Tag Archives: Buddhist monks

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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Vows and Duty: Guiding Principles For A Buddhist Monk

David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I generally avoid making a distinction between a lay practice and the refined-life-practice of a Buddhist monk in a public discussion.  While the roles within a Buddhist community and the Sangha leadership may have different aspects and responsibilities, the depth and wisdom between a lay and monastic practice can be much the same depending on individual commitment and capacity for understanding.  From a Western point of view, many contemporary Buddhist teachers avoid defining a Sangha as only a community of monks/nuns, but take a pluralistic position that is inclusive.   This is a useful and productive attitude that recognizes the values imbedded in the principles of our interdependence and interconnectedness.

However, there is an aspect to a life dedicated to the Bodhisattva ideal that is undertaken when one takes formal vows and commits themselves to living as monks, either as temple-monks or itinerant-monks.  The intentional action to submit to a monastic life of purpose is unique and enhances an individual practice beyond a specific defined role.   It is this unique motivation and life that I would like to present today.  I address my thoughts to those individuals that have taken, or are in training to take, the step of professing monastic vows.  Although many of the lessons here can be adopted into a lay practice as well.

First and foremost, becoming a monk (I wish to use the term to include both men and women) is not to adopt a different type of practice from a lay one.  A Buddhist practice, is a Buddhist practice.  Wearing monk robes does not change that.  What makes a difference is “how we are” as we live within the monastic tradition.  Of course having the time to devote to a dedicated practice without some of the worldly distractions is an additional element for a monastic life.  So, the question that arises is, “What makes one a monastic?”   The Christian tradition has a nice answer to this question that revolves around a “special calling and religious vocation.”  We Buddhist generally don’t use these phrases to explain why one comes to understand their desire to become a monk.  Make no mistake though, Buddhist monasticism is a vocation, as it is a human experience reflecting the spiritual dimension, answering a deeper self-awareness that even for me is hard to define.  When we are moved to step onto the monastic path, we must understand just what it is we are committing ourselves to.  “Why” is not as critical as “what” in this case.  So the question expands to, “WHAT makes one a monastic, and WHAT is required of us?”   The answers to these questions are critical to one’s understanding of how their life will change, and how the monastic-practice sets priorities and challenges, as we monks engage our everyday Buddhist practice.

As Buddhism moved West and encountered a culture familiar with monastic traditions (Christian), some assumptions on what a Buddhist monk was were taken for granted.  We Westerners saw robes, ritual, temple buildings, chanting, and deep spiritual characteristics of the few Buddhist monks we came in connect with, that reinforced the idea of “monkness”.   But the difference between Christian and Buddhist monastic practices were not obvious to the casual observer.  It has taken a few decades for the Buddhist monastic structure to find roots in the West, and attract Western men and women to the Buddhist monastic life. Continue reading

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Considerations on the Monastic Vocation

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

“To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society…”

Thomas Merton from Thoughts In Solitude

Living a traditional monastic life could be viewed as being very scandalous in that a monk, Buddhist or Christian for that matter, seems to have no specific task that could be considered a job in the secular sense of the word.  That can be a mistake if you think monks are free from work tasks in order to spend all their time in meditation and scholastic activities.  In reality though, the life in a monastic community has many tasks and organized routines so their world is very much similar to the social life like everyone else’s.  This is especially true when the monastic community is living outside the walls of the monastery.  This kind of social life can become complicated and overly active in a way.  Living as a monk does not shield you from all the life challenges of an ordinary life.  In reality it is filled with all the ordinary life tasks plus enhanced practice ones too.  A growing number of monks now work outside their houses in order to share in the support of their community.  The monk is not defined by his tasks, job or secondary profession, but by his commitment to his practice as shared with his dharma brothers under the guidance of his sensei.  In a certain sense the monk is supposed to live an unstructured life because his mission is to be ready to engaged the dharma in whatever form it is presented in the moment, with little family or social distractions.  This means that monasticism aims at the cultivation of a certain quality of life, a deeper level of awareness, an awakened consciousness which is not usually possible in an active secular world these days.  In this 21st century we have so many distractions to keep us from our practice.

I do not mean to imply that the secular lifestyle is somehow totally about self centered priorities, or that there can be no real understanding of the importance of developing an interior awareness.  But it does mean that more immersion and absorption in worldly business will take away from a contemplative mind state that is of utmost importance in gaining readiness for experiencing awakened moments.  There is much to be said about a sustained practice over one that experiences fits and starts.  Monks are not weekend warriors, but seek to be free from what William Faulkner called “The same frantic steeplechase toward nothing” which can be the essence of a Buddhist practice when engaged for a few hours a month.

As a monastic community lives together, either in groups or alone but connected, they do so with a sense that they are not separate from the lay community they live side by side with.  We should avoid any notion of “inside or outside.”  The concept of “separation from the world” that can arise in a monastic community is yet another illusion.  Even for those monks within the walls of a monastery/temple.  We must never forget we are social-selves and agents for change.  We do not take vows to become a different species of being.

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