Special Topics

Characteristics of a True Buddhist Lay Practitioner

Q: What are upasakas and upasikas?

Upasakas and upasikas refer to the male and female lay Buddhist devotees which, together, constitute the two groups of lay Buddhists. Upasaka is a Sanskrit transliteration for a lay male devotee, meaning "he who comes near" to being nobly born son (kula-putra); while Upasika a female devotee, meaning "she who comes near" to being a nobly born daughter (kula-duhitri). The expression "one who comes near," means one who aspires to get close to and support the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. As a lay devotee, it refers to one who has taken the refuge and holds pure faith in the Three Jewels; and a "nobly born son" or a "nobly born daughter" is a respectable way of addressing one who is keen to believe in the Buddha's teaching, hear the Dharma, and practice good deeds accordingly.

In his work entitled Essentials of Buddhist Sila and Vinaya, Master Sheng Yen remarks, "For those who have taken the Three Refuges, if they wish to further seek and obtain actual benefits from the Buddhist belief and practice, they must also receive and keep the Five Precepts, which marks the actual beginning of learning and practicing Buddhism. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is just an entry point.” Volume One of the Vinaya-Matrka (Mother of the Monastic Codes) Sutra states that "An upasaka does not stop at taking refuge in the Three Jewels; he must also keep the Five Precepts to be true to that name." So, although we may formally become Buddhists after taking refuge in the Three Jewels, we should also receive and uphold the Five Precepts in order to count as genuine upasakas and upasikas.

Q: What is the Difference Between a Lay Buddhist Practitioner and an Average Person?

There are two categories of Buddhists: renunciants and laity. Renunciants are monastics, while laity are householder-practitioners. The majority of Buddhists are laypeople, or householder-practitioners, who are devotees of Buddhist practice while leading a secular life. In contrast, monastics have left behind the domestic family life.

Although still living in the same environment, a lay practitioner's state of mind is supposed to be different from that of an average person. Most people are occupied and busy with their secular way of life, while lay practitioners devote themselves to spiritual practice by seeking liberation from samsara. Their most significant difference is that the laity has taken refuge in the Three Jewels, upholds the Five Precepts, and are firm in their faith in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as their main objective in life. They know to safeguard their body and mind by refraining from: killing or harming living beings, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and consuming intoxicants. By practicing the Dharma, we will see clearly that what most people pursue for enjoyment—wealth, form, fame, food and sleep—are actually the sources of our pain and suffering. Laypeople aspire to use the Dharma to help themselves leave behind suffering and attain happiness by practicing the threefold training-- morality, concentration, and wisdom--in order to cease their craving, hatred, and delusion. They hope all other beings can also attain liberation and freedom in the same way. Therefore, they will actively practice the Bodhisattva path.

Q: What are the differences between practicing Buddhism as a layperson and as a monastic?

Since the spiritual capacity for learning Buddhism differs from person to person, some are suitable for monastic life, while others are more suited to practice as laity. In terms of faith in the Buddhist belief, being a monastic or layperson is equal; in terms of realizing the Dharma and attaining the Path, there is not much difference, either. Theravada Buddhism maintains that it is possible for laity to attain the third fruit of realization, or the fruit of non-returning (anāgāmin), while Mahayana Buddhism holds that everyone has the potential to attain Buddhahood regardless of their status. Aside from the fact that laypeople lead a domestic life while renunciants live as monastics, the main differences in their Buddhist practice are as follows:

1. Precepts and Codes of Conduct:
Lay and monastic practitioners may not be different in terms of the methods of practice, but the precepts and codes of conduct they are supposed to uphold are different. While laypeople are only required to keep the Five Precepts, monastics must also receive the full precepts in addition to following the bhikshu or bhikshuni precepts. The primary difference between lay and monastic practitioners is that monastics must abstain from all sexual relations, whereas lay practitioners are only required to refrain from sexual misconduct.

2. Lifestyle Differences:
In the Great Treatise on the Perfection of Wisdom it says: "A peacock may be well adorned with splendid feathers, but it is not as good as a goose that can fly long distances. A lay person may possess the power of wealth and fortune, but his merit is not as superior as that of a renunciant living a monastic life." This analogy illustrates the difference between a lay and monastic practitioner in terms of lifestyle. The former cannot really leave behind their secular daily routine and are often occupied with their livelihood, making it difficult for them to reach the ultimate state in this lifetime. The latter are more able to adapt to their living environment, practicing giving and contributing themselves as the condition requires. Lay practitioners, in contrast, possess the burdens of family, fame and fortune, as well as status and position, which makes them resemble the peacock laden with fancy feathers but unable to take flight.

3. Responsibility and Mission:
While monastics are thought to be the "internal protectors" of Buddhism, lay practitioners are considered the "external protectors". Both strive to protect and preserve the Dharma. What does it mean to be an “internal protector”? It means protecting and safeguarding the Buddha's bequeathed teachings. What about the "external protector"? This refers to supporting the monastics, so that they can concentrate on spreading the Dharma without having to worry about their livelihood. The internal and external protectors must work together to ensure the continuation of Buddhism.

