Sunday, January 8, 2006

Ditching the raft, picking up the robe and bowl

Perhaps you have already heard, but...

Andi, the author of the popular Buddhist blog Ditch the Raft, left her home country and her blog to pursue ordination at a temple in South Korea with the new name Soen Joon. She has returned to the blogosphere with another original site detailing her life as an aspiring monastic, One robe, one bowl. So if you were a fan of Ditch the Raft, or if you find the premise of an American woman in a Korean Buddhist temple interesting, check it out.

I wish Soen the best, but it calls to mind an issue I have seen cropping up from time to time--the idea that there is something "more" Buddhist or "better" for realizing Buddhanature in being a monastic. Please understand I have never read anything by Andi (Soen Joon) to suggest she feels that way or would support such a notion. But it's out there. It includes subtle presumption that we must have "effort" to "win" or "achieve" enlightenment and that nirvana is likewise a far-away place or state to be "attained". Hence the idea that monastics are "better" Buddhists or somehow "on track" to earn enlightenment sooner than the lay practioners. Obviously given my affinity for teachings such as "Affliction is Bodhi and Nirvana is Samsara" as well as the conviction that Buddha-nature/Bodhi is our inherent condition that we could appreciated if we could just stop complicating it and letting our conditioned responses get in our way, I disagree strongly with such attitudes. Here is something I wrote recently (and now modify) in response to someone wondering about how to live the right life (and seeing being a family life as somehow at odds with living a fully Buddhist life):

"True Buddha practice" isn't about form. Shaving your head, sleeping on a cot, and eating out of a begging bowl isn't "Buddhist", it's monastic. The distinction between making something a buddhist practice and not is the mindfulness brought to that activity. You can have a very Buddhist practice while changing diapers or chopping carrots, and on the other hand you can wear a saffron robe and chant dharanis without such awareness and not have a meaningful Buddhist practice. Mindfulness leads to compassion and wisdom, which are exemplified (but not confined to or summarized by) things such as the eightfold path and the precepts, which are found in every Buddhist tradition. Compassion and wisdom through mindfulness can be practiced raising children, being a good husband, being a good employee at an offfice, being a good neighbor, etc.

The monastic community exists because lay practioners do not generally have as much time to learn and teach. But spreading the Dharma is not confined to the monastic community. They are there to preserve teachings and inspire others, but if we don't live the practice, if its just some set of rituals we do at an altar or in a temple a few hours a week, what is the point of preserving and teaching it? Buddhism is about saving all sentient beings, not just those who can afford to become philosopher-priests. It is this kind of thinking that was being addressed by the revolutions of Nichiren and Shin Buddhism in feudal Japan, for example. The Dharma is not confined to sutras, and Buddha-nature isn't confined to little old men with beads and shaved heads.

If you think you would best serve others as a monk, be a monk. If you think you would be a good parent and spouse, be a parent and spouse. But don't confuse that choice with whether or not you choose a sincere Buddhist practice.


  1. Tiny, what a great post. Thank you. It reminded me much of Thich Nhat Hanh's saying, "be a Buddha, not a Buddhist." We can be Buddhas here and now without ever doing a full prostration, wearing a robe, etc.

    The views that monasteries are the "think tanks" of Buddhism is indeed a provocative one, but one that has to be attenuated.

    Tiny, how are you? I haven't been around these parts in a long time. My apologies. I hope you are having a good new year!

  2. I don't know that I would call monasteries think tanks, but more like transmission centers, to ensure that there are enough in each generation who sufficiently grasp the Dharma to properly pass it on. This is different than the view that monastics are inherently "closer to Buddha-hood" or that the lay community is automatically going to receive a lesser benefit from practice or holds a subservient role in the sangha.

    The New Year is OK so far, but it really won't get busy until next week. I hope all is well with you too.

  3. Oh my goodness...Tiny, I'm not sure DTR was ever "popular," but thank you for saying so!

    You raise (naturally) good questions about monasticism, and I'll back up your reading of DTR to say that no, I don't consider monastics "better Buddhists." In fact, one of the most disappointing and frustrating aspects of Asian monasticism for a Westerner is the de-emphasis on "practice" for both the lay and ordained communities. (And I must immediately qualify that disappointment by saying that part of it was my own unreasonable expectations of the ordained community, a common experience for Westerners encountering Asian Buddhisms in depth for the first time.) I'm ordaining to practice. It's how I see my practice most fully unfolding...but this is not the basic or most common reason for ordination in Asia. I am a little unusual in my view of meditative practice as the point of being Buddhist, and the robes as a vehicle toward that, not as an end in and of themselves.

