Overcomplicating Lay Buddhism

In seeking a secular spirituality without the so-called cultural baggage, many Western lay Buddhists are drawn to the cerebral discourses initially given to monastics, which, if one chooses, can be utilized without piety. Unsurprisingly, trying to apply these complex teachings in a worldly life presents demoralizing challenges for many people.

In the countries where Buddhism originated, a more adaptive approach is usually taken, with lay followers drawing inspiration from the Jataka Tales, or the bodhisattva ideal, rather than advanced teachings chock-full of lists.

The Buddha, as a skilled teacher, recognized the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all instruction. For some, he knew that simpler guidance would allow for a smoother integration of Buddhist principles, and was generally more suitable for lay followers who dealt with money in homes with children (SN 55.7).

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The global challenges society faces at the beginning of the new millennium demand a different philosophy and Buddhism fits the bill, some individuals making progress. The path could not be impossible, it wouldn’t have lasted that long. The fact that Western lay practitioners are taking on the full teaching is just a characteristic of the anthropocentric age.

If one opts for and can take on the full teachings, that’s commendable. However, not everyone should feel obligated to do so. Buddhism would benefit from a broader range of instructional approaches, including the practices that were explicitly given to lay followers, something that you can apply if, for example, you still want to have sex with your partner. I still see many people complaining about Buddhism not being applicable to household life. When the community at Bamboo Gate told the Buddha, “We wish to live at home with our children, use sandalwood imported from Kāsi, wear garlands, perfumes, and makeup, and accept gold and money,” he didn’t teach them Satipatthana. He taught them virtues, buddhānussati, dhammānussati, and saṅghānussati.



Why can’t the five precepts be undertaken and cultivated to the best of their ability? They will have a wonderful effect on one’s life and on the people around them.
Currently, for lay practitioners, the precept about sexual activity is not of prohibition but to engage in it responsibly.

Why can’t a lay practitioner learn and practice meditation, including ānāpānasati, the satipaṭṭhāna, and cultivation of the Brahmaviharas? Applicable with benefits!

Why can’t lay practitioners attend in-person and/or online retreats from time to time?

Why can’t they take the three Refuges and recite them daily, along with other chants if they wish?

Why can’t they join local Sanghas or online ones if they’re far away?

All these are applicable with many benefits. :slightly_smiling_face:

It’s not always easy to dedicate the time, and to travel, in the midst of daily responsibilities. But it comes down to one’s motivation within one’s karmic circumstances, does it not?

:pray: :slightly_smiling_face:


That’s exactly what the sutta I referenced for lay followers teaches. The complaints aren’t about the precepts, but about trying to reconcile renunciant teachings with the worldly life, which is not always practical.

They can if they choose to, but resources for alternative methods from the texts should be available if they don’t want to.

No one said otherwise. If one is not a renunciate, then one can practice the Precepts and meditations as best one can as a lay practitioner.
If we’re not careful, this attitude of " the suttas don’t give me what I want" can become an excuse for not practicing the Dhamma at all – “I’m not a bhiikkhuni or bhikkhu, so what’s the point?”

Instead, why not just start “walking” the Path? All the necessary teachings for liberation are in the Nikāyas, if we’re willing to take them up and work with them, even as a lay practitioner.

Does this mean, they believe the suttas should meet the needs of post-modern practitioners who want “other” teachings they will like?
As in the prior post, anyone can practice to very good effects the above forms of meditation and conduct – with many applicable benefits.

I can’t recall the exact suttas, sorry, but there are several that present lay practitioners as being very advanced on the Path – I think two are cited as becoming arahants on their deathbeds.

I think it comes down less to needing anything beyond the Teachings and rather deciding to practice and manifest them as best we can, whatever our circumstances. This applies to both lay practitioners and renunciates.


From AN 5.176:

Then the householder Anāthapiṇḍika, escorted by around five hundred lay followers, went up to the Buddha, bowed, and sat down to one side. The Buddha said to him:

“Householders, you have supplied the mendicant Saṅgha with robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicines and supplies for the sick. But you should not be content with just this much. So you should train like this: ‘How can we, from time to time, enter and dwell in the rapture of seclusion?’ That’s how you should train.”


