Science and Vinaya

An updated (December, 2013) version of this post appears in Chapter 4 (“The Buddhist Community”) of the ebook, Sasana: the blooming of the Dharma (pdf).


In most of Asia the Vinaya, the founding charter of the monastic Sangha, still defines monastic discipline and by extension the structure of the broader Buddhist community. This cuts across Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.. The Buddha consistently called the body of his teachings the “Dharma-Vinaya,” putting this charter on a par with his teachings in meditation, wisdom and virtue. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying,

Whatever Dharma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone,” (Mahaaparinibbaana Sutta, [D.16])

Still, the Vinaya, to the extent it is known at all in the West, is often dismissed a priori as outmoded or untenable here. I will argue here that this view is quite wrong-headed, and do so by drawing a point-by-point analogy between monastic discipline as defined in the Vinaya and the discipline of the Western scientific community. The resemblance is remarkable.. The point will be that just as scientific discipline is intrinsic to to the practice and perpetuation of Science, and Science as we know it would collapse without it, Vinaya is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of Buddhism and Buddhism in all its depth cannot exist without it or something quite like it.

Each, the Buddhist community and the scientific community, is a complex organism responsible for many things: for training its members, for authorizing its teachers, for maintaining the integrity of its tradition against many many misguided and popular notions, for upholding pure standards whereby its results can be assessed, for encouraging the growth, prosperity and longevity of its functions, for rewarding patience where results are not immediately forthcoming, for maintaining harmony among its members, for nurturing a positive perception in the public eye, and for many other similar functions. In each case a responsible community is designated, and has been for many centuries, in terms of standard procedures, rules of conduct, relations of authority and respect, and a degree insularity from the prevailing outside community. Such a responsible community is necessary because it sustains something quite sophisticated, delicate and rare among the highest potentials of the human mind.

Vinaya in Buddhism.

The Vinaya is fundamentally about community. Although it defines the monastic life, the fastest vehicle to Nirvana, it actually contains virtually no discussion of morality (blamelessness or benefit), or of the attainment of higher mental states through renunciation; instead these are topics of the Suttas, that is, they belong to Dharma. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, it is the discipline of the Sangha, but throughout the focus is on their responsibility to the Buddhist community with an abiding concern for the needs of the lay community. The Monks and Nuns Are the Caretakers. of the Living Dharma. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burn brightly in the Buddhist community, how it spreads to attract new adherents and how it retains its integrity as it is passed to new generations.

Here is how the Buddha listed the aims of the Vinaya:

  1. The excellence of the Sangha,
  2. The comfort of the Sangha,
  3. The curbing of the impudent,
  4. The comfort of well-behaved monastics,
  5. The restraint of effluents related to the present life,
  6. The prevention of effluents related to the next life,
  7. The arousing of faith in the faithless,
  8. The increase of the faithful,
  9. The establishment of the true Dharma,and
  10. The fostering of Discipline.

Vinaya is translated as Discipline. Dharma is translated as Truth or Teachings of the Truth. In a sense they are orthogonal, they deal with separate realms, but are two necessary parts of a whole. Without Dharma, Vinaya is useless. Without Vinaya, Dharma in the lives of living breathing people and communities winds down or degrades.

The following is a very brief overview of the main features of the Discipline organized according to the aims they respectively support.

(1) The excellence of the Sangha

The Sangha must be excellent because it sustains something quite sophisticated and precious, the Living Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha as they manifest in the lives of people, both monastic and lay. The Sangha referred to in the Vinaya is specifically the community of nuns and monks, the full-time designated caretakers of the living Dharma. Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. This is not a matter of personal attainment or rigorous testing; the membership selects itself through the willingness to take on a the vows of a renunciate, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma. Becoming a member is fairly easy, but sustaining membership requires a great deal of confidence in the Dharma, awareness in the disadvantages of samsaric life and a lot of personal discipline. In this way a full-time practicing community emerges, where the religious life can burn most brightly.

The Vinaya ensures that the Sangha is excellent in fulfilling its functions, that the conditions are present for deep practice and study, that harmony prevails within the Sangha and in relations with the laity, and that it fulfill its roles in sustaining the lay community in the Dharma and in guaranteeing the propagation of Buddha’s teachings through time and space while upholding their integrity.

