Lay Buddhist Practice 1

Uposatta Day, July 8 (Index to Series)

Energetic and heedful in his tasks,
Wisely administering his wealth,
He lives a balanced life,
Protecting what he has amassed.

Endowed with faith and virtue too,
Generous he is and free from avarice;
He ever works to clear the path
That leads to weal in future life.

Thus to the layman full of faith,
By him, so truly named ‘Enlightened,’
These eight conditions have been told
Which now and after lead to bliss.

AN 8.54

Lay Practice is consistently contrasted with Monastic Practice in the ancient Buddhist texts, throughout Buddhist history, and in all Buddhist countries and almost all traditions in Asia. Segmenting the religious community into a monastic and a lay component is a peculiarity of Buddhism, along with some sects of Hinduism and certain Christian sects. In the West we generally do not appreciate how deeply embedded this is in virtually all Buddhist societies in Asia, though we generally are aware that the Buddha and his closest disciples were monastics and that most of his teachings were given to monastics. Is this bifurcation necessary, or even desirable in the democratic West?

The core of Buddhist practice, what really distinguishes Buddhism from other religious practices, is the Noble Eightfold Path. Notably, the Eightfold Noble Path makes no distinction between Lay and Monastic, each is fully capable of observing all eight noble steps and neither is exempt from following all eight noble steps in the attainment of the highest goal. So, what is it that makes Lay Practice different from Monastic Practice?

Not a cookie-cutter religion. Practice obligations tend to be quite uniform in probably most of the worlds religions. Islam is a primary example because the daily obligations are well defined for all. Quakers are another; their governance is even highly democratic, and includes no clergy. Probably most Protestant sects can be included. I call these “cookie-cutter religions,” because a uniform definition of what is expected of the adherent, that they live according to a certain moral code, that they except a certain creed, that they follow certain daily ritual practices, would be expected to produce similar results. Of course people everywhere inevitably distinguish themselves in terms of level of commitment or laxness, but there is a lot of communal strength and conceptual appeal in the uniformity of the cookie-cutter paradigm.

Buddhism in its pure form could never be a cookie-cutter religion. Buddhism has an unusually sophisticated and deep-reaching system of practice with many interconnected parts, and a very long and rigorous path of practice passing through many different stages of development, generally conceptualized as proceeding through many lifetimes, and culminating in complete awakening. Because of the potential extreme depth of systematic Buddhist practice it is generally defined conceptually in terms of an ideal, in terms of what the most whole-hearted, committed and fortunate will undertake but few even of them will attain, in this lifetime.

Virtually everyone falls short of the Buddhist ideal, and to wildly varying degrees. It is recognized from the get-go that its adherents will differentiate themselves on the basis of faith, commitment, obligations and interests outside of Buddhist practice, preferences as well within Buddhist practice, zeal, opportunities for inspiration and instruction from others, and so on. As a result, some adherents will meditate, but not follow precepts, some will follow precepts and practice generosity, but fail to approach contentment in sensual matters. In short, in Buddhism there is very little uniformity of practice, and correspondingly there is little obligation to maintain some agreed standard of practice. The amount and nature of Buddhist practice are ultimately matters of personal choice and opportunity and correspondingly there is a great tolerance for a variety of personal choices.

Setting out on the Buddhist path is like taking a hike with a large and very mixed group of people of every age, state of health, type of footwear, backpack size, degree of inebriation, and so on. Such a group will spread out along the path, with the strongest, healthiest, be-hiking-booted, light-backpacked, boldest, most persistent and most enterprising leading the way. In the middle there might be a mutually infatuated teenage couple that keeps up in spurts, but keeps getting side-tracked and disappearing from the path for minutes at a time, some chubby middle-aged people who huff and puff, along with some fit but ancient birdwatchers. Falling way back are parents and their little kids who “cannot walk another step,” a couple of people sitting on a rock drinking beer, an elderly gentleman watching fire ants devour his cane that he had to abandon upright after it sank into a soft spot in the ground, and a lady who broke a heal upon encountering the first rock. The Buddhist path is defined with the leaders at the head in mind and the rest of us try our best to keep up but straggling to varying degrees; we do what we can, and often the accomplishments of the leaders, and tales of views from lofty heights inspire us to try a bit harder. The field guides, trail maps and high-tech hiking boots are generally designed with the leaders in mind.

No, the monastics are not necessarily the leaders. However, individually people do make practice commitments at different points in the mix, often very rigorous commitments, and Buddhism does provide standards and communal support at many different levels depending on individual commitment. The Refuges bring with them a certain incentive. There are various sets of Precepts, from five to over three hundred, that one can take for life or on special occasions. There are communal ritual practices, Dharma talks, meditation and other events to encourage structure in one’s practice. Working with a teacher can support a strong personal practice. Monastic practice is a particularly strong standard supported within the Buddhist community. The point is that Buddhism has its cookie cutters but a lot of different cookie cutters, including one that turns out nuns and monks, but also many adherents that aren’t cut to size by any of them.

The jugglers fallacy. A normal worldling life is full of different activities and commitments, obligations and worries. Many things we do are not chosen as a part of our Buddhist practice, or might even go against good practice. For instance, we do one thing because it is a family obligation or because it is our job and the boss says we have to do it. We do another thing because it seems like fun, even though it is not conducive to serenity and is of questionable virtue. We would rather gossip, listen to loud music, watch an adventure show, make love or sleep than meditate. These are all life-style choices. We each value different things and not all of our values come from the Buddha. I am a monk, so it is a good guess that my most of my values are in line with Buddhist teachings. However, I am also the father of grown children, and am fully aware of how meaningful and rewarding parenthood can be. Most people juggle a lot of things along with their Buddhist practice.

