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The Problem With Disregarding the Distinction Between Renunciant and Lay Practice

practice
householder
renunciation
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#1

I feel that it is a mistake to disregard the distinction between the teachings addressed to renunciants and lay followers. Given their tone, the renunciant practices could potentially discourage householders from fulfilling essential family and social duties, and paint the practice as incompatible for seekers who value such duties, consequently discouraging them from looking further into Buddhism.

The Buddha himself highlights this distinction throughout the texts. In the Dhammika Sutta (Snp 2.14, Ṭhānissaro), the Buddha states that, “As for the householder protocol, I will tell you how-acting one becomes a good disciple, since the entire monk-practice can’t be managed by those wealthy in property.”

When the people of Bamboo Gate (SN 55.7) ask the Buddha for a practice suited for those who handle money, live in homes “crowded with children”, and wish for a higher rebirth, the Buddha provides a teaching on ethics and triple-gem recollections. Similar instructions are given in the Sāleyyaka Sutta (MN 41).

In the Tevijjavaccha Sutta (MN 71, Bodhi), the Buddha tells the wanderer Vaccha that, “There is no householder who, without abandoning the fetter of householdership, on the dissolution of the body has made an end of suffering.” However, the Buddha then says that, “There are not only one hundred or two or three or four or five hundred, but far more householders who, without abandoning the fetter of householdership, on the dissolution of the body have gone to heaven.”

I propose that we focus more on texts like the Siṅgāla Sutta (DN 31), which the great sage Buddhaghosa called “the Vinaya (code of discipline) of the householder”, and focus less on texts like the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (MN 10), which currently dominates the discourse on Theravada practice in English speaking countries. Even for those who choose not to believe in rebirth, understanding the societal benefits of ethical conduct, and how to cultivate meaningful relationships, could be more beneficial for them than meditating on a rotting corpse.


#2

:thinking:

As a householder, I have actually found corpses and decay quite useful as the escape from modern consumerism and youth addiction. When distracted by a pretty face, I immediately can restrain by aging that face forward, seeing the bones with flesh gone to the point that equanimity emerges. This restraint is actually a critical life skill that allows me to interact with people as people as opposed to objects of craving.

To your point, however, I do find holidays vexing. But that too is good practice for overcoming aversion.


#3

I agree. I have been focusing on the Siṅgāla Sutta and the Dīghajāṇu Sutta (AN 8.54) for some time now. I do feel like people want to get amazing meditation experiences and so that’s what leads to the focus on the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta, but they are of course missing half the picture if they only focus on the meditation and not the conduct that leads to great mediation. After all, for the N8FP you can’t get immersion without having right view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and mindfulness before then.

Of course it’s a lot of work watching your conduct, and so that’s probably why many people don’t want to do that half.

And reading other suttas to find a way to keep good conduct is helpful. I do this too sometimes. :grin:

Of course a layperson could go to this extreme if they wanted MN 81:

Ghaṭīkāra has gone for refuge to the Buddha, the teaching, and the Saṅgha. He doesn’t kill living creatures, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, or take alcoholic drinks that cause negligence. 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. He has set aside gems and gold, and rejected gold and money. He’s put down the shovel and doesn’t dig the earth with his own hands. He takes what has crumbled off by a riverbank or been dug up by mice, and brings it back in a carrier. When he has made a pot, he says, “Anyone may leave bagged sesame, mung beans, or chickpeas here and take what they wish.” He looks after his blind old parents. And since he has ended the five lower fetters, Ghaṭīkāra will be reborn spontaneously and will become extinguished there, not liable to return from that world.


#4

Thank you! That was quite lovely. I shall have to listen to that sutta now. :pray:


#5

Normal ‘lay person’ can only do first 5 points of the supernormal eightfold way.

‘Lay person’ really means someone who is pursuing wealth and worldly gain, keeping house, children and alike, not ‘someone not ordained’ and someone ordained can actually count as ‘lay person’ in practice…

It’s the fault of teachers who for various reasons mislead people giving them false hope that they can as ‘lay person’ really practice sammā-vāyāma, sammā-sati and sammā-samādhi. The kind of ‘mindfulness meditation’ people do these days really has nothing to do with what sammā-sati originally is and one would not be able to do the real sammā-sati while still remaining as the ‘lay person’.

