The Lay Practice

December 27, 2010 § 12 Comments

Going to come back around to the Eightfold Path project, and just grab this opportunity that has come around for me to think on this topic which has been itching the back of my brain for a while anyway.

The issue is of the lay practice — so those of us who practice Buddhism on a daily basis by somehow cramming it into the nooks and crannies of our already jam-packed lives. The virtual group in Second Life that I meet with on a weekly basis has reached Chapter 8 in Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught,” in which the question of the lay practice and Buddhism in today’s world are addressed.

When starting off on this exploration of Buddhism, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the question of “How intensely does this need to be a part of my life?” Even now, I feel like a fraud among scholars who pour over texts, suttas, learn Pali and study history and science. I do none of these things. I may glance through a relevant sutta here and there and stumble through it, grasping at phrases and ideas. I’ll go through snippets of blogs, and listen to podcasts when I can while I scrub dishes (and help kids with this that and the other thing). I’ll try to read discussions on various web sites and re-read complex phrases about five times on average, JUST to make sure I’ve understood what various contributors to the discussions are saying. I’m going to admit here that many times, what many people say go WAY over my head.

In these discussions and podcasts, I see and hear the word “retreat” so often being bandied about — either those who have gone on them or being suggested as a means to become more skillful in meditation, etc. — that I started to fret that, well, I haven’t gone on one.  Honestly, I don’t see myself doing anything like that until my kids are at least in college. I just CAN’T take off for a week, a month, let alone several months, without my family. Attached much? Absolutely. Gonna change it? Hell no.

Compared to all these people, I feel like the ULTIMATE lay person. I have no hopes of taking classes in Pali any time soon, if ever. I’ll never be a scholar of philosophy, culture, or history … definitely not the way many of my Sangha-mates seem to be. And I often wonder … how many people — lay people — become intimidated when they see some of this stuff and just run away? I’ll circle back on that issue another time, hopefully. All this, just to convey that I consider myself a VERY lay practitioner of Buddhism, in the interest of full disclosure (because I was worried you wouldn’t be able to tell, hahaha).

Growing up, I always knew that there are Buddhist monks and nuns who devote their entire lives to just practicing — the Dharma is the sole focus of their lives. Seems that there are schools of thought that have come to believe that monks and nuns are really the only ones who would be able to reach Enlightenment (Nirvana).

So, as a mom, a wife, the holder of a full-time job, where’s my place in this picture? Where do I fit? Where does Buddhism fit? Mindfulness? Where do I have room for THAT?

I kind of suspect I’m not alone in this. Most of us just can’t set our whole entire families, jobs, and LIVES aside for this practice of Buddhism, or anything, really. Most of us don’t, and don’t have to, thankfully.

Seems that way back when, lay people had the same concerns and questions, and addressed them to Buddha. The Buddha laid out for the lay practitioner (or householder), how individuals can make sure they live their lives as lay people and still very much ‘be Buddhist.’ In doing so, he also showed his own sense of respect for the relationships ‘every day people’ have between each other:

From the Sigalavada Sutta: (an excerpt of the sutta regarding how a ‘householder’ should practice)

And the Exalted One spoke as follows:

“Inasmuch, young householder, as the noble disciple (1) has eradicated the four vices in conduct,[1] (2) inasmuch as he commits no evil action in four ways, (3) inasmuch as he pursues not the six channels for dissipating wealth, he thus, avoiding these fourteen evil things, covers the six quarters, and enters the path leading to victory in both worlds: he is favored in this world and in the world beyond. Upon the dissolution of the body, after death, he is born in a happy heavenly realm.

The above goes on in much detail, and I encourage everyone who is a lay practitioner to go through and read the information (as much as you are able).  The essence of this sutta, however, is simply that every day Joe Schmoes can very much follow Buddhism and ‘be Buddhist’ by following the basics of ‘leading a decent life,’ or ultimately, just following the Eightfold Path. The purpose of this sutta really seems to me, to be, to break out the essence of the Eightfold Path in a way that is more accessible to ‘regular people.’

Wikipedia had a great graphic for the portion of this sutta that deals with the protection of close relationships, in which Buddha talks about the six major relationships that individuals have. I really liked this part of the sutta because it served to show the respect that the Buddha has for these various relationships each person develops over the course of their lives.

