Why do people quit?

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.


8 thoughts on “Why do people quit?

  1. Q: Is it better to have been ordained and disrobe than never to have been ordained at all?

    Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: Of course, it is better to have taken the vow and given it back. Having disrobed or given it back, you would have the accumulation of merit for whatever length of time you were able to keep the vow. From the moment you disrobed, there is again not that merit, but at least you would have the merit from the past. If you did not take the vow in the first place, you would not have that particular merit at all.

    1. Thanks, Mike, for taking the time to comment. I have heard other teachers make statements to the same effect. The texts state every day an individual keeps their monastic ordination there is an unceasing flow of merit, even when they are asleep.

      1. A senior monk in my hometown in India also told me and my friends about the immense merits monk/nun accumulates in one day compared to the lay person’s in a lifetime. I am a lay person in my late 20s, but have always had interest in becoming a monk since my childhood. But I was thinking that one shouldn’t take a lifelong monastic vow thinking he or she can always give it back for any reason. Even the Khenpo told me not to take up a monastic vow just few years ago, maybe he noticed I couldn’t do it; I am extremely thankful for his honest suggestions and teachings however. He did recommend me continuing to take up short term vows such as Nyungne during Saka Dawa, and he even blessed me with the Loong for Benz Guru and went over hourlong ThoeDoe scripture.

  2. In our Drikung Kagyu tradition the founder, Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon, in his seminal text —as well as the commentaries on it—stress tha tit is a good thing to take and keep the vows, if noly for as short as one day. (Come to think of it, I have known some one who gave them back in less than a month.) As to monasticism being difficult, I just don’t see it that way at all.Maybe I am missing something. I live in a monastery with 70+ monks, almost all Tibetan, Ladhaki, Nepali, a few Vietnamese—and it’s wonderful. They are so kind and supportive, as I try to be toward them.

    I suppose people quite for a variety or reasons. We might list the more common ones, starting with monastic life not being as it was fantasized, which is understandable, since actual, real monasticism as it is lived traditionally is rare in the West and outside most people’s frames of reference.

    It might be more constructive to think about what we can do to assist in maintaining the vows. E.g., there are so few training programs to ease the transition from lay to ordained life. Few Western organizations do that. Also, some people are ordained whose ordination might not be wise at the time, people with commitments such as children, care of elderly parents, debts of all sorts, such as school loans. Others have mental and emotion issues that will cause problems unless resolved. A wonderful thing would be to arrange sponsorships so that newly ordained—or old—could be supported while being educated in a monastery in Asia. In fact if I had the time and no other commitment, it is a project that I could get into.

    1. Thank you, Konchog Dorje, for your comment. I do appreciate both your and Mike’s point that it is better to have been ordained and quit than never to have been ordained at all.

      For the sake of any prospective monastics who might be reading this, I would like to point out that if an individual does not have the intention to take the vows for his or her entire life, he or she would not, technically, be able to receive the novice or full vows of Individual Liberation because his or her intention is not the prerequisite intention for that class of vows.

      As has been pointed out over on Facebook, temporary ordination seems to be a good option for prospective monastics. A time limited vow natural dissolves once the avowed duration is complete, so the negativity of breaking one’s initial lifelong promise could be avoided.

  3. Here is what people have said over on Facebook:

    Jeffrey Kotyk:
    Interesting. I’ve noticed that most westerners in Asia who ordain ultimately fail. In the Theravada context it isn’t unusual for western bhikkus of over thirty years to disrobe. There are various reasons for this, many of which are outlined in Dhammika Bhante’s “Broken Buddha” (available as a pdf if you search for it on Google). I’m personally inclined towards ordination as I get older since I have little interest in ordinary life, though many institutions turn me away from it. I like the idea of being a solitary wanderer, not a monk with a day job doing administrative work. Anyway, interesting post.

    Konchog Norbu:
    I’m wondering if you’ve found that Asian monastics’ reasons for disrobing are different from Westerners’? If so, in what way?

    Aksel Lydersen:
    I know more Asian ex-monastics than I do Western ones, with one exception they are all male. The main reasons have been that they were put into monastic care at a young age, for cultural or economic reaons, and then they discover the world of girls, Ipods and motorbikes. In other cases it’s been more of an economic reaons, for example they are the only person who can support their family so disrobe to take a “normal” job.

    Todd Lake:
    I think a lot of people have this romanticized notion of what Tibet, and Tibetan Buddhism, is all about. They may have good intentions, but when they start the path, they quickly realize how hard it is going to be to continue on that path. For a westerner, who has been exposed to the comforts and conveniences of life found in most western countries, I can only imagine what a shock it must be to suddenly give all of that up. Only those with the purest of intentions will be up to the challenge.

    Tenzin Nyikhil
    Todd, it’s true to a degree about westerners not wanting to give up their comforts, but what I find hardest is the contempt that many have for the western ordained…and I’ve never been one to care about fitting in. But many are downright nasty to your face and have no problem telling you about it… and they’ve never met you before,lol.

