Can Laypeople Become Enlightened?
Recently I was traveling with a friend when I was asked a perennial Theravada Buddhist question – “Can laypeople become arahants?” It’s a fairly sophisticated question, requiring a knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and a familiarity with the monastic order, at least enough to recognize the esteem monastics are usually held in.
Like most teachers asked the question, I usually dance around the matter a bit. You see, the definitions are wrong. While it’s true, the number of historic lay arahants number in the single digits, the actual form of monasticism available to or practiced by all the other arahants has differed wildly through the centuries. Sometimes ordination wasn’t even possible … but still, the goal was reached.
The first arahants were beckoned into the dispensation of their teacher, the Buddha, with the words, “Come, bhikkhu.” Modern day arahants, however, have usually been ordained in one form or another for decades before their full awakening. Seeing the difference, one is forced to conclude it’s not the ordination itself that conveys the possibility of enlightenment.
It might be a radical notion, but I ask you to consider: is there some other way to look at the question of what is needed to become an arahant? While it’s true, the overwhelming majority of enlightened beings have worn the robes of a monastic, there IS something they have shared with the lay arahants.
“Just as a glow on the horizon is a harbinger of the rising of the sun, so one thing is a harbinger of the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path. What one thing? Good friendship.” (SN 45:56–62)
Suppose you turn the question around, and instead ask, “What is it monasticism provides that supports the “utter destruction of craving”, the “unsurpassed liberation of the heart through non-clinging.”? Most lay people know monasticism only by its chafing surface features – the renunciation, the rules, the ceremony and etiquette. Thus, the question of lay arahants arises as a reaction to the things they feel they are being asked to give up.
And yet, past those obvious features of monasticism, I am aware of no arahant who attained enlightenement without friends. Teachers, peers, companions, and students. Even the Buddha himself, upon hav
ing reached his goal, thought with fondness to repaying the kindness of his meditation teachers Alara and Udaka.
When we think about those things monasticism provides and what it demands, we can look past the shaven heads, the ocher robes, the rules and meditation and discipline. All of those things have changed and evolved through history. But the essence of the Going Forth, its real heart, has not changed in 2600 years. It’s still summed up in the image of the Buddha’s first urging – “Come, bhikkhu.”
No arahant reaches the final goal of spiritual practice alone. Whether or not a practitioner says, “No,” to shaven heads, to fasting, to celibacy – do they say “Yes” to being part of something bigger than themselves? Can they agree to heeding the wise counsel of another, to accepting assistance on this difficult journey? For those committed to the utmost, this is what the taking of ordination vows represents.
Even if there is renunciation, and ritual, and rules, there is something the monastic is seeking when they take the Going Forth beyond all that. They are surrendering to the acceptance that they themselves need help and support. While Good Friendship is not only found in monastics, it’s what we seek when we take this step. We’re not seeking to rise triumphant to the top of some peak. We’re merely wanting to claim a seat beside the greats who have come before. The ordination is the chance to join a community of noble people.
Seeing this, hopefully, one can settle this long-running debate in their heart. Cultivate a love of good friends, and an inclination towards fellowship with the wise and noble. If this ripens in monasticism, so be it. But it will certainly serve you very well on your path.