At Buddhas time evidently they did not even teach ‘lay persons’ such things because its not pleasant to hear and can possibly put one to grief so when they taught the laity at all they taught them basically just ‘do good avoid evil’ and almost never even mentioned anything to do with sammā-vāyāma, sammā-sati and sammā-samādhi, paticca samuppada, seven steps to awakening etc… I’m now too recently given up on giving any sort of teaching in relation to that as the only thing it does is puts the people to grief as they cant understand it and don’t really have the time and willingness to go in the direction necessary to get to understanding it.

Again, the venerable Bakkula declared: “Friends, during the
eighty years that I have been practising the path in this good
teaching and discipline, I do not recall having ever kept a novice as
attendant, nor do I recall having ever taught the Dhamma to lay
people, even to the extent of speaking a phrase of four words.” -
That the venerable Bakkula made such a declaration, this [we]
reckon a wonderful and marvellous quality of the venerable
Bakkula.

Not really marvelous quality marketable to lay people is it especially in this culture with its values of striving for equality and inclusiveness etc…


#6

To me the problem of meditation-based lay Buddhism today is that it has to invent itself because it’s a new type of audience not really focused on in the suttas.

Very simply put, in the suttas monastics are supposed to aim for liberation, and lay people aim at a deva rebirth. Not that lay people had all the Buddhist teaching and chose heavenly rebirth - they were taught only heavenly rebirth. Liberation-dhamma was a privilege for monastics and the selected ‘gifted’ ones.

So what is a modern lay person to do with that - be happy with deva-rebirth-practice? What if I want more but don’t want to join an order? Overall I think the current lay-mix of meditation practice is not too bad, while we are obviously struggling in detail for a better representation of authentic liberating teachings.


#7

I always go back to Piya Tan, but the ideal lay person is a stream-enterer. So that means that if you gain stream-entry you’re very likely to go to heaven or at worst enter a rebirth where you’re allowed to fulfill the rest of the path in another human rebirth.

For example in the Dīghajāṇu Sutta we are given the four factors of stream entry as a result of good practice.

These are the four things that lead to the welfare and happiness of a gentleman in this life.
These four things lead to the welfare and happiness of a gentleman in future lives. What four? Accomplishment in faith, ethics, generosity, and wisdom.

This theme continues with Dīghāvu, where he declares his attainments to the Buddha as a stream-entrant, and then the monks ask where he ended up so the Buddha responds that he went to heaven as a non-returner. This is likely a result of his concern for his friend’s well-being before his death.

“Sir, the lay follower named Dīghāvu, who was advised in brief by the Buddha, has passed away. Where has he been reborn in his next life?”
“Mendicants, the lay follower Dīghāvu was astute. He practiced in line with the teachings, and did not trouble me about the teachings. With the ending of the five lower fetters, he’s been reborn spontaneously, and will become extinguished there, not liable to return from that world.”

Then you also have Nandiya the Sakayan coming to the Buddha asking about how to be a noble disciple. Here the Buddha actually mentions jhana as a quality to be cultivated. Here he goes beyond stream-entry because “they’re not content with confidence” and go for retreats.

And how does a noble disciple live diligently? Firstly, a noble disciple has experiential confidence in the Buddha … But they’re not content with that confidence, and make a further effort for solitude by day and retreat by night. When they live diligently, joy springs up. Being joyful, rapture springs up. When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil. When the body is tranquil, they feel bliss. And when blissful, the mind becomes immersed in samādhi. When the mind is immersed in samādhi, principles become clear.
Because principles have become clear, they’re reckoned to live diligently.

From this we can gather that everyone is practicing for liberation, and that everyone should be cultivating some sort of samādhi but it the core of lay Buddhist practice is focusing on sila/conduct. Going to heaven is just a byproduct of trying to acheive liberation, if heaven is your goal then you’re not following the path. Monks have the full time job of cultivating everything at once,more or less. A lay person can go as hard as they want, from 5 precepts, to 8, to 10, to even not digging the earth or accepting money.


#8

While the teachings make distinctions between monastics and lay practitioners, it depends on the individual practitioner how strong his/her identification with being a lay or a monastic. Ultimately, the four noble truths do not make such distinction.


