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Buddhism: The Religious Life

A. The Laity


The earning of merit is a key concept in Buddhism. Merit essentially refers to good karma which will lead to a good rebirth in the next life. While the monks earn merit primarily through their achievements in meditation (i.e., their progress towards nirvana), the lay people earn merit in supporting the monks, worship, and in living an ethical life.

This arrangement can be understood as the application of the Three Refuges to lay life. The Three Refuges, as they are regularly recited, are:

I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

The lay code of ethics is the Dharma, the Buddha is the recipient of worship, and the sangha receives the support of the laity.

Poor Support

In Buddhism, the laity are expected to support the poor. That is to say, they are expected to support the monks, who have taken a vow of poverty. Theravada Buddhism still practices the traditional form of this activity. During the morning, monks take their begging bowls and go out into the community to seek food. Lay people are expected to put what food they can spare into the monks' bowls.

This simple activity has expanded into the general idea that the laity support the sangha in whatever it needs. This includes everything from the things monks need for their everyday lives--such as robes, begging bowls, and so on--all the way up to wealthy people paying to build monasteries, temples or stupas. All lay support earns the giver merit.


In addition to the regular worship that takes place in daily, monthly and annual religious cycles (see Time and Worship), other forms of worship are common. The most public is reverence for the Buddha's image (and those of various bodhisattvas in Mahayana). Such images appear everywhere in buddhist countries. They are in homes, in small shrines on the side of the road or the street, and in village chapels or city temples. (To see a Buddha image, go here, or for a golden head of the Buddha, go here.) They receive both regular worship and, especially for the larger temples, special visits by lay people on auspicious occasions or at times of particular need. Worship is usually rather simple. It will include puja (usually an offering of flowers, water, food or the lighting of candles), bowing to the statue to show reverence, and the speaking of various devotions, ritual formulas and requests.

Worship may also involve the use of hand-held prayer wheels. As can be seen in the picture to the left, a prayer-wheel is essentially a cylinder on a stick that has a weight attached to it. When the weight is spun around, the cylinder rotates. Inside the cylinder is a long paper with mantras written on it (see the picture below). When a person swings the wheel so that the cylinder rotates, as in the short movie below, it is equivalent to each mantra is uttered.

In addition to trips to large regional temples, Buddhists may often journey to a stupa. The primary definition of a stupa is a shrine built to house relics of the Buddha. Although in the absence of enough relics to go around, some stupas have been built to house the remains of monks or, in infrequent cases, left empty. A stupa usually consists of a temple which contains the relics on a raised tower, usually surrounded by a series of terraces (which begin low and gradually rise to meet the tower). The terraces may contain images of the Buddha (for a picture, go here) and large prayer wheels. A pilgrim to the stupa will circumnambulate (i.e., go around) the stupa on each terrace, finally arriving to offer their worship in the temple at the top. (For pictures of stupas, go here and here.)

Worship may also involve requests for specific problems. These requests can range from a good rebirth to protection from snakes to ill health. This is usually done by reciting a paritta before an image of the Buddha. A paritta is a short portion of a holy text (i.e., the Tripitaka in Theravada, usually a Sutra in Mahayana) whose recital is deemed to affect the specific problem the worshipper is concerned about.

What should be clear from the discussion here and elsewhere in this site is that by and large the laity do not, and are not expected to, engage in meditation. That is the path for the monks and nuns of the sangha. Instead, they are expected to lead a life of reverence and devotion in keeping with buddhist morality.


The ethical life of the laity is fairly straightforward. First, it is following the Five Precepts. These short statements are of course elaborated and explained so that they encompass a complete system of behavior. Different buddhist schools may add to them, or explain them differently, but this is the moral basis for Buddhism. Second, ethics can also be seen as taking part in steps three to five of the Eight-fold Path, that is, engaging in right speech, actions, and livelihood.

Pure Land Buddhism

Pure Land Buddhism appeals primarily to the laity and has no sangha associated with it at all. Its theology focuses on devotion and essentially makes meditation irrelevent to attaining its goal. According to this form of Mahayana, many eons ago a monk named Dharmakara made a vow to become a buddha and to create a "pure land" (a paradise) in the "west" (i.e., in the Buddha-fields) available to all humanity. Over many centuries he attained bodhisattva-hood and became a buddha, achieving the merit and the power create the "Pure Land." As a buddha, he is known as Amitabha Buddha, or simply Amida Buddha. All who call upon him and praise him will enter his Pure Land upon their deaths. The formula for praising Amida is, in Japanese, namu-amida-butsu ("I place my faith in Amida Buddha"), often called the Nembutsu. By saying this regularly, a person offers praise and worship to Amida. But, more importantly, saying it once with the proper intention will enable a person to enter into the Pure Land at their death. Once there, they can stay there as long as they wish. Or, they can be reborn in human form, and from there attain nirvana with comparative ease. Founded in China, Pure Land Buddhism is now the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan.


