views updated May 23 2018


LAITY is a term that has emerged in the Western religious and theological traditions to refer to those members of a religious community who, as a group, do not have the responsibilities of fulfilling the priestly functions appropriate to the offices of the clergy or ordained ministers.

Etymology and Origins of Concept

The adjective lay is derived from the Greek word laikos (Lat., laicus ) meaning "of or from the people." In early Christianity the term came to connote "the chosen people of God," a meaning derived from the Greek laos ("people of unknown origin"). In the New Testament a distinction is made between the Jewish "people" (laos ) and their priests and officials (as in, for example, Acts 5:26, Matthew 26:23, Hebrews 7:5, 7:27).

Before the end of the first century ce the term laos took on a more ecclesiastical connotation. The term laikos is used by Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 ce) to distinguish a layman from a deacon and a presbyter. In the Apostolic Canons, laity (laikoi) are distinguished from clergy. The early Christian distinction between laity and clergy was informed by a political differentiation of Greek origin, that is, that between the klēros (from which clergy is derived) and "the people" (laos ), the two groups that comprised the administration of the polis. As the Christian community continued to develop ecclesiastically, the klēros, the leaders or those with an "office," became the ones through whom the means of grace were extended to the believers, "the people" (laos ). By the time of the Council of Nicaea (325) the organization and structure of the church was understood basically in terms of the clerical order, with authority vested in the bishops and the councils as distinguished from the laity.

While the notion of laity, derived as it is from Western sources, is not relevant to the study of all religious communities, it is a helpful heuristic category for the study of those traditions in which a fundamental distinction is drawn between two styles of the religious life, two modes of pursuing spiritual fulfillment. One mode, for the majority of persons within a given tradition, involves the religious quest in conjunction with full participation in the ordinary life of society. In this mode one will assume the responsibilities of some role as a member of a functioning society while at the same time pursuing the goals of the religious life. A second mode is characterized by a different way of life, involving total absorption in the religious quest, generally in association with a renunciation or turning away from full participation in the ordinary life of society. The following discussion will explore such a distinction in these two basic styles of the religious life as they are manifest in selected religious traditions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant), Theravāda Buddhism, and Jainism. I shall then proceed to suggest the possibilities and limits of the category "laity" with respect to some other traditions: Hinduism, the religions of Japan, and Islam.


The Roman Catholic tradition makes a clear differentiation between "laity" and "religious." The religious are those who take orders, and they comprise two groups, priests and monastics. The ecclesiastical use of the term order, which had been a designation prevalent in Roman civil life, included reference in the time of Tertullian (c. 155220 ce) to both clergy and laity. By the sixth century ce, however, order was used to specify appointment by a bishop to a given office, with both authorization and responsibility to carry out the duties thereof. The distinction between the clergy and the laity is held to be divinely established. The priesthood, set apart by the sacrament of "holy orders" or ordination, is commissioned to fulfill the threefold function of the priestly office: teaching, directing and administering, and sanctifying. Thus, the priest as a member of the episcopate fulfills the divinely established mission of the church as teaching authority and sacramental agent, making available to the laity the means of God's grace through the sacraments. The laity, in turn, receive the teaching and the grace of God by participation in the worship and liturgy of the church and share the responsibility of fulfilling the church's mission in the world, the sphere of their activity. Through their participation in the affairs of the world, the truth and values of the church are to permeate society.

The distinction between laity and clergy in the Roman Catholic tradition is correlative with a distinction between church and world. The church is conceived as a societas perfecta but inequalis, with the status clericalis and the laicalis, each group having its respective rights and responsibilities. The clergy, with the right and responsibility of administering the sacraments, is ordained to a sacred vocation. The laity, who are to receive the sacraments and teaching and to obey the teaching, are to pursue their work in the world, the profane realm. Ecclesiastically, the church, the realm of the sacred, is given priority over the profane. Implied in this distinction is a valorization of the office of the clergy. The monastics, who renounce ordinary participation in the world (i.e., the profane) by taking the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience, are committed to the pursuit of spiritual perfection and fulfillment.

