Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby seanandrews » Wed May 06, 2009 12:18 pm

I have been reading about Buddhism for a year and have attended two different Mahayana sanghas to get a better sense of the different practices of Mahayana meditation. However, I keep coming back to Theravada. Something speaks to me about it. However, I am everyday American with a wife, children, job, etc. I spend time meditating every day. I feel as though I want to follow the Theravada path but have gotten a little discouraged when I have read online that Theravada Buddhism does not generally accept lay practitioners because of the amount of time needed to devote to meditation and/or that only a monk can attain nirvana and that laity can only aspire to be reborn as a monk after many reincarnations spent discharing the burden of karma. But then I have read that progressive-minded Theravadins think you can be a lay practitioner, though. I would greatly appreciate if someone could advise me on this. On one hand, I am not going to abandon my family and job to become a monk, but on the other hand, if it is possible to be a lay practitioner of Theravada Buddhism in modern-day America, I want to learn more. There is a Laotian Buddhist temple in Charlotte, NC, but I believe it is exclusive to people who have immigrated to Charlotte from Laos. And the other temples and/or sanghas in Charlotte are all one or another form of Mahayana. So I am not likely to find a support group here. Thank you so much!

Sean
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby forestmat » Wed May 06, 2009 12:43 pm

Greetings from Thailand!

Yes of course you can be a lay Theravada Buddhist.

I've been one for ages! Well, best part of 20 years anyway.

I am married too!

No temple is exclusive to any one nationality, by the way. The only difficulty you might have is understanding what is going on. But, usually there will be some people there who speaks English, I am sure. Go along and have a look at the Laos temple...you might be pleasantly surprised

Welcome to Dhammawheel.

With best wishes

Metta (loving kindness)

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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby Ben » Wed May 06, 2009 12:54 pm

Hi Sean

I took refuge for the first time 24 years ago. I'm also married and with three kids ranging in age from 20 to 8. At the time of the Buddha, the sangha was comprised of four assemblies which included male lay and female lay followers. There is no embargo on lay practitioners from achieving enlightenment.
I suggest you put aside what you previously read about lay Theravadins.
As for the Loatian temple, I recommend that you make contact and see what they offer in the way of supporting non Lao-speaking practitioners.
Metta

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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby kc2dpt » Wed May 06, 2009 1:44 pm

seanandrews wrote:I have read online that Theravada Buddhism does not generally accept lay practitioners because of the amount of time needed to devote to meditation and/or that only a monk can attain nirvana and that laity can only aspire to be reborn as a monk after many reincarnations spent discharing the burden of karma.

Where have you read this? I have read many books written by Theravadins and listened to many Theravada monks teach and not once have I heard this from any of them.

There is a Laotian Buddhist temple in Charlotte, NC, but I believe it is exclusive to people who have immigrated to Charlotte from Laos.

The temple was probably founded to serve the local Laos community but that dosn't mean it is closed to others. The temple I go to was founded to serve the local Sri Lanken community, but the monks there try to reach out to others. Most of their activities the language spoken tends to be Sinhalese, but once a week they host an "English" program - meditation and discussion - where everyone speaks English. So give them a visit and see what they have to offer.

I hope this is helpful.
- Peter

Be heedful and you will accomplish your goal.
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby Fede » Wed May 06, 2009 2:01 pm

Listen....
if they've accepted me with no concerns, you'll have no problems.....!! :twothumbsup:

:namaste:

(Like Peter though, I'd be interested to hear just where you obtained this info....)
"Samsara: The human condition's heartbreaking inability to sustain contentment." Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Eat, Pray, Love'.

Simplify: 17 into 1 WILL go: Mindfulness!

Quieta movere magna merces videbatur. (Sallust, c.86-c.35 BC)
Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

I am sooooo happy - How on earth could I be otherwise?! :D


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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby clw_uk » Wed May 06, 2009 2:10 pm

If there was no lay Theravadins, the sangha wouldnt have survived for so long, or if it did it wouldnt be as large as it is

In terms of practice, ive always found Theravadin monks to be very encouraging to the lay in terms of practice


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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby seanandrews » Wed May 06, 2009 2:25 pm

Thank you everyone for replying so quickly. This gives me great hope. It is great to know that there is such a great support network for lay Theravadins. This is where I read the things I wrote:

http://mb-soft.com/believe/txh/theravad.htm
(First paragraph under subheading "Organization")
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby seanandrews » Wed May 06, 2009 2:28 pm

Also, on Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada# ... astic_Life

In the "Lay and Monastic Life" section, it kind of sounds discouraging toward those who would think to become a lay practitioner.

Thanks also to everyone for the encouragement to contact the Laotian temple in Charlotte. I just may do that. They are only a 10-minute drive from my home.
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby kc2dpt » Wed May 06, 2009 3:25 pm

From the first link:

Theravada monks were traditionally criticized by Mahayana believers for being too concerned with their own salvation and for indifference to the lay community.

Here we can see the information is coming from a Mahayana bias.

