Food for the Heart

by Ajahn Chah | 1992 | 51,134 words

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Chapter 2 - Understanding Vinaya

This practice of ours is not easy. We may know some things but there is still much that we dont know. For example, when we hear teachings such as "know the body, then know the mind within the body"; or "know the mind, then know the mind within the mind." If we havent yet practiced these things, then we hear them we may feel baffled. The Vinaya [1] is like this. In the past I used to be a teacher, [2] but I was only a "small teacher," not a big one. Why do I say a "small teacher"? Because I didnt practice. I taught the Vinaya but I didnt practice it. This I call a small teacher, an inferior teacher. I say an "inferior teacher" because when it came to the practice I was deficient. For the most part my practice was a long way off the theory, just as if I hadnt learned the Vinaya at all.

However, I would like to state that in practical terms its impossible to know the Vinaya completely, because some things, whether we know them or not, are still offenses. This is tricky. And yet it is stressed that if we do not yet understand any particular training rule or teaching, we must study that rule with enthusiasm and respect. If we dont know, then we should make an effort to learn. If we dont make an effort, that is in itself an offense.

For example, if you doubt... suppose there is a woman and, not knowing whether she is a woman or a man, you touch her. [3] Youre not sure, but still go ahead and touch... thats still wrong. I used to wonder why that should be wrong, but when I considered the practice, I realized that a meditator must have sati, he must be circumspect. Whether talking, touching or holding things, he must first thoroughly consider. The error in this case is that there is no sati, or insufficient sati, or a lack of concern at that time.

Take another example: its only eleven oclock in the morning but at the time the sky is cloudy, we cant see the sun, and we have no clock. Now suppose we estimate that its probably afternoon... we really feel that its afternoon... and yet we proceed to eat something. We start eating and then the clouds part and we see from the position of the sun that its only just past eleven. This is still an offense. [4] I used to wonder, "Eh? Its not yet past mid day, why is this an offense?"

An offense is incurred here because of negligence, carelessness, we dont thoroughly consider. There is a lack of restraint. If there is doubt and we act on the doubt, there is a dukkata [5] offense just for acting in the face of the doubt. We think that it is afternoon when in fact it isnt. The act of eating is not wrong in itself, but there is an offense here because we are careless and negligent. If it really is afternoon but we think it isnt, then its the heavier pacittiya offense. If we act with doubt, whether the action is wrong or not, we still incur an offense. If the action is not wrong in itself it is the lesser offense; if it is wrong then the heavier offense is incurred. Therefore the Vinaya can get quite bewildering.

At one time I went to see Venerable Ajahn Mun. [6] At that time I had just begun to practice. I had read the Pubbasikkha [7] and could understand that fairly well. Then I went on to read the Visuddhimagga, where the author writes of the Silanidesa (Book of Precepts), Samadhinidesa (Book of Mind Training) and Pannanidesa (Book of Understanding)... I felt my head was going to burst! After reading that, I felt that it was beyond the ability of a human being to practice. But then I reflected that the Buddha would not teach something that is impossible to practice. He wouldnt teach it and he wouldnt declare it, because those things would be useful neither to himself nor to others. The Silanidesa is extremely meticulous, the Samadhinidesa more so, and the Pannanidesa even more so! I sat and thought, "Well, I cant go any further. Theres no way ahead." It was as if Id reached a dead end.

At this stage I was struggling with my practice... I was stuck. It so happened that I had a chance to go and see Venerable Ajahn Mun, so I asked him: "Venerable Ajahn, what am I to do? Ive just begun to practice but I still dont know the right way. I have so many doubts I cant find any foundation at all in the practice."

He asked, "Whats the problem?"

"In the course of my practice I picked up the Visuddhimagga and read it, but it seems impossible to put into practice. The contents of the Silanidesa, Samadhinidesa and Pannanidesa seem to be completely impractical. I dont think there is anybody in the world who could do it, its so detailed and meticulous. To memorize every single rule would be impossible, its beyond me."

He said to me: "Venerable... theres a lot, its true, but its really only a little. If we were to take account of every training rule in the Silanidesa that would be difficult... true... But actually, what we call the Silanidesa has evolved from the human mind. If we train this mind to have a sense of shame and a fear of wrong doing, we will then be restrained, we will be cautious...

