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Why are there so many and specific rules for Buddhist monastics—227 for males and even more for females?
Thank you for your question. To understand monastic guidelines, it’s helpful to put them in a historical context. During the Buddha’s lifetime there were many different spiritual traditions in India. It was common for spiritual practitioners of that time to leave the home life and wander the countryside, living simply, abiding in rules of conduct and deportment specific to their group, and meditating to gain spiritual realizations. They sought liberation and the end of suffering and believed such a lifestyle would hasten that attainment.
Those practitioners held different views and practiced different methods to achieve their spiritual goals. They respected each other while also challenging each other to philosophical debates in which the one defeated adopted the views and practices of the victor. Lay supporters provided food and other requisites for these groups of wandering renunciants.
Soon after the Buddha began to teach, he attracted a group of devoted followers who were inspired by his teachings and gentle lifestyle. Some of them wanted to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps and requested admission into his community of wandering practitioners. The Buddha admitted them by simply saying, “Come O bhiksu.” This is how the Buddhist monastic tradition began.
Only one guideline was uttered by the Buddha to his monastics during the first 12 years of the community’s existence: “Do not commit any non-virtuous actions, perform only perfect virtuous actions, subdue your mind completely, this is the teaching of the Buddha.” Subsequently, more specific guidelines or precepts were adopted in response to some misbehavior on the part of a monastic.
The order of fully ordained men, or bhiksus, was established first. Later, the order of fully ordained women, or bhikshunis, was formed. They had to follow most of monks’ precepts, as well as precepts that arose due to the misbehavior of a few individual nuns. However bhiksus do not follow the precepts that arose due to the poor conduct of the nuns.
Some of the precepts regard actions that all religions encourage its followers to abandon: killing, stealing, unwise and unkind sexual behavior, and lying. Buddhist monastics also do not take alcohol or recreational drugs. Other precepts concern the relationship with lay supporters, particularly those of the opposite sex. Precepts also regulate behavior towards fellow monastics and things such as personal possessions, robes, alms bowl and deportment.
The monastic precepts were established in a different culture and time period. Some Buddhist monastics choose to keep them literally, others adjust the details of how they follow the precepts to correspond with modern society. But, the purpose remains the same: to make us more mindful of our actions, words, and deeds so that we avoid harming others and do all we can to benefit them. To paraphrase His Holiness the Dalia Lama, “Although our external environment has changed over the centuries especially due to the impact of science and technology, our human minds remain pretty much the same. People from all cultures and all historical periods have the same fundamental wish to be happy and not suffer. They also have the same obscurations that impede attaining this—ignorance, anger and attachment. Therefore abiding in ethical conduct is as important now as it was twenty-six centuries ago when the Buddha was alive.”
As ordained Buddhist monastics, we voluntarily take the precepts because we want to train our minds in virtue. As nuns, having more precepts only makes us more aware and scrupulous in our actions. By practicing virtue and holding precepts that restrain actions of body, speech, and mind, Buddhist monastics contribute to their own and others’ peace and happiness.
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