinaya and that they coexist quite harmoniously even in the same community. Surely it would be wise to hold off developing some very strong views just yet until you have had some practical experience? It is often people with the least experience of monastic life who have the most vehement views of how it “should be”.

I remember a wonderful story about a Japanese academic who was an ‘expert’ in western ballet, but everything he knew came from books. He had never seen a ballet performance or even danced a step himself. What kind of expertise could he have?

I don’t say this to upset or hurt you, the same thing goes for all of us in many spheres of our lives. I’ve known many vinaya scholars and senior monks and nuns who have studied for years and years, but even they would hesitate to refer to themselves as ‘experts’, not out of false modesty, but because such things are actually very complex! One’s understandings and views also change over time. It’s easy to be completely certain about something before one starts out but as you go along, you may find the more one knows, the more one understands how little one knows!

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I find it unlikely that any of “these things are directed” at you. The Forum exists to discuss the EBTs, and ideas and issues around the EBTs.

Not for interpersonal flurries. :upside_down_face:

The way ideas have been expressed in this thread have been in the main delightfully impersonal. :pray:

May the thread develop in a way that assists all its readers to a clearer understanding without involving personalities. :anjal:

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Dear Bhante, I would love hearing a little more about this, or the underlying principles that allow this to occur :pray:

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Interpretation!! For example, shaving heads. Some people believe that the scissoring action of hair clippers means they shouldn’t be used (as scissors are not allowed) but others believe that the blades are less like shears and more like a blade, so it is allowed. You will find monks of both views sharing the same bathroom on head shaving day. Many such things occur.

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For What it’s worth, I didn’t interpret @faujidoc1 's OP as being deliberately provocative, but rather highlighting that issues surrounding the Vinaya have been a source of conflict even during the Buddhas lifetime, and presenting a hypothetical about why this may be the case… different traits in people…

It is only if we try to impose a judgement on which is better or worse that we get into trouble… ie the word ‘foremost’… But I chose to read this as a (tongue in cheek) reflection of the very nature of the conflict itself, rather than a call to engage in judgement.

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Hi Bhante,

Regarding the above, I will first say that I have never positioned myself as an expert—and that I have never said I’m an expert on Vinaya. I have always positioned myself as a lay person, and rarely have I even said I’ve studied any of the Vinaya.

(If you are referring to my post in this thread, I simply described my background to clarify and give more details as to my participation in the Vinaya/bicycle thread—since many of the details in this discussion were in part about my posts in that thread, and about that thread. What I described in my post about myself weren’t things I necessarily wanted to divulge in a public forum, but rather only thought it might be useful to clarify my intentions with my participation in that thread.)

However, if your suggestion has nothing to do with any prior discussions, but it is rather a suggestion to prevent me complications in the future—which I think it likely is—I will take that as generous and thoughtful advice.

I fully agree with you. Vinaya as written, and Vinaya as practiced and lived are likely two very different things. It is a distinction which I had definitely not reflected upon enough.

Thank you for your suggestions, Bhante. I take them to heart, and will continue to reflect on them.

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I don’t know about the “monks smoking” thread, which I didn’t participate in. However, I was one of the main objectors regarding owning bicycles in the bicycle thread—especially quoting the Vinaya (and therefore one of the “Vinaya-followers” classification, according to the two camps mentioned in the OP).

Thinking over it, my posts in that thread were somewhat direct and done a bit out of haste, and I may not have given the topic the attention to detail that it required. I was going to clarify my point after Ven. Subhāro’s next post, however—the discussion was still going on.

Still, I don’t think because different people disagree in a thread that it means a division of two camps needs to be put against each other—and I would be regretful if such a situation were to take place.

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I love this anecdote and feel like it must extend to a thousand other domains. Thank you, Bhante, for living a challenging but rewarding life many must think impossible.

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Thank you for your appreciation.

P.S. I am female and the equivalent Pali title is Ayya.

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I think we can, for the most part.

The Vinaya emerges from the Dhamma. It is secondary. We see this in origin story to the laying down of rules:

Sāriputta then got up from his seat, put his upper robe over one shoulder, raised his joined palms, and said, “This is the time, Venerable Sir, for laying down training rules and reciting a monastic code, so that this spiritual life may last for a long time.”

“Hold on, Sāriputta. The Buddha knows the appropriate time for this. The Teacher doesn’t lay down training rules or recite a monastic code until the causes of corruption appear in the Sangha. And they don’t appear until the Sangha has attained long standing, great size, an abundance of the best material support, or great learning. When the causes of corruption appear for any of these reasons, then the Teacher lays down training rules for his disciples and recites a monastic code in order to counteract these causes.

Sāriputta, the Sangha of monks is free from cancer and danger, stainless, pure, and established in the essence. Even the least developed of these five hundred monks is a stream-enterer. They will not be reborn in the lower world, but are fixed in destiny and bound for awakening.”