Looking at all of this, it was an interesting project for me to see which part(s) of the Eightfold Path some of these things like Five Precepts, the ‘acts’ in the six major relationships etc. would fit into, and why.

I don’t pretend that I really ever expect to reach Enlightenment. To be honest, as I ponder over my dishpan hands, throw together lunches before school on weekdays, do the many chores that need to be done around the house, I believe that I’ll be lucky if I ever get a handle on mindfulness, understand all the bits of the Eightfold Path and manage to keep Dharma in my life. Most of the time, I don’t really feel that I’m doing anything to really “be Buddhist.”

That’s the honest truth. I think that’s the truth for many of us lay practitioners. So, it’s a relief to find that built right in to this philosophy is the idea of the ‘noble’ in simple, every day living. There is reverence and respect to be cultivated and found in family, work, friendships and just going about our everyday, lay person’s life. Just as is defined when looking at the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, ‘being Buddhist’ has more to do with how it is we approach these relationships and ‘mundane’ tasks and interactions of every day life, rather than our decision to shave our heads and don robes.

So, while I may nod off in the middle of my attempt to meditate and go through anywhere up to a week between sessions ‘on the cushion,’ I am glad to now be able to take comfort in knowing that I am still ‘Buddhist’ simply because … well … I looked this stuff up 🙂


§ 12 Responses to The Lay Practice

  • Ted says:

    This is one of the *best* articles I’ve ever read about the lay person’s point of view. Beautifully written!

    Consider that you even know about this sutta, let alone what a sutta is, says something about your learning. We’re not expected to know everything, or understand it all, or have perfect mindfulness. It’s a practice, not a perfect. And honestly I question how far enlightenment has become this unattainable experience — what, every monk back in the day became an arahant, but today with over six billion people in the world we have *none*?! I’m not buying it. Enlightenment has to rationally be more about walking the path.

    • Ted, thank you so much for your very kind words. They mean a lot to me, knowing how much you do read and research! The big reason I know what I do today is thanks to the very kind and generous support of people like you, Linda, Jan, Dana, Sharon, Joan, and the many others I consider to be a part of what I have grown to call our ‘virtual Sangha.’ I can only hope that I can do for others what you all have done for me!

  • N.L. says:

    More than knowing the ins-and-outs of Buddhism as a philosophy or its historical development in the two and a half millennia since the age of Siddhartha G., who may not have even existed, making a commitment to establishing a daily meditative practice is the foundation of serious, dedicated lay Buddhism. As Robert Aitken-roshi noted, his teacher frankly admitted that he would probably fail a written examination Buddhism.

    To the extent possible, find a group of people who meditate together. Sangha is one of the three jewels where the other two (Buddha and dharma) are inevitably encountered.

    Whatever your personal and professional time commitments, do your best to find a way to take a day off to commit to dharma practice. It will most likely be transformational, but perhaps not.

    Of course, you need not meditate to be a Buddhist: most Buddhists here in the U.S. and in the world are of the devotional variety, who pray, chant, and have an altar practice that includes tributes to one’s ancestors — along with the practice of generosity and morality cultivate wisdom. And yes, the precepts and the Eightfold Path are important guideposts.

    Whatever your situation, it’s up to you to let your own light shine. It is said that this is best done with a teacher, but even this selection process can be problematic given the gravity toward sectarianism even in the so-called New American Buddhism.

    The bottom line: sit regularly, keep reading that which resonates with you, and experience it though the ordinary course of your life.

    The dharma is vast, so don’t fret about being the “right kind of Buddhist.” You are already a Buddha, and you just need to find your own way to realize that in the reality of your own present life — undoubtedly marked by uneasiness/suffering, impermanence, and the unity of this existence.

    Working on diluting the impact of greed, anger, and delusion is no small task, even for those who have been “certified” as teachers. The experience of the Buddhism cultivated in this country for a half-century shows that the three poisons can decimate lay and monastic communities led by perfectly imperfectly imperfect human beings.

    But how can anyone rationally expect it to be otherwise?

