The Dangers of Being Attached to Rules:
The Story of Two Monks and a Naked Lady
A large number of Buddhist monks follow a code of conduct called the Vinaya code. Although there are various elucidations between Buddhist traditions of how to interpret the Vinaya code, some Buddhist monks – especially the younger and less experienced ones – follow this code with great rigour and can be quite intransigent when it comes to deviating from the rules.
One of the ‘rules’ in the Vinaya code relates to comportment towards the opposite sex. The Vinaya Pitaka is quite clear about this matter and the second Sanghadisesa rule states the following: “Should any bhikkhu, overcome by lust, with altered mind, engage in bodily contact with a woman, or in holding her hand, holding a lock of her hair, or caressing any of her limbs, it entails initial and subsequent meetings of the community”.
This is a fairly straightforward rule that is intended to prevent Buddhist practitioners – especially those that require and respond well to external discipline – from allowing desire and attachment to overpower the mind. However, it has unfortunately been taken to extremes by certain Buddhist traditions where it is forbidden for a monk to touch a woman or even receive something from a woman directly. For example, if a woman wishes to donate something to a monk in such a tradition (known as a Dana offering), it must not be handed to the monk directly but must be placed on a cloth on the floor from where the monk may then pick it up.
Today’s post recounts one of our favourite Buddhist stories about the dangers of being attached to rules and of being too linear in our thinking:
Two monks were making their way from one monastery to another. They had been practising meditation together for many years and were very good friends. In fact, not only were they close friends, but there was also a teacher-student relationship in place – one of the monks was much older and had been a monk since long before the other monk was even born. The journey was a long one and involved many days traveling on foot. As the two monks walked through the forests and countryside, they spent a great deal of time discussing various aspects of the Buddhist Suttas as well as the various Buddhist commentaries.
At a certain point in their journey, the monks heard the screams of a woman coming from a nearby river. They rushed to see what was happening and in the middle of the river they saw a naked woman who was drowning. The older monk swiftly threw off his robes, dived into the water, and rescued the woman. He brought the naked woman to the banks of the river and proceeded to cover her with his spare robes. After assuring himself that she was safe and well, the two monks continued with the second leg of their journey.
However, the second part of their journey was quite different than the first. The river incident had quite an influence on the younger monk who, for the rest of the journey, had a surly comportment and refused to even speak to the older monk.
A few days later, the monks arrived at their destination – a monastery they were going to be staying at for the next few months. At this point, the young monk started to ostracise the older monk and refused to even acknowledge his presence. The older monk was rather dismayed and worried about the comportment of his friend and so one day he confronted the younger monk saying: “Please, young sir, why have you changed? What have I done to warrant being treated in this manner? If I have said or done something that has hurt you then I am truly sorry and I must have done it mindlessly and certainly without intention”.
The young monk replied: “You are not a true monk – you have broken the rules of the Vinaya Pitaka and as such I may no longer be associated with you”.
The older monk was rather shocked to hear this and asked what rules had been broken. The younger monk replied: “Not only did you touch a woman but you touched a naked woman and gave her the robes of a monk”.
“How very true” replied the elder, “I saved the woman and carried her to the banks of the river, I made sure that she was warm and well and then I left her on the banks of the river. However, it would appear that you are still carrying her around on your shoulders! In all these years of so called practice of the Buddhist path, you have learned absolutely nothing. You cannot live without your rules and regulations – what a small and wasted life!”
We suppose the moral of this story is that rules can be very useful when they are utilised as tools, but when we allow those same rules to govern our lives and even to hold us back in our spiritual progress, then we really have to ask ourselves whether we are allowing ignorance to rule our lives.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon