Householder (Buddhism)

In English translations of Buddhist texts, householder denotes a variety of terms. Most broadly, it refers to any layperson, and most narrowly, to a wealthy and prestigious familial patriarch.[1] In contemporary Buddhist communities, householder is often used synonymously with laity, or non-monastics.

The Buddhist notion of householder is often contrasted with that of wandering ascetics (Pali: Pāḷi: samaṇa; Sanskrit: śramaṇa) and monastics (bhikkhu and bhikkhuni), who would not live (for extended periods) in a normal house and who would pursue freedom from attachments to houses and families.

Upāsakas and upāsikās, also called śrāvakas and śrāvikās - are householders and other laypersons who take refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the teachings and the community) and practice the Five Precepts. In southeast Asian communities, lay disciples also give alms to monks on their daily rounds and observe weekly uposatha days. In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of ethical conduct and dāna or "almsgiving" will themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower heavens is likely even if there is no further "Noble" Buddhist practice (connected with the Supramundane goal of Nibbana, "Unbinding"). This level of attainment is viewed as a proper aim for laypersons.[2]

In some traditional Buddhist societies, such as in Myanmar and Thailand, people transition between householder and monk and back to householder with regularity and celebration as in the practice of shinbyu among the Bamar people.[3] One of the evolving features of Buddhism in the West is the increasing dissolution of the traditional distinction between monastics and laity.

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.[4]

In the Pāli Canon, householders received diverse advice from the Buddha and his disciples.

Core householder practices include undertaking the Five Precepts and taking refuge in the Three Jewels. In addition, the canon nurtures the essential bond between householders and monastics still apparent today in southeast Asian communities.

In traditional Indian society, a householder (Sanskrit gṛhastin) is typically a settled adult male with a family. In the Pali canon, various Pali words have been translated into the English word "householder", including agārika, gahapati, gahattha and gihin.[5] Vocations most often associated with householders in the Pali canon are those of guild foreman, banker and merchant (Pali, seṭṭhi) but other vocations are mentioned such as farmer and carpenter.[6]Gombrich (2002, pp. 56–7) states:

Who were these people in terms of class or profession? In the Canon, most of them evidently own land, but they usually have labourers to do the physical work. Sometimes they are also in business. In fact, they illustrate how it is in the first instance wealth derived from agriculture which provides business capital. The average gahapati who gave material support to the Buddha and his Sangha thus seems to have been something like a gentleman farmer, perhaps with a town house. On the other hand, inscriptions in the western Deccan, where Buddhism flourished in the early centuries CE, use the term gahapati to refer to urban merchants. We must distinguish between reference and meaning: the meaning of gahapati is simple and unvarying, but the reference shifts with the social context.

Other people in the canon who are sometimes identified as "householders" in contemporary translations are simply those individuals who dwelt in a home or who had not renounced "home life" (Pali, agārasmā) for "homelessness" (Pali, anagāriya).

While there is no formal "householder discipline" in the vinaya or "code of ethics", the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31)[7] has been referred to as "the Vinaya of the householder" (gihi-vinaya).[8] This sutta includes:

Similarly, in the "Dhammika Sutta" (Sn 2.14),[9] the Buddha articulates the "layman's rule of conduct" (Pali, gahatthavatta),[10] as follows:

The Mahanama sūtra has been called the "locus classicus on the definition of upāsaka."[11] This sutra is preserved in five versions (two in Pali, three in Chinese) representing two different recensions, one in the Samyuktagama/Samyuttanikaya, the other in the Anguttaranikaya and in the Samyuktagama and further developed in the Abhidharmaskandha, one of the canonical books of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma.[12] In this sutra the Buddha defines an upāsaka in terms of faith (śraddhā), morality (śīla), liberality (tyāga), and wisdom (prajñā), as follows:[13]

Some early schools, particularly the Sautrāntika, allowed for aparipūrṇa-upāsaka (partial lay vow holders), who took anywhere from one to four of the śīla observances.[14]

Other suttas in the canon likewise underline keeping the precepts, maintaining virtuous friends, homage to one's benefactors and earning one's wealth honestly.[15]

Elsewhere in the Sutta Pitaka the Buddha provides moral instruction to householders and their family members[16] on how to be good parents, spouses and children.[17]

Buddha's advice to Buddhist laywomen is contained mostly in the Anguttara Nikaya 8:49; IV 269-71. His advice was as follows:

The Buddha also gave advice on householders' financial matters. In the Anguttara Nikaya (4.61; II 65-68) it is said that the Buddha stated that there are four worthy ways in which to spend one's wealth:

Some suttas suggest that Buddhist renunciates are best going it alone.[18] Many others celebrate and provide instruction for a vital reciprocity between householders and monastics. For instance, in the Khuddaka Nikaya,[19] the Buddha articulates that "brahmins and householders" (Pali, brāhmanagahapatikā) support monks by providing monks with robes, alms food, lodgings and medicine while monks teach brahmins and householders the Dhamma. In this sutta, the Buddha declares:

In the Pali canon, the pursuit of Nibbana (Skt: Nirvana) within this lifetime usually starts with giving up the householder life. This is due to the householder life's intrinsic attachments to a home, a spouse, children and the associated wealth necessary for maintaining the household.[21] Thus, instead of advising householders to relinquish these and all attachments as a prerequisite for the complete liberation from samsara in this lifetime, the Buddha instructed householders on how to achieve "well-being and happiness" (hita-sukha) in this and future lives in a spiritually meaningful way.

