In doing a little bit of research in the Pali Canon for teachings directed at lay people, I can across the following little Sutta from the Udana. I'm definitely still feeling my way around these original teachings; they just don't get a lot of direct attention in the modern Zen context, which is a great shame in my opinion.
Upasaka Sutta: The Lay Follower
translated from the Pali by
I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi, in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Now at that time a certain lay follower from Icchanangalaka had arrived in Savatthi on some business affairs. Having settled his affairs in Savatthi, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "At long last you have managed to come here."
"For a long time I have wanted to come see the Blessed One, lord, but being involved in one business affair after another, I have not been able to do so."
Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:
How blissful it is, for one who has nothing who has mastered the Dhamma, is learned. See how they suffer, those who have something, people bound in body with people.
How does one respond to this? Do you feel, as I did upon first reading this, a sense of being put down for being a lay person involved in the world? Maybe you didn't.
What's interesting though is this issue of "having something" and "having nothing." It seems to point towards a way of living in the world which transcends the monastic/lay divide.
If you take a look at the lay practitioner in the story, he first speaks of having been "involved in one business affair after another" - the busy mind, and accompanying busy life that most of us know so well. And the world involved is important, I think, as well.
1. Complicated; intricate: the involved procedure of getting a license. See synonyms at complex.
2. Curled inward; coiled or involute.
3. Confused; tangled.
4. Connected by participation or association: involved in a conspiracy.
a. Emotionally committed: He joined their organization but never really got involved.
b. Having a sexual relationship: They see a lot of each other but aren't involved.
Given the above, we can view a person who is "involved" as one that has something that holds them back from embodying their life completely. When I worry about the future, I have something. When I wallow in guilt or anger about the past, I have something. When I'm overly concerned about the business of the day, whatever it is, then I have something. When I'm chasing after peak experiences, profound conversations, peaceful meditations, or even basic comfort, I have something.
Contrast this to the person who arrives and bows before the Buddha. The words the Buddha greets him with suggests a waiting that has come to an end. As if Buddha was waiting for this guy to return, and he finally has. Almost like the koan question "What did your face look like before your parents were born?"
When I pay enough attention, there's often a sort of longing for some kind of resolution in my life. Yes, sometimes to surface issues, but more so a desire that seems to be like this story, prodding me on towards a return. And yet, I know all too well how heavy my load can get, how easily I get caught up in collecting somethings like a backwards Santa Claus. Much more than actual things: I'm fairly minimalist when it comes to owning stuff. But when it comes to things like responsibilities, desired accomplishments, future plans and ideas, wanting to be liked and not wanting to be disliked, I've got a nice bag full of somethings.
It's kind of like being the car in the photo above - you have to make a lot of effort just to shovel your way out from the place you are stuck at. And anyone living in the middle of the U.S. who had to dig out after this week's snowstorm knows how heavy that stuff was!
The Buddha's words seem to point at both of the issues above - the physical stuff we get and attach to, and the ways in which our mind wraps to tightly around, squeezing the moment for some juice that not only isn't there, but doesn't need to be there. Far from condemning lay people, the Buddha's words are a confirmation of our ability to return to our lives completely and fully.