Monks and Lay People

At an early period Theravada excluded the lay community from the possibility of attaining Nirvana, if not officially then actually. As its name implies, Theravada pertains primarily to elder monks, not to lay men and certainly not to nuns or lay woman. By the time of the Milindapanha (1st cent C.E ?) it had become orthodox doctrine that in the rare event a lay man attains enlightenment he would have to become a monk the same day or die. Thanissaro seems to imply that it is impossible for a lay person to become enlightened also. He says: ‘[We] should note at the inset that Dhamma and Vinaya function together. Neither without the other can attain the desired goal. In theory they may be separate, but in the person who practices them they merge as qualities developed in the mind and character…’ The Vinaya is an essential factor for awakening, lay people do not practice Vinaya, and therefore they cannot become enlightened. This does not correspond very well with what the Buddha taught; but of course the Buddha was not a Theravadin. The suttas mention lay people who became awakened. Further, we are told that for the first 20 years of the Buddha’s ministry there was no Vinaya. If what Thanissaro says is true, one may well ask how all those who became enlightened during that period manage to do so? And what of the great Tibetan, Ch’an and Zen masters who did not practice the Vinaya, or at least not the Theravadin Vinaya? According to Thanissaro’s criteria, they too should be excluded from the possibility of awakening. What also are we to make of Bhaddali’s interesting observation that when there was less Vinaya there were more arahats (M.I,444)?

The Buddha directed much although by no means all of his teachings to monks and nuns. Many of the things he taught would be relevant to any spiritually inclined person, while a significant body of his teachings is of particular interest to the laity. But from an early period Theravadin monks came to monopolize teaching and decided what was taught and to whom. The situation was different in Mahayana where lay people were always given some place. In the 7th century when the Chinese monk Xuanzang was in India he spent several years studying philosophy and meditation with the lay teacher Jayasena, one of the most revered teachers of the time. Some of the great Ch’an and Tibetan teachers were lay people. I know of no cases of eminent Theravadin lay Dhamma teachers or meditation masters until the end of the 19th century. [1]

With monks monopolizing the Dhamma it is only natural that they emphasized those aspects of it that were of interest to them. Further, they tended to highlight teachings that were convenient to them vis-à-vis the lay community. Thus today it is quite normal to hear people say that a lay person’s duty is to look after the monks whose duty it is to study and practice the Dhamma, that you can’t understand the Dhamma unless you know Pali, that it is bad karma to criticize or contradict a monk, etc. There are certainly lay people who do not accept these assumptions and progressive monks who try to correct them but they are up against the entrenched tradition of centuries.

So it has come to be that Theravadians are actually divided into two distinct groups; part-time Buddhists who practice basic Dhamma as and when they can (lay people) and the ‘real’ Buddhists who practice Dhamma fully (monks). Lawrence Mills, himself a Theravadin monk for more than 30 years before disrobing and taking a Tibetan teacher, describes Theravada as being ‘two-tiered.’ He writes: ‘In this model, the monastics are superior, while the laity regard themselves as inferior to the monks, a situation often to the detriment of both. The monks can become too proud of their exalted state, while the laity feel not only second-class but also unable to practice very much.’ The laity are constantly told that it is sufficient for them to aspire only to practice the most basic Dhamma. But even then, of the three constituents of basic Dhamma; dana, sila and bhavana – most stress is put on the first. I have never actually heard Theravadin monks say that giving to the Sangha is more important than morality, kindness, honesty or meditation, but the enormous emphasis placed on it certainly gives people that impression. Stanley Tambiah conducted a survey amongst ordinary Thais where he listed various religious practices and asked people to rank them according to how much merit each would earn. Practicing the Precepts strictly was ranked bottom, far below building temples and giving to monks. This helps to explain why gangsters, crooked businessmen and corrupt politicians in Theravadin lands are amongst the more generous and visible supporters of the Sangha. It is assumed that generosity to the Sangha is sufficient to qualify being a good lay Buddhist, just as it is assumed that any evil one might commit can be easily cancelled out by doing the greatest good – giving to the Sangha. Such types can also be quite confident that their donations will be graciously accepted and that the sermons they hear afterwards will make reference to moral behavior only in the most abstract terms.