In the Eastern Orthodox church a similar distinction is made between clergy and laity, with ecclesiastical authority and the responsibility for administering the sacraments residing in the clergy. The designated roles of clergy and laity are manifest during the weekly ritual drama of the Divine Liturgy, in which the most sacred area of the sanctuary behind the iconostasis is entered by the priest as mediator between God and the people but is not accessible to laypersons. In at least two regards, however, the demarcation between laity and clergy was qualified. First, the formulation of the interpretation and explanation of the truth affirmed to have been revealed by Jesus Christ and contained in the Bible is accomplished through the ecumenical councils. This truth comprises the "holy tradition," as distinguished from the church tradition that developed through the centuries of church life. The authority of the councils rests on the understanding that they represent the consensus of the faithful and the conscience of the entire church, viewed as a sacramental unity of love inclusive of the laity as well as the clergy. Second, although since the seventh century ce only the celibate clergy and monks have been eligible for the episcopate, ordination through the holy orders of the priesthood may be conferred on married men, thus qualifying the distinction between clergy and laity.

A significantly different approach to the status and role of laity was evident in the Protestant Reformation that began in the sixteenth century. Martin Luther (14831546), in his To the Christian Nobility, rejected the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church as well as the distinction between clergy and laity. The principle of the universal priesthood of all believers, viewed as an essential teaching of the word of God, provided a basis for insistence on the preeminence of the laity in Protestant churches. The vocation of ministry, viewed as necessary for the life and practice of the church, was the delegated responsibility of persons from the community of believers who were commissioned by the congregation to teach, to preach, to lead in worship, and to administer Holy Communion and baptism.

Although the administering of Holy Communion and baptism were held to be the right of every baptized Christian, those who were commissioned to minister became the officiants for ritual occasions. John Calvin (15091564) stressed the importance for all members of the church, who collectively were the laity, to so live that the reality of their state of election by God would be evident in their work in the world, which was to be pursued diligently. While the theological principle of the universal priesthood of all believers has been central to Protestantism, in practice the ordained ministry is accorded a priority in keeping with the importance of its teaching, preaching, and liturgical responsibilities, for which special training and education were needed.

The changes associated with the Protestant Reformation in social and political as well as religious life required the exercise of power and authority on the part of political officials, providing opportunity for them, as laity, to exercise influence in church affairs. Also, it was necessary for practical reasons for those set apart (i.e., the ministers) to assume responsibility for church administration. It should be noted that in the churches of the more radical "left-wing" Reformation and in free and dissenting churches (Anabaptists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Universalists, and Unitarians), even greater prominence was given to the laity.


The relationship between the bhikkhu s (monks) and the upāsaka s/upāsīkā s (laymen/laywomen) in the Theravāda Buddhism of the countries of Southeast Asia (e.g., Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka) is characterized by a full measure of reciprocity. Just as the members of the bhikkhu sangha provide exemplary models for the laity, teach the Dhamma, and fulfill priestly functions by presiding at festival and ritual occasions, so the laity provide for the material support of the monastic community. Indeed, reliance of the bhikkhu sangha on the laity for daily provisions of food, for the erecting and maintenance of the buildings within the monastic compound, for the supplying of basic necessities (especially through lay offerings during the Uposatha rituals) provides cherished opportunities for merit making on the part of the laity.

The support of the laity, so rendered, invites the bhikkhu s to sustain and extend their compassionate service to society. In this way the life of the sangha (the all-encompassing Buddhist community) is sustained through the reciprocity of bhikkhu s and laity. The laity, by assuming responsibility for maintaining a stable civil and political order as well as by filling the basic needs of the monastics, provide the bhikku s with the opportunity to seek spiritual perfection (liberation, mokkha, nibbāba ) by being free from the struggle to provide the necessities of samsaric existence. The laity, by their merit making, make progress toward fulfillment themselves by assuring a favorable rebirth. It should be noted that there are two orders of laity in Theravāda Buddhism, those who have never taken the full monastic orders and former bhikku s, who are extended higher status than laypersons of the first category. (It is customary in certain Southeast Asian societies for young men to be ordained for a brief period prior to assuming the economic and social responsibilities of adulthood.) Such former bhikku s preside at certain ritual occasions that do not require an active bhikku as officiant.


In Jainism a definitive distinction is made between the laity and monastics, the vows of the latter requiring the practice of a rigorous asceticism in a disciplined effort over numerous existences to free the jīva (soul) from contaminating karman. Because this asceticism involves the practice of ahimā (noninjury to any living thing), the support of the laity in providing the necessities of life for Jain monks and nuns is indispensable. The principles of Jainism necessitate the avoidance of professions or vocations that involve the violation of ahimā, and the nurturing of the qualities of honesty and industry is commended. As a consequence, Jain laypersons have generally pursued business and professional occupations, at which they have been very successful. Among the vows taken by the laity are those commending the sharing of wealth and the providing of support for monks and nuns. Although they are a comparatively small religious community (between two and three million adherents) that has never spread beyond India, the Jains have maintained their tradition over a millennium and a half, largely because of the vital interdependent relationship of the monastics and the laity.