    • N.L., thank you for giving me those words to think on. I definitely try to make sure to set aside about once a week to meditate, if not more. While I haven’t sat down to do a ‘good’ search for meditation groups in my area, unfortunately, I live in a very rural region of the U.S. where access to just about anything non-Judaeo-Christian is almost nonexistent. So, I usually don’t end up looking very hard for these things, as even if I do find a group, it is usually too far for me to travel to on any regular basis (usually, I need to expect to travel at least 30 minutes (if I am lucky), if not a couple of hours to anything ‘exotic’ like say, an Asian grocery store). My situation as it is, currently, that is not realistic. So, I read, as you suggest, and rely on things like online guided meditations and the group of individuals I’ve met online who are like-minded — and also I rely on discussions and input from other practitioners such as yourself!

      And that brings me to the question of what defines a Sangha, which you mentioned. I’ve come to rely on a handful of like-minded Buddhists that I meet with virtually on a fairly regular basis, keep up with on FB and through my blog, and I call that group my ‘virtual Sangha.’ Given my level of isolation and therefore limitation to access to a real-life Sangha, I’ve had to redefine what that is to a certain extent. I often wonder how many others are in the same boat.

      “The bottom line: sit regularly, keep reading that which resonates with you, and experience it though the ordinary course of your life.

      The dharma is vast, so don’t fret about being the “right kind of Buddhist.” You are already a Buddha, and you just need to find your own way to realize that in the reality of your own present life — undoubtedly marked by uneasiness/suffering, impermanence, and the unity of this existence. “

      Exactly, and thank you! Some day, when my situation has changed, traveling to a meditation group is a viable option (and I really hope it will be!), I do hope to have a ‘teacher’ and get some more guidance on my meditation technique. In the mean time, I try to keep what you are saying in mind: Trying not to fret about being the ‘right kind of Buddhist,’ and just making sure that I find my own way along the path while going through my regular, everyday life.

  • Barbara says:

    The wonderful contradiction of the “retreat” is that there ain’t no such thing. The more serious the retreat the more obvious this becomes. You get rid of everything you can — contact with people, reading and electronics, fancy clothes & jewelry, any usual form of fun — then you sit down on that pillow and there you are, being you, with no form of escape.

    There is absolutely no reason this can’t be done at home, it’s just slower and you lose the thread more easily. A retreat or sesshin speeds up the process. , giving you a jump start for your usual lay life.

    • Barbara: I find what you say about the retreat to be really interesting! Most of what I’ve heard from individuals who have attended retreats have been positive, and I’ve always been encouraged to consider trying to go on one, once my situation in life permits it. It gives me hope to think that what can be achieved on a retreat can be achieved at home, albeit at a slower pace.

  • Rick Bateman says:

    I enjoy your writing style and your candor. You are definitely not alone and I think what you are doing here will be of value to a lot of people.

    I appreciate your making the time to write these posts. I am no longer a parent but I do remember how challenging it was to find time for anything.

    Over the past year I upped the ante on my own practice. I created and started teaching a five evening course called “Buddhism For Beginners” and started a weekly Secular Buddhist practice group. I started the weekly group for the reason you mention in your posts – I could find no existing group locally that practiced the kind of Buddhism I was interested in. I also write two articles a month about Buddhism for an on-line magazine.

    Like you I am totally lay. I have zero academic, religious or other credentials. On a regular basis I have to respond to those who are “credential oriented”. Fortunately I also used to teach a course on assertiveness training so my response is along the lines of reaching down and touching the earth.

    Although I have been studying and practicing Buddhism for about ten years, teaching the course meant I still had to do a lot of what you are doing – looking things up and reading tons of books. Also each weekly meeting contains a teaching section about an hour long so every week I have to keep researching. I also drop in on other local traditional Buddhist groups and am a member of a local Vipassana study group where I meet with my designated “Dharma buddy” between classes. Buddhism has pretty well taken over my entire life (other than my day job – for now) but at this stage I consider that a good thing.

