The Problem With Disregarding the Distinction Between Renunciant and Lay Practice

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This isn’t a perspective that I’m trying to press. It’s a conclusion that many people draw independently from reading the texts. Many of the suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya suggest—implicitly, and sometimes explicitly—that going-forth supersedes the household life.

In the sutta I quoted in my opening post, household life is even referred to as a “fetter.” (MN 71). I’m not saying this is a negative. My point here is that if someone is already embedded to the household life, repeatedly hearing about how much better it would be to go-forth may not be helpful. There are plenty of other suttas (e.g., AN 8.54) better suited for them.


That was clear to me. :slight_smile:

Yet, the idea that the texts that extoll the renunciate life are shaming the householder for not going forth is pretty strong stuff.


This is true. It’s also important to keep in mind that without lay support there would be no going forth into the monastic sangha. Both are necessary.


But you see nowadays the going forth is at minimum and the lay support at maximum numbers.

So I don’t fully agree in your view that there will be no sangha if no support from lay supporter. These are just words from lay supporters to comfort themselves for not going forth. So many fears , comfort, dears, mortgages to hold the feet not to go forth.

In other words, we can say there will be no lay supporters benefits from sangha if there is nobody going forth anymore.

And Im a lay supporter by the way


Assailed by afflictions, we discover Dharma
And find the way to liberation. Thank you, evil forces!

When sorrows invade the mind, we discover Dharma
And find lasting happiness. Thank you, sorrows!

Through harm caused by spirits we discover Dharma
And find fearlessness. Thank you, ghosts and demons!

Through people’s hate we discover Dharma
And find benefits and happiness. Thank you, those who hate us!

Through cruel adversity, we discover Dharma
And find the unchanging way. Thank you, adversity!

Through being impelled to by others, we discover Dharma
And find the essential meaning. Thank you, all who drive us on!

We dedicate our merit to you all, to repay your kindness.

(Gyalwa Longchenpa)


I find that the distinction between renunciate and lay life is beautifully laid out in MN81

MN81:18.1: ‘Great king, there is a market town named Vebhaliṅga, where there’s a potter named Ghaṭīkāra. He is my chief attendant.

Here we read about Ghaṭīkāra the potter and his student Jotipāla. Ghaṭīkāra is my hero in the lay life. He basically drags Jotipāla by the hair to see Kassapa Buddha. In this story, the lay Ghaṭīkāra has more skill and insight than Jotipāla, the monk-to-be.

And what about Jotipāla? Well, Jotipāla eventually goes forth and after many lives himself became Gautama Buddha.

Until non-return and beyond, the path is a circle.


I’d like to add a mention of the Jataka Tales since they’re tangentially relevant to the topic of broadening the reach of Buddhism. I’ve overlooked this collection for so long. Maybe it’s about time I read it!

Whereas Western intellectuals seek the essence of Buddhism in its doctrines and meditation practices, the traditional Buddhists of Asia absorb the ideas and values of their spiritual heritage through its rich narrative literature about the Buddha and his disciples. The most popular collection of Buddhist stories is, without doubt, the Jātakas. These are the stories of the Buddha’s past births, relating his experiences as he passed from life to life on the way to becoming a Buddha.
— Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi


People grieve for what they see as mine, for nothing possessed is constant, nothing is constantly possessed. Seeing this separation simply as it is, one shouldn’t follow the household life.
Snp 4.6

While reading the Sutta Nipata last night, I was reminded of that verse. It’s pretty blatantly anti-householder, no? Regardless, depending on where someone is on the path, this teaching may resonate with them, but it certainly isn’t applicable to every householder.


uhm. Not how I read it. I read it as perhaps using “the household life” as a universally applicable metaphor; clinging to what is impermanent is dukkha, is not the renunciate way, regardless of “who” does it. But maybe that metaphor itself bolsters your point, from an identification POV?


One shouldn’t be so concerned about the final stage. I have no problem settling for a mere stream-entry, and if I have to put up with some wasted years in heaven, I guess that I deserved it too …
One may be more concerned about numerous people disrobing, and that after many years of practice. To me, it means that all of these individuals didn’t reach even the first stage.

