This is a question that deserves extended treatment. While we could begin with discussions of modern-day theory and practice, my preference is to begin with the original texts, at least insofar as we can get a handle on them. Although they may eventually lead us astray, at least it’s worthwhile to have them under our belts. A good place to begin is with a quote from the eminent Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich’s Theravāda Buddhism (2nd Ed.), provided by mufi in the discussion:
Did the Buddha think it possible for a lay person to attain Enlightenment? Probably not. He measured spiritual progress in four stages. In the first, called “stream entry”, one was guaranteed that one would have at most seven more lives and would never be reborn in a station lower than human. (At first, most people who accepted his view of kamma were held to have attained this.) At the second stage, the “once-returner” faced only one more life on earth. The “non-returners” would not be reborn in this world but in a high heaven, from which their attainment of nibbāna was guaranteed. Enlightenment was the fourth and final stage.
When asked about the spiritual attainments of his followers, the Buddha said that many hundreds of lay followers, both male and female, had become “non-returners.” They had given up sexual activity. He did not explicitly say that no lay follower attained nirvana in this life, but that is the implication. Elsewhere there is a short list of names of lay disciples, all male, who are said to have reached nibbāna, but it is a mere list and so placed that it could well be a late addition to the Canon. The tradition that the Buddha’s father attained Enlightenment as a layman is post-canonical. A post-canonical Pali text says that lay life is not livable for an Enlightened person, so if a layman becomes Enlightened he (or she) will either enter the Sangha or die within the day. On the other hand, there are plenty of canonical cases of laymen and laywomen who are said to have made spiritual progress. (pp. 75-6)
Gombrich’s conclusion, then, is that the Buddha probably didn’t think laypeople could attain nibbāna; at best they could attain the stage of anāgāmi or “non-returner”.
Indeed, Majjhima Nikāya 68 and 73 include mention of lay followers having reached various stages along the path, however the suttas do not include any mention of them having attained nibbāna. Only bhikkhus and bhikkhunis were said to have got that far. However the Buddha never said explicitly that there were no such accomplished lay followers, nor did he say that it would be impossible for lay followers to achieve nibbāna. There are at least plausible reasons why the Buddha might not have raised the issue of lay followers and nibbāna in these contexts: in MN 68, the Buddha is in a somewhat contentious argument with his bhikkhus about making an apparently extravagant claim (an issue I discussed in a blog post); and in MN 73, the discussion comes in the form of questions from Vacchagotta the wanderer, who may simply not have expected laypeople to have been capable of attaining nibbāna.
On the other hand, Saṃyutta Nikāya 55.37 suggests that laypeople may become “accomplished in wisdom” leading to “the complete destruction of suffering”, although admittedly this passage does not establish that any have done so, nor that they could explicitly have done so while remaining laypeople. The strongest evidence that the Buddha allowed for lay arahants is the list that appears in Aṇguttara Nikāya 6.119-139: these are “householders” and “lay followers” each of whom is said to have “become a seer of the deathless, one who lives having realized the deathless.” These are phrases only used of arahants: those who have achieved nibbāna.
Gombrich minimizes this passage, above, by saying that “it is a mere list and so placed that it could well be a late addition to the Canon”. It’s true that this is “a mere list”, and it appears quite late in the Book of the Sixes, but it does not appear right at the end of that book, and at any rate without some independent evidence that it is a later addition, that sort of move is not sufficient to convince. On that criterion, very many passages indeed “could well be late additions”.
One good place to look for answers to this question would be to look at Sanskrit and Chinese Āgamas, in particular the Saṃyukta Āgama, parallel to the Pāli Saṃyutta Nikāya. If the list did not appear in the Āgamas, that would be some evidence that it were a later addition. Bhikkhu Anālayo is undertaking such a translation from the Chinese, however I have no idea about the status of this section.
It’s well to keep in mind, though, that often suttas appear in different Āgamas than they do Nikāyas, so a full search for the relevant section would include other, related canonical texts as well.
