In the various spiritual traditions of the world there are differing views on how it is that a person becomes enlightened – or rather on how a person prepares to become enlightened. If these differing views were arranged on a continuum, one extreme would represent the belief that we must, through our own efforts, relentlessly eradicate all impurity, defilement, and delusion in action, speech, and mind, in order to attain Liberation. In other words, it is necessary to be a saint in order to be a sage. The other extreme would represent the idea that all such effort at purification is futile at best, and at worst an actual hindrance to enlightenment. Or in other words, becoming a saint is irrelevant to becoming a sage. Liberation is attained, according to this second theory, by other means, such as Divine Grace, the power of faith, or the very intensity of our desire to Wake Up – or, Liberation is not attained by any process at all, but manifests in accordance with its own mysterious nature. At the former extreme would be Jainism, and also orthodox Theravada Buddhism as expounded by the great commentator ven. Buddhaghosa. At the latter extreme, if we set aside for the sake of simplicity the mystery of Divine Grace, might be found the teachings of such masters as J. Krishnamurti and Paul Lowe. (I don't know if they would be situated all the way at the other end, completely dismissing the value of attempted self-purification, but they come about as close to it as anyone I know of. Maybe U. G. Krishnamurti would come closer still, but I know almost nothing about him.)
The very fact that Dhamma, the Middle Path, appears to be located at one extreme of a spectrum may already be seen as something of a warning sign. Nevertheless, the trinity of sīla, samādhi, and paññā (morality, concentration, and understanding) is much emphasized in Theravada, and is usually viewed as a linear progression: sīla comes first and leads to samādhi, which in turn leads to paññā. The idea is more developed in the notion that only through purity of morals (sīla-visuddhi) can one possibly attain purity of mind (citta-visuddhi), which is identified with Right Concentration, and only through purity of mind can one possibly attain vimutti, Liberation. The commentarial exegesis on the Discourse on the Simile of the Stagecoaches (M24) gives a monumental, elaborate analysis of the idea of purity of morals leading to purity of mind, leading to purity of view, leading to purity of the overcoming of doubts, leading to… and so on and so forth, all in a linear, temporal sequence. The notion that sīla, samādhi, and paññā may simultaneously dependently co-arise would seem to have some merit: for example it does seem plausible to assume that some wisdom is necessary to want to practice morality in the first place, or that wisdom and the peace of mind deriving from concentration would facilitate virtue. The three might be viewed as a tripod, with each leg holding up the other two. But the traditional emphasis is on systematic cultivation and progression.
It should be noted that there is some warning in the ancient Pali texts concerning potential danger in morality and observances (sīlabbata). For instance sīlabbata-paramāsa, adherence to morality and observances, is considered to be one of the ten fetters holding one back from Enlightenment. The commentaries, though, almost always define the morality and observances so dangerous to adhere to as the arguably silly ancient Indian ascetic practices of imitating the behavior of dogs or cattle – going about naked on all fours, never speaking, sleeping outdoors on the bare ground, eating without the assistance of one's hands, etc. This would appear to leave the door wide open to adhering to less ridiculous, more serious codes of conduct.
Diogenes, one of the first Western canine ascetics
But consider the following discourse, the Paramaṭṭhaka Sutta, in the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta (which, incidentally, is one of my very favorite Suttas in the Pali Canon), which mentions morality and observances several times:
EIGHT-VERSED DISCOURSE ON THE ULTIMATE
Abiding in views, thinking “It is the ultimate,”
A person makes out one in the world to be outstanding;
Therefore he says that all others are “inferior.”
Thus he has not passed beyond contentions.
Whatever advantage he sees for himself
In the seen, in the heard, in morality and observances, or in the felt,
He having seized upon that very thing there
Views all others to be inferior.
But adept ones call that a tie
Dependent upon which he views another to be inferior.
So upon the seen, the heard, or the felt,
Or upon morality and observances a mendicant would not depend.
Also he would not conceive a view in the world
Based on knowledge or also morality and observances.
He would not present himself as equal,
Nor would he imagine to be inferior, or superior.
Having abandoned what was acquired, not taking up anything,
He would not be in dependence even upon knowledge.
He truly is not a partisan among the schoolmen;
He does not fall back on any view at all.
For whom there is no intent here for either extreme,
For this or that existence, here or hereafter,
For him there are no entrenchments
Seized, having discriminated, from among the philosophies.
