Question: There seems to exist an unstated, though powerful, suggestion that one must become a monk or nun to attain enlightenment. I sense this especially in the Theravada tradition, and have seen it in this magazine and elsewhere roughly stated by various monastics who maintain that the whole point of monasticism is to display and preserve the human ideal that all practitioners should strive toward. They seem to imply that while meditation and other practices can help a layperson suffer less, a layperson is inherently spiritually inferior because his or her life cannot be free of attachment. So my question is this: Is there truly an impenetrable ceiling over laypeople with regard to liberation? Must you necessarily abandon your familial obligations to find complete liberation?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: Early in my practice I surely thought that being ordained was more special than being an ordinary layperson, but as I look back, I think that I was projecting that specialness onto the ordained practitioners. Certainly, Suzuki Roshi never made me feel that there was something essential missing from my lay practice. He encouraged us to see buddha in everyone, and I felt that he even saw buddha in me. And in the Zen tradition there are several very famous lay practitioners in the literature, for example Vimalakirti and Layman Pang and his daughter.
My immediate and simple answer to your question is, “No, there is not an impenetrable ceiling over laypeople with regard to liberation.” That said, receiving the monastic precepts in a solemn ceremony in the presence of your sangha and family members is certainly a great support for committed practice. You are taking vows in their presence, much as we do in weddings, saying, “This is how I want to live my life. Please help and support me to keep these vows.”
In our tradition we may receive the sixteen bodhisattva precepts as a layperson in a ceremony called jukai (literally “receiving precepts”) or zaike tokudo, which translates as “remaining at home and attaining the Way.” The ceremony (with the same sixteen precepts) for monastics is called shukke tokudo, which means “leaving home and attaining the Way.” For home-leavers there is the addition of shaving the head, which is symbolic of renunciation, and receiving priest’s robes and bowls. Lay practitioners receive a smaller version of the robe, called a rakusu.
For some years now in our tradition, a number of the fully ordained priests (those who have completed their formal training and been recognized as teachers in a ceremony referred to as dharma transmission) have recognized some of their committed lay students as ready to teach and have done a ceremony with them, which we are calling “Lay Teacher Entrustment.” As far as I know, there is not an equivalent practice in Japan. I don’t know about other Asian Buddhist schools.
In my view, the whole point of dharma practice is to live your life in a way that benefits all beings. We aspire to liberation not for any self-centered idea, but so that we can know more clearly how to be of maximum benefit. The Buddha gives us a pretty good idea of what we should be working on in the Metta Sutta when he says, “This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, who seeks the good and has obtained peace. Let one be strenuous, upright and sincere, without pride, easily contented and joyous. Let one not be submerged by the things of the world. Let one be wise but not puffed up, and let one not desire great possessions, even for one’s family; let one do nothing that is mean or that the wise would reprove.” With this as our foundation, we can begin cultivating loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity—the four “heavenly abodes.” Or we can study and practice any of the great riches of dharma teachings, which we are fortunate to have so freely available in English in this century here in the West.
For the last fifty years or so we have also been very fortunate to have access to many excellent dharma teachers trained in many different Asian countries, as well as their Western students who are now teachers. Let us rejoice at our good fortune and practice diligently as either householders or home-leavers to help alleviate suffering in any way we can.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: I want to begin by stating how much respect I have for those in robes. One reason I enjoy visiting Burma is because of the presence of so many who have ordained. It is beautiful to be in a culture in which to ordain is ordinary. The teachings would not have survived without the ordained sangha, and for this, I am immeasurably grateful. Because of my gratitude and respect, I want to answer your question with great care. This is an ongoing controversial discussion in Western dharma circles.
For me personally, if I believed the ordained life were inherently more conducive to liberation than a dedicated lay life, I would have ordained long ago. Of course, to be a nun is very different than to be a monk; the issues regarding women’s ordination are yet to be resolved, and there is a significant gap in the support offered to monks and the support offered to nuns, but even so, I see the point of practice as a letting go of self, which I do not see confined to a particular form.
