Laity & Monks in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

Buddhism has adapted to different cultures over the centuries.
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An Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama set out the core teachings for all Buddhists after achieving enlightenment, or a true understanding of the world, over 2,500 years ago. His teachings were passed down through the centuries by an elite group of followers known as arhats. Buddhism followed this path until a group of monks and nuns pulled away from the influence of the arhats to form a new school of Buddhism that would change the relationship between monks and the laity.

1 Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest Buddhist sect, and is today practiced predominantly in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Theravada Buddhists passed down the teachings of the Buddha orally. The goal of all Theravadans is to become an arhat, or someone who has achieved full enlightenment and can pass on to nirvana when he dies. Nirvana is the release from the cycle of death and rebirth, and is characterized as a cessation of suffering and its causes. Theravada Buddhism holds that achieving nirvana is impossible for a lay person, and is only achievable by an elite group of monks or nuns. Lay people can only reach enlightenment if they are able to be reborn as monks or nuns.

2 Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism arose from the resentment of the majority of monks towards the arhat elite. Mahayana Buddhism, which spread throughout Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan, kept the original teachings of the Buddha, but also added a large number of new teachings that varied according to where Mahayana Buddhism spread. Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is the earliest form of the sect; Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese Mahayana Buddhism is a later development involving more new teachings, while Tibetan and Mongolian forms came even later.

3 Enlightenment in One Lifetime

Mahayana Buddhism, known as “the Greater Vehicle,” allowed the majority of monks and lay practitioners to be more involved, because they believe that enlightenment is possible for anyone to attain. They also believe that the goal of a Buddhist is not to become an arhat, but a boddhisatva, or someone who attains enlightenment but refuses to take the final step to nirvana, choosing instead to be reborn again to help others achieve enlightenment. Whereas Theravada Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is a personal goal, Mahayana Buddhism teaches that the goal is enlightenment for everyone. As such, Mahayana Buddhism is more inclusive of lay people in its practices.

4 Between Monks and Layman

It is a Buddhist practice for the monks not to ask anything of lay people, unless the monks are ill and need immediate help. Lay people can offer food, tea or coffee to the monks by going to a Buddhist temple and inviting them to take what they need. Lay Buddhists may seek instruction from Buddhists monks, whether in the Theravada or Mahayana tradition. However, according to Buddhanet, it is up to the lay Buddhists to invite the monks to give instruction, and it is expected that the lay practitioners provide a proper environment for the monks to discuss the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. The environment should allow the monks to be heard clearly and to be listened to with respect by the audience. The monks should be given a place above and at the head of the audience. Questions are allowed after the talk, and should be addressed in a respectful manner.