The laymen and the others
From the point of view of dhamma, there are two categories of persons: Those who adhere to dhamma, that is to say those who rely on Buddha's teaching; and those who do not adhere to dhamma.
Among those that do not adhere to dhamma, whether we deal with followers of a religion or not, whether we deal with followers of a school of thought or not, one finds all the persons who adopt one or several beliefs among the group of those that exist apart from dhamma.
As an example, the simple fact to think that nothing does remain whatsoever after death, is a kind of belief in the same way as any other is.
In this group, we find monks and nuns, who totally dedicate themselves to the practice suggested by their respective doctrines so as to reach the goal that these one assert.
We find hermits, who isolate themselves in remote places to observe an ascetic mode of existence. They do it so as to reach the purpose that is supposed to get training proposed by their own faith. Those do not belong to any religious school.
We find "priests" and "priestesses", who are relatively involved into the suggested or imposed practice by the teachings in connection with their faith, and who organise or direct the practice of the laymen.
Finally, we find laymen, who, according to the individual cases, adhere to a religion, to a school of thought (philosophy, sect, etc.) or only to their own ideas. In the first two cases, they do it by devoting themselves to religious or ritual practices, ceremonies, recitations, prayers, considerations,philosophic debates, or by being self-contented with beliefs in ideas expounded by a monk, a guru, a philosopher, a book or any another support. In the last case (layman adhering to his own ideas), he shapes his own way to be followed, according to the faiths, or he believes that what does occur after the death is the same thing for all, whatever are the actions being performed prior to it (Examples: Rebirths do occur in a totally unpredictable way; everybody is reborn in a realm of paradise or blissful celestial world (or demoniac); everybody reaches the stage of the divinity; before and after life, only nothingness does prevail, as soon as one dies, nothing whatsoever does remain; etc.)
This type of belief is one of the most wide-spread, it explains why so many persons live so selfishly by enjoying pleasant things, which they get access to, to the full, by radically running away from all that which seems to be unpleasant, devoid of pleasure or boring.
Among those who adhere to dhamma, there are bhikkhus, whom we often call the "Buddhist monks". They fully devote all their time to the practice, to the realisation, to the study and to the dhamma teachings.
There were bhikkhunīs, "Buddhist nuns", who did exactly the same thing, but their community disappeared since the 10th century, at the same time as sikkhamānas, who were women of intermediate status between sāmaṇerīs and bhikkhunīs, also did. They were in period of training, intending to become bhikkhunīs.
There are sāmaṇeras, whom we call "novices" or the "little monks". They learn monastic life, they dress in the monks' robe, but their discipline is sharply more flexible than those of the bhikkhu. To become bhikkhu, they have to wait to reach twenty years of age.
There were sāmaṇerīs, feminine version of sāmaṇera, whose presence vanished since the end of the feminine monastic community.
There are those whom we call the "nuns", who are women who opt for a monastic or semi-monastic existence. They do have a little particular status, halfway between the one of the bhikkhu and the one of the laity. besides certain rules, they have to observe eight rules. Their life is dedicated to the dhamma, even though they perform many activities specific to the laity.
Who is a lay person?
Finally, among the people who adhere to the dhamma, all those who are not bhikkhus, or sāmaṇeras, or nuns are laity. We can divide lay people into three categories:
* There are some laity who, although approving Buddha's word, only dedicate their life a little, or not at all, to the practice of the dhamma. They like to claim that they are Buddhists, but do little else than run after pleasures and engage in business activities; if they observe one or two precepts, it is only because it is easy for them; they don't want to dedicate any effort to the rest. Even though they claim to be inclined to meditation, they convince themselves that they never have any time to practice it.
* There are also lay people who try to dedicate more time and effort to follow a way suitable to the development of knowledge (of reality). They more or less observe the five precepts (sometimes the eight), they like everything that concerns the dhamma aesthetically (monuments, statues, ceremonies), they readily spend time reciting texts dealing with Buddha's teaching, watching the quality of their actions, regularly making donations, attending meditation sessions, and sometimes, taking ordination for a short period.
* Finally, there are laity who, within their possibilities, try their best to progress quickly and effectively on the path to the cessation of suffering. These ones very regularly train in being generous, in being vigilant and in applying full mindfulness. Their observance of the five precepts, if not eight, is scrupulous. Some of them even intend to lead a monastic life permanently.
Although they all point to a sole aim, the objectives of Buddha's teaching are very diverse. They consist, among others, in:
--> Inducing the first category of laity to improve their way of life so as to become laity of the second category.
--> Encouraging the laity of the second category to maintain the positive aspects of their way of life and inciting them to improve on this so as to become laity of the third category.
--> Encouraging the laity of the third category to maintain the positive aspects of their way of life and suggesting them the experience of complete renunciation (monastic life).
taken from The laity practice - dhamma