What does a Buddhist Monastic Know about Real Life, Anyway?
We are often asked, "What does a Buddhist monastic know about real life?"
This is a very good question because many people may think that we don't have
to deal with real life in the monastery: "Things are easy for you, but outside
the monastery wall we have to deal with real life; we have a much more difficult
job." Their impression is that once you have given yourself to the holy life,
then you float around on little purple clouds, existing in exquisite mutual harmony
at all times, exuding undifferentiated love and compassion for each other, and,
finally, at the end of a life of ever-increasing blissfulness and profound insights
into the nature of ultimate reality, deliquescing softly into nirvana leaving
behind a soft chime of ringing bells and a rainbow. Not so. I'll get on to that
in a minute. I'm joking a bit, but this is the kind of image that people may have
of monasteries. It's another world, something that other people do.
The Buddha was asked a lot of questions in his time, and he once said there are
four ways to respond to a question. The first way is to give a straight answer.
The second is to ask a counter question. The third is to rephrase the question.
The fourth is to remain silent. As I look at the question at hand, what comes
to mind are two counter questions: What is a Buddhist monastic? And what is real
Most people probably don't know all that much about how the monastic system actually
functions in the Buddhist world. To many, Buddhist monks are simply people who
magically appear and disappear, like wandering teachers or circuit preachers.
There's not really a cognizance of what a monastery is, how it functions, or where
a Buddhist monastic comes from. Even the word "monastery," like the
word "morality," often has a certain emotional effect. Your blood starts
to get cold, and you think, "That's a place for other people, and there's
something about it I don't really like." I certainly had the same feeling
at one time: You disappear behind a 20-foot-high wall into a life of scrubbing
floors, freezing nights, and grim asceticism. That's "the monastery."
In many Buddhist countries-Tibet, Korea, China, and Japan-they did create a remote,
enclosed, and self-sufficient model. However, in Southeast Asia, at least where
Buddhism was not repressed by the various rulers, they sustained the original
mendicant model that was established at the time of the Buddha. The monastery
is actually like a cross between a church, commune, and community center. It's
not just a place where nuns and monks live; it's everybody's place. In Thailand,
for example, there are about 50,000 monasteries. Every village has a monastery;
big villages have two or three. It's like a synagogue or church with six rabbis
or half a dozen ministers. One or two do most of the talking, and the others live,
learn, and help out. It's a commune of spiritual seekers, and it's also a place
where community life happens. Many village monasteries host the local town meetings
or "county" fairs. The monastery is the heart of the community, not
that place out on the hill that nobody ever enters.
Of course, there's a degree of variety. Forest monasteries place an emphasis on
meditation and tend to be outside of villages and a little further away. Those
that are extremely popular will try to sustain a bit more quiet, with visiting
hours at such and such a time. There might not be anyone to receive you. But generally
speaking, most monasteries are open; they are everybody's place.
At its heart, a monastery is sustained as a spiritual sanctuary. What creates
a monastery is that everyone who comes through the gate undertakes to live by
a certain standard, to conduct themselves in a certain way in terms of honesty,
nonviolence, modesty, restraint, and sobriety. Within that zone, it's a safe place:
no one is going to rob you, to chat you up, to try to sell you anything, to attack
you, to lie to you, to be drunk. It's an environment that maximizes the supportive
conditions for helping you to cultivate kindness, wisdom, concentration-the whole
range of wholesome spiritual qualities.
There are also teachers available. You might think that a great master like our
teacher, Ajahn Chah, may have spent his life up in the mountains, meditating under
a tree. He did that for a number of years, but once he opened a monastery, he
spent much of the next thirty years sitting under his hut receiving visitors from
ten o'clock in the morning often until midnight. That's the teacher's job: the
doctor is in. Not every monastery functions in that way, but it's generally the
job of certain members of monastic communities to be available to anyone who drops
in. If you want to talk to the Ajahn, you don't schedule a private interview,
you just hang out until there's an opportunity to ask your question.
In this respect, intrinsic to a Buddhist monastic life is the fact that you can
be called upon to some degree or another to share with other people the wisdom
and understanding you have developed. Whatever good is developed in the lives
of the inhabitants of the monastery is made available. Of course, some people
are not disposed to be teachers. Yet just aspiring to control your bad habits
and get your mind a little bit clearer is in itself a great gift and a blessing
to others. It's a beautiful example.
So if this is a Buddhist monastic life, then what is real life? People often think
real life means having a credit rating, a retirement plan, a job, a sex life,
a house, a car, and a fixed pattern of living. But couldn't you also say a real
life means simply having a body and mind? Or a personality, a feeling of identity?
For people who ask the question, the implication is that those who don't have
financial responsibilities, children, parents to look after, or marriage partners
somehow experience a life that is intrinsically different. All the rough and tumble
of the lay world is somehow intrinsically different. Seeing Buddhist monks or
nuns on show-sitting in robes, statue-like and serene-it is easy to think, "They
are not like me: they haven't got sore knees like me; they haven't got profane
thoughts going through their minds like me; they haven't got worries and anxieties,
thoughts about the past and future all the time like me; they don't have a difficult
parent like me." Well believe me, the monastery gate does not create any
radical alteration of human nature as you pass through it. Come live in the monastery
for one week, and then ask yourself where real life is.