Theravada doctrine holds that only a monk can attain nirvana and that the laity can only aspire to be reborn as a monk after many reincarnations spent discharging the burden of karma

There is no such doctrine. In fact, according to Theravada scriptures just the opposite is true: anyone, lay or monastic, can attain Nibbana.

I am still interested to find out where such misinformation originated. Also from that website:

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s.

I don't think much was known in the West about Theravada in the early 1980s.

The website for this first link is called "BELIEVE - Religious Information Source web-site". As a rule of thumb, I would be wary of information coming from a source that is describing more than one religion. The information tends to be glib and misinformed. If you want to learn about Theravada Buddhism, best to talk to a Theravada Buddhist. Same for any religion, really.

=====

From the second link:

The role of lay people has traditionally been primarily occupied with activities that are commonly termed 'merit making'. Merit making activities include offering food and other basic necessities to monks, making donations to temples and monasteries, burning incense or lighting candles before images of the Buddha, and chanting protective or merit-making verses from the Pali Canon. Some lay practitioners have always chosen to take a more active role in religious affairs, while still maintaining their lay status. Dedicated lay men and women sometimes act as trustees or custodians for their temples, taking part in the financial planning and management of the temple. Others may volunteer significant time in tending to the mundane needs of local monks (by cooking, cleaning, maintaining temple facilities, etc.). Lay activities have traditionally not extended to study of the Pali scriptures, nor the practice of meditation, though in the 20th Century these areas have become more accessible to the lay community, especially in Thailand.

Actually, I'd say that's about right. Traditionally lay people only engaged in merit making and didn't undertake much study nor meditation. But as people gain more leisure time, and as scriptures start to be translated and published, this is changing. There has never been any doctrinal reason a lay person couldn't study scripture and meditate; it's just the time and interest usually wasn't there.

Even today I see mostly Europeans attending lectures and meditation while the Asians mostly make donations and offerings and then leave. :shrug:
- Peter

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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby thornbush » Wed May 06, 2009 3:29 pm

Well, if I may add, as a lay person, no Mahayana temple is gonna stop anyone from doing their own meditation sittings on a quiet day or dropping a coin in the poor box....not sure if your area has a Mahayana temple that organises Theravada events/practice cos in my country we have some of such 'open' temples.
Hope all is well for you and your family.
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby kc2dpt » Wed May 06, 2009 3:30 pm

And as another rule of thumb, I would take with a grain of salt any information on religion gleaned from Wikipedia.
- Peter

Be heedful and you will accomplish your goal.
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby kc2dpt » Wed May 06, 2009 3:31 pm

thornbush wrote:Well, if I may add, as a lay person, no Mahayana temple is gonna stop anyone from doing their own meditation sittings on a quiet day or dropping a coin in the poor box.

An excellent point! I have no local Theravada temple so I sometimes go and sit with a local Zen group. When you are sitting there quietly no one knows if you are doing zazen or anapanasati. ;)
- Peter

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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby MMK23 » Wed May 06, 2009 4:04 pm

Peter wrote:And as another rule of thumb, I would take with a grain of salt any information on religion gleaned from Wikipedia.


Excellent reminder, Peter. Many of the Buddhist pages are riddled with inaccuracies and sectarian rubbish. And biographies of particular figures from a particular tradition (no names mentioned) are entirely hagiographical with "complicating" details left out. Everytime I've read Wikipedia pages on Buddhism I've had to remind myself of:

http://xkcd.com/386/

:)
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Wed May 06, 2009 4:06 pm

Another very nice aspect of practicing Buddhism is that you don't have to go to a temple to practice. All you need is some quiet space. I'm also very busy with family life so I have to give up some sleep-time to get my practice done. But it's well worth it!
It's nice going to dharma centers too, though, if you're able. I used to go weekly.

:anjali:
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby Ngawang Drolma. » Wed May 06, 2009 4:07 pm

MMK23 wrote:
Peter wrote:And as another rule of thumb, I would take with a grain of salt any information on religion gleaned from Wikipedia.


Excellent reminder, Peter. Many of the Buddhist pages are riddled with inaccuracies and sectarian rubbish. And biographies of particular figures from a particular tradition (no names mentioned) are entirely hagiographical with "complicating" details left out. Everytime I've read Wikipedia pages on Buddhism I've had to remind myself of:

http://xkcd.com/386/

:)


Funny comic! :lol:
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby clw_uk » Wed May 06, 2009 4:08 pm

MMK23 wrote:
Peter wrote:And as another rule of thumb, I would take with a grain of salt any information on religion gleaned from Wikipedia.


