Uposatha Teaching for the Last Quarter Moon (Index to Series)
In this series I have been careful to distinguish the monastic lifestyle from the being an ordained monastic. The monastic lifestyle is adopted as a matter of degree, an ordained monastic is something you either are or are not. The two do not necessary coincide.
This is an important distinction because it helps us understand what kind of attainment a layperson is capable of or might expect from Buddhist practice. In particular I hope I have dispelled the notion that you must be an ordained nun or monk in order to become enlightened. Your potential derives not in being ordained but from adopting to some degree a monastic lifestyle. I hope I have clarified in this series both why the monastic lifestyle is a huge aid to practice and how the monastic lifestyle can be integrated with the elements of a lay life as a primary factor in that life. So the monastic life style is a desirable development for both the layperson and the ordained monastic, and a challenge for each, albeit in general more of a challenge for the layperson.
Last week I began discussing the role of actual monastic ordination. This is important to consider lest everything I had written before last week give the impression that monastic ordination is unnecessary or unimportant in Buddhism. In fact it is of critical importance for laypeople as well as monastics. Last week I described why it is immensely useful to ordain as a monastic as an immediate way of developing a monastic lifestyle. Monastic ordination, in short, is something that has enjoyed the support of monastic communities throughout Buddhist history without interruption. As an ordained monastic I, to take the most immediate example, am supported by laypeople in my aspiration to live a monastic lifestyle, as well as to have the time for meditation, teaching and being of benefit to others that complement that.
So, why does the laity support monastics so willingly? Is there a tangible benefit for the laity? The answer is … yes! In fact I would probably not be a monastic if this were not the case.
First, many believe in what monastics are doing and want to support it selflessly, without thought of personal gain. Interestingly it seems that the laity are generally particular eager to support meditating monastics, by all appearances the most idle, but generally held in very high regard .
Second, the monastics set an example that inspires laypeople in their own practice. This might be compared to the inspiration that professional athletes give to amateur tennis players, cyclists, joggers and so on. The example they set is that of the monastic life, toward which lay practitioners lives most beneficially will lean. Of course individual monastics might fail to be strong examples, but by and large the monastic sangha will provide examples in high concentration. A key part of the example these monastics will set is in providing a reality check to the notion that personal excess leads to happiness; my own experience is that monastics as a class are, contrary to any unexamined common sense, the happiest people in the world. Each is a kind of very visible walking science experiment, a test tube in which the ingredients of the monastic life have been poured and then stirred with results open to inspection.
Third, the laity probably get the cheapest clergy in the world. A monastic’s needs are very modest, they do not have to have a fancy house with a two-car garage, do not have to support a family and send kids to college, unlike, say, a Protestant minister. Also since as a group they are very immersed in Buddhist practice, ideally living that practice 24-7, Buddhist monastics probably include within their ranks some of the most qualified spiritual teachers on the planet.
I should point out parenthetically that some Buddhist traditions also have a non-monastic clergy, sometimes alongside the monastic. Most of the Japanese clergy is now non-monastic, which is why we generally talk about Zen priests in the West rather than Zen monks, and much of the Korean, even though these ordain in a fashion once historically reserved for monks and nuns. In the Tibetan tradition there are some lamas (teachers) who are not monks. And of course in the West it is rare to find a qualified teacher who is a monastic, but also common to find teachers with no recognizable qualifications. However non-monastic clergy generally have specific training that qualifies them as clergy, sometimes very rigorous, very often including a long period of living as a monastic, or simply in extreme seclusion. But non-monastic clergy do not continually share the monastic lifestyle, and so most of which I report here about the advantages of monastic ordination does not carry over to them.
Fourth, the support of the monastic community encourages selflessness by making practice not just a personal concern but a community concern. Supporting monastics is traditionally a focal point for the the joyful and selfless practice of generosity (dana). It is a natural focal point, because it involves these people who are essentially helpless without lay support and yet who inspire that support for reasons other than being cute like kittens or puppies. However, it quickly spills over into other areas, which can be more readily observed in Asia than in the West. Generosity is the life-blood of the Buddhist community.
