That's the question. Is there any advantage in being a lay Buddhist over being a Monk who has gone forth, that is in as far as following the Dhamma-Path to Nirvana is concerned?
I think there are some modern schools of "lay Buddhism" i.e. in which have no ordained monks -- including Triratna, and Soka Gakkai (and Navayana in India). Ironically, Buddhist modernism suggests that schools which don't have ordained monks also do away with doctrines about nirvana.
The idea that becoming a monk might not be the best way, is I think more or less wrong or perhaps unthinkable according to more traditional schools (e.g. Theravada) and doctrine (e.g. the Pali Tipitaka). For example the suttas sometimes mention the holy life, which I think means keeping company with other monks.
In practice some people find the discipline of some modern monasteries disappointing -- more interested in money and so on than following the Dhamma path -- perhaps that has always been so, leading to advice like the rhinoceros sutta. That said, among the Pali suttas there is also SN 45.2 and a doctrine of friendship.
If you want to read more along these lines -- i.e. deemphasising the advantages of being or becoming a monk -- I might recommend:
The Broken Buddha: critical reflections on Theravada and a plea for a new Buddhism, by Ven. Dhammika, which criticises some self-serving customs he observed in South East Asia. This may be worth reading if you have an over-idealised or naive impression, maybe unpopular though because people usually respect or venerate the sangha and wouldn't want to criticise it
Note that this shouldn't be understood as a description or criticism of all monks, I think there are certainly are venerables and monasteries which take the vocation seriously.
The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity: At Home, At Work, in the World, by Bhikkhu Basnagoda Rahula, which gives advice to laypeople by collecting, summarising, and commenting on the various suttas which were intended for laypeople. This may be worth reading because the suttas are recorded mostly by and intended for monks, this author explains that the sangha and the lay community are meant to coexist, and what doctrines (e.g. related to marriage and wealth) are especially or only intended for the lay community.
I don't know much about other schools, Mahayana. The introduction to a book I'm reading says that "meditation in everyday life" is an important doctrine of the Soto school of Zen (contrasted with Rinzai whose emphasis might be suprarational), maybe I'll understand that better later.
I just noticed that Ven Dhamika's biography mentioned Anagarika Dharmapala. An "Anagarika" is sort of half-way between a monk and a lay-person -- they keep 8 precepts instead of only 5, but not the hundreds of vinaya rules. Some of them may be "lay attendants", helping a monk or monastery by doing things (e.g. handling money, paying bills) which monks are forbidden to:
'Dharmapāla' means 'protector of the dharma'. 'Anagārika' in Pāli means "homeless one". It is a midway status between monk and layperson. As such, he took the eight precepts (refrain from killing, stealing, sexual activity, wrong speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs, eating after noon, entertainments and fashionable attire, and luxurious beds) for life. These eight precepts were commonly taken by Ceylonese laypeople on observance days. But for a person to take them for life was highly unusual. Dharmapala was the first anagarika – that is, a celibate, full-time worker for Buddhism – in modern times. It seems that he took a vow of celibacy at the age of eight and remained faithful to it all his life. Although he wore a yellow robe, it was not of the traditional bhikkhu pattern, and he did not shave his head. He felt that the observance of all the vinaya rules would get in the way of his work, especially as he flew around the world. Neither the title nor the office became popular, but in this role, he "was the model for lay activism in modernist Buddhism." He is considered a bodhisattva in Sri Lanka.
I'm not sure whether you consider that as "following the Dhamma path to Nirvana", but for completeness sake (see Anagārika etc.)..
There is the case of Ghaṭīkāra, who was asked:
MN81:11.2: ‘Dear Ghaṭīkāra, you have heard this teaching, so why don’t you go forth from the lay life to homelessness?’
MN81:11.3: ‘Don’t you know, dear Jotipāla, that I look after my blind old parents?’
And Ghaṭīkāra was a non-returner:
MN81:18.16: And since he has ended the five lower fetters, Ghaṭīkāra will be reborn spontaneously and will become extinguished there, not liable to return from that world.
Lay Buddhists are still tied to the world, but their practice can still benefit themselves and others. Ghaṭīkāra was the chief attendant of Buddha Kassapa.
MN81:18.1: ‘Great king, there is a market town named Vebhaliṅga, where there’s a potter named Ghaṭīkāra. He is my chief attendant.
This story made the Buddha smile. Perhaps it might make you smile as well. There is a lot more in that sutta that what is posted here.
It is truly difficult to follow the path when being a lay person, just see how difficult it is to observe the 5 precepts as a lay person. You will find it much easier to follow the path with people who have a similar goal like you, i.e the Sangha.
