What Makes A Monk A Monk?

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

A question that is beginning to be ask more frequently these days is, “What makes a monk, a monk?” Perhaps more to the point is trying to discern just what is the differences between an individual that takes vows to renounce the “worldly life” and enter a monastery, and those that choose to take monastic vows yet live outside the walls of a monastery or temple. Yes, there is a difference of course. As someone that has experience in both living the monastic vocation within a monastery, and now outside the walls of a more structured practice, I understand why this question arises. And it does not make a difference either if we are talking about a Buddhist or Christian vocation. I also know that it is much more difficult to conform to the structure of a monastic vocation without the driving realities that are more realistic within the confines of the temple life. Without a rigorous daily structure there is little to define the difference between a monastic and lay practice. That is not to say that a lay practice can/should be less demanding. The realities, however, do make a difference. This is why renouncing the ordinary life generally leads to a more secluded community practice. The key though is in the words “rigorous daily structure.” It is the structured daily practice that is more of a key to understand monastic vocations, than is the “where,” I find.

No matter the tradition, school, or religious affiliation any one that has taken monastic vows walks, we wear our own sandals on this spiritual journey. This journey is different from monk to monk and from tradition to tradition, of course. It is my own personal experience walking this path first as a Christian monk, and now as a Buddhist, that I have worn a variety of footwear, but the path on which I journey is much the same. This is often reinforced when we meet other monks and share experiences and come to realize just how similar the monastic life experience is.

To answer this question more directly, I believe that what makes a monk a monk, is determined by the monastic rules they live under. These monastic rules can vary by tradition and religious orders. But they do have much in common. Rules adopted by most Christian monastic communities is that of St. Benedict or St. Augustine. Ch’an and Zen Buddhist monastic schools have adopted their own structures for liturgical practice and life conduct over the ages. “The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk”, by D. T. Suzuki is one such set of instructions. In a more contemporary work “Benedict’s Dharma”, edited by Patrick Henry, is an interesting study of how a Christian rule can be adapted for Buddhist monastic conduct. The take away lesson is that “The Rule” is a building plan. Any monastic rule for practice and conduct has at it’s root core the idea that it is to be eminently practical. A Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast OSB, puts it this way, “What makes monastics of other traditions appreciate Benedict’s teaching is his sharp focus on practice.” The rule for Buddhist monks to live by is a focus on how to awaken to the realities of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and reflected in the Six Perfections that builds the Bodisavvata body-mind. It requires rigorous self-honesty, and support of a dedicated community. We do not stand alone. The monastic rule alerts and confirms the importance of detail in our daily practice, and can be a tangible bridge to an awakened practice. A ready mind is full of generosity, the key ingredient of what supports a monks practice. Those of us walking the path as a monk quickly learns the importance of the expression, “Show, don’t tell.” A deeper realization emerges in a structured practice that points to just how counterculture the monastic life can be. Compassion and deeper awareness moment to moment is woven into the very fabric of the monastic life. Being mindful is the hallmark of a serious spiritual practice, and while a monastery is an ideal place to practice mindfulness, it can be lived anywhere as long as there is a structuring rule for supporting a routine life of contemplative focus.

A contemplative life can be lived by anyone that intentionally chooses to walk a path that is less conventional and ordinary. In order to accomplish this reality it is important to understand that it is a process that combines both a dynamic order that transcends the ordinary-self and translating that order onto the everyday dynamics associated with opening up to the nature of our social-self. These two elements complement each other and helps to point to how we become agents-for-change.

Many facts point in the West to the reality that “traditional” monastics are becoming an endangered species, while the community of seriously dedicated lay practitioners is increasing. The face of the “traditional” Sangha is also changing. This suggests that a growing spiritual practice is being supported in secular society. We see also that monks are moving out into their communities in a growing frequency. Not only occasionally but living and working outside the monastic enclosure. Considering this, another question arises, “Is a monk living outside the monastery still a monk?” And while monks have a support leg within a monastery, and lay practitioners support is in the secular community, a monk living under very specific monastic rules that respects traditional realities, is still a monk. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider how we see the concept of renouncing the ordinary householder life when confronted with 21st century realities, and apply some creative re-description that values monks equally no matter where they reside. It is the structure that is important that acts to transform an ordinary life to an extra-ordinary one, and it is the rule that supports the drive of this transformation, not a place. For those of us that follow the contemplative instinct, be it inside or outside the monastery, it is what we do that matters, not where…..

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