Buddhist Lay Followers

At the very beginning, the Sangha(Buddhist community) was quite small and consisted of just an informal group of followers. They wandered with the Buddha, as he wandered through the roads of Northern India. It was a diverse community. It is often spoken of as having four parts: monks, nuns, male lay followers, and female lay followers.

You can ask yourself: What are the different types of people who would be found in the Buddhist community? The best place to start is with the role of lay supporters, because obviously these monks and nuns couldn’t continue for very long unless they’ve got a lot of devoted lay people to support them.

A Great Donor

When we talk about the lay supporter I like to take as an example the story of a great donor, a Danapati. The word “dana” comes from the same root as our word donor. A Danapati is a “Lord of Generosity”.

The story is that this man felt that the community needed to have a place to live. There was a particularly desirable place in the territory that surrounded the town. He offered to buy it from its owner. The owner said that he wouldn’t sell it unless he was paid with gold. The story says that he spread gold coins across the land and bought it.

You can say that great donors have been models of generosity for the lay supporters of the community. This is pretty obvious. It is pretty clear that you couldn’t have these monks unless there were devoted and generous lay followers.


There are a couple of implications of this practice worth considering. First of all, when we talked about the practice of the Path, I told you that the five moral precepts of lay people were rather negative virtues. They are important virtues. It is important not to kill, not to lie and all those things, but they involve restrains on conduct. They don’t allow you to do anything that positively asserts your concern for others or the community.

You can get the impression from that, that Buddhism is a negative tradition in its discipline. Of course, it isn’t. One way we see that is by considering this question of generosity. To be a good lay person is to be generous. To donate as much as you can for the support of the Sangha and for the preservation of the Dharma.

In fact, you can probably say that generosity is in some respects the most basic form of lay meditation. It involves giving up. It expresses a concern for others in a way that allows to no longer focus so much on yourself. It is a very simple but effective way of meditating on the fundamental value of no-self.

Each One His Due

It is also interesting to note that it is one of the duties of a monk to give a lay person an opportunity to give. In some kinds of situations you could characterize this with the image of a greedy monk, who is constantly asking for donations. There are some monks who look like this in many situations. The truth is that they are showing another important aspect of the Buddhist ideal: a lay person has the duty to give. How can a lay person give if there is not a monk who is there at the door, humbly receiving the donation that the lay person has to offer?

In this complicated system of Buddhist institutional life, you could say that it is important to receive as it is to give. To give others the opportunity to express their generosity.

This article is part of the series about The Early Sangha

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