By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
In all of the Buddhist books I read prior to stepping on the practice-path I learned that to become a Buddhist monk it was necessary to leave the householder life and in a sense become homeless. The English word for this is renunciation. We renounce one way of life and take up another. This concept was not new to we as I already took that path many years ago as a Christian monk. In fact, it is not as hard as it seems if you have the attitude and personal inner vision that is necessary to walk the monastic lifestyle. In the beginning at least, it is the same no matter your spiritual affiliation. I say this from personal experience. The interesting thing is that all of the Buddhist literature that sets renunciation as a requirement for following a monastic path comes from the legacy and historical teachings from an Asian culture that supported the monastic realities. These realities interconnected both the laity and monks together in a mutual-causal relationship. Western Christian monasticism took a different structure in that the religious were supported by the Church (institution) and separated from the lay community by intent. As Buddhism moved to the West, and Westerners took up Buddhist monastic training, many emulated the past by creating monasteries for that purpose modeled on how the “Asians did it.” As a result, these monastic training centers have produced spiritual leaders that have engaged a style of Western Buddhism that have advanced cultural authority that will cultivate the ability for Buddhism to move into a more mainstream acceptance along side the other spiritual traditions, in time. As would be expected in our American culture, innovation is being explored in order to find different methods for achieving the same expectations by creatively redefining how the Buddhist monastic experience can be practiced that challenges the necessity for renunciation.
Let’s explore the role of renunciation as it is reflected in a contemporary context by first looking at the subject historically. In order to do this we first must look to the East. In the Mahayana tradition, we must understand how an individual is motivated to step on the monastic path. While it is not necessary to be a monk in order to follow the Bodhisattva path, monks and nuns do so by taking Bodhisattva vows. Monastic’s (I will use this term to mean both monks and nuns) take up a formal practice driven by a need to serve others by living a life that has a better chance of subduing one’s self centered ego by using our relationship with others to achieve this goal. We not only work hard to experience how to be free of our own suffering and unsatisfactoniness, but also help others to realize the same in themselves. A balance is sought between surrendering worldly material objects and yet using the cultural tools that can bring about a productive and useful life for self and other. In the Theravada tradition, the basic model of living is to become a renunciant and live without personal possessions, not becoming involved with the world of finance, being celibate, avoiding unnecessary distractions of the world outside so one can work to achieve self enlightenment. Theravada live a simple life, though with different degrees of refinement. They rely heavily on the lay members in their society to provide their basic needs in order to sustain a communal practice within strict guidelines. It is believed that the merit earned in supporting a monastic’s practice will have direct influence on one’s own karma. In the Vajrayana tradition, renunciation supports the inner-mind-state by creating a life free from external concerns so one can remove themselves into the quiet space necessary for their own awakened development. Continue reading