Must you become a monk or nun to be enlightened?

vimalakirti can lay people be enlightened

17th century painting depicting the enlightened layman Vimalakirti of the Vimalakirti Sutra. | The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

The short answer is no. Most Buddhist teachers today would say you don’t have to be a monk or nun to become enlightened, though some might say that monastic life is more conducive to awakening. 

Texts in the Pali canon, which contains some of the earliest Buddhist teachings, suggest that monasticism was considered the only path to enlightenment in early Buddhism, with a few exceptions. A layperson could become a “stream-enterer”—someone in the first stage of awakening, on track to realize enlightenment in a future lifetime—but monasticism was considered the best path to becoming an arhat, a fully awakened person freed from the cycle of rebirth. The reasoning was that monks and nuns were able to progress farther because they devoted their lives to dharma practice without the distractions and temptations of lay life. 

The Buddha had many lay followers, but the teachings he gave them differed from those he gave his ordained disciples: laypeople, it was believed, would be unable to understand the more advanced teachings. Lay Buddhists were generally taught to keep the five lay precepts, along with other ethical teachings, and to support monks and nuns with alms. The merit of their virtuous actions would ensure rebirth in a future life in which they could take monastic vows and work toward enlightenment.

For centuries, the belief that it is impossible for a layperson to become enlightened persisted among Theravada Buddhists of Southeast Asia. Some Theravada teachers maintain that position to this day, and monastic institutions continue to hold great importance in the Theravada school.

Mahayana Buddhism brought enlightenment out of the monastery with the belief in the universality of buddhanature, an intrinsic capacity to attain awakening. Texts like the Lotus Sutra, a core text in East Asian Buddhism, assert that all beings possess buddhanature; ordination is not a precondition for awakening. To give an example, the Vimalakirti Sutra tells the story of Vimalakirti, an enlightened layman who bested the Buddha’s own disciples in debate. 

Vajrayana Buddhism maintains that it is possible for monastic and lay practitioners alike to attain enlightenment in one lifetime by embracing tantric practices.


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