Excellent reminder, Peter. Many of the Buddhist pages are riddled with inaccuracies and sectarian rubbish. And biographies of particular figures from a particular tradition (no names mentioned) are entirely hagiographical with "complicating" details left out. Everytime I've read Wikipedia pages on Buddhism I've had to remind myself of:

http://xkcd.com/386/

:)


That cartoon is good :rofl:

:focus:
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby Cittasanto » Wed May 06, 2009 4:18 pm

seanandrews wrote:I have been reading about Buddhism for a year and have attended two different Mahayana sanghas to get a better sense of the different practices of Mahayana meditation. However, I keep coming back to Theravada. Something speaks to me about it. However, I am everyday American with a wife, children, job, etc. I spend time meditating every day. I feel as though I want to follow the Theravada path but have gotten a little discouraged when I have read online that Theravada Buddhism does not generally accept lay practitioners because of the amount of time needed to devote to meditation and/or that only a monk can attain nirvana and that laity can only aspire to be reborn as a monk after many reincarnations spent discharing the burden of karma. But then I have read that progressive-minded Theravadins think you can be a lay practitioner, though. I would greatly appreciate if someone could advise me on this. On one hand, I am not going to abandon my family and job to become a monk, but on the other hand, if it is possible to be a lay practitioner of Theravada Buddhism in modern-day America, I want to learn more. There is a Laotian Buddhist temple in Charlotte, NC, but I believe it is exclusive to people who have immigrated to Charlotte from Laos. And the other temples and/or sanghas in Charlotte are all one or another form of Mahayana. So I am not likely to find a support group here. Thank you so much!

Sean


Hi Sean,
There is no reason why you can't be a lay follower I don't think there are many theravadin members here who are actually monastic and the ones who are obviously monastics. Theravada can not exist if it is not lay and monastic, and that is how it has always been from what I can tell, there has not been a time when the monks could be seperate from the laity, I very much doubt the temple is exclusive to only imigrants from a certain country, I would imagine it formed due to the presence of the imigrants but it would welcome any who wanted to attend, if they have a web site try looking there first

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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby seanandrews » Wed May 06, 2009 4:46 pm

I am so thankful to all of you for these posts. You have really encouraged my further study of Theravada. I have a couple books on Buddhism, but none that go into much depth into Theravada. I have found a couple on Amazon, but I am not sure which is the best book to start with. Any suggestions?

I will contact to Lao temple to see if I could attend.

You know, I used to be so skeptical of Wikipedia but then began to trust it fairly well. I know better than to take what it says on faith, especially when it comes to something more important than useless information.

My last question is, are any of you on Facebook that I could connect to? Or do you know of a group Facebook Theravada group? I will stay on this group and read the other posts, but I like to network through Facebook as well.

Again, thank you so much. Wow, I feel so much better now. Your advice and support has meant a lot to me.

Sean
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby David N. Snyder » Wed May 06, 2009 5:05 pm

In the Theravada article at Wikipedia, at least they had the decency to put the following factual point:

It is also possible for a lay disciple to become enlightened. As Bhikkhu Bodhi notes, "The Suttas and commentaries do record a few cases of lay disciples attaining the final goal of Nibbana. However, such disciples either attain Arahantship on the brink of death or enter the monastic order soon after their attainment. They do not continue to dwell at home as Arahant householders, for dwelling at home is incompatible with the state of one who has severed all craving."[35]

35. # ^ Bhikkhu Bodhi,In the Buddha's Words, Wisdom Publications 2005; page 376

My comments:

One may be a householder all the way up to becoming an Arahant, it just that after that [full] enlightenment is attained, the person will apparently want or need to ordain.

So no need to feel defeated or to not try, there is the opportunity for full enlightenment, even as a lay follower.

:reading: :meditate: :sage: :buddha2:
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Re: Is It Possible to Be a Lay Theravada Buddhist?

Postby MMK23 » Wed May 06, 2009 5:11 pm

seanandrews wrote:I am so thankful to all of you for these posts. You have really encouraged my further study of Theravada. I have a couple books on Buddhism, but none that go into much depth into Theravada. I have found a couple on Amazon, but I am not sure which is the best book to start with. Any suggestions?


Sean, I have a few suggestions, but first I want to declare that even Theravāda is not univocal and these suggestions are based on my own experience:

For a social history of Theravāada, I recommend RIchard Gombrich's "Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo", but this book won't give you too much insight into Theravāda so much as its social context.

For an introduction to where Theravāda sits with regard to the other Buddhisms, Peter F. Harvey's "An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices" is pretty solid, but again won't give you indepth insight into Theravāda but is good value in a lot of ways.

I love Buddhaghosa's the Visuddhimagga, which is a wonderful treatise on meditation*, but, and I'm being practical here, not patronising, might not be the best place to start without a grounding in general Theravāda wisdom.

The website Access to Insight is a Theravāda cyber treasure trove: http://www.accesstoinsight.org. You'll find a section there at the front page which will lead you through introductions to axiomatic principles of Theravāda. Also, in the library, there are heaps and heaps of articles from lots of different authors on lots of different topics. If you browse some of these you'll see what I mean about Theravāda not being univocal!

And my final advice to you is this: be patient, and be gentle - you are embarking on a process of discovering a living tradition that spans many continents, a timespan of more than 2 millenia, millions of adherents, and is literally the pathway to ultimate peace. So be gentle and patient with yourself :)

* Edit: I should say it's a wonderful treatise on purification (path to purification = visuddhimagga) from virtue through insight, not just meditation :yingyang:
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