In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which chronicles the Buddha’s last days, the Buddha says he cannot pass into nirvana until he has “accomplished, trained, and skilled” disciples from all four categories of bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunis (nuns), laymen, and laywomen. This is the fourfold assembly. Such disciples, according to the Buddha’s own definition, would be able to expound the dharma, preach it, reveal it, establish it, and clarify it. In the story, it’s concluded that he’s succeeded, and so he is able to pass away.
Where are you on this list? Statistically, there’s a slight chance you’re an ordained practitioner, but it’s far more likely that you’re a lay practitioner. The message here is that you’re expected to be able to preach the dharma, to make it clear and available to others. That’s a big ask. It’s something we don’t talk about enough.
In the West and in the last century, there has been a beautiful broadening of our understanding of sangha—what used to mean just the ordained (and in most cases, just ordained men) has, in many communities to include the full fourfold assembly, and in some cases everyone in the world. Ideas of power have shifted, too, so that now many more women than before have access to spiritual recognition and authority, and some communities recognize lay teachers. But even with those changes, I sense that the general attitude, even if it isn’t always said out loud, is the narrowest one: that there is a hierarchy of practitioners, with monks (and maybe nuns) at the top, and a parallel hierarchy of practice to go with it, one in which monastic practice is the deepest and most authentic, and everything else is a shadow or imitation of those traditional forms.
It’s a natural mistake—the ordained path and the training it requires is so clear, so established in history and form, and the lay path is much less defined. So it makes sense, when we’re trying to give shape to things, that we might model one as a pared-down version of the other. A natural mistake, but a mistake.
What the Buddha makes clear in his statement about the fourfold assembly is that the four—monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen—are equal, genuinely equal, in that not one of them can be removed or neglected. If the tradition neglects women practitioners, then Buddhism itself is left unsteady. If we weight the whole project more heavily toward an ordained path than a lay one, it will all be out of balance and collapse. For the structure to have integrity, we must have all four, and all four must rise to the same level of confidence and responsibility. That means that no matter who you are or how you identify in the practice, you are a member of a group, a quadrant, that is completely vital. You are vital. Your practice is vital. It always has been.
There isn’t enough space here to figure out what lay practice can or should be. Unlike monastic practice, which is so prescribed and carries such a responsibility to maintain how things have always been done, lay practice is very open, a creative question that by definition must include all the elements of lay life: family, romance, friendship, work, citizenship. Otherwise, how is it lay practice? As someone in a very monastic-informed tradition, I hope we can find ways to explore, much more deeply, what lay practice looks like in its own right—not as “monasticism lite,” in which we all take on monastic forms for an hour or a weekend, but as something else, something with its own form, its own dignity, its own integrity.
I also hope—and I know many communities already have this—that we’ll see the components of the fourfold assembly as pieces that interact, that support and inform and inspire each other. We have accepted for centuries that laypeople have a lot to learn from monks and nuns; we have forgotten, at times, that the reverse is not only true but equally true. The same goes for men and women, and now, for those in our communities who can help us see past that simple binary. It takes a village.
Look around your own community—try seeing it through the lens of this fourfold assembly. Notice, perhaps, who’s missing. Maybe the door needs to be opened a little wider. But also, notice who’s there. Notice that you’re there, not just as a guest but as a critical piece of the puzzle. One person at a time, one recognition at a time, we put the whole thing right.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.