#9

Thanks, tonysharp, for another thoughtful and fascinating post, as ever!

To my own mind, it is a highly worthwhile point to dwell on when trying to find the right balance for oneself: the danger tony highlights is a very real and important one, and likewise the DN31 focus suggested is a brilliant one. At the same time, I think balance really is key and I’d want to take suitable care to approach the opening analysis in the right way.

It would, indeed, be pretty fair to regard completely dismissing the distinction between addresses to different audiences as a mistake (particularly, the differences in constraints, challenges and opportunities found in their differing circumstances). Nevertheless, I feel it would be yet another mistake to take that to mean that teachings given to one audience cannot be profitably engaged with by another. This leads more to the question of “how”, rather than “whether”. I’d very much echo Bundokji’s point that it will depend on the individual.

Personally, as a layperson, I’d be terribly sad to set aside such a massive body of teaching ‘formally’ addressed to renunciats, as to my mind the underlying basic principles can in many instances be usefully customized for application to everyday entanglements.

I value reflecting on the overall direction of travel on this path irrespective of where I might happen to be on it. As just one tiny example, it seems to me to be a very worthwhile and splendid thing to occasionally contemplate the joy that comes from contentment with little, but in the gradual training set out in the suttas (eg. MN51) mention of contentment with few requisites comes after a person has gone forth. Similarly, there are a number of suttas addressed to renunciats that contain beautiful teachings on fostering and restoring harmony which can yet offer laypeople inspiration and guidance (eg. MN31, MN48, or MN103).

It would just strike me as a great loss to lay folk to leave aside consideration of some general principles and how they can be applied in a moderate, balanced way to the hurly-burly of lay life.

Lastly, I’d just like to pick up this point:

I have to admit I have huge difficulty understanding the basis of this suggestion. One extremely clear piece of evidence to the contrary can be found in MN73:

MN73 excerpt

“Leaving aside Master Gotama, the monks, and the nuns, is there even a single layman disciple of Master Gotama—white-clothed and celibate—who, with the ending of the five lower fetters, is reborn spontaneously, to be extinguished there, not liable to return from that world?”

“There are not just one hundred such celibate laymen who are my disciples, Vaccha, or two or three or four or five hundred, but many more than that.”

“Leaving aside Master Gotama, the monks, the nuns, and the celibate laymen, is there even a single layman disciple of Master Gotama—white-clothed, enjoying sensual pleasures, following instructions, and responding to advice—who has gone beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and lives self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instruction?”

“There are not just one hundred such laymen enjoying sensual pleasures who are my disciples, Vaccha, or two or three or four or five hundred, but many more than that.”

“Leaving aside Master Gotama, the monks, the nuns, the celibate laymen, and the laymen enjoying sensual pleasures, is there even a single laywoman disciple of Master Gotama—white-clothed and celibate—who, with the ending of the five lower fetters, is reborn spontaneously, to be extinguished there, not liable to return from that world?”

“There are not just one hundred such celibate laywomen who are my disciples, Vaccha, or two or three or four or five hundred, but many more than that.”

“Leaving aside Master Gotama, the monks, the nuns, the celibate laymen, the laymen enjoying sensual pleasures, and the celibate laywomen, is there even a single laywoman disciple of Master Gotama—white-clothed, enjoying sensual pleasures, following instructions, and responding to advice—who has gone beyond doubt, got rid of indecision, and lives self-assured and independent of others regarding the Teacher’s instruction?”

“There are not just one hundred such laywomen enjoying sensual pleasures who are my disciples, Vaccha, or two or three or four or five hundred, but many more than that.”

“If Master Gotama was the only one to succeed in this teaching, not any monks, then this spiritual path would be incomplete in that respect. But because both Master Gotama and monks have succeeded in this teaching, this spiritual path is complete in that respect.

If Master Gotama and the monks were the only ones to succeed in this teaching, not any nuns … celibate laymen … laymen enjoying sensual pleasures … celibate laywomen …

laywomen enjoying sensual pleasures, then this spiritual path would be incomplete in that respect. But because Master Gotama, monks, nuns, celibate laymen, laymen enjoying sensual pleasures, celibate laywomen, and laywomen enjoying sensual pleasures have all succeeded in this teaching, this spiritual path is complete in that respect.