As a general question however, is it likely that a post-Canonical monastic editor would interpolate a list of lay arahants? I can’t see why. Indeed, it’s more likely that such editors might work to suppress such lists. This of course proves nothing, it simply points up the thin nature of Gombrich’s claim.
It is more convincing to note that the list of lay arahants is isolated in the Canon. Any single passage making an unusual claim, or any small selection thereof, should be looked at with greater scrutiny than passages that appear over and over again in the Canon. Isolated passages have a greater chance to be interpolations or mistakes of one kind or another. So let us look elsewhere for evidence.
Perhaps Lay Arahantship is Possible?
Here is one of the most famous pericopes from Gotama’s early life as a bodhisatta:
Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘Household life is confining, a dusty path. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn’t easy, living in a home, to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair & beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the household life into homelessness?’ (MN 36.12)
Note that in this passage Gotama does not claim that living a “totally perfect, totally pure” life was literally impossible as a householder, only that it wasn’t easy. He could have made the stronger claim, and simply said that the living of a perfect life as a householder was impossible, yet he did not. The fact that he did not do so provides some evidence that he may have thought a householder could attain nibbāna.
Further, while “going forth from the home life into homelessness” does appear as part of the Gradual Training (C.f., MN 27.12), it does not appear as part of the Eightfold Path itself. There all we find is that one should develop ethical and meditative skills to the end of achieving wisdom and insight into the Four Noble Truths. There is nothing explicitly monastic about the Eightfold Path.
Gombrich cites a post-Canonical passage that claims “lay life is not livable for an Enlightened person”. This comes in the Milindapañha, in a question asked by King Milinda of the Buddhist monk Nāgasena:
Venerable Nāgasena, your people say: “Whosoever has attained, as a layman, to Arahatship, one of two conditions are possible to him, and no other — either that very day he enters the Order, or he dies away, for beyond that day he cannot last.” 264-265 (IV.7.7-8).
Although this passage does support the notion that laypeople can become arahants, the translator, TW Rhys Davids, notes that King Milinda’s claim does not appear to come from any canonical source. Further, Nāgasena’s discussion that follows provides questionable reasoning in its support. Basically he suggests that a householder is too weak to support arahantship without becoming ordained, just as “a tiny blade of grass when a heavy rock is placed upon it will, through its weakness, break off and give way …” There is no argument provided as to why ordination would provide strength that the mere achievement of nibbāna could not.
It’s worth noting that the canonical passage cited above at SN 55.37 claims that certain of these householders and laypeople “live” having realized nibbāna. This at least suggests that they were able to persist in that state for longer than a single day, and indeed that they might have been alive when the text was first composed.
Arahantship is Very, Very Difficult
Nevertheless to my knowledge the Buddha never suggested that a householder or lay follower aim at nibbāna without first entering the saṇgha. More normal advice to householders is the extensive material one finds in suttas such as To Sigālaka: Advice to Lay People (Dīgha Nikāya 31). This amounts to solid, pedestrian advice such as preserving the five precepts, taking care of family, business, making good friends, and being generous to those in need, particularly ascetics. This was supposed to provide for rebirth into a better life, which after all was the goal of most householders in the Buddha’s day.
For those householders who saw themselves as going further, the Buddha had a very stern warning: they don’t realize what the path really entails. For example, in the Potaliya Sutta (MN 54) the Buddha confronts an older Brahmin gentleman who left the household life.
After having performed one’s ritual duties, successfully raised a family, and conducted business during a lifetime, it was not unusual in Brahminic and Hindu society to renounce the ordinary life of a householder and become a hermit. One reads in the Manusmṛti:
When a householder sees his (skin) wrinkled, and (his hair) white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest. (VI.2).
While the dating of the Manusmṛti is unclear (Wiki places it between 1500 BCE and 500 CE), the Potaliya Sutta shows the same sort of behavior.