"This will condition us to be content with little, with few wishes, because we cant possibly look after a lot. When this happens our sati becomes stronger. We will be able to maintain sati at all times. Wherever we are we will make the effort to maintain thorough sati. Caution will be developed. Whatever you doubt dont say it, dont act on it. If theres anything you dont understand, ask the teacher. Trying to practice every single training rule would indeed be burdensome, but we should examine whether we are prepared to admit our faults or not. Do we accept them?"

This teaching is very important. Its not so much that we must know every single training rule, if we know how to train our own minds.

"All that stuff that youve been reading arises from the mind. If you still havent trained your mind to have sensitivity and clarity you will be doubting all the time. You should try to bring the teachings of the Buddha into your mind. Be composed in mind. Whatever arises that you doubt, just give it up. If you dont really know for sure then dont say it or do it. For instance, if you wonder, "Is this wrong or not?" — that is, youre not really sure — then dont say it, dont act on it, dont discard your restraint."

As I sat and listened, I reflected that this teaching conformed with the eight ways for measuring the true teaching of the Buddha: Any teaching that speaks of the diminishing of defilements; which leads out of suffering; which speaks of renunciation (of sensual pleasures); of contentment with little; of humility and disinterest in rank and status; of aloofness and seclusion; of diligent effort; of being easy to maintain... these eight qualities are characteristics of the true Dhamma vinaya, the teaching of the Buddha. anything in contradiction to these is not.

"If we are genuinely sincere we will have a sense of shame and a fear of wrongdoing. We will know that if there is doubt in our mind we will not act on it nor speak on it. The Silanidesa is only words. For example, hiri ottappa [8] in the books is one thing, but in our minds it is another."

Studying the Vinaya with Venerable Ajahn Mun I learned many things. As I sat and listened, understanding arose.

So, when it comes to the Vinaya Ive studied considerably. Some days during the Rains Retreat I would study from six oclock in the evening through till dawn. I understand it sufficiently. All the factors of apatti [9] which are covered in the Pubbasikkha I wrote down in a notebook and kept in my bag. I really put effort into it, but in later times I gradually let go. It was too much. I didnt know which was the essence and which was the trimming, I had just taken all of it. When I understood more fully I let it drop off because it was too heavy. I just put my attention into my own mind and gradually did away with the texts.

However, when I teach the monks here I still take the Pubbasikkha as my standard. For many years here at Wat Ba Pong it was I myself who read it to the assembly. In those days I would ascend the Dhamma seat and go on until at least eleven oclock or midnight, some days even one or two oclock in the morning. We were interested. And we trained. After listening to the Vinaya reading we would go and consider what wed heard. You cant really understand the Vinaya just by listening to it. Having listened to it you must examine it and delve into it further.

Even though I studied these things for many years my knowledge was still not complete, because there were so many ambiguities in the texts. Now that its been such a long time since I looked at the books, my memory of the various training rules has faded somewhat, but within my mind there is no deficiency. There is a standard there. There is no doubt, there is understanding. I put away the books and concentrated on developing my own mind. I dont have doubts about any of the training rules. The mind has an appreciation of virtue, it wont dare do anything wrong, whether in public or in private. I do not kill animals, even small ones. If someone were to ask me to intentionally kill an ant or a termite, to squash one with my hand, for instance, I couldnt do it, even if they were to offer me thousands of baht to do so. Even one ant or termite! The ants life would have greater value to me.

However, it may be that I may cause one to die, such as when something crawls up my leg and I brush it off. Maybe it dies, but when I look into my mind there is no feeling of guilt. There is no wavering or doubt. Why? Because there was no intention. Silam vadami bhikkhave cetanaham: "Intention is the essence of moral training." Looking at it in this way I see that there was no intentional killing. Sometimes while walking I may step on an insect and kill it. In the past, before I really understood, I would really suffer over things like that. I would think I had committed an offense.

"What? There was no intention." "There was no intention, but I wasnt being careful enough!" I would go on like this, fretting and worrying.

So this Vinaya is something which can be disturb practitioners of Dhamma, but it also has its value, in keeping with what the teachers say — "Whatever training rules you dont yet know you should learn. If you dont know you should question those who do." They really stress this.

Now if we dont know the training rules, we wont be aware of our transgressions against them. Take, for example, a Venerable Thera of the past, Ajahn Pow of Wat Kow Wong Got in Lopburi Province. One day a certain Maha, [10] a disciple of his, was sitting with him, when some women came up and asked,

"Luang Por! We want to invite you to go with us on an excursion, will you go?"

