Why Aren't You a Priest?
In most religious traditions, there must be a divide between the laypeople and the "ordained" (though, of course, it's not called that in every tradition). For the most part, the former participate in rituals, which are organized by the latter.
But the religion must have a cosmological reason for this divide, especially if it is a religion that advocates equality between men: how can one group of people be so close to God or a Higher State of Being while another group must live its ordinary lives away from the daily religious practice?
Christianity and Callings
The relationship between laypeople and the religious leaders of their tradition says something very important about the way the religion orders life, as does the explanation given for the reasons people occupy different positions within the tradition.
So why are some people allowed to get closer to God than others?
How does Christianity explain this? In my experience, the explanation for the stratification of religious communities is the idea of "callings." Especially in Protestantism, each person is called to a certain kind of work.
The idea is, then, that even though you may not be an ordained
minister, that is okay because you were "called" (by God) to be a chef.
Not only does society need both of those people, but also each person
has different qualities that would make him better at one job or
another. These differences are celebrated.
What Does a "Calling" Mean?
What does this say to followers of this tradition? It seems to emphasize the significance of individuality; God values your contribution to society in whatever way you feel "called" to contribute. It also leaves a certain ambiguity that allows each person to choose his own path.
Since a calling is not
concrete, there is plenty of room for the individual's interpretation
of what he "should" be doing in life. Most importantly, though, he
should not feel guilty that he is not a monk or a priest if he feels
secure that those paths are not ones he is called to follow.
What About Buddhism?
Buddhism has a different answer for why some people are monastics and some are laypeople: samsara. The force keeping us in the cyclical flow of time means we must reincarnate (after all, we cannot live forever). With karma determining our reincarnations, we have all been going through this process for eons, for inconceivable amounts of time.
So if, in
this life, you are a peasant, then you are meant to be a peasant. End
of story. And if you are not going to become enlightened now, then you
live your life as best you can and hope to be incarnated next as a monk
or other "religious specialist."
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This, consequently, has
completely different implications for what it means to participate in
Buddhist life. There is no room for interpretation with your "calling"
as there is in Christianity; if your parents put you into a monastery
when you are 10, then you will be a monk in this life. If your path
leads you elsewhere, so be it. People have different roles in religious
life because they are in different stages of their path to
In a way, there is the similarity of always being in the right place no matter where you are (because some force outside of you wants you to be there). But at the same time, the reasoning is different. Christianity rationalizes the stratification with callings, saying that each person is able to (and therefore meant to) perform different tasks within society. Buddhism, on the other hand, comforts the laity by essentially saying, "Even though you may not be near enlightenment yet, you can be in a different life if you live the best you can in this one."
In a practical sense, these respective reasonings are absolutely essential to keeping a religious community whole, but they have also come to shape much of the way participants in these communities view their roles in life.