The main thing connecting Theravadin monks to the lay community is not a common commitment to the Dhamma but the lavish material support and adulation that the latter give to the former and the merit that the former are supposedly able to impart to the latter. Monks are reluctant to relinquish or even share with the laity the role of teacher and the laity for their part are convinced that the Dhamma is too esoteric to know and too difficult to practice beyond dana and perhaps basic sila. Due to the influence of Protestantism in the late 19th century, Sri Lanka has a small but well-regarded number of lay teachers but such people are almost non-existent in others Theravadin cultures. In the Tipitaka monks are depicted in the role of teacher but we also read of monks and lay people learning together and even of monks being instructed by lay people. In India, this tradition of learned lay people persisted for several centuries. Some of the inscriptions of Sanchi and Bharhut dating from the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE refer to lay men and even women who ‘know a sutta by heart,’ or were ‘well versed in the five Nikayas,’ or even ‘knowledgeable in a Pitaka.’ Even in the Vinaya we occasionally read of monks learning Dhamma from lay people (Vin.I,139).

Many Christians will have a Bible and the more devote will read it regularly. All Jewish boys will be tutored in the Torah in preparation for their Bah Mitzvah. Muslims will read the Koran and even be able to recite parts by heart. The vast majority of Theravadin lay people and a good number of monks too, have never read the Tipitaka. When Mahayana Buddhism came to China and Tibet the monks diligently translated all the sutras into the common tongue, a task that continued for several centuries and one which stands as perhaps the greatest translation undertaking in history. Nothing comparable to this ever happened in Theravadin countries. The Mahavamsa mentions that one ancient Sri Lankan king had the Tipitaka translated into Sinhala, but this is one of the few reference I know in Theravadin history of this being done until modern times. It is unlikely that this translation was widely available. In most countries it is fairly easy to get copies of the Dhammapada and little booklets containing perhaps the Mangala Sutta and the Metta Sutta, but until recently anything more than this was rare. Finally, in the 1950s the Sri Lankan and Burmese governments undertook to translate the Tipitaka into their respective vernaculars. In the case of the Sinhala Tipitaka, nearly 50 years later and the job is still not finished. The parts published earlier are hard to find now, individual volumes are large and expensive and the Sinhala used is often so archaic that the average person has trouble reading it. Sri Lankan monks have told me that it is actually easier for them to read the Pali than the Sinhala. It is the same with the Thai and the Burmese translations of the Tipitaka.

Go to any monastery from to Rangoon to Phnom Penh, from Korat to Kandy and if there is a copy of the Tipitaka at all it will be sitting in quiet neglect in its locked and dusty cabinet. But it doesn’t really matter because lay people don’t want to read the Tipitaka anyway. They have been so conditioned into believing that to be good Buddhists all they have to do is look after the monks that they have little interest in knowing the Dhamma at a deeper level. That’s the monk’s job. And it is hard not to get the impression that many monks are quite content that this situation should continue. If lay people read what the Buddha said of monks who purvey magic charms and quack medicines they might be very shocked (D.I,9). If they read about lay man like Citta instructing the monks in Dhamma they might start to get big ideas (S.IV,284). If they knew how simply the Buddha and his disciples lived they might start to think all the glitter and surfeit of the monasteries was inappropriate (A.I136). All the distortions and absurdities that make Theravada what it is are able to persist to a very large degree because the majority of people know only what the monks choose to tell them.

A man I know attended a Thai temple in Singapore for 15 years before becoming one of my students. He could chant the five Precepts but couldn’t name any of them and didn’t know that what he was chanting referred to morality. He did know however, that every time he went to the temple that he should give an hung pow (monetary donation) to the monks. Young, well-educated Asians have often told me that they got their first real understanding of Dhamma when they joined a Buddhist group at the university where they were studying in the West. It was probably to try to prevent these very types of problems that the Buddha encourages all his disciples, monastic and lay, men and women, to be well-versed in the Dhamma. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta he says: ‘I will not attain final Nirvana till I have monks and nuns, lay men and lay woman who are accomplished and trained, skilled and learned, knowers of the Dhamma, trained in conformity with the Dhamma, fully trained, living according to Dhamma, who can share the Dhamma with others, teach it, proclaim it, expound it, establish it, elucidate it, analyze it and make it clear; till they shall be able by using the Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen and establish the authentic Dhamma’ (D.II,104).


  1. Gurulagomin, the great 12th century scholar, may have been a layman although this is not certain. Either way, there is no evidence that he was a teacher in the sense I am referring to. The Vinayavinicchaya mentions a person called Upasaka Dhammakitti Pandita who was obviously a learned lay man but we know nothing else about him. [back]