Considerations on the Monastic Vocation

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

“To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society…”

Thomas Merton from Thoughts In Solitude

Living a traditional monastic life could be viewed as being very scandalous in that a monk, Buddhist or Christian for that matter, seems to have no specific task that could be considered a job in the secular sense of the word.  That can be a mistake if you think monks are free from work tasks in order to spend all their time in meditation and scholastic activities.  In reality though, the life in a monastic community has many tasks and organized routines so their world is very much similar to the social life like everyone else’s.  This is especially true when the monastic community is living outside the walls of the monastery.  This kind of social life can become complicated and overly active in a way.  Living as a monk does not shield you from all the life challenges of an ordinary life.  In reality it is filled with all the ordinary life tasks plus enhanced practice ones too.  A growing number of monks now work outside their houses in order to share in the support of their community.  The monk is not defined by his tasks, job or secondary profession, but by his commitment to his practice as shared with his dharma brothers under the guidance of his sensei.  In a certain sense the monk is supposed to live an unstructured life because his mission is to be ready to engaged the dharma in whatever form it is presented in the moment, with little family or social distractions.  This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a deeper level of awareness, an awakened consciousness which is not usually possible in an active secular world these days.  In this 21st century we have so many distractions to keep us from our practice.

I do not mean to imply that the secular lifestyle is somehow totally about self centered priorities, or that there can be no real understanding of the importance of developing an interior awareness.  But it does mean that more immersion and absorption in worldly business will take away from a contemplative mind state that is of utmost importance in gaining readiness for experiencing awakened moments.  There is much to be said about a sustained practice over one that experiences fits and starts.  Monks are not weekend warriors, but seek to be free from what William Faulkner called “The same frantic steeplechase toward nothing” which can be the essence of a Buddhist practice when engaged for a few hours a month.

As a monastic community lives together, either in groups or alone but connected, they do so with a sense that they are not separate from the lay community they live side by side with.  We should avoid any notion of “inside or outside.”  The concept of “separation from the world” that can arise in a monastic community is yet another illusion.  Even for those monks within the walls of a monastery/temple.  We must never forget we are social-selves and agents for change.  We do not take vows to become a different species of being.

The term vocation is not often heard in Buddhist monasticism.  The word, nonetheless, is an appropriate one all the same to refer to a person’s intentional actions that brings them to want to seek to live as a “Monk in the world” as Brother Teasdale put it.   A vocation is not simply to be a monk, but to work together in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own way of characterizing our practice that transitions from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary.  Our vocation adds a special “extra” to our ordinary practice.  This means that we should not just passively engage our practice alone, but to actively participate in engaging others by choosing the reality that is our Universal expressions.  It is truly grabbing the bull-by-the-horns that creates the struggle necessary to awaken to our Buddha natures.   We are even moved to share the work of creating the reality of our identity so we can better share this awakened wisdom with others; the mission of each monk’s ministry.   The life our vocation moves us towards is a labor that requires sacrifice, risks, and much doubt along the way.  It also demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to our Bodhisattva vows as we engage each situation with renewed energy that fortifies our contemplative body-mind which is required for a dedicated spiritual inner life.

We come to have gratitude when we discover a form of freedom from ourselves, which are signs that we have found our vocation and are living up to it even through everything else may seem to be a challenge.  There is only one vocation, not many vocations.  Although we each seek to find the unique thread in the vocational cloth that binds us together.   As a monk, we each wear the robe of liberation.  Our challenge is to awaken to this reality.

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