Following Rules: What’s the Point?
Yesterday, in Vinaya class, we were talking about how we relate to rules. As monastics, we have so many rules that are a part of our lifestyle. There are countless rules that define the way we live and the way we do things. It’s interesting to see how Western monks like us often relate to the rules in a fearful way. There’s a sense of all these different rules in place, and we’re trying to control and force ourselves to live within these different constraints. It can be daunting.
We’ve heard from various teachers that following rules is not an end in itself. Ajahn Sumedho speaks about Ajahn Chah as being a monk who was very scrupulous with the Vinaya rules, but who didn’t look or act like a limited person. Certainly when I listen to Ajahn Chah’s Dhamma teachings, they have a vitality that’s incredibly fresh and vibrant. This seems related to how he followed the monastic discipline and rules while not being attached to those rules. For ourselves, however, we need to be careful and discerning in this particular area of non-attachment.
We often hear the phrase, “Don’t get attached to rules.” I remember when I first came across Buddhism, I found teachers who weren’t “attached to rules” and sometimes ended up making a real mess out of their lives. It seemed their disciples suffered in many ways as well, because of this confused relationship with following a moral discipline. As a result of witnessing that, whenever I hear the phrase, “Don’t be attached to rules,” a red flag goes up for me, as well as a bit of fear. It’s important to recognize the potential for self-deception or self-delusion when we take on this attitude and say to ourselves, I’m not going to be attached to the rules. We want to be cautious about this kind of attitude because it can easily slip into following or not following some moral guideline simply based on our likes or dislikes. We can then throw out the rules we don’t like anytime we feel they’re getting in the way of satisfying a particular craving we have or avoiding some aversion. We go ahead and do as we please, regardless of the consequences it may have for us or others, based on the excuse, I’m not attached to these rules.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that we’re here to be free from suffering. Although these guidelines help us, we’re not here to live by a bunch of rules that are going to force us into conforming, keeping us nice and safe, or making us so bland that we don’t have any problems. That’s not the Buddha’s path to freedom. The Buddha’s path is to find contentment within limitations. We have limitations, forms, and practices that serve as containers: the rules and standards of the Vinaya. These aren’t conventions that we have to feel limited or constrained by. We can learn to relax around them, finding a sense of inner contentment as we follow them and keep them in mind.
We can start by approaching the present moment with a mind-set of self-acceptance, freedom, and contentment—a paradigm with which we don’t have to be defined by rules or anything else. From that mind-set, we can see that all these rules we’re living by are simply conventions. They don’t have any ultimate reality that has to define us. If we can see that, contemplate that, and have a sense of expansiveness and openness around these conventions, then perhaps we can experience contentment within limitation. We can be free of the sense of constraint while living within constraint. We don’t have to be held down by these rules and structures because a feeling of real freedom is present within us. In that freedom, quite spontaneously, we might think, It’s not a problem to keep to these rules. This is quite all right. I’m very happy eating one meal a day. I don’t mind wearing these robes like everyone else here, and being celibate is beneficial for my practice and my mind.
This mind-set is quite different from feeling that we need to tightly control our behavior and constantly look around to see if anyone has spotted us making a mistake. When we have that sort of attitude, it can feel like there’s no room to breathe. We might be able to live like this for a while, but I’m not convinced it’s sustainable. It’s a balancing act, and it can be quite tricky. We need to learn how to reflect on all this in a skillful way, recognizing the capacity for self-deception in the area of non-attachment to rules. Then again, we need to recognize that we haven’t taken up the monastic life merely to perfect a litany of codes and standards. It’s not about standards. That’s not the point. It’s about learning to find contentment within the context of conventions.
There may be a danger that what I’ve said this morning will be misunderstood. Do not think I’m suggesting that the rules should be tossed out or not respected. I’m simply offering these reflections for contemplation. How can we loosen our tight grip on the rules, while at the same time continuing to follow them, understanding that they are an essential part of the monastic path? Contemplating in this way takes intelligence and ingenuity, plus circumspection, to ensure that our reflections bring positive results that enrich and enliven our practice.
This reflection by Ajahn Yatiko is from Beginning Our Day, Volume One.