Buddhist Monk's Rules

I'm really interested in the classic philosophical question "how should we live". We all already have a set of answers to that implanted in our heads, though for most of us those answers are invisible, assumed to be "normal". Often the answers to these questions that we have, those given to us by our culture and our own conclusions are confused and at odds with themselves. Their relative invisibility makes them even harder to work with.

Anthropology is one place where we can look at other sets of rules that are similar, but we can also look at designed cultural systems for intentional closed communities. These are often easier to parse, and easier to understand. From cults to sailing ships most intentionally designed cultures of this sort have nice explicit rules, and often by looking carefully at them, we can suss out some of the why's.

Today I want to look at Buddhism, in particular, the rules for being a Buddhist monk.
I'm going to focus on a specific set of Theravada Buddhist rules, the Patimokkh, which it seems have remained nearly unchanged since the death of the Buddha.

The list can be found here: Patimokkh
In addition there are 8 core rules called the Eight Precepts. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Precepts#Eight_Precepts which are even more central. Lets pick through them quickly.

The 8 precepts are:

1) I undertake to abstain from causing harm and taking life (both human and non-human).
2) I undertake to abstain from taking what is not given (for example stealing, displacements that may cause misunderstandings).
3) I undertake to abstain from sexual activity.
4) I undertake to abstain from wrong speech: telling lies, deceiving others, manipulating others, using hurtful words.
5)I undertake to abstain from using intoxicating drinks and drugs, which lead to carelessness.

These first five should be pretty familiar, they closely resemble the core 5 ethical rules of buddhism. One could think of these as the buddhist "10 commandments", but there are only five of them.

The big change is that #3 went from "I will abstain from sexual misconduct" to "I will be celibate". I find it really interesting how many institutions require celibacy from their members, that's something I want to investigate further in another post.

6) I undertake to abstain from eating at the wrong time (the right time is after sunrise, before noon).
This is something that I have not seen in any other designed societies. Though many strenuous religious practices, and most designed societies practice some sort of food controls (often fasting), this pattern seems to be unique. The commonly sited reason is because collecting alms at night is thought to be dangerous:

"when monks were walking for alms food in the dense darkness o the night, they would walk into a pond at the village entrance, or they would stumble into the village cesspool, or they would blunder into a thorny hedge or stumble into a sleeping cow, and they would meet young men up to no good and wanton women"

On a personal level I have noted that it tends to be easier to meditate on an empty stomach. This may have been focused on generating a larger window of the day for uninterrupted practice. It is also the position of ayurvedic medicine that digestion is better in the morning. There is also seem to be general health advantages to this pattern, now going under the name "intermittent fasting" [[ http://becomingeden.com/the-quickstart-guide-to-fasting/ ]]

7) I undertake to abstain from singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfume, and using cosmetics and garlands (decorative accessories).
This is a particularly powerful (set of) rule as far as society design goes. There is a lot going on here, I'm going to try to unpack a few bits as I see them.

By abstaining from all forms of entertainment, one is left with no way to distract themselves from life as it is. I believe that this has profound effects on ones psychological experience of meaning. In particular, I think that some parts of our experimental apparatus are anesthetized by having so much entertainment exposure. In the same way that fasting improves the taste of all food, fasting from entertainment improves entertainment value of all experience.

Additionally many of these rules seem to to be focused on the job of keeping monks from doing things other than meditating. We don't want monks wasting time on arts that are not spiritually focused, and we don't want monks to become performers.

The rules against perfume, cosmetics, and garlands also help prevent distraction traps: we are supposed to be meditating, not self beautifying. Further, it helps prevent the monks from completing with each other in matters of appearance. Each of these things might contribute to inflaming jealousy. Unmentioned here is the fact that all monks also have the exact same clothing.

8) I undertake to abstain from luxurious places for sitting or sleeping, and overindulging in sleep.

This final pair of rules serves multiple purposes. Leaving off luxurious sitting and sleeping areas prevents any competition for such areas. In addition, there is an implicit bit of what amounts to a "vow of poverty" here. No nice beds is one fewer thing to grow attached to, and one fewer thing to potentially attract thieves.

