On Vinaya Practice
To help us put our vows into practice and provide ourselves with a clear set of behavioral guidelines, we commit ourselves to a code of discipline set forth in a given system of precepts. The Sanskrit term for these various codes or systems is vinaya, which can be translated into English as "discipline" or "restraint." According to the scriptures, Shakyamuni Buddha did not establish a set code of conduct for his disciples during the first twelve years of his teaching, because these early practitioners achieved such a high level of spiritual attainment and had such strong, deep, positive karmic roots that they never engaged in any sort of unwholesome or destructive activity. It was not until the occurrence of specific instances of misconduct that threatened the integrity of the Sangha and the ability of his disciples to practice the liberation path that the Buddha began to institute rules of behavior for his followers. Thus we should note here that the precepts were not founded in a vacuum on a set of abstract principles, but in direct response to specific problems that arose within the earliest community of practitioners.
So the intention behind the establishment of the vinaya was not to randomly impose a set of disciplinary strictures on practitioners, but rather to give them a set of realistic guidelines that would help them persevere in following the teachings of the Buddha and, ultimately, attain liberation. The scriptures recount that at the time of his death, the Buddha told his disciple Ananda that only the maintenance of the vinaya would ensure the continued existence of the Dharma in the world. He went on to say, however, that by this he meant the fundamental principles of vinaya practice as embodied in the five major precepts prohibiting killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, verbal misconduct, and using intoxicants. As for the multitude of detailed minor precepts upheld by monastics, which had been formulated in response to particular incidents, the Buddha gave his followers permission to dispense with them as needed, should changing circumstances cause such rules to become more of a hindrance than a help. He added that in no way should codified sets of regulations prevent his followers from performing beneficial actions in given situations, and that should they encounter ethical practices which conform to the spirit of the vinaya and prove to be of benefit, but which he had not specifically mentioned, they should not hesitate to adopt them.
It was the Buddha's intention that as his followers carried the Dharma to foreign lands, continuing to follow his path in different cultures and in different ages, they should be flexible and adopt the customs and mores of each particular time and place, provided that in doing so they did not violate the fundamental principles of the vinaya. Unfortunately, overcome by emotion at the time of the Buddha's passing, Ananda forgot to ask him which particular minor precepts the Buddha considered dispensable. This omission made the more conservative members of the Sangha uneasy, and at the first conference held by the Buddha's disciples after the Buddha's parinirvana, it was decided that rather than compromise the Buddhadharma by mistakenly abandoning the wrong items, all the precepts would be codified and strictly maintained from then on. For this reason, most of the various, intricate monastic rules throughout the Buddhist world have been more the result of different interpretation than of innovation.
Nonetheless, over the history of Buddhism's development, numerous codes of discipline derived from the original vinaya handed down by the Buddha have been developed to address changing historical, social, and cultural conditions. There are codes for lay practitioners, codes for the different categories of Buddhist monastics, and codes formulated to apply to both. Some of these codes are general and simple, such as taking refuge in the Three Jewels and practicing the five precepts, while others are very detailed and complex, such as the codes for monks and nuns, which contain hundreds of scrupulously differentiated items. Yet all of these codes of conduct serve the same purpose: to safeguard the continued existence of Buddhadharma in the world and to enable practitioners to attain enlightenment.
The basic purpose of all vinaya codes is to provide Buddhists with a standard of ethical living conducive to, and functionally related to, the cultivation of compassion and wisdom and the ultimate liberation of sentient beings from suffering. These systems of precepts were not formulated to enable us to increase our "spiritual powers," still less to provide us with a moral standard by which to measure and judge other people's conduct. Nor were they developed merely to provide us with another topic for study and idle, self-important conversation. While it is important to study and discuss the precepts, doing so without putting them into practice is like talking about food without eating it or counting other people's money-it will not benefit us at all. In a very real sense, the purpose of the vinaya for an individual is to actualize the Buddha's teachings in daily life through proper conduct. Hence in the scriptures we often see the vinaya referred to as the "correct Dharma vinaya," which underlines the integral role these codes of conduct play in actualizing the Dharma taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.