"If it is desired, Ananda, the Sangha may, when I am gone, abolish the lesser and minor rules"
I recently came across a short research paper published in the Journal of International Buddhist Studies that I think gives good insight into this question, and I wanted to share it and hear your opinions.
Here is the full paper, source at the bottom:
Before his passing away, the Buddha advised Ananda that the lesser and minor
rules could be abolished if the Sagha wishes. This idea is found in the Pali
Mahaparinibbana Sutta and Pali-vinaya (...). But, which rules
are considered as lesser and minor caused confusion after the Buddha died as Ananda
did not ask the Buddha to clarify it. So Mahakasyapa, who presided over the first council said:
"If we were to abolish the lesser and minor rules of training there would be those who
would say: 'At the time of his cremation a rule of training had been laid
down by the recluse Gotama for disciples; while the Teacher was amongst them these
trained themselves in the rules of training, but since the Teacher has attained nibbana
among them, they do not now train themselves in the rules of training.' If it seems
right to the Order, the Order should not lay down what has not been laid down, nor
should it abolish what has been laid down. It should proceed in conformity with and
according to the rules of training that have been laid down."
What Mahakasyapa said and did was right and good for that time and that society.
And this attitude towards the Vinaya rules continues till this day in Theravada
countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. However, the Northern tradition of
Mahayana established a rule named "Vlnaya in accordance with locality" which
allows flexibility in the observance of precepts. But we do not know when this rule
came into being. But this rule was already prevalent in eighth century in China as the
great Huayan School Master Chengguan (738--839) said, "As it is said in the
Hlnayana teaching 'it should not be allowed if it is considered as not practicable in
other localities although it has not been laid down by me. ' This is called 'Vinaya in
accordance with locality'. According to this rule, if a Vinaya rule, but not the
fundamental rules such as the five precepts, is not in conformity with a local tradition
and custom then that rule should be lifted and open up for practice. The rule was
established with the support of a passage found in the Mahisasaka-vinaya which reads thus :
The Buddha again told the bhikkus, "It should not be allowable if it is
considered not pure in other localities although it has been laid down by me [as
allowable]. On the other hand, it must be followed if it is considered as practicable in
other localities although it has not been laid down by me [as allowable].
The great Chinese master Daoxuan (596-667) who has been respected by all
Chinese Buddhists as an authority and specialist on Vlnaya from his life time used
precisely this passage as a support to establish a criterion tor certain rules either to be
enforced or alleviated according to the local custom and tradition in his S~renlU
shanfan buque xingshichao (Notes on Conduct: Abridgement.~· and Emendations to the
Dharmaguptaka-vinaya). This text is Daoxuan's most important work on the
monastic regulations and he attempted to provide a handbook for monastic practice
based on the Dharmaguptaka-vinaya. As Daoxuan's teaching spread to other East
Asian countries, his idea about Vlnaya, particularly the "Vlnaya in accordance with
locality" also spread and became influential till this day.
Here we can see that the Chinese Mahayana Buddhists grasped the spirit and
idea taught by the Buddha just before he died concerning the observance of lesser and
minor rules. The purpose of the Buddha's advice to abolish lesser and minor rules is
very clear: to allow flexibility in practice concerning Vinaya rules so that it would not
become an obstacle for the Sangha, the disseminator of his message to the world, in
the spread ofthe Dharma. Buddhism must be able to adapt to the changing situations
and environments in order to spread while still keeping its spirit and principle. This is
same to the Buddha's language policy when he advised his disciples "I allow you,
monks, to learn the speech ofthe Awakened One according to his own dialect." But he
did not allow his disciples to translate the Buddhavacana into the refined language of
Sanskrit. Hence, under such guiding principles, the ancient Chinese masters changed
many minor rules in practice in order to make Buddhism suit to the Chinese
environment because there were already highly developed thought systems and
tradition in China namely Confucianism and Daoism. Here, will give some examples
to illustrate what have been changed without violating the spirit and principles ofthe
First, concerning food, monks at the time of the Buddha obtained their food
mainly by begging, although they occasionally also accepted lay devotees' invitations
to eat at their homes. They begged for their food only once a day and were not
allowed to eat dinner and to store up food for the next day. But all these practices
stopped and changed when Buddhism spread to China, because Chinese people, as
taught by Confucian teaching, did not like the idea of begging and insisted on
working for a living. At the beginning, Chinese monks also practiced begging but they
were criticized by the Chinese people. So Chinese monks abandoned the practice of
begging and started to cook food themselves. As a result, the Chinese Chan Master
Daoyi (688-763) advocated "No work, no food". By the time of Tang dynasty (618-
907), Chinese monks already participated in different forms of work such as in the
cultivation of rice. Therefore they changed from begging food to cooking their own
food at monasteries, which was not allowed in the time ofthe Buddha.
