In this blog recently we have been discussing some big questions within Buddhism in the West. We have been focusing on such topics as the role of Asian culture within Buddhism, the possibility of ‘getting to the essentials’ of Buddhism, and the role of mindfulness meditation within Buddhism. Another big issue that is becoming more and more prominent is the changing role of the laity in relation to monastic communities.
I have read many Buddhist memoirs, Buddhist magazine articles, essays and blogs that have recounted a major theme in Buddhism in the West since its inception: there is no fundamental difference between the lay and monastic life. This is also fundamentally a critique of the monastic institution. Especially in American culture, there exists a dominant Protestant worldview where service to the world is emphasized over staying in a monastery. This discourse and the rhetoric surrounding it can be found in current articles of Buddhist magazines from prominent lay teachers and especially from former monks and nuns explaining why they have now chosen to live the lay life. They explain that they felt selfish living in a monastery, not interacting with and helping people in the world. They felt there were artificial boundaries in the monastery and artificial schedules. Lay life in contrast, offers the possibility of more service to the world, more ‘real life’ experience practicing mindfulness, as well as an advantage for teaching to other members of the lay community. They argue that lay people can relate better to other lay people and understand the challenges of daily life.
Because of this predominant lay critique of the monastic institution, there has been a response from the monastic community. However, this is a minority voice and is harder to find. Bhikkhu Bodhi, American monk in the Theravada lineage, and Thubten Chodron from the Tibetan tradition, have been the most prominent authors writing about the relevance and role of monks for Buddhism in the West. Some monastics and a few lay people argue that having monastic communities in the transfer of Buddhism to the West offers a challenge to mainstream, capitalist societies. The existence of monasteries demonstrate an alternative lifestyle. Other arguments emphasize how Buddhism in the West should cause the monastic institution to become more flexible, to adjust some of the rules and ‘cultural trappings’ (back to this issue again) of the ancient tradition of monasticism. These monastics argue that the institution should become more flexible and accommodate to Westerners’ needs. They should be more open to the ordination of women and allow for monks and nuns to be more active in the world.
This is a summary of some of the research I have been doing on this topic. These are the main arguments surrounding this conversation. So, who is right? Will the lay tradition and its critique of monasticism continue to dominate? Should monasticism change to accommodate to Western sanghas? Or should it remain the same and offer its relevance as a challenge to mainstream society?