Dharma practice is one of renunciation— in essence the renunciation of greed, hatred, and delusion—it is the renunciation of suffering. This is also an internal process. Can one conditioned form be inherently better than another, given that the realization is of unconditioned peace? For some, the monastic life is surely beneficial, for others, it may be a hindrance. It seems that people ordain, and stay ordained, for many different and complex reasons. Some have a real calling, while others wear the robe as an escape. Some people can’t practice without the forms and reminders of monastic life, while others can, and they do so with great dedication and perseverance.
Does a form necessarily free one from attachment? Although laypeople have many attachments, and monastics may have just a few, the force of fewer attachments can be just as strong as many. It seems to me that while monks and nuns renounce the things of the world, the invitation in lay life is to pick up attachments and see through their illusory charm. Wisdom is the operating principle. If you practice well, the fantasy life ceases to exist, and one eventually prefers reality and present moment attentiveness to a life inwardly concocted. We practice in our daily life not because it’s prescribed, but because it’s the only authentic way to live.
Whatever form is chosen, it’s essential to get behind that form with self-respect, integrity, and impeccable commitment. It’s always easy to fool oneself, and only you know whether you are practicing in a wholehearted way. Whether lay or monastic, it is possible to drift. Let’s all do our best to wake up now. To me, the benefit of either path depends on one’s inner commitment.
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: According to my tradition, the path from suffering to freedom has three vehicles. One vehicle is a path of renunciation, or avoiding worldly attachments, which is the sutric path. The second is described as a path of transformation, the tantric path, and the third, as the path of liberation, the Dzogchen path. There’s an analogy about the different ways a poisonous substance would affect an ordinary person, a doctor, and a peacock. The ordinary person must renounce or avoid poison, as eating poison will cause harm. The doctor has the skill to transform a poisonous substance into medicine. The peacock eats poison directly and is nourished in so doing. So while the poison is the same, the relationship with the poison differs for the ordinary person, the doctor, and the peacock.
In following the sutric path, one enters monastic life, or the life of a renunciate. But as far as attachment is concerned, monks and nuns do not necessarily have less attachment! It isn’t a question of not having attachment, but rather, through maintaining vows, to not express those desires. Desire is renounced. In tantra, the methods aim to transform attachment. There are many vows, but the vows do not renounce worldly activities and have more to do with transforming one’s relationship with emotions. In Dzogchen, attachment is self-liberated. Instead of avoiding or manipulating poison, you host the poison. You bring naked awareness directly to the pain or poison, and discover the true ground of being has never been poisoned. In so doing, the pain liberates by itself.
All three paths engage the practice of meditation as the method to overcome suffering. Monastic life is designed to afford more time to meditate, but the schedule is not determined by you. If the bell rings, you go! If you are drawn to enter the monastic life, it can be a beautiful support for your meditation practice. But if you are avoiding the challenges of life and leaving a mess behind as you enter the monastery, you will find opportunities to create a mess in monastic life as well. If you are truly willing to renounce ordinary life, being in a monastic setting can have advantages. It can protect your focus.
It is more important to understand that it is not the method used, but the readiness of the person for a particular method. If a person is mature and ready to become a monk or nun, then taking vows and entering monastic life can be powerful. In general, one vehicle is not better than the other, but considering the capacities of a person, one may be more suitable than another. You cannot say this medicine is better than that medicine but must consider to whom and under what conditions is a particular medicine appropriate. So it is the condition of the person and their ability to process the challenges they face that makes the difference in determining the best medicine.
In my own situation, I spent twenty years as a monk and now twenty years as a householder. As a monk, I didn’t have a partner or child to raise, so in some ways my life was easier. But now as a householder, a husband, and a father, I find many opportunities to grow through relationships. While the practice of recognizing and abiding in the nature of mind has remained a constant throughout my life, the gifts and challenges of raising a child and providing for my family are personally more enriching for my spiritual development than being a monk was. I experience more growth both in terms of dealing with issues and also am nourished by heartwarming and loving experiences.
Many years ago, one of my students asked me whether I believed that through taking the teachings to heart and applying them through the practice of meditation, one could live the ordinary life of a householder and attain liberation from suffering. I answered her yes. Today my answer is still yes, and my appreciation of the opportunities that ordinary life affords the spiritual practitioner has deepened.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet
Narayan Liebenson Grady is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center