Potaliya considered himself a renunciant, yet the Buddha called him a householder, probably because of Potaliya’s appearance, “wearing full dress with parasol and sandals”, which suggested a person still attached to sensual pleasures. There was also Potaliya’s decision to remain standing in the Buddha’s presence, which suggested arrogance.
Potaliya did not take kindly to being termed a householder.
“Master Gotama, I have given all my wealth, grain, silver, and gold to my children as their inheritance. I do not advise or blame them about such matters but merely live on food and clothing. That is how I have given up all my works and cut off all my affairs.”
“Householder, the cutting off of affairs as you describe it is one thing, but in the Noble One’s Discipline the cutting off of affairs is different.” (MN 54.3).
The sutta deals with the differences that the Buddha saw between Potaliya’s partial renunciation and the true renunciation the Buddha saw as necessary for nibbāna. On the surface level there are differences of ethics and outward behavior: one is to behave, for example, without spite, anger, or arrogance. But the deeper difference involves the sensual pleasures. The Buddha provided a number of similes illustrating the dangers of sensual pleasure, showing that they “they provide much suffering and much despair, while the danger in them is great.” As Justin Whitaker notes in his treatment of this sutta, the Buddha stresses the importance of meditation. Only meditation on the dangers of sensual pleasures can release the “five cords” (MN 67.18, MN 75.11) that bind householders to dukkha.
Elsewhere we read that “memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned” through mindfulness of the body. (MN 119.4ff) Similarly, the four foundations of mindfulness are used “to subdue [the noble disciple's] habits based on the household life, to subdue his memories and intentions based on the household life, to subdue his distress, fatigue, and fever based on the household life, and in order that he may attain the true way and realise Nibbāna.” (MN 125.23)
In particular, one has to be willing to renounce sensual pleasures, including sexual desire. That this is a crucial step in the Buddha’s Path to nibbāna should be clear enough from the monastic rules, however it is also stated with crystal clarity in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22), where the wayward monk Ariṭṭha claimed that engaging in sexual activity was no obstruction to the attainment of nibbāna. As the Buddha said in response,
Bhikkhus, that one can engage in sensual pleasures without sensual desires, without perceptions of sensual desire, without thoughts of sensual desire — that is impossible. (MN 22.9).
This sort of claim, I think, is at the heart of the Buddha’s apparent disdain for the householder Potaliya’s claim to be a renunciant. Potaliya had not even come close to leaving behind sensual pleasures.
As we have already noted, there is no dispute that the Buddha claimed certain householders had attained the status of anāgāmi or non-returner. This is a stage in which sensual desire (kāma-rāga) has been eliminated, however not so the higher level desires of rūpa- and arūpa-raga, related to the pleasures attained in jhāna. Whether or not one can take seriously such hair-splitting of desire-elimination along stages in the path is another thing, but it at least shows that the Buddha did allow that laypeople were capable of getting beyond the desire for worldly pleasures.
It seems householders’ biggest hurdle would have been “arrogance” (māna), at least on the standard understanding of the four stages of enlightenment. Perhaps it was arrogance at not being willing to join the saṇgha? At thinking they could go it alone? Interestingly, the traditional understanding of enlightenment allows for so-called “paccekabuddhas” or “lone Buddhas” (c.f. MN 116) who achieve nibbāna without being taught, and so presumably without joining a saṇgha.
There are a handful of passages in the canonical suttas that suggest householders might not be capable of achieving nibbāna at all. In MN 137.10ff, we read that the “household life” itself is opposed to renunciation; it does not lead to nibbāna. Renunciation “surmounts” the life of the householder. (E.g., 137.16).
Along the lines of the above pericope on the polished shell, the brahmin student Subha favorably compares the monastic life with that of the householder:
[T]he householder has a great deal of activity, great functions, great engagements, and great undertakings: he does not constantly and invariably speak the truth, practice asceticism, observe celibacy, engage in study, or engage in generosity. But one gone forth has a small amount of activity, small functions, small engagements, and small undertakings: he constantly and invariably speaks the truth, practices asceticism, observes celibacy, engages in study, and engages in generosity. (MN 99.20)
We may smile at the naïve assumption that monastics “invariably speak the truth” and so on, but the main thrust of Subha’s point remains: the life of the monastic is significantly less problematic than that of the householder, who in family and business life is often called upon to do things that are not conducive to renunciation or happiness.
