A Personal Perspective on Vinaya, the Rules for Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis

A Personal Perspective on Vinaya, the Rules for Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis

By Ven. Sudhamma Bhikkhuni, Carolina Buddhist Vihara
Photo © Ven. Sudhamma Bhikkhuni.

Photo © Ven. Sudhamma Bhikkhuni.

Years ago, before I received ordination as a bhikkhuni, I would have heartily applauded the call often heard for relaxing of Vinaya rules, inventing a new paradigm, ridding ourselves of “anachronistic” rules, and drawing up new guidelines that free us to engage in activities that will help spread the Dhamma. Over the years, I underwent a transformed attitude as I learned what Vinaya rules do for those living the holy life and their supporters. I would like to relate some of the reasons for my change in attitude, based upon my personal experiences.

When I was a laywoan, after meeting bhikkhus of a variety of lineages and habits, I approved of the more approachable non-Vinaya bhikkhus, and resented the bhikkhus too fussy to, say, ride alone in a car with me, shake hands with women or simply take food from a buffet table. I deprecated those seemingly picky, legalistic-minded bhikkhus bound by this and that annoyingly inconvenient Vinaya rule. To those of us sunk in sense pleasures, those observant bhikkhus’ deeper, quieter joy did not inspire as much as the outwardly loving, playful, “relaxed” bhikkhus. The fun ones played soccer with us lay people, they joked around, they hugged and wrestled with children, they delighted in ice cream cones on a warm afternoon, they went to amusement parks, they offered healings and psychic feats, they made us laugh, they praised us and make us feel good about ourselves; they seemed engagingly “human” and gave us an overall jolly good time.

But over the years, scandals and accusations tarnished the names of some of the more delightful non-Vinaya bhikkhus whose behaviors I had previously approved, while the strict bhikkhus’ purity continued to shine. When I entered the path toward ordination, I found that the Vinaya-observant bhikkhus’ example was the one I wanted to follow. My life since ordination has shown many benefits of this approach. By releasing self-worry to follow the Buddha’s rigorous path for bhikkhunis, I began to change, finding an inner transformation not accessible to me before this training. Although I had trained as a novice for four years, it was after higher ordination that I felt myself blossoming in the holy life.

By embracing Vinaya protocols as a set, attempting to keep all the rules without picking and choosing, I became able to turn down unsuitable activities urged upon me that would violate a rule. Simply expressing adherence to the whole package of rules ends any argument as to what I should do regarding a particular prohibition. Since it is a focus not upon my preferences, but upon the Buddha’s instructions, I can keep even the unpopular rules that I find freeing, rules that protectively go “against the stream” of ordinary desires and social expectations.

By embracing the entirety of the “bhikkhuni training & livelihood” I gained an awesome support system previously available only to Theravada bhikkhus. With few exceptions it generally does not exist for Mahayana monastics, Theravada nuns who are not bhikkhunis, or lay practitioners, no matter how devout. Many Sangha members who lack this training & livelihood must earn outside income. Some charge fees for Dhamma services. One Theravada bhikkhuni works as a nursing assistant; one cleaned houses (before she despaired and quit the holy life); another builds and sells houses to earn a hefty income to build up her center. But simply because of tenaciously sticking to the rules to the best of my ability, my Vihara’s supporters stepped forward to enable me to be a full-time bhikkhuni, offering a wealth of support that would not have materialized if not for the catalyst of a complete dependence upon Vinaya. (Bhikkhus living here before me received less daily support.)

Each rule followed brings its own surprising rewards. Sometimes the most seemingly petty, unreasonable rule brings the best gift when followed. Let us look at the often-criticized Garudhamma rule for bhikkhunis to seek exhortations (ovaada) from bhikkhus twice a month. Oppressive? On first reading the rule, my aversion arose, thinking it a humiliating, petty gesture of female submission, but experience gave me a completely different perspective.

The ovaada rule instructs ordained women, who may otherwise be too humble or shy, to speak up to receive a special privilege of hearing Dhamma taught by the most highly venerated and sought-after bhikkhu elders. The Bhikkhu Sangha must choose from the greatest among them to teach the bhikkhunis, applying a long list of high qualifications the teacher must meet, including being liked by the bhikkhunis. The bhikkhunis get better than front-row seats; these talks being specially arranged for them alone, unlike talks for mixed audiences, the teacher focuses on them, not tending to the needs of anyone else. It is a delightful gift thoughtfully handed to the women by the Buddha. Two such ovaada exhortations to bhikkhunis were recorded in the scriptures; both are powerful Dhamma talks, and one actually led the entire Bhikkhuni Sangha at that time to attain enlightenment while listening. The burden of this rule falls not on bhikkhunis, but on the Bhikkhu Sangha, required by Vinaya to actively minister to bhikkhunis and not neglect them.

