Grey Areas of the Vinaya

In his response to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter, Ajahn Brahm chooses not to lock horns with the analysis. Instead he steps back and points out that the issue in question is one where more than one opinion can hold. “Grey areas of the Vinaya” is the term he uses. He proposes that when we find ourselves with more than one legal interpretation to follow, best to follow the more compassionate ones.

The Vinaya Rules and the Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination

The recent argument by the respected monk and scholar, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, suggests that the recent bhikkhuni ordination in Perth was invalid on the basis of Vinaya (the monastic legal code). While I admire his scholarship and dedication to Buddhism in the West, there are grounds for looking at the matter in a different way.

The length and complexity of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s paper demonstrates that it is a difficult argument to prove. Any argument that is based on the principle of comparing authoritative statements on the Vinaya by the Buddha, and teasing out their meaning, will always be ambiguous. Inferences can travel alternative paths and lead to very different conclusions.

For example, bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 gives a pacittiya to a female preceptor who ordains more than one bhikkhuni per year and a dukkata to the other nuns who participate in the ceremony. Conspicuous by its absence, in both the Pitaka and the commentary, is any statement that those thus ordained are not valid bhikkhunis. This can be compared to the monks’ pacittiya 65 that gives a pacittiya to a male preceptor who ordains someone underage, a dukkata to the monks who participate in the ceremony, and there is a statement that the ordination is invalid. One can infer, from comparing these two rules, that if the Buddha had intended a breach of bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 to make the ordination invalid, then he would have stated so.

About thirty years ago, I coined the term “grey areas of Vinaya”. The question posed by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “is a sanghakamma invalid when one of the participants knows that a rule is being broken” – is a nice legal point, but clearly qualifies as a grey area of Vinaya. It has become wise practise for the Sangha, when faced with grey areas of Vinaya, to follow the more compassionate interpretation. The respected Thai scholar Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto), stated to me that “the knowledge and observance of the principles, esp., of the Vinaya rules should be as complete as possible on the one hand, and the matter should be treated with as best Metta and compassion (sic.) as possible on the other. Decision should be made by the Sangha that is best informed and compassionate.” Such is especially advisable in the current case where the reason for the original pacittiya offense, a temporary situation of crowding in the Bhikkhuni Monastery close to the Jeta Grove, hardly applies in present times.

So, may the fourfold assembly recognise this as a grey area of Vinaya and choose the more compassionate path.

Ajahn Brahm
Monday, 23rd November 2009

Many thanks to Sobhana Bhikkhuni for sharing.