Someday soon, a friend of mine will become a nun. Meanwhile, in the last year, one monk friend disrobed, another nun friend also disrobed, and a certain nun who I never met not only disrobed but composed and publicized a scathing letter about what she thinks is wrong with the whole system of monasticism and Tibetan Buddhism. (sigh, no I am not going to post a link)
In the last ten years, I’ve known dozens of Westerners who’ve gotten ordained and several of them have given back their vows. Everyone has their own reasons, their own story. I’m not here to condemn anybody.
The Buddha himself acknowledged that there would be individuals who, after taking ordination, would later decide to return to lay life. Thus it is possible to formally give back one’s vows unbroken. There is some negativity involved in this, after all the individual made a lifelong promise. Nonetheless, it is significantly less negative than overtly breaking the vows.
So, why do people quit? Here are the top ten reasons why Western monastics disrobe, or, at least, ten reasons I’ve heard:
10. Wants to practice as a lay person or yogi
9. Can’t fit in to Western society as a monk
8. Can’t fit in to Tibetan (or other Asian) society as a Westerner
7. Feels unsupported by their community and/or family
6. Has a difficult time supporting themselves financially
5. Realizes that their mind isn’t ‘how a monk’s mind should be’
4. Realizes they ‘still have desire’
3. Is pregnant or has gotten someone else pregnant
2. Is in love
1. Just doesn’t want to be a monk/nun, goshdarnit
It isn’t my place to judge whose reason is valid or invalid. There is, however, a few things I would like to say to prospective quitters: OUR AFFLICTIVE EMOTIONS LIE TO US. Love feels great, but it doesn’t last forever. It whispers: ‘If you could just be together with this person, everything will magically work out’. IT IS LYING. Relationships are hard work, just ask anyone who has ever been in a relationship. Likewise, if everything seems difficult, please don’t make the decision overnight. Give it a month, or three, or a year. Never make a decision in the heat of the moment, unless you want to make the wrong decision.
I will admit that, like life in general, monasticism is really, really difficult. The reason is because we are still in samsara. Our afflictive emotions and self-grasping are like an illness. One of the treatments prescribed by the Buddha was monastic ordination. It isn’t the only treatment, and it certainly isn’t right for everyone. Consult a qualified teacher for more information.
Then again, these days many qualified teachers seem to be saying ‘It isn’t necessary to get ordained.’ In fact, just last month a young woman proudly told me: “My teacher says I don’t need to get ordained.” Um, that’s great. But, as I told her, that isn’t because ordination isn’t beneficial. Rather, her teacher has probably seen scores of Western students get ordained and then give up their vows. Advising a prospective monk or nun that monasticism is not the only path has two benefits: 1. To protect that individual from the negativity of eventually giving back the vows 2. To protect the sangha from further degeneration. You see, from the point of view of someone who believes in karma and dependant origination, each time someone gives up their vows, it makes that precedent stronger.
In case you are wondering, ‘Is Damchoe trying to tell us something?’. No, I am not planning to quit. I am still happily ordained and intend to remain so.