Other Traditions

As has been noted earlier, the category "laity" has limitations with respect to its capacity to illuminate the structures and dynamics of certain religious traditions. It has little to contribute, for example, to a discussion of Judaism in the common era. To be sure, there did develop among the ancient Israelites a priestly group (as members of the tribe of Levi came to be regarded, and later, at the time of the Babylonian exile, the Jerusalem priests, or Zadokites) distinct from those who were not involved in performing priestly functions, hence laity. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans (70 ce), the continuity of a priestly order became moot, and the tradition of a rabbinate developed. The rabbinic tradition in Judaism is a learned tradition. Rabbis may be viewed as scholars of the Jewish texts and traditionsa learned laitywhose authority as teachers rests in their competence as scholars of the tradition.

With respect to Confucian China also, the notion of laity has limited applicability. Although religious Daoism and the schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism (especially Pure Land, Tiantai and Zhenyan) observed distinctions between priests and laity, the Confucian tradition looked upon the secular as sacred, and authority was vested in the sage and the educated Confucian gentry. However, it may be useful to explore briefly the relevance of the notion of laity with reference to Hinduism in traditional India, the religio-social context of Japan, and the tradition of Islam.

Hindu traditions

The most highly structured and hierarchical social organization in which there is a definitive distinction between those who have responsibility for specific and formal religious functions and other members of society who do not (hence, "laity") is the caste system of traditional India, a system that is inseparably interwoven with classical Hinduism. The four basic divisions of society had their roots in the Vedic era (1500800 bce) and assumed definitive form by the sixth century bce. The Mānava Dharmasāśtra (Laws of Manu; 200 bce200 ce) is a codification of the normative behavior and duties of castes that has informed traditional Hindu society. The vara s are hereditary; one's birth in a particular caste is determined by a repository of karmic consequences from previous lives in accordance with the law of karman (often referred to as the law of moral retribution). Each caste has its duty (dharma ); it is one's social as well as religious responsibility to fulfill the dharma of one's caste. Caste may thus be viewed as class undergirded by religious sanction and metaphysical principle.

The inequality of the castes is evident in the definition of rights and responsibilities of each as well as in the restrictions concerning the relationships between persons of different castes. The brāhmaa s, for example, whose duty it is to study the sacred texts (the Vedas), to teach, to perform sacrifices and other rituals, and to see that the stipulations concerning caste are honored, are at the top of the religio-social hierarchy. They are thought to be superior by virtue of their karmic repository and spiritual accomplishment.

The other groups of the social structure comprise what may be termed the laity. The katriya s, next in descending hierarchical order, are the ruling, bureaucratic, and warrior caste. The third caste, the vaiśya s, is composed of artisans, merchants, traders, and farmers (although farming has been largely turned over to the śūdra s). These three castes comprise the "twice-born" groups, that is, those who may study the Vedas as they pass through the four āśrama s, or stages of spiritual progression: student, householder, forest dweller (one in retreat), and sanyāsa (holy person). Persons in each of these top three castes may pursue an occupation of a lower caste, should circumstances require it. The fourth caste, the śūdra s, are to do the manual labor of society and to serve the needs of the castes above them.

There is considerable distancesocial, economic, and religiousbetween the vaisya s and the śūdra s. For example, the śūdra s are prohibited from participating in Vedic ceremonies, traditionally are not to marry persons of a higher caste, may not engage in the duties of other castes, are denied, along with outcastes and women, entry into the āśrama s, and so forth. Below the śūdra s are those outside the caste system altogether, whose work includes the undesirable occupations of leather worker, hunter, latrine cleaner, handler of corpses, etc. Each of these social groupings is divided into subcastes or subgroups, each with its own duties and responsibilities. Although this religio-social structure appears to be rigidly entrenched, it must be remembered that it served traditional India well over many centuries, providing for stability, order, and the sure accomplishment of the many and diverse tasks essential to the effective functioning of society. In no society have differentiated groups of laity been addressed by more specifically assigned duties and responsibilities. While changes in the caste system are occurring in contemporary urban India, largely in the direction of increased fluidity, its major characteristics persist in Indian villages, which comprises about 75 percent of the subcontinent.

