Buddhadharma: What role have long-term, full-time practitioners—whether monastics, priests, mountain yogis or forest yogis—played in the development of Buddhism? Are their activities essential to the continuation of an authentic Buddhist tradition?
Robert Thurman: It is definitely a fact that in the Buddha's time people were inspired to drop out of their ordinary life occupations and become full-time practitioners. The Buddha would say, "Come here, Bhikshu," or "Come here, Bhikshuni," their clothes would change to orange saffron robes, and they would become monks or nuns just like that.
So monasticism was an essential element in early Buddhism. However, I don't like to define a full-time practitioner only as someone who is a monastic or on retreat. I would say that the fate of Buddhism has depended historically on full-time practitioners, people who turn their lives toward enlightenment as their constant preoccupation, but that has not always been monastics or retreatants. There have been lay people who have practiced the dharma by not responding in anger to violence when people shouted at them or hit them or did something wrong to them. That is also full-time practice. When you are out on the street and someone is kicking you and you do not freak out, that is very strict mindfulness. Applying antidotes to the kleshas is a forceful practice.