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Ask a Buddhist: Who made the rules for Buddhists?

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By Ven. Thubten Semkye

Who made the rules for Buddhists? 

Thanks for your question. In Buddhism we endeavor to see the teachings of the Buddha as wise and compassionate advice on how to best keep our body, speech and mind positive and helpful in order to bring happiness to ourselves and the world.

The Buddha was an amazing being. Through his own experience, reflection and deep meditation he was able to observe the workings of the mind. He was therefore able to thoroughly understand what true dissatisfaction and suffering are, as well as their causes. He also recognized that all beings have the deep wish to have happiness and avoid suffering. And he saw that we are confused about to how to achieve these.

From his own powerful ability to see the actions and their results of himself and others, the Buddha clearly understood that happiness comes from virtuous positive actions and mental states, while all dissatisfaction arises from the results of harmful or non-virtuous mental states. This is the foundation of Buddha’s teaching on ethical conduct.

So the Buddhist “rules” are guidelines to help us live in harmony with others and create happiness for ourselves. At the very least, we try not to harm others. And as much as we can, we try to help.

The Buddha taught ethical conduct to everyone he met, encouraging them to see that destructive actions of body, speech and mind bring pain and discontent, and to refrain from doing them because they set up a whole cycle of future suffering. Similarly, he taught how wholesome actions of body, speech and mind bring peace, contentment and happiness.

The Buddha taught these ethical restraints because he had great confidence that living beings have the potential to fully actualize the very best parts of ourselves and that we can reduce and eliminate those actions that hinder our potential.

The Buddha did not make up “rules” or seek to impose his will on anybody. He offered his teachings freely, and encouraged everyone to put his advice through a test of reason and experience. Do these teachings really work to calm and transform the mind and heart when practiced in daily life? We must discover the answer through our own experience.

From our own examination we come to see that if we want to be truly happy in a way that isn’t buffeted by the surprises the world hands us, refraining from harm and growing our compassionate and wise minds and hearts will bring a positive result. To be able to walk in our lives with this deep trust in our own capacity to contribute to the peace and well-being of the world is such a gift to ourselves as well as others.

As one of my teachers is known to say,” What else is there to do? What better way to spend our time?” Truthfully, what is more worthwhile than to spend our lives letting go of the habits and ways of thinking and behaving that bring a myriad suffering experiences to ourselves and others? What is more worthwhile than to spend our lives transforming our minds into a minds of compassion, wisdom and courage that bring all good results now and in the future?

The Buddha taught that our world is completely interdependent and that what we do as individuals matters. The world depends on us and we depend on it. And while that has always been true, today we are more closely woven together with humans and all the other living beings like no other time in the history of our Earth.

We are so important to the peace of the world. What better reason to work on ourselves, to transform ourselves for that peace? We can become the cooperative causes for peace in our world. That is being part of something much bigger than ourselves. And the Buddha’s teachings on ethical conduct lay out the foundation and steps to help us achieve that end.

About Ven. Thubten Semkye

Ven. Thubten Semkye was Sravasti Abbey's first lay resident.
A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the four requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring 2004.
Although she didn’t originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. She became the Abbey’s third nun in 2007. See her ordination photos. In 2010 she received bhikshuni ordination at Miao Fa Chan Temple in Taiwan.
Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey’s forests and gardens.

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