‘Like most of us, bodhisattvas at earlier levels of practice assume that things stand on their own and can therefore be grasped in isolation from other things. They take the language of things to validate a certain understanding of things and cannot at the outset think otherwise. But the practice of the perfections is meant to disrupt that understanding and to show how the depth of things is more truthfully disclosed through the “emptiness” of linguistic signs and their referents. So the same sutra goes on to say: “It is thus that the bodhisattva fulfils the perfection of morality with a mind free from signs.”
The realization that all moral rules are “empty” works toward freeing the bodhisattva from an inappropriate attachment to them. Holding the rules in one’s mind without clinging to them, without “grasping” them dogmatically, yields a certain degree of latitude in their practice. The moral rules are understood as means, not ends, and when these means come into conflict with important ends, the bodhisattva learns to practice the rules flexibly. Therefore, Santideva writes what earlier Buddhists could not have written: “One should always be striving for others’ well-being. Even what is proscribed is permitted for a compassionate person who sees it will be of benefit.” If moved to do so by wisdom and compassion, the bodhisattva is considered justified in breaking the Buddhist rules whenever the situation warrants it. Although few texts make this point explicitly, given the dangerous antinomian rationalizations that might follow from it, the few that do explicate the idea to do so on the basis of a rigorous application of Mahayana principles. Rules are conventions that generalize what is best to do in situations of a certain kind. Situations and people do not always fit these generalizations, however, and when they do not, flexibility is essential.’ (The Six Perfections)
My small student group read this passage this week, and we had a rich discussion about what it is that enables us to discern when it is wise to break the rules, and what it is that gets in the way of that discernment.