Only due to this rule, I gathered my nerve to telephone –with shaking hands—one of the most senior, beloved and busiest bhikkhus in the USA who serves many thousands of devotees in a large city, to ask him for ovaada. He agreed, and now hears from me twice a month to receive his inspiring talks by telephone; he expresses respect for my dedication to the rules that causes me to faithfully contact him, and he keeps my well-being in mind, which means a lot to me.

Many Vinaya rules similarly contain hidden treasures, our Lord’s gifts waiting to be found by those with the patience and faith to give them a try.

While visiting Sri Lanka, I met some bhikkhunis who said they dispense with rules not directly bearing upon morality. Watching them closely, I noticed that although they followed certain social customs expected of monastics, these bhikkhunis kept only celibacy and the basic Five Precepts, not taking the opportunity to embrace the higher discipline and the livelihood gained by higher ordination. Once when such a bhikkhuni asked to stay with me in the USA, I wrote her a letter explaining some practical rewards of following Vinaya, in hopes of convincing her of its value:

Vinaya practitioners don’t handle money at all (and of course don’t do shopping). We do not prepare our own meals, or do cooking for others. We eat only food handed to us that morning. If no one brings dana, we go on alms-round or go hungry. (I cannot guarantee that in the future people will come every day to Carolina Buddhist Vihara to offer food, but thus far it has worked out well enough.) We do not eat any food after noon, not even fruits or a snack. We do not talk in solitude with someone of the other gender. We do not harm living plants, hence no gardening. This is just a sample of some of the rules.

It is true that the Five Precepts offer a sufficient guideline for self-development towards being a good, moral person. However, as bhikkhunis, we can claim the Vinaya for ourselves. The Vinaya is our ticket to freedom from the burdens of lay life. We don’t have to serve a husband, or shop, or take care of a car, or have the danger of talking alone with a man, or worry about how to spend money, or mow the lawn, or take care of the gardening, or prepare meals, or work at a job for money, or do ANY wrong things. We can live peacefully and mindfully. Our lay friends respect us and support us. The Dhamma-Vinaya protects us. This practice gives us our best chance to cool the mind and go forward to fulfill our intention in the holy life. (This nun came to the USA, but never responded to my letter.) In that example I merely touched upon some practical examples of freedoms gained by following Vinaya rules. Even though relatively clumsy in my efforts to keep the Vinaya, I do find additional benefits.

The primary arguments against stringent observance of Vinaya – that the rules bring inconvenience and hinder efforts to popularize the Dhamma – could be aimed against the basic Five Precepts of lay disciples, too. Aren’t the Five Precepts inconvenient sometimes? (When friends are going on a fishing trip or squirrels infest the attic; when billing clients or reporting income; if attracted to someone; when the truth is hard to voice; when coworkers are drinking?) If each person were taught to keep merely one lay rule, or a few per day, that would be more convenient.

Dropping some of the basic precepts could enhance efforts to spread the Dhamma. One time a laywoman cancelled her planned first visit to my center, writing that she runs a beer-drinking social group and had learned that Buddhists disapprove of drinking. A Sri Lankan Buddhist man abruptly dropped the religion while pursuing an affair and starting proceedings to divorce his loyal wife, presumably due to the clash between his behavior and Buddhist teachings against sexual misconduct. Getting rid of the Five Precepts for laity arguably would encourage people like these to stay and learn Dhamma.

Furthermore, if Buddhists would discuss the Dhamma over drinks, or while sharing tokes of marijuana, or while hunting or fishing together, perhaps that would make a good impression by showing that we Buddhists are not uptight! Yet of course dropping any of the Five Precepts for convenience or short-term gains would be an enormous loss. The same is true of bhikkhunis’ rules.

By considering his advice and rules frequently throughout each day, the Buddha has come alive for me, a real and potent presence in my mind as though we had spoken only a little while ago. I often accidentally refer to him in the present tense, as in, “The Buddha says for us to do such-and-such.” Every time I give up what I want in response to remembering his disciplinary instructions, ego deflates a bit, and I become more deeply motivated by faith (saddha): faith in him, in his path, and in the example of his enlightened followers.

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MN 146 “Nandakovaada Sutta”.

Five Precepts: To abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and using intoxicants.