The rule regarding overindulgence in sleep is once again to keep the monks focused on their primary business: meditation. I can assure you that during my own brief 10 days following these rules, sleep was a blessed escape, and I can see where one might reach for it.

Now lets get into the 227 rules proper. (There are an extra 84 rules for nuns, most of which are focused on protecting them from other monks, as in "you may not do a monks laundry", or keeping them physically safe, as in "you may not walk alone in the woods". There are 8 rules for nuns that don't seem to fit this pattern called the "8 heavy rules", but that is a topic for it's own blog post, focused on gender issues in communities)

I tend to see a few underlying patterns in the rules, sort of end goals that most of the rules seem to re-enforce. These are, in no particular order:

  • A) Your a monk not a . Get back to meditating
  • B) Don't do anything that will make people want to bother you, don't have anything worth stealing. Be beyond public reproach and even beyond suspicion. This includes anything that gives monks a bad name.
  • C) The teachings are sacred, when you are teaching no one has higher status than you
  • D) Remain ethical, give others a chance to be generous, re-enforce their generosity
  • E) Don't cause jealousy, trouble, or conflict within the community of monks. Don't abuse the nuns, they are not your servants.

Rules with the penalty of defrocking

There are four of which contain an immediate and permanent defrocking.

1) Sexual intercourse: engaging in any sexual intercourse.
Many things here are reiterations. It should be noticed that detailed commentary specifically does not include being the victim of rape here. The catholic church would be in a much better position if they had taken this hard line stance.
This can also be seen as part of principal A: "Your a monk, not householder".

2) Stealing: the robbery of anything worth more than 1/24 troy ounce of gold (as determined by local law).
Again a reiteration of ethics, and part of principal B & D. 1/24 oz gold is about $55 US as of 2017. So if you steal a pen, that won't get you defrocked, but it still doesn't take that much.

3) Intentionally bringing about the death of a human being — whether by killing the person, arranging for an assassin to kill the person, inciting the person to die, or describing the advantages of death.
Another Reiteration and part of principal B & D, and a pretty reasonable rule. No Murder, ever. It is also interesting to note that this includes persuasion to suicide.

4) Deliberately lying to another person that one has attained a superior human state, such as claiming to be enlightened when one knows one is not.
This also seems to be deeply intwined with principal A & D.

The main focus of *being* a buddhist monk is to attain a permanent altered state of consciousness. This is both the only real form of internal hierarchy, so in one sense this is like "impersonating an officer". Further there are real risks that one will mislead others accidentally based in this primary effort by doing this, so it actually undermines the primary purpose of the community.

Rules with the penalty of suspension

To cherry pick a few of the more interesting rules from the next category of 13 rules that require probation, and a council of any 20 full monks to re-instate them:
1) Masturbation or any sort of intentional ejacualtion.
Wow, the no sexual release thing is really energetically enforced. The frequency that this comes up with across so many spiritual traditions makes me want to dig into it more. but for now we are just going to pass this by.

5) Arranging for a date, affair, or marriage between a man and woman.
This falls under principle B. If you start playing matchmaker, there is a good chance your going to get someone really angry at you. That can bring trouble and distraction down on the whole community.

6) Building a hut without permission from the sangha, or building a hut that exceed 3 x 1.75 meters in size
This is principle E: don't just go placing huts where you want without getting community consensus. This is also some principal B: Don't have a house that's nice enough someone might want to steal it.

10) Agitating for a schism, even after having been rebuked three times
11) Supporting an agitator, even after he was rebuked three times (only applies if there are fewer than four supporters)

This is fascinating, the indication here is that it totally *is* reasonable to agitate for a schism, your allowed to be a little schismatic. What is NOT allowed is to try it constantly. This is principle E at work, but it's surprisingly subtle. It allows for change, but limits trouble for troubles sake.

