“In our culture, home-leaving is virtually nonexistent. Monastics have jobs, children, homes, and luxury vacations. Lay practitioners hop from retreat center to retreat center looking for a spiritual fix. We’re less and less able to give anything up. We want to become enlightened, but we don’t want to renounce the world. And what is even worse, we don’t realize that everything we attach to helps build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” (1, p. 114)
There are two barriers that particularly bedevil the western practitioner: extreme individuality and the notion that you can have it all. The latter notion is the one that we have erected in opposition to the notion of leaving home. Traditionally embarking on the great way meant that you renounced your previous life, that you fully devoted your entire self into the endeavor. When Buddhism came to the west it was the monastic practices that were adopted, but primarily into a lay practice. The traditional practices of the laity (or householder) of course differed throughout various locals but were almost always focused on upholding the precepts and the practice of of dāna.
For all the diversity of Buddhist practices in the West, general trends in the recent transformations of Buddhist practice … can be identified. These include an erosion of the distinction between professional and lay Buddhists; a decentralization of doctrinal authority; a diminished role for Buddhist monastics; an increasing spirit of egalitarianism; greater leadership roles for women; greater social activism; and, in many cases, an increasing emphasis on the psychological, as opposed to the purely religious, nature of practice. (2, p. 35)
Buddhism transformed every time it moved into a new culture and much of that transformation can be seen as a positive development. But as the practice of monastics was brought into lay practice all of the attachments of daily life were added to the already overwhelming barriers erected by evolution, history, culture and our individual development. Following the way is a process of shedding our attachments and the purpose of leaving home is to make a radical break from our primary attachments: home, family, possessions, status and identity. As Daido notes in the above quotes these attachments “…build up the layers of conditioning that prevent us from realizing our inherent nature.” and to break from them is an attempt to dig through those layers. The degree to which that break is one of intention is key and it can be the case that making the choice to fully commit to the practice, to place it as your primary priority, to reject the priorities of the dominant culture, is to make that break, is leaving home. Furthermore he argues that to completely withdraw from society with all it’s responsibilities and burdens can leave us ill prepared to bring the practice into our everyday lives and beyond that can even be psychologically damaging.
Zen master John Daido Loori once complained that “most of the lay practice that goes on among new converts in America is a slightly watered-down version of monastic practice, and most of the monastic practice is a slightly glorified version of lay practice.… To me, this hybrid path—halfway between monasticism and lay practice—reflects our cultural spirit of greediness and consumerism. With all the possibilities, why give up anything? We want it all. Why not do it all?” (3)
If we take the position that western practice is inherently going to be different than traditional practice and furthermore that leaving home is primarily a psychological break then the question ultimately becomes: what does it mean to place the practice first. This is where the especially mendacious western notion that we can “do it all” comes in to play. It has really been foisted upon us that we can be completely devoted to a job working long hours and still be the best parent in the world, have a rich social life, be engaged in the arts and still be “fully committed” to the practice. But the reality is the more our attention is fragmented the less is given to any one of these endeavors. At best you can prioritize things and divide your energy and attention between these competing demands. Basically we can’t ‘do it all’ and the notion that we can and the attempt to do so impedes our practice, is another barrier along the way.
Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution to these questions. Each of us has to carve out our path and work out our priorities. Most practitioners in the west are lay practioners after all and it has never been expected for a householder to make the same break as a leaver of home. But even for lay practice the notion of ‘doing it all‘ is an impediment. In the main the addition of meditative practice, of intensive retreats and other monastic practices that have been adopted into western lay practice are a positive development. But the notion that one just has to work these endeavors into a packed schedule is counterproductive. The deemphasis of the precepts in western lay practice for these monastic practices – which traditionally would be undertaken by an individual already steeped in a culture based on the precepts – fosters this delusion. The precepts and the eightfold path give direction on how to minimize attachments and how to prioritize our attention and point toward a simpler lifestyle where one can really put full attention on their practice. But as this involves giving stuff up and explicitly contradicts the western myth that we can have it all is it no wonder that this aspect is deemphasized.
“Practice has nothing to do with hope. Neither does realization. What is required is the kind of tenacity, the kind of vow that comes out of a strong, committed practice.” (1, p. 55)
For someone who does decide to leave home these concerns are even more intractable. There are few opportunities for a completely supported monastic practice in the west and many of those that exist have been rife with problems. Many who would be attracted to monastic practice can actually be psychologically harmed by that situation. But for one inclined to fully commit to the dharma, to truly place it as their primary focus, to devote the bulk of their attention and energy to the practice, how to avoid the “watered down” hybrid path? The answers to these questions are even less forthcoming, even more confounding. It once again seems that one has to carve out one’s own path. But we are so good at fooling ourselves – a primary notion of the practice itself – that this seems fraught with peril. Furthermore that other great barrier of the western practitioner, that of extreme individualism, can become insurmountable. Monastic practice is a many ways a support system that contradicts our instincts for individualisms, for distraction, for trying to “do it all”. To avoid all of thes pitfalls without such a system in place is incredibly difficult.
So in the end there are no answers only more questions. It seems likely that while every path will be to some degree an individual one, that degree is important. There must be a support structure that at least points out when one is going the wrong way, fooling themselves or increasing attachments. Most of us will require a form that pushes us, some form of accountability and someone to call us on our bullshit. In the end there pretty much is no way around the fact that one will have to give stuff up. We can’t, in the end, have it all.
John Daido Loori (2009), The Way of Mountains and Rivers: Teachings on Zen and the Environment with commentary on Zen Master Dōgen’s Mountains and Rivers SutraNew York, Dharma Communications. ISBN: 9781882795215
- Alan Wallace (2002). Prebish, Charles S., ed. Westward dharma : Buddhism beyond Asia (PDF).
Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22625-9.
- Jay Michaelson (2013), Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment
Evolver Editions, ISBN: 1-583-947140-0.
- Householder (Buddhism), Wikipedia article.