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The Relevance of Buddhist Monasticism

My fellow Western monastics sometimes mention criticism from their lay fellows, much of which is to the point of, “Monastics are unnecessary in the West.” Or, “Western Buddhism is lay Buddhism.”

Now I could write about how the Sangha is four-fold, including monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, but you’ve probably already heard about that.  In essence, “Sangha” is a word we use to describe our Buddhist community, and whether or not your idea of “Sangha” includes four parts is up to you.

What I’m wondering is: Why make this sort of statement at all?  There may be some sense that monastics are more dedicated, more hardcore because they have given up the householder life.  But who can measure dedication?  We can only observe our own minds.  Only I know if I am developing or not .  I’ve been ordained for almost ten years now and I am certain there are thousands of lay practitioners who have more faith than me, who practice more than me, and who are generally nicer people.

It is hard to estimate the relevance of monastic practice as it relates to the lay community. For some, seeing the robes and peaceful demeanour of a monk might inspire them.  For others, it might just look silly.

That being said, I do find monasticism relevant in our modern world.  Why?  Because Buddha taught it as a practice.  To live in a dedicated community, to give up worldly concerns – that is a practice.  It is difficult, and for those who endure it, it can help them progress spiritually.  As a practice it is a deeply personal, internal process. As such I find it as relevant and useful as any other method Buddha taught.  A special aspect of Buddha’s teachings is that the practices are manifold; there are different practices for different types of mindset. Monasticism was never intended to be for everyone.

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11 thoughts on “The Relevance of Buddhist Monasticism

  1. As a simple reminder of Buddha’s teachings and practices, I hanged my favorite Buddha painting on my living room because it inspires me every time I see it. Kinda like people who sees a monk’s robe 🙂

  2. Great post, Ani-la. I so appreciate your humble sentiment about many of the laity. I, too, am surrounded by lay people who are significantly more diligent, better educated, harder working for the Dharma, and generally more kind than I am. I love your perspective that monasticism is a path for us.

    I respect you very, very much and appreciate your blog a whole lot.

    With love and deep admiration,

    – Gelong Tashi

  3. That was a wonderfully succinct and nicely put piece. I am a lay Buddhist and I find the sangha very useful and relevant. It seems to me that the relevancy of a monastic is somewhat similar to the relevancy of a policeman. Yes, they undertake training that most people do not, and must live by a code that places many strictures on their behavior. They even wear uniforms that set them apart from society at large, so that they are easily identifiable in case one might need to rely on (or wish to avoid) them. With monastics, just as with policemen, one should not harbor illusions about their being more or less human than others, but the vast majority of them abide by the code of their discipline sufficiently to be trustworthy and reliable members of society. Yes, monastics are certainly relevant and useful (and easy enough to avoid if you really want to). I, for one, am glad you are there, doing your best to live up to the code. Thanks and keep it up!

    -Andy

  4. hello, Ani-la!

    wonderful post with many very interesting points raised.

    although i’m coming to it a bit late, since you mention the important role of faith in the tibetan buddhist tradition, i’m curious as to how it is defined.

    and do you have any sense of how this might compare to a christian or western understanding of faith, particularly with respect to the miracles Jesus is said to have performed?

    1. I think a definition of faith might differ depending on which Buddhist you ask. I see it as certainty based on correct understanding. Buddha told his followers not to take his words on faith but to test them with logic, just as one would test gold before buying it.

      That is vastly different from the Christian view of “faith shall set you free” and being saved through grace.

      This being said, Tibetan Buddhism contains stories of amazing feats and miracles performed by those who have reached high states of meditative realization. Nonetheless, we are not asked to agree with these histories as a point of doctrine.

  5. “That being said, I do find monasticism relevant in our modern world…”

    It will become increasingly relevant as economic contraction continues indefinitely given the ecological limits of economic growth coupled with environmental payback for the transgressions of industrial civilization. A lot of people in the industrialized world will suffer poverty and the failure of old promises such as “just study, work hard and you’ll have a good life” will make “career planning” idealistic daydreaming.

    However, monasticism has historically proven viable and even beneficial during times of widespread hardship. The fall of Rome and the multiple collapses of dynasties in China reveal that monasticism was quite beneficial not just because of their social support and welfare, but as preservers of traditions and knowledge they were invaluable.

    I think as time goes on and young people especially see the lack of opportunities and the failure of past promises to come to fruition, the appeal of monasticism might increase. If anything, it will look reasonably stable and safe in comparison to most other routes.

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