Just as the Ganges river slants, slopes, and inclines towards the ocean, and keeps pushing into the ocean, in the same way Master Gotama’s assembly—with both laypeople and renunciates—slants, slopes, and inclines towards extinguishment, and keeps pushing into extinguishment.

Actually, it is very nice to have cause to make reference to this passage as I feel the final paragraph speaks excellently to the whole topic. So, again, just for fun:

Just as the Ganges river slants, slopes, and inclines towards the ocean, and keeps pushing into the ocean, in the same way Master Gotama’s assembly—with both laypeople and renunciates—slants, slopes, and inclines towards extinguishment, and keeps pushing into extinguishment.


#10

There are so many different styles of suttas - some of them are for example devotional and praise the effect of the teachings on the different assemblies. I personally am not so interested in such general praise but rather would look at suttas in which the Buddha teaches a lay person individually or a distinct group of lay people.

A prime example for a lay follower would be Anathapindaka. He was a devoted follower and we would assume that he had received higher teaching all along. Yet, in MN 143 he has to wait for his death bed to receive the “liberation dhamma”. He responds:

I am not foundering, venerable finanda, I am not sinking. But although I have long waited upon the Teacher and bhikkhus worthy of esteem, never before have I heard such a talk on the Dhamma.

And instead of rebuking him that he didn’t pay attention when the Buddha was speaking, or blaming that Mara shut off his ears for all those years, Sariputta confirms:

Such talk on the Dhamma, householder, is not given to lay people clothed in white. Such talk on the Dhamma is given to those who have gone forth.


#11

That Dhamma given to Anāthapiṇḍika was this:

MN143:14.5: ‘I shall not grasp whatever is seen, heard, thought, known, sought, and explored by my mind, and there shall be no consciousness of mine dependent on that.’

As you can see, this Dhamma is disadvantageous for laity because it directly undermines the grasping for an imagined perfection that informs consumerism. I.e., it is the antidote for “gain for gain.”

Indeed, I am quite grateful that I read MN1 after I retired. Because now I am useless. :laughing:

delight is the root of suffering --mn1/en/bodhi

In direct contrast, consider the following lay advice, which leads to prosperity in this life or the next:

DN33:3.1.101: They think:
DN33:3.1.102: ‘If only, when my body breaks up, after death, I would be reborn in the company of well-to-do aristocrats or brahmins or householders!’ They settle on that thought, concentrate on it and develop it. As they’ve settled for less and not developed further, their thought leads to rebirth there. But I say that this is only for those of ethical conduct, not for the unethical.

Because of this, some Dhamma can be embraced effectively by laity without compromising their livelihoods and families. Other Dhamma can only be embraced by relinquishing worldly ties. It’s not about secret wisdom, it’s about “the right time.”

There is “learning to swim” Dhamma. There is “crossing the English Channel” Dhamma. They serve different purposes at different times.


#12

The reason for this is right speech. Right speech which sides and stems from right view is hard to understand. Samma does not even mean ‘right’, its not ‘right speech’ in the way culture, society or your parents or yourself define ‘right’, but comes out of understanding sammaditthi (so called ‘right view’).

In many cases the ‘right speech’ is really to say nothing at all because the only thing even trying to explain something would do is to put the people to grief or confuse them… Also keep in mind that if those lay people would have asked questions they would have been answered as long as they are related to Dhamma practice.

SuttaCentral At Kosambī

"In the same way, I have truly seen clearly with right wisdom that the cessation of continued existence is extinguishment. Yet I am not a perfected one.”

When he said this, Venerable Ānanda said to Venerable Saviṭṭha “Reverend Saviṭṭha, what do you have to say to Venerable Nārada when he speaks like this?”

“Reverend Ānanda, I have nothing to say to Venerable Nārada when he speaks like this, except what is good and wholesome [i.e. nothing!].”


#13

It’s often said about Buddha as a teacher, that he was able to give a teaching that always suited the mind of the listener.
It doesn’t matter if one is a lay disciple or ordained, it’s all about how ready the mind and heart is for training, I believe.

:slightly_smiling_face:


#14

Piya Tan’s Sutta Discovery Series has been an indispensable resource for me.

:relieved:
:pray:

Happy to oblige.

