Is Renunciation Necessary In Order To Become A Buddhist Monk?

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

In all of the Buddhist books I read prior to stepping on the practice-path I learned that to become a Buddhist monk it was necessary to leave the householder life and in a sense become homeless.  The English word for this is renunciation.  We renounce one way of life and take up another.  This concept was not new to we as I already took that path many years ago as a Christian monk.  In fact, it is not as hard as it seems if you have the attitude and personal inner vision that is necessary to walk the monastic lifestyle.  In the beginning at least, it is the same no matter your spiritual affiliation.  I say this from personal experience.  The interesting thing is that all of the Buddhist literature that sets renunciation as a requirement for following a monastic path comes from the legacy and historical teachings from an Asian culture that supported the monastic realities.  These realities interconnected both the laity and monks together in a mutual-causal relationship.  Western Christian monasticism took a different structure in that the religious were supported by the Church (institution)  and separated from the lay community by intent.  As Buddhism moved to the West, and Westerners took up Buddhist monastic training, many emulated the past by creating monasteries for that purpose modeled on how the “Asians did it.”   As a result, these monastic training centers have produced spiritual leaders that have engaged a style of Western Buddhism that have advanced cultural authority that will cultivate the ability for Buddhism to move into a more mainstream acceptance along side the other spiritual traditions, in time.   As would be expected in our American culture, innovation is being explored in order to find different methods for achieving the same expectations by creatively redefining how the Buddhist monastic experience can be practiced that challenges the necessity for renunciation.

Let’s explore the role of renunciation as it is reflected in a contemporary context by first looking at the subject historically.  In order to do this we first must look to the East.  In the Mahayana tradition, we must understand how an individual is motivated to step on the monastic path.  While it is not necessary to be a monk in order to follow the Bodhisattva path, monks and nuns do so by taking Bodhisattva vows.  Monastic’s (I will use this term to mean both monks and nuns) take up a formal practice driven by a need to serve others by living a life that has a better chance of subduing one’s self centered ego by using our relationship with others to achieve this goal.   We not only work hard to experience how to be free of our own suffering and unsatisfactoniness, but also help others to realize the same in themselves.  A balance is sought between surrendering worldly material objects and yet using the cultural tools that can bring about a productive and useful life for self and other.  In the Theravada tradition, the basic model of living is to become a  renunciant and live without personal possessions, not becoming involved with the world of finance, being celibate, avoiding unnecessary distractions of the world outside so one can work to achieve self enlightenment.  Theravada live a simple life, though with different degrees of refinement.  They rely heavily on the lay members in their society to provide their basic needs in order to sustain a communal practice within strict guidelines.   It is believed that the merit earned in supporting a monastic’s practice will have direct influence on  one’s own karma.  In the Vajrayana tradition, renunciation supports the inner-mind-state by creating a life free from external concerns so one can remove themselves into the quiet space necessary for their own awakened development.

From my own formal training and study of Zen, (Ch’an or Soto Zen) renunciation does not appear in much of the legacy material.  In practice, however, in a traditional Zen monastery today the formal training and daily life “within the walls” is very similar to that of the Theravada and Tibetan form where the formal student lives within the structures of an austere environment.  This is considered necessary during the formal training process so the monastic is not distracted from a meditative and contemplative practice.   In this way the student/teacher relationship is also intensified.   We must understand that those social and material objects that one gives up are themselves dharmas as they are empty of any power to distract.  They are only hindrances when the body-mind makes them so.  Nothing needs to be renounced because nothing is inherently obstructive.  Nevertheless, removing one’s self to a place of peace, away from “noise”  is helpful for those who’s mind is not practiced yet to avoid inhibitors to their practice.  Yet, it is pragmatic to recognize that living in a materialized world desires and distractions will arise.