In Buddhism, a householder's spiritual path is often conceived of in terms of making merit (Pali: puñña). The primary bases for meritorious action in Buddhism are generosity (dāna), ethical conduct (sīla) and mental development (bhāvanā). Traditional Buddhist practices associated with such behaviors are summarized in the table below.

The Anguttara Nikaya (AN 6.119 and AN 6.120)[22] identifies 19 householders (gahapati)[23] who have "attained perfection" or, according to an alternate translation, "attained to certainty" (niṭṭhamgata) and "seen deathlessness, seen deathlessness with their own eyes" (amataddaso, amataṃ sacchikata).[24] These householders are endowed (samannāgato) with six things (chahi dhammehi):

While some interpret this passage to indicate that these householders have attained arhatship, others interpret it to mean they have attained at least "stream entry" (sotāpanna) but not final release.[26] The para-canonical Milinda Pañha adds:

In the Tevijjavacchagotta Sutta (MN 71 / M I.483) the Buddha is asked by the ascetic Vacchagotta "is there any householder who, without abandoning the fetter of householdship, on the dissolution of the body has made an end to suffering?" The Buddha replied "there is no householder who, without abandoning the fetter of householdship, on the dissolution of the body has made an end to suffering." [28]

Attaining the state of anāgāmi or "non-returner" is portrayed in the early texts as the ideal goal for laity.[29]

The following are examples of individuals who are explicitly identified as a "householder" in multiple suttas:

Other individuals who are not explicitly identified in the suttas as "householder" but who, by the aforementioned broader criteria, might be considered a householder include:

The Sigalovada Sutta has a parallel Chinese text.[34] There are few differences between the Pali and Chinese versions. Further discussion of householder duties is found in the fourteenth chapter of the Sutra on Upasaka Precepts.[35]

Dogen recommended that householders meditate at least five minutes each day.[36]

In the Zen tradition, Vimalakīrti and Páng Yùn were prominent householders/laypersons who achieved enlightenment.

The Vajrayana tradition has produced many prominent householders including Marpa Lotsawa, Dromtön, the heart son of Atiśa, and Padmasambhava. to mention a few.

The ngagpa (Wylie: sngags pa. feminine ngagma, Wylie: sngags ma) is an ordained Tantric practitioner, sometimes a householder with certain vows (dependent upon lama and lineage) that make them the householder equivalent of a monk or nun. The path of a ngakpa is a rigorous discipline whereby one "enjoys the sense-fields' as a part of one's practice. A practitioner utilizes the whole of the phenomenal world as one's path. Marrying, raising children, working jobs, leisure, art, play etc. are all means to realize the enlightened state or rigpa, non-dual awareness. As such, we can see the prominence of householders in the Vajrayana tradition. One can, however, be a householder without taking the vows of a ngagpa. Simply holding the five precepts, bodhisattva vows and the tantric vows while practising diligently can result in enlightenment.[citation needed]

Below common contemporary lay Buddhist practices are summarized. Some of these practices — such as taking Refuge and meditating — are common to all major schools. Other practices — such as taking the Eight Precepts or the Bodhisattva Vows — are not pan-Buddhist.

For Theravada Buddhists, the following are practiced on a daily and weekly basis:

Daily practice: prostrations to the Triple Gem, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, taking the Five Precepts, chanting other verses, meditating, giving and sharing (Pali: dana).

Special day practices (Uposatha): practicing the Eight Precepts, studying Buddhist scriptures, visiting and supporting Buddhist monks, visiting and supporting Buddhist monasteries.

Daily practices: Prostrations to the Triple Gem, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, taking the Five Precepts, chanting sutras and the names of buddhas/bodhisattvas, meditating, cultivating compassion and bodhichitta, recitation of mantras.

Special day practices: Upholding the eight precepts, listening to teachings, supporting Sangha, repentance, performing offering ceremonies to sentient beings

Daily practices: Prostrations, refuge, cultivating compassion and bodhicitta, bodhisattva vows, tantric vows (if applicable), meditation in the form of Tantric sādhanās (if applicable), purification techniques, recitation of mantras

Special day practices: Eight precepts, listening to teachings, offering ceremonies.

Other practices: Studying texts, receiving initiations and personal practice instructions from the teacher.

Note 1: gahapati is given as "upper middle class", see The winds of change, Himanshu P. Ray, Delhi 1994, p. 20