IBC Initiative: Dialogue on Vinaya: A first in centuries

IBC Initiative: Dialogue on Vinaya: A first in centuries
February 28 10:52 2016 Print This Article

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At a two-day Dialogue on Vinaya  held on March 18-19, 2015, senior monks of the Nalanda tradition based in India, and high-ranking monks of the Theravada tradition from Sri Lanka discussed Vinaya, that includes guidelines, education and discipline within the various Buddhist traditions.

Organized by IBC, this historic occasion also included a meeting of the visiting Sri Lankan delegation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Practitioners of the faith belonging to both the traditions noted that this dialogue was taking place after hundreds of years.

The known ancient texts mention congregations of this kind during the Kushan period, where the teachings would come up for discussion. But further research is called for on  this matter. Vinaya or the rules or guidelines that the Buddha passed on to his disciples, evolved in different forms, in different schools of Buddhism, as it spread through the disciples to different parts of the world.

“Dialogues are imperative to iron out differences between different schools. Only when you talk to others, you understand them better and are able to work with them to create a better world… which is why we’re here to engage and learn from one another,” said Buddhist monks from both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions who met in New Delhi. At the dialogue, scholars explained their respective Vinaya sutras. It may be recalled that the first ever Buddhist council was held.

Ven. Prof. Kotapitiye Rahula Mahathero, Anunayaka of the Kotte chapter of the Siam Maha Nikaya speaks during the dialogue. Soon after Buddha’s parinirvana, under the patronage of King Ajatasatru. It was meant to preserve Buddha’s teachings and monastic rules for monks. Most historians agree that the last great Buddhist Council in ancient times was held in 644 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. Vinaya literally means education or discipline.

It is a framework of rules within which Buddhist monks live their lives and practise dharma. Eventually, these rules were written in different languages in canonical texts and were followed by Buddhists in different parts of the world, often in dissimilar ways. Sri Lankan Buddhists follow the Theravada vinaya preserved in Pali canon, while those following Nalanda tradition, also known as Sanskrit tradition and more popularly Tibetan Buddhism, follow the Mūlasarvāstivādavinaya canon conserved in Kangyur—words of the Buddha translated in Tibetan/Bhoti language. “Buddhists have one common goal and that is to serve humanity. If followers of Buddha come together they will be able to serve humanity in a much better way,” says Ven. Khen Rinpoche Jangchup Choeden  of the prestigious and ancient Gaden Shartse College in Karnataka, India.

He refers to similarities between the two Buddhist traditions in the way they follow vinaya. “Most vinaya rules are similar. For instance, in sanghadisesa or classification of the type of offences committed by monks there is mention that a monk cannot wrongly accuse another monk. Another similarity is that in aniyatas, (third level of offences) monks should abstain from sex. These are some of the common things,” says Khen Rinpoche. This dialogue between the two oldest Buddhist traditions have helped Theravadin Buddhists to understand their Nalanda brethren in a better way.

“There was a misconception that the Nalanda tradition practiced in Tibet and Mongolia does not have a proper vinaya. Theravadins felt distant from Mulasarvasvadins. However, after the dialogue, both sides understood that there are no major differences. Both have the same vinaya tradition taught  by the Buddha himself,” says Buddhist scholar Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche who also participated in this dialogue.

Such was the impact of the dialogue that after talking to each other over two days, many wondered on the need of having separate traditions  in Buddhism. Anunayaka and General Secretary of the Kotte chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Sri Lanka, Ven. Kotapittiye Rahula, strongly feels that there is no need for different traditions as they are all alike and follow the same Vinaya. “We are all followers of the historical Buddha, but after a few centuries, we went separate ways because of etiquette.

Today, we have to see why we were separated. There are not many differences between schools. Now we are discussing why we were not able to work together all this while,” he says. However, there are minor differences between the two traditions, which are mostly related to the climate in which each of these traditions blossomed. “Tibetan Buddhists wear thicker robes, which we cannot wear in tropical weather in Sri Lanka. We use a robe that is prescribed by the Buddha. Buddhists in the north have to wear shoes and socks because of cold weather that we don’t need to,” explains Ven. Rahula Thero. Besides dress code, there are other minor differences that Sri Lankan monk Ven. Indrasara Thera highlights — “We have one vinaya code, upsampada or higher ordination. After higher ordination, a practitioner becomes a full-fledged monk. In Mulasarvastivada, the monk has a khammavagacharya, or external advisor for high ordination.
We don’t have such teachers in our traditions,” he adds. Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists agree that differences can be sorted out for better coordination between the two Buddhist traditions and the dialogue should be extended to include Buddhists in different countries,

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