(2) The comfort of the Sangha

The Sangha enjoys material support from the lay community such that its members need not find livelihoods that separate it from the religious life. This has allowed monastics the time and energy to pursue practice deeply and study the teachings thoroughly.

The Sangha enjoys a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world. It does not need to appeal to misguided but popular notions about religion or to compromise practice and doctrine to political or commercial interests. It has meant, for instance, that monastics have been able to teach what they know to be most valuable rather than simply affirm what students of the Dharma want to believe. It also means that monastics have been able to engage patiently, without external pressure, in long-term practices toward profound but not immediately realized results.  The comfort of the Sangha, nevertheless, depends on the faith the laity place in the Sangha.

(3) The curbing of the impudent
(4) The comfort of well-behaved monastics

These two related aims are taken here together. A sangha of at least four monastics is largely a self-regulating body within the constraints defined in the Vinaya. The system of governance is thus quite decentralized, generally with no authority above the monastery level. A sangha may elect officers to perform specific functions for the monastery, may agree to ordain new members or to censor or expel old.

Discipline is generally enforced through peer pressure or through expulsion or moving impudent members to the fringes of the community for periods of time. Those whose behavior is unblemished attain a great deal of respect.

The Sangha maintains high standards of behavior, represented but not exhausted by the two- or three-hundred rules of the monastic Patimokkha. These ensure harmony of the Sangha, preservation of the reputation of the Sangha, essential for guaranteeing comfort and encouraging faith, defining the life of renunciation, and limiting every opportunity for self-gratifying behavior.

(5) The restraint of effluents related to the present life
(6) The prevention of effluents related to the next life

These two aims of the Vinaya form a group as the only two points referring to the actual practice of Buddhism per se. Effluents are unwholesome tendencies and views, the taints from which the human character is purified on the Path. The difference between present and next life need not concern us here. Unlike the practice of Science, the practice of Buddhism is fundamentally subjective, so is much more a personal practice.

Nevertheless, the monastic, in following the Vinaya, is living a life embedded in the Dharma, and therefore provides for him- or her-self an ideal container in which personal development can take root, one that curtails almost every bodily or verbal effort borne of self-concern, such that many of the fruits of practice are actually ready to bud even before any additional effort in practice begins.. Within this container monastics practicing meditation and study have generally developed quickly and deeply, but these are concerns of the Dharma rather than the Vinaya. This personal development is important to the community-level functions of the Sangha, in improving the excellence of the Sangha, the behavior of the monastic and the faith of the laity.

(7) The arousing of faith in the faithless
(8) The increase of the faithful

The influence of the Sangha on the broader community can be summarized in terms of three roles: producing results, education and publicizing. The results are realized in the practice of Buddhism, supported by the discipline, which we just discussed, However faith is inspired wherever those results are observed in the deportment or actions of the monastics. There are many stories of people, starting with Sariputta, who are not born Buddhist but who first are attracted to Buddhism through by encountering monastics and observing their demeanor. The Dalai Lama deportment of a simple monk, even while very much in the public eye, seems to attract people in this way. The monastics display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life.

Monastics teach the Dharma; that is generally considered the main gift they can provide to others. Through education the training of other monastics is improved, serious laypeople can develop further in their practice and understanding, and casual laypeople can know the fundamentals of the tradition.

Publicizing occurs primarily through frequent contact with the laity. Buddhist lay people in Asia have traditionally valued the presence of monastics, making monasteries into community centers as more laity find refuge there. This also provide an opportunity for the practice of generosity as they support the Sangha needs to live comfortably. Monastics in this way tend to provide a core for Buddhist communities.

Contact with monastics inspires self-reflection concerning their one’s own life and tends to curtail samsaric tendencies. Basically the monastics serve as a reality check to the laity and inspire them to live simpler lives. Buddhism provides many options and levels of practice. Many laypeople, already caught up in worldly responsibilities aspire to the monastic life, but are not in a position to maintain the required precepts, others are comfortable in their lives, balancing and adapting samsaric values, for instance in family and a non-harmful successful career, with the purity of the Buddhist life. Many have been monastics themselves and/or will be monastics in the future. Many make room in their lives for very strong practice indeed and achieve higher levels of attainment than many monastics.