    By the way retreats are not for everybody. Been there, done that on more than one occasion and can’t stand ‘em. 😮

    It is from the questions, comments and concerns of those who come to the weekly meetings that I know your writings have a lot of value. Those who come on a regular basis are very sincere and serious yet like you have jobs, families and relationships. Just this past Monday evening I was asked if one could ever actually “get to Enlightenment” as a lay practitioner. My answer was yes because, as I am sure you have discovered by now, it was originally not the big mystical deal that 50 generations have made it out to be. I prefer the behavioral approach to Buddhism and enlightenment…

    “There are, strictly speaking, no enlightened people, there is only enlightened activity.” — Shunryu Suzuki

    Thank you again for taking the time to write this blog. I will pass on the link to my fellow practitioners.

    Kind regards,

    Rick Bateman
    Victoria BC Canada

    • Rick, thank you for your support and kind words! I listened to your interview with Ted on the Secular Buddhist podcast a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I admire your work, and hope some day that I can turn my attention to something similar for the area in which I live.
      “By the way retreats are not for everybody. Been there, done that on more than one occasion and can’t stand ‘em.”
      Good to know! As I mentioned to Barbara, I’d only heard people really encouraging me to attend at least one, so having you and her tell me that it’s not for everyone, and that it may not necessarily be needed, is interesting and encouraging!
      Also, just had to give a nod to the fact that my father is from not too far from your neck of the woods — New Westminster. My aunt, uncle and cousins still live there. Beautiful area!

  • Scott says:

    What a great essay! All of the world’s great contemplative traditions produce the same paradoxes for lay people. They all represent “fingers pointing to the same moon” and lay people feel unworthy as they witness professionals analyzing the finger and ignoring the moon and think, unfortunately, that’s how it’s supposed to be done.

    In reality, as you so accurately illustrate with your writing, all religions are merely vehicles that lay people will never master. Those vehicles are metaphorically represented by the boat that is supposed to be put down after the river is crossed, not carried around on our backs as we walk our life’s path! “The Moon”, the essence of life, our true Buddhahood, is within us before we’re born and beyond our death and religious vehicles are merely a means for us to discover it.

    Nirvana is a Sanskrit word for breathing out. Letting go of your breath so you can live. Wheewww! Deciding to not grasp at the things we intuitively know are impermanent is ultimate freedom, or Nirvana. You don’t have to practice Buddhism to achieve Nirvana. If anything “achieving” at Buddhism is even more grasping, not less. You experience Nirvana when you fix that lunch for your child and your child tells you they love you just for being who you are. Because in that moment, you’re living fulling in the present, you’re not grasping at anything, you have experienced a brief moment of enlightenment. The Kingdom of Heaven. Satori. Heaven. Whatever. 🙂

    Most religions contain great beauty and can be practiced for their own sake like learning the piano or practicing painting with watercolors. Just like practicing religion, some people will always be better at those things than other people, too. But, we don’t need religion to be a Buddha (to be awake). To wake up we just need to wake up. And, realize this is the eternal now. We are “the Moon”. We no longer have to parse out and analyze “the finger” fifteen ways from Sunday to “get there.” There’s no “there” to get. We’re there and we’re it. You are it.

    Please keep writing!

    • I appreciate your encouragement to keep writing, and your enthusiasm! One of your lines really resonated with me — the idea that we are grasping more when we try to ‘achieve’ or ‘get Buddhism right’. It is very true, and difficult to strike that balance between trying to learn the practice, yet not become too wrapped up in the technicalities, therefore, grasping. Food for thought, thank you!

  • Star says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that those of us who are spending a lot of time learning Pali, reading suttas, and studying history and such, probably stood right where you are now at some point in their lives, fully committed to taking care of families and just keeping up with daily life. The wondering if we are doing enough “as Buddhists” may never end but if we are always questioning then we’ve probably got the most basic requirement down at least — never stop wondering and doing reality checks!

    • How true, Star. What I didn’t include in what I wrote there were some of the things I hope to accomplish once I do have a bit more time to devote to pursing more ‘me-oriented’ pursuits — most likely when my kids are busy and off pursuing their own lives. Just to see, I *would* like to go on a retreat, and if I like it, perhaps go on others, and extend my practice. Not sure I’ll ever get into studying Pali and such, but I’m not discounting the possibility, either. It’s a cumulative thing, isn’t it? The more you do, the more you know, and the more ‘expert’ you become. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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