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Ethics in Dhamma Vinaya

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by Darsa (Dhammadāsa) Bhikkhu

Ethics (Siila) in Dhamma-Vinaya
Solving an Ancient Paradox

Homage to the Fortunate and Worthy One, the One Rightly and Completely Awakened.


(All references are to the Pali Texts.
First as the sutta number and after the colon, the PTS version.)

he Buddha taught us to "make a thorough investigation of his teaching" (M 56 : M i 379), but few know of any specific study method the Buddha gave for his teaching. I have found such a study method and it shows the Buddha's teaching is not just some hotch-potch of nice ideas or philosophy, but a clear path of practice to end suffering in this very life.

In applying that method, I have discovered that:

  • The vast majority of the Pāli text records have been perfectly maintained. Sādhu (Well Done) to the Elders who have maintained the texts!
  • A few records are seen to be on the most part accurate, but to some degree incomplete.
  • Very few records are seen to have errors in transmission.
  • Though specific teachings, or presentations of the path are different, as they were taught to people at different stages of personal development, all authentic presentations of the path conform to the generally accepted summary being the three trainings: ethics, meditation and wisdom. The tradition has not explained how teachings are different specifically, but the study method shows that each teaching gives more detail of a specific training, dependent on which training the listener was developing at that time.
  • Comparing three discourses focussing on the three different trainings, gives one a bigger picture of the Buddha's teaching. Different discourses "fill in the gaps" of each other. Thus the meaning of 'sutta' as thread is brought to light. One discourse (or presentation of the path) is not enough for a big picture. To have a strong rope to pull oneself out of suffering, one must bring many strands, or threads together.
  • That any authentic discourse from the Buddha is a version of Dependent Arising, which gives life to the quote from the Buddha, "Whoever sees Dependent Arising sees the Dhamma, whoever sees the Dhamma sees Dependent Arising" M28:Mi191

The study method seems to be the Buddha's specific key to identifying corruptions in his teaching, for example, how specifically to compare Dhamma and Vinaya, in determining what is his teaching. It is no wonder that the Buddha would have seen his teaching would eventually be corrupted, but due to his wisdom and compassion, it makes sense that he would give a way to deal with this inevitability. The method is found in the Pāsādika Sutta: "... all you to whom I have taught these truths that I have realised by super-knowledge should come together and recite them, setting meaning beside meaning and expression beside expression, without dissension, in order that this holy life may continue and be established for a long time for the profit and happiness of the many ..." (D 29 : D iii 127). True, the 37 Wings of Awakening are then specifically mentioned, but I came to the above benefits by not stopping there, but by generally applying the principle of study[1]. This method was used by the Buddha himself, in comparing the 16 steps of Mindfulness of Breathing and the 4 Foundations of Mindfulness ([See ( M118:Miii78])[2].

This study method shows the Buddha's teaching to be a step-by-step path, as I think any "path" must be. Since the Buddha's teaching involves a gradual training, the path would have to be traversed a few times, each time eradicating more defilements, destroying more fetters. Possibly one needs to walk the path at least four times, which would match the idea of the eight kinds of Noble People, being four pairs of those on the path and those having realised the fruit of the path (the Stream Enterer Path, the Stream Enterer Fruit, the Once-Returner Path and Fruit, the Non-Returner… the Perfected One…). Being a step-by-step path, the Buddha's teaching would be logical.

The Buddha spoke of the logic of his teaching (D 29 : D iii 121), but that logic is not enough to end suffering (Kālāma Sutta: A3.65:Ai188). He gave clear and simple definitions. Any other kind, just causes more confusion. In the last of the Eight Thoughts of a Great Man, it is said that proliferation, or complication is a thing that is opposed to the Buddha's teaching (A8.30:Aiv228).

Many definitions attributed to the Buddha are clear, but not many people know of them, or apply them consistently. If definitions are not to be applied consistently, then we have a secret teaching, that needs to be interpreted by others and the Buddha said he did not teach a secret teaching (D16:Dii72 and A i 282-8).

