There are some who believe that Buddhism is so lofty and sublime a system that it cannot be practised by ordinary men and women in the workday world. These same people think that one has to retire to a monastery or to some quiet place if one desires to be a true Buddhist.
This is a sad misconception that comes from a lack of understanding of the Buddha. People jump to such conclusions after casually reading or hearing something about Buddhism. Some people form their impression of Buddhism after reading articles or books that give only a partial or lopsided view of Buddhism. The authors of such articles and books have only a limited understanding of the Buddha’s Teaching. His Teaching is not meant only for monks in monasteries. The Teaching is also for ordinary men and women living at home with their families. The Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddhist way of life that is intended for all people. This way of life is offered to all mankind without any distinction.
The vast majority of people in the world cannot become monks or retire into caves or forests. However noble and pure Buddhism may be, it would be useless to the masses if they could not follow it in their daily life in the modern world. But if you understand the spirit of Buddhism correctly, you can surely follow and practise it while living the life of an ordinary man.
There may be some who find it easier and more convenient to accept Buddhism by living in a remote place; in other words, by cutting themselves off from the society of others. Yet, other people may find that this kind of retirement dulls and depresses their whole being both physically and mentally, and that it may therefore not be conducive to the development of their spiritual and intellectual life.
True renunciation does not mean running away physically from the world. Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, said that one man might live in a forest devoting himself to ascetic practices, but might be full of impure thoughts and ‘defilements’. Another might live in a village or a town, practising no ascetic discipline, but his mind might be pure, and free from ‘defilements’. ‘Of these two,’ said, Sariputta, ‘the one who lives a pure life in the village or town is definitely far superior to, and greater than, the one who lives in the forest.’ (Majjhima Nikaya)
The common belief that to follow the Buddha’s Teaching one has to retire from a normal family life is a misconception. It is really an unconscious defense against practising it. There are numerous references in Buddhist literature to men and women living ordinary, normal family lives who successfully practised what the Buddha taught and realized Nibbana. Vacchagotta the Wanderer, once asked the Buddha straightforwardly whether there were laymen and women leading the family life who followed His Teaching successfully and attained the high spiritual states. The Buddha categorically stated that there were many laymen and women leading the family life who had followed His Teaching successfully and attained the high spiritual states.
It may be agreeable for certain people to live a retired life in a quiet place away from noise and disturbances. But it is certainly more praiseworthy and courageous to practise Buddhism living among fellow beings, helping them and offering service to them. It may perhaps be useful in some cases for a man to live in retirement for a time in order to improve his mind and character, as a preliminary to moral, spiritual and intellectual training, to be strong enough to come out later and help others. But if a man lives all his life in solitude, thinking only of his own happiness and salvation, without caring for his fellowmen, this surely is not in keeping with the Buddha’s Teaching which is based on love compassion and service to others.
One might now ask, ‘If a man can follow Buddhism while living the life of an ordinary man, why was the Sangha, the Order of Monks, established by the Buddha?’ The Order provides opportunity for those who are willing to devote their lives not only to their own spiritual and intellectual development, but also to the service of others. An ordinary layman with a family cannot be expected to devote his whole life to the service of others, whereas a Monk, who has no family responsibilities or any other worldly ties, is in a position to devote his life ‘for the good of the many’.(Dr. Walpola Rahula)
And what is this ‘good’ that many can benefit from? The monk cannot give material comfort to a layman, but he can provide spiritual guidance to those who are troubled by worldly, family emotional problems and so on. The monk devotes his life to the pursuit of knowledge of the Dhamma as taught by the Buddha. He explains the Teaching in simplified form to the untutored layman. And if the layman is well educated, he is there to discuss the deeper aspects of the teaching so that both can gain intellectually from the discussion.
In Buddhist countries, monks are largely responsible for the education of the young. As a result of their contribution, Buddhist countries have populations which are literate and well-versed in spiritual values. Monks also comfort those who are bereaved and emotionally upset by explaining how all mankind is subject to similar disturbances.
In turn, the layman is expected to look after the material well-being of the monk who does not gain income to provide himself with food, shelter, medicine and clothing. In common Buddhist practice, it is considered meritorious for a layman to contribute to the health of a monk because by so doing he makes it possible for the monk to continue to minister to the spiritual needs of the people and for his mental purity.