Classical Buddhism isn’t really for lay people.
Most of the teachings were created by—and for—monastics. In Theravada, you have to be a monk to enter Nibbana. We can’t all run off and join monasteries. I’m skeptical that lay people can make any real progress by jamming a monastic lifestyle into home life. This means you can chuck your samatha and vipassana. They’re a waste of your time.
Lay practice is mostly about morality. Don’t scoff—living a moral life is extremely difficult.
Lay Buddhists take the Five Precepts and vow to keep them in body, speech and mind. The goal is to generate positive karma and prevent negative karma. Positive karma leads to positive feelings, perceptions, ideas, and states of mind.
There’s a lot going on beneath the precepts. Let’s take, “I vow to abstain from killing.” People don’t just kill people. There are emotional and instinctual forces at work. To truly keep the precept, we have to dig out and replace those destructive drives with beneficial ones.
If someone murders a person out of jealousy, then there’s rage, envy, greed and a bunch of other afflictions at work. Removing those afflictions is keeping the precepts with your mind. An easy way to do that is to make offerings to the Three Treasures—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I know you want something more than that, but you’re a lay person.
You’ve got bills to pay.
I promise that if you light some incense and say, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,” with the right intention, you’ll feel better. Feeling better makes it easier to keep those afflictions at bay, which helps us keep the precepts. This is how most people practice Buddhism in Asia. We should probably take at least some interest in that as we cultivate Buddhism in the West.
What’s interesting is that Asian Buddhism looks similar among all laypeople regardless of what Buddhist school they belong to. They make offerings and try to be good people. That’s it.
Isn’t that enough? Isn’t wanting more the problem?
Anshi is the pen-name for a Buddhist writer. If you know who Anshi is, please don’t tell anyone since these posts often have sensitive autobiographical info in them. Anshi is a Chan teacher and mentor at the Oxhead Zen Community.
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