There is both significant differences and many similarities between living one’s life either as a lay practitioner guided by the Buddhist precepts, or as a monk living by their Bodhisattva vows. However, when one chooses to step onto the monastic path their intentions move toward a vocational life one that is dedicated to both community service and the path to personally awakening to the understanding of what it means to be an agent-for-change. The West has many centuries of experience with the monastic tradition that reflects “a religious calling.” Buddhism has even more experience with monastic formation tracing its origins directly to Siddhartha himself, although without the theological references . As Buddhism moves to the West it has been challenged by how its leadership and teachers are to be developed, especially in the past decade as more Western teachers emerge to take their place along side their Asian masters.
Yet, a kind of separation is still to be witnessed between those that have taken vows and moved within the walls of a temple/monastery and those that are considered secular teachers who’s vows do not require “leaving the householder life behind.” Traditionally, a Buddhist monk took the path of a mendicant (bhikkhu) and lived apart from the society from which they came, while at the same time not being totally disconnected from the outside world either. This is changing in the West as more and more Buddhist monks have reemerged from behind their secluded quarters and taken up a very visible presence utilizing modern communication tools to teach the dharma. But we must not forget that Siddhartha was very involved in balancing the practices of one that has transitioned from an ordinary social life to one that also engages that life style from the perspective of an enlightened mind.
This new development may be challenging the definition of the monastic practice, the nature of our vows, and the life styles we have chosen to live in community. The questions are: What is the difference between a Buddhist monk living in a temple, and one that has taken up residence within a community setting? Is their a difference? Does the Bodhisattva vow and taking up the responsibly of a bhikkhu require you to go inside the walls of a more traditional monastery? Is a monk that does not live in a monastery, but has not taken off the kesa, considered less of a monk? Does a monk that lives “outside” fulltime to be considered a part time monk in practice? The answers to these question may just come down to one’s point of view. In my own experience, I have discovered that I do not have to live within the confines of a monastery to live a traditional monastic life, although I have found that it is much harder to do so.
The Order of Engaged Buddhists was formed during this time of monastic transformation with the purpose of providing a Buddhist monastic formation structure (Rule) that honors both the traditional realities in monastic practice and scholastic study, while at the same time recognizing the importance for teachers to engage their ministry among the people we wish to service. There is no clear path recognized yet as to how to accomplish this and still provide the opportunity for those that experience the call to Buddhist vocations. There are opportunities for lay teachers that have achieved a degree of scholastic achievement and given permission to teach that show dedication and have chosen not to take the more committed path of a monk, thus not taking monastic vows. In America, however, for one to be recognized as a Buddhist sanctioned by there tradition to function as a “cleric/priest” and all the privileges our society recognizes as appropriate with that title, monastic vows is often what is necessary, in order to avoid any ambiguity. I think this will change as a more defined process of education of Buddhist clergy emerges over time.
OEB is unique in that we open our monastic community to those individuals that our either itinerant monks with ordination certificates, those that have received ordination from other traditions (Christian) and wish to transition to the Buddhist path more formally, or those with an advanced Buddhist practice that desire and believe the monastic path is appropriate for them after a period of discernment, yet have mitigating life circumstances that prevent them from following a formal monastic life in a monastery/temple. OEB bridges the gap between a more secluded life away from everyday distractions, and one of engaging the dharma within our communities in a ministry unique to one’s skills and capabilities, yet living a formal contemplative life in either a home (Chapter House) or within a priory.
Discernment Within OEB:
1. State of Mind
It is our firm belief that stepping on the monastic path is a spiritual action no matter if it is a Buddhist or Christian vocation. When we make the decision to take this action, it comes not because we know completely what we are doing, but from trust that what we are doing will be made clear when we awaken to the very nature of our intentions. It comes from a deep drive that is unique to our human natures that seeks the spirit and wonder of the universe and our place in it, our very universal expression made aware to us when our mind is ready. This process of discernment of vocation can leave one undecided at best and distraught at worst. The path can seem obscure and the destination unclear. So, how does one go about searching out and discerning what we are calling a vocation?
Essentially, discernment means to distinguish or to sort out. To discern if living the life of a Buddhist monk, and all that is expected, is to sort through the desires that are motivating you and what is behind these thoughts and feelings. It is a process that focuses on who you most deeply are. In discernment one discovers the best way for them to live a more structures life in the dharma and to live each day with the vows one is asking to live their life by. Being a monk is a state of body-mind that is learning how to leave the “old you” behind and embracing the new person that is learning to perfect generosity in order to act out of compassion in a refined way. In this state of mind, one steps on the path as an aspiring Bodhisattva. One becomes a Buddhist monk though their own intentions, it is not a sacrament nor is it something that is transmitted by the teacher/master at the stage of novice.
Discernment is for the individual not the observer. Although how the individual reflect their mind’s readiness should be clear to those observing the discernment process. Again, it is the individual that articulates their intent and those responsible for deciding their readiness to consent. Each individual brings something unique to the situation of discernment. So an open mind is essential for the process that reflects encompassing and corrective action to work.
