The Buddha, meditation, and householders


colorful Buddhas in front of a cityscape

The other day I posted some commentary on a study showing that mindfulness practice improved students’ working memory and boosted their grades by 16% in just two weeks.

Yay, for meditation! You’d think Buddhists would generally be happy to see that their practices can be shown to be effective. But not everyone’s happy about this. On one of the social media networks, someone criticized the study as “misuse of Dhamma” because meditation is being used for to “make people continue the usual [worldly] ways.”

Furthermore, I was told the “The Buddha even did not teach meditation to ordinary laymen.”

So there are two things here: the use of meditation for “worldly” ends (as opposed to getting enlightened), and whether the Buddha taught meditation to householders. Let’s deal with them one at a time.

The Buddha was quite happy to stress the worldly benefits of meditation. For example, with walking meditation he said the benefits were: “He can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten & drunk, chewed and savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time.”

And the benefits of lovingkindness are enumerated as follows: “One sleeps easily, wakes easily, dreams no evil dreams. One is dear to human beings, dear to non-human beings. The devas protect one. Neither fire, poison, nor weapons can touch one. One’s mind gains concentration quickly. One’s complexion is bright. One dies unconfused and — if penetrating no higher — is headed for the Brahma worlds.”

These are largely worldly benefits, helping us to be happy (but not necessarily enlightened).

One has to start somewhere. People don’t generally start to meditate because they want to attain Buddhahood. They generally want to become less stresses, or a bit happier. Having started there and found that the Dhamma works, they may then find that they wish to explore further.

Next, is it true that the Buddha didn’t teach meditation to householders?

The Buddha taught the Eightfold Path (which includes Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration) to householders and monks/nuns alike. Additionally, there were many hundreds of householders who were stream entrants, as well as householders who were once-returners and never-returners. I’m pretty sure they didn’t become enlightened without meditating.

And if you want something more explicit, here’s the Buddha talking to a householder:

As he was sitting there the Blessed One said to [Anathapindika], “Householder, you have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, and medicinal requisites for the sick, but you shouldn’t rest content with the thought, ‘We have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick.’ So you should train yourself, ‘Let’s periodically enter and remain in seclusion & rapture.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

So it’s quite clear here that the Buddha thought that householders should not restrict themselves to donating to the monks and nuns, but should “periodically” go off and meditation. By contrast, my correspondent said that “All he stressed was dana, gratitude and hints to lead a good householder live.”

“Seclusion and rapture” is jhāna, or meditation. “Seclusion” is the word the Buddha used, in the standard description of meditation, for first jhāna: “A monk — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters and remains in the first jhāna: rapture and joy born of seclusion, accompanied by initial and sustained thinking.”

Rapture is mentioned here as well, but piti (rapture) is particularly associated with the second jhāna, and so the Buddha was probably suggesting that householders not just meditate, but seek to experience both first and second jhānas, which — with practice — are not that hard to experience, even for people who have busy lives.

Another famous, but often overlooked example, is the Kalāma Sutta, which is most well-known for being where the Buddha said to rely on experience (and the testimony of the wise) rather than on scripture, hearsay, speculation, etc. After the Buddha clarifies what the Kalamās should rely upon, he goes on to explain the Brahmavihāra meditation practices, and he doesn’t say that these should be done by monks, but by “one who is a disciple of the noble ones” (ariyasāvako). Bhikkhu Bodhi explains the ariyasāvaka as “any disciple, monastic or layperson, who has learned the teaching and earnestly takes up the practice.” So these meditations are meant to be practiced by all sincere followers of the Buddha, not just monks and nuns.

Not only are there clear signs that the Buddha encouraged householders to meditate, he even singled out one particular woman, Uttarā Nandamātā as “the foremost of my female lay followers among meditators.” I think we can safely assume from this that householders did not merely dabble in meditation but could attain distinction.

So we’re dong something very traditional, those of us who live a household life, and who meditate. And there’s every reason to assume that high degrees of spiritual insight are open to us, if we make the effort. And let’s start people young. Teach them meditation in school — even elementary school. And for some it will just be stress management, or a way to increase their grades. But for some it will be the beginning of a path — a path than might lead them all the way to awakening.


4 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi Bodhipaksa

    Thanks for interesting article as always, although I’m a bit puzzled by the notion of rapture.

    I first learnt meditation from a Triratna Buddhist group about a year and a half ago and have maintained a fairly consistent meditation pracice ever since (currently on day 90 of the 100 day challenge!)

    I was told about the dhyana factors and how rapture is experienced at a the first two levels, and according to your post is fairly easy to experience, but I’m unclear about what I am actually supposed to experience.

    Certainly I’ve felt a tingling sensation that generally starts in my lower spine and spreads over my whole body, but is this it? It seems to come about if I am able to concetrate very intensely on my body in the present moment, as might be expected.

    But what to do about it? Keep it going (which I can usually do seemingly by minor muscular contractions) or just relax into the moment and let it fade? Either way, it hasn’t happened for some weeks now and I had forgotten about it until I read your blog post.

    Not knowing what to make of it I treat the feeling with some trepidation as I fear it may be distracting me from my meditation and stopping me from progressing.

    Any hints would be appreciated.

    Many thanks


  • Good question. Yes, this sounds like rapture, but no, don’t try and keep it going by muscular contractions. That’s a form of grasping after experience that’s spiritually unhelpful. Just notice the piti as your breathing in and out. Notice how the piti and the breathing affect each other. Let it come or go as it wishes. And if the piti gets too much, start to switch your attention to the heart, and notice any joy that’s present.

  • I’ve also heard the Buddha taught the Kalachakra practice to a King.

    • Anything referencing the Kalachakra practice is going to date from at least a millennium from after the Buddha’s death, so those kinds of tales are to be taken more as literature than as reflecting anything historical. But the Buddha did teach kings and princes about meditation, even if I haven’t seen any evidence that any of the kings ever meditated. One of the fullest coherent outlines of the Buddhist path, the Samaññaphala Sutta, was taught to Prince Ajatasattu. That account has quite a detailed description of the Buddhist ethical and meditative path.


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