Adapting the Precepts According to the Time and Locality

Originally, becoming a bhikkhu was a simple matter. You’d ask, and the reply was “ehi bhikkhu” – “come, bhikkhu” – and that was it. This is consistent with our understanding that upasampada, the rite by which one undertakes the spiritual life, of other sanghas was similar and consisted of merely going before the central figure and saying “I take you as my teacher.”

Somewhere along the line, either during the Buddha’s lifetime or after (I say the latter is more likely) upasampada became a huge complicated process and remains that way today.

Frankly, I am uncomfortable with the whole notion of “ordination” in Buddhism. The Buddha was not “ordained” and since he was not starting a religion, it is safe to assume that he had no interest in founding a “system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique” as one writer, David Brazier in The New Buddhism, has described it. Indeed, that is exactly the sort of thing that by all accounts the Buddha criticized in the Brahman system and to which he offered an alternative.

In the original 18 schools, there was some variation in the vinaya (rules) each followed. The Gobun-ritsu (Mahishasaka Vinaya), which is still extant, put forth the concept of zuiho bini, “adapting the precepts according to the time and locality.” Zuiho is short for zuiho-zuiji, which literally means ‘according’ (zuiho) ‘at any time or as occasion calls’ (zuiji), and bini is the Japanese transliteration of the Indian vinaya.

Painting of Saicho, the founder of Japanese Tendai

I recall reading years ago, probably in an SGI publication, that zuiho bini was one of the arguments Saicho used in his struggle to establish Mahayana ordination in Japan during the 9th century. I don’t know if this is accurate or not. Paul Groner’s book, Saicho, so far the definitive biography on the founder of the Tendai school, does not mention it. Although it’s not possible to have clear picture of Saicho’s entire rationale, I feel sure that it was partially based on an even more fundamental Buddhist concept, said to be taught by the Buddha himself: annica – impermanence – change.

If everything else in the universe is subject to change, then why not the rules and procedures under which Buddhists operate, why must these alone remain static, frozen in time, unchangeable.

And why should change not also include the formation of new institutions?

In Theravada, only fully ordained Bhikkhus can deliver discourses (bana) to the laity. However, there is no reason why Mahayana schools should follow Theravada in anything, and within Mahayana, there is no doctrinal reason that would prevent schools from instituting programs that would certify non-ordained persons to fulfill teacher roles. They do not have to “teachers”; they could be called guides or facilitators. In the Zen traditions, I know there are dharma teachers who are not ordained as priests, but I’m not clear on how that works. It’s definitely something that other Mahayana schools could adopt and all could work either collectively or individually to create more opportunities to develop more teachers.

Another solution is the idea of Buddhist “ministers.” That is the route that I took. Officially, I am a Buddhist minister, allowed to use the title of “Reverend” but not “Venerable” which would apply to a fully ordained Bhikkhu. I prefer, though, to use Dharma Teacher. The only real advantage to the Minister designation that I can see is that it does authorize one to conduct certain rites and ceremonies, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (such as marriage ceremonies).

There are a few programs for Buddhist Ministers in operation now, including one here in my area that has received some support from an entity called the Southern California Sangha Council, a so-called governing body that really has no authority outside of the Theravada tradition.

I participated in this program as a candidate. It was to be a year-long process, and it was a horrible experience, one that left a bitter taste in my mouth that remains today. There was no structure to the program, no training and sadly, they had no clue. Essentially, they were rubber-stamping individuals based on personality and securing for them an ordination that would be “legit” in the eyes of most Buddhists. Because I clashed with a couple of the strong personalities involved, and I might also say, because of some underhandedness on their part, I was rejected, for which I am eternally grateful.

Training programs must have substance. Otherwise, they’re worthless. And the ways in which training for dharma teachers and ministers can be approached is myriad.

In terms of working within an individual tradition, it would be nice to see the Ch’an/Zen traditions take a lead on this. Realistically, Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen (and perhaps Korean Zen) are the only schools that have a significant enough presence in the West to make any impact. The Nichiren and Tibetan schools are rather insular, and the latter is a bit too fractured, not to mention busy pulling itself into the modern age. Tendai and Shingon are even more closed-off and barely visable here in the US.

To give one example, I don’t know how many Zen centers there are in the US but I feel there must be quite a few. Why couldn’t each one offer a mentoring program to would-be dharma teachers and ministers even if it amounted a single priest or roshi offering individual, personal instruction based on a tradition-wide model? Other traditions could do the same. Eventually it could lead to more expansive and intensive programs.

It might be too much to expect various schools to work collectively in offering training programs, or to be concerned about practitioners outside of their own traditions. However, a few people could come together to form some sort of organization that would offer multi-traditional training, with “apprentice” programs or “student exchange” programs in which a person from one tradition could stay at a center or temple belonging to another tradition for a period of time to learn the practices and doctrines of those schools. Someday I hope to see dharma teachers and ministers with a working knowledge of more than one tradition who could run already existing temples and centers or start dharma/meditation groups that would serve a wide variety of Buddhist practitioners.

Western models for developing religious leaders, teachers and clergy are viable options, based on zuiho bini, which holds that as long as there is no violation of the main tenets and precepts, it is acceptable to adapt to the customs and practices of one’s locality.

You may ask how would it be possible for a layperson that has to earn a living, and perhaps has a family, to just take off and travel across the country to stay at temple for a few weeks or a month or longer, or relocate temporarily in another city to participate in a training program? Well the answer is that if a person has a desire to follow this path they should be willing to make some sacrifices and endure some hardships. As I wrote the other day, teaching is a form of practice. Becoming a teacher should not be a piece of cake.

