Do We Even Need Monks and Nuns?

Before we get to the main even, Happy Anapanasati Day! Today marks the anniversary day that the Buddha gave the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118), the great teaching on Mindfulness of Breath. You know how to celebrate!…

When I first started with Buddhism I wasn’t ready for monks and nuns. I was turned off by the robes and the chanting and the ancient languages. So my first teachers, both online and in person were khaki-clad lay dhamma teachers with a nice head of hair. They were unthreatening and wise. They spoke without jargon and were charismatic in their own quiet way. I am grateful to them for bringing me to the dhamma.

I think this is true for lots of Westerners. People that turn away for Christianity tend to want to avoid religiosity in general. So do we even need monks and nuns?

In a word, yes.

Like with so many things, I go back to what the Buddha had to say on the matter. So first things first: are lay people even supposed to be teaching dhamma? Isn’t that the purview of the monks and nuns? It turns out that it is ok and has always been ok for lay people to teach. Anāthapindika was a lay person in the time of the Buddha who not only taught lay people but even the monks on occasion.

Second, can lay people every be enlightened enough to teach serious practitioners? The answer is that lay people can become enlightened! For example Yasa and Khema were a man and woman in the suttas who each became enlightened as a lay person. Now, it’s probably worth noting that both of them ordained shortly afterward, though.

So, if lay people can have great insight and are free to teach, maybe that is the path of the Western sangha. Maybe we don’t really need monks and nuns. That certainly seems to be the path that many of our communities are taking right now.

So what about the other side of the equation? If lay teachers are a possibility, why did bother? Again, let’s see what the suttas have to say.

First, it’s worth pointing out that Buddha was a monk. That’s how he began his spiritual pursuit, and he remained a monk until the day he died. If it wasn’t important, why bother?

Second, if you read the suttas, it’s clear that establishing a 4-fold assembly was the focus of the Buddha’s work after his assembly. That means monks (bhkikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunis), lay men (upāsaka), and lay women (upāsikā). There is nowhere that the Buddha gave any indication that a 3 or 2 fold sangha was enough. The Buddha really spent the majority of his time working with the ordained sangha. He carefully established the rules and the path. It mattered deeply for him because it was the best way for most people to have a really deep practice.

It’s my own view that the Western sangha is in danger of veering seriously off the path by ignoring half of the Buddha’s community. The path he gave for the serious practitioner is ordination. Now, maybe for this generation, the strong lay teacher has a place. Maybe it’s what we need as a bridge to get us to a complete sangha. But I’m a little afraid that the path we’re heading is to firmly establish the salaried, middle class dhamma teacher. I think if we wake up 10 years from now and that is the entrenched model, we would have missed a huge opportunity, and that it would be a sign that the dhamma has failed to be transmitted in this generation.

That was never in the suttas, and not something I really support. It’s worth remembering that the lay dhamma teachers in the suttas did so out of their hearts, not because it was a job. Yes, monks live by the donations of the lay sangha, but they are supposed to live as penniless beggars, entirely dependent on the community for their daily food.

We live in a capitalist society, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine a world outside of that box. Now, it’s not that the Buddha taught against business. There are plenty of suttas where the Buddha praises hard work and even making lots of money. That’s the story of Anāthapindika! But it has no business in the sangha.

The truth is it just isn’t possible to have a “normal” middle-class lifestyle and do the deepest levels of practice. It takes time, attention, and focus that someone with a j-o-b, kids, and a mortgage doesn’t have.

I’m a musician, and there is an example from that world that comes to mind. Most of the great composers in history were professional musicians. But there is one important exception: Charles Ives. Ives was a rich insurance executive who happened to composer masterpieces on the weekends. So generations of composers have though, well I’ll just be a lawyer but compose masterpieces in my garage on the weekends. But you know what? They don’t. Ives was a singular figure. A true standout. An exception that is inspiring but also misleading.

If you look at the deeply enlightened figures in the suttas, they were extraordinary people as well. It’s a mistake to say, well, someone composed masterpieces on the weekends so I can too. Just as it’s a mistake to say Anāthapindika was a deeply realized lay person, so that’s a good enough path.

