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Pali Canon - Mahaparinibbana Sutta

by Sangharakshita

... quite mundane and quite secular sense, and subsequently
extended it and applied it, on another level, to the Sangha itself as a spiritual society, a spiritual

Sanghadevi: Were the Vajjians a tribe or was there anything particular....

S: Well we say 'tribe', but we have to be careful of the connotations of that word. They were a
Republican people like the Sakyans, and you probably know, at least you ought to know, that in the
Buddha's day there were a number of different states in India. Some of them were monarchies and
others were republics, as we would say. There were two - mainly two - large monarchies, those of
Magadha and those of Kosala. The republics tended to be smaller, and the principal political act of
the Buddha's lifetime was that of the expansion of the monarchies at the expense of the republics,
and towards the end of his life it became a question whether Magadha would swallow up Kosala or
Kosala would swallow up Magadha. Magadha eventually swallowed up Kosala and Magadha
became not just the king of the Empire; Magadha which became, so to speak, the Empire of India,
and all the republics were swallowed up, including the Sakya republic. But the Vajjis or Licchavis,
they were one of the republican peoples of the Buddha's day with whom the Buddha seems to have
had a very close association.

Sridevi: We were wondering whether the Buddha had any disciples from the Vajjians?

S: He seems to have had a lot of disciples, especially a lot of lay disciples, yes, yes.

__________: Would you say the Vajjians and the Licchavis were the same?

S: Roughly speaking, yes. There was what was called a Vajji confederacy which was a loose
confederacy of a number of republican tribes. [Pause]

Sanghadevi: Going on into the section where the Buddha is actually talking to the bhikkhus about
their establishments - the section where he was talking about - as long as the bhikkhus were not
going to declare rules, do not abolish rules - we were wondering exactly what the rules were and
what the ethical practices and.....

S: Yes, I think we have to be careful here. We may even detect a later Ananda, so to speak. Because
if we look at what seems to be the Buddha's own teaching, what appears to be the oldest portions of
the Canon, the Buddha did not place undue emphasis on rules, and as we would say, he stressed
principles rather than rules. So the question arises, well what is meant by this particular passage
here, 'as long as the bhikkhus do not declare rules, do not abolish rules, living according to the rules
of study and discipline they have taken on themselves, so long may they be expected to prosper and
not to go into decline'. I would say the emphasis here is "they have taken on themselves". If on
mature consideration, on mature reflection, you take upon yourself a certain discipline, you take it
upon yourself to observe a certain principles, to put certain principles into practise, or even if you
take upon yourself a sort of certain rule - if you go as far as that, if you in full responsibility have
taken that, then it is up to you to keep that. No one asked you to take it, you did it of your own free
will: having taken it you must be true to it. This is, in a way, the essence of commitment. Not that it
is just a question of following the rules, but you first of all consider what is your present position,
what are your spiritual needs, what are the practices you need to follow, then you commit yourself
to them. Having made that commitment, you honour it. I think this is more what the Buddha is
emphasising, not that rules are important as such and must be obeyed at all costs - But having
undertaken to follow a particular course, a particular way of life, to embody a certain principle, or
even to observe a particular rule, having of your own free will taken that upon yourself, you owe it
to yourself to remain true to that. Not to try to change the rule after you have promised to observe
it, and that's cheating, so to speak (chuckles). You see what I mean?

Sanghadevi: Would that link up with the previous one where the Buddha is talking about duty?
What are called their duties, that simile in......

S: I think we have to be careful of the English connotations of the word 'duties'. It means 'what they
have to do'. What is appropriate to them as bhikkhus - not 'duty' in the sense of something laid upon
them by some external authority. These are 'duties', if one wants to use that word, that they have
laid upon themselves, that they've taken up willingly. You promise yourself that you'll do
something, so you owe it to yourself to keep your promise to yourself, as well as to your spiritual
friends, in whose presence, perhaps, you've made that promise. [Pause]

I mean there's the story in this connection in the Jatakas of the wolf who observes the uposatha, the
fast day - do you remember this? Well there was a wolf and he was hungry, but while he was
hungry there was a great flood, and he was very nearly swept away and he just managed to
scramble onto a log that was floating on the flood, and he was there for several days and he got
more and more hungry, and then he realised it was a full moon day and he said, 'Ah, never mind,
it's the full moon day, I'll observe the fast today, I won't eat anything' [Laughter] But just as he
decided not to eat anything because it was the uposatha day, another piece of wood came floating
by and on it was a lamb. [Laughter] And that piece of wood floated very near to the piece of wood
on which the wolf was, so he thought, 'Ah well my good karma has sent me this opportunity, I can
observe the fast some other time', so he made a snap at the lamb, but just at that moment a sudden
eddy in the water carried that log out of his reach, so he didn't get the lamb, the he said, 'Ah well
then, I suppose I can observe the uposatha all!' [Laughter] You see what I mean? So one's
determination to observe a rule or principle shouldn't vary, shouldn't fluctuate in that kind of way -
having resolved to observe it well one must adhere to that resolution. Anyway that's the point of the

Sanghadevi: In the next section where it's talking about respecting and venerating the elders - I
was wondering whether there was a necessary overlap between people who were the elders and
people who were the leaders - Is it getting at you should respect the people who have been in the
Sangha for a long time but they need not necessarily be the actual leaders of the Sangha.

S: Ah well yes and no. When the Buddha speaks of 'elders', that is those who have been in the
Sangha a long time, he doesn't mean those who have simply been in the Sangha in a nominal sense
a long time. He means those who've been practising as monks for a long time, who have been
making a genuine effort as monks for a long time, so therefore, when he speaks of Theras, he
means those who are superior, not just in years, but in terms of actual insight and experience, so
they should be venerated, they should be respected and looked up to, not just because they've spent
more years in the robes, but because they are actually more experienced! You see what I mean? So
this is the first point - but it also is a fact that people might be in the Sangha, year after year, and not
really make much progress, and they might be well overtaken by junior people, so what happens
then? Normally, under ideal circumstances at least, it's the ones who are the seniormost in years and
also in experience, who take the lead. But what is one to do when those who are technically senior
aren't actually the more experienced ones? Well those who are really more experienced, even
though they are junior in years, they have to take the lead, and this sometimes happens.

But even when they do that, on certain occasions at least they show respect to those who are senior
in years, well partly because well even if they haven't made much progress, they've stuck it out,
(chuckles) at least they've remained nominally members and also it isn't a bad thing as a sort of
discipline, even if you are maybe more advanced than other people, that there is someone that you
have to respect, at least outwardly. It's a bit of a curb on, perhaps, the exuberance of the younger
ones who, on account of their admittedly greater experience, have taken over the lead. It is rather a
fine point.

So one does see - I've seen this myself - in the Sangha in the bhikkhu Sangha in the East, that very
often it is the young monks who are really taking the lead, doing everything, organising everything,
but they continue to pay a certain respect to the older monks who are taking a back seat, and who
may not be, in fact, very capable ...

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