There is more. The word Vinaya is now used more or less synonymously with Vinaya Piṭaka. At the time of the Buddha, however, it was used to mean training in a general sense. For instance, a horse is said to be vineti, “trained”, a word which is the verbal form of vinaya. It follows from this that whereas Dhamma is the Teaching—the theory if you like—the Vinaya is the training, the practical expression of the theory. The most obvious example of this is how we put the noble eightfold path into practice. Over time, perhaps already towards the end of the Buddha’s life, the word Vinaya narrowed down to specifically refer to rules and regulations.

What this means that Vinaya rules and regulations should reflect the Dhamma. They exist as an extension and particular expression of the Dhamma.

This is helpful in deciding what we need to kept and what not. But first of all we need to understand a bit more about why the Buddha laid down the rules. Again, this is specifically stated in the Vinaya Piṭaka:

“Well then, monks, I will lay down a training rule for the following ten reasons: for the well-being of the Sangha, for the comfort of the Sangha, for the restraint of bad people, for the ease of good monks, for the restraint of corruptions relating to the present life, for the restraint of corruptions relating to future lives, to give rise to confidence in those without it, to increase the confidence of those who have it, for the longevity of the true Teaching, and for supporting the training.”

We can perhaps summarise this as two main reasons: (1) helping monastics to practice properly; (2) supporting confidence in the Dhamma.

The first of these concerns rules that have to do with moral conduct. Such rules should never be abolished. They concern a fundamental aspect of what Buddhism is about.

The second concerns what is acceptable in society and what is inspiring conduct for a monastic. The Buddha laid down a large number of rules to this end. Yet this is an area where careful judgment is required. Monastic practice should ideally be an expression of true renunciation. At its best, it should reflect the sort of insight that is the culmination of the Buddhist path. This is both a good strategy for achieving those insights, as well as a banner to the world of what those insights consist of. To reform these rules in a skilful way—even if we only consider rules that were not laid down by the Buddha—we need the guidance of experienced and wise monastics.

Of course, not all monastics will live up to the highest ideal. And that’s fine, so long as they keep the moral rules of the Vinaya. But it’s an ideal we should keep in mind and strive for. The longevity of the real Dhamma depends on it.

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A big Thank you to those who have chosen to step forward and participate! :star_struck: Conversations about things dear to our heart are never easy, and what could be dearer to us all but the Buddha’s dispensation?

In starting this thread, I sought to recognize that there seem to be two different approaches that people follow when it comes to judging if a certain behavior is skillful or not.

Lay people by and large are more familiar with Dhamma teachings so that is the framework they tend to use. Monastics (and some lay people who seek to ‘step-up’ their practice) arrange their lives according to the Vinaya, so that becomes important to them.

Ideally, there would be no conflict between the two approaches. Yet, when I see a Vinaya based line of reasoning lead to the conclusion that for instance “Smoking is allowable but cycling is not” something inside me goes ‘Wait a minute! How can that conclusion possibly be correct given the Dhamma advice on skillful behavior the Buddha gave to the Kalamas and to Rahula?’

So there seem to be issues with how Vinaya is interpreted and practiced versus a purely Dhamma perspective. And personalities, being conditioned by their circumstances and experiences tend to veer towards one side or the other.

But for me, personally to come to a decision on what would be the more skillful path to follow, there is the requirement of choosing one way of thinking over the other. And surely many others - both monastic and lay people may be struggling similarly between what their heart tells them and what is currently accepted by their communities as correct and by the rules.

Ajahn Brahmali summed up my unvoiced personal opinion succinctly when he said…

Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!!

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If it’s any consolation @faujidoc1 if you wanted to stay as a nun here [in a very very hypothetical world], if you smoked, I would take you to see a doctor (but probably not to see a vinaya lawyer in the first instance sorry unless there are flow-on issues involved) and yes, you could have a bicycle but I don’t think we can afford accessories or repairs or to mop you up after you get sideswiped by a bus (local area is not cycle friendly). Around here it is either walk or train, but I personally prefer to walk as much as I can because train suicides disturb me.

I think religions (not only Buddhism) have an issue with “competitive piety” in general whereby the most narrow minded form of the religion comes to be seen as the most authentic. Which is a bit lame if you are honestly just interested in um, getting enlightened and don’t care about “piety as social performance”. If you feel alarmed by people using the vinaya to argue against bicycles, it’s ok, I do too (as would a significant number of my monastic friends, and the lay devotee who kindly offered to buy me a bicycle).

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I think those rules are a guide for a long, long time. Ever read about Buddha Lands? They’re all Monks there, and there are no women not because they don’t like Women but because even though Men and Women are the Perfect Match, they want everyone to be fully equal, and although Men and Women have similarities, they are different, and this creates the basis for Samsara. Sex life. Anyway, ending birth, even the Buddha has finished His life Span.