Why Monasticism

Rev. Haryo Young, M.O.B.C.

In his “Rules for Meditation”, Great Master Dogen asks us: “Why are training and enlightenment differentiated since the Truth is universal?” This is a restatement of what was his central spiritual question as a young man, that being, essentially, “If we are enlightened from the first, why do we need to train?” The answer Dogen found became a cornerstone of his teaching, namely, the unity of endless training and enlightened action as expressed in ordinary daily life. In other words, there is no separate “training” that leads to a separate state of “understanding” that exists beyond or apart from the training itself. Practice is not a means to an end but an expression of wisdom from the very beginning. The more one trains the more one becomes conscious of this relationship and enters into it without discriminating. To adopt this fundamental attitude of mind is necessary for one’s religious life to grow within the framework of Serene Reflection meditation and practice.

But Dogen’s initial question leads us naturally to another, for even though a person commits herself to Buddhism and accepts the value of meditation and training, the practical matters of how to practice arise. In Buddhism there are lay members who train in the everyday world and those who enter the priesthood (become monks) and undergo formal training. The phrase ‘leaving the world’ is sometimes used in reference to those who have entered a monastery, but except for a small percentage of monastics, ‘leaving the world’ indicates more of an attitude of mind then a lack of contact with those outside the monastery gates. In fact, the monastery is a world of sorts, and not immune to expressions of worldliness, including religious worldliness. If properly run, it is a setting that facilitates the intentions of those who have chosen to forgo a variety of normal human endeavors in order to concentrate on and fulfill certain religious aspirations. It is a personal choice to practice in a particular way, but it is not the only way.

Regardless of how we practice, whether in a monastery or in lay life, we all have to decide how best to arrange our lives and free time, factoring in the importance we give to our religious lives. This is especially true for the lay person who has more choices than someone in a monastery, where much of the day is predetermined by the schedule. The layperson must choose what type of employment to have, whether to marry and raise a family, whether to become involved in social and political affairs, etc., and, for some, whether it would be wise at some point in life to become a monk. It is this last concern, the question of transitioning from being a lay person to a monastic that I would like to address in this article.

A person considering entering a monastery may ask herself, “If,” as Dogen writes, “‘the Truth is universal,’ and ‘all activity is permeated with pure Zazen,’ why change anything? Why, if the ‘Eternal/Truth’ is everywhere, should I have to go somewhere, such as a monastery, to find it?” As one who did choose the monastic route, I know that monasticism can be both appealing and seemingly necessary for some people. However, in whatever I might say on the subject, it is not my intention to try to convince anyone of the value of monasticism for them. Nor is it my desire to imply that true training can be practiced only in special circumstances, or that a layperson living an ordinary life in the world is cut off from the deeper levels of understanding. I do hope to shed some light on why some people have a calling to monasticism and what the monastic life offers from their point of view.

In order to appreciate why someone would enter a monastery, I think it is essential to grasp how vitally important religious questions can become for them. The average person has concerns and interests that revolve around family, employment, social relations, finances, etc. His or her spiritual life is just one area among many to which he or she must direct their attention, and it is not uncommon for more practical matters to end up getting the larger share. For some individuals, however, the investigation and cultivation of their religious understanding of life and of themselves can come to overshadow all other interests. Until there are answers to the questions that have grown within them, there can be a lack of real interest in that which does not address these heartfelt inquiries. To proceed further in life without some resolution of these questions can feel as unwise as erecting a building on shifting sands, and the need arises to understand life from a perspective that is deeper and less limited than their current perspective is felt to be.

It is not uncommon for a sense of urgency in regard to the above to arise very quickly as a result of some personal tragedy, such as the death of a family member, or a brush with our own mortality. At these times, especially, that which we may have taken for granted is shown to us as impermanent and capable of vanishing in an instant. We may ask, “What is real? What is of lasting value? What am I, and what will become of my life if I continue as I am now? Will the fruits of my life reveal a human life well lived? The feelings and opinions that I held as almost absolute at one time have been seen to be incomplete or shallow through the eye of experience. Surely there must be some greater wisdom than my own changeable opinions. How can I find this Truth within me, knowing it for certain and not having to borrow another’s experience?” These thoughts and many others can impress themselves upon a person to such a degree that no other serious, long-term desire can compete. One can lose interest in other things not because they are unworthy of attention, but because of something else that keeps intruding. These religious questions can have perhaps as many forms as there are people, but they typically express a desire to understand oneself and life from a deeper or clearer point of view. For the sake of discussion I will call these motivations “personal” and “intellectual” in that they express our individual longings and discomforts which we hope will be assuaged when we finally come to know that which we feel we must.