Monks should live in poverty. The lay people should support them. And people that earn their living off the dhamma should, at the very least, be working tirelessly to end that system.

So what should our plans over the next generation be?
1.) Keep out wonderful tradition of lay teachers.
2.) But phase out the professional lay teacher.
3.) Work our guts out to establish sanghas of monks and nuns here in the west.

One problem that our monastics face is that there are so few of them here that their community suffers. The Buddha didn’t really imagine a situation in which one monk would service a whole state or region as the dhamma teacher in charge. The main task of a monk or nun is to practice! Teaching is something that happens occasionally arising from their practice. It usually takes a group of monks to be able to support each other and a community.

Organization, such as it is, should be led by the lay sangha. It’s our job to feed and house the monks and nuns. It’s their job to practice and teach. We’re a long way from there at the moment. Let that be our gift to the next generation!


6 thoughts on “Do We Even Need Monks and Nuns?

  1. Hi Justin,

    I still have some misunderstanding regarding the terms “Monk” and “Nun.” I’ve always thought of them as religious terms. But the Dali Lama says Buddhist teachings are not a religion (Kornfield).

    When I first came to our meditation center, it was with hesitance because it was listed under religions in the Northfield News. I was interested in meditation but not in finding religion (I had a Christian upbringing, but stopped attending about five years ago because of beliefs I never really could accept). My finding was that our Sangha is quite secular, and I love it..

    Aren’t the terms above religious?

    Thanks again Justin!


    1. Thanks for the note. Really, really great question. “Monk” and “nun” are the English translation of “bhikkhu” and “bhikkhuni”, which literally means “beggar”. That is to say, someone who has completely given up job and family and all the comforts of the home life to devote themselves to Buddhist practice. It’s a common translation because Christian monks shave their heads, put on robes, and take on special rules, just like Buddhist bhikkhus.

      So is Buddhism religious? I agree that sometimes when I look across the religious landscape, I wouldn’t want to be religious either. And in many ways Buddhism is different. There is no creator god. There is no final judgement day. There are no prayers (well, at least in Theravada). There is nobody to ask for forgiveness except other people. Buddha is certainly not a god.

      On the other hand, Buddhism certainly fills a place in our hearts that religion can fill. It provides community, and meaning, and a philosophy, and a practice. It provides symbols, which can be psychologically very powerful.

      Our Sangha is very secular, and I love it too. But for me, over time I’ve also found value in the less secular aspects of Buddhism. Chanting, for example, seemed crazy, old-fashioned and useful when I started meditating. Now I understand that it can be a useful tool for some people.

      This is kind of a non-answer answer, but hopefully it’s a little useful. Thanks for reading!

      1. I think human nature is to yearn for a sense of connection to something greater than ourselves. Relationships, nature, work, religion or spirituality can fulfill this yearning. Along the way, a mentor can prove invaluable in cultivating awareness, knowledge, and skills for expanding and refining that sense of connection. We need mentors immersed in the practice and wholly deficated to it, and we need mentors who balance and integrate the practice with other priorities like work and family. I agree with you, Justin, that each community needs practitioners who are wholly dedicated to the practice and dependent on the community they serve. As I write this, though, I realise this is a call to emulate parts of the Catholic model I have mixed feelings about.

      2. Really great points. There are huge problems with identifying too much with an institution. Especially one that is hierarchical and/or violent. That’s one of the reasons bhukku(ni)s have so many rules. The idea is that they are totally dependent on the dana of the community. If that violate that trust, they will lose the support of the community. It’s also the reason the Buddha refused to name a successor after he died. There shouldn’t be any Buddhist popes.

  2. Hi! Thanks for this post. It’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you if I could translate it in Spanish so that other people can read it as well. I’m from Argentina and practice vipassana meditation as S.N. Goenka taught. With metta, Sol

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I would love to be able to translate into Spanish, but my Spanish ends after two years in high school. David speaks Spanish, so perhaps he would like to translate some of the posts.

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