Nothing is sure, anything can happen, and of that, I’m sure about


Maybe we should also consider that many of these suttas would have been given to trainee monks- gentlemen who would have but newly gone forth. Undoubtedly, once the romance and euphoria had settled, many would be feeling quite down and out… maybe even considering going back to the household life. The Buddha had the unenviable job of firing them up, exhorting them to stick to their practice and seek Nibbana wholeheartedly.
Most of these suttas sort of remind me of how my Sergeant Major used to bawl us out back when when I was a fresh army recruit. The contempt he had for ‘bloddy Civilians…’ :crazy_face:
Mind you, these very same Civilians were the ones who paid the taxes that funded the Army. The protection of these Civilians was also the reason that we all had signed up in the first place. Yet, to be called a ‘Civilian’ was to us every bit as insulting as being called ‘Householder’ was to Potaliya. :rofl:


This Dhamma was not given to Anathapindika until he was on his death bed, apparently for a reason. Later on in the sutta, Venerable Sariputta says,

“Householder, it does not occur to us to teach such a Dhamma talk to white-clothed laypeople. Rather, we teach like this to those gone forth.”

This appears to be clear evidence that the Buddha and his disciples knew their audience and taught accordingly. For example, a teaching on the contemplating charnel grounds would not likely be helpful for a young mother who needs energy and motivation to keep up with and care for her baby. However, there are plenty of suttas that would be relevant and helpful.

Another passage from the suttas that comes to mind is that the Buddha teaches what is true, what is beneficial, and at the right time. Again, this shows the Buddha carefully considers his audience before teaching. It seems clear that what would be appropriate for an experienced monastic wouldn’t necessarily be helpful for a king dealing with overeating (there, of course, is a sutta where the Buddha helps a king in such circumstances).

with metta,


Well said. My wife and I have been struggling with this for years as practicing householders with children, jobs, parents, etc. The struggle comes in part from taking courses and going to retreats where this distinction seems to be largely ignored.

Ignoring the distinction caused conflict and tension in us, so much so a couple of years ago we started endeavoring to develop a website that will contain all of but only the EBTs to or for lay people. We are close to having that project completed.

We have an index of such suttas, and we’re just going back through them to try and narrow them down further. The main thing that’s slowed us down is I really enjoy reading the suttas so much I tend to stop and study them while I’m working on the project. Anyway, I plan on posting more information soon and asking others for suggestions before we go into the development stage.

Thanks for the post!


It seems to be aimed at monastics who need to be disenchanted with the householder life in order to succeed. And, as you seem to be suggesting, it would not be appropriate for householders, especially when no context is provided.


Maybe a reminder along the lines of " The grass is NOT greener on the other side of the fence; keep striving in what you’ve started; get through these difficult bits! "

However - the Middle Path may BE “greener”, if intent is liberation. Same with renunciate life. :pray:


When the coin is flipped, it comes up heads or tails. Yet even so, I see no need to laboriously slice the coin in half, yielding this and not this, that and not that. Without doing anything, it remains one whole coin. Renunciates and householders are exactly the one thing and different. How could we disregard the difference or see them as the same?


Now that I’m a father, I’ve been thinking that as my son grows up, Jataka tales are going to be part of our regular reading. I can definitely see their value now.


No problem.

Wonderful idea. Many of us would certainly benefit from such a project.

I once entertained the thought of compiling an anthology of discourses with Mahanama the Sakyan, but never got around to it.

I believe it does. The Buddha, fairly consistently, conflates the household life, specifically, with dukkha, dust, fetters, etc in the texts. However, it’s important to note, as Brooks states in the above post, that the Buddha doesn’t illustrate this connection with every householder. He was considerate of people’s individual circumstances.

When Dhammadinna and five hundred lay followers asked for a practice that would lead to their "lasting welfare and happiness", the Buddha initially prescribed deep meditative practices. When Dhammadinna explained how difficult it would be to do these with children and possessions, the Buddha then prescribed a path to stream-entry (SN 55.53).

Traditionally, lay followers were likely never meant to study the Nikayas like text books, try to make sense of so many lists, or apply discourses not directed to them, but instead focus on a small selection of teachings prescribed by a teacher (i.e., recollections, precepts, and maybe Jataka Tales) that apply to our individual circumstances.


And even in this sutta, the Buddha qualified his instructions to lay persons about contemplating the deep discourses by saying do it, “from time to time”. This suggests he recognizes such contemplation and practice wouldn’t be appropriate all the time for lay persons, as it would be for a monastic.


There is a difference between good/bad and good/better categorizing. Do the suttas use good/bad, or do we interpret them that way? Maybe both?