Next, at the time ofthe Buddha, monks were not allowed to eat at night due to
various reasons as found in the Vinaya. Theravada Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka,
Thailand and Myanmar still practice the same thing up to this day. But, this rule was
changed in Mahayana countries such as China, Korea and Japan and monks eat
dinner. This is because monks in these countries do manual work more or less and
also the climate is cold. Therefore, food is necessary for survival, particularly during winter.
Furthermore, the Chinese monks today wear traditional Chinese cloth, not the
cloth wore by the Buddha and his disciples. According to Vinaya, monks are allowed
to wear utmost three robes of orange or yellow in colour, which is quite enough to
protect their health even during the winter in a tropical country like India. Therefore,
any monk who wears more than three robes is a violation ofthis rule. This practice is
still alive in tropical countries similar to India such as Sri Lanka, Thailand and
Myanmar. But, the colour of yellow was only for emperors in ancient China, other
people were strictly prohibited from using it. So Chinese monks changed their robe's
colour to black or grey and then, the climate in China is very much different from that
of India, quite cold during winter particularly in the north. Three thin robes are not
enough to protect their health, so the Chinese monks do not hesitate to put on thicker
cotton cloth in order to survive.
Still further, during the time of the Buddha monks were allowed to eat meat
provided it was pure in three respects: not heard, not seen and no suspicion. Although
Devadatta suggested that all the Buddha's disciples should be vegetarian for life, the
Buddha did not make it compulsory and left it for his disciples to choose. 16 Today,
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar still practice it in the same way.
But, Chinese monks have changed their way of eating and all become vegetarian.
Although this was due to the direct intervention of Emperor Wudi (464-549) of Liang
dynasty, but did he really have that power to change the Buddhist tradition? From an
historical point of view, this is closely connected with the Chinese traditional thought
The change of diet from meat to vegetarian by the Chinese Buddhist monks is
mainly influenced by the Confucian thought of compassion and the practice of filial
piety. For instance, the Menzi says: "When it comes to animals, if the gentle man has
seen them while alive, he cannot stand to watch them die. Ifhe hears their screams, he
cannot stand to eat their meat. Therefore he stays away from the kitchen."l7 This
shows the compassion of Confucian teaching towards animals. Second, according to
Confucian filial piety, when parents died their children should observe mourning for
three years, and during which period of time, they should abstain from eating meat
and wearing colourful cloth as a respect to their departed parents. Confucianism
influenced Buddhism very much on the practice of filial piety and as a result, many
monks and nuns such as Daoan (312-385) and Huiyuan (334-416) practiced
vegetarianism on personal basis before Emperor Wudi of Liang layed down the rule
of not eating meat.
The above examples show the changes with the Vinaya rules regarding to
food, ways of obtaining it, diet and robes. In fact, these kinds of change did not start
with the Chinese monks but from India. For instance, the Sarvastivadins used Sanskrit
as their scriptural language which was prohibited by the Buddha as discussed above.
The Mahayanists started to use mantras which were also prohibited by the Buddha.
All these changes did not affect the main teachings of Buddhism, the principles and
spirit, but just changes in formalities in order to spread the Dharma and adapt to the
new situation. When Buddhism was introduced into China, Confucian thought was
the major ideology. Therefore, Chinese monks have made many changes in practice in
order to adapt to the climate, custom, environment as well as Chinese mentality. But
all these changes are made in accordance with the principle of the Buddha's advice to
"abolish the lesser and minor rules".
Mahakasyapa accused Ananda of being guilty of wrong doing by not asking
the Buddha to clarify what the lesser and minor rules were before he died. However,
my understanding and interpretation of the Buddha's last advice on this matter is as
follows. The Buddha's advice to "abolish the lesser and minor rules if monks agree"
is just a principle concerning the practice of the Vinaya and it does not mean exactly
which rules are. Thus, it is flexible for change according to the situation, time, climate
and geographical areas. The purpose of the Buddha is to allow monks to have some
freedom in practice when they spread the Dharma and not to be too much restricted
by certain minor rules. So "the lesser and minor rules" can not be ascertained because
if it is fIxed and abolished then there is no room for change any more and the Vinaya
becomes dogma again. Therefore, the Buddha did not point out what the "lesser and
minor rules" are and left it for future monks to decide when occasions arise. This is
quite wise advice for the benefit of the monks and for the spread of the Dharma.
From the above discussion, we can come to a possible conclusion that the
Buddha did not want his disciples to take the Vinaya rules as something dogmatic,
particularly the lesser and minor rules. On the contrary, the Buddha wanted future
monks to have some freedom in the practice of the Vinaya when they disseminate the Dharma,
which is the most important for the liberation of suffering sentient beings.
- Assist. Prof. Ven. Guan Xing
Source: http://www.academia.edu/3484987/The_que ... inor_rules