The Question of Lifestyle

The Question of Lifestyle

One of Urgen Sangharakshita’s more frequently repeated aphorisms is that ‘Going for Refuge is primary, life style is secondary’.  This is because it doesn’t matter how a Buddhist lives if he or she is truly Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels because the way we live our lives will naturally be an expression of an effective Going for Refuge.  What it doesn’t mean is that a practicing Buddhist can lead any old lifestyle. Some lifestyles offer a very explicit expression of the Buddhist Vision and others are obviously inimical to it.  Some clearly support one’s spiritual efforts, and others equally clearly undermine them.  The Buddha led the life of a wandering ascetic.  He praised this lifestyle and promoted it amongst his followers exhorting them to ‘Go forth from home into homelessness.’  Historically, most of the really exceptional teachers and exemplars of the Buddhist life have been monks, but none have been married – is there a reason for this?  Many modern Western Buddhists hold the view that married family life is the most suitable lifestyle for the practice of Buddhism in the West.  Some of the most extreme even suggest that celibacy, being a sort of perverted accretion to the Buddhist tradition, has no intrinsic spiritual value. Is this an example of Western culture transforming Buddhism, rather than Buddhism transforming Western culture?

Traditionally the Buddha talked about seven classes of disciples, monks and nuns, (bhikkhu, and bhikkhuni), novice monks and nuns (samanera and samaneri),  nun trainee (sikkhamana), laymen and laywomen (upāsaka and upāsikā). Five of these types of disciples have Gone Forth into Homelessness, two follow lives engaged with the ordinary ‘world’.  More recently in his book ‘Buddhist Saints in India’ Reginald Ray suggests that there are three classes of disciples of the Buddha, lay devotees, monastic and forest renunciants. He further suggests that men and women following all three lifestyles are essential to the health of the Buddhist Community, and that each has a specific role in that community.

According to the website of the Jogye Order, the largest in Korea, there are at present 12 Million practicing Buddhists in the country, of whom 12,000 are monks or nuns, and 2,000 of these attend the biannual three month meditation retreats.  This is an illuminating example of the kind of distribution that might perhaps be expected in the lifestyles of a thriving Buddhist Community.

There are some important questions that need to asked about these three lifestyles. Does it matter which one one adopts?  Are they equally valid as supports for the Buddhist life? Do they represent a progression, or are they just different, attractive to different types of people?  Is the whole question of lifestyle merely a red herring, since inner experience is the crucial factor? (A prominent Japanese academic, a Buddhist minister and an authority on ethics, once said to me, as he waited for his meat dish, smoking a cigarette, and sipping on his beer,  ‘Ethics is to do with mental states, one should not be attached to externals’!) These questions are complex but in trying to answer them we may discover some valuable insights.

Perhaps the first question is to ask how the three lifestyles that Dr. Ray identifies are represented in modern western society. I’d like to suggest that a lay lifestyle is one in which someone lives with a partner and possibly children, has a regular job, and which, in externals, is indistinguishable from the lives of people around them; a monastic lifestyle is one in which someone lives communally with members of the same sex, gains a livelihood by working directly for the Dharma, and engages in a regular program of meditation, study, and devotional practice; and the forest, or hermit monk is represented by those who live alone, generally shunning social life, for the specific purpose of pursuing a spiritual life.

Clearly in practice there is a gamut of lifestyles, as there is a gamut of colours contained within the range of pure red, green, and blue.  It is quite possible that someone may live with their family and work full time for the Dharma or engage in intense study or meditation; someone else may live alone in a city, gain their livelihood as a house cleaner, but devote themselves to meditation; yet again someone may live in a community, work in the ‘city’ and visit their family at weekends.  And even though it is true that spiritual development is essentially the transformation of mind, which is not directly visible, it will none-the-less have external manifestations and develop under a particular set of external conditions.  Given all these riders, it seems that the three forms of lifestyle, symbolically and actually, represent lives in which there are increasing degrees of renunciation.

The Buddha recommended ‘Going Forth from Home into Homelessness’ by which he actually meant leaving home life and becoming a homeless wanderer, but in principle what this suggests is  that his path was one of gradually abandoning all attachments.  We have to abandon the ordinary attachments which we have to ‘the world’, as well as the ‘extraordinary’ attachments to higher states of consciousness.

The lay life shows no explicit sign of this abandonment – although there is always the possibility that someone living  the lay life could be practicing a high degree of renunciation.   The well known Vimalakirti Nirdesa focuses on the layman who, although married and owning ‘female servants’, is celibate, who, although immensely rich, gives away all he has, and who, although engaging in social activities, does so only to enable him to preach the Dharma.  There is a similar, but much more detailed expression of this teaching in the Ugrapariprccha, an early Mahayana text, in which Ugra asks the Buddha to expound the practice for a house-holder bodhisattva. However, as normally lived, the lay life does not exhibit or require explicit renunciation.  Monastic life does exhibit the renunciation of property and family life – although it must be admitted that it is not impossible for monastics to be spiritually lazy, or socially busy, or living in pursuit of ecclesiastical position. (The 4th  century Christian monk John Cassian noted that ‘The monk ought to flee women and bishops‘.) A Forest dweller exhibits the highest degree of abandoning the things of the ‘world’ but there is the possibility that internally he could be no more than a lonely misanthrope.  But as symbols the monastic and forest lifestyles can inspire renunciation, whereas the lay life will never perform this function. Those living renunciant lifestyles become living symbols, that express, and provide the conditions for, the renunciation that is an essential component of the Buddhist spiritual life.

Anyone following the Buddhist life will be progressively simplifying their life.  It is the third of the five, or ten, precepts that members of my own Triratna community follow, and a principle that all Buddhists embrace. A difference it is said, will make a difference. One would expect to see Buddhists simplifying their lives and enjoying the spiritual freedoms that come from abandoning the various forms of grasping and other emotional complexities.  One could therefore expect to see Buddhists moving generally speaking towards a lifestyle that expressed a greater degree of renunciation, unless, of course, they had a very specific purpose for projecting an impression that they were living a normal life like everyone else.

Is this happening in Western Buddhist communities?  My impression is that during the period when Buddhism was becoming increasingly popular in the 1960′ and 70’s this was the case.  Many young Buddhists were moving into communities and living simply, working hard but for idealistic reasons rather than financial reward, and generally single (although it must be admitted rather sexually promiscuous). Thirty years later the Buddhist community consists mainly of middle class family people with ordinary jobs, often in the field of psycho-therapy or counseling. In the 1960’s and 1970’s it was often felt that it was not possible to practice Buddhism in any way unless one was prepared to abandon conventional life.  This is no longer true, and it is undoubtedly a good thing that Buddhism appeals to a much wider range of people.  But there is a danger that in the rising tide of increasing popularity, the radical expression of the Buddha’s teaching in a renunciant lifestyle will lost from view, like the gem filled rock pools on the ocean shore.

In a culture where the idea of renouncing the ‘world’ is so much against our conventions, it is  important to promote it and investigate the means whereby this renunciation is to be achieved. The aim of The Radical Buddhist is to promote a radical Buddhist lifestyle – one that manifests the freedom that emerges from the practice of the Dharma.


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