From the Buddhist point of view, life is happening at the level of the senses,
where sense consciousness impacts sights, sounds, smell, taste, touch, body, perceptions,
feelings, ideas, and emotions. That's where we experience life. Whether you are
inside the monastery gate or outside it, the impact is the same. There's a saying
in Japan: "There's many a shaven head surrounding a hairy mind." When
you enter the monastery gate, all your struggles with your parents don't suddenly
get switched off. All your sexual desires don't suddenly fizzle out. All your
feelings of self criticism don't miraculously transform: "Now I am a monk.
I like myself."
In fact, the monastery is an optimum environment in which to experience real life.
We get the raw experience of feeling sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch because
all the normal distractions, mufflings, and mutings are absent. We can't nibble
or go to the fridge to help ourselves. Food has to be put into our hands before
we can eat it. We don't listen to music, have any radios, listen to the news,
watch TV, read novels. We don't play sports, do crossword puzzles, garden. Basically,
you ain't got nothin' except your mind and the great outdoors. We live communally;
everything is shared. We don't have our own choice about whom we work with or
how we work. We have no choice about the menu; the cooks cook what they want to
cook with whatever shows up in the larder. We can't just pop into town to do some
shopping or take in a movie. We don't have our own space. Sometimes in the winter
time we get cold and wet, and there isn't a way to get as warm as we'd like to
Maybe I'm painting a bit of a rough picture, since at times it is also very pleasant.
But what I'm really trying to say is that when you start to shed the familiar
props, you get life in the raw. You experience the whole battery of loves and
hates, of self concern, of the amount of things we need to have to make ourselves
feel good. It's like a junkie. As long as you have a good supply of clean stuff,
everything is fine, but as soon as the supply starts to dry up, things get really
hairy. Anyone who has been addicted-to cigarettes, food, affection, heroin, whatever-knows
what that is like. When the props aren't there, we realize how dependent our life
has become. By seeing this and processing it in a deep and clear way, we can understand
it. Then we are more able not to be dragged around.
There was a very sweet incident that happened a number of years ago with the first
nun in our community in England. She was a middle aged woman, had been married,
had had quite a sophisticated life. A women's magazine came to do a feature on
the nuns, and they were interviewing her. They said, "It must be terribly
difficult for you: sleeping on the floor, having one meal a day, getting up at
4 o'clock in the morning, being told what to do by all these young whipper-snappers.
"Oh," she replied, "that's easy, a piece of cake. Really. At first,
I thought it would be very difficult for a woman of a certain age to adjust to
all these hardships, but that's nothing. The really difficult thing is to give
up your own opinions. That's the hardship. When you know-not just think, but know-that
you are right about the way to cook courgettes but have to watch someone doing
otherwise and swallow it, then things get really interesting."
The interviewer was really shocked, but it was very insightful of the nun. She
realized that she was far more attached to her ideas of right and wrong, good
and bad. "I think things should be this way." "Monks shouldn't
talk like that." "This is what Buddhism is, and this is what it isn't."
She would get really upset because Ajahn Sumedho wouldn't quote the Buddha's discourses
in his Dhamma talks but would use his own language and reflect from his own experience.
She'd say, "We are Buddhists. We should be quoting the Buddha!" If we
don't meet them and know them, we are dragged around by our preferences, our loves
and hates, rights and wrongs. As long as things go smoothly, we can be dragged
around quite happily because we think this is just life. But as soon as our plans
are frustrated, as soon as we meet with a situation that doesn't go the way we
like, then we lose it. We get lost. We die. There's a beautiful passage in the
Dhammapada where the Buddha says, "Mindfulness is the path to the Deathless,
Heedlessness is the path to death. The mindful never die, the heedless are as
if dead already."
In the monastery, we learn to deal with the body, with pain. Living communally,
we learn a lot about forgiveness, commitment, honesty, patience. We learn how
to deal with anger, jealousy, fearfulness, selfishness. We get the whole palate;
every color is there. If you can't deal with them, you don't survive. The effort
within the monastic life is to know life as you experience it, as you feel it
in a complete and deep way. In the monastery, you learn to understand how the
feelings of love and hate, success and failure, praise and criticism all function.
You learn to find that space that holds it, that knows it, and that can be with
it and be still within all that occurs.
Coming to the monastery as a lay person and participating in that life, plugging
into that environment, can help you carry that learning back with you, and you
can begin to experience the whole firmament of your daily life or your family
life even while surrounded by people who are not resolute on a spiritual practice.
After all, most people are caught up in the rat race and not intent on the realization
of ultimate truth. What the monastery provides in the world is a reminder that
everything is okay, that we can live with whatever is happening, that we can ride
the wave. For those who live outside the monastic sphere, our effort is to provide
an alternative to the drivenness of the world. Even though you might be driving
the car to work, holding down a job, looking after your aging parents, feeding
your kids, or being with a loved one who is dying, it doesn't have to be frantic.
It doesn't have to be obsessive. It doesn't have to be burdensome. There is a
manner in which we can relate to even the most impactful and potent, emotionally
charged issues of life whereby they are held, they are understood, they are fully
experienced, and they are not confusing. So real life then has to do with a mind
full of life, an acceptance and appreciation of life, and the monastery is endeavoring
to give us a sense of this real life.
Ajahn Amaro is co-abbot of Abhayagiri. Adapted from a talk given on August 3,
1998, in Caspar, California.