Buddhist lay men are called upàsaka and lay women upàsikà. Both words are derived from `to sit close' (upàsati) and `to attend to' (upàsana). Lay men and women make up half the fourfold assembly (catuparisà) of the Buddhist community, the other half being monks (bhikkhå) and nuns (bhikkhunã). The Tipiñaka says that if there were no lay disciples accomplished in the Dhamma then the holy life would be incomplete. (M.I,494). The Buddha said that to be a lay Buddhist one has to have taken the Three Refuges and to sincerely practise the five Precepts (A.IV.222). This, of course, is the bare minimum. The Buddha expected the highest ethical, intellectual and spiritual aspirations from all his disciples. The Dhamma was meant for all, it can be realized by all and therefore it should be practised by all. The Buddha said: `Whether in a householder or a monastic, I praise right practice. And whether they be a householder or a monastic, if they practise in the right way, then because of their right practice, they will be winners of the Truth, of the Dhamma, of the Skilful'(S.V,19).

            Some lay people today have the impression that it is sufficient for them to just worship the Buddha or other worthy persons. The Buddha would have agreed with this but his idea of what constitutes truly meaningful worship was in a different category from bowing, putting the hands in a praying gesture and placing flowers on shrines. He said: `The monk or the nun, the layman or laywoman who lives by the Dhamma and perfectly fulfils it, it is they who honour me with the highest reverence'(D.II,138).

One of the lay person's most important duties is to provide the basic necessities, the four requisites, to monks and nuns. The Buddha envisaged the ideal relationship between his lay and monastic disciples as being symbiotic; lay people providing monastics with their material needs and monastics providing lay people with spiritual guidance and example. But the Buddha was aware that if lay people remain content with being simply a provision shop for monks and nuns, that the Buddhist community would be severely imbalanced and incomplete. Thus he admonished his lay disciples: `You must not be satisfied with the thought ßWe have given the Saïgha the requisitesû.' (A.III,206). Some of the other things that the Buddha expected of his sincere lay disciples includes doing good works, having integrity in their business dealings, being a true friend to others (D.III,188), visiting and comforting the sick (S.V,408), going on meditation retreats from time to time (S.V,19), in short, practicing the Noble Eightfold Path in all its depth and breadth.

But, of course, one can only practise the Buddha's teaching if one knows it and therefore, the Buddha also expected his lay disciples to be well-versed in the Dhamma. He said: `I shall not pass into final nirvana until the laymen and laywomen are accomplished and well-trained, learned and erudite, knowers of the Dhamma, living by Dhamma and walking the path of Dhamma, not until they pass on to others what they have received from their Teacher and teach it, proclaim it, establish it, explain it, promote it and clarify it, not until they are able to use it to refute false teachings and impart this wondrous Dhamma'(D.II,105). Learned lay disciples during the Buddha's time had a small but important role in disseminating the Dhamma. In the absence of an articulate teaching monk Hatthaka knew enough Dhamma to convert and instruct large numbers of the people in his town (A.IV,218). The lay disciple Ugga had both the Dhamma knowledge and the self-confidence to teach monks (A,IV,211), and Citta was able to illuminate aspects of the Dhamma in a way that even monks found useful (S.IV,284-5).

See Household Life.