Japanese religions

The sociological expression of religious community in the distinctive religio-social context that is Japan invites an exploration of the possible relevance of the notion of laity in interpreting Japanese religious traditions. Although a diversity of religions has emerged in Japanese culture, there is among Japanese people a permeating and encompassing sense of sacred community that is coextensive with national identity. Rooted in the indigenous traditions of Shintō, a sense of the continuity between the people, the land, the ancestors, the nation, and kami (sacred and mysterious power) provides a cosmic orientation that sustains and informs the Japanese whatever the particularities of religious affiliation. To be Japanese is "to participate in the task of unfolding the underlying meaning of the national community which is their sacred trust" (Kitagawa, 1968, p. 309). There are, of course, priestly officials who are distinguished from lay members of the major religions, including Sectarian and Shrine Shintō, Pure Land (Jōdo and Shin), Shingon, Tendai, and Nichiren Buddhism, and Christianity. But the vitality of these particular religions is dependent upon the participation and support of the laity associated with each.

In addition to the sense of identity and meaning that is derived from participation in these particular religious communities, there is an encompassing sense of what it means to be Japanese. This feeling is grounded in a historic apprehension of Japan as "a communal manifestation of the sacred" (Kitagawa, 1968, p. 309). In this latter sense, all of the people of Japan can be viewed as participants in the corporate manifestation of sacrality. One question addressing contemporary Japan is whether this corporate sense with a cosmic dimension can be maintained alongside the continuing development of Japan as a modern nation-state within which there is a plurality of particular religions. A phenomenon of considerable interest has been the emergence of new religious movements (shinkō shūkyō ) in Japan during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and especially after World War II. These new religions have been, in the main, lay movements. It is not incidental that they have developed during a time of rapid cultural and political change. The new religious movements, whether of Shintō (Tenrikyō, Konkōkyō, Tenshō Kōtai Jingukyō), Buddhist (Sōka Gakkai or Nichiren Shōshū, Reiyūkai, Risshō Kōseikai) or Christian origin, have frequently been inspired by a shamanistic manifestation of kami in a charismatic leader (who usually becomes a primary source of authority); they also provide a strong sense of corporate solidarity, emphasize the active participation of laity, and assure the realization of lay values (e.g., health and prosperity).


Because there is no clergy as such in Islam, there is technically no laity either. The sources of authority in IslamQurʾān, sunnah, analogical reasoning (qiyās ), and consensus (ijmāʿ )are the foundation of all Muslim teaching, and there is the need for commentary and interpretation of these authoritative sources as well as of the sharīʿah (divine law). For Sunni Islam (the normative religion of about 85 percent of Muslims, dominant in the Muslim world outside of Iran and southern Iraq) there are the imams (preachers and teachers of the Muslim law) and the jurists (specialists in figh, or jurisprudence, and the study of the sharīʿah ). They have a special responsibility to the ummah (the community of Muslims) but no special privileges before God.

For Shīʿī Islam (dominant in Iran and southern Iraq, with minorities in Yemen, India, Pakistan, and Lebanon) there is held to be a line of divinely ordained and authoritative successors (imams) of Muammad through his cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī, as teachers of the faithful. Although there are variations among the Shīʿīs with respect to the specific figures accepted as legitimate in the line of succession, there is a general expectation that the authentic imam, now hidden, will return as the Mahdi to establish justice. Meanwhile, authority is vested in leaders of the various Shīʿī groups, who are thought, in the interim, to act on behalf of the hidden imam. All Muslims, in submission and commitment to God, are to be obedient to the revelation contained in the Qurʾān and are to follow "the straight path." All are equal before God, with no distinctions in this regard among those within the ummah. Thus, to speak of "laity" and "clergy" within the community of Islam is to introduce categories that are more likely to distort than to illuminate the religio-social dynamics of this tradition.

See Also

Merit, article on Buddhist Concepts; Sagha.


Chatterjee, Satischandra. The Fundamentals of Hinduism. 2d ed. Calcutta, 1970. A basic discussion of the cardinal aspects of traditional Hinduism.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York, 1972. A discerning interpretation of the formative influence of Confucius and Confucianism on traditional China.

Ghurye, G. S. Caste and Class in India. 2d ed. Bombay, 1950. A definitive presentation of the history and features of the caste system in India.