It is important to recognize that the faith inspired by the Sangha depends on the strength of its practice and on its good behavior, that is, on the last four points, and also that its ability to live in comfort depends on the faith of the laity.


(9) The establishment of the true Dharma

The integrity of the Buddhist teachings is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and that is actively involved in its own education. It is not hard to imagine how something as refined as Buddhism might degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance,, but it doesn’t. It is in a healthy state in most of its range. Without the Vinaya the wisdom of the Suttas would probably never have reached you, Dear Reader.

Buddhism has proved remarkable in its robustness, especially considering that few other religions have been able to propagate to foreign cultures without military conquest. Buddhism has apparently never been successfully transplanted anywhere independently of a Sangha observing the Vinaya, not in China, not in Korea, not in Japan, not in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, and so on. (Success in transplanting to the West is still an open question.) When the discipline of the Sangha is lost, Buddhism never seems to remain healthy or intact. The health of the Dharma seems always to be correlated with the existence of a disciplined Sangha as a strong anchor to the archaic Vinaya tradition.

(10) The fostering of Discipline

The robustness of Buddhist discipline is legendary. It is preserved through the study of the Vinaya text, including traditional bimonthly recitation of the Patimokkha rules. The Buddhist Sangha is one of the oldest continually functioning human institutions on the planet, surviving continuously for 2600 years. In fact, the oldest continuous democracy in the world is not the USA, but is quite possibly the Buddhist Sangha, set up as a highly decentralized but amazingly robust system of rule by consensus, now over ten times as old as American democracy.

Vinaya in Science.

Science is often described as a “Field” or “Fields of Study,” with reference to the objects and results of research; and as a “Discipline” or “Disciplines” with reference to the process of research, the day-to-day work of the scientist. I refer to Science here, but most academic fields have corresponding disciplines. Briefly, Science has Dharma, in that it deals with Truth or with understanding, and it has Vinaya, in that it has living breathing scientists engaged communally in nurturing the growth of our understanding of the truth according to standards and procedures. The structure of scientific discipline is remarkably similar to that of the older monastic discipline and has equivalent aims. Let’s look at scientific discipline in the same terms we looked at monastic discipline, in terms of aims.  I should point out that what is here described as scientific discipline is a recognized ideal; most working scientists also would recognize that that ideal is imperfectly achieved, and that Science is weaker for it.

(1) The excellence of the Scientific Community

The scientific community must be excellent because it sustains something sophisticated and productive in what has generally proved to be very rapid progress in understanding the nature of our universe.

Excellence entails that its membership is exclusive. Full membership into the community is variously marked by receipt of a Ph.D. degree in a scientific discipline, by the Ph.D. plus a substantial publication record, or by full professorship, etc.,  Others under the supervision of the full members are also active contributors to, though not yet members of, the community, most notably graduate students. Before members become qualified to join the scientific community they generally undergo years of intense education and training, culminating in the apprenticeship under a senior research scientist as they complete their Ph.D.’s, qualifying them as competent to conduct independent research and entitling them to a place in the community.

The discipline of Science ensures that the scientific community is excellent in fulfilling its functions. It puts people of exceptional training into an ongoing stimulating highly cooperative environment shared with like-minded people. This concentration of talent and energy ensures progress in Science, and the future continuation of excellence in Science.

(2) The comfort of the Scientific Community

The scientific community enjoys a high level of material support, through professorships, research grants, etc, from the broader society, both to sustain the living standards of its members and to offset the costs of research equipment, publication, travel and so forth that its functions entail. This permits its members engage in nearly full-time research, training and teaching, fulfilling the functions of the community. In the case of pure research, it is supported but has no particular obligations to produce particular results.

