Moving beyond the monk/lay divide…
According to Sangharakshita, going for Refuge to the Three Jewels isn’t something you do just once. It’s an orientation not an event. Buddhist practice is about going for Refuge more and more deeply. He, therefore, speaks of various levels of going for Refuge. Whatever stage we have reached on the path, the next step is always to transform our actions, thoughts and values from those based on limited or selfish aspirations to those represented by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
In many Asian Buddhist cultures the sangha is divided between monks and nuns, who can be seen as the ‘real’ full-time Buddhists, and lay people, who can be regarded as part-timer supporters. In some countries the role of the laity is simply to serve the monastics. However, all Buddhists face the same spiritual and existential issues: how to live well; suffering and death; the fact that actions have consequences; the need to transform your ways of thinking and ways of seeing things. So all Buddhists – whether monk or lay – Go for Refuge to some extent, and all have the challenge of doing so more fully.
Sangharakshita emphasises that Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels is primary in any Buddhist life. How one expresses that in one’s individual life may vary enormously. As he puts it: commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary.
For this reason the Triratna Buddhist Order was set up as neither lay nor monastic. Order Members live in a range of ways: some have families, some live in communities (not just with other Order members), others are chaste (anagarikas). But there is no difference in status, simply a different approach to practice. The Order is a united sangha – it includes men and women, people from many countries and cultures, and practitioners following a wide variety of lifestyles. The Triratna Buddhist Order is also financially independent in the world. Our local Buddhist Centres are financially autonomous, and are not run exclusively by Order members. If those working there support themselves through donations these will come from all members of the Sangha.
Generally speaking, Sangharakshita does not believe all lifestyles are equally supportive of spiritual practice. He holds
up the traditional practice of brahmacarya – a chaste and simple life based on detachment from possessions, craving and sexual activity – as an ideal towards which all Buddhists could be actively working. However, he maintains that people can deepen their wisdom and compassion under any circumstances, and it is not always easy to predict what conditions will give rise to spiritual growth.
Listen to various accounts of this aspect of our approach to practice.