Dangers of lay practice?

Greetings all,

I cannot deny the truths of Buddhism that have unfolded through the course of my life. And yet as I go deeper, looking at teachers who are speaking from insight, I’m actually afraid to continue to practice.

Ajahn Brahm talks about how the birth of your child is your greatest moment if you have no other reference (to jhana). U Tejaniya wrote candidly of his insight into dukkha following the birth of his son and his subsequent abandoning of the lay life.

I wonder if lay buddhists are wrong to practice meditation and jhana. It feels wrong to me to want to abandon the family that relies on me if I progress too far. Can anyone relate? Do the texts have any guidance?

Thank you all for sharing your wisdom with me.

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MN87
That’s so true, householder! That’s so true, householder!
For our loved ones are a source of sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress.

Meditation is about obtaining a refuge from the World and seeking to realize the Truths of Anicca (Impermanence, uncertainty), Dukkha (Angst) and Anatta (no permanent essence/ no controlling Self). When our heart/mind is calm, we are able to view our relationships more objectively. With insight, we can let our relationships be freer and more spontaneous - without the possessiveness and control issues that mark ordinary human interactions. That does not mean that we do not care for our family members! Rather the Buddha stresses the importance of fulfilling one’s duty to all who depend upon us (DN31).

It may be worth considering that Death will inevitably separate one from the family - and Death can occur at any time! By following the Path, one would have already empowered one’s loved ones to be independent and self-reliant.

An older gentleman requires to hand over all family affairs to one’s adult children/ other male relative before going forth (MN54). A younger person requires the permission of their parents (MN82). In the traditional Indian family setting, that means that the family will continue to be looked after by the patriarch in charge. Hence the idea that the family is left helpless/ destitute by the renunciate is unfounded.

:smiley:

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The two are not mutually exclusive, you can become a lay non-returner who attains jhana at will and still takes care of their family.

You can still be celibate and take care of your family.

You can still follow the 8 precepts and not indulge in sensuality and take care of your family.

Furthermore, you don’t need to even attain jhana mastery or become a non-returner, the life of a sotapanna still has tremendously a lot less dukkha than that of a pathujjana (non-ariyan). You only need to attain jhana for a moment of a fingersnap, enough to get the sufficient insight into the aggregates, dependent origination, and four noble truths, to become a sotapanna and live your life as a sotapanna.

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Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting because this is the position that I held for decades but now I’m starting to think that maybe it’s not correct.

The story goes that rahula wasn’t really abandoned because he was kept in the palace with all of the necessary things and his grandparents were there. Paradoxically these same comforts are to be renounced. But regardless, the Buddha came back and taught Rahula how to achieve enlightenment, so no harm no foul, the ends justify the means.

But as I think about this more, I find myself disagreeing. Because not everybody is born in the time of a Buddha, and certainly not everybody has the comforts of palace life available for them. And nowadays we know that abandonment issues are a real psychological consequence for children and have lasting impacts. And so while our understanding of this position has changed, the Buddhist one has remained the same, and it seems to be that and psychological harm that results would be acceptable collateral because not every child will go beyond like rahula did.

I actually find the stoic position more convincing now, our family cannot be a source of sorrow for us, but only our judgments about them, can. Because these are external things that are not under our control.

Curious, what your thoughts are on this?

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In theory your position makes sense and used to give me some solace but in practice it seems to be on shaky ground. I don’t see any evidence of people in the suttas intentionally stopping themselves from going all the way beyond so that they can take care of their families. This looks to be out of our control. Perhaps we stumbled on the origin of the Bodhisattva vow.

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Well, there is the example of of Ghatikara (MN81):

Ghaṭīkāra has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha. He has experiential confidence in the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha, and has the ethics loved by the noble ones. He is free of doubt regarding suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the practice that leads to its cessation. He eats in one part of the day; he’s celibate, ethical, and of good character…[and]
He looks after his blind old parents.

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  1. There’s nothing unwholesome about taking care of your own family.

  2. You can’t do anything that’s not your own will or desire, i.e. you can’t get enlightened against your own will, so, you’re not going to wake up one day and abandon your family.

I would read this footnote by Thanissaro

"Monks, there are these six rewards in realizing the fruit of stream-entry. Which six? One is certain of the true Dhamma. One is not subject to falling back. There is no suffering over what has had a limit placed on it. [1] One is endowed with uncommon knowledge. [2] One rightly sees cause, along with causally-originated phenomena.

Pariyanta-katassa na dukkham hoti: In other words, one has no regret over the fact that one will experience rebirth only a limited number of times, and that a limit has been placed on the amount of suffering one is still subject to (see SN 13.1-2, 8). This statement counteracts the notion, sometimes expressed even in Buddhist circles, that a person can get “stuck” in release against his or her will, or that an awakened person might regret putting an end to samsara.

https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an06/an06.097.than.html

Furthermore, in addition to what @Danny said, there’s many lay Ariyans with worldly responsibilities in the suttas, some married, some celibate, some both, some rich business owners, etc.