    That said, I also hasten to point out to Westerners and Americans in particular that America is very anti-monastic. When I was home in the States prior to returning to my temple to begin, I encountered incredible defensiveness about monasticism. Buddhists--not regular Americans, who were usually curious and open to the idea of monasticism--were quick to tell me that monastics are people who "leave the world," (this is terminologically correct) and in doing so a) weren't really practicing and b) weren't really relevant to American Buddhism. All of this before I said anything more than, "I want to be a nun."

    I was like, "Huh?"

    I was pretty puzzled by this, and I remain uncertain as to how to address this, because most people don't want to talk about the fact that renunciation scares the dickens out of them. Scares the heck out of me, too--not just the material renunciation (which you point out correctly is "form") but the inner renunciation of anger, attachment, and ignoranc, the renunciation that every practitioner of the Dharma is required to make. What I suggest, however, is that before we dismiss or marginalize the form of monastic life--the robes, the meals, the rigid schedules, the submission to hierarchy, the material renunciation--as mere form, we try it.

    You'd be amazed at how effective this form can be.

    I'm not a Sramanerika (novice) yet, so I can only advocate for the monastic life as a non-monastic participant in it. I've been living in the temple for nearly 8 months, and I've "practiced" in a way I didn't I could. It's not easy, even if it looks it. Yes, there are completely mind-empty monastics, who chant and accept offerings and parade around without really fulfilling the job of a monastic, to live for others. But there are also amazing monastics, for whom this life is the conduit for their enlightened energy in the world. I don't know if it was the only way for them. I only know that without this institution in the world, we will lose something in our spirituality.

    There are people for whom the family would get in the way of their practice, just as there are others for whom without a family there would be no practice. We have to respect and rejoice in the ways in which the Dharma defies a single path and encompasses every realm and way of mindful life.

    Oh gracious. I've written a blog post in your comments section...thank you for writing on this. I hope that good discussions result!

  4. Well, thanks for the reply! It was really good and I only wish it was on the main page so more people might be likely to read it.

    Not that you suggested I was, but I am not anti-monastic. Yet I am aware of what you mean among some American Buddhists. I think in large part is a form of attachment to nontraditionalism and a form of individualism. As I wrote in another entry somewhere around here, 'I think it is good for my ego and general contrarian/skeptical nature to participate in an ancient and beautiful ceremony, bowing to the ten direction, doing prostrations, etc.' It's also like the nonreligious people who actively attack and have unilateral prejudice against all forms of sacred traditions--if they were really "over" their past experiences why such knee-jerk reactions instead of evaluating each tradition on a case by case basis and looking at how others are harmed or benefit?

    I personally have great respect for monastics who realize their role is about serving the community of faith, not the other way around, who are honest and don't try to puff themselves up to hide their shortcomings. They don't necessarily have to be overly friendly--I know some that are more like that doctor on television, "House" (obscure reference, and I doubt you watch much American TV these days, but maybe someone will get it).

    Thanks again for the comments. I really hope a lot of people will take them time to really read them mindfully and consider what you have said without becoming defensive.

    Oh, and best of luck with your training. I got to see my local sangha teacher ordained as a shramanera last summer. It was into the Nien Fo Chan Order based in a temple in Cleaveland (our sangha is an affiliate group in Pittsburgh). Pretty cool ceremony--I can only imagine what it would be like in a place like Korea.

  5. Tiny,

    Thanks for the good luck! I also hope that good discussion results from this. Congratulations to your teacher!

    I've heard some stories about the ceremony, but not enough to give me a good idea of what it will be like, providing I make it through the training (which, taking about a month and covering a variety of exams, is usually described as "the best worst experience of my life" by the foriegner Sunims who finish). I'm hopeful, however, and praying for the best. I'll have friends there--another American, and a Korean haeng-ja in my dharma-family. They'll be great support, no doubt.

    Again, thank you for posting this!



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