It seems that most of the dharma teachers in the West are lay people, as opposed to Asia where most of the teachers are ordained monks. Many of the western teachers were monks for a while, but decided to disrobe. My assumption is that these teachers are not enlightened because they usually get in relationships after disrobing.

My question is, is it wise to follow these lay teachers, or is it better to wait and try to find a monk who has made a firmer commitment to the dharma?

I'm not trying to be disrespectful, it's just that it seems like the act of disrobing is sort of a rejection of Buddhist teachings.

  • Seems to be an opinion-based question, so maybe not best suited for SE. However, I always approach learning a new subject with the idea of "if the teacher knows more than me, then they are probably worthwhile listening to." A white belt probably won't learn any more from a 3rd degree black belt than they would from a blue belt. Jul 9, 2015 at 18:00
  • I think it's a little presumptuous to assume that people in relationships can't be enlightened! Check out the Vimalakirti Sutra if you're of a Mahayana bent.
    – user698
    Jul 9, 2015 at 18:54
  • @nemo if "relationship" is understood as sex, romance and/or emotional binding, and enlightenment is understood as nirvana, the pali suttas do not seem to agree with such possibility
    – user382
    Jul 10, 2015 at 4:52
  • @Thiago: In the Pali suttas, that is true for the arhat and non-returners. Once-returners and stream enters are still weakly tied by the lower five fetters. The latter are enlightened but not 'samma sambodhi'.
    – user698
    Jul 10, 2015 at 12:35

4 Answers 4


1. There were lay Arhats

In the Buddha's time there were lay Arhats such as the rich merchant Vimalakirti of Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. His knowledge was considered by the Buddha (to the discomfiture of many monks) to far surpass most monks, and equal Bodhisattvas. Thus, being lay is no reason to look down upon a teacher.

2. Having the Buddha for a teacher does not guarantee enlightenment

The Buddha was frequented by several Kings, one of them, I can't remember his name right now, and I certainly don't want to defame the wrong King, was a regular patron of the Buddha, visiting him more than once. It so happened that at one point in a succession struggle he ended up killing his own brother. So much for having the Buddha as a teacher.

On the other hand, there was a blind weaver girl who heard the Buddha speak from afar only once, and that was enough for her to begin her contemplation on death and impermanence. She died a stream entrant.

In this age of the Internet, one can be like the blind weaver girl, and listen to the great teachers of our age anytime we like. There were even people who listened to the Buddha's teachings as it was narrated by someone who had heard it from someone else who had heard it from someone else and so on, handed down several times, and still attained enlightenment.

3. Western teachers relate better to western students

There are definitely great eastern masters who have produced enlightened western students. Still, several western students report getting very little out of the extended stays in Tibetan and Thai monasteries, other than a liking for strange food and exposure to a new culture. That's not to say it always works this way, but certainly more times than we care to admit. Especially monks who ordain as children are unfamiliar with anything other than the local culture and monastic setting, and are rather uncomfortable with foreign students.

Western teachers, lay or otherwise are often times better at relating to western students, and vice versa. That is not to say, some of them are not Dharma politicians, several of them can be that way, always saying what the student wants to hear, and presenting a false facade of calm, peace and enlightenment, but then such teachers are everywhere, even in the East.

One Western monk's account with his Burmese teacher went as follows - he confided his problems in attaining deep concentration to the Senior abbot, and the Abbot's only question was - "did you ever do drugs?" As a college student he had taken his share of weed, which he admitted to. That was it, the teacher decided he was unfit to be taught, and ignored him for the rest of the time he was at the monastery. The teacher's cultural perception of drugs clouded his ability to nurture the student.

I'm not discouraging you from going out to find a supremely enlightened monk to learn from, but it is the equivalent of saying, "I will not move from here until I can afford a Rolls Royce." Maybe all we need is a bicycle.