Luang Por Pow didnt answer. The Maha sitting near him thought that Venerable Ajahn Pow hadnt heard, so he said,

"Luang Por, Luang Por! Did you hear? These women invited you to go for a trip."

He said, "I heard."

The women asked again, "Luang Por, are you going or not?"

He just sat there without answering, and so nothing came of the invitation. When they had gone, the Maha said,

"Luang Por, why didnt you answer those women?"

He said, "Oh, Maha, dont you know this rule? Those people who were here just now were all women. If women invite you to travel with them you should not consent. If they make the arrangements themselves thats fine. If I want to go I can, because I didnt take part in making the arrangements."

"The Maha sat and thought, "Oh, Ive really made a fool of myself."

The Vinaya states that to make an arrangement, and then travel together with, women, even though it isnt as a couple, is a pacittiya offense.

Take another case. Lay people would bring money to offer Venerable Ajahn Pow on a tray. He would extend his receiving cloth, [11] holding it at one end. But when they brought the tray forward to lay it on the cloth he would retract his hand from the cloth. Then he would simply abandon the money where it lay. He knew it was there, but he would take no interest in it, just get up and walk away, because in the Vinaya it is said that if one doesnt consent to the money it isnt necessary to forbid laypeople from offering it. If he had desire for it, he would have to say, "Householder, this is not allowable for a monk." He would have to tell them. If you have desire for it, you must forbid them from offering that which is unallowable. However, if you really have no desire for it, it isnt necessary. You just leave it there and go.

Although the Ajahn and his disciples lived together for many years, still some of his disciples didnt understand Ajahn Pows practice. This is a poor state of affairs. As for myself, I looked into and contemplated many of Venerable Ajahn Pows subtler points of practice.

The Vinaya can even cause some people to disrobe. When they study it all the doubts come up. It goes right back into the past... "my ordination, was it proper? [12] Was my preceptor pure? None of the monks who sat in on my ordination knew anything about the Vinaya, were they sitting at the proper distance? Was the chanting correct?" The doubts come rolling on... "The hall I ordained in, was it proper? It was so small..." They doubt everything and fall into hell.

So until you know how to ground your mind its really difficult. You have to be very cool, you cant just jump into things. But to be so cool that you dont bother to look into things is wrong also. I was so confused I almost disrobed because I saw so many faults within my own practice and that of some of my teachers. I was on fire and couldnt sleep because of those doubts.

The more I doubted, the more I meditated, the more I practiced. Wherever doubt arose I practiced right at that point. Wisdom arose. Things began to change. Its hard to describe the change that took place. The mind changed until there was no more doubt. I dont know how it changed, if I were to tell someone they probably wouldnt understand.

So I reflected on the teaching Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi — the wise must know for themselves. It must be a knowing that arises through direct experience. Studying the Dhamma vinaya is certainly correct but if its just the study its still lacking. If you really get down to the practice you begin to doubt everything. Before I started to practice I wasnt interested in the minor offenses, but when I started practicing, even the dukkata offenses became as important as the parajika offenses. Before, the dukkata offenses seemed like nothing, just a trifle. Thats how I saw them. In the evening you could confess them and they would be done with. Then you could transgress them again. This sort of confession is impure, because you dont stop, you dont decide to change. There is no restraint, you simply do it again and again. There is no perception of the truth, no letting go.

Actually, in terms of ultimate truth, its not necessary to go through the routine of confessing offenses. If we see that our mind is pure and there is no trace of doubt, then those offenses drop off right there. That we are not yet pure is because we still doubt, we still waver. We are not really pure so we cant let go. We dont see ourselves, this is the point. This Vinaya of ours is like a fence to guard us from making mistakes, so its something we need to be scrupulous with.

If you dont see the true value of the Vinaya for yourself its difficult. Many years before I came to Wat Ba Pong I decided I would give up money. For the greater part of a Rains Retreat I had thought about it. In the end I grabbed my wallet and walked over to a certain Maha who was living with me at the time, setting the wallet down in front of him.

"Here, Maha, take this money. From today onwards, as long as Im a monk, I will not receive or hold money. You can be my witness."

"You keep it, Venerable, you may need it for your studies"... The Venerable Maha wasnt keen to take the money, he was embarrassed...

"Why do you want to throw away all this money?"

"You dont have to worry about me. Ive made my decision. I decided last night."