Rules with the penalty of confession and forfeiture

There are 30 rules which carry the punishment "confession and forfeiture", where basically you have something you got the wrong way, and now you have to give it back. Some of these are quite interesting:

4) Getting an unrelated bhikkhuni (nun) to wash your robes for you
The nuns are not your laundry service.

8) Accepting a robe from a lay person after telling them that their robe is too cheap for you.
This is a lot of things rolled up into one. The robes are supposed to be something that no one would want, they are there to keep you clothed, and not to generate status, as per principle B. Further, as part of principal D, your going to be offending an attempt at generosity. Possibly stirring up trouble for the monks.

18) Accepting gold or money, or telling someone how to donate it. If money is placed in a bhikkhu's (monk's) presence he may not recognize it as his nor tell someone else to take care of it for him. Bhikkhus often have stewards who will take care of donations, but the stewards are always free to take the money and leave.

This is pretty huge as a rule. Principle A (Your a monk not a merchant) and Principle B (money is inherently worth stealing) It also keeps all sorts of wiggly things from happening. What *is* a little surprising is that monks can have stewards. This leaves all sorts of weird things as possible outcomes of a larger monastic culture.

Rules with the penalty of confession

There are 92 little rules, ones that require "confession" to any other monk. These can be taken as the rules that are supposed to establish norms. Below I pick at some that I find interesting.

5) Should any bhikkhu lie down together (in the same dwelling) with an unordained person for more than two or three consecutive nights, it is to be confessed.
See Principle A) Your a monk, you live with monks, or you wander. You don't live with the normals.

7) Should any bhikkhu teach more than five or six sentences of Dhamma (buddhist doctrine) to a woman, unless a knowledgeable man is present, it is to be confessed.

This is one of those messy ones. It's pretty overtly sexist, but I also see it as being part of Principle B: When the society views women as property, trying to convert one is something that quite possibly could bring hostility on the monk, and the whole monistary.

8) Should any bhikkhu report (his own) superior human state, when it is factual, to an unordained person, it is to be confessed.
I'm sort of struggling to understand this one. My basic thought is that it is part of Principal B: Don't say your better than people, because that might piss them off.
This is also very interesting because it implies that someone who is ascended can make mistakes. Even for someone in nirvana there is no "infallibility".

10) Should any bhikkhu dig soil or have it dug, it is to be confessed.
Principle A: Your a monk, not a Farmer. It is also possible that there is a serious concern about accidentally killing insects. ( as with "no using water with living things in it)

40) Should any bhikkhu take into his mouth an edible that has not been given, except for water and tooth-cleaning sticks, it is to be confessed.
Perhaps the most intense level of "vow of poverty" I can think of. Basically a monk can only eat by begging. This covers a lot of ground, Principal A:Your a monk, stop worrying about food, Principal B: Food can be valuable. It also provides for Principal D: give people a chance to be generous.

There are some deep and complicated interactions between this rule, and the "no eating after mid-day" rule that I haven't quite sussed out. This rule is essentially the reason given for one of the 8 core morality rules, which seems oddly cart-before-the-horse to me. This rule also seems to carry the risk that the monks would be seen as paracitic, something that would generally operate in opposition to Principal B. In general, it seems to me that this is one of the pivotal rules for being a monk. The effects it would have on the formation of a society, and on the formation of personality seem like they would be extremely dramatic.

50) If a bhikkhu staying two or three nights with an army should go to a battlefield, a roll call, the troops in battle formation, or to see a review of the (battle) units, it is to be confessed.
See Principal A: your a monk not a soldier. Further more Principals B & D come into play. You don't want to be seen as military aligned, and you don't want to condone violence.

51) The drinking of alcohol or fermented liquor is to be confessed.
Interestingly, even thought "no alcohol" is right up there in the five universal principals of ethics, it seems to be considered a pretty minor offense. In general, one gets the sensation that the no intoxicants rule only just barely made the ethics list. The primary concern with intoxicants seems to be that while intoxicated you might break *other* ethics rules, not that they are bad in themselves. (They also would seem to break the "entertainment" rule for monks)

53) The act of playing in the water is to be confessed.
One of those ones I'm really quite confused about. This seems to be something falling into Principal A: Your a monk, get back to meditating. That means no playing. This may also touch on Principal E: horsing around may lead to community discord.
One can also see where this might interact with Principal C: "Act Dignified".