B. The Sangha

Daily Activities

The main aim of the monks (bikkhus) and nuns (bikkhunis) of the sangha is to engage in meditation and concentration that will bring them to enlightenment and then nirvana. Since it is difficult to find enough time as a lay person to engage in extensive meditation, the monks leave behind the day-to-day world to open up sufficient time.

In the earliest centuries of Buddhism, monks were itinerent. They wandered from place to place during nine months of the year. During the other three months, the rainy season, they would gather together in a "rain retreat" for teaching, learning, and encouragement.

Over the centuries, the wandering aspect has mostly died out. Monks are now usually located at monasteries, temples, and other religious sites. Not only do they meditate, but they usually have other duties. At temples and stupas, monks have a number of tasks, from maintaining the complex to dealing with the pilgrims and visitors as well as participating and guiding worship. In the modern world, many attend university and study a range of subjects.

Traditionally, a monk's day is divided into two parts. After rising early in the morning to take part in worship, meditation and teaching, monks make their begging rounds. The food they collect is used for a meal at noon. This is the dividing point of the day, for monks eat no food after this meal (as specified by the Ten Precepts). For the rest of the day, they will engage in meditation, perform ceremonies in the community, carry on instruction, and so on.

Just as the laity support the monks and gain merit through it, the monks help out members of the laity and gain merit in return. This help is usually in the form of teaching or conducting ceremonies. These ceremonies include healing rites of various sorts, weddings, funerals, and birthday observances. In addition, monks have roles in, and even orchestrate, the various annual religious festivals.


The central activity of a monk's or nun's life is what is generally called meditation. It is only through such medition that a person can reach nirvana, or even enlightenment. The basic understanding of meditation comes from the Eight-fold Path. At one level, the first two steps, right belief and intention, get one started. The next three steps focus on the preparation of a proper life; these are right speech, actions and livelihood. The last three focus on the meditation itself: right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This bring one to wisdom (prajna), which can be seen as the right belief and right intentions. This is because as one nears enlightenment, they see things as they really are, and this, of course, provides correct belief and right intentions.

In Theravada Buddhism, the goal of becoming an arhat by attaining nirvana is achieved through two forms of meditation. The first, called samadhi meditation, brings one to enlightenment. It is the realization of non-duality, this, that the meditator and the thing meditated upon are one. It is here that all one's desire is extinguished. This state is the precondition for entering into the four states of absorption (jnana) which constitute enlightenment. These are where one gains insight into their previous lives, supreme wisdom (prajna), and supernormal powers. The second, called vipassana meditation, is the realization of the marks of existence: life as suffering (dukkha), the impermanence of all things (anicca), and the non-existence of the soul (anatman). By thus realizing the Emptiness of reality, one achieves nirvana.

In Mahayana Buddhism, where the goal is to become a bodhisattva rather than an arhat, wisdom (prajna) plays a more central role. For it is wisdom and enlightenment that the bodhisattva seeks rather than nirvana. While following the Eight-fold Path, the monk works to achieve what are called the paramitas. These are the virtues in which one can realize their true Buddha-nature and there are six: the giving of gifts, moral behavior and belief, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom (prajna-paramita).

Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism, a monk-only form of Mahayana, has made meditation its primary means (perhaps even its only means) for attaining nirvana. It has rejected the buddhist sacred texts, the buddhas and the bodhisattvas.

The central Zen activity is group meditation, which is called zazen. All the monks, from the novice to the most experienced will sit together in the gathering room and meditate for hours, with a short break each hour. Here the novices see the examples of the advanced monks, and everyone can be monitored to ensure that no one is sleeping rather than meditating (a pragmatic, this-world, concern).

At the beginning, novices simply strive to learn concentration. One exercise is to count ten breaths, while concentrating only on the breathing process. If any thought or awareness enters the mind while counting, the novice must start over. While this sounds easy enough, anyone who tries it quickly realizes that it is quick difficult to think of nothing except one's breathing. And this is only a beginning step towards achieving right concentration!

The goal of Zen Buddhism is to attain enlightenment directly and immediately through the mind. In other words, the Zen monk works directly towards prajna-paramita, the true wisdom rather than the wisdom of this world. Since true wisdom, the realization of the unity of the cosmos, is unlike any mode of human thought, Zen attains to boggle human thought by posing mind puzzles. These puzzles are called koans, and they can only be answered by a flash of insight that is beyond normal human reasoning and rationality. Well known examples of these are: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "What is your face before your parents' birth?" These are usually given to new monks to solve by their supervising teachers, who in consultations (sanzen) between zazen sessions, urge and pressure them to make the mental leap towards a solution, rejecting wrong answers in firmness and disapproval. (For some examples of koans, go here.)