The Art of Lay Life 10: Lay and Monastic

Uposatha Day Essay for the Full Moon

Index to Art of Lay Life Series

Over the last nine weeks I have presented the Art of Lay Life. Summarized in brief the ideal is to live a life that includes those elements, aside from recognized Buddhist practices, that you just have to include, but otherwise is as much like a monastic life as possible. This is an ideal in that I do not expect any readers to take this principle to heart absolutely; lack of conviction, lack of discipline, overwhelming impulses and all of these things conspire against the ideal. An ideal practitioner is a rare thing. However each of you can lean toward the ideal and study your own life to gain conviction that what I write might have some merit.

The Art of Monastic Life is to renounce and simplify, hanging on to nothing, most especially not any sense of personal identity but also not any of those things that sustain and gratify a special person. Now I have made a big distinction between living a monastic life and being an ordained monastic. The reason is most ordained monastics also only approximate the ideal of a monastic life and in this way are not much different than devout laypeople. It is certainly possible for a devout layperson to sustain a more monastic life than most ordained monastics, and accordingly realize great benefit in practice. This raises the question, Why do we have monastics? The answer, it turns out, is very important to the lay Buddhist.

First, although an ordained monastic may be imperfect in living a monastic life they vow to do so and have a social obligation to do so. These vows and obligations can be compared to marriage vows and the obligations of being a husband or life, which are also commonly kept imperfectly, and yet generally do make a big difference in sustaining the marriage as a cycle of transgression and repentance  serves to keep a spouse within the understood boundaries. Ordained monastics take a set of vows laypeople generally do not. Moreover just as the wedding ring marks the spouse’s obligations in a way that invites public scrutiny, the robes and the shaved head mark the ordained monastic’s.

Second, a monastic has a clear blueprint for life more detailed than I could insist on in this series. A monastic’s vows have the form of hundreds, of precepts which specify in detain how to Select, Reject, Balance and Simplify. They leave very little wiggle-room. If you examine them carefully you find that systematically they prohibit virtually every opportunity for seeking personal advantage, for self-enhancement, for self-gratification. Most fundamentally they are based on simplicity, renunciation, and sensual restraint. Celibacy is generally taken as definitive of the monastic. The monastic is not allowed to beautify herself, is not allowed to engage in any normal livelihood, like farming, is not allowed to barter or trade, must strictly curtail sensual pleasures. The monastic is not even allowed to purposely endear themselves to laypeople in the aims of receiving better offerings of food and clothing. In this way the pure ordained monastic becomes the ultimate renunciate, and is likely to progress rapidly on the path. This does not mean the monastic cannot live comfortably, it means that it is, except in crisis situations, it none of her business.

Third, the monastic has the institutional support necessary to lead a monastic life uncompromised by life’s many contingencies. The institution is that of monastic ordination/vow and of lay support. A lot of people balk at the very idea of religious institutions or organized religions.  (My adult daughter has always maintained that she does not believe in organized religions. She used to often come to the Austin Zen Center, where I used to live as a priest, particularly if some event like a potluck was underway. I would point out to her that someone had to organize that. Ajahn Brahm likes to describe Buddhism as the most disorganized religion.)  The importance of monastic institution to Buddhism is evident in the importance the Buddha attached to it. Consider that the Buddha consistently referred to the entirety of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya. The Vinaya, half of this compound, specifically defines the monastic institution in its behavioral, procedural and social aspects. So it is important to understand what functions this institution serves, for both monastics and laity.

The immediate reason the ordained monastic requires institutional support is that in letting go of seeking any personal advantage she puts herself in an extremely vulnerable situation, and so is totally dependent on the goodwill of the laity, who must take an interest in the welfare of the monastics if they are to survive as monastics. Monastics are like your cat, who would also have a hard time surviving by herself. With that support monastics are in a unique position to fully embrace the monastic lifestyle with virtually no distractions. Thus institutionally Buddhism provides exceptional support for an exceptional lifestyle, for those who are able and willing to vow to pursue that lifestyle. A Buddhist community, in effect, commits itself to offering this opportunity to those able and willing to take advantage of it, thereby enabling a significant numbers of its members will advance far along the path of Buddhist practice.

This often raises eyebrows in the West, perhaps particularly in a culture like America’s that values individuality and independence. The question arises, Why would lay people trying to progress in their own lay practice support monastics so they can progress in their own?

Before answering this, consider the following.  The monastic who takes sincere advantage of the opportunity provided by the Buddhist community, when her mind falls in line with the monastic lifestyle, that is, when any thoughts of personal advantage are totally frustrated, has an enormous reserve of time and energy. These can go in any combination of three directions. First, into contemplative practice and study. Second, into activities that directly benefit others. And third, sleep.

Unfortunately many monastics like to sleep a lot, but it is discouraged, and many spend most of their time in meditation, and many engage themselves not only in teaching the Dharma and providing pastoral counseling (expected clerical functions), but also in general education, founding of hospitals and other social services and public works. This engagement in public welfare is often unrecognized in the West; I was amazed to observe what a significant factor it is in Burmese society. The reason is we tend to think of monastics as pretty idle. They must be idle when it comes to acting on their own behalf, but there is nothing in the monastic precepts that keeps them from being as active as they possibly can on behalf of others. Monastic practice is not about escape from the world, only about escape from self-centered engagement in the world. Ven. Walpola Rahula, author of the classic What the Buddha Taught, wrote another book in which he traces the history of social engagement by monastics in Sri Lanka in the pre-colonial and then colonial times and argues that the idea that monastics are idle came about as the colonial powers disenfranchised the monastics of their traditional social roles as a means of reducing their powerful influence in the society.