Glasenapp, Helmuth von. Der Jainismus, eine indische Erlösungsreligion. Berlin, 1925. A classic and unsurpassed treatment of the thought and practice of Jainism that is worthy of careful attention even though it does not profit from the findings of the most recent scholarship.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam. 3 vols. Chicago, 1974. A comprehensive and accomplished treatment of Islam as a religion and of Islamic culture and history.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religion in Japanese History. New York, 1966. One of the most complete and authoritative accounts of the religions of Japan portraying their historical developments.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. Religions of the East. Enl. ed. Philadelphia, 1968. An interpretation of the major religions of Asia focusing on the theme of religious community.

Kraemer, Hendrik. A Theology of the Laity. Philadelphia, 1958. A Protestant interpretation of the role and status of the laity within the Christian tradition.

Latourette, K. S. A History of Christianity. New York, 1953. A competent and informative account; a work of careful scholarship and artful, judicious interpretation.

Lester, Robert C. Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1973. This study, informed by field experience, depicts the modern situation and dominant features of Theravada Buddhism in the countries in which it is strongest.

Maclean, A. J. "Laity, Laymen." In Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 7. Edinburgh, 1914. Although dated, this article presents in a concise and lucid manner the origins and derivations of the concept "laity" in early Christianity.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2d ed. Chicago, 1979.

Rahner, Karl. Theology for Renewal: Bishops, Priests, Laity. New York, 1964. A provocative theological statement about the responsibilities of and opportunities afforded the various offices and constituent groups of the Roman Catholic church in the contemporary era.

Seltzer, Robert M. Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History. New York, 1980. An account of Jewish intellectual history by a foremost scholar of the basic texts and seminal figures of the tradition.

Zimmer, Heinrich. Philosophies of India. Edited by Joseph Campbell. Princeton, 1951. Zimmer's study remains one of the most illuminating treatments of the classical thought systems of India.

New Sources

Ahir, D. C. The Status of the Laity in Buddhism. Delhi, 1996.

Astell, A. W. Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models. Notre Dame, Ind., 2000.

Boisvert, L. Laïcs Associés à un Institut Religieux. Saint-Laurent, Québec, 2001.

Carré, O. L'islam laïque, ou, Le retour à la Grande Tradition. Paris, 1993.

Harris, Elizabeth J. "Internal and External Authority among Lay Buddhist Women in Contemporary Sri Lanka." Scottish Journal of Religious Studies 18, no. 1 (1997): 5175.

Lancaster, L. R., R. K. Payne, and K. M. Andrews. Religion and Society in Contemporary Korea. Berkeley, 1997.

Sauvage, M. Vie religieuse laïque et vocation de frère: recueil d'articles. Rome, 2001.

Schopen, G. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Honolulu, 1997.

F. Stanley Lusby (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 21 2018


The laity in Buddhism makes up two of the four constituent parts of the saṄgha (monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen) and the great majority of Buddhists. The ordained differ from the laity by virtue of their renunciation of the householder's life and observance of a strict code of behavior, which make them worthy and deserving, a pure and holy "field of merit." Laypeople acquire merit through giving food, clothing, shelter, and other material support to the ordained, and meritmaking by laity to the ordained has been a central aspect of lay life in all Buddhist societies. Prohibitions on the ordained acquiring individual wealth, as well as prohibitions on sexual activity, make the ordained dependent upon laity for their living and the perpetuation of a religious order.

The textual legacy

Laity in early Buddhist texts are referred to as upāsaka (laymen) and upāsikā (laywomen), devoted followers of Buddhist teaching, and they are distinguished from ordinary householders. Lay followers should take proper care of the monks during the retreats, hear the dharma expounded at that time and on the monthly Posadha (Pāli, Uposatha) days, take the three refuges, follow the first five śīilas or moral rules (refraining from taking life, stealing, unchastity, lying, and taking intoxicants), offer robes to the monks at the end of the rainy season, undertake pilgrimage, and venerate stŪpas containing relics of the Buddha. The Sigalovāda-sutta (Discourse to Sigala) urges laity to revere their parents, spouses and children, friends and companions, and religious teachers. Instructions specifically for women direct them in various texts to be capable in work, to manage servants well, to be physically attractive to their husbands, and to manage his fortune well.