  • Isidatta once-returner who was not celibate, and another Migasala’s father Purana who was celibate and a once-returner AN 10.75
  • Hatthaka Alavi had 4 wives
  • Ugga attained non-return told his wives he was becoming celibate and that they can leave, only 1 left. AN 8.21
  • Anathapindika managed his wealth and businesses

There’s more stories if you dig through the suttas

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So why follow the precepts? When you can drink, have sex, and do a business, and still make enough progress on the path to come to awakening?

I am attracted to living an ascetic life by the prospect of increasing my chances and effectiveness. The only question now is how much does it work?

I have to check it myself. There is no need to rely on any indirect evidence.

Shouldn’t we check everything ourselves? How do you know you won’t make better progress as a monk? I already know what it’s like to be in a relationship, I know what it’s like to drink alcohol, I know what it’s like to do business. To be honest, all of this makes a lot of mess in life - in my life. Should I keep trying? However, it may be better to have space for meditation. I think everyone should test it for themselves.

Taking care of your family is not unwholesome, getting drunk is unwholesome. A sotapanna knows what is wholesome and unwholesome. The 5 precepts for lay people don’t forbid sex, they forbid sexual misconduct, however the 8 precepts forbid sex.

The purpose of the training rules is to help one arrive at Right View, and when once arrived at accelerate progress. That’s why I said it’s enough to be a sotapanna as one is “safe”.

The danger is not arriving at right view (sotapanna), then one is possibly forever lost in Samsara, this is why the Buddha was upset to hear his former teachers Alara Kalama and Udakka Ramaputta were born in the formless realm, as they’ll probably be reborn in a time without a samma sambuddha present. I also read that being born in the highest formless planes wipes all your past life memories.

As for your remaining questions regarding progress, that depends on your responsibilities and circumstances in life and your mental faculties.

Are you sure that for anyone taking care of their family is as healthy as being a monk who meditates? Please consider that families are different. The ability to take care of a family varies. You can probably imagine a situation where taking care of someone takes away your chance to progress in mental training in more favorable conditions. I think the training environment can be quite important. If there was a big difference between the effects, isn’t it unreasonable to waste your potential?

Either way, ultimately only experience will tell you if your choice was a healthy one.

I don’t know what you mean by being healthy. I also never said anything about being a monk, but about being one of the 4 ariyan types. You don’t need to be a monk to be an ariyan.

Sure, being a lay person slows down your ability to achieve, but in the grand scheme of things, if you attain Sotapanna, the rest is guaranteed sooner or later anyway. So if you attain Sotapanna and also take care of your family, that’s a win-win scenario. Your family is taken care of, and you’ll sooner or later become an Arahant.

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Overcoming three poisons. Efficiency against three poisons. Aren’t the supporting conditions for overcoming the three poisons more effective? Let’s assume that we don’t know what the better environment is, because until we experience the difference, it’s hard to tell. So we’re checking how I’m progressing when I break the precepts. So I check what progress I make when I follow the precepts. So I check how much progress I’m making without vinaya. So I’m checking how I’m progressing with vinaya.
So I check how I’m progressing with different types of meditation. So I check my progress by listening to different teachers. Am I better off in a monastery with other monks. Maybe it’s better to be a lonely monk. etc etc

Thank you. The story of Ugga illustrates my point beautifully. He attained the status of non-returner and renounced all sexual activity, and in the process there was a divorce involved. Any children that would be caught up in the divorce would be acceptable collateral from the Buddhist point of view, because at least someone got enlightened.

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I came to the conclusion that it would be worth recording, on a scale from 0 to 10, the level of your mental obstacles. Depending on some variables - behavioral-cognitive therapy. I don’t know if anyone has tried this yet, but it sounds interesting.

Sometimes Ajahn Brahm talks about evaluating your state of mind before and after meditation. After all, exactly the same can be done with other things as the 8 Buddhist precepts. Every important variable.

I know plenty of sober meditators who have integrated that practice into their lifestyle, which in some cases includes partners, children and careers. I don’t think the people I know would classify themselves as “lay” Buddhists. Some have qualifications that would most definitely not put them as “lay” persons, but generally they are independent thinkers who somehow decided to pursue Buddhism and discovered an affinity to something about it.

These people are mature and well balanced, and some of them are considerable leaders in their fields, which are varied. Most of them have repeated a similar theme of having grasped hold of practice during a period of real, intense suffering in their lives to discover that it helped with their suffering, protected them, enriched their emotional self-management and also contributed to the opening up their lives. Some have also spoken about intense suffering as a result of Buddhism, recounting experiences of saṃvega, for instance.

I don’t think any of them are into meditation for meditation’s sake. They don’t worship at the altar of meditation, nor nibbāna. These things are simply tools.

Speaking of parenthood, the meditators that I know who are parents recognize that having a child is the greatest shock anyone will ever encounter in his/her life, that it requires huge mental, emotional and physical adjustment and forces the kind of developments highly prized by Buddhist meditators. Maybe I say this because I am a mother, and know a thing or two about having to settle myself down to breast feed. But, it is imperative in parenting to be aware that things such as agitation, stress, anger, and also just plain obliviousness from exhaustion or distraction, are rapidly - immediately - transferred onto children. And that is to be avoided. Becoming a parent, a good parent, a better parent - always better parent - is definitely in line with Buddhist values. You will see the effects of your actions immediately in your children. And you may suffer for them, because there is nothing worse than causing your children to suffer.