By him, here, in the seen, the heard, or the felt,
There is not contrived even the slightest perception.
That holy man not adopting a view—
By what here in the world would one judge him?
They conceive nothing, they set nothing before them;
Also, no philosophies are received by them.
A holy man is not to be led on by morality and observances.
Gone to the other shore, one who is such does not fall back.
Consider also this succulent verse from the Discourse to Māgandhiya, also of the Aṭṭhakavagga, describing how one opens oneself to Enlightenment:
Not by what is viewed, not by what is heard, not by knowledge
(Māgandiya, said the Blessed One),
Nor by morality and observances is morality said to be;
By absence of what is viewed, by absence of what is heard, by non-knowledge,
By amorality, by nonobservance – also not by that.
So having let go of these, not taking hold of anything,
A peaceful one, not being dependent, would not have longings for existence.
And also consider these two verses from the Great Discourse on Tactical Deployment (or on Dispositions), from the same group of texts:
If he is fallen away from his morality and observances
He is agitated, having failed in his action;
He longs for and aspires to pure freedom from wrong
Like one who has lost his caravan and is far from home.
But having abandoned all morality and observances,
And that action that is criticized or uncriticized,
Not aspiring to "purity" or "non-purity,"
He would live refraining, not taking hold even of peace.
Although the commentaries stubbornly persist in equating the above-mentioned morality and observances with the imitation of dogs and cattle, it is fairly obvious that phenomena much more subtle and much more widespread are involved. Morality and observances are mentioned along with the seen, the heard, the felt, knowledge, and beliefs in general. The idea seems to be that we shouldn't cling to or rely on anything, including moral codes and ideals of virtue – or their absence.
The Aṭṭhakavagga, from which the quoted verses were extracted, is a very considerable source of information on Dhamma. The text is so ancient that some modern scholars have offered the opinion that it is pre-Buddhistic in origin, and was adopted as authoritative by early Buddhists despite its problematic unorthodoxy. I consider it more likely that the Aṭṭhakavagga represents a large fragment – apparently the largest fragment still in existence – of primitive, pre-orthodox, pre-systematized, pre-Theravada Buddhism, and thus that its message comes closest temporally to the teachings of Gotama Buddha than any other largish text in the Pali Canon. And thus, potentially at least, it may be the most fundamentally important document in all of Buddhist literature. (Which is one reason why I refer to it so often.)
If this is the case, then it seems probable that the original teachings of the Buddha, in certain respects at least, more closely resemble those of the Madhyamaka philosophy of Mahayana, the Krishnamurtis, Paul Lowe, and even (although I hesitate to say it) Paul of Tarsus – "The letter killeth, the Spirit maketh alive" – than the teachings of ven. Buddhaghosa and established Theravadin tradition. Hence moral codes and ideals, let alone mere amoral observances like shaving one's head at least once every two months or wearing robes made of cloth cut and sewn in accordance to a prescribed pattern, would be ultimately irrelevant to the Holy Life.
An obvious objection arises: What about Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist monastic code? Wasn't it established by the Buddha himself? Isn't it the first part of the Tipitaka because it was considered to be the most important by the monks at the First Council? According to tradition, so long as monastic discipline still exists, Buddhism still exists, and no longer.
In the Pali texts themselves there are two distinct traditions explaining the origin of Vinaya. The most well-known tradition is that the Buddha himself laid down each rule as the occasion for it arose. Thus every single rule was decreed by the Buddha himself, including the detailed regulations concerning how robes should be sewn, the use of the toilet, the allowable length of one's fingernails and nostril hair, and much, much more besides. Some of the stories of how the Buddha came to establish certain rules seem obviously to be contrived after the fact, for the purpose of lending his great authority to their existence as authoritative.
The other tradition is found in the canonical history of the First Great Council, recorded in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Piṭaka. The story goes that after the Buddha's death many of the monks, understandably, were grieving. Then an old monk who was nevertheless recently ordained told them, essentially, "Hey, why all the long faces? Now we don't have Venerable Gotama telling us 'Do this, Don't do that' all the time. Now we can do as we please!" Venerable Mahā Kassapa, who was the Buddha's successor as senior monk in the Sangha, heard the remark and, although he was fully enlightened, was alarmed. So he promptly decided to convene a Great Council for the purpose of establishing a systematic monastic code, so that Buddhism would not collapse into mediocrity, instability, chaos, and an early demise. There are further hints along these lines in a narrative in which a monk asks the Buddha why the systems established by previous Buddhas hadn't lasted very long. The answer was that those previous Buddhas had not established monastic codes for their monk-disciples to follow. The implication between the lines is that Buddhas tend not to lay down formalized codes of conduct.
