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Re-envisioning the Lay Practitioner’s Vocation in Contemporary Buddhism

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A painting depicting Trapusa and Bhallika receiving strands of hair from the Buddha. From wikipedia.com
A painting depicting Trapusa and Bhallika receiving strands of hair from the Buddha. From wikipedia.com

I remember being asked by classmates and friends during my final year of university whether I’d become a monk after graduation. A year earlier, in 2008, I’d been initiated into the Buddhist community as a lay practitioner. My reply to my friends back then was the same reply I’d give now: the lay Buddhist vocation carries as much importance and weight as that of the monastic, and I’d be unable to serve the Buddhist religion in certain ways as a monastic, while these would be possible with a lay identity.

This might have seemed counterintuitive to my friends. The conventional view is that monastics are better positioned to preach and realize the Dharma. Yet this claim masks the complex reality that confronts lay Buddhists. Notwithstanding the obvious moral violations of arms dealing and peddling intoxicants, here are just a few examples of the capacities closed to monastics, at least according to the Vinaya: any financial profession, professional politics (although this is not reflected in countries where monks sit in parliament), journalism, culture and the visual arts, entertainment, health and fitness, directorships in non-religious organizations (and certainly not in for-profit companies), and practicing law.

In principle, becoming a monastic would be to forsake these interests and capacities to serve the Dharma. Yet the lay practitioner has these avenues open to him, and in recent years there has been growing demand for lay practitioners to engage in the kind of teaching once reserved for monastics, informed by the experience of living in modern society. The first lay devotees in Buddhist hagiography, Trapusa and Bhallika, were merchants. They met the Buddha while he was sitting under the Rajayatana Tree in the seventh week of his Nirvana. As householders they had distinct characteristics: they were professional, relatively cosmopolitan and well travelled (for their time), and had families to care for. These qualities have provided a general, informal imprint for what a householder is: the worldly counterpart to a monastic, different in how they act in the world, yet equally devout.

I see the three “lays”—lay Buddhist, lay devotee, and lay practitioner—to be the most accurate English translations of a Buddhist spiritual identity that had no Western linguistic equivalent until very recently. It is, however, more accurately translated as “householder,” from the ancient Pali and Sanskrit (gahapati/grhapati) and Chinese (ju shi). Both denote the landholding head of a family (historically a man, but the term is now used to denote both men and women).

In much of Asia, the responsibility of a householder has been a dual one, of both spiritual realization and secular duty. This secular duty, apart from family obligations, entails all the worldly exercises of material wealth and social influence that are closed to monastics.

Shwedagon Pagoda, where the relics of eight hair strands given by the Buddha to Trapusa and Bhallika are stored. From shwedagonpagoda.com
Shwedagon Pagoda, where the relics of eight hair strands given by the Buddha to Trapusa and Bhallika are stored. From shwedagonpagoda.com

The institution of the householder actually predates its monastic counterpart; today a convert must take refuge in the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Yet Trapusa and Bhallika undertook “double ordination” under the Buddha and then the Dharma, as there was no sangha. This meant that there were no Buddhist monks in existence at the time of their lay initiation. The Buddha’s time under the Rajayatana Tree predates his encounter with his former comrades, the Five Ascetics, who according to Buddhist hagiography became the earliest monastic disciples.

Householders were not simply there to provide donations for monastics or funds for monasteries. Vimalakirti, who is particularly celebrated in Chinese Mahayana as a Buddhist lay patriarch, and his counterpart from Early Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, Anathapindika, was a deeply spiritual being. Householders have even been depicted as being privy to unique spiritual insight. For example, Queen Vaidehi in the Contemplation Sutra discerned the Pure Land and Amitabha Buddha directly from Shakyamuni Buddha.

The ancient institution of the householder has also shed its patrician inferences in the West. More often referred to as lay practitioners, European and North American-born, non-monastic Buddhists have gotten off to a quicker start in the field of actively teaching the Dharma than monastics, partially due to a less embedded monastic culture (for Buddhism) in their home countries. Certain organizations, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village, confer internally recognized titles, such as dharmacarya, on lay practitioners who undertake training to become Dharma teachers.

The reinvigoration of a more comprehensive discussion about the calling of the householder is already taking place not just in the West but across Asia as well. In Japan, lay organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai are growing, while support for the old temple families is declining. In China, the examples of several lay Buddhists in late Qing and Republican China led to flourishing “householder groves” (ju shi lin)—associations of professional lay Buddhists structured as charitable organizations answerable to a board. Such associations continue to thrive across the Sinophone world, from mainland China and Hong Kong to Taiwan.

Religious life always involves personal sacrifice lest a religious person live a very unauthentic life. Throughout history, the monastic sangha has rightly been celebrated for making the most obvious kind of sacrifice. For a while, however (particularly in the early Theravada tradition), this seemed to come at the cost of (almost) dismissing the different but equally valid path of the lay Buddhist’s or householder’s spiritual capacities. In some texts, the lay devotee is relegated to a position of merely accumulating merit and hoping for a better rebirth.

As much as I agree that the monastic environment genuinely provides a space for one-minded concentration on attaining enlightenment, we must be willing to hear and weigh for ourselves the lay side of the story. I think the path of the lay Buddhist is brighter than ever, and is presented by leaders both East and West as one that must be valid for the next generation of Dharma teachers, for the Buddhist community to grow. If nothing else, the demographic reality of declining numbers of monastics will force Buddhism to move in this direction.

Monks and nuns that struggle with “the world,” with materialism and power, always make a good story. However, I would suggest that the very duty of a householder, is to dance with temptation every day. Now there’s a story.

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