There are, however, other forms of motivation that can be just as powerful, if not more so. One can have a sense of being drawn into the religious life by something greater than oneself, or by something within oneself that seeks fruition, and our responding ‘yes’ comes from a place that partakes of more than just ‘our’ personal longings. It may seem like an awakened instinct that has a life of its own, and patiently waits until we align our selves with it. Should we take a road less traveled, and are more apart from family and friends as they would like, it is not out of judgment or rejection of life as it is, but because of the gravitational nature of being called down a certain path, the walking of which necessarily rules out the walking of other valuable paths.

Having aspects not unlike some of the non-logical but powerful aspects of human love I would characterize these motivations as intuitive and of the heart, as opposed to the first type I mentioned which are more rational and of the mind. Being heart-mind beings, and because heart and mind must go together, both forms of inspiration should be present to a certain degree – and they usually are.

But what I have described so far speaks more to an attitude of mind where one’s religious life is primary, and such an attitude of mind, and the blossoming of that religious life, is fundamentally independent from the circumstance of being a layperson in the world or a monk or priest in a monastery. So the question still exists: why would one chose the latter?

I can offer a few reasons why, at some point, one might choose monasticism. First, for some people, there is no good reason not to. They could practice in the world, but as they have no major responsibilities that require honoring, such as a relationship, children to raise, or outstanding debts, the opportunity to be with others of a similar mind and purpose seems too valuable to pass up. They could train in the world simply to prove the point that it can be done, but the obvious place that awaits them in monasticism is too clear to ignore, given their internal longing that a monastery is, in principle, designed to assist them in fulfilling.

Another reason stems from the fact that despite our earnest endeavors and highest intentions, except for a rare few, it is very difficult to stay on course in the midst of those pulls of modern life that aren’t particularly sensitive to the idea of humbling the self in order to know something greater. It is one thing to genuinely want to know Truth, and another to do that which it takes to find it–and who among us starts out a saint? Recognizing one’s humanity, the focus and reduction of distractions a monastery offers can look very attractive. One accepts the restrictions of such a life because the positive benefits outweigh the challenges they represent.

For some, there arises a wish to have a teacher, either formally or informally. A master-disciple relationship is the most formal, and is the path I am most familiar with. My own experience was that of being a disciple and training in a monastic setting, but I realize that these two dimensions, discipleship and monasticism, aren’t necessarily linked together in all traditions.

In any case, there are those who, for reasons logical or intuitive, are drawn to the path of formal discipleship. One might feel that having a flesh and blood teacher who has more experience, and who can point out when we are wandering off the track, is likely to be more effective than some other means, such as trying to learn from the writings of present or past teachers. At times aspects of our spiritual questions are so unique to us as individuals, or to our circumstances, that even the best of written teachings can miss important subtleties of what we are presently grappling with. Also the written word is open to interpretation, so while we may know ourselves reasonably well, where we lack understanding, or when our old habits are working upon us, we may misunderstand and misapply what we read.

The teacher also provides more than just spiritual advice on how to train. The willingness to follow the master’s teachings is an outward, active expression of the interior effort of letting go we practice in formal meditation. Having a commitment to a master intertwined with a basic commitment to every-minute meditation ups the ante on ourselves since following the master includes following not only their spiritual advice, but more mundane, practical requests about which we may have our clung-to opinions. In other words, interaction with a master can challenge us in more ways than we would challenge ourselves, or than we would figure out from reading.

The decision to enter such a relationship is, of course, a very personal one and, as this is so, I will say no more than I have already. In any case it is a choice to be made after much reflection, for although great benefit can come from it, there are aspects of it that can be misunderstood. It is a complex relationship, and aspects of it are as mysterious as aspects of meditation itself. It is more a relationship of the heart than the head, although the intellect is not discarded, and both sides of the relationship are an art learned from experience. For some, if not most, the master-disciple relationship may seem unnecessary, but for others it is seen as a rare opportunity.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that my discussion of monasticism is not an effort to portray it as inherently superior to any other form of training. The price of Truth is true training, and true training exists wherever a sincere heart has the courage to accept the next step, whatever that might be. There have been times when I have wondered how anyone could possibly train effectively in the world, just as there have been times when I have wondered why anyone would ever try to do so in a monastery! Ultimately, it is the quality of our internal practice that matters most, and the important thing is to take responsibility for our own lives, assume others are doing the same, do the best we can whoever and wherever we are, and be grateful for the fact that the means of training are indeed thousandfold.

Revised and reprinted from “The Journal of Shasta Abbey”, vol. XVII, no. 1. (1986)