rory wrote: I don't understand their worldview at all. They love being poor, have big issues about sex, and have this sense of 'sin'. I have absolutely no idea what that is.
The ideal in Buddhism is to be penniless, celibate and mindful of your three karmas of body, speech and mind so as to avoid all misdeeds.
The later developments of justifying your wealth as a necessity for a modest standard of living, being on the fence with the brahma-caryā
(celibacy) thing and thinking you can wipe away your negative karma with a few prayers does not seem to have been the Buddha's original intent.
The original idea was that even as a layperson you should be generous with your possessions, maintain continence and actively work to avoid all transgressions of your precepts while regularly confessing your misdeeds to a pure monk.
I see things differently.
I don't think it is correct to say "The ideal in Buddhism is to be penniless, celibate and mindful of your three karmas of body, speech and mind so as to avoid all misdeeds." This is not to say that some opposite value is more correct, because that is obviously not the case.
If money were to come into your hand, would your Buddhist practice compel you to part with the money? Celibacy is an ideal only because sex tends to enhance sensual craving - not because sex is bad per se. Mindfulness can be carried out in any environment, although there are certain conditions that make it easier to carry out - like when you are parted from stimuli that distract you. My point is, poverty, celibacy, even mindfulness, are not goals in themselves.
The Ideal in Buddhism is to attain enlightenment and end suffering. Going into homelessness is A means to that goal, although from the perspective of the Lotus, it is an expedient that does not actually lead to annuttara samyak sambodhi. Bear in mind, we are in a Nichiren forum and Nichiren Lotus Buddhism frames this discussion. But I think the general gist of this statement holds for all Buddhism.
As for the Buddha's original intent - the Buddha never went out of his way to alienate lay persons. He in fact went out of his way to praise them in their support of the sangha. And they could support the Sangha even more effectively if they possessed wealth - like Sudatta. It is the wealth and generosity of lay persons that has enabled the continuation of the sangha and propagation of dharma. The Buddha's assembly was composed of four groups of people - nuns, monks, laywomen and laymen. All four are necessary for the Buddhadharma to flow. You should be careful in your statements lest you find yourself impugning your fellow Buddhists.
Also, the benefits of laypersons for supporting the Sangha was not some later corruption of Buddhadharma as you are suggesting - this was the cultural value of the Buddha's time. It was widely believed in the Buddha's time that you supported ascetics who had taken to the homeless life to overcome the sufferings of life and death one could expect karmic rewards spiritual as well as material nature. Remember that the Buddha's order was only one of many. How much more the benefit if the support was directed to the Sangha. This was not just some later compromise to make supporters feel good but a long standing cultural value in India at that time.
As far as I am concerned, if Buddhism ever did disparage lay persons and the endeavors of their lives, it was wrong, and that tendency was rightfully excised in the Mahayana.
I could go on about how the distinctions between lay and sangha are artificial, how early Buddhism is marked by cultural idiosyncrasies of BCE India and rightfully went through a process of distillation, imho, that released the Buddha wisdom from the constraints of a particular culture.
In the Perfect Teaching, all of our activities are opened to reveal the function of Buddha. This does not give license to do anything you want - but it does present a very different view of human activity than the interpretations of Buddhadharma you voice.
For the Mahayana ideal of lay life, see the Vimalakirti Sutra.