For the spirit of the process to achieve positive outcomes, it is essential that one’s intentions speaks to the individual in both the outer and inner movements of their lives. The internal factors (awareness, contemplation, meditation) decode the meaning and purpose of how one begins to engage the idea of how the monastic life will change their perspective in their relationship with others, as well as their own self-transformation. It is important that a clear picture is understood before they make the commitment to step on the Bodhisattva path. It is never a question of how the mind is reflecting the image of what an ideal Buddhist monk’s life is like and allowing the ego to grasp a desire to want it, rather it is a question of one’s own freedom and maturity to discern how best to help others and how to respond to those thoughts with the desire to live a life from the state of generosity.
The degree of which an individual has developed the inner dimensions of a spiritual practice will guide them in this process. The Buddha stated very clearly that the best guide for us is ourselves. Discernment is about listening to these guided moments during our contemplative periods. In retrospect, those of us that have experienced this process can see more clearly that their own discernment was centered around their ability to deeply contemplate this path, by realizing how it is a service to others, and the feeling of joy that fulfills the heart and drives a dedicated practice.
It is helpful for any new person considering a monastic life to know that even after they make the first decision to enter the period of formation, they will have time to test their choice in incremental stages. Discernment happens slowly and it is ongoing. Rather than receiving an answer all at once, one senses little steps. By responding to those small movements a larger picture unfolds. It, perhaps, is the beginning process for developing an awakened mind.
This brings us to possibly the most concerning aspect of discernment: trust. It is not enough to believe that our thoughts on sincere. It may seem obvious, but both believing in our own sincerity and listening to our teachers can be somewhat dead ended unless we trust in the process. Some stumble in discerning their vocation because they want to know to be sure before they act. With time, attentiveness, patience, desire, and readiness, the sense of one’s vocation will also be revealed. Just wanting to be a monk is not enough, The journey is never promised to be easy but it is worth making the world our monastery.
Commentary On Buddhist Monastic Vocations:
One of the major strengths of OEB is how it honors two Buddhist traditions. Xi-Ken Shi’s lineage is both Ch’an and Soto Zen with a dose of neo-pragmatic philosophical thought, and Shi Yao Xin’s is Ch’an – Pure Land influenced by the esoteric yet grounded in 21st century realities. We also recognize the importance of the spiritual element that is to be considered absolutely necessary for monastic vocations structuring a life dedicated to living a more formal Buddhist practice as a contemplative monk that balances monastic responsibilities along side being engaged in our local communities needs as opportunities arise. The richness of OEB is that our monastic community is an international one. Thus, various cultural expectations and differences often drive our social and individual practice structure. How wonderful a monk’s life can be, especially for us Westerners engaged in creatively defining how one can live our vows respecting the traditions of the past but balanced with the realities imposed by modernity.
We believe in the stability that comes from well defined routines and practices allowing us a since of freedom to enter into it and let it take hold of our ordinary daily activity so we can focus more clearly on each moment. Stability of practice gives us a place to rest our distractions so we can ‘get on with it.’ What is interesting is that such a defined routine (Rule) does not offer a cozy vision of what it means to be a Buddhist monk. I have always thought that novices have the right to a little romance in the very beginning of their formation, but they can not stay there, and it is the daily-rule-of-practice that relentlessly breaks that down. This is where the ‘ideal meets the real.’ Our practice routines and rituals are the physical reality. It is the ‘other’ being taken into our lives as the link to objectivity, the physical manifestation of reality. It is the finger pointing to the moon, to recite a Zen phrase. What is the ‘end game’ of our monastic community? What is the ‘end game’ of my practice as a monk? I might suggest that the chief motivation for our shared common monastic life is to live harmoniously together so that we can share this gift with others. Our formation and vocation is a gift. And each monk is a gift to each other in the Order.
This gift of a life lived by vows is a wealth taken by us in order to be shared. Our study life, our ministry, making ourselves accessible to others, our private contemplative practice, and our community practice with each other is a treasure. This treasure is the foundation of everything that we do, if we are to do it with happiness and charity of mind. This is the foundation by which we live this life with continuous generosity. But there is a balance that must be achieved too. The word ‘monk’ comes from the Greek ‘monos’ which typically means alone. Stephen Batchelor in an existential approach to Buddhism, uses the expression ‘alone with others.’ That is the balance we try to achieve as monks. We fortify ourselves in a room alone in order to engage fully with others.
But there is a trap, too, for those of us that do not have the comfort of temple walls to protect us from life entanglements. We can fall into the trap of deciding that our vocational practice is a favor we are doing for other people. A monastic vocation is to be considered a gift to the one that intentionally declares his intentions to live a dedicated practice for the benefit all beings. It is at the moment we stop seeing that, when we see the thanklessness of it, when we feel ignored or abused or overworked, which all may be legitimate feelings at times, that we lose sight of this wonderful gift of vocations. If we can just keep our mind’s-eye on this gift, then we can keep it off ourselves and the need to tell ourselves that we are extraordinary and deserving of special treatment. The life of a monk is not about ourselves. We surrender that when we take our formal vows including stability. Our monastic vocation is for other people. We practice to realize this reality, or being a monk will become yet another form of suffering.