This issue of juggling is more thorny than most realize: Suppose we find our lives are divided between our Buddhist practice and other things at at a ratio of maybe 10%, to 90%. So, we calculate: “Hmm, if I practiced 100% I could become enlightened in 1 year. It follows that if I practice the way I am now doing, at 10%, I could become enlightened in 10 years; that seems both reasonable and acceptable.” This same logic is commonly used to compute time until completion for various tasks, for instance, for building a house when only weekends are available for working on it, or for attending night classes toward a college degree. However this logic is a fallacy when applied to Buddhist practice, what I will call the Juggler’s Fallacy. Why the logic of the Juggler’s Fallacy fails is that everything we do is relevant to our practice, potentially setting it forward or backward or into a tailspin. It doesn’t matter if we call it practice or not, nothing is ever excluded from practice, whether it is right practice, wrong practice or something in between.

The reason nothing is excluded from practice is that karma is the stuff of our practice, which is to say, our character and destiny develop according to our intentional actions of body, speech and mind. If this were not the case, practice would be fruitless. However, we are producing karma all the time, not just during the 10% of the time that we are “practicing Buddhism.” In fact, the 90% of the time we are doing something other than “practicing Buddhism” is bound to dominate our progress. This is, for instance, why Right Livelihood is so important; 40 hours working in a slaughter house is a lot of cumulative karma in a week, enough to overwhelm one hour of daily meditation regardless how many years, or in which jhanas, we meditate. We cannot even begin to make a separation between our practice and the rest of our life. Everything we juggle in our lives influences the progress we make along the path.

Monastic life is a life of not juggling. Monastic life is most supportive of Buddhist practice because it has nothing visibly in it, only our own untamed thoughts, that contradicts personal development, and because it has much that supports it. In fact almost every element of the monastic life is there because it is sound Buddhist practice. Even if my meditation is lax and my mindfulness sloppy, as I adhere to the monastic lifestyle, development will at least not regress. I might be like the chubby middle-aged people huffing and puffing, but will make progress. If my practice is ardent, as I adhere to the monastic lifestyle, progress along the Buddhist path will be very rapid indeed, and I could be up front strong and fit, and with high-tech hiking boots. The monastic life was carefully formulated and described in the Vinaya by the Buddha, who used elements of ascetic practices common in Buddha’s India. It is a life of renunciation, but not extreme asceticism. that pares away everything that I would otherwise have to juggle.

The Juggler’s Life. The Lay life is the juggler’s life, and most people will prefer to juggle many things that a monastic would turn away from. To begin with people’s values are informed through many influences, not all of which are Buddhist, and those values may be difficult to give up. Secondly, people vary in faith and may not be convinced about Buddhist values or that the monastic life is as advertised. Third, many people have family obligations, debts, etc. that keep them locked into the juggler;s life. The most notable deal-breaker for most is that monastics are strictly celibate! They also minimize family responsibilities, refrain from accumulating wealth or doing any kind of business or conducting a conventional livelihood. They restrain the senses by not going to shows, listening to music, and so on. Monastic life is simple, and believe-it-or-not quite joyful, but does not enjoy universal appeal.

Lay Practice is the art of juggling. Lay practitioners follow the Noble Eightfold Path just like monastics, but in addition must follow the extremely challenging ninth practice of Right Juggling in order to shape and balance your life in such a way that the less Buddhist aspects of your life are not overwhelming or neutralizing the benefits of Buddhist practice. Lay practice is challenging, but not limited in its potential to achieve the highest attainments of Buddhist practice. What is worrisome about the Western lay life is that so few people realize that there is an art to juggling, that if not mastered can make progress on the path all but impossible. I’ve often seen Buddhist practice accordingly end in frustration. I hope that the series I am herewith beginning will help readers master the Art of Lay Practice.

Let me present the Art in brief, but in metaphorical terms that may be cryptic enough to keep you in suspense until next week, but suggestive enough to inspire you to think about Lay Practice between now and then.

The Art of Juggling.

Select. Choose your balls carefully. Choose a set of balls that feel just right for you, that are the right size, weight and appearance, and that are not too great in number.

Reject. Get rid of balls that are defective or unjuggleable. This is a check on the result of the first step. You may have been captivated by a ball because of its appearance, for instance, but overlooked its drawbacks. Throw it out if it is really too heavy, light, small to be usable.

Balance. Have a wholesome, balanced relationship to your balls. Don’t be captivated by, nor proud of, the new shiny golden ball as it whizzes by. Your task is to juggle it faithfully and skillfully.

Simplify. Don’t juggle things that aren’t balls. That is, while you have, say, six balls in the air, don’t at the same time try to answer your cell phone, smoke, drink coffee or flirt with a member of the audience.

3 Responses to “Lay Buddhist Practice 1”

  1. Joan Denson Says:

    I love your newly coined word “unjuggleable”. Sometimes you just have to make up words because they seem appropriate. I really do like the preview of what is to come and can already see where just the summary will be very useful to me. ~Joan Denson


  2. Brian Farley Says:

    Thank you for starting this thought-provoking topic… very appropriate analogy.


  3. aparna Pallavi Says:

    Dear Venerable,

    Thanks for this series, and thanks for the very with-it imagery. I hope some time in this you will write about the difference between remaining meditative through the ardours of the ordinary life and trying to solve your lay life’s problems through meditation, and how to go about attaining a balance between the two.


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