What Makes A MONK, A MONK?

This Dharma talk by Rev. David Astor Sensei was given on November 14, 2020 in the Order of Engaged Buddhist’s Fall retreat.]

The question before us in this retreat is, “What makes a monk, a monk.”   

The term monk, and spiritual practice, are two things held together as both subject and object, although they differ much from each other at the same time.  For the one is like our perfecting the self-observation of our universal nature as Buddhists, and the other like the path we practice to understand that, yet they both are moving towards a single unified purpose: the salvation of our very being as we contemplate the mystery of what it means to develop spiritual filters through which to view the world around us in an extraordinary way. Monasticism is very much an extraordinary absorbing way of living a spiritual focused existence different from a lay spiritual practice that is generally less demanding.  This is not to say a lay practice can not be as focused, but it is about the nature of the practice and dedication to a monastic vocation that defines most of the differences. This nature of a monastic practice is the same no matter of one’s tradition, independent of a religious or  philosophical affiliation. 

My personal monastic experience as both a Christian Franciscan following a monastic vocation and a Buddhist, now an itinerant monk and Cleric, has taught me that, from my point of view, while the narrative of each practice is different, the monastic calling and psychosocial characteristic that stepping on this counter culture spiritual path is the same from a human perspective.  The mental processes that a person goes through in order to decide if a monastic vocation is what they are being called toward is the same, the focus of what one is called to is what is different.  This is why Thomas Merton, the Benedictine (Cistercian) monk and spiritual mystic, and the Dalai Lama were so attracted to each other as they witnessed in each other the same spiritual mind although their individual objective focus were different. 

A word on salvation for a moment. You don’t hear many Buddhist teachers use this term. It smacks of Judeo-Christian dogma, I know. It sets my Dharma Brother Wayne Sensei’s teeth on edge. But there are now a few Western Buddhist teachers using the term because most of their Western students come from this background and can better relate to how it is being used along side Buddhist principles. Our Sub- Prior, Rev. Luis Lista Sensei, and I use it some times in our private sessions.  The Buddhist principle I relate it to comes from the Four Noble Truths and originates in the Third Truth and is put in practice in the Fourth Truth. As we develop a dedicated practice focused on human flourishing, we are working to eliminate suffering in our lives. The more we begin to rid ourselves of the behaviors and mental frame of mind causing suffering we are moving toward our own salvation away from suffering and the inhibitors that keeps us from an awakened mind. This is why it is called a noble practice and why the Four Noble Truths is the key for liberation.  The major difference between Christian and Buddhist usage is for Christians salvation comes from outside the self, and for Buddhists salvation comes from within the self.  Our Buddhist practice IS our salvation no matter the degree of how it is achieved. 

The Latin word for monk is monachus a noun, which means a person who practices religious asceticism by monastic living who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order.  Well, this definition can certainly be used for a Christian or Buddhist monk really. Although we know that how monks practice and live in the 21st century is often different from those in the dark ages. 

But from my point of view this is only a part of how a monk can be described. The key word here is ‘described’.  The English language is limited to words that are either persons places or things. We can definitely describe a monk in any of these categories. But our question is, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  The raging question today among Buddhist that follow a “monastic calling” is what is a real monk. Most will say a monk must leave their material world behind and step inside the walls of a traditional monastery. If a monk is not cloistered in this fashion, they are not real monks. Today this is being challenged. My teacher, Eubanks Sensei, and his teacher used the expression, “The world is my monastery.”  Even Christian monastic orders today do not strictly fall within this category anymore.  So the question again, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  

While we can use traditional language to answer this question effectively, I want to share some ideas from my own experience that go beyond the ordinary.  They reflect the nature of what it means to be human. It’s about self discovery and about how the Universe is speaking to us in a silent whisper. So we can say that a monk is “one that’s ready” to listen. And more profoundly, it’s about the journey. Speaking about this journey is not an easy matter let alone how the Universe is speaking to us. It can be said the Universe is everywhere so where do I start the journey?  If it is everywhere do I need a journey at all?  If the Universe is everywhere then it is very close to me, in some mysterious way, it might be my own self. 

A monk is one who the Universe is especially speaking to in order to enter into this dilemma and  this mystery. The Universe is said to be found by our true nature, when we are ready, that is united by an intimate bond of knowing. So this is the journey, the journey to find the Universe within, and by doing so we begin a life long encounter with the spiritual-self one that has been hiding in plain sight all along. The varies styles of monastic practice in moments of solitude, silence and contemplation dispose our Universal natures for this mysterious destiny. To say yes to a monastic style of practice is a deeply personal choice we are driven to experience even if we are not fully conscious of why. A monk is one who is driven to answer this burning WHY. 

I have been very cautious for many years now, as was my teacher, in when and how to use the word “truth”.  But the very meaning of Dharma does not hide its relationship with this simple word. But for a monk, truth is a part of the mosaic on which our journey treads. Use of the word truth has been so abused that it has lost some of its impact on our minds I think.  We may have lost much of its value. I’m intentionally placing the emphasis on the word value and not meaning. A critical distinction. Take a moment to absorb this. The true is what is real. It is true because it is. And that is what the monk is seeking: reality. He seeks that which is.  But he does not seek truth merely as a concept, or as an object. He seeks the existential truth that is only found by entering into the mysterious actuality of life itself. He seeks the truth that is possessed when it is rightly lived and making it our own by doing good. Our monastic practice is working to make ourselves real. Only by building on truth can we build the foundation for awakened moments. Considering the importance of this aspect of a monastic practice, it is my experience that achieving this relationship with truth is best done in the real world and not living an isolated life behind walls. The OX Herding Pictures place much importance on this reality. This focus on a monastic practice is important for all those called to walk this path no matter their rank or standing in a structured Order.  Once we step on the path of vowing to live according to a more rigorous way of turning inward we have accepted the challenge of opening up an inner dialogue that drives the exploration of finding our true selves. It’s both that simple, that complex, and that rewarding. 

The various practices of monastic spirituality are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish an inner spiritual work that needs to be done to make his awakening real to how the Universe is. When these monastic practices are misused, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his mind in resistance to hearing this silent whisper that enriches our very being. It is about emptying a man of himself in order to realize what is really meant by emptiness. 

The final answer of “what makes a monk, a monk” has nothing to do with the clothes we wear, or the building we practice in, or the title we are known by, or the lineage we are associated with, or the words we recite in ritual practice, or even what we think of ourselves. Monks live and die like all human beings. It is about the integrity and the special jewel we have been given at birth that has led us to explore this path and journey in the first place. Perhaps we did not find the path at all but the path found us. The reason may never be revealed or known to us. But it happened, and if genuine, is a spiritual gift very few have discovered.  

And finally, let me say that any serious spiritual practice and journey can be profound and an awakened experience, and not reserved exclusively for monastics living a monk’s life style. I have know many monks, both Christian and Buddhist, that were ill prepared and fitted to being know as a monk. Many see it as a role they wish to perform as they strut on the world stage. Some have touched this extraordinary special spiritual gem and lived out a life of devout practice and truly displaying the very nature of the Three Pure Precepts or the lessons of Jesus in the sermon on the mount as ordinary private individuals or in lay practice. 

My final question to you then is, “What type of monk will you become and will you be ready to hear that silent whisper in the silence of your everyday practice?”  It’s about confronting your mind and conscience in a room alone. But then we must open the door and lead the OX home. There isn’t a moment to loose.  Oh, and don’t forget that the OX has to be fed too. 

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