The Great Standards
More than two and a half thousand years have passed since the Vinaya rules were originally set down by the Buddha, and many things have markedly changed since then. Should the rules be modernized and brought up to date? How can this be done?
Already during His lifetime, the Buddha made special allowances for different regions (or desa) outside the Middle Country of North India — where He lived and taught. These dealt with both the workings of the Community — for example, a smaller quorum for ordination is allowed in distant parts where there are fewer monks — and practical measures, such as special dispensation for footwear and bathing. (See EV,II,p.173) So there is a precedent for adapting to conditions, but this does not mean the abolishing of any rules [see End Note 6].
The Lord Buddha also left us a set of principles that can still be used as a standard to judge new circumstances. These are known as The Great Standards. Properly used they should protect against a wholesale dilution of the Rule.
This is how the Great Standards are formulated:
"Bhikkhus, whatever I have not objected to, saying, This is not allowable, if it fits in with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
"Whatever I have not objected to, saying, This is not allowable, if it fits in with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you.
"And whatever I have not permitted, saying, This is allowable, if it fits in with what is not allowable, if it goes against what is allowable, that is not allowable for you.
"And whatever I have not permitted, saying, This is allowable, if it fits in with what is allowable, if it goes against what is not allowable, that is allowable for you."
(BMC p.27; see also EV, II, p170)
Treated with care, these Great Standards should enable bhikkhus to live according to the Vinaya Rule in, for example, isolated communities in non Buddhist countries with non tropical climates. They form a touchstone for modern conditions and substances.
"Although the Vibha"nga and Khandhakas [of the original Paali texts] cover an enormous number of cases, they do not, of course, cover every possible contingency in the world; and from what we have seen of the way in which the Buddha formulated the rules — dealing with cases as they arose — there is reason to doubt that he himself wanted them to form an airtight system. As for cases that did not arise during his lifetime, he established... the Great Standards... — for judging cases not mentioned in the rules... " (BMC p.26)2.
See Vinaya in Theravada Temples in the United States for a modern sociological discussion of this point; while EV,I, pp.21-22 mentions the tendency to find ways around rules.