I fully agree.

Newcomers, especially, could be provided with an overview of the complete path (without excluding or downplaying the intermediary attainments), and they can choose how far to go in this life, and realign as needed.


#15

So it’s a shame that liberation-dhamma is not a secret anymore?


#16

Tony’s original post strikes a strong chord here, for me. We’ve seen through the years some people writing in to D&D, questioning whether they should abandon their household, and even go to extremes such as cutting off their relationships with their spouses and children. It’s good to see the focus on Suttas that define a path for householders like DN 31. For many in this lifetime, adherence to the path described in DN 31 is an excellent training and practice.

Yet, the Path of practice of renunciation, and the fullest attempt and practice with the full expanse of the Eightfold Path seems to me to be always at the forefront of practice. This view also allows for the support and continuation of the monastic tradition, for it is our monastics that serve as living examples and mentors for the fullest expression of the Buddha’s Path. By supporting them, we acknowledge daily this distinction, and recognize the importance of having these renunciants in our communities.

I know I am not adding much to this excellent conversation, and @Aminah really hit the nail on the head with the reference to balance in this equation. But all of us as householders need not sell ourselves short; seclusion, renunciation and samma samadhi are available to us (depending on our individual circumstances). Nor should we ever lose sight of the need to cultivate and support strongly the monastic training and vocation in the west. The practices of householders and that of monastics are different, but part of a very important interrelated symbiotic ecosystem that the Buddha created.


#17

Quite so! In fact, I have a similar inclination (although will not dismiss more devotional teachings completely, as I think they, too, can often be functional: the very beginning of the gradual training is faith/confidence and the inspiration and joy that comes from that. As I reflect on it, the cultivation of these qualities is just as much a development of skill as anything else, and is a very important one. That said, I do have a tendency to not be so engaged, by such suttas as are very clearly Buddhist propaganda).

To me, however, MN73 isn’t so much a text of gushing praise as just a categorical assertion to a very sceptical individual (I should note how much I adore Vacchagotta) that this path leads to meaningful “results” for all who walk it irrespective of who they are. Weather devotional or not, I only used it above to show the unavoidable implication that all those laypeople mentioned in the sutta must have been given teachings directly towards the goal rather than just on how to gain a nice rebirth as pretty clear evidence countering the claim that laypeople were only taught about heavenly rebirth.

With respect to Anathapindika, yes, it’s an interesting and lovely sutta, but it is perhaps worth pausing on a couple of details:

  1. it is, of course, impossible to pin down any exact time line, but it is certainly conceivable that Anathapindaka died well before the end of the Buddha’s 45 year teaching career and that within that time the Buddha may have adjusted what he felt was worth teaching to this group or that, just in the same way that—according to perhaps more legendary account—he adjusted his view on it being worth teaching anyone at all.

  2. it is likewise, impossible to pin down the teaching not given to him before his death bed mentioned in MN143, but it’s pretty reasonable to think it was likely to be very refined. At the very least, it would be rather skewed to take it that Anathapindika was only ever taught about how to have a nice rebirth up until then. AN10.93 shows he was taught (and, in fact, could teach to others) deep teachings that are “core renunciate fare” (dependent origination and the three characteristics), while AN5.176 shows the Buddha encouraged him (and the figurative “five hundred” other lay followers) to train in jhana.

:pray:


#18

I remember a couple of times listening to dhamma talks by skilled Ajahn’s where they said something like this: Buddha teachings was openhanded. And that this meant he would hold nothing back, whoever he taught.

The only miracle Lord Buddha was interested in talking about was the miracle of instruction. I do believe that such miracles can happen anytime, and it’s not about a special teacher or student, but about how much hindrances or mental distortions there is in the space between the two parts.

With less or no hindrances between, the message is an instant mutual reflection, direct knowing, I guess … :eye:


#19

It’s a nice myth but reflects more how we would like to see the Buddha than the actual ambiguity of the texts (see above). Probably goes back to SN 47.9 and DN 16 where the Buddha says

The Realized One doesn’t have the closed fist of a teacher when it comes to the teachings.

But see the context of it, it’s about his succession in the monastic Sangha, and not about lay people, other wanderers, Brahmins or Jains.


#20

Nice discrepancy between these suttas and MN 143!