Sunday, 5 July 2009

“The Lay Life and the Monastic Life: No Fundamental Difference?”

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?



  1. I think the importance of the monastic tradition is clearly illustrated by the group photo on Thubten Chodron's website where a halo or energy field can be seen around the monastics heads.

    But seriously this is an important issue.

    My own views on this are that spending some time away from the distractions of 'worldly' life to focus on meditation and dharma teachings is valuable as is the return to the world to realise the practice 'in the world'. So a back and forth rhythm may be best in my opinion. Strict schedules are important part of monasticism - we harmonise with it rather than chasing our individual objectives.

    However, I would really question that monasticism offers a 'challenge to mainstream, capitalist societies'. Staying in monastery costs money. How is it paid for? Either practitioners earn the money in the capitalist system before they arrive or in some rare cases they survive on donations from a mother organisation which collects either from capitalist donors or donors in third world countries. Collecting alms is no different. We all depend on the generation of capital and we realise that interdependence if we are aware.

    What monasticism can offer though is some freedom from consumerism, individualism and perhaps the pressure to make money, in one's own life.

  2. in the FWBO order members often live communally but within an urban context and ideally as ethically as possible. between living communally and being involved in the life of the sangha and going on retreat i think they make a fair compromise between living a committed contemplative life and having to earn a living. this compromise means that you don't have to have some kind of private income to pursue a life which is not strictly that of a layperson.

  3. Especially in American culture, there exists a dominant Protestant worldview where service to the world is emphasized over staying in a monastery.

    Just as a side note, I think there are a some real similarities between certain aspects of the early reformation and Western Buddhism, which would make a great conversation in itself.

    What parts of the current monastic life is the transmission of culture and what part is truly necessary for a tradition to provide guidance and support for people to study and learn Buddhist teachings?

    It reminds me of a story I heard once. A little girl, at a family gathering asked her mom "why do you cut off the ends off the roast before cooking it?" Her mom told her "That's just the way our family has always done it." So the little girl, still wanting an answer, went to her grandmother, and asked "Grandmom, why did you cut off the ends of the roast before cooking it?" Her grandmother gave the same answer as her mom,, "That's just the way its always been done in our family." Finally, the little girl asked her Great-Grandmother, "Nana, Why did you cut the ends off the roasts before you cooked it?" The Great-Grandmother replied, "Well sweetie, my mother cut the ends off the roast because the only pot she owned was too small to hold an entire roast."

    Food for pun intended.

    I think there is a bigger question, rather than a conventional monastic life vs an more flexible monastic life, but perhaps, if a monastic type life or tradition would even transfer to the West?

    If you look down into a lot of personal practices, you'll see a growing number of newer Western converts(perhaps almost like the third generation of Western Buddhists) that are finding studying all the different expressions of Buddhism more beneficial for them than just one particular way. What ends up shaking out of the whole thing, if anything at all, I couldn't say, as only time will tell.

    I think it is very important to remember, many converts in the West view "Religion" (with a big R) in a very negative light, and have expressed the want to be less dogmatic and more individualistic in the nature of their spiritual studies. Of course many find out they aren't able to do it all on there own, and probably will seek a teacher or guidance at some point in the progress of their practice. Where that teacher or guidance will come from, who knows? For now their choices are basically limited to either traditional monastic teachers or books and the internet. Neither one of these current choices, I think, is ideal.

    Good questions for certain!

  4. The answers to your questions are obvious, if one is considering them without discrimination.

    But at the more practical level, let me just say that what's really needed are professional Buddhists, i.e., Buddhists who "do Buddhism for a living," and uphold a canon of ethics as they propagate the Dharma.

    Whether they engage in sex or not with a committed partner is of secondary concern, in my opinion.

  5. Budihism is the best religion , I would like to have the chance of read more about it.... the culture and the philosophy of the Budihism is amazing !!