In this regard, when reading the texts, a problem would be finding multiple definitions attributed to the Buddha for the same term. In this case I have come to ask, which is more practical and which follows the advice of the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta. Eventually the general gist of the Buddha's teaching becomes clear. Then I have two criteria to use to make a skilful decision: the general gist and personal experience. I have usually found that both these criteria point to the same choice of definition, the simpler one. Isn't that pointing to proliferation again, as not being a feature of the Buddha's teaching?

Applying the Study Method to Sīla – Solving the Ancient Mystery

The Buddha said we should compare Dhamma and Vinaya (the Teaching and the Discipline), when we want to establish the correctness of claims about his teaching (The Four Great References D16). Why Vinaya? One reason is, we can sometimes find principles in Vinaya that we can apply to our situation as laypeople. Looking at Sīla/Ethics in the Dhamma and Vinaya, I have found two definitions, which have some overlap.

The simpler definition is in the Mahāvagga (Vinayadiscipline for monks and nuns):

There it identifies "falling from sīla" (sīla-vipatti) for a monk, as committing any of the 4 Defeats and the 13 Practices requiring a communal meeting (a total of 17 rules). Committing any of the other (210) classes of fault is called "falling from good habits" (ācāra-vipatti). See the table below:

4 Defeats

17 rules - falling from sīla (sīla-vipatti)

13 Practices requiring a communal meeting

2 Uncertain Offences

210 rules - falling from good habits (ācāra-vipatti)

30 Offences of Presumption Requiring Forfeiture

92 Offences of Presumption

4 Offences Requiring Confession

75 Training Rules

7 Methods to Settle Disputes

The more complicated definition is in the D2:Di47 (Sutta/Dhamma):

There it identifies sīla as a mixture of items from both the Mahāvagga groups of sīla-vipatti and ācāra-vipatti.

It is the Vinaya definition that has brought the most benefit for me. It leads me to value all the training rules, but know that there are two different levels: major and minor. Thus I don't blow the relevance of the minor ones out of proportion, but still value them. I did the former the first time I ordained and just caused myself unnecessary suffering, which contributed to my disrobing.

Having a clear idea of major and minor rules, helps me keep loving kindness to myself and others. When I consider the differences between the two groups, I can see sīla helps keep society a relatively safe place to live. We find similar rules of conduct in most civilised societies and the major world religions. The "bad habits" are lesser variants of the rules that define "sīla", or often deal with culturally specific practices, or environmentally unfriendly practices.

This understanding makes sense when I reflect on the allowance of the Buddha to put aside (some of) the minor rules if "sangha" (community of practitioners) deems it appropriate. What makes the most sense to me in this regard, is that it would be "a sangha", not "the sangha", as sangha's in different cultures would have to deal with different cultural situations and so, different minor rules would apply. If "the sangha" was meant, then we must ask, which one? Who is going to claim to be "the sangha"? Or if it meant the whole Sangha, then Mahā-sangha would have been used.

This understanding of the sīla regarding the monks' rules also matches other important teachings, for example:

The Fruit of Stream Entry:

A. Eradication of the first three fetters:


B. The Mirror of the Dhamma:

1. Unshakable faith in the Triple Gem[3]
2. Unbroken noble ethics[4]

Unbroken ethics is what we need to clarify here. If ethics for a monk is avoiding the 4 Defeats and the 13 Practices requiring a communal meeting, then that is quite manageable, but I think the following difference should be borne in mind. It would seem that the eradication of identity view, the first fetter above, would involve such a shift in paradigm, such that it was NOT POSSIBLE for a Stream Enterer to break the rules that define Sīla (the two groups identified above, if a monk). Thus we have the quality of UNBROKEN noble ethics. This is different from the common person, who might not intentionally kill any human being, due to external conditions not "pushing their buttons" enough.