So, why does the laity support monastics? This will be the topic of next week’s essay on the Art of Lay Life.

5 Responses to “The Art of Lay Life 10: Lay and Monastic”

  1. Aparna Pallavi Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    I have been reading the posts in this series, and one thing comes through to me very strongly — one of the aims of Buddhist practice, lay or monastic, appears to be to create a space, through simplification and/or renunciation, where the self can engage deeply with itself by cutting off distractions born of engaging with the world in an unmindful manner. I would feel that the very fact that a person should sincerely desire to do so would make such a person immensely valuable for society, regardless of whether that person is actively involved in social welfare activities on behalf of others. I think such a person, once she has attained a certain amount of stability in practice, could serve as a much needed refuge, guide and mentor for a lot of lay people who are in need of these things, those who are unable to bring that kind of intensity to their own practice because of the distractions that willy-nilly happen in lay life through involvement in external world elements like livelihoods and relationships. Also, though I have never till date had an opportunity to make a ‘dana’ in the Buddhist spirit, I feel that to actually make an offering would be an act that would feel very good, bring an immediate sense of joy and peace to the giver. Also, if monastic practitioners were to simply do their alms round, accepting gifts and at the same time answering people’s queries about dhamma practice and helping them where they need, don’t you think that would be valid enough social engagement?


  2. bhikkhucintita Says:


    You put it well. Following up on your analogy, we could say that the purpose of lifestyle appropriate for Buddhist practice is to disengage the self from acting or having to act in its own interests, like shifting a car into neutral. Then the self has the space to engage with itself, like tuning the engine, or even to fall away completely, like riding a bicycle.

    I agree completely. It really does not take much to be of value to society, simply being a calm presence in the midst of the turmoil is enough. The Buddha asked monks to go on alms round daily, just for that daily contact, serving as a teacher or simply as an example. I have had the benefit of association with many strong practitioners in my practice career and I am enormously grateful for how they have influenced me, sometimes in the most subtle ways.

    And yes, there is great joy in dana. As a Westerner at first I had difficulty accepting gifts as a newly ordained monk; it is part of our work ethic or rugged individualism, or something. Then I noticed two things: First, a couple of times I turned down an offer of help because I did not want to be a burden,and noticed the deep disappointment in the would-be donors eyes. Second, and I see this daily, is the great joy people find in giving. I guess I could add a third, the enormous appreciation I feel for the laity that is so willing to give; it brings tears to my eyes. Ultimately the idea is not that dana to monks is so great, but that we should all be like that to everybody all the time. The Burmese have come far in internalizing that creed.


  3. Aparna Pallavi Says:

    Dear Bhante,

    Thanks for the reply. I suppose I can understand that a society like the US would find it difficult to understand this way of life. It is the same with a lot of urban Indians, though the corrupt and greedy Hindu priesthood has contributed a lot to this state of things. But my main aconcern im in asking this question was a different one. You have spoken about bhikkhus engaging in social service activities in Burma. It is well if Bhikkhus can find a way to engage in social welfare without disturbing their practice, but I have some exposure to the world of social service, ranging all the way from simple activities like caring for the sick or street children, all the way to funded social restructuring activity to outright activism, challenging government policies and so on, and I am aware that it is not an area where inner peace comes easy. Very often social workers harbour the same unskillful mental attitudes as ordinary people, and almost always they suffer from higher levels of stress than most other sections of society. Dealing with nastiness (at the individual and institutional levels) is also part of the day’s work. So I feel that while it is good if some bhikkhus can engage in social welfare work without endangering their inner balance, but it would be disturbing if a society expects them to do so simply to justify their chosen way of life.


  4. bhikkhucintita Says:


    I agree, there is a tradeoff whereby one sacrifices one’s practice in this interest of benefiting others. Some people are remarkably skilled at social engagement while maintaining a clear state of equanimity. I suspect the Dalai Lama is like that, but it is very rare. Once we attach to consequences we’ve disrupted out practice.

    This is handled in different ways by monastics. In the Theravada tradition there is a recognized difference between forest monks and village monks, and it is often said that forest monks devote themselves to their own practice while village monks devote themselves to others, especially through teaching. I don’t like this distinction, because it is too all-or-nothing. I think the forest monks probably end up benefiting others most through their example, while the village monks generally do not meditate at all, and whereas they memorize scriptures they often have no idea what they mean. There is generally a creed that monastics should never be involved in partisan politics. I think this is wise because it helps not being attached to results and also gives a clear role for monastics in encouraging dialog, civil discussion and hopefully harmony in what often end up as bitter and narrow-minded battles in which no one learns anything.

    In general monastics have no obligation to justify their way of life by helping others, except by being an example by living purely. Some monastics find they are good teachers, realize that others seem to learn readily from them and devote their attention there. Others are drawn to relieving suffering through caring for the sick and dying. (This is is good occupation for monastics, because basically all they have to do is be present; it is practice in itself and is a big comfort to the sick or dying.) Some are organizers; Sitagu Sayadaw, who is here in Austin right now, is a prime example; he’s as much CEO as monk, constantly on the phone, but always very peaceful. Others really want to meditate in the forest all the time. It is really an individual choice.

    Personally I am still seeking the right balance. Right now America is at a political and economic crisis point with virtually no responsible leadership and a lot of ignorance bordering on insanity, and more hatred than compassion, driving policy. You’ve probably read about it. I feel a bit drawn to a lot more activism, but realize it is not my role, it is not good for maintaining my practice, it is not where I am most useful, it is not something I have a talent for. My role as a monk is to represent a sane path in the confusion.


  5. Aparna Pallavi Says:

    Dear Bahnte,

    Charmed, and most greatful for this reply.

    With a deep bow,



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