Despite the fame of the monks, the majority of the Buddha’s followers did not become monks or nuns, but remained in lay life. In the parlance of the tradition, they did go forth from the home to homelessness, but remained householders. The order of monks and nuns could not survive without them for they provided material support, most modestly in the form of daily alms, with the more wealthy offering properties and dwellings that would become the first monasteries.
The common pattern in the literature was that monks would meditate in search of deep states of concentration and the attainment of nirvana, while laypeople accumulated merit through their generous deeds in the hope of rebirth as a god or human in the next life. But there were also laypeople who became master meditators. One was named Citta, a wealthy merchant who donated an entire forest to the sangha. He was regarded by the Buddha as one of his exemplary lay disciples, renowned both for his ability to teach the dharma and for his skills as a meditator.
There are ten suttas about Citta in the Samyutta Nikaya, one of which appears below. Here, Citta encounters an old friend who, thirty years before, became a naked ascetic, a practitioner of one of the yogic traditions of the day, possibly a Jain, but clearly not a follower of the Buddha. Citta and his friend compare notes on the levels of attainment they have achieved over the years, with the ascetic stating quite unabashedly that he has nothing to show for his efforts, despite having renounced the life of the householder so long ago, apart from his naked body and shaved head. Citta, on the other hand, has remained a householder, yet, by following the teachings of the Buddha, has attained through his meditation the blissful states of the four levels of concentration (jhana). ‘Further, if I were to die before the Blessed One does, it would not be surprising if the Blessed One were to declare of me: “There is not fetter bound by which Citta the householder could return to this world. ” ‘ This is interpreted to mean that Citta has attained the third of the four stages of the path, that of the non-returner (anagamin), who will never be reborn in this world again but will be reborn in a more exalted realm, from whence he will enter nirvana.
The conversion of non-Buddhists to the fold is a central theme in accounts of the early tradition, and such conversion need not be conducted by the Buddha himself. Noting that a Buddhist layman has achieved far more than a non-Buddhist yogin, Citta’s friend decides that he should become a monk. He does so, and soon becomes an arhat.
Now on that occasion the naked ascetic Kassapa, who in lay life had been an old friend of Citta the householder, had arrived in Maccikasanda. Citta the householder heard about this and approached the naked ascetic Kassapa. He exchanged greetings with him and, when they had concluded their greetings and cordial talk, he sat down to one side and said to him:
‘How long has it been, Venerable Kassapa, since you went forth?’
‘It has been thirty years, householder, since I went forth.’
‘In these thirty years, venerable sir, have you attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, any dwelling in comfort?’
‘In these thirty years since I went forth, householder, I have not attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, no dwelling in comfort, but only nakedness, and the shaven head, and the brush for cleaning my seat.’
When this was said, Citta the householder said to him: ‘It is wonderful indeed, sir! It is amazing indeed, sir! How well expounded is the dhamma in that, after thirty years, you have not attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, no dwelling in comfort, but only nakedness, and the shaven head, and the brush for cleaning your seat.’
‘But, householder, how long has it been since you became a lay follower?’
‘In my case too, venerable sir, it has been thirty years.’
‘In these thirty years, householder, have you attained any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, any dwelling in comfort?’
‘How could I not, venerable sir? For to whatever extent I wish, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I enter and dwell in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. Then, to whatever extent I wish, with the subsiding of thought and examination, I enter and dwell in the second jhana…. Then, to whatever extent I wish, with the fading away as well of rapture. I enter and dwell in the third jhana…. Then, to whatever extent I wish, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain. I enter and dwell in the fourth jhana. Further, if I were to die before the Blessed One does, it would not be surprising if the Blessed One were to declare of me: “There is not fetter bound by which Citta the householder could return to this world.” ’
When this was said, the naked ascetic Kassapa said to Citta the householder: ‘It is wonderful indeed, sir! How well expounded is the dhamma, in that a layman clothed in white can attain a superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a dwelling in comfort. May I receive the going forth in this dhamma and discipline, may I receive the higher ordination?’
Then Citta the householder took the naked ascetic Kassapa to the elder bhikkhus and said to them: ‘Venerable sirs, this naked ascetic Kassapa is an old friend of ours from lay life. Let the elders give him the going forth, let them give him the higher ordination. I will be zealous in providing him with robes, almsfood, lodging and medicinal requisites.’
Then the naked ascetic Kassapa received the going forth in this dhamma and discipline, he received the higher ordination. And soon, not long after his higher ordination, dwelling alone, withdrawn, diligent, ardent and resolute, the venerable Kassapa, by realizing it for himself with direct knowledge, in this very life entered and dwelt in that unsurpassed goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the household life into homelessness. He directly knew, ‘Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.’ And the venerable Kassapa became one of the arahants.
From The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, vol. 2, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000), pp. 1328-30.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.