Ordained and Lay Buddhists

The easiest way to identify ordained is by their appearance. Monks and nuns usually wear specific kinds of clothes – the saffron robes of the Theravadin sangha are easily identifiable, for example. Monks and nuns will usually shave their heads as well – this helps remove vanity and sets them apart from the laity. Lay commitment can be recognised in a number of ways, for example, by a calm disposition, visiting meditation centres, listening to Dhamma / Dharma talks, supporting the sangha and giving to charity.

Lay Buddhists also take the Five Precepts: to abstain from killing, taking what is not given, misuse of sensual pleasures, false speech, abuse of drugs and alcohol. Pious Buddhists may take an additional Three Precepts, especially on holy days: abstention from a luxurious bed, food after midday and amusements and adornments. Individuals also try to foster positive virtues such as contentment with a simple life, detachment from material concerns, self-discipline, tolerance, love and compassion for all beings. Monks and nuns follow a stricter code outlined in the vinaya. They take ten precepts: in addition to the five above, they abstain from food after midday, luxurious beds, frivolous amusements, personal adornments, and touching money. There are also many rules in the vinaya (227 for Theravadins). Breaking the first four rules lead to expulsion from the order, and are no sexual intercourse, refraining from theft, no murder or subtle forms of murder such as encouraging suicide, and not intentionally making false claims to supernatural powers.

In general, as Buddhism has developed and spread to different countries, the importance of the lay community has risen. Originally the Buddhist monastic community was most important, but as Buddhism’s popularity grew, the number of people who believed in the dhamma / dharma but did not feel they were at a stage where they could renounce their families grew. Thus the lay community grew. Its importance is best illustrated by the actions of one man – Anagarika Dharmapala. Dharmapala (1864-1933) was not a full member of the Sangha, but he was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West and pioneering a revival of Buddhism in India by reclaiming Bodh Gaya as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Importantly he printed a handbook on meditation, thus bringing meditation firmly into the realm of both the laity and family life.

The simplest form of expressing belonging to the Buddhist faith tradition is through taking the Three Refuges: going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma / Dharma, and the Sangha. This act connects all Buddhists together. In the Suttas / Sutras any new disciple of the Buddha always takes the Three Refuges when he or she becomes a follower of the Buddha. Still, belonging to the Buddhist faith tradition can mean many different things in many different cultures.

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