Sometimes I feel that the choice to be a lay disciple in Buddhism matters just as much as choosing to be ordained. As laypeople we are obligated, in my opinion, to accept that our way of life is to financially and ideologically complement and support the lives of our more spiritually accomplished compatriots, the monastic community. In a sense we also sacrifice our chance to live in the ideal environment that the Buddha crafted for the sake of spiritual purification, and that is the monastery. Certainly, in secular life we have the right to engage with the world of senses, from sex to gourmet food, but from a rational perspective that is hardly an equal payoff to the monastic boons granted to monks and nuns. An ideal environment to attain enlightenment is preferable to pretty much everything in sa?s?ra.
A layperson is expected to cultivate within herself or himself specific attitudes that complement the activities of the monastic community. Two of the most important are generosity and right livelihood. The first, generosity, is obvious because it prompts us to cultivate a loving and accepting attitude to all beings, and also to be fearless and non-stingy when donating to the temple or monastery, which depends on lay generosity for funds. The Buddha was ingenious in designing this lay-clerical relationship because it ensured that neither could exist without the other. Buddhism has never existed and cannot exist without the lay community.
Spiritually meritorious donations form a fundamental component of the Buddhist layperson’s vocation. We must give freely: money, our own insights, our own opinions, and our encouragement to every cause that alleviates the suffering of the oppressed and abused. Therefore, right livelihood is also extremely important because only monks cannot earn money in principle; laypeople need to have a career, earn money, and feed our family. As laypeople we need to act ethically above all else: to serve as morally accountable businessmen, parents, friends, authors, lovers, teachers or whatever personal, career, or pastoral role we find ourselves in. After all, our identities are inherently unreal – only our karma stays with us. The lay life allows for some degree of moral dilemmas to remain unsolved: for example, living in an affluent society should already alert us to the sad reality that three quarters of the world are far less fortunate than we. And it would be extremely difficult, and I argue impossible, for an arms dealer or weapons contractor to justify his Buddhism or his trade, and the same would go for those who engage in morally problematic deeds, such as prostitution. Being a good Buddhist is inextricably tied to having morally upright ways to earn a living.
Since we now live in an internet-connected, hypermodern world, I would argue that right livelihood also involves activism. Promoting environmental awareness, combating human trafficking and sex tourism, promoting gender equality, challenging racism, misogyny and classism – these are all extensions of right livelihood, of engaging and immersing oneself productively in the world of sa?s?ra. If we have an obligation to ensure that our lives, careers and patterns of consumption do not harm other people through things like arms dealing or the sex trade, why should we stop there and not take to blogging or campaigning to stop these? There is no logical reason why we should not include activism into our sphere of lay vocation, especially as we as laypeople are not occupied by monastic vocation. Of course, we should not overburden ourselves with “duties” for their own sake, but I think that the modern world, in all its complex structures of injustice and oppression, requires a diverse range of activist voices that can defeat the structures debasing men, women, children and sentient beings, while supporting and reinforcing the institutions that promote people’s true potential, like the sa?gha.
Finally, there is the practical aspect, the question of how we can cultivate the incredible mindfulness of the monks, which enables them to enjoy life and every moment. The obvious solution is really to go to more Dharma talks and participate in activities that are conducive to one’s wellbeing, from Buddhist reading groups to meditation workshops (a reading group is something I have always wanted to start). But there is also the urgent need for us laypeople to internalize that wonderful thing, appreciation – and to live, work, and love in a way that we appreciate ourselves for. We cannot force everyone else to appreciate us, but what a difference we will feel and make if we appreciate ourselves! Anything that makes money is a bonus to what we are passionate about doing. Lay life is not necessarily a “cop-out” from monastic life, unlike some stereotypes promoted even by some well-meaning Buddhists. On the contrary, if deliberated upon carefully, Buddhist lay life is incredibly exciting, fraught with ethical complexity, and more often than not demands the same moral fortitude, compassion, and gentle love required of our monastic teachers. When we are absolutely concentrated on one thing – making the world a better place for our sentient brothers and sisters – surely that mindfulness is of the best kind, whether we are lay or monastic?