The vajra: cutting through to the truth

3 Sangharakshita’s Teachings in Theory and Practice

III Theory and Practice

b | Sex and Lifestyle

Beyond the Monk-Lay Split

Sangharakshita concluded from his experience as a Theravadin bhikkhu that the rigid division between monks and laity was unhelpful to both parties. [ 117 ] According to his interpretation of Buddhist history (which is reflected in scholarly views of the subject and an analysis of the textual evidence) [ 118 ] this division developed in the early Buddhist sangha as the result of cultural processes which altered the nature of the community the Buddha himself established. [ 119 ] Moreover he felt that the monk-lay split obscured the central issues of spiritual life which apply to all human beings — the need to overcome suffering through following the path to Enlightenment. This is the meaning of Sangharakshita’s repeated insistence that going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the central Buddhist act for all practitioners. Translating this into a western vernacular, he says, Commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary.

In founding the Western Buddhist Order, therefore, Sangharakshita sought to get away from the division of the Buddhist community between monks and lay people. The WBO includes men and women who have made a deep commitment to the Buddhist path, but may be married, single, celibate or sexually active. However, discarding the division in the sangha between monks and lay people does not mean that issues around lifestyle, and particularly around sex, simply disappear. Indeed, if one removes the assumptions about how one should live that are implicit in the adoption of a formal role, the Buddha’s critique of craving and suffering can be applied to all aspects of the lives of all serious practitioners. For this reason Sangharakshita has had much to say on the question of lifestyle and sex. Thus he qualifies the aphorism that commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary by saying:

The lifestyle of a Buddhist, i.e. of one committed to the Three Jewels, is dependent upon, or follows on from, or is an expression of (being) thus committed.... Very few lifestyles are truly neutral. [ 120 ]

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117 ]
The kind of veneration shown by the Theravadin laity to bhikkhus ... has a negative rather than a positive effect ... serving, as it does, to reinforce their sense of the superiority of the bhikkhu to the layman and giving them, in some instances, a quite inflated idea of their own importance and even of their spiritual attainments. Forty Three Years Ago, op. cit., p.45. Sangharakshita did meet Theravadin laymen who sincerely practised the Dharma, but he found that most considered their main religious duty was feeding and maintaining the monks. A New Voice, op. cit., p.112.
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118 ]
See Reginald Ray Buddhist Saints in India (Shambhala, 1996) for a scholarly account of these issues articulating the viewpoint Sangharakshita himself holds.
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119 ]
See A New Voice, op. cit., ch. 5 “The Spiritual Community”, pp.106–128
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120 ]
The Ten Pillars, op., cit., pp.45–6.
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