The scientific community ideally enjoys a high degree of insularity from the prevailing concerns of the outside world; under the best circumstances its functions are not biased by politics, religion, superstition or other popular notions. This is the famed Ivory Tower that allows scientists, for instance, to conduct pure research or controversial or unpopular research with minimal concern for practical applications or benefits, for profitability or political convenience. Very importantly it allows the community to enjoy patience where meaningful results may be many years or decades coming. It manages its own affairs according to its own standards, not those of the society outside of the community. A respect for free expression, and academic freedom, and the system of tenure for senior professors are elements of the insularity of the scientific community. The comfort of the scientific community, nevertheless, depends on the respect and influence it enjoys in the rest of the world.

(3) The curbing of the impudent
(4) The comfort of well-behaved scientists

A scientific community is self-regulating, generally at the institutional level with relatively little centralization of authority. Governance is often in a university administration, but similar standards of professional conduct are generally recognized and enforced throughout the scientific community.

Institutions share common practices for expeling members or to move them to the fringes of communal activities through employment and funding procedures, and through granting or denying tenure if they commit disciplinary infractions. Consideration of professional reputation is generally a strong determinant of the behavior of scientists.

Certain transgressions, such as falsifying data and plagiarism, are of sufficient severity to warrant expulsion from the community. Many of the tacit rules of conduct have to do with ensuring harmonious and productive discourse and debate. Intense but productive criticism of results and theoretical proposals is an understood way of life. Civility or respect are important concerns. Argumentation follows well understood logical patterns.

(5) The restraint of weak research
(6) The promotion of strong research

These two aims are most directly related to the actual process of scientific research. Unlike Buddhist practice, the practice of the scientist is fundamentally objective, and accordingly much more a community endeavor.

However the discipline in each case provides a container that optimizes progress in the practice. The scientific community, in its excellence, insularity and enforced integrity, is able to implement policies that provide very high standards for assessing the quality of research, for publicizing results and for allocating research funding and employment where future results prove most promising. Through continuous discourse at conferences, in published journals and in informal contexts, research results are continually refined and reevaluated cooperatively within the community to improve their quality. Peer review, and standards for hiring professors, granting tenure, awarding research grants, etc. also provide another forms of constraint and encouragement.

(7) The arousing of influence in the skeptical
(8) The increase of the influenced

The influence of the scientific community on the broader community can be summarized in terms of three roles: producing results, education and publicizing. The results are realized through the scientific research, supported by the discipline, which we just discussed, However, the volume and continuous production of results gives Science much of its reputation and influence in the world, most particularly in the production of technology, including the wonderful gadgets that now fill our world.

Most working scientists are also educators as well. Thereby others can be trained to join the scientific community, after undertaking the many years of study and apprenticeship under a scientist to hone the ability to do original research. Technologists also require training in order to make use of the results of scientific research. A wider group enjoys the edification that comes with studying Science in school.

The scientific community also publicizes its results in the popular media. This influences the culture and mindset of the wider community, which has in many ways become more rational, less superstitious. It has inspired a large community of amateur scientists, those not widely recognized as members of the orthodox scientific community, generally without the college degrees or comfort of support, but who in exceptional cases produce outstanding research. The scientific community also has the opportunity to influence public debate on many matters, and inform businesses, government and nonprofits.

It is important to recognize that the influence of the scientific community depends on its productivity and on its integrity, that is, on the last four points, and also that its ability to live in comfort and achieve excellence in training depend on the influence and respect it has for the rest of the world.

(9) The establishment of true scientific understanding

The integrity of scientific results is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, does strong collaborative work, is well supported and that is actively involved in its own education. It is not hard to imagine how something as refined as Science might degrade into superstition, magic or wild speculation from which it arose in the first place, but it doesn’t. The continual deepening of scientific understanding is quite remarkable.

Science is remarkable in its robustness, especially considering how exponentially fast it is evolving. One might expect it to break up and scatter in the wind if it were not for the very solid very conservative scientific discipline that holds Science together. Without this discipline Science as we know it would be lost. Instead it experience growth, prosperity and longevity in its functions One can think of the discipline of Science as a stable trellis and the normal process of doing scientific research as vines free to grow this way and that with the support of the trellis.

