From Self-Restraint to Precious Protector

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Conscience is a person’s moral sense of right and wrong; the discrimination between good and bad. Conscience is not something we are born with but developed as we grow. More specifically, it is something taught to us and placed into us by others. It forms part of our ego. Take for example a child who is brought up by a family of thieves. He is raised to think that stealing is a talent. He is rewarded when he succeeds and punished when he fails. The child then grows up to become and adult who has little conscience when it comes to stealing. Compare him to a child raised by righteous parents who teaches him about karma and the ills of stealing. It is fair to say that the second child is born with more conscience that the first?

So, conscience is something all of us needs to develop in our spiritual practice. Conscience binds us to a moral code of conduct which can increase our peace of mind. In Buddhism, the conscience of the Buddhist monks is harnessed and developed through adherence to strict monastic rules. The basic guiding principle for these rules are wise shame and wise fear of consequences. A monk should not do anything that is shameful or that would bring fear into his heart.

Venerable Sariputra once asked the Buddha why some of the teachings of certain past enlightened masters lasted for very long while some quickly faded away. The Buddha explained that the teachings of enlightenment masters who set monastic rules were more lasting.

In modern times, enlightened Buddhist masters such as Ajahn Mun and Ajahn Chah placed very high importance on the monastic rules referred to as the Vinaya Rules. They strictly complied to these monastic rules such as eating only once a day, not handling money and owning just the basic requisites. They also expected the same from their disciples.

Adherence to these monastic rules are important because it prevents the monks from doing wrong things or things which would cause the lay supporters to lose their respect for and confidence in the community. Adherence to the rules prevents the feeling of remorse, regret or guilt. Keeping to the rules increases the integrity of the monks and makes them worthy of respect from the lay supporters. It also makes it difficult for those with bad intentions from framing the monks for something they did not do as illustrated by the following story from the Autobiography of Ajahn Chan, Stillness Flowing:

After Ajahn Chah established his new monastery, Wat Pah Pong, certain villagers who had formerly cut timber illegally, hunted and raised cattle on the edge of the forest were now unable to do so. They were angry at the disruption of their livelihood. Some of the disgruntled villagers came up with a plan to discredit the monks. Unwittingly repeating a ploy going back to the time of the Buddha himself, it involved compromising one of the monks with a woman. The monk who went on alms-round to that village was informed by a well-wisher of what was being considered. Worried, he informed Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah said that he would go on alms-round to the village himself. Inevitably, monastery lay supporters objected, “Ajahn, don’t go on your own. They say they’re going to get a young woman to hug you and then shout out that you tried to rape her.”

Ajahn Chah unfazed, joked with them, “Bring her on. I’ve never been hugged by a young woman in my life. Let her try. It should be great!”. In the end, the villagers lost their nerve as everyone knew that Ajahn Chah was faultless and strictly complied to even the simplest and basic monastic rules. And from that point onwards, relations between the monastery and the villagers slowly but steadily improved.

Adherence to the monastic rules can add to the peace of mind of the monks which greatly benefit their practice. In addition, compliance with these rules, about 277 of them, requires the monks to be ever mindful of their every act as a moment of absent mindedness could lead to a rule being broken. Ajahn Chah was ever on a lookout and any mistakes by the monks often ended with harsh reprimands. Ajahn Chah did this because he wanted the monks to take compliance to the rules seriously and develop their mindfulness to perfection.

There are also simple common sense rules like when a monk places his alms-bowl on a table, it should be sufficiently far away from the edge so that the bowl could not be accidentally knocked over to the floor; or when retiring at night, the bowl was to be kept in the monk’s hut in a respectful place (if not underneath the small shrine, then near the point at which he placed his head when sleeping), and with the lid slightly open so as to allow the air to circulate through it and prevent the accumulation of unpleasant odours. In “Stillness Flowing”, Ajahn Chah told an interesting story that happened when this rule was neglected:

“There was once a certain monk who liked to keep his fresh bathing cloth (used to dry the bowl after washing it) in his alms-bowl. One day, rather than mindfully leaving the bowl lid just slightly ajar, he pushed it open carelessly, leaving a wide gap between the bowl lid and the bowl. In the middle of the night, a rat climbed into the bowl and went to sleep on the soft cloth bed it found there. The next morning it so happened that the monk overslept. He woke to realize that dawn had passed: it was already time for alms-round. Afraid of being late and having to fast until the following morning, he threw on his robes as quickly as he could. He grabbed his bowl and rushed out of his hut to catch up with the other monks”.

“He made it to the edge of the village, breathless, just in time to take his place in the row of monks. But as he opened his bowl to receive the first offering, the startled rat jumped from its bed, out of the bowl and into the midst of the line of ladies squatting on the ground holding their plates of rice. There was panic, and there were shrieks, and then there were giggles. Once calm had been restored, the village women put their rice in the monks’ bowls. It was only as he left the first line of donors behind that the monk realized that his bathing cloth was still at the bottom of the bowl, now covered with sticky rice!”.

Ajahn Mun took the training to a higher level. He made it known to all his disciples that he is able to read their thoughts. His ability was so great that he could even mimic the tone of the monks’ thoughts. This caused the monks training under him to be ever on guard of their thoughts lest they suffer a bout of tongue lashing in the evening gathering, in front of their fellow monks. Again, Ajahn Mun did this out of the pure intention to train and help the monks progress.

Ajahn Chah’s approach was perhaps less strict but it is not because he is not able to read the thoughts of others as shown in the following story from Stillness Flowing: One day as a young monk returned from alms-round at Bahn Peung, a village a couple of kilometres to the south of Wat Pah Pong, he remembered thinking to himself, “I’m so hungry. I’m going to eat a big meal today. I’ll need to eat a ball of sticky rice the size of my head before I’m full”. As he entered the monastery, he met Ajahn Chah who, smiling, said, “So hungry you’re going to make a ball of sticky rice as big as your head, huh?” The monk’s face went a deep red. On that day, he said, he ended up eating far less than he did normally, rather than far more.

man wearing gray and red armour standing on the streets

For the young monks, keeping to these rules takes a lot of self-restrain. However, over time, the effort becomes habitual and they learn to appreciate the benefits of adherence to the rules. So, after a period of time, the self-restraint eventually becomes effortless and the rules become their previous protector.

We, as householders, should similarly uphold a high standard of moral conduct and establish certain rules which we will not cross. These rules, whatever we choose to adopt, will help reduce remorse, fear and worry in our life. If we do not harm others or do anything which lacks honour, then our mind will be more calm and at peace. Also, keeping to this rules will help us to develop and sharpen our mindfulness, a necessary requirement for spiritual progress. Keeping to these rules are as important as, or even more important than, our time spent meditating or performing other spiritual practices. They must come together to ensure our progress on our spiritual path.

Rules which go against our negative habits would be most beneficial for our spiritual progress because we would need to be extremely mindful to avoid breaking those rule and we would also need to constantly sharpen our wisdom to fight against our mental defilements. Therefore, we may all have different rules depending on our negative mental habits. Here are some examples of the rules which we, as householders, may choose to set for ourselves:

  1. To practice every day
  2. Not harming others and animals
  3. Not lying
  4. Not speaking bad of or harshly to others
  5. Not stealing from or cheating others
  6. Be faithful to One’s spouse
  7. Avoid alcohol or anything else which muddles the mind
  8. Not acting or speaking out of anger
  9. Not overeating
  10. To get up from bed immediately upon waking (a rule adhered strictly to by Ajahn Mun and his disciples)
  11. Not sleeping excessively
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