So let us begin by looking more closely at this word gahapati (Sanskrit gṛhapati). I have mentioned it before in my collection of philological odds and ends. There I noted that Jan Nattier says that the term seems to have meant something rather more than householder. Gaha does mean house, but pati means "lord, master" - so it is more literally house-master. The thing is that, as in much of Western history, very few people in the Buddha's day would have owned property. Witness the fact that the word for house in Latin, domus, also gives us the words domain, dominion, and dominant. The owner of a house (dominus) was someone of considerable means, not to say power. Similarly the word pati (lord) has a Latin cognate potis meaning 'powerful, able, capable' from which we get our English word potent. So a gahapati (Latin domus-potens?) is more literally someone who has the power of, or over, a dominion. In terms of social standing the gahapati is often mentioned alongside brahmins and kṣatriyas - ie alongside, but not included in the two higher varṇas or classes. It seems as though gahapati was a kind of title for someone not from the higher varṇas, but who was none-the-less a significant person in terms of wealth and influence, most likely a successful merchant. We can note here that the Buddha thought of Potaliya as a gahapati because of his clothing and appearance - he dressed like a rich man. In these days where home ownership is the norm in the West it is a bit hard to grasp the meaning of gahapati when translated as householder. I was thinking that 'squire' (a non-aristocratic landowner) would have done nicely in T.W. Rhys Davids' day, but is a bit archaic now - I quite like the idea of the Buddha greeting Potaliya as squire. I suggest that 'landlord' might come closer than householder to capturing the meaning.
So this is the first point of the sutta - you can't walk around dressed like a rich person and claim to have gone forth (take note monks in silk robes!). Potaliya says that he's given up his work and left his money to his children. He takes a back seat in business affairs and relies on his children for food and clothing. We might say 'early retirement on a fat pension'. In contemporary times we find many of our Buddhist brethren concerned with fashion and appearance (especially the craze for having tattoos!). Many of us own property, have careers and families. The point is not so much that the lifestyle is wrong, but that we should not kid ourselves about having gone forth when we have not! If we still have a cell-phone and a computer, and CDs and DVDs; if we own a house or any other substantial property, then we are quite simply householders - we are not monks. In the FWBO we used to talk about semi-monastic lifestyles - somewhere in between. My observation is that most people are more semi than monastic - we like our little luxuries.
That said the teaching which comes next is not concerned with appearances at all. The Buddha does not ask Potaliya to give up his clothes and parasol, doesn't even talk in material terms and he latches onto this phrase "vohārā samucchinna" - giving up business. Note here that Potaliya was using vohāra in the sense of his work, but the Buddha has retained the word but is using it in a more general sense - a rhetorical technique he uses quite often. Potaliya's phrase vohārā smucchinna, then, is used as a synonym of the more familiar word pabbajana - going forth.
The Buddha begins by outlining a system of ethics, and then says that the culmination of his path is, in effect, the going forth from addiction to sensual pleasure. His disciples undertake eight practises in order to give "give up business". These are abandoning killing living beings (pāṇātipāto), taking the not given (adinnādāna), false speech (musāvāda), slander (pisuṇā vācā), greedy desires (giddhilobha), angry blame (nindārosa), consuming-rage (kodhūpāyāso), arrogance (atimāna). The noble disciple goes forth by abandoning the negative quality, and by developing the positive opposite. This set of eight precepts is similar in content and spirit to the ten kusala-kammā, the ten skilful actions which members of the Western Buddhist Order (and incidentally Shingon followers) undertake. There is nothing here about haircuts, or clothing, or meal times and the suggestion is that going forth is synonymous with practising ethics - that is going forth from unwholesome behaviour, speech and mental states.
Why begin with ethics? The text answers this on several levels. Firstly someone killing living beings etc, would blame themselves - ie experience guilt; they would be censured by the wise; and they would be destined for an unhappy rebirth after death. Furthermore killing a living being etc is itself a fetter (saṃyojana) and a hindrance (nīvaraṇa). Lastly killing living beings etc creates taints (āsāva) trouble (vighāta) and distress (pariḷāha), while abstaining does not create them. I see this list as appealing to the reader in different ways. We may not, for instance, be so motivated by rebirth, but we might care about the opinions of our kalyana mitras. Or we might be thinking in terms of trying to not create extra hurdles for ourself in life. However we relate to ethics we need to reflect on how our behaviour impacts on other beings, and how that affects us in return. This is conditionality in the gross sense.
But the Buddha cautions Potaliya by saying that going forth is not complete with ethics. Cutting off of all business affairs - really retiring from the world - is not simply a matter of ethics. Now the discussion becomes more reflective, the Buddha invites Potaliya to consider a number of metaphors for his relationship to pleasurable sensation (kāmā).
I have been making this point over and over for some time now. In order to really be free we must begin to understand the effect of sensations on our minds - especially pleasant sensations. The Buddha, for instance, compares sensual pleasure to a bone cleaned of all meat, but smeared in blood and thrown to a dog. Clearly the bone would be very attractive - would smell and taste nice, but it would not provide any sustenance. A number of similar metaphors follow reflecting the unsatisfactory nature of experiences. They are intended as subjects for reflection, intended as meditation subjects in other words. First ethics to prepare the way, and then meditation from which wisdom can arise. Wisdom is seeing that the conditioned nature of experience (yathābhūta) and results in the cutting off from 'business' entirely and in all ways (sabbena sabbaṃ sabbathā sabbaṃ vohārasamuchhedo).
Potaliya understands the Buddha's message, he sees that although he has retired from his worldly affairs, he has not renounced his addiction to sensual pleasures. Up to this point he has been quite confused in fact. He is now inspired by the example of the samaṇas and respects them, and he becomes a Buddhist by stating that he goes for refuge to the three jewels.
So the emphasis here is not on a monastic lifestyle even though the starting point is the incongruency of a wealthy man believing he has retired from the world when he still has fine clothes. The Buddha never criticises Potaliya directly about what he is wearing. He just offers him a more complete vision of vohārasamuchhedo or giving up business. It's not that Potaliya or other rich merchants like Anāthapiṇḍika could not practise the Dharma. They could, and Anāthapiṇḍika for one attains stream entry. The problem is fooling ourselves about what constitutes the path and where we are on it.
I think this is a sutta which speaks to the contemporary Western Buddhist - we are often very well off materially compared to, for example, our Indian Buddhist brethren. An amusing manifestation of this is when people justify little luxuries by invoking the middle way - meaning that though it is in fact an indulgent luxury, that in view of the massive luxury we live surrounded by it is not so much. This is not the middle way as I understand it, this is the kind of rationalisation that Potaliya was involved in. Be that as it may our first task as Buddhists is not to become homeless and give away our possessions - the real meaning of going forth is a rigorous engagement with ethics, going forth from unwholesome acts of body, speech and mind; followed by serious, prolonged and determined reflection on the nature of experience and our responses to experience. If we are honestly doing this, then we will naturally be more inclined to renunciation, and not concerned with appearances.
* Potaliya Sutta MN 54, PTS M i.359. My own translations. Translated by Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi in the Middle Length Discources p.466f, and in part by Thanissaro on Access to Insight. Pāli text from www.tipitaka.org.My thanks to Joe Shier for drawing my attention to the Potaliya Sutta.
** PED suggests that parasol for chatta would be misleading since the pole of a chatta was fixed to the circumphrance rather than centre of the circle. However the two have the same purpose.