Tag Archives: Buddhist monastic vocations

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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Commentary On Buddhist Monastic Vocations

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

Our OEB leadership is currently reviewing our Daily Service Liturgy and ritual practices in order to bring it more inline with our two lineages. 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. Our leadership also recognizes 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.

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