  • Arahantship is a Theravada concept, but the sutra you are citing is a Mahayana one. See discourse.suttacentral.net/t/lay-arahants-why-not/2696/2
    – Maarten
    Sep 20, 2018 at 5:59
  • Vimalakriti was praised by the Buddha as being wiser than the two arhats (who are sent to learn from him in the Mahayana sutra), demigods and bodhisattvas though he is called an upasaka. For all intents and purposes, and by inference he is an arhat too if he can school arhats.
    – Buddho
    Sep 21, 2018 at 10:07

A person is not necessarily a better teacher because they are or are not a monk. The qualities that make a good teacher are related to how well they can teach their students. Of course, if a person is seeking to learn how to be a monk, in that case learning from a monk is a practical choice.

But in the West we have far fewer monasteries so it stands to reason we have fewer monastics than in Asia where there is a long standing and wide spread tradition of Buddhist monasteries. We can be thankful and supportive of Westerners who have trained and ordained in Asia and brought back what they've learned to teach us here. And we can be happy that there are committed lay teachers as well. Anyone who understands the Buddha's teachings well and can teach others is a jewel.

I do understand what you're saying. A person who has ordained shows a level of dedication far beyond the level of an average person. But that dedication may or may not translate to being a good teacher; it's a separate set of qualities.

Lastly regarding your concern about disrobing being a sign of rejection of the Buddha's teachings; if a person disrobes and goes from being a "bad" monk to a "good" lay person, that's not disrespect. It actually may be a sign of respect for the sangha for a person who realizes they are not up to monastic disciplines to step down and be the best lay Buddhist they can.

Best wishes in finding a great teacher.


For starters I do not think your question is disrespectful at all.

I think this depends on the particular monk(s) or ex-monk(s) that you want to compare. There could be good or bad versions of both. Keeping vows is not easy. Buddhism also has A LOT of different vow sets one can take.

Refuge vows, Bodhisattva Vows, Monastic Vows, The five precepts, the list goes on... and on...

Sometimes people get in over their heads and make vows they cannot keep. Everyone has their story and their path, if you are friends or comrades with an ex-monk, and you find the conversions about Buddhism informative and positive I do not see harm in this kind of relationship. In fact it might even be therapeutic to the ex-monk to be able to have those kinds of conversations. If not therapeutic at least interesting to them, and from a karmic perspective (assuming conversations are accurate) beneficial for both parties.


I'm not trying to be disrespectful, it's just that it seems like the act of disrobing is sort of a rejection of Buddhist teachings.

Atma would say it a reaction of a proper observance and even formally one needs to express the renunciation from one of the Juwels.

It's is totally right, to have doubt in such a case and being a teacher after having been monk, sometimes is just a livelihood by teaching the Dhamma, which is actually very against Buddhas economy and the ways he kept it protected from being corrupt.

There is no, no old story of a person who renounced the holy life to start to be holy.

One needs to say, that a Monk or Nun, does not make his training to be a teacher, nor do they have a duty to teach. The only real duty is the practice the path. So teachings are always "just" generosity and without strings (if followed the Vinaya).

There are case, where people argue, that they would violate the Vinaya to much, when actively teaching people in broad. Or some say, its not possible to live a monastic live today... Arguments are many and of course, the "cheap" course of training to gain a livelihood incl. some reputations for it, is very usual today, especially under Western Teacher.

Its no time wrong and for nobody, to give the gift of Dhamma. It's wrong for everyone, may one be a monastic or a Layperson, to receive anything in return for Dhamma.

There was shortly a famous teaching monk in Thailand, for many many years, who felt in love and spontaneously left the monk hood, leaving 10.000s of devoted people behind and caused surely a lot of faith to decay.

Actually its 90% a matter of not being able to live an abstinent live. Since nothing is for sure, there are some very inspiring stories from Ajahn Chan in regard of such monastic matters. Food for the Heart

On the other hand, for example, two of the leading teachers here in Cambodia are Exmonks, both, one of them with a million following, are said to live actually a very Vinaya-Standard live. One actually has an easier way to use gain for a certain plan.

In regard of your idea about, that they can not be enlighten, that's right, even if they would live without wife. It's merely in the other direction. Someone who gains the highest fruit would leave house, even if gained as householder and if there is no way to do so or no Sangha available, one would die within some days. The Buddha gave drunkenness as the only reason to go back to the lower life. Drunken with youth, health, and or life.

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