Why it appears as though Buddhism has no rules

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There is a story in Buddhist folklore that states once after the Buddha’s sermon, one man with arrogance and lack of willingness to listen and learn came to ask the Buddha clarification on anatta (no soul) and how the concept applies with rebirth and carrying karma forward.

The Buddha though having encountered this question by many disciples refused to answer. This is a fairly common discussion when learning anatta. The man left without an answer, grumbling and complaining saying that this bhikku knows nothing. After which a resident disciple asked the Buddha why did not answer, to which he said that the arrogant man was here to argue, and not learn.

And the Buddha teaches with this in mind that not every one can learn everything in one life; some people take many lives to reach a spiritually awakened state, or even to be an aware student. There were many people who openly disagreed with the Buddha during his time, but before criticising something one must understand it completely. In this case the man had walked in with a question and bias in his mind. The Buddha recommended and motivated questioning every single thought and belief. But before questioning someone’s thoughts we must understand them. Since the arrogant man was not here to understand, the Buddha was not there to cater to his needs of an argument.

What does this have to do with rules?

Because only the one willing to understand (not necessarily follow) is guided on the path, and not the one merely asking to criticise with pre-set biases.

Buddhism understands what forcing knowledge between someone’s ears is going to reap. The answer is nothing. ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear’, these words by the Buddha direct us to view the importance of our own willingness to follow the right path. And yes, there is a right path. Many hipster buddhist ideologies being spread around today will say every path is the right path. However, the truth is that rules are not binding on you, because you are unwilling to follow them. The four noble truths, the eight fold path, and power of the mind over understanding change, and pratitya samutpada are principles to follow if one is aligning with the Buddhist way of life.

Self understanding is the first step to understanding your true path, a journey many are unwilling to take. It is due to the difficulty of this path that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche says to his disciples that if after taking the oath of living the life of a bhikhu/bhikhunni your life has turned upside down, it is because giving up desires is a process of rewiring the brain in recluse. Questioning and learning the very value of life through a commitment to celibacy, and rules of the vinaya are not easy.

Intellectually, we may recognise how our narrow-minded habits have brought about our own cycle of suffering, but at the same time we may also be afraid to engage wholeheartedly in the process of liberating these habits of ours. This is cherishing of ego. For even if we think we want to practice the Buddhist path, to give up our ego-clinging is not easy, and we could well end up with our own ego’s version of dharma—a pseudo-dharma which will only bring more suffering instead of liberation.

-Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche

The rules and principles of Buddhism, can be questioned, criticised, and disregarded, but before putting a pin on it, learning with the willingness to understand (and not grasp) is the first step. Therefore, many tattooed monks, or lay followers investing in vanity are not shunned since what is more important is the willing student inside each follower or non-follower.

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