TheravĀda Buddhism has traditionally emphasized a strong distinction between the ordained and the laity. The nikāyas show that laity can reach the first three stages of sanctity (sotāanna, sakadāgāmi, and anāgāmi), but they cannot become arhats. Instead, they aim for a better rebirth. Recent studies suggest, nevertheless, that the Sutta Piṭaka also contains a second, contrasting view on the laity, holding that laity can attain enlightenment. The Mahāvagge MaņŚapeyyakathā depicts the Buddha teaching the four noble truths and the eightfold path to the laity, and the Nakulapitā-sutta (Discourse to Nakulapitā) has the Buddha teaching a layman about the five aggregates and the error of confusing these with the self.

With the appearance of early MahĀyṄna in the first century, new concepts and practices developed, widening the laity's scope. The cardinal idea of emptiness undermined all conceptual oppositions, including that between monastics and laity. The idea of the bod-hisattva who purposefully remains in the world to save others further undermined the dichotomy separating the ordained and laity, and the idea of the lay bodhisattva emerged.

The quintessential example of the lay bodhisattva is the layman VimalakĪrti, in the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (The Teaching of Viamalakīrti), composed between the first century b.c.e. and first century c.e. Vimalakīrti expounds on the nature of emptiness, exhibiting his wisdom to an immense assembly of holy men and bodhisattvas. He ridicules their doctrinal abstractions and pretensions to a higher status than the

laity. Other sutras continue the themes of this work, sometimes introducing laywomen as the protagonists. Two such examples are Vimalakīrti's daughter in the Candrottarādārikavyakaraṇa-sūtra (Discourse on the Prediction Made about the Girl Candrottarā) and Queen Śrimala in the Śrimālādevīsiṃhanāda-sūtra (Lion's Roar of Queen Śrimālā).

Other Mahāyāna texts present filial piety as a kind of Buddhist morality, in a concession to the prominence of this principle especially among the laity in East Asia. The central role of the priesthood in funerary and ancestral rites in East Asian Buddhism stems from the elevation of filial piety as an ethical ideal in such works as the Ullambana-sūtra.

Laity in Theravāda countries

Lay life in Theravāda countries is greatly influenced by the custom of men entering a Buddhist monastery for a period of time, later returning to lay life. Nearly all Burmese men and about half the men in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia have spent at least one rainsretreat, and often much longer, as an ordained monk. This means that the laity of several Theravāda countries has significant personal experience of monastic life, unparalleled by any comparable custom in countries where Mahāyāna predominates. This custom creates close ties between laity and the ordained and expands the range of religious experience for lay men. Women are excluded because the tradition of valid ordination for nuns is believed to have died out.

Lay practice revolves around the precepts and merit-making activities. Laypeople observe the five basic precepts already discussed, and on holy days they may take a further five: refraining from sex, eating after noon, perfumes and adornments, seeing public entertainments, and the use of grand beds. Giving food to monks on a daily basis is a widespread practice, as is contributing to such ceremonies as a man's ordination, New Year's, an abbot's promotion, meals for monks, presentation of robes, cremations, and to general monastery fund-raising or repairs. Donations may take the form of money, items involved in a particular ceremony, or they may be things monks are allowed to own, such as bedding, a razor, an umbrella, or a needle and thread. Founding and supporting schools and hospitals is also religiously meritorious. The performance of meritorious giving thus creates and strengthens the connections between monastic and lay society.

Laity in Mahāyāna countries

In East Asia ritual merit transfer is the basic motif structuring the relation between laity and the ordained. In essence, descendants make gifts to monastics, who transfer the merit to descendants' ancestors in order to ensure them a better rebirth or a more comfortable existence in the other world. Merit transfer has also become institutionalized in the mid-summer Ghost Festival, based on the Ullambana-sūtra.

A wide variety of devotional practices are performed by lay Buddhists in China, Korea, and Japan, including veneration of such sacred objects as Buddhist images, relics, and stūpas; copying and reciting sūtras, prayers, and formulas; use of Buddhist rosaries, amulets and talismans; pilgrimage; and participation in cults and rites for particular buddhas and bodhisattvas, including Śākyamuni, Maitreya, AmitĀbha, Avalokiteśvara, Kṣitigharba, Bhaiṣajyaguru, Samantabhadra, Acalā, and others.

Chinese laity formed societies for reciting the Buddha's name, for study, and for publication as early as the Six Dynasties (222–589). The tradition of the learned layman in China had a prototype in Pang Yun (born ca. 740), "Layman P'ang," whose Chan sayings were later collected as Pang jushi yulu (The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang). He gave away his house and sank his possessions in a boat, taking up a wandering life and studying under several Chan masters, though not becoming a monk.