That being said unless you can really live the minimalistic life of a contemporary monk (not the newer monk living style that is similar to a householders way of living) in a place with little to no modern facilities; I recommend living the lay life, being minimalistic and observing the 5 or 8 precepts to the full extent. As an Anagarika if you are serious in following the path.
That's the question. Is being a lay Buddhist has any advantage over a Monk who is gone forth, as far as following the Dhamma path to Nirvana is concerned?
A common stock phrase being used in many suttas:
Household life is confining, a dusty path. The life gone forth is like the open air. It is not easy living at home to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, like a polished shell. What if I were to shave off my hair and beard, put on the ochre robes, and go forth from the household life into homelessness?" ( DN 11 )
However, with that said, it was assumed that the monastic environment and lifestyle IS TRULY "like the open air", while nowadays, there're instances where monastics env. and lifestyle are really not that much different from us common worldlings, hence losing all its advantage over the household life!
Traditionally the two states are compared to a person's digestion, the lay state is likened to a weak digestion and being a member of the order is likened to a robust digestive system. As a weak digestive system can not digest food dense in nutriment, so the lay state can not support Arahantship for long.
In practice, as i see it, there can now be numerous advantages to being a lay person for this or that person but not for another.
There is no need to get into the specifics but if one has the knowledge and resources to train then there is nothing stopping one from keeping whatever precepts one may want to keep and training however one sees fit.
The state of many monastic communities nowadays is straight unfortunate, read the book "Broken Buddha: Critical Reflection on Theravada" for details.
Nowdays people travel even to foreign countries and there subject themselves to these conditions, often ending up in a community where monks are merely monks by association.
People still choose to travel maybe because of the need for a livelihood that the monkhood provides, a need for instruction and or an opening to train.
The livelihood is plenty available but some compromises will usually have to be made.
A good teacher on the other hand is a rarity and one is lucky if one finds a teacher who can teach the jhana let alone one who is Ariya.
I think some 80-90+% monks disrobe within 10 years.
There are numerous pros & cons and are too many to list.
That being said, being a member of the order is ultimately better but one has to take the various circumstances into consideration.
Ven. S. Dhammika's book "Broken Buddha" is often quoted, but some people think that he is anti-establishmentarian. Personally, I think it's a great book to help you get rid of overly romanticized views of the monastic order in modern day settings.
To support this, I will quote other popular monks.
For the question of politics within the monastic community, Ven. Yuttadhammo answered here:
How are such situations handled within the Sangha today?
Rather poorly, for the most part. But "the sangha" is a huge and diverse conceptual body that for all intents and purposes doesn't exist as a single entity. Various sects, traditions, and even countries have their own sanghas now, and each sangha has its own means of dealing (or not) with such problems. For the most part, it is far more difficult to actually deal with monastic transgressions in modern times; without the stability of a large body of enlightened beings, it's much more "every monk for himself", unfortunately.
In this answer, I quoted a story which I heard Ven. Ajahn Brahm recollecting in a YouTube video talk, but unfortunately, I can't remember which talk exactly:
There is a YouTube video where Ajahn Brahm, abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Western Australia, talked about the time he thought he may have become enlightened. This was in Thailand, when he was still a junior monk.
In this story, he said that after a long period of meditation (some days), he woke up in a state of intense bliss. He thought he may have become enlightened.
Later, he went to get alms. There was food distributed to the monks, including one small pot of delicious food (I think it was pork curry), and another big pot of unappetizing food (I think it was stinky fermented fish stew). Pork curry was a rare special treat, while the stinky fish stew is something ordinary. Both were distributed to a group of monks.
The most senior monk gets to take his food first. He took only the delicious pork curry for himself, and then he poured the remaining contents of the small pot into the big pot and mixed them together, saying, "They are all the same. As monks, we must not be choosy."
Having not eaten for several days, Bhikkhu Brahm was hungry. Seeing the senior monk's actions, he became angry, but did not say anything to him.
Then he thought, "if I became angry, then I'm definitely not enlightened."
So, the lay Buddhist who does not join the monastic order, has the advantage of escaping many less-than-ideal monastic communities that may have conditions that are detrimental to their spiritual training.
Yes, of course. Okay, let's try once again: what is Nirvana? It's a pleasure. Does it differs from some desires (please notice that Buddha's key teaching was about freeding from desire, but you need a desire to freed from desire) like alcohol, cigarettes or sex for people who have had desires? Not really, moreover Buddhist Monks won't have children because the sex is 'desire', but does the conception of Niravana really differ? No, and most of Buddhism's true knowledge came from Sanskrit, how many people speak Sanskrit nowadays? Not many. Buddhism doesn't have holy Monks or a residence similar to The Vatican, so there is no adavantage of Buddhist Monks over Lay Buddhists.