For most of its history, lay practice has taken a back seat to the "real spiritual action" said to happen only among the ordained Sangha, usually behind monastery walls. However, this no longer need be the case.
I in no way intend to deny the beauty and power of the monastic path for those called that way. There are depths and lessons to be encountered and awakened to and lived in that simple life, in the silence, in the sincere effort and routine. So much of that may not be easily perceived in the noise and distraction of an "in the world" practice. (Although, if we try perhaps, much of the same stillness still can be encountered "out in the world" with a bit of diligence and attention to day-to-day life
). I do not in any way intend to discount the importance of monastic practice.
However, there is also a beauty and power in paths of practice outside
monastery walls that may be unavailable to those within
the walls, with lay practice having depths and opportunities for awakening all its own. There are aspects of an "in the world" practice that are denied to those following a the monastic way. There are depths and lessons of practice that can be encountered and awakened to only out in the city streets, in our work places, families, raising kids. Where is the Dharma not present?
Lay practice now is not the same as lay practice has been in centuries past.
One vital reason for monasteries and the like ... from the earliest days of Buddhism ... was an absence of other chances for communication with teachers and fellow practitioners, and a lack of other means to encounter "live teachings". In other words, wandering ascetics walking hither and thither in the Buddha's time needed to gather during the rainy seasons to "touch base" and reconnect with the group after being on their own for weeks and months. In the middle ages in China and Japan, one could not easily encounter a Buddhist teacher, teachings and opportunities to practice without going to live full time in a monastery. This is just no longer the case. Members of our Sangha, for example, can have 24 hour contact, using modern means of communication, with teachers, teachings, sittings, robe sewing, Sutra
and Text study, sharing with fellow practitioners times of sickness and health and smiles and tears, Samu
, spiritual friendships, "sharp stones banging into each other
" ... much of which, until the current times, was denied to people outside monastery walls.
In some important ways, sincere lay practitioners today may enjoy better surrounding circumstances for practice than did the average monk in, for example, Dogen's day. Things in the "Golden Age" were not so golden as we romanticize. Most monks back then were half-educated (even in Buddhism), semi-literate (or what passed for literacy in those times), superstition driven, narrow folks who may have understood less about the traditions and teachings they were following ... their history and meaning and depth ... than we now know. The conditions for practice within old temples and monasteries might have been less than ideal, many teachers less than ideal, despite our idealization of the old timers. Studying Sutras by smoky oil lamp, living one's days out in Japan or Tibet while having no real information grasp on China and India and the customs of prior centuries, living in a world of rumor and magic and misunderstanding (in which all kinds of myths and stories and superstitions were taken as explanations for how the world works), unable to access a modern Buddhist library, or to "Google" a reliable source to check some point, or to ask a real expert outside one's limited circle, being beholden to only one teacher at a time (no matter how poor a teacher), with no knowledge of the human brain and some very important discoveries of science ... and after all that effort ... getting sick and dying at the age of 40 from some ordinary fever. (Can you even imagine trying to listen to Dogen Zenji recite "live" a Shobogenzo teaching from way across the room ... without a modern microphone and PA system and "Youtube" to let one replay it all? I suppose many never heard a word!
The "Good Old Days" were not necessarily the "Good Old Days
In contrast, in many ways, the average lay person practicing today has very many better circumstances for practice than those monks in 13th century Eihei-ji. For that reason, it is time to re-evaluate the place and power of lay practice.
Now, we need the monastic way ... and we need the "in the world way" ... supporting each other.