By Jeff Eisenberg

Be honest! You immediately thought that this piece is about having sex!

Come on, come clean! I know you’re already picturing erotic images from some Tantric manual, or perhaps just about the porn clip you watched last night that you are now afraid that you might have forgotten to delete from your computer’s history. Relax. I’m just kidding about doin’ the nasty. But what’s no joke in the Buddhist world is the controversy over just what it means to be a good lay Buddhist.

At one point in Buddhist history it was thought that enlightenment could only be achieved by monastics, and even though that view has changed, how to define a lay Buddhist and just what their position is in the hierarchy, or if they should even have a place in the hierarchy at all, is still fiercely debated. Traditional practices versus modern ones, monastic dwellers versus house holders, sutra academics versus social activists, and dogmatic practitioners versus pragmatic ones, are just a few of the hot topic issues debated in today’s Buddhist world. But before we dive deep into all this, I’ll give you my general take on it all, which is that I think that all these perspectives have their place and serve a purpose, especially when balanced with each other and integrated into helpful action.

Let me say that I’m a grower not a show-er. I mean that I’m a do-er not a poser, meaning that my practice has always been about putting the Buddhist teachings into action, and that my philosophy is that the only way to realistically assimilate the teachings into action is to cultivate the ability to do so under the least conducive conditions.

So for me, it is trying to find an equanimity between meditation and Buddhist study with the pressures and conflicts that result from holding down a job, paying bills, having financial struggles, being in a relationship, raising kids, taking care of a home, etc. Rather than being the antithesis of awakening, my direct experience dictates that these trials and tribulations are actually the most realistic vehicle for awakening.

And while to a Buddhist newbie this probably makes perfect sense, as most that are new to practice come due to their desire to deal with the stress of these exact situations and their inability to manage them, the reality is that traditional Buddhism has always said that these experiences are exactly why one cannot awaken. Which, even when I was a wet behind the ears, completely green, Buddhist newbie this made absolutely no sense to me. I somehow already had the instinct that what they were calling the path to enlightenment was actually a path of aversion away from it.

Now before the dude with the shaved head gets his robes all tied up in a bunch and loses his shit (damn, I mean equanimity) let me say that I completely understand how being a monastic and having all your needs taken care of for you, completely free from the extreme pressures that come with having to manage them yourself with no entanglement with a significant other or the rugrats that come with Buddhist lay practice, (Get it? Buddhist lay…rugrats…), frees the monastic up to have the opportunity to perhaps go deeper into different aspects and experiences of meditative absorption, as well as to investigate the teachings to a far greater extent than a lay person. But I also understand, that this doesn’t mean that the monastic can assimilate any of it into realistic application under real life circumstances that are not conducive for its success like being cloistered is.

So this begs the question…What’s the use of being an enlightened monastic if the only place you can be enlightened is in a monastery? What good is that attainment if it’s dependent on the setting and conditions of where it was attained?

My answer in part is that there is no use if you stay in the monastery. But if the monastic ventures out and slums with us lay people, and affords herself the opportunity to learn how to apply it under the trials and tribulations of the everyday householder life, then it’s extremely useful. But then this begs another question. If they do venture out to do so and live under “normal” lay conditions, doesn’t this make them at least in part, lay Buddhists? Or should they no longer be definitively classified as being monastics?

Well, the monastic crowd would say that if they do not disrobe and have a foot in both worlds, then yes, they retain their monastic label, as from experience they are able to speak of knowing what it’s like to be a lay Buddhist and deal with all that comes with it. I agree with that to a degree, but I believe the answer to all opposing perspectives is found in a balance between them, and I do not feel any different in regard to the monastic and lay worlds. So based on that, I say that sheer logic would mandate that we must conclude that lay people that go on retreat and have a foot in both worlds as well, can also be called monastics.

Where am I going with all this? Well, my conclusion is that while they both would get a taste of each other’s world and would be able to appropriate something useful from each, in the end when all is said and done, I think that each practitioner is left predominately with the results of their experience in their own world.