For instance, traditionally if you, as a layperson, want to devote a month to meditation, you could expect, in Asia, to be fully supported in that aspiration. You would be given a hut in a meditation center, meditation instruction and one-on-one meetings with a teacher, a schedule and a place to meditate with others, and meals, all at no cost to you. Why? Because laypeople have contributed to the material needs of the center, and the monastics or laypeople have come forward as instructors. Why do they do all this? For almost all the same reasons monastics are readily supported. The sustainers of a meditation center believe in your aspirations, they value you as a stronger practitioner living in their community, they believe your efforts are worth supporting.
Fifth, the ordained monastic sangha was charged by the Buddha with maintaining the integrity of the teachings, and has historically succeeded in doing just that. It is the primary channel through which the Buddha’s teachings have passed through all these centuries down to you, and will be the primary channel through which it will be passed to future generations. Why is this channel necessary? There are certainly many religious traditions that have nothing like this; Quakers do not even have a clergy of any kind. Islam is supposed to be the same way, though it has developed an informal clergy. However, Buddhism has more stringent requirements.
Buddhism is an unusually sophisticated religion. It doesn’t need to be for everyone; many people approach it in terms of devotional practices, some ethical guidelines and the practice of dana, for instance. But at its most refined it entails a detailed program of practices and studies or understandings, which fall under the various parts of the Noble Eightfold Path. One can spend years in practice and study and not yet reach the depths of the teachings. Moreover study and practice is depends on the availability of teachers and adepts because the teachings are easily subject to misinterpretation. Before the Buddha began his teaching career he doubted that even he could correctly convey the teachings and the early suttas are full of stories in which he corrects incorrect understanding.
The ordained monastic sangha, as long as it thrives, practices diligently and follows the monastic code, ensures that there is always a concentration of adepts who devote their lives full time to practice and study, and teaching. It does not ensure all ordained monastics will be adepts, nor entail that all adepts are ordained, only that there is a concentration of adepts that will keep the flame of Dharma burning. And since monastics are required to wear robes, that flame is easy to locate. The laypeople who become exceptional practitioners are those that stand close to that flame; very few of them are more than one or two steps away from monastics who shaped their practice and understanding, even among Western teachers.
This is comparable to the role of the academic community, for instance, in ensuring the progress of science. Science also involves a core of adepts, those who are credentialed or have academic appointments, supported by the greater society, even when individuals produce no tangible benefit to the society (in fact often the most respected scientists are the “pure” scientists who have the least concern for practical results, just as the most respected monastics tend to be those who meditate all day). Just as in the monastic sangha, individual scientists may sometimes be poor examples of productive research, and individuals outside of that core may produce exceptional research (remember that Einstein in his most brilliant early days was an amateur scientist, and a “pure” scientist), but that core does represent a concentration of talent that keeps Science alive, and keeps it from dissipating into pseudo-science and wild speculation. A productive amateur scientist will have stood close to the flame and rarely been more than a step away from professors who shaped their ability to do research and the urgency to report results with integrity.
With this I conclude this series on the Art of Lay Practice. I hope this has given readers a lot to work with as you navigate the many threads of your life. The key concept I hope I have conveyed is: Simplicity! Make your personal footprint, the domain of your own affairs, what you choose to have a personal stake in, as small as you possibly can. Next year reconsider and try to make your personal footprint even smaller, and so on. People have such huge footprints for such little feet. This will supercharge your practice. Our footprints are outward projections of our sense of self. Buddhist practice is about letting go gradually over time of every manifestation of that sense of being a substantial self. Our lifestyles display the most tangible manifestations and are therefore the most obvious place to begin. When that sense of self vanishes altogether, that is Liberation. And Liberation is possible within the parameters of a lay life.