A Buddhist revival in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644) grew out of a lay movement of provincial gentry, who underwrote the founding of monasteries, sponsored the clergy, and enthusiastically practiced Buddhist devotions. Gentry went on pilgrimage to Buddhist monasteries, composed poems about them, and restored them. They corresponded with monks, attended lectures, chanted Buddhist texts and the Buddha's name, and burned incense. They organized lay associations with names like Lotus Society for pure land devotions, or associations for liberating captive animals. They participated in public rites called "Bathing the Buddha" for the Buddha's birthday and the Ghost Festival.

During the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and the Republican period (1911–1920), the number of Buddhist lay societies grew rapidly, attracting literati and bourgeoisie adherents. Merit clubs operated vegetarian restaurants in the cities, and study groups met to discuss sacred texts or to hear lectures by visiting monks. Recitation clubs gathered to recite the Buddha's name in the hope of being reborn in the Western Pure Land. Founded by a Hangzhou businessman in 1920, the Right Faith Society operated a clinic and a boys' primary school, also providing soup kitchens, free coffins for the poor, and a widows' home. The Buddhist Pure Karma Society, founded in Shanghai in 1925, ran an orphanage and a clinic dispensing free medicine; it also broadcast a nightly radio program.

In ancient Korea, lay practice centered on worship of both Maitreya and Amitābha. Chanting Amitābha's name was a central lay practice. Pure land faith was propagated through Buddhist folk tales from the unified Silla dynasty (668–935) that were later incorporated into a history, Samguk yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 1285). This work reflects strong lay participation in Buddhism and also shows that lay associations were formed around pure land practice.

Ancient and medieval Japan exhibited a rich variety of lay Buddhist practices, including pilgrimage to famous monasteries and sacred mountains or around circuit routes devoted to Avalokiteśvara or the historical Buddhist figure KŪkai (774–835); sponsoring Buddhist art works and ceremonies; and building or repairing temples. The Great Buddha statue of Tōdaiji in Nara was completed in 752, in part by lay contributions organized by the lay Buddhist En no Ubasoku (from Sanskrit upāsaka).

Classical literature is replete with images of laity. In 984 a lay noble, Minamoto Tamenori, completed the Sanbōe (Illustrations of the Three Jewels), an illustrated collection of Buddhist tales in three volumes, as a guide to Buddhism for an imperial princess. It included tales of Japanese Buddhists, the miracles achieved through their devotions, and stories of meritorious people whose good deeds produced rewards in this life and the next.

Especially after periods of warfare, many widows adopted a semimonastic style of life, taking the tonsure though not necessarily living in a monastery, forming societies to commission or repair statues, and devoting themselves to prayers for the souls of the dead. Sometimes such women congregated near a monastery and performed tasks like laundry and food provisioning for the monks.

During the Edo period (1600–1868), the entire population was legally required to affiliate with a Buddhist monastery. These inalterable, exclusive affiliations were established by family units and passed down through generations. In return for supporting the monasteries and their priests, the priests performed the family's funerals and periodic ancestral rites. Although the legal obligation of monastery affiliation dissolved in the 1870s, the fact of family graves and records being kept by the monasteries means that these affiliations have largely been preserved.

Laity established associations for pilgrimage and for the recitation of Amitābha's name or the title of the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sūtra). Stories of the ideal layperson, based on historical individuals, were published by the True Pure Land sect during the Edo period in collections called ōjōden (tales of rebirth [in the pure land]). These tales vividly illustrated valued traits: filial piety, honesty, compassion, devotion to reciting Amitābha's name, and strong conviction of the certain rebirth in the Western Pure Land.

Laity and modernization

The modernization of Buddhist societies has brought sweeping changes. The extension of the franchise and expanded political participation in secular life colored religious life, creating the expectation that laity should be able to influence the character of Buddhist institutions. The spread of literacy has enabled laity to read and interpret sacred scripture with increasing independence from the ordained. Higher education hones a critical spirit and encourages skepticism regarding clergy's preeminence over the laity and their monopoly over funerals and other rituals. The prestige of science and rationality in modernizing societies further nurtures a critical view of traditional religious beliefs, practices, and institutions.

