The debate began in 1964, to the best of my knowledge, when Winston King published "In the Hope of Nibbana; an Essay on Theravada Buddhist Ethics." There he describes a split soteriology (that is, two distinct goals) within Buddhism:
- that of the laity (heaven or a better human rebirth) and
- that of monks (nirvana).
His findings are supported, moreover, in the textual work in Richard Gombrich's "Theravada Buddhism." There (pp. 73-4) he states that, "... the Buddha expected those seriously interested in attaining salvation to become monks or nuns, that meditation was considered to be normally impossible for laity, and that much of the Buddha's teaching was only given to the Sangha." Gombrich gives the example of the very moving Anathapindikovada Sutta, in which Anathapindika, a lay patron of the Buddha is visited by Sariputta on his deathbed.
Sariputta attends to Anathapindika with calm and soothing words, to which the layman responds that he is suffering greatly and near death. Having heard this, Sariputta gives a long teaching on non-clinging as the final training for the dying man.
There is no indication that the monks follow Anathapindika's suggestion, but rather they leave and soon after he dies and is reborn in Tusita Heaven, one of the highest realms of rebirth in Buddhist cosmology.
When this was said, Anathapindika the householder wept and shed tears. Ven. Ananda said to him, "Are you sinking, householder? Are you foundering?"
"No, venerable sir. I'm not sinking, nor am I foundering. It's just that for a long time I have attended to the Teacher, and to the monks who inspire my heart, but never before have I heard a talk on the Dhamma like this."
"This sort of talk on the Dhamma, householder, is not given to lay people clad in white. This sort of talk on the Dhamma is given to those gone forth."
"In that case, Ven. Sariputta, please let this sort of talk on the Dhamma be given to lay people clad in white. There are clansmen with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away through not hearing [this] Dhamma. There will be those who will understand it."
"Elsewhere," Gombrich continues, "the Buddha says that monks have a duty to show laymen the way to heaven; note that he does not say the way to nibbana [= S. nirvana]." The sutta he refers to there is the Sigalovada Sutta, described as 'The Layperson's Code of Discipline.' The only thing I can find there is in the Buddha's reinterpretation of the devotion to the six directions (a ritual performed by laypeople in his day) to mean a set of devotions (or duties) to six sets of people:
- East = Parents
- South = One's teacher
- West = Husband or Wife
- North = Clansman (or friends)
- Nadir = Servants and Employees
- Zenith = Ascetics and Brahmins
To come... In brief, I think there is something important here, the beginning of a 'wedge' of sorts between the hightest good of the worldly life (heaven) and that of the renunciate/bhikkhu (nirvana). Those working to classify Buddhist Ethics as a 'virtue ethics' have tried to argue this wedge away.
Perhaps everyone does seek nirvana, but many simply accept that it won't come in this life. I don't know. It certainly raises questions for me - and I'll be interested to here what others think.