The Problem With Disregarding the Distinction Between Renunciant and Lay Practice

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All renunciates begin as lay people. :slight_smile: Even the Buddha.


In Hinduism, the stories of the various gods from Puranic literature are often approached as a means to humanize the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads. The Jataka Tales remind me of that literature. The Cullaka-Setthi Jātaka (Ja 4) feels like another telling of the Simile of the Cloth (MN 7). Reading Ken and Visakha Kawasaki’s modern rendering of these texts has been quite enjoyable.

Nice catch. Have you noticed how the target audience often shifts to mendicants/monks when a deep meditation topic is raised? I noticed this in the Anuruddha Sutta (MN 127).

Master Builder Pañcakaṅga: “Sir, some senior mendicants have come to me and said, ‘Householder, develop the limitless release of heart.’ (…)" Venerable Anuruddha: “And what is the limitless release of the heart? It’s when a mendicant meditates (…)”

Interesting point. :thinking:

Indeed. But it wouldn’t be feasible to expect everyone to become renunciants in a single lifetime.


I wonder if y’all have noticed the little green icon in the sutta description on SuttaCentral? I saw it for the first time today… I don’t know if it was there earlier or not… :thinking:
It seems to grade the suttas on a 3 point scale… Seedling- pot- tree according to target audience sophistication.



Beautiful sutta. Thank you.

I read it differently to you though. I think this might be due to a lot of serious illness around me at the moment.

My reaction was: when I finally fully stop grieving over (potential or actual) loss of loved ones, due to me “seeing this separation simply as it is” (i.e. without having grasped them, or what they bring to my life, as ‘mine’), I will certainly be ready to leave the household life and embark on the next stage. But until then…


I’m not sure if the Venerable is shifting to a different audience here, or he is speaking about monastics as a means to inspire the householder. There are quite a few suttas to lay persons that seem to fit into the category I call, “for inspiration.” In these suttas, the Buddha or another monastic speaks to a lay person about the accomplishments or training of monastics seemingly to inspire the lay person, not necessarily to instruct him or her how to live their life. MN 127 somewhat seems to fit into this category.


:slight_smile: I recall an old programmers’ joke; it’s not a bug, but a feature.
Well, it is what it is, at least.


Yeah, I’m a bit hesitant about reading too much into the addressees. Bear in mind that the Buddha/monks rarely addressed bhikkhunis…does that mean those teachings were not intended for bhikkhunis?

That said, I do agree with the larger point @tonysharp is making, that we should be giving more attention to suttas addressed to house holders. I think such a thing will benefit laypeople and monastic alike (since, let’s face it….modern monastics live completely differently than the ones in the Buddhas day)


Have I mentioned how much I’ve been loving the Jataka Tales yet? :grin: They’ve somehow garnered this reputation of being fairy tales. They’re more than that. It’s the Dhamma in Technicolor. I bet a lot of people—young and old—would be more receptive of the Buddha’s teachings if they were transmitted through talks punctuated by a Jataka Tale.

Yep. It’s really handy for navigating. Start easy, then work your way up.

That’s a unique way to look at it. :thinking:

In the Āyācana Sutta (AN 4.176), the Buddha cites the ideal monk, nun, layman, and laywoman. One of the things I respect most about Early Buddhism, unlike the countless other traditions I’ve researched, is that it doesn’t draw hard lines through gender regarding capability. Nevertheless, the highest attainment reached by most of the layfollowers cited in the Āyācana Sutta is non-returning.


Not sure if I would have drawn this conclusion except for after studying the about 350 suttas to or about lay persons, I’ve seen a similar pattern in dozens of other suttas to lay people.


Not sure this is comparing apples to apples. Both bikkhus and bikkhunis have the same goal, roughly the same code of conduct, and are full time mendicants. So, most teachings to monks seem to clearly apply to bikkhunis.

On the other hand, lay persons have fairly different needs, different training rules to follow, unique duties, different right livelihood, etc, than both bikkhus and bikkhunis. Fortunately, we still have quite a few EBTs where the Buddha and other Venerables address lay people and instruct them on matters that are specifically relevant to them.

That said, I agree that it is difficult to always draw conclusions from the addressees. However, it does seem like in some suttas, the addressees can shed some light on the context and meaning of the sutta.


The most concisely helpful and deep advice I’ve ever gotten from a sutta was from a bhikkhuni. Her name was Dhammadinnā. Hear her roar:

MN44:29.13: “What is the counterpart of extinguishment?”
MN44:29.14: “Your question goes too far, Visākha. You couldn’t figure out the limit of questions. For extinguishment is the culmination, destination, and end of the spiritual life.

I :heart: MN44. Visākha was a little dense. But at least he had the wit to remember all this and have it verified by the Buddha.

Because of this I bristle a bit at an implication that bhikkhunis did not have access to some teachings. Apologies if I misread. :pray:


Sorry, I had to laugh, because I associate this phrase, “hear me roar,” with drunk teenage girls because of the pop star Katy Perry, which is quite the opposite of Ven Dhammadinnā!