This then makes the issue, for me anyway. Which result would I rather have? Would I rather have a more extensive knowledge of Buddhist teaching and perhaps experience deeper meditative states, yet have it dependent on a setting that is strictly conducive for it, not knowing whether I could truly assimilate my experience and apply it in the real world, under adverse conditions? Or would I rather cultivate an ability to turn whatever understanding and wisdom that I do have into a realistic application of skillful action in response to the conditions of a setting that is least conducive to do so, and therefore achieve deeper experiential insight and transformation in regard to weakening my conditioning and breaking attachment to my habitual reactivity?

As you might have guessed it’s the latter. Perhaps my reasoning can be best understood if explained in a martial arts context.

I spent many years in traditional martial arts training which consisted of learning kata—a set of choreographed moves done alone as you visualize doing them against an invisible “opponent”—and doing “self-defense” against a willing, compliant, non-resisting, “attacker” in a choreographed scenario where the attackers’ compliance actually helped the successful application of technique. Now while I was constantly told that I would always be able to execute the technique in a “real” situation, I doubted it, and always had carried around the question of whether I could actually defend myself or not with the techniques that I was “pretending” to do.

As time went on my doubt became so great, that my inner voice got to a point that it was screaming at me to accept that I could not truly defend myself in a real situation, which prompted me to seek out reality based training that would teach me how. Now if you are a martial artist, don’t twist this to think that I don’t place importance on drilling technique, as I do feel that drilling is imperative in learning the mechanics of technique. What I am saying is that training must be evolved from the foundation of the drilling that takes place under conditions conducive for its success, to a realistic level of training where conditions are the least conducive, such as a spontaneous, surprise attack by a resisting opponent that simulates the stress symptoms and adrenaline dump of a real situation if one truly wishes to turn those drilled mechanics into realistic, viable application.

Another motivation is rooted in my experience as an instructor, since my perspective is that it’s better to teach less material that can be adapted and applied to many scenarios, rather than teaching a ridiculous amount of techniques with each one only having one specific application. The difference is that a student taught in the first manner learns to process a response via concept which leads to a spontaneous response that adapts to the scenario, where the student that’s taught in the second manner gets caught in thinking about how to respond and has to draw from their memory, which of the many specific responses that they have been taught fits the specific threat that they face. To me this martial arts analogy is an exact example that highlights the knowledge versus action difference between a literal, dogmatic monastic and a figurative, pragmatic lay Buddhist.

So relating this to the lay versus monastic discussion, in my experience it mirrors exactly the process a lay practitioner goes through to learn how to respond to the difficulties of daily life.

Like the first martial arts student, as they repeatedly ingrain natural and skillful spontaneous reactions under the realistic conditions of everyday life, their application skill set becomes rooted in understanding the concept of a teaching, which in turn, makes it applicable to a vast array of situations. The monastic with no pragmatic, practical experience would need to resort to thinking about which teaching out of the many that they have knowledge of to apply to one particular situation and then hope they can apply it.

I’m not saying that they can’t, I’m sayings that in my experience, without a repetitious continuum of doing so under real conditions it is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible to do so.

Now, traditional people don’t get your robes all up in a bunch! I know I’m making sweeping generalizations that might not apply to you, but that doesn’t make them completely wrong. So like the Buddha tells us not to his word for it, don’t take mine either. Investigate your direct experience for yourself and find the path that works for you.

That path just might be the cloistered life of the monk, but for me, I prefer to get out there, play the field, and be a great lay!


Jeff Eisenberg is a Grand Master level martial arts and meditation teacher with over 40 years of training and 25 years of teaching experience. Trained in a variety of disciplines, he has run his own Dojo for nearly 15 years and has trained thousands of children and adults in martial arts and meditation. He is the author of Fighting Buddha: Martial Arts, Buddhism Kicking Ass and Saving It and Buddha’s Bodyguard: How to protect Your Inner VIP. Check out his website here.




Photo: Andrew Browne

Editor: Dana Gornall


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