These two groups of rules or practices can be seen to be part of the Five Precepts in this way:

Five Precepts =

The Sīla Aspect + ->
(refer to the 4 Defeats)

The Good Habit Aspect

1. Avoid Killing Living Beings

Avoid Killing Human Beings

Avoid Harming Living Beings

2. Avoid Stealing

Avoid Prison Worthy Stealing

Avoid Any Other Stealing, to lesser value

3. Avoid Sexual Misconduct

For Laypeople:
Avoid Rape, Paedophilia, Sex with a Dependent[5]

For Monks and Nuns:
Avoid Intentional Sexual Activity

Avoid Any Other Unwholesome Sex Practice

4. Avoid Lying

Avoid Spiritual Fraud

Avoid Any Other Unwholesome Speech

5. Avoid Intoxicants and Drugs


Avoid Intoxicants and Drugs

This understanding of Sīla also solves the paradox in Theravada Buddhism of the drunkard Stream Enterer (S 55.24 : S v 375-7)[6]. If the five precepts define Sīla, then a Stream Enterer with a drinking problem is not possible, as such a one would have "unbroken noble ethics" and would not break the fifth precept of avoiding drugs and alcohol. If on the other hand, we see only the first four precepts as Sīla (which parallel the 4 Defeats of the monk) and taking alcohol and drugs, as a "bad habit" (also a less serious rule of the monks), then we can have a Stream Enterer with a drinking problem[7]. This matches common usage in society, where drinking is called a bad habit, but as mentioned above, the Stream Enterer's view of the world would have changed so much that even though they were drunk, they would/could not commit the 4 Defeats.

When we carefully compare some discourses to laypeople according to the study method given above, we seem to have confirmation of this idea. For example, the Kalama Sutta, mentioned above, has the first four of the five precepts only[8]. The Sigolavāda Sutta (sometimes called the Discipline for Laypeople D 31 : D iii 180) only identifies the first four as "Vices of Conduct", obviously very serious, just like the 4 Defeats of the monk. A whole series of lesser bad practices (= bad habits?) then follows, starting with the six channels for dissipating wealth, the first of which is… guess what… "indulgence in intoxicants which cause… heedlessness". The separation of the Vices of Conduct and the other practices matches the pattern in the Vinaya of the 4 Defeats and 13 Practices requiring a communal meeting being in the class of Ethics and the many others minor rules being in the class of Good Habits.

Comparing the monk's discipline version of Ethics and Good Habits – far right hand column, with the discourses and the Five Precepts mentioned above we come up with this table:


This is just one sample of how applying the study method given by the Buddha for his teaching can help solve riddles in the texts and make the understanding of the path more practical, to help end suffering.

I have faith you will find that what I have written, does not attack fundamentals of the Buddha's teaching, though it might question some dogma of a particular school of Buddhism. It is easy to say "The Buddha did not teach dogma", but it is quite hard to identify one's dogma about the Buddha's teaching and give it up.

Kind Regards and Best Wishes
Darsa (Dhammadāsa) Bhikkhu


  1. It may be that the 37 items were inserted later in an attempt to emphasise them, but a comparison of the 37 items does show a mostly consistent pattern.
  2. It was also misapplied by Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna regarding the Noble Eightfold Path and the Three Trainings at M 44 : M i 299, but this has become accepted as dogma in Classical Theravada. This comparison distorts the gradual progression of the Three Trainings and the Gradual Training (M 70 : M i 479 ; M 56 : M i 379-80) in general. It confuses the theoretical knowledge of Right View at the beginning of the path with wisdom (the third Training), or Right Insight, at the end of the path (see the Tenfold Path - A 10.1-5 : A v 1-6).
  3. Note that it says "FAITH in the Triple Gem", not "TAKING REFUGE in the Triple Gem and that faith is the opposite of the second of the three fetters above.
  4. Having ethics naturally replaces, attachment to rites and rituals, the third of the three fetters above.
  5. These three are the principles I have extracted from the Buddha's clear definition of sexual misconduct for laypeople at M 114 : M iii 46-47.
  6. Note that in the original Pali of this text the questioner says "takes refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha", whereas the Buddha says "has faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha.
  7. In the Mangala Sutta, the Buddha says that "moderation in intoxicants is a higher blessing".
  8. The fifth is possibly replaced by 'not leading others into those four actions' which matches the Sigolavada Sutta, if we consider the lesser rules to be the definition of true friendship.

See also