Within received Buddhist philosophy, it is usually the case that the ‘four’ categories of Dhamma practitioners are recorded as comprising of ordained ‘monks’ and ‘nuns’, and lay ‘male’ and ‘female’ adherents. These four categories take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma (his teachings), and the ‘Sangha’ (or the Buddha’s community of ordained monks and nuns). These four categories of Buddhist practitioners all follow the psychological (and physical) method of ‘moral’ restraint as recorded within the Vinaya Discipline. A monk follows at least 227 rules, whereas a nun has to follow at least 311 rules. For male and female lay-followers there is a type of ‘equality’ in action, whereby both permanently uphold the first 5 rules and quite often 3 (or 5 more) extra rules of the Vinaya Discipline depending upon individual commitment and time of year, etc. A lay person, if they so choose, may follow the entire Vinaya Discipline if they prefer, whilst not formally ordaining as a monastic.
Indeed, in some parts of Asia, Buddhist ascetics still live in remote areas who are considered ‘pure’ and even ‘enlightened’ by the community at large, are who are not ordained. As they are not monks or nuns, they do not walk through communities with the begging-bowl, but rather eat whatever grows around them, or subsist upon what food the lay community chooses to bring to them. As they are not ordained, they do not wear the saffron robe and are not entitled to stay in monasteries during the rainy season. They often sit ‘naked’ all year round at the foot of a tree like the original Buddhist samanas did before the advent of the formal Sangha of ordained ‘beggars’ (bhikkhu and bhikkhuni) was developed. This practice also mirrors the Buddha’s own pathway.
Most lay-people, however, practice Buddhism whilst being married, having children and holding-down a job. Even so, and despite all the extra entanglements and barriers of commitment, the Buddha still stated that lay-people, if devoted to their practice, can still realise enlightenment, even though it is not an easy task. A male lay-follower of the Buddha is referred to as an ‘Upasaka’, and a female practitioner as an ‘Upasika’. These two terms refer to ‘lay’ practitioners that sit near to the Buddha (or his monastics) and ‘listen’ carefully (and with respect) to the Dhamma instruction being explained. These ‘lay’ practitioners then go back to their homes and carefully recall (and record) the Dhamma lesson which they put into their daily practice. However, the crux of this article is about two other categories of ‘lay’ person explained by the Buddha in his Suttas, but which are not often mentioned within Western discourse. This means that the Buddha actually explained ‘six’ (6) categories of human-beings in his Suttas – with four referring to his followers – and two to ‘non-believers’. Who are these ‘non-believers’, and why did the Buddha bother to explain their presence?
Within various Suttas of the Four (Pali) Nikayas, the Buddha often states that there are other ‘pravrajika’ (i.e. ‘sannyasa’) – or spiritual ‘wanderers’ who do not follow his Dhamma – and that these two other categories of ‘lay’ practitioners are not to be confused (or associated) with these ascetics. A male ‘Gahapati’ and female ‘Gahapatani’ – according to the Buddha – are ‘lay’ people who do not follow his Dhamma and are not spiritual-seekers committed to another path. Quite often, these terms are associated with the word ‘ratna’, or ‘treasure’. When asked why it was that he did not include these ‘lay’ followers in his schematic for lay-society, the Buddha explained that his path uproots greed, hatred and delusion, and that the ‘Gahapati’ and ‘Gahapatani’ spend their lives engaged in business speculation, business deals and market-trading. They only care about amassing wealth (capital), and as such have no place in his Dhamma (which rejects ALL profit-seeking).
What is interesting is that the Buddha elsewhere in the Suttas also advises ordinary lay-people about what kind of karmically-pure jobs they should follow (activities in accordance with Nobe Eightfold Path), and how they should ‘save’ and ‘spend’ their hard-earned money – and yet he draws a distinction between ordinary (and ‘honest’) lay-people Buddhist practitioners – and the ‘Gahapati’ and ‘Gahapatani’. These Pali term literally translates as ‘guild leader’ – and implies the skill (and profession) of ‘gold’ or ‘treasure’ finder. These people possess a number of special skills and strange arts which they use to uncover or find treasure – finds which are immediately given to the king for a reward. These people are only motivated by greed and continuously seeking the accumulation of gold, crops, buildings, lands, women, children, status and male and female servants. They are only satisfied with their own worldly comfort and security and refuse to help anyone in need. The Buddha stresses that these people give-up their collective selflessness for a selfish individuality.
DK Barua: An Analytical Study of Four Nikayas, Munshiram Manoharlal, (2010), Pages 68-70