However, valuing your children, and yourself as a good parent, may not be in line with Buddhist hate for life. I agree with Nietzsche that religion is fundamentally pessimistic, and cynical, and filled with deep hate for everything about human existence, that it leads to nihilism, and that Buddhism does not escape that charge. I think to suggest that there is not a misogynist, puritanical strain in Buddhism is wrong. Going further, I think it is nihilist to view birth as penance, and it is evident in Buddhist traditions that a lot of male self-loathing and fear, even that of Buddha, is transferred onto women for that very fact.

I was taught by my father, and I firmly agree, that it is unwise to ever get wrapped up in any type of religious institution. As well, people spent hundreds of years fighting for the kinds of human rights ceded to people here (Canada) in our fairly recent Charter of Human Rights; I respect and appreciate what they did for us. Moreover, as a woman in 2022, I would never consider intentionally surrendering to a patriarchal hierarchy. Buddhism is extremely out of date and it will be a long time before it is brought to a place of equity and respect, and genuine good will and harmony.

I was taught morality by my parents, and as far as I can see, most, though not all people I have encountered, also had values of right and wrong imparted to them by their parents. This is because parents love their children and want to see them do right so they can do well. The idea that following Buddhist precepts will make me a better person and lead to nibbāna is a farce to me. It’s insulting.

It also just happens that it is a regular characteristic of Theravadins to obsess about purity and morality and to see sexuality as a disgusting pit, a morass. Good for them. However, the vast majority of human beings have demonstrated that they can handle sexuality in their lives. And truthfully, some of the stuff related to sexuality coming to the West over the past couple of centuries from the “exotic” East, and Buddhism in particular, has only been damaging. Better for Buddhists who hate like that to just keep it to themselves.

Things like “looking to the texts” for answers on how to conduct your life are typical of religious orthodoxy. This is not balanced, nor is it astute, nor is it practical, and it’s not something I would ever do. Plus, I think this particular fanaticism for authority of text is a major cause of religious violence in the world today. Because of knowledge monopolies, “looking to the texts” invariably means eating the interpretations of someone who holds power over you. Their opinion doesn’t matter, they won’t be responsible for the outcomes in your life, and so, I don’t think you should do that.

Buddhism and Sexuality Oxford Handbooks.pdf (358.4 KB)

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I believe that sexuality is precisely the cause of much suffering. Overpopulation. Hurting yourself with divorces and betrayals. Rapes. Transmission of venereal diseases. Sexual abuse and harassment. Partings and divorces. Violent pornography and prostitution industry. Putting children at risk of being born into harsh conditions, often without imparting the values to deal with it. Sexual frustrations and complexes. Heartbreaks. And many many other problems that I have omitted because of limitations or because I decided that it is not worth talking about. There are many dangers in such sensuality.

Personally, I think that the greatest love for a child is never to bring him into a world where there are wars, violence, illnesses, old age, disappointments and many other pitfalls. But I understand that instinct is strong in humans. So it’s good that there are religions that try to master it and transform it to make it more rational. I personally see monks as enclaves that radiate the value of sexual control to entire societies. Thus reducing suffering.

Why assume in advance that the indications will not help? Isn’t this just dogmatism and fanaticism of life-affirming values?

… and she’s by no means the sole example of coming forward to talk about this …

I think it is a great question to ask. As lay practioners, we need to think about how Buddhism fits into our lives. There is a tension between Buddhism - a renunciatory religion - and the attachments that we enjoy in the lay life, as well as the duties we commit to. It is good to see that tension and make conscious decisions about your priorities and your practice.

I have no suggestions on how you should approach it. I would say thinking deeply is worth the investment.

For me, I consciously choose to value my son more than my Buddhist practice. If the two come into conflict, I will choose him every time. (Others might argue for different priorities, of course. But it is not my job to realize my life and practice and ethics in line with what other Buddhists say, what the EBT says, even what the Buddha himself said. I get to choose how I practice and how I understand living an ethical life, and I accept the kammic consequences of my choices.)

As an aside, prioritizing my son over my Buddhist practice rarely creates conflict since deciding my priorities. Once I set my priorities I found out the conflicts were usually created by imagined futures, rather than what actually going on. And my Buddhist practice has helped me see through a lot of wishful thinking. For instance, at first I had a lot of resistance to considering the 4th recollection in terms of ultimately being separated from and losing my wife and son (through their death or mine). It seemed wrong to even “put those thoughts into the world.” But with practice I saw that denying I would eventually lose everything - including my wife and son - in no way protected them.

Good luck! Much Metta! :pray:

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Quite the opposite lol but thanks for your concern. My question has always been there but i got thinking more about it while reading the autobiography of a prisoner who in part was negatively impacted by the lack of a complete family structure from a young age.