People seem to have a vast array of projections about monks and nuns. For Westerners these are largely carry-overs from their image of Christian monastics and other clergy. We also seem to take references from Hollywood’s vision of peaceful Zen monasteries or even the Shaolin monks in our projection of what monasticism means. This is not negative, per se; it is just how the conceptual mind works. We take bits and pieces from our experience and imagination and we solidify them into a conceptual projection. The tension comes in when we try to fit mundane appearances into the shape of our projections– the way things are vs. the way things should be.
Often as not monks and nuns in the West are isolated as the single ordained person in a community of lay people. For the monastic himself or herself, a great deal of guidance can be taken from the Vinaya (the monastic code) as per what is appropriate. Traditionally, lay people do not study the Vinaya, and it certainly is not expected for lay people to have a comprehensive understanding of the monastic vows and rituals. In fact, too much awareness of these things can lead lay people to criticize the ordained for not behaving ‘correctly’. On the other hand, difficulties arise when lay people have no recompense other than popular culture and Christianity in forming their understanding of Buddhist monks and nuns. It is neither comfortable nor desirable for Westerners to act Asian in a desire to be ‘correct’ as monastics. This may work if the Western monk or nun is in training in Asia, but in the West it does not lead to a style of monasticism feasible for Westerners. We need to discern what is Vinaya, and what is merely a reflection of its host culture. I think much can learned from Christian monasticism, but we also need to be aware of the differences between our two traditions. For example, most Christian monks and nuns are trained prior to taking lifelong ordination. In the Buddhist tradition ordination is often the very first step in training. This leads to difficulties when one gets ordained by a travelling lama. Who trains the new monastic? It is also confusing for some lay people who expect that the ordained person has been ordained on the basis of qualifications.
I think these issues are very much worthy of consideration, especially to prospective monastics. The Buddha taught that there is no permanent, truly established identity. Thus, we need have mindfulness when it comes to pursuing a ‘monastic identity’. Since my last post I have given this a great deal of thought. Why do people desire so deeply to be ordained? Why do they later disrobe? I think it sometimes has to do with grasping after identity. Identity grasping, after all, is the linchpin of samsara. Learning to identify and deconstruct identity grasping is an extremely significant part of the Buddhist path.
How, then, should we approach monasticism? I think we must see it as a practice, and we must view monastics as people doing a special kind of practice. The Vinaya itself is not merely a set of rules for the ordained; it is a description of the practice of monasticism. We don’t choose to abandon sexual conduct etc. because we aren’t interested in it. We abandon it because we see it as harmful. Why is it harmful? Because it increases desire and thus binds us more tightly to cyclic existence. All of the monastic vows have to do with abandoning actions harmful to oneself and others as well as creating a situation were mental virtues may naturally increase. So instead of ordination because ‘this is who I want to be’, I suggest ordination because ‘this is how I want to practice in order to attain enlightenment’.