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Bridging the Gulf between Monastics and Laypeople By Ron Epstein

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The monastic and the layperson are both individuals whose individuality is empty of essential, permanent reality. To the extent that they hold to individual identity, they are deluded. To the extent that they grasp dharmas, such as, ‘I am a nun or laywoman on the Path,’ they are also deluded, but that is an attachment that can lead to non-attachment, and ultimately to enlightenment. The Buddha said,

You should neither cling to Dharma nor cling to what is not Dharma. In light of this principle, the Thus Come One often says, ‘Bhikshus, you should know that the Dharma I speak is like a raft. Even the Dharma must be relinquished, how much the more should that which is not Dharma be relinquished!’[1]

It is holding on to the raft of dharma that keeps us from drowning in the sea of the afflictions of our own minds. Until we finally let go of all of our attachments, we have to deal with the present topic from our unenlightened perspective, within which self and other are still important to us. That is why the Buddha established guidelines for relationships among the four assemblies.

What is the gulf to be bridged? The Long Discourses of the Buddha states:

The household life is close and dusty, the homeless life is free as air. It is not easy, living the household life, to live the fully-perfected holy life, purified and polished like a conch shell.[2]

When a layperson comes to a monastery, he or she must make a constant effort not to bring the polluting habits of the lay life along. When the monastic enters the lay world, he or she must not be afraid of its impurities. Remembering that “when the mind is purified the Buddhaland is purified,” one can act out of compassion rather than out of fear of mental pollution or out of egoistic superiority.

When entering traditional monasteries, there are often also cultural gulfs to be bridged. For instance, we should be aware of the problem of chauvinisms: male, cultural, and organizational. Traditional Chinese hierarchical society was very different from the original Indian society in which Buddhism was born and also very different from the egalitarian ideals of Western society. In ancient India, society placed the monk outside of the obligations of the social hierarchy. The monastic community in India may have been the oldest direct democracy in the world, yet it flourished in the midst of Indian caste feudalism. In China and most of East Asia, the hierarchical patterns of ancient Confucian society were imported into Buddhist monasteries, and much of the original democratic model disappeared. The Buddha’s attempt at the spiritual liberation of women was also strongly opposed both in Indian and in Chinese societies.

As part of the successful transplantation of Buddhism to the West, it will be necessary to figure out which patterns of relationship in Buddhist communities are based on dharma and which are cultural. Because of the disjunction between democratic patterns of modern Western society and the authoritarian patterns of most traditional Asian societies, it is particularly important that the authoritarian patterns not be represented in the West as based on dharma. When leaving modern international culture and entering the realms of contemporary monastic life, we need to look carefully at what aspects of the gulf are dharma-based and what aspects are cultural. If one is somewhat dizzied by the difficulties of these prospects, one need only return to the roots of Buddhist teachings. They instruct us to leave behind our ego-attachments in our dealings with others, whether monastic or layperson. Respect for the Buddha-nature within every one should be unconditional. If one can respect everyone on this level, no other consideration of respect should be necessary. If one is not yet at that level, then people should be respected for their commitments, their practice, and their good intentions and good qualities.

In addition, laypeople should remember that the Sangha, the community of fully ordained monks (bhikshu) and nuns (bhikshuni), is a field of merit. That is, supporting the Sangha with good deeds and donations is an important method of creating merit (i.e., blessings, good karma) for laypeople. The Buddha explained,

The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practicing the true way, practicing the proper way…; this Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples is worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential salutation, the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.[3]
The Sangha as a field of merit refers to the bhikshus and bhikshunis, who have received and uphold the moral prohibitions and are learned and wise; they, like the wish-granting trees in the heavens, are able to succor living beings. Moreover, meeting the Sangha is like, when one is parched with thirst and in need of water in the midst of a barren desert, encountering a vast downpour of sweet rain from the heavens, that comes just in time and from which one drinks one’s fill. Moreover, just as the ocean is the source of a multitude of treasures, so too can the Sangha as a field of merit bestow peace and happiness upon all sentient beings. Furthermore, this Sangha Jewel is pure and undefiled. It can dissipate the darkness of living beings' greed, anger, and foolishness, like the bright light on the evening of the full moon, upon which all sentient beings gaze….[4]

In order to bridge the gulf between laypeople and monastics, laypeople should be aware of the benefit of the Sangha to the world, to their communities, and to themselves. They should want to nourish and support those who have committed themselves full-time to the enlightenment of both themselves and others. They should want to protect the institutions that are the foundations of the monastic life, so that its aims and lifestyles can flourish.

In order to bridge the gulf between monastics and laypeople, monastics should realize that they and their communities are dependent on the lay community for the essentials of daily life. The Buddha instructed:

Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicine. And you, monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, and admirable in the end, as you expound the holy life both in its particulars and in its essence, entirely complete, surpassingly pure. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making a right end to suffering and stress.[5]

Thus the bridge across the gulf between the two communities, lay and monastic, is the interdependency of mutual aid. And that interdependency should be cherished and strengthened by a flow of loving compassion in both directions.


1 Vajra (Diamond) Sutra.

2 The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 99.

3 The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 119.

4 Six Pāramitās Sutra, [T869a27-869b04].

5 Itivuttaka: This Was Said by the Buddha, 107.


By Ron Epstein