My fellow Western monastics sometimes mention criticism from their lay fellows, much of which is to the point of, “Monastics are unnecessary in the West.” Or, “Western Buddhism is lay Buddhism.”
Now I could write about how the Sangha is four-fold, including monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, but you’ve probably already heard about that. In essence, “Sangha” is a word we use to describe our Buddhist community, and whether or not your idea of “Sangha” includes four parts is up to you.
What I’m wondering is: Why make this sort of statement at all? There may be some sense that monastics are more dedicated, more hardcore because they have given up the householder life. But who can measure dedication? We can only observe our own minds. Only I know if I am developing or not . I’ve been ordained for almost ten years now and I am certain there are thousands of lay practitioners who have more faith than me, who practice more than me, and who are generally nicer people.
It is hard to estimate the relevance of monastic practice as it relates to the lay community. For some, seeing the robes and peaceful demeanour of a monk might inspire them. For others, it might just look silly.
That being said, I do find monasticism relevant in our modern world. Why? Because Buddha taught it as a practice. To live in a dedicated community, to give up worldly concerns – that is a practice. It is difficult, and for those who endure it, it can help them progress spiritually. As a practice it is a deeply personal, internal process. As such I find it as relevant and useful as any other method Buddha taught. A special aspect of Buddha’s teachings is that the practices are manifold; there are different practices for different types of mindset. Monasticism was never intended to be for everyone.