It is very likely that the Buddha did give moral advice to his disciples: Don't tell lies, Don't mess around with women, Don't make a business out of Dhamma, exchanging wisdom, or a semblance of wisdom, for material gain, etc. This sort of advice is found even in the radical no-rules Aṭṭhakavagga. But I consider it unlikely that he would deliver a mandate that performing such and such action entails the violation of such and such rule, of such and such category, to be expiated by performance of such and such ritual. I hypothesize, and I share this hypothesis with others, that the purpose of the First Council was to formulate such a code of rules – probably the Pātimokkha (the central list of precepts) not including the Sekhiya rules at the end (which, unlike the rest of the Pātimokkha, varies widely among the ancient schools of Indian Buddhism), plus probably some protocols for ordination procedure, and so forth. A formalized system based on the Buddha's discourses (Suttanta) may also have been worked out; but another name for the First Council is the Vinaya Saṇgīti, "the Convocation on Monastic Discipline," and Discipline was apparently its main issue.
By pointing out this stuff I'm really not implying that ordained bhikkhus should not follow the ancient rules of monastic discipline. By volunteering to undergo ordination a person is ipso facto volunteering to enter an established system of monastic discipline, the very act of ordination itself being necessarily in accordance with Vinaya. Ordination is essentially an entrance into Vinaya. So, so long as one is ordained, one is obligated to follow the rules if he is able, or at the very least to expiate his transgressions of the rules in accordance with the established rules for doing so. If one does not want to follow these ancient regulations, then one is not required to be ordained – which does not necessarily mean one would consequently live a worldly, self-indulgent life. One could still renounce the world, along with all systematic traditions, and wander homeless with no official status whatsoever. This path would certainly more closely resemble the state of bhikkhus in the Buddha's time; but most of us lack the courage, commitment, and faith to make such a radical renunciation.
Even so, this sort of courage, commitment, and faith in Dhamma/Dharma may be essential to successfully living the Holy Life. It may simply be, regardless of all dualities like purity/impurity, virtue/vice, or even success/failure, that we have to be totally intent on Waking Up, in each moment, and willing to do whatever it takes, no matter what. Paul of Tarsus seems to have had the idea, and J. Krishnamurti seems to have agreed with him, that if we have this total intentness on being as conscious, or as close to God, as possible, then we will spontaneously, naturally do what is appropriate to that, regardless of traditions, public opinion, or rules in books. Sadly, St. Paul could not foresee what effect abolishing Mosaic Law would have: he turned Christianity into a popular, mainstream religion, and with the very same stroke doomed Christianity at large to spiritual lukewarmness and mediocrity. Most people just don't have the total intentness successfully to transcend mundane formalities. They do not "die to the world," as he called it.
The lifestyle of Buddhist monks in very ancient times pretty much ensured that they would be very intent on Waking Up – the whole-hearted renunciation involved in wandering around homeless and penniless in a spiritual yet predominantly non-Buddhist environment probably did much to separate the sheep from the goats from the very get-go. But Buddhism also became a popular mainstream religion.
A handy rule of thumb is that any established tradition is bound to be rife with lukewarmness and mediocrity. This includes Asian monastic traditions, Evangelical Christianity, the New Age, and the "elite" Vipassana movement of the West. It's simply a matter of human nature and the law of statistical averages: a mainstream is bound to be mediocre, and even a majority within a subcultural tradition will be relatively mediocre, spiritually and otherwise. If there is a movement with an enlightened teacher who is still alive, or if the movement is going through a phase of great vitality and inspiration (which does happen sometimes), then it may be advisable to follow along. But once a movement settles into dogmatism, or once it conforms to worldly values, which includes political correctness, then it is spiritually and essentially Dead on Arrival.
Buddhism, and Christianity too, began as movements of renunciation of Society, that many-headed monster that Swami Vivekananda used to call The False God. And that's really what is still required, if not physically, then at least mentally.
Burmese monks making confession before
participating in a formal act of the Sangha