From the day he took that money it was as if a gap had opened between us. We could no longer understand each other. Hes still my witness to this very day. Ever since that day I havent used money or engaged in any buying or selling. Ive been restrained in every way with money. I was constantly wary of wrongdoing, even though I hadnt done anything wrong. Inwardly I maintained the meditation practice. I no longer needed wealth, I saw it as a poison. Whether you give poison to a human being, a dog or anything else, it invariably causes death or suffering. If we see clearly like this we will be constantly on our guard not to take that "poison." When we clearly see the harm in it, its not difficult to give up.

Regarding food and meals brought as offerings, if I doubted them I wouldnt accept them. No matter how delicious or refined the food might be, I wouldnt eat it. Take a simple example, like raw pickled fish. Suppose you are living in a forest and you go on almsround and receive only rice and some pickled fish wrapped in leaves. When you return to your dwelling and open the packet you find that its raw pickled fish... just throw it away! [13] Eating plain rice is better than transgressing the precepts. It has to be like this before you can say you really understand, then the Vinaya becomes simpler.

If other monks wanted to give me requisites, such as bowl, razor or whatever, I wouldnt accept, unless I knew them as fellow practitioners with a similar standard of Vinaya. Why not? How can you trust someone who is unrestrained? They can do all sorts of things. Unrestrained monks dont see the value of the Vinaya, so its possible that they could have obtained those things in improper ways. I was as scrupulous as this.

As a result, some of my fellow monks would look askance at me..."He doesnt socialize, he wont mix..." I was unmoved: "Sure, we can mix when we die. When it comes to death we are all in the same boat," I thought. I lived with endurance. I was one who spoke little. If others criticized my practice I was unmoved. Why? Because even if I explained to them they wouldnt understand. They knew nothing about practice. Like those times when I would be invited to a funeral ceremony and somebody would say, "...Dont listen to him! Just put the money in his bag and dont say anything about it... dont let him know." [14] I would say, "Hey, do you think Im dead or something? Just because one calls alcohol perfume doesnt make it become perfume, you know. But you people, when you want to drink alcohol you call it perfume, then go ahead and drink. You must be crazy!".

The Vinaya, then, can be difficult. You have to be content with little, aloof. You must see, and see right. Once, when I was traveling through Saraburi, my group went to stay in a village temple for a while. The Abbot there had about the same seniority as myself. In the morning, we would all go on almsround together, then come back to the monastery and put down our bowls. Presently the laypeople would bring dishes of food into the hall and set them down. Then the monks would go and pick them up, open them and lay them in a line to be formally offered. One monk would put his hand on the dish at the other end. And that was it! With that the monks would bring them over and distribute them to be eaten.

About five monks were traveling with me at the time, but not one of us would touch that food. On almsround all we received was plain rice, so we sat with them and ate plain rice, none of us would dare eat the food from those dishes.

This went on for quite a few days, until I began to sense that the Abbot was disturbed by our behavior. One of his monks had probably gone to him and said, "Those visiting monks wont eat any of the food. I dont know what theyre up to."

I had to stay there for a few days more, so I went to the Abbot to explain.

I said, "Venerable Sir, may I have a moment please? At this time I have some business which means I must call on your hospitality for some days, but in doing so Im afraid there may be one or two things which you and your fellow monks find puzzling: namely, concerning our not eating the food which has been offered by the laypeople. Id like to clarify this with you, sir. Its really nothing, its just that Ive learned to practice like this... that is, the receiving of the offerings, sir. When the lay people lay the food down and then the monks go and open the dishes, sort them out and then have them formally offered... this is wrong. Its a dukkata offense. Specifically, to handle or touch food which hasnt yet been formally offered into a monks hands, "ruins" that food. According to the Vinaya, any monk who eats that food incurs an offense.

"Its simply this one point, sir. Its not that Im criticizing anybody, or that Im trying to force you or your monks to stop practicing like this... not at all. I just wanted to let you know of my good intentions, because it will be necessary for me to stay here for a few more days.

He lifted his hands in anjali, [15] "Sadhu! Excellent! Ive never yet seen a monk who keeps the minor rules in Saraburi. there arent any to be found these days. If there still are such monks they must live outside of Saraburi. May I commend you. I have no objections at all, thats very good."

The next morning when we came back from almsround not one of the monks would go near those dishes. The laypeople themselves sorted them out and offered them, because they were afraid the monks wouldnt eat. From that day onwards the monks and novices there seemed really on edge, so I tried to explain things to them, to put their minds at rest. I think they were afraid of us, they just went into their rooms and closed themselves in in silence.