The Buddha states bluntly to the wanderer Vacchagotta that “there is no householder who, without abandoning the fetter of householdership, on the dissolution of the body has made an end of suffering.” (MN 71.11) While one reading of this passage may lead to the conclusion that the Buddha really didn’t think householders could reach nibbāna, I think in context this is better understood as saying that for a householder to reach nibbāna, they would need to renounce the life of the householder. That is, they would need to cease clinging to the household life, and be willing to live more or less the life of a monastic.
The Secular Dilemma
The question as to whether the Buddha thought laypeople or householders could attain nibbāna, I’m afraid, comes down in part to an issue of semantics: what do we consider a “layperson” or “householder”? If by those terms we mean someone living the householder life, with its “activities, functions, undertakings”, its engagements in sensual pleasures and so on, then the answer to that question appears to be “no”. But then, it would also be unlikely for such a person to reach the stage of anāgāmi, since doing so would also require relinquishing attachment to sensual pleasures.
Can one relinquish attachment to sensual pleasures while still indulging in fine meals, good music, dancing, or even sexual activity? Certainly as regards the latter the Buddha’s response to Ariṭṭha was clear. To what extent that same warning ramifies to all such pleasures remains a live question today. Much contemporary discussion revolves around to what extent one can be a good Buddhist while still doing at least what to all intents and purposes appears to be indulging in sense pleasures. This is not a topic I will deal with in this post, but it deserves contemplation.
If by “layperson” or “householder” we simply mean someone not ordained as a Buddhist monastic, then the answer to that question is almost certainly “yes”, since the tradition itself points to the existence of paccekabuddhas who were not themselves ordained by any saṇgha. That said, I understand that the tradition only allows for the existence of such arahants when there is no Buddhist saṇgha in which to be ordained. If this is the case, it appears to be an example of monastic special pleading, since if the paccekabuddha path is possible at one time it should be possible at all times.
The question more relevant to lay — or secular! — followers today involves issues at the border between the life of an ordinary householder and that of the (theoretical) paccekabuddha living alone in rags on a mountaintop somewhere. Can one, as it were, reach nibbāna through the diligent practice of meditation, living a frugal, ethical life, but while buying one’s own food, wearing one’s own clothes, surrounded by one’s own family and friends, sleeping in one’s own bed, and so on?
I’ve already outlined several issues with nibbāna itself, which I will not revisit here. Assuming there is such a state as the complete and (relatively) permanent cessation of dukkha described in the Third Noble Truth, is it something we can reasonably achieve without taking on robes? I don’t have a final answer to that question, but I think we can certainly do worse than by following the Buddha’s suggestions in the suttas that such a path is at the least very difficult.
I find Gombrich’s suggestion that the Buddha probably didn’t accept lay arahants unconvincing, though I think this is a matter of degree rather than kind. My claim would rather be that the Buddha probably did think there were lay arahants, since he never claimed such a thing was impossible, and claimed the existence of paccekabuddhas. And then there’s the list of lay arahants in SN 55.37 that seems to seal the case, unless someone can come up with an independent reason for finding the passage to have been a later addition.
But this hardly matters. The larger issue has to do with difficulty. Getting oneself to a place without clinging, without greed, hatred, or ill will, without egotism or arrogance, without delusion or ignorance about impermanence, dukkha, or not-self, seems a tall enough order for any person in a lifetime. And it’s even more so if we add that the householder (like myself for instance) has spouse, family, friends, and possessions to which we may wish to become less attached in certain healthy ways, but which we do not want to renounce completely. Thus the dilemma of modern, secularized practice.