Perhaps you meant it tongue-in-cheek, but for those who might take your statement at face value, I’m not sure if “disadvantageous” is the right word - perhaps it is not taught to the laypeople because the laypeople themselves may “perceive it as disadvantageous” and thus be “unreceptive towards it” - as opposed to the teachings themselves being disadvantageous for laity. Does that make sense?

Unless you have attained Arahatship, perhaps your current study and practice could help set you up even more favorably in your future life/lives?


See below:

I agree. This seems to be the proper criterion regarding how and when teachings are taught.


Good point!

What do you mean by “we”? Laypeople specifically?
Do you mean to say that laypeople and monastics should attend to the discourses that are most suitable for them? For example, laypeople shouldn’t inappropriately attend to discourses intended for monastics and vice versa?


I’m naturally going to apply the suttas that are most suitable to me. Sure dependent origination is important, but The People of Bamboo Gate (SN 55.7) makes it much easier for me to understand causation that leads to less suffering in my life than something more abstract such as DO. And I doubt that monastics will find suttas about how to deal with wealth as very useful.

This is the best method if you want more theory, but cramming knowledge that leaves you more confused after you’ve read it is not helpful. Especially if nobody can give you a satisfactory explanation of it, or you still don’t understand it after the explanation.
I have experience from this after trying to study calculus, if you really can’t get it, just let it go. The nice thing about the suttas is that the more wisdom you build with the simpler stuff the easier it becomes to understand the more complex things.


Whoever is interested in broadening the reach and appeal of the Dhamma, for the benefit of current Buddhists, and for seekers interested in Buddhist practice. Currently, Western Buddhism is kind of like a shoe store that only sells one or two sizes. The shoes are quite nice, but they don’t fit everyone’s feet.


I agree, perhaps:

Size 1: mindfulness
Size 2: meditation

maybe metta, and a few more.

Well-said. Thanks for bring this important topic up.

Thank you clarifying.

I agree with the sentiment of your claim that this is problematic.

Based on my own assessment of this problem, I think the most suitable thing to do is to treat the Dhamma-Vinaya like a cleaned, cut, polished gem with many facets and let beings see the side or facet that is most suitable for them.

The main problem that I see is that the gem has become covered with dust and perhaps fragmented and broken to the point of not really resembling a unified, solid gem - a full and complete Dhamma-Vinaya.

The dust seems to represent all the stuff that was added on later to the Dhamma-Vinaya based on their misguided attempts to “improve upon” and “clarify it” until it the gem itself is barely visible.

By polishing the dust off the gem and presenting the most suitable face of the gem to receptive beings, perhaps beings would be able to better recognize what part of the Dhamma-Vinaya fits for them under the present conditions.


Ahh…those dastardly, dusty minor rules:broom: :gem:

At first I thought that the bhikhunni rule on not shaving armpits was minor. Then I thought about it. And now I observe it. For many decades, I had indeed been shaving my pits for odor reduction.

It is not minor because some religions mandate it. And I did not like the implications of that. That is why I don’t consider that rule minor. Nor does that mean I am disregarding the distinction between laity and monastics.


It seems like “from time to time” is included in some suttas as a reference to take time for retreat. For example, even the Uposatha day instructions seem to follow this pattern. That is, on the Uposatha day, householders are instructed to follow different training rules and essentially emulate monastics, which is different from what their expected to do every other day of their lives.

That said, I see your point Contemplating the deeper dhamma just periodically could cause some people confusion , tension, etc. In fact, it definitely caused conflict in me previously. However, for me, it currently works. For example, I apply “from time to time” every week by reserving time for deeper dhamma study for the weekends when I don’t have work duties.

I also see my yearly retreats as getting seclusion “from time to time,” as taught in the Piti sutta. SuttaCentral AN 5.176 But again, as you suggest, maybe this approach wouldn’t work well for all.


In a sutta class recently, Ajahn Brahm stated that the convention is to address the most senior persons in an assembly. As such Bhikkhus tend to be addressed as a matter of course, even if there are other people in the assembly.


Ajahn Brahmali and others have made a similar argument, and I’m sure it has merit. However, there are suttas where the Buddha is clearly addressing a lay person, like King Pasenadi in the SN, for example, and there are likely bikkhus present. Perhaps this convention applies to when the Buddha is giving a general teaching and not necessarily involved in a dialogue with one individual like a lay person.

That said, I agree that the deeper dhamma can be helpful to some lay people at the right time and that the Buddha taught the deeper dhamma when lay persons were around. My point is that the deeper dhamma is not always appropriate for every lay person in every circumstance.

On the other hand, in some circumstances where the deeper dhamma may not appropriate for a lay person, there may be other suttas that could be helpful, many of which would include those addressed to lay persons.

Perhaps it’s like walking and running. If we have someone who is learning how to walk, the instructions for how to run are not appropriate at that time. It doesn’t mean that running and walking aren’t related or that learning how to walk isn’t necessary to learning how to run. It just means that different people need different instructions at different times.

On the other hand, someone learning how to walk could hear instructions on running for inspiration but not as instruction about what he or she should do while learning how to walk.