Nope. It means they would like a wider range of lessons from the original texts. When engaging with lay followers, why do we so often cite discourses given to monks, despite the existence of numerous discourses specifically intended for lay followers? That’s not to say there’s no benefit in reading or practicing texts like the Satipatthana, but there are other texts like the Dīghajāṇu Sutta that may be more suitable for some people.

Note where this happened. Not in the midst of an active life, but on their deathbeds.

Those lay followers were ready for those teachings at that time. Other times, as in AN 8.54, the Buddha used a different tone. He didn’t give the same lesson to every group of lay followers.

So what’s to stop them from doing so? A “wider range of lessons” is already there. Good. Use them.
Who can’t benefit from meditation, as described in the suttas and taught by a number of teachers?
Who can’t benefit from Metta practice?

True. But they attained liberation because they set up the conditions for this by practicing the Dhamma as lay people, as best they could, before they were on their deathbed.
Other lay practitioners attained stream entry and more advanced states while alive and active.

Of course not.
Again, every lay practitioner can practice the teachings in the suttas that appeals to, and works for, them at whatever stage of practice they’re at. Things will progress from there.

These teachings are available in the suttas and from many teachers.
All it takes is the motivation to pick up the ball and throw it.

:pray: :slightly_smiling_face:


We have countless resources on Satipatthana, but how many on DN 31? Maybe, at the age of 42, I need to go back to college and get a degree in Buddhism so I can provide them myself. I want Buddhism to succeed. We need the Dhamma today more than ever, but legitimate complaints from people frustrated with the endless lists and deep topics aren’t being heard. Even the Buddha acknowledged the distinction between the practices given to the laity and monastics in Snp 2.14.

"Now I shall tell you the householder’s duty,
doing which one becomes a good disciple.
For one burdened with possessions
does not get to realize
the whole of the mendicant’s practice."

I’m not advocating for a modernized corruption of the suttas, or for fewer of them to be taught, but rather that more of them be taught with consideration of where people are on the path and their differing temperaments.


…reminds me of this post…

That said, “alternative methods from the texts” are available. I’ve heard virtually none of Ajahn Brahms talks, but I recall he had a very simple catchphrase something like “Be kind, be generous” (it’s not always “endless lists and deep topics” as you called them). I went looking for the exact phrase and instead found this:

Glancing at the topics, they don’t seem to be “one-size-fits-all”, and some of the themes sound down to earth.

Perhaps you mean that it’s too difficult to find these kind of things. Compare our access to that of 2500 years ago - we might have walked for days to hear just one of these teachings.

As if on cue, ReadingFaithfully’s daily Sutta reading subject for this month is “Lay followers and lay life”: Suttas – Daily Sutta Reading

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I think you could be referring to Ajahn Brahms “Make Peace, Be Kind, Be Gentle”. I’ve always thought that this lovely direct teaching was Ajahn riffing on the (list!? :wink: ) three wholesome thought/intentions that we find in the suttas e.g. mn117 :

And what is wrong thought? Thoughts of sensuality, of malice, and of cruelty. This is wrong thought.

And what is right thought that is accompanied by defilements, has the attributes of good deeds, and ripens in attachment? Thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness. This is right thought that is accompanied by defilements.

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Need is that which necessitates realisation. The reality is that the Four Noble Statements and the Eightfold Wheel are the core of practice.

If one is earnestly mindful of the 4 Statements and works to realise them in relationship to their own life, in due time, they will come to increase in wisdom and insight.

The above, understanding of the 3 poisons and 5 defilements in ones suffering, paired with a handle on the meditative process and understanding its utility is enough for a person to make progress.

One develops in the same way a tree produces fruit. You may be able to necessitate the conditions for the fruit to grow by tending to the soil around the tree, but the tree will produce the fruit when it is ready. There is a lot that you can do. Simply, be mindful, read the texts and verse with wise company, and in time you will connect the pieces together.

One’s practice is with your heart and mind whether or not you are a ‘lay person or a monastic’. The doors to the Deathless are wide open for the diligent striver despite identification with the prior two labels.

The Ways of the Noble One’s are secular in nature. Down to earth, evidence based and scientific in nature. No need for belief… come and see, ehipassiko.

It is said to go at the Holy Life as a Householder is difficult, but not impossible. Only shooting stars break the mold, to paraphrase from Smash Mouths ‘All Star’.

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