Q: What are the five trainings for lay practitioners?

As recorded in the Saṃyuktāgama, the Buddha taught that lay devotees should fulfill the five trainings, also known as meeting the five requirements, namely:

1. Fulfillment of Faith
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the essential requirement to be a Buddhist, and lay practitioners must establish sincere and profound faith in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Firm faith is necessary in practicing the Dharma; only with the belief that the Dharma can help us and sentient beings leave suffering behind and attain happiness can our faith generate its power.

2. Fulfillment of the Precepts
Apart from the belief and faith in the Three Jewels, lay practitioners also need to uphold the Five Precepts, by refraining from the following acts killing and harming living beings; taking what is not given; engaging in sexual misconduct; committing false speech; and, lastly, consuming intoxicants. In doing so, we can reduce our wrong-doing, increase our good actions, and purify our minds.

3. Fulfillment of Listening to the Teachings
To attain the correct knowledge and views regarding the Dharma and practice accordingly, one needs to start by hearing and listening to the Buddhist teachings. Therefore, lay practitioners must listen to Dharma talks on Buddhist sutras to learn the Dharma, and draw themselves close to good spiritual teachers.

4. Fulfillment of Giving
The essence of giving is in respectfully making offerings to our parents, teachers, and the Three Jewels; in the compassionate giving to orphans, suffering people, the poor, and the sick; and in enhancing the public's well-being through charitable actions and deeds.

5. Fulfillment of Wisdom
Buddhist cultivation starts with listening, contemplating, and practicing the Dharma, in order to understand its essence, thereby attaining wisdom in its true sense. In the Buddha's time, many of his disciples saw the truth and even attained the first fruition (śrotāpanna, "stream-enterer") simply by hearing his teaching of the Dharma. They were the perfect examples of the fulfillment of wisdom.

In the Buddhist Teachings for Lay Practitioners, Master Yinshun encouraged people by suggesting that, "A lay person should strive to become a lay Mahayana practitioner, by learning the ways of a bodhisattva, seeking bodhi while making an effort to deliver sentient beings. To walk the path towards bodhi, we must learn and practice the five trainings, which was taught by the Buddha especially for lay devotees."

Q: What is a lay bodhisattva?

Apart from the usual name of "householder-practitioner", "Dharma brother" or "Dharma sister", a lay Buddhist may also be respectfully referred to as a bodhisattva. "Bodhisattva" is a Sanskrit word meaning "enlightened sentient being", or one who is capable of awakening self and others. They aspire to awaken themselves by walking the Buddha path, while vowing to deliver sentient beings by helping them become awakened.

In his book, Introduction to Buddhism, Master Sheng Yen remarks, "Everyone can attain Buddhahood, but before that one should become a bodhisattva. To become a bodhisattva, one must practice the bodhisattva path. Anyone who walks the bodhisattva path while possessing the bodhisattva mind is a bodhisattva." The bodhisattva path begins with taking the Bodhisattva Precepts, from which the bodhisattva vow arises.

Practiced by Mahayana bodhisattvas, the Bodhisattva Precepts are divided into two categories: one for monastic bodhisattvas and the other for lay bodhisattvas.

The essence of Bodhisattva Precepts is for us to arouse the supreme bodhi-mind. The fundamental principle of the bodhi-mind is in the Four Great Vows: that is, the vow to deliver all sentient beings; the vow to cut off endless vexations; the vow to master limitless approaches to Dharma; and, finally, the vow to achieve supreme Buddhahood. As the distinguishing characteristics and general guidelines for the bodhisattva precepts, the Three Sets of Precepts (trividhāni śīlāni ) include the precept of discipline and restraint (saṃvaraśīla), the precept of doing good deeds ( kuśaladharmasaṃgrāhakāśīla), and the precept of benefitting sentient beings (sattvārthakriyāśīla). These three precepts cover the entire spirit of Mahayana Buddhist teaching: abstaining all evil, practicing all good deeds, and delivering all sentient beings.

The content of the Bodhisattva Precepts transmitted at Dharma Drum Mountain is based on the Four Great Vows and the Three Sets of Precepts as a foundation, as well as the Ten Virtues, which are meant for the purification of our bodily, verbal, and mental actions. Anyone aspiring to become a lay bodhisattva should receive the Bodhisattva Precepts. With the aspiration to emulate the ways of a bodhisattva, every lay practitioner can receive the Bodhisattva Precepts.

Extended Reading:
Cultivation for Lay Buddhist Practitioners

Resource: Issue 435 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Translation: Cheng-Yu Chang (張振郁)
Editing: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown
Photos: Jean Li, Chung-nan 
Liang (梁忠楠)