The Interactive Sangha: Lay Practitioners as an Important Part of the Whole

Were the Shakers monastics?

Ajahn Metta thought so. In a conversation with Michael, our tour guide at the Enfield Shaker Museum, she said she felt very much in tune with the Shakers’ commitment. Her life too consists of men and women living, practicing and working together in celibacy, while holding a shared spiritual understanding. Both the Shakers and Aj. Metta’s fellow monastics at the Cittaviveka Monastery view the work of running and caring for the community as a manifestation of their spiritual values. Of course, both groups also place great importance on practicing together daily: whether it be in prayer, song and dance or in silent meditation and chanting, such spiritual disciplines are the center of the day. Both groups are happy to take in outsiders and to give them shelter and food, as long as they are willing to abide by the rules of celibacy, attend group spiritual practices, and work in the community. Shakers and Buddhist monastics are both religious families living as “brothers” and “sisters.”

The Theravadan Buddhist Monastic order began 2,500 years ago and is still flourishing, and the Catholic monastics have lasted for 2,100 years, while after only 200 years in existence, the Shakers’ numbers are dwindling.  Today there are about five left, practicing together in a small community at Sabbath Day Lake in Maine.  Aj. Metta, Michael and the others of us in the tour group on that early May morning reflected on what differences in the groups point to factors that may have contributed to the comparatively short life of the Shakers. When we compare them with other monastics, their celibacy is not a distinguishing issue. Perhaps the most obvious of the differing factors is that the Shakers were not in relationship with a lay community with a shared spiritual intention; that is, a group of people in the world outside which depended on their teaching and which in turn supported them with alms and joined them in practices.

“In a Buddhist monastery we gather together as the fourfold assembly of the Buddha’s disciples: the monks and nuns who have gone forth into a life of renunciation, as well as the men and women who are living in the public sphere. When such people come together, then there is a sense of empathy and sharing … We recognize what we have in common. One such common factor is the sense of aspiration, the wish to do or be better, to find peace or meaning or happiness.” (Ajahn Sucitto, Parami Ways To Cross Life’s Floods, p. 34).

This “Fourfold Sangha” of women and men, monastics, and what are referred to as householders or lay people, has existed from the very earliest days of the Buddha’s teaching. It is built in. There was never an intention for everyone who followed the Buddha to formally become a renunciate. From a Buddhist understanding, the lay and monastic communities have a “mutually beneficial synchronistic” relationship. Each group inspires the other and helps the other find its way skillfully along the path.

Unlike the Shakers, the rules agreed to and undertaken by Thereavadan Buddhist monastics disallow them from handling money, growing and preparing their own food, producing products or services to sell, and more. They cannot “sell” the teachings. They are by their nature totally dependent on the lay people for their food. One way of looking at this is that they are asked to become the mendicant with the empty bowl, which was one of the “heavenly messengers” which inspired the Buddha’s quest. The imagery of the empty bowl is meant to stir the movement of empathy in us.  This empathetic urging is the root source of both compassion and the wisdom of not-self. We all need this to set out on the path towards freedom from suffering.

Seen in this way, we as lay people are called to become the renunciates’ caregivers, and they become our teachers.

In turn, perhaps along with the food, shelter, clothing and medicines we offer them, we remind the monks and nuns of the other three “heavenly messengers,” which also need to be seen clearly for full awakening. Interacting on a daily basis with the lay community, they cannot use their seclusion to avoid seeing suffering: sickness, old age and death. They are reminded on a regular basis of the compassionate motivation at the basis of the Buddha’s teachings. In this way, lay people become the monastics’ teachers; and they become our caregivers though their reassuring presence and the embodiment of a deep, abiding faith in and practice of the Dhamma as “the direct path for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearance of dukkha and discontent … for the realization of freedom.”

Here in the United States, where a very strong lay Insight Meditation community has emerged and is taking hold, it is heartening to witness and be part of the arrival of a stronger monastic presence. We are very fortunate to have had Ajahn Metta joining us several times over the past few years and to have had visits last fall from Ajahn Jayanto and Ajahn Cagananda. These monks will be returning to Temple, New Hampsire in August to start their residence at the new Jeta Grove Monastery there. It is not far away; it is easily accessible for a day’s visit. Both Ajs. Metta and Jayanto have expressed a willingness to come and teach here again over the course of the next year. We welcome them.

Here in the Valley Insight Meditation Society Sangha, our individual and collective understandings of the path described by the Buddha are deepening, and they are changing our lives. May our growing interaction with the monastic community help our compassion and wisdom grow.


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