(10) The fostering of scientific Discipline

The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved as a uniform text and not so deliberately studied as the Buddhist Vinaya. Yet working scientists and university administrators seem to have a good sense of what discipline entails and are very sensitive to any assault on its integity as a community. These various elements of scientific discipline are for the most part very old, implicitly understood by working scientists, and show every sign of enduring into the future.


I venture to speculate that Science as we know it would quickly collapse without something close to these particular, centuries-old scientific discipline. I also venture to speculate that Buddhism as it exists in Asia would become something quite different without its monastic discipline.

Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that from now on the merit, publication or funding of research will depend on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his research results, or if he can write a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its functions under outside influence , popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review. Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, Dr. Shmoe, This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how serious Science would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Scientific understanding would also be compromised when unqualified researchers publish results with little feedback from perhaps better qualified members of the scientific community, and when they ignore the important but mundane or complex work of Science in favor of what sells. Influence over amateur and armchair scientists would rise for a time, but over technologists would decline if reliable results are no longer forthcoming. In the end Science would be largely discredited. Luckily this scenario is unlikely to play itself out fully, because scientists have a sense of the discipline their community requires.

By analogy, imagine that the Buddhist Sangha as a whole decided that from now on the support of a monk will depend on the his popularity among the laity, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts, how many people read his Dharma talks or how many people think he is of great attainment or otherwise a nice guy. This would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put its functions under outside influence, popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of effluents, because it would force the monk into the self-centered behavior of actively seeking approval of others as a matter of livelihood. Imagine additionally that members of the Sangha are self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, Bhante Shmoe, with no commitment to the renunciate life, This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how Buddhism would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. The Dharma would also be compromised when unqualified Sangha members begin to teach what people want to hear, instead of teaching the more challenging aspects of the Dharma, such as “Renunciation.” Influence over casual seekers will grow, but fewer and fewer people will be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma.

I am very concerned that the end result of this last scenario is very close to what we find now American Buddhism, including the flash of unprecedented popularity even before Buddhism has had a chance to establish itself here.. I am coming more and more to realize that for Buddhism the structure of the community is every bit as important as it is for Science. The reason, I think lies in the subtlety and sophistication of the Dharma, which rival those of modern Science. Without a community discipline to sustain Buddhism, including the maintenance of a set of people who can devote themselves full-time to its practice and study, it is easily misinterpreted and distorted. Buddhism is unique in the religious world. Without the Buddha’s teachings in discipline it is doubtful that Buddhism would have spread and endured the way it has through so many centuries, without the substantial lost of it original intent, and quietly without the need for conquest or mass conversion.

The Vinaya is a product of the Buddha’s genius. Robert Thurman thinks that the Buddha deliberately formed the monastic sangha into an enduring Army for Peace, that his genius he showed in organizing a community in this way came from his training, as Prince Siddhartha, future commander-n-chief of the army. But Siddhartha was also brought up to be a leader of a state and I tend to think his organizational genius came from this. He understood that it is not sufficient to simply provide a set of teachings, the Dharma, that if rigorously followed would lead to liberation, but also to set the wheel of Dharma in motion, to create a tradition that would thrive to benefit many people, and that would project itself far into the future without compromising the Dharma, the same way that the scientific tradition persists without dilution through commonplace modes of thinking. The Vinaya is necessary because it sustains something quite sophisticated, delicate and rare among the highest potentials of the human mind.

In fact, the Buddha’s genius is threefold:

  1. His Enlightenment, his profound realization of the truth, which earned him the name Buddha,
  2. His ability to communicate what he discovered to his immediate disciples and to posterity, as the Dharma,and
  3. His craftsmanship to establish community structure built around the Sangha, to ensure that his teachings will continue to flourish in the absence of his leadership, as the Vinaya.

The Buddha’s genius thus manifests itself in each of the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.


I wish to thank Prof. Tandy Warnow for a rather extensive review of an earlier draft of this essay.

One Response to “Science and Vinaya”

  1. Was Jesus a Buddhist Monk? « Through the Looking Glass Says:

    […] and in Europe from Christian monasteries several hundred years later. In my recent essay “Science and Vinaya” I point to parallels between the traditional Buddhist monastic community and the modern […]

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