While continuing to read Ven. Yin-Shun’s book “The Way to Buddhahood“, I was struck by his explanation of how lay Buddhists and Buddhist monks relate to one another. Typically, Buddhists tend to view the monks as being superior to the lay people, and therefore Buddhism can be wrongly labeled as a kind of “two-tiered” religion where monks enjoy higher status than lay people.
However, Yin-Shun describes how both are considered followers of the Buddha equally:
During his lifetime, the Buddha preached the Dharma to people. After listening to the Dharma or realizing the truth, some volunteered to take refuge in the Three Treasures* to become the Buddha’s lay disciples. Others volunteered to give up the lay life to become the Buddha’s monastic disciples. Between the lay and monastic disciples there were no differences in their beliefs, practices and realizations. Why then did some volunteer to remain at home and others to give up lay life? They did so because of different personalities and lifestyle practices. (pg. 111)
So the question isn’t whether one is better or another, but how each type of disciple suits a person’s inclinations. Regarding lay disciples, Yin-Shun writes:
They remained husbands, wives and children; they continued to live as householders and to work as politicians, servicemen, farmers, laborers and businessmen [e.g. King Bibimsara and General Isidatta]…Although they lived as laity, they practiced the Buddha’s true Dharma, taking refuge in the Three Treasures, keeping the five [moral] precept, practicing meditation and attaining wisdom. As long as they kept the resolution to renounce and as long as living a full lay life did not hinder their practice, they were still able to become liberated from birth and death [the endless cycle of samsara].
People of this category were mostly those from among the monastic non-Buddhists who were transformed by the Buddha’s teaching [e.g. Sariputta and Maudgalyayana]. Such people were accustomed to being renunciates and living solemn lives. Since they were content, had few desires, did not want to save up money, and kept away from sexual desire, they volunteered to give up the lay life in order to be śramaṇas [renunciates]. (pg. 112)
Here, Yin-Shun then warns why someone shouldn’t be a monk unless they’re really, really inclined toward that lifestyle:
Obviously, if people have impure motives or give up home life regretfully, their basic nature may remain that of one who seeks pleasure.
The point here is that unless you are truly committed toward the renunciate life, you should not go in half-way or with reservations. It’s clearly better to be a sincere lay follower than an insincere monk.
Lastly, on the subject, Yin-Shun writes:
In short, whether people stay at home and pursue pleasure or give up lay life and pursue asceticism, they are the Buddha’s śrāvaka [lit. “voice-hearer”] disciples as long as they have a resolution to renounce and live according to the Middle Way — without too much indulgence or too much asceticism.
What’s interesting to note in this statement is that it’s quite possible for both laity and monks to go off the wrong track: lay people over indulging in pleasures and monks becoming too ascetic. The point is that the Middle Way really is what matters in one’s practice of Buddhism, not his status in the Buddhist community. If one adheres is sincere in his or her following of Buddhism, then staying within the Middle Way and sticking with the basics (meditation, moral precepts, etc) will really make the difference.
P.S. This doesn’t take into account the culture of Buddhist countries where monks are held to a much higher level than lay people. The book “Broken Buddha” provides an interesting read on the subject, and appears to be available on the Internets. This is an age-old problem though in society, any society, where some priests or monks develop a serious ego and develop a following around them. It happens in every major religion. In the ideal Buddhist system though, both are disciples on equal footing supporting one another.
* – The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) and the Sangha (the community).