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Clinging to morality and rules (sīlavataparāmāsa but sometimes sīlabbataparāmāsa or sīlavataupādāna) is a term often used by the Buddha (A.III,377; D.II,58; M.I,433). Sīla means moral behaviour as expressed in rules and precepts (e.g. the five Precepts), vata means vows, rules or rituals, and parāmāsa means clinging or grasping. The term refers to the mistaken belief that scrupulous adherence to moral rules or the exact performance of certain rituals, will lead to enlightenment. However, it has many other manifestations – being punctilious about minor rules while ignoring more important ones, confusing rules of etiquette for rules of morality, insisting that a rule be followed exactly while wheedling one’s way around it, strictly adhering to the outward form of a Precept but taking no account of its meaning and purpose. Mechanically reciting the Precepts thinking that that is sufficient, would likewise be examples of sīlavataparāmāsa. It may also include being smug and self-righteousness or even boasting about one’s moral uprightness (Sn.782). Unfortunately, Buddhism as it is traditional practised, offers many examples of such pettifogging and distorted understanding.
The person who is afflicted by sīlavataparāmāsa lacks flexibility, balance and the ability to get beyond the words or the outer form. Thus, despite perhaps being sincere and diligent, such a person never really penetrates the Dhamma at a deeper level. The Buddha identified clinging to morality and rules as one of the ten fetters (dasa saṃyojana,A.V,17) that hold a person back and prevents them from spiritually growing (appahāya abhabbo, A.V,145). See Letter and Spirit.