Then the venerable Udayin…coming up from behind, rubbed up against the Brahmin lady limb by limb.” —TheVinaya, or the Book of Discipline

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What are we to make of the Vinaya? This twenty-two-hundred-year-old book of monks’ rules, which still defines Buddhist orders today, may be the most provocative of all the fundamental Buddhist documents. In its opening pages, the Buddha refuses to set out a code of conduct, saying that his monastic order is still pure with even the most backward of its 500 members bound for full enlightenment. Alas, immediately his monks and nuns start succumbing to passion in an amazing range of ways, from lying on fur coverlets to copulating with rotten corpses. The Vinaya then recounts the case histories that led the Buddha to institute each of the 227 monks’ precepts and 84 extra rules for bhikkuni, or nuns (numbers differ slightly across traditions).

It is a massive work, and most of its textual energy is devoted to the forbidden. Endless lists and descriptions leave little to the imagination concerning how a spiritual person ought not to behave. All details are made plain in a deadpan style that is, as the Veranja Brahmin says of the Buddha himself, “without the quality of taste.” Ah, but in the reader’s mind the Vinaya‘s empty tone quickly loads itself with flavors, resonances that are surely unintended. At times we hear echoes of stern and prudish moralizing; at others, sly humor, or a breathless fascination akin to Fanny Hill’s unstalling zest for the repetitive act of love. And we enjoy it, though we feel we shouldn’t. Like the gargoyles on a cathedral, so much more fun to look at than the facade’s stony saints, the Vinaya engages us in ways that feel illicit.

[I]f the monk is infatuated, and rubs the woman’s body with his body, rubs up against it, rubs it downward, rubs it upwards, bends it down, raises it up, draws it to, pushes it back, holds it back hard, takes hold of it hard, grasps it, touches it, there is an offense entailing a formal meeting of the Order.

Titillation, clearly, is far from the Vinaya‘s overt purpose (though some detailed passages tempt us to imagine one monk whispering to another, “Let’s go study!”). In its pages, the Buddha says over and over that renunciate life, lived within these precepts, is “complete and wholly purified,” the best way to be freed of suffering. The Vinaya is meant to be a liberating document; it is one of Buddhism’s Tripitaka, or “three baskets,” three major groups of texts. (The other two are the sutras, or sermons, and the Abhidharma, or book of psychological analysis.) Vinaya means “to lead out.” According to Webster’s, the English word education has the same root meaning. This way of life leads out of ignorance and suffering. Its main principles, as the Buddha constantly repeats, are passionlessness and supporting others’ faith in the true teaching.

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