We are often asked, “What does a Buddhist monastic know about real life?” It’s a very good question because many people may think that we don’t have to deal with real life in the monastery; they think life is easier because our situation seems much less complicated. 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, dissolving softly into nirvana leaving behind a soft chime of ringing bells and a rainbow. 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, perhaps more worthy people do.
So what is a Buddhist monastic? And what is real life?
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 may run 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: People disappear behind a 20-foot-high wall into a life of scrubbing floors, freezing nights, and grim asceticism. That’s life in “the monastery.“
In Southeast Asian countries where Buddhism has not been politically repressed, monastic life is much the same as it was in the time of 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 or leaves.
What creates a monastery is that everyone who comes through the gate undertakes to live by a certain standard. It’s an environment that maximizes the supportive conditions for helping you to cultivate kindness, wisdom, concentration…..the whole range of wholesome spiritual qualities.
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. Teachers receive visitors and answer questions all day long and sometimes deep into the night. 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.
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. The implication is that those who don’t have any of the above responsibilities, somehow experience a life that is intrinsically different.
Seeing Buddhist monks or nuns sitting in robes, statue-like and serene…..it’s 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.
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. 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/nun. I like myself.”
There was a very sweet incident that happened a number of years ago with a newly ordained nun in our community. 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 rice the best possible way, 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.”
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 driven-ness 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 potent, emotionally charged issues of life, whereby they are held, understood, and fully experienced, and are not confusing.
So real life then has to do with a mind full of life, as well as an acceptance and appreciation of life, and the monastery is endeavoring to give us a sense of this real life.