57) Should any bhikkhu bathe at intervals of less than half a month, except at the proper occasions, it is to be confessed. Here the proper occasions ...
Some of the acetic principals from this period in india may be bound into this rule. One other possible distinction is between "bathing" and "washing". There is no such distinction in the west, but in some places in the world bathing is something a little more like hot-tubbing. It is unclear to me if this is what was meant within the context.

66) Should any bhikkhu knowingly and by arrangement travel together with a caravan of thieves, even for the interval between one village and the next, it is to be confessed.

Clearly part of Principal B) if you associate with thieves, you are are bound to get tarred by the same brush. This also prevents them from using monks as cover.

68) Should any bhikkhu say the following: "As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, those acts the Blessed One says are obstructive, when indulged in are not genuine obstructions,"...
This is a really interesting one. Basically this is the statement of Dogma: you don't get to dismiss any part of the teachings just because you think you know better. It is sort of an "integrity check rule". It's longer than what I cited here, and a little more complicated, leaving some room for discussion.

Rules without the penalty

Finally There are 75 rules that are about comportment. These are basically "manners for monks". They are closer to strong suggestions than rules, and most of them seem to be concerned with being polite. Most of them are like this:

• I will properly restrain the movements of hands and feet when sitting in inhabited areas.
• I will not speak loudly when sitting in inhabited areas.
• When food is still in my mouth, I will not speak.
• I will not eat licking my hands.
• I will not eat (or drink) making a sucking sound.

It's pretty close to the rules we try to give kids when we are teaching them to behave like adults.

More interesting are several rules about who you may not teach to, including:

4) I will not teach to one who has a weapon in his hand.
Monks do not condone violence. If anything comes away from this whole exercise it is "put down your weapons".

13) I will not teach to one who is sitting on a high seat while I am sitting on a low seat.
16) I will not teach to one who is walking on a pathway while I am walking beside the pathway.
This seems to be a pretty powerful thing. When a monk is teaching none outrank them. The teachings themselves are elevated to high rank. I see a lot of value in this concept.

There is also the oh-so-puzzling:
6) I will not teach to one who is wearing shoes.
This seems like it would be tied up with the respect patterns, but seems to imply that the Dhamma should only be taught indoors. It also seems to fly in the face of rule #16 above. If you can teach to people walking with you, it seems reasonable to allow them to wear shoes.

Offences that I'm surprised have the same penalty

One thing I always like doing is getting a feel for "things that have the same punishment" that surprise me.

For instance, Murder and Theft of $55+ seem to be placed in a similar category (expulsion). This is a little less telling because that is the maximum penalty.

Similarly: Digging earth is placed in the same category as striking another monk. (confession)

In some cases things may be placed in a similar category that seem very very different because of how hard they are to avoid (For instance, tempers rise and people get into fights, it's part of human nature. Few however are overcome with a wild impulse to dig) or because of the way they are intended to shape the community: A high penalty on digging may correlate to a perceived high temptation for a monastery to turn into a farm.

So where is all of this going?

I'm hoping to pick apart a few few other high-functioning designed communities, as well as some that seem as if they are very dysfunctional, and start to build a framework for _how_ to design a community. I'll definitely be taking a look at the issue of cults, as well as communities that are joined because of coercion ( prison, rehab programs, military drafts, nursing homes )

The only real two options for community *intentionally designed communities* and *unintentionally designed communities*. It seems like a stronger understanding of how to design a community would be a valuable thing. Additionally, with a better understanding of what makes a healthy community, one gains more insight into the option of entering and exiting them. The idea of intentional mobility between communities is a powerful one.

I'm excited about exploring this topic, as a facet of the question that obsesses me: "how should we live?" Mostly I have explored that question with regards to personal choice, but I think that community choices regarding this may yield wonderful new insights.