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The Closing of the Monastic-Lay Divide in Modern Buddhism

Hardest of all is to practice the Way of the Buddha at home, second in the market, and third in the pagoda.

(Vietnamese Buddhist folk song*)

Buddhism is often taken to be a religion centered around monastics, meditation, and the personal pursuit of a lived understanding of philosophical ideas such as non-self and emptiness. However, there is much more to the story. As Dr. Reiko Ohnuma, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, writes:

. . . many Buddhist texts are characterized by a strong renunciatory and anti-family discourse in which the family is depicted as a primary source of attachment, delusion, and suffering. Yet to survive, Buddhism also relies on a surrounding lay community that is organized on a familial basis. Thus, in practice Buddhism accommodates and supports the family in multiple and diverse ways: for example, by giving pastoral advice on the conduct of familial life; by promoting rituals and practices supportive of fertility, procreation, and the productivity and success of the family; and by inserting itself as a necessary partner in the exchange relationships between parents and children or between living families and their deceased ancestors.

(Oxford Bibliographies)

Since it began some 2,500 years ago, the tradition has offered teachings to the laity on living a good life. One such teaching is the Sigālovāda Sutta (DN 31), discussed in my recent article. While the Sigālovāda Sutta offers specific advice to the layman Sigāla, the Mahāmaṅgala Sutta (Sn 2.4), as I discussed last month, offers a broad, abstract set of advice for laypeople. The two offer remarkably similar advice in places—and it is advice comparable in outline to what the Buddha teaches his monks.

While the ideal model for the path is the Buddha himself, few of us will become monastics in this lifetime. This draws us to the importance of the distinction between ideal and reality, or theory and practice. For both laypeople and monastics, the good life is one in which the path of ethics, meditation, and wisdom can be cultivated.

In theory and in practice in the Buddha’s time, this was best accomplished in the monastic life. The Buddha describes the householder life as “crowded and dusty” while the monastic life is “wide open.” The Buddha continues: “It is not easy, while living in a home, to lead the holy life utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell.” (MN 36)

Today, much has changed. We could trace the many changes that have occurred over time: the rise of institutional monasteries, the creation of lay clergy in some lineages, the steady development of freedom and safety within the householder life, and more. So when we read back into early texts—indeed even into texts written in Tibet 500 years ago or Japan 100 years ago—we must recognize that the differing contexts require attention and interpretation.

While far from perfect, the householder life has become more open as we have overcome many of the difficulties that existed in fifth century BCE India. The world is not as dangerous as it was in the Buddha’s time. Laypeople—in developed countries at least—often live long and comfortable lives with ample free time and resources to pursue the Dharma. Similarly, and quite unfortunately, the devaluation of monastic life in modernity has meant that many monasteries are not well provided for. Monastics often struggle simply to ensure that they have food and shelter. Others must choose whether or not to confront abusive teachers at the risk of alienation.

Another obvious difference between the Buddha’s day and ours is in gender roles. The Buddha has been lauded for challenging certain norms with respect to women, namely welcoming them into monastic life alongside men. But he did not offer a broad gender revolution. His teachings to laywomen emphasized household duties and service to husbands. His teachings to laymen emphasized respect and honor to wives. However, as the Buddhist scholar Dr. Brad Clough notes in his chapter on Buddhism in The Ethics of Family Life (Wadsworth Thompson 2001), this itself was “a strong challenge to conventional expectations” of how a husband would treat his wife in 6th-5th centuries India. (36)

Nonetheless, taking the Buddha’s teachings on gender without knowing the contexts and wise interpretation would be a mistake. Today, gender roles are often reversed and duties more evenly shared. To say that this is at odds with the Buddha’s teachings is to cling too tightly to particular sets of 2,500-year-old words. It also fails to see the broader spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, which direct all of us to cultivate compassion and wisdom. When the Buddha set out gendered norms in his teachings to laypeople, he was uplifting particular people in particular times and exhorting them further on the path.

As we read the Buddhist texts, we should do so with the ideal of learning how to move further along the path ourselves. For some of us, the monastic ideal feels welcoming and uplifting and we are able to find good teachers and institutions to enter and progress. For others, such a path may be impossible or so fraught with obstacles as to be unwise. For those of us who remain as householders, the path maybe as “wide open” as it was to monastics in the Buddha’s day. We might find ourselves with relative peace and free time to pursue the Dharma, even with partners and children.

If we are lucky, we might find that practicing the Dharma is not so hard at home after all. Dr. John Makransky, professor of theology at Boston College, writes eloquently of bringing family life and Dharma life into harmony:

When my children first arrived, I tried as a stolid “dharma practitioner” to maintain my pre-child monastic quietude: Door shut, the whole world seemingly elsewhere for my morning meditation. [My teacher Nyoshul] Khenpo’s practice, over time, eased me toward more open-door policies: it gave me the freedom to explore the empty boundaries of quietude, the texture of family love as spiritual discipline. In some ways, this was a more subtle and rigorous practice than the “worldly life versus dharma” dualism I had previously taken as my model.


Indeed, the dualism between “worldly life versus Dharma” is likely to be a phase in any practitioner’s path. One is either practicing the Dharma—reading a text, meditating, listening to a teacher—or not. But over time, all of life becomes practice. Washing dishes is practice. Sweeping floors is practice. Walking with the toddler to the park is practice.

While the monastic ideal remains and ensures a living institution for the development and promulgation of Buddhism, for most of us there is no need to become a monk to practice the Dharma in all of our life. It may be easier for some to practice the way of the Buddha in a pagoda, but not always. And who knows, perhaps easier is not better.

* From Clough, Brad. “Buddhism” in The Ethics of Family Life (Wadsworth Thompson 2001), 124. Clough notes that this is a line from a Vietnamese Buddhist folk song, quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. A Manual of Meditation (Beacon Press, 1975), 12.


Thanissaro, Bhikkhu. 2013. “Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka” (MN 36). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition) 

See more

Buddhism and the Family (Oxford Bibliographies)
Family as Practice (PBS)

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