    Julia Stenzel:
    Hi Damchoe, that is an interesting post, and there will be probably as many opinions about it as there are people… I once read that the great Ani Lochen Shugseb Rinpoche said it is better to have vows for a single day than never to have tried. (I cannot confirm, though, whether that quote is correct). Maybe short-term vows are a good solution for all those who don’t know whether they will be able to develop favorably in a monastic community.

    Jacqueline Therese Bass:
    First, I should say that I have experienced a number of religious traditions because of my upbringing, my own needs, and because of my friends. My first rule in all things is listen and I know what is true for me or what is important in my development to understand.. That being said, I wanted to just give a few observations that I’ve had over the last few years especially. The idea of religion, in general, is disappearing. Perhaps this is because of the general intolerance that has persecuted so many that didn’t adhere strictly to every idea within a tradition. I think most people really, genuinely, want to be good people. Some people are true extremists. They want to pursue their goodness, their higher self, and compassion/love with everything they have. They want to be true to the best part of themselves that they sense is there. Sometimes this is being a monk or nun. Sometimes, they only learn fervently and have the more rewarding (and difficult) learning experience through their relationship with others. I remember a meeting with an ex-zen monk once who told me that he was as happy as a clam being a monastic but that it provided such a wonderful life that he knew he wasn’t challenging himself and so he left, disrobed, and let his life get as complicated as he could get it so he’d have something to work through. I have thought many times in the middle of diapers and the chaos of my life of another life that I almost had- the solitary monastic life. In the book Beyond Religion that the Dalai Lama released last year I’ve been told that he discusses the need for a world that meets in the middle in a set of core values that embraces all of humanity. And perhaps the passing away of religion, in general, is a response to that- the need to find something in common. There are fewer monastics in other traditions. It is a life that I have observed in those traditions that is disappearing. And for that reason I honor and support those who choose it. You are a rare and wonderful breed.

    Bill Ursel:
    Thanks for the thoughts Damchoe. I respect choices, and moreso, the process that leads to a decision and the challenges we all face, tis called life 😉

    Todd Lake:
    Tenzin – That is interesting, and I have not heard of that happening before. Any thoughts on why people do that? I know many in the west would not consider being ordained a “job” or “work”, even though it must be very hard to do. Those who don’t work are often looked down upon here. Sad, but true.

    Tenzin Nyikhil:
    Todd, there often seems to be feelings of “you think you’re special as a monastic” or “I’m just as good a practitioner as you” etc. Now to be fair, I have seen monastics who “put on airs” and expect to be treated preferentially. But most do not in my experience. I think actually it was worse in India, the contempt; here in the states it seems to be more that they don’t know what to do with us. And yes, I agree that they don’t view this as a job…” but what do you do?”. I always tell people that I’m not holy, that it is just my full time job and yet still they are uncomfortable. Some of it is just not having much experience with monastics and a whole lot of it is our karma. It is why I felt strongly that after five years in India, I had to come back the states to help establish our presence here. But after two years, I’m tired, isolated and just don’t know. I knew it would be hard but it’s worse than I thought,lol.

    Charlene Tossell:
    Tenzin I can relate to what you are experiencing. I’m sorry but I can’t offer any advice or suggestions because I don’t know if the path I’ve taken was the right one or not. But I think that the Sanga is meant to play the role of your family group and look out for each other. So to be isolated from your Sanga is the same as being isolated from your family group and support base which I don’t think Buddha intended. I believe the vows are for the Sanga to live in harmony so they can support each other in the Dharma. But what the answer is to this conundrum of robed isolation we seem to have in the West I don’t know sorry?

    1. Jeffrey – I believe that in the Theravada tradition there is the understanding, from the outset, that one will be observing the vow for a specific period of time, which ostensibly can be renewed repeatedly. I may be mistaken about that, however.

      Konchog – Many of the same reasons, as far as I know. Aksel mentions some other reasons that Asian monastics might disrobe. I’d add that the choice to disrobe in order to practice as a yogi is also much more common.

      Aksel – Exactly. One of my Nepalese nun friends has repeatedly considered disrobing so she could work to support her family.

      Todd- Hopefully no one joins an Asian monastery after coming directly from the West, that might be quite a shock in deed.

      Tenzin – Yup. It is weird that that happens.

      Julia – Yes, as I’ve said in the comments above, taking temporary vows does seem like a good way to start. I know they have that practice at Gampo Abbey and I am sure it has helped many individuals discern whether or not monasticism is right for them.

      Jaqueline – I love that story – that a monk disrobed because his monastic life was too comfy. Thank you for that. I think I’d put him in the category of ‘disrobed to become a yogi’ which I respect a lot.

      Bill – Thank you!


      Note: Next time why not comment right here on my blog. Pretty please?

  4. Many many thanks for posting this, Damcho! I’m considering taking ordination and your reflections are very helpful for me to clarify some of the points I feel that I need to consider before making such a commitment. I’m wondering, though, since you’ve upheld your vows for 10 years in the face of all the difficulty you’ve mentioned: Why have you stayed? What has carried you through?

    Hoping you’re well,

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