What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Discussion of ordination, the Vinaya and monastic life. How and where to ordain? Bhikkhuni ordination etc.
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Wizard in the Forest
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What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Post by Wizard in the Forest » Fri Apr 27, 2018 2:38 pm

Due to a debate on how to respect the sangha I wanted to get some input from the Sangha at large about the topic brought in the topic of this title. There is a question about the virtue involved with the patimokkha due to the conflict between incurring a penalty for touching a woman, and the difficult choice of saving of a life.

I'm well aware of the difficulty involved in actually saving a person from drowning and the impact failure to save a life in such circumstances would have on a person.

The question I have seems to be one of an unfair nature, but it is one of curiosity. Do you feel it is a breach of sīla for someone to choose not to save another person's life if they have the training and ability to do so? It's not a fair question, I know, but I want to know how monastics here feel about it, and how to explain the way this works to the layman.
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Re: What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Post by JamesTheGiant » Fri Apr 27, 2018 8:07 pm

I'm not a monk anymore, but have been in monasteries for most of the past 6 years. I can speak of the western monks, and a few westernized Thai and Sri Lankan monks, in Australia and New Zealand.

I would estimate, of the 40 or so monks I know well, only one would not help a drowning woman. He is a very austere, very strict, traditional Burmese monk.
But I know a lot of them (including me when I was a monk), after having saved the woman would worry about possibly having committed some offense, even as much as sanghadisesa, because of touching a woman with a mind of lust. Slippery wet skin and all that!

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Re: What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Post by DNS » Fri Apr 27, 2018 8:17 pm

Saving a life:
On one occasion a monk, feeling compassion, released a pig trapped in a snare. He became remorseful … “What was your intention, monk?”

“I was motivated by compassion, Master.”

“There’s no offense for one who is motivated by compassion.”

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Re: What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Fri Apr 27, 2018 8:44 pm

Buddhist Monastic Code wrote:The Vibhaṅga does not discuss the issue of bhikkhus who intentionally make active contact with women for purposes other than lust or affection — e.g., helping a woman who has fallen into a raging river — but the Commentary does. It introduces the concept of anāmasa, things carrying a Dukkaṭa penalty when touched; women and clothing belonging to a woman top the list. It then goes into great detail to tell how one should behave when one’s mother falls into a raging river. Under no circumstances, it says, should one grab hold of her, although one may extend a rope, a board, etc., in her direction. If she happens to grab hold of her son the bhikkhu, he should not shake her off, but should simply let her hold on as he swims back to shore.
Where the Commentary gets the concepts of anāmasa is hard to say. Perhaps it came from the practices of the Brahmin caste, who are very careful not to touch certain things and people of certain lower castes. At any rate, there is no direct basis for it in the Canon. Although the concept has received universal acceptance in Theravādin Communities, many highly‑respected Vinaya experts have made an exception right here, saying that there is nothing wrong in touching a woman when one’s action is based not on lust, but on a desire to save her from danger. Even if there is an offence in doing so, there are other places where Buddhaghosa recommends that one be willing to incur a minor penalty for the sake of compassion (e.g., digging a person out of a hole into which he has fallen), and the same principle surely holds here.
Sometimes the Commentary should be dismissed. Touching a woman in a crowded train is unavoidable. One will sometime have to push past women to get off. No lust or affection is involved, so there is no offence.

Even if you're not a monk, saving a drowning person is best done by:
  1. Don't even enter the water. If possible, throw a rope, use a branch, or throw a flotation support while waiting for the emergency services
  2. If you are not a strong swimmer, and have no training, do not risk your own life, and put others in danger by entering the water. It just makes matter worse.
  3. If you are a strong swimmer, and/or have training in life-saving methods enter the water as a last resort
  4. Do not let the drowning person grab you. Grab their hair or clothing from behind, and turn them onto their back to swim back to safety.
  5. A monk could take off his upper robe, and use that as a rope for the drowning women to grab hold off, keeping well away from any physical contact. If a woman grabs a monk, there is no offence for the monk at all.
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Re: What is more important: Saving a life or not breaking a patimokkha rule?

Post by Wizard in the Forest » Fri Apr 27, 2018 10:34 pm

I really appreciate everyone's answers so far, and all of them so far reconfirm my understanding and solidify my faith in the Sangha.

I definitely considered the point that the warning is such to avoid pointless deaths because the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna riverway rush at 38,129 square meters a second and are the third fastest in the world. This definitely calls for avoiding getting swept away in the first place, and that is not factoring the robes and carrying all that one has or needs on one's person. It would make it deeply unlikely for a monk to be able to save a person safely in the first place. It's why I point out that it's not really a fair question, because a highly trained person would have trouble saving someone there if they had all the gear they needed in modern days. In the time of the Buddha we had none of those assurances or safety equipment that raises the possibility of saving others.

I also kept in mind my own personal experiences. Where I live the rivers and waterways are also very dangerous, warranting a no swimming sign in every bit of flowing water and signs in potential flood areas warning people to abandon cars if they get pulled into the water, and these rivers aren't even close to the speed of the rivers flowing down from the Himalayas.

That said I think it is a good point to bring up in order to clear up misconceptions.
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