When Saicho wanted to abandon the Ssu fen lu precepts and adopt the Fan wang precepts for Tendai ordinations, he had to obtain government approval. In the United States, there is no government oversight when it comes to religion. Anyone is free to start a religion, a sect, a domination, a religious school, and within these entities conduct their affairs as they see fit, especially in regards to the manner in which they ordain their clergy. This applies to Buddhism as well. Again, there is no central authority in Buddhism. And the general rule is that once a person is ordained, that ordination is retained whether one stays in the tradition he or she was ordained in or not, unless that tradition later nullifies the ordination. That being the case, there is nothing stopping anyone from leaving their tradition and starting a new one. Even if the ordination is nullified, there are ways to become ordained again.

So if you are an duly ordained Buddhist monk, priest or teacher, and you start a sect, found a school, or form a religious corporation, and you identity whatever it is as Buddhist, and then ordain others as Buddhist clergy, there is no one who has a right to say that it is not Buddhist all the way. You are legal, so to speak, both in secular terms and, as far as I feel, in Buddhist terms.

It is the “going rogue” approach and many may be fearful that it would result in a lack of credibility. Non-traditional ordinations are generally considered invalid. Even Saicho had to scramble to cover his bases and have his monks ordained with both set of precepts in order to maintain legitimacy for the Tendai school. I feel that was unnecessary then and it’s unnecessary now.

The Buddha is said to have refused to appoint a successor or lay down rules for lineages. He said, “Do not know them by their lineage, know them by their deeds.”

I like the non-sectarian approach. I think it is the wave of the future: new institutions for the purpose of providing quality training to teachers, but with a nod of respect to and an eye to preserving many of the traditional aspects. If the established schools gave recognition to these endeavors and even cooperated with them, I think it would be to everyone’s benefit.

The important thing is to maintain the spirit of the teachings, not the technicalities, which must change with time. The purpose of lineage, dharma transmissions, and ordinations as they stand now is essentially to make sure that a qualified person authorizes another qualified person to teach dharma. If that can be achieved in non-traditional ways, what is the harm? And if the spirit of transitioning from one life to another can be maintained when revamping the ordination process, why not?

And if the objection then is that it would lead to unscrupulous characters, fakirs and poseurs going around starting new Buddhist sects, well, that’s happening now, so what’s the difference?

Not all the obstacles are institutional, of course. There are the geographical and financial issues to be considered, how to conduct training and what that training should consist of, the question of vows and precepts, what sort of lifestyle lay teachers should maintain – a thousand and one other areas to be thought over and discussed. This is a vast and involved subject, and no doubt boring to most readers. I have barely scratched the surface, but I will wrap it up.

In China, there were periods when Buddhism was a dynamic and rather liberal movement. During these periods, which coincided with liberal governments, new sects were created, many of which we have never heard about. According to historian Kenneth Chen, in one dynasty there was a system of lay priests, most of whom were village priests, which, unfortunately, died out when the political climate became more repressive. During another period, lay women’s organizations took a leading role in Buddhist affairs. All this says that Buddhism has adapted to the times and the localities in its past, and if it had not, it never would have spread across Asia. And in the midst of adapting, somehow the core principles were preserved.

The only limitations we have are the ones in our own minds. Those involved in online sanghas are using their minds to come up with innovative ways to spread dharma in the modern age. I think it is time for the brick-and-mortar sanghas to do the same.

It is still morning for Buddhism in the west. Let’s seize the day.


2 thoughts on “Adapting the Precepts According to the Time and Locality

  1. I’ve been following your posts on rogues, reformers and hucksters with interest. Reflecting on it all, I find it surprising that Buddhism has flourished at all in the United States. The traditions are foreign to our rogue, huckster culture in so many ways.

    In the West, traditions only seem useful to the extent they bring the dharma to more people. Many are obstacles to that, and I can use myself as an example. As much as I would like to do a sesshin, I can’t bring myself to take meals oryoki style. I just prefer not to drink my dishwater. Sure, there’s no soap in the dishwater, but really, shouldn’t we wash those bowls with soap, and maybe some hot water?…

    If I understand it correctly, your idea of ordination within a tradition prior to going “rogue” sounds like a step in the right direction. You have written of your concern that Buddhism will be reduced to a self-help method, which is more or less what Genpo did when he went rogue, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing in general, IF it leads people to awakening. That is a very big “if,” but there are innumerable paths to enlightenment, and the self-help industry at least is firmly established part of American retail culture.

    No path should cost five grand, however, and any path to ordination within a tradition seems to require an intimidating financial sacrifice, basically to support the tradition. Perhaps there is no solution to that. You'[re right: Ordination shouldn’t be a piece of cake, and there should be standards. But clinging to tradition is still clinging, isn’t it? My thinking still gets muddled here. My personal preference would be to strip Buddhism down to its fundamentals, put aside the concept of lineage altogether, and put together a distinctly Western infrastructure. Not a new “tradition,” because tradition ossifies the teachings (opinion only), but an organic framework that can grow and change. I KNOW there are problems with this concept, starting with human nature, but that’s my dream.

    Here’s an interview with Thanissaro Bhikku on Western Buddhism, skillful means, and dharma as commodity:

    1. Will, you make some interesting points. Briefly I’ll just say that I feel some amount of secularization is good. Buddhism is therapy to some extent, it is self-help, psychology . . . I would just hate to see it become completely secular . . . and I’m not sure that I would want to put aside the concept of lineage altogether, I’m just saying that we should recognize that it has flaws and so we should loosen it up a little bit, incorporate some modern ideas . . . I feel that with some of these issues we have failed to find the chu-do, the middle way . . . I love many of the traditional elements of Buddhism, but at the same time I don’t feel like living in the past . . .

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