The encounter with Christian missionaries and Western imperialism was an important catalyst to Buddhist revival movements, and laymen have frequently played significant roles. The lay branch of the Buddhist Theosophical Society, founded in Sri Lanka in 1880, created a press, the Buddhist English School (later Ananda College), and a newspaper, The Buddhist. Prominent laity like AnagĀrika DharmapĀla (born David Hewavitarne, 1864–1933) acquired their first experience of activism in the Buddhist Theosophical Society and in the Young Men's Buddhist Association (later renamed the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress), founded in Colombo in 1898 by C. S. Dissanayake.

Dharmapāla founded the first international Buddhist organization, Mahābodhi Society, in Colombo in 1891, later starting a revival of Buddhism in India, beginning with a project to restore Bodh GayĀ. Dharmapāla linked his support for Buddhism to the struggle for Indian independence, so that Buddhist advocacy was inseparable from the call for political independence. The Indian Buddhist revival did not become a mass movement, however, until the leadership of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), an attorney trained in the United States and Britain who worked for the legal emancipation of the Untouchables. Despairing of integrating the Untouchables into Hindu caste society, he converted to Buddhism in 1950. When he called on all Untouchables to convert, mass conversions followed in several Indian states.

In late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japan, Buddhist reform movements arose, frequently led by groups of priests and laymen, calling for free inquiry into traditional beliefs and practices, rejecting superstition, and striving to articulate a modern Buddhist ethic. One such association, Bukkyō Seitō Dōshikai, published a widely circulated journal called Buddhism (Bukkyō), sought inspiration from Unitarianism, embraced skepticism, and even questioned whether Mahāyāna is true Buddhism. Other reformers admired socialism, affirmed equality, and called for reform of authoritarian sectarian organizations. Still others aligned Buddhism with nationalism, such as Nation's Pillar Society (Kokuchūkai), founded in 1914 by a Nichiren priest who later disrobed and wrote in defense of marriage, Tanaka Chigaku (1861–1939).

Buddhist new religious movements in Japan

The formalism inherent in the historical origins of Japanese temple affiliations has made the country a fertile area for the founding of new religious movements expanding the scope of lay Buddhism. In the early twentieth century Buddhist new religions emerged, based on the belief that the laity possess all necessary qualifications to perform funerals and ancestral rites without clerical mediation. Reiyūkai Kyōdan, founded in 1930, and its offshoot Risshō Kōseikai, founded in 1938, are two such examples. Both derive from Nichiren Buddhism and emphasize ancestor worship through the Lotus sūtra.

After World War II, many more Buddhist new religions emerged. The largest is SŌka Gakkai, which was founded in 1930 but which did not become a mass movement until after 1945. Its main religious practices are chanting the title of the Lotus sūtra and studying its doctrines. It founded a political party in 1964. Sōka Gakkai was originally affiliated with a branch of the Nichiren school, Nichiren Shōshū, but this connection was abolished in 1991. Sōka Gakkai maintains an extensive program of peace work and branches throughout the world. With membership estimated at seventeen million, it is one of the largest—if not the largest—Buddhist lay associations in history.

In recent years Buddhist new religions deriving from Shingon Buddhism, such as Agon-shu, Shinnyoen, and Gedatsukai, have been founded. In 1995 the Buddhist new religion Aum Shinrikyō, founded in 1986, carried out an attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed twelve people and required some five thousand to be hospitalized. The founder, Asahara Shōkō, hoped to cause Armageddon to fulfill his prophecy of the millennium. This group had no affiliation with any branch of Japanese Buddhism; it drew its main doctrines from Tibetan Buddhism mixed with the founder's eclectic readings in Christianity and Western millenarianism.

See also:Merit and Merit-making; Monasticism


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Helen Hardacre


views updated May 29 2018

Laity (Gk., laos, ‘people’). Baptized Christians who are not clergy or ordained to specific ministry (i.e. the majority). Since the New Testament envisages a priesthood of all believers, the place of the laity in the mission and life of the Church should be paramount. In fact, virtually the whole of mainstream Christianity is dominated by the ordained clergy, so far as control and decision-making is concerned. The term is now also applied to people in other religions who are not among the formally accredited personnel—e.g., in Buddhism, those who do not belong to the sangha, the community of bhikkhus, i.e. upāsaka.


views updated Jun 11 2018

la·i·ty / ˈlāətē/ • n. [usu. treated as pl.] (the laity) lay people, as distinct from the clergy. ∎  ordinary people, as distinct from professionals or experts.


views updated May 17 2018

laity XVI. f. LAY3 + -ITY.


views updated Jun 08 2018


laymen collectively, 1616; non-professional in contrast with professionals in certain areas of work.