For two or three days I tried to make them feel at ease because they were so ashamed, I really had nothing against them. I didnt say things like "Theres not enough food," or "bring this or that food." Why not? Because I had fasted before, sometimes for seven or eight days. Here I had plain rice, I knew I wouldnt die. Where I got my strength from was the practice, from having studied and practiced accordingly.

I took the Buddha as my example. Wherever I went, whatever others did, I wouldnt involve myself. I devoted myself solely to the practice, because I cared for myself, I cared for the practice.

Those who dont keep the Vinaya or practice meditation and those who do practice cant live together, they must go separate ways. I didnt understand this myself in the past. As a teacher I taught others but I didnt practice. This is really bad. When I looked deeply into it, my practice and my knowledge were as far apart as earth and sky.

Therefore, those who want to go and set up meditation centers in the forest... dont do it. If you dont yet really know, dont bother trying, youll only make a mess of it. Some monks think that going to live in the forest they will find peace, but they still dont understand the essentials of practice. They cut grass for themselves, [16] do everything themselves... Those who really know the practice arent interested in places like this, they wont prosper. Doing it like that wont lead to progress. No matter how peaceful the forest may be you cant progress if you do it wrong.

They see the forest monks living in the forest and go to live in the forest like them, but its not the same. The robes are not the same, eating habits are not the same, everything is different. Namely, they dont train themselves, they dont practice. The place is wasted, it doesnt really work. If it does work, it does so only as a venue for showing off or publicizing, just like a medicine show. It goes no further than that. Those who have only practiced a little and then go to teach others are not yet ripe, they dont really understand. In a short time they give up and it falls apart. It just brings trouble.

So we must study somewhat, look at the Navakovada, [17] what does it say? Study it, memorize it, until you understand. From time to time ask your teacher concerning the finer points, he will explain them. Study like this until you really understand the Vinaya.

Footnotes and references:


"Vinaya" is a generic name given to the code of discipline of the Buddhist Monastic Order, the rules of the monkhood. "Vinaya" literally means "leading out," because maintenance of these rules "leads out" of unskillful actions, and, by extension, unskillful states of mind; in addition it can be said to "lead out" of the household life, and, by extension, attachment to the world.


This refers to the Venerable Ajahns early years in the monkhood, before he had begun to practice in earnest.


The second sanghadisesa offense, which deals with touching a woman with lustful intentions.


Referring to pacittiya offense No. 36, for eating food outside of the allowed time — dawn till noon.


Dukkata — offenses of "wrong doing," the lightest class of offenses in the Vinaya, of which there are a great number; parajika — offenses of defeat, of which there are four, are the most serious, involving expulsion from the Bhikkhu Sangha.


Venerable Ajahn Mun Bhuridatto, probably the most renowned and highly respected Meditation Master from the forest tradition in Thailand. He had many disciples who have been teachers in their own right, of whom Ajahn Chah is one. Venerable Ajahn Mun died in 1949.


Pubbasikkha Vannana — "The Elementary Training" — a Thai Commentary on Dhamma Vinaya based on the Pali Commentaries; the Visuddhimagga — "Path to Purity" — Acariya Buddhagosas exhaustive commentary on Dhamma Vinaya.


Hiri — sense of shame; Ottappa — fear of wrong doing. Hiri and ottappa are positive states of mind which lay a foundation for clear conscience and moral integrity. Their arising is based on a respect for oneself and for others. Restraint is natural because of a clear perception of cause and effect.


Apatti: the name to the offenses of various classes for a Buddhist monk.


Maha: a title given to monks who have studied Pali and completed up to the fourth year or higher.


A "receiving cloth" is a cloth used by Thai monks for receiving things from women, from whom they do not receive things directly. That Venerable Ajahn Pow lifted his hand from the receiving cloth indicated that he was not actually receiving the money.


There are very precise and detailed regulations governing the ordination procedure which, if not adhered to, may render the ordination invalid.


The Vinaya forbids bhikkhus from eating raw meat or fish.


Although it is an offense for monks to accept money, there are many who do. Some may accept it while appearing not to, which is probably how the laypeople in this instance saw the Venerable Ajahns refusal to accept money, by thinking that he actually would accept it if they didnt overtly offer it to him, but just slipped it into his bag.


Anjali — The traditional way of making greeting or showing respect, as with an Indian Namaste or the Thai wai. Sadhu — "It is well" — a way of showing appreciation or agreement.


Another transgression of the precepts, a pacittiya offense.


Navakovada — A simplified synopsis of elementary Dhamma Vinaya.

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