Clinging to morality and rules (sãlavataparàmàsa) is a term often used by the Buddha (A.III,377; D.II,58; M.I,433). Sãla means ethical behaviour as expressed in rules and precepts (e.g. the five Precepts), vata means vows, rules or rituals, and paràmàsa 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 this to be sufficient, would likewise be examples of sãlavataparàmàsa. It may also include being smug and self-righteousness or even boasting about one's moral uprightness (Sn.782).
The person who is afflicted by sãlavataparàmàsa 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 saüyojana, A.V,17) that hold a person back and prevents them from spiritually growing (appahàya abhabbo, A.V,144). See Letter and Spirit.