Religious Convention and Sila Practice

by Ven. Ajahn Sumedho


I would like to say a few words about the uses of conventional religion. Of course, I am only speaking from my own experience as a Buddhist monk, although I would say that in this respect one can recognize the values of religious convention in whatever form.

Nowadays there is a tendency to think that religious convention and form are no longer necessary. There is a kind of hope that, if you can just be mindful and know yourself, then that is all you need to do. Anyhow, that is how we would like it, isn’t it? Just be mindful throughout the day, throughout the night, whatever you are doing; drinking your whisky, smoking your marijuana cigarette, picking a safe open, mugging someone you met in Soho—as long as it’s done mindfully, it’s all right.

There is a brilliant Buddhist philosopher in Thailand who is quite old now, but I went to stay at his monastery a few years ago. I was coming from Ajahn Chah’s monastery, so I asked him about the Vinaya—the rules of the monastic order—and how important these were in the practice of mediation and enlightenment.

“Well,” he said,“only mindfulness—that’s all you need. Just be mindful, and everything is all right, you know. Don’t worry about those other things.”

And I thought: “That sounds great, but I wonder why Ajahn Chah emphasizes all these rules?’” I had great respect for Ajahn Chah, so when I went back I told him what the philosopher-bhikkhu had told me. Ajahn Chah said, “That’s ‘true,’ but it’s not ‘right.’”

Now we are prone to having blind attachments, aren’t we? For example, say you’re locked up in a foul, stinking prison cell and the Buddha comes and says, “Here’s the key. All you have to do is take it and put it in the hole there underneath the door handle, turn it to the right, turn the handle, open the door, walk out, and you’re free.” But you might be so used to being locked up in prison that you didn’t quite understand the directions and you say, “Oh, the Lord has given me this key”—and you hang it on the wall and pray to it every day. It might make your stay in prison a little more happy; you might be able to endure all the hardships and the stench of your foul-smelling cell a little better, but you’re still in the cell because you haven’t understood that it wasn’t the key in itself that was going to save you. Due to lack of intelligence and understanding, you just grasped the key blindly. That’s what happens in all religion: we just grasp the key, to worship it, pray to it…but we don’t actually learn to use it.

So then the next time the Buddha comes and says, “Here’s the key,” you might be disillusioned and say, “I don’t believe any of this. I’ve been praying for years to that key and not a thing has happened! That Buddha is a liar!” And you take the key and throw it out of the window. That’s the other extreme, isn’t it? But you’re still in the prison cell—so that hasn’t solved the problem either.