The notion  of renunciation in order to live a formal monastic practice is being challenged both within and outside the walls of traditional Buddhist monasticism today,  especially in America.   This experimentation has been underway for the past decade or so.  This has been driven by the desire of some that are struggling to achieve a balance between a sincere intent to study and live formally, yet retain the necessity to stay connected to consequential others.   We live in a more complicated society than did our legacy masters.  Additionally, other significant factors have prevented the reality of  entering into a life behind the walls for some worthy practitioners.  To enter a traditional monastic life requires a monastery that is well established and financially independent so a dedicated focus can be the primary activity, although work within the grounds is included in a well rounded study/work practice.   Don’t misunderstand me, I am not talking about surrendering a simple life for one that is grabbing for the romantic notion of living like a monk but on one’s own terms.

So the questions arises, “Does being a Buddhist monk in formal training require renunciation? If so, what does renunciation mean?  Are there options?”   The answer to these question may depend on who you ask.  There are traditional and progress ideas on best practices when it comes to formal training.  But on a spiritual level, a desire for simplicity remains for many an attractive way to live one’s practice.  The complexity of our technological culture, the frustrations with the economic and political realities, drives many to seek a different path to human flourishing for self and others.  Seeking a simpler life and renouncing material entanglements is not about the notion of freedom.  In fact, it might be about language.  Not only how we speak about a structured monastic life, but how we portray it in the media.  When I encounter others without understanding of what Buddhism really is, even with our interfaith connections, their idea of Buddhism is often based on images they see in the medial of Buddhist monks from Thailand or Tibet.  The reason for this many be that Western monasteries are located out of sight in remote areas of the country.   In my own experience, many Western Buddhist monks only wear robes within the monastery walls, and when they travel outside they are unrecognizable as monks.  The Western monk wearing robes and having a shaved head may not be a required practice today.  Just this reality may bring up questions of what is required to renounce in order to live a life of renunciation.

Renunciation  as an English word has connotations that may be more negative than positive.   It might mean for some that we are asking them to go without something they would really prefer and think necessary for their own well being.  This frame of thinking moves the subject into a discussion of values.  The Pali word that best describes renunciation is bramacharya that literally means “divine conduct”, or “walking with the enlightened.”  Rather then giving something up, choosing a monastic path is walking with those that have awakened to Universal realities instead of walking the path of worldly distractions.   No, it is not necessary to become a monastic to formally practice and engage other awakened individuals.  But this path may be more challenging.

In a weekend retreat, we do encounter renunciation by experiencing the structure necessary for a successful retreat: schedules, parameters, precautions and even precepts.  These kinds of restrictions come from the outside so we can develop the interior self.  While there may be a tug from our ego in the beginning, we come to value these restrictions as being necessary for our personal advancement.   In this type of interplay between  ourselves and the object we desire to achieve, we learn to distinguish between the one that desires and the object of desire.  Ultimately this struggle needs to be transcended.  We give up in order to receive.  This is wisdom.  To achieve readiness through the process of understanding, validating our experiences that gains us wisdom, we awaken to the reality that there was nothing to renounce in the first place.  But we can not get there without some sacrifice.  In a way, renunciation is the release we need to move beyond the ordinary.  The process begins on the outside and moves inside and becomes the natural order of things.

Ultimately we have to work though this duality.  We need to see that our formal intentional practice, the community we serve, our student/teacher relationship, the Buddhist tools we need to acquire that supports either a monastic or lay practice, are all threads in the garment we call Buddhism.  How we each embrace this challenge may be different among us, but the difference between us is just another illusion.   The answer to the question, “Can we have it both ways?” may be yes, but it is not what we think.  The Four Noble Truths holds the answer.  When we understand the lessons between the Third and Fourth Truth, and the bridge we trod from the Fourth, we awaken to the reality that there is nothing to give up and nothing to gain.  We express the Universe just like it is.  Where we do it makes a world of difference.  The Buddha’s awakening that points to direct experience of our own Universal expression is the cornerstone of Buddhism.  There are many paths up the mountain, and the chose is ours.  The 21st century gives us more paths from which to make this choice, perhaps.  Times change, cultural expectations change, language we use to teach dharma changes, but the spiritual truths and practices still provides a path away from unsatisfactoriness.  From the outside it may look to others like you are doing without many things, but inside we have just what we need.

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