Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Sun Aug 18, 2013 1:27 am

maybay wrote: Lone Tibetan monks are very rare, and yet the Western monks I've met are almost always heroically going it alone.


There are various reasons for this, which we can easily imagine, though a lot of Tibetan monks envy the lone monk who can come and go as they please. For Tibetans it is usually economically and socially infeasible to live such a lifestyle. They might be stuck in a monastery and only allowed outside the walls once a week or with special permission, plus having to rely on their family for gifts of cash to buy additional necessities like socks and so on.

They're also stuck with monastery food, which might be unhealthy over the long-term (think dal and white rice every single day made from dirty tap water). A lot of Tibetan monks suffer from stomach gas and bacterial infections which leads to ulcers and even cancer in some cases. As a loner, on the other hand, you can maybe eat more hygienic and nutritious food, plus get proper medical care.

Being stuck in a monastery isn't all that great. You have zero freedom over your practice and sometimes personal health. Even in a place like Taiwan it might be described as a gilded cage. Everything is provided, but the price is your unyielding obedience: mentally, intellectually and spiritually to the sangha authorities.

I don't know how conducive that is to progress, but then one shoe doesn't fit all.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby yegyal » Sun Aug 18, 2013 3:28 am

The difference is that Tibetan monks in the monastery are actually trained, either in Buddhist philosophy or ritual or both, and are thus capable of serving the community that supports them. And those that do take up a wandering lifestyle, usually do so after years of study and training and, most likely, many, many years of retreat. While most of Westerners that I have come across that emulate this wandering lifestyle seem to skip all that important stuff and still expect to be supported by the laity. If a Tibetan were to merely don robes and beg, as if they were a real monk, this would actually be considered a very serious offense. In fact, even many qualified lamas are so wary of the dangers of misuse of offerings given to the sangha, that they refuse to accept them.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:05 am

yegyal wrote:The difference is that Tibetan monks in the monastery are actually trained, either in Buddhist philosophy or ritual or both, and are thus capable of serving the community that supports them. And those that do take up a wandering lifestyle, usually do so after years of study and training and, most likely, many, many years of retreat.


Naw, I'd say it is more about economics. A lot of Tibetan monks would like to travel and wander, but they have no means to do so. If you're living on rupees, then your 1000 / month stipend won't get you so far, whereas having a few thousand dollars can keep you going for awhile.

While most of Westerners that I have come across that emulate this wandering lifestyle seem to skip all that important stuff and still expect to be supported by the laity.


It depends on where you are because in the west the laity are not normally interested in having you do all kinds of rituals. In Nepal or India you're not going to summon a foreigner to do a puja in your house. As a foreign monk you have limited utility in much of Asia unless you master the local language and can operate more or less as a native monk. This requires a degree of dedication and sacrifice that could easily turn a healthy person neurotic.

On the other hand, even if you know practice and doctrine quite well, I'd say in the west there is a clear bias in favour of Tibetan or at least Himalayan monks to teach such things, as if it is purer and more reliable coming from them (it really is an example orientalism).


If a Tibetan were to merely don robes and beg, as if they were a real monk, this would actually be considered a very serious offense.


It takes less than an hour to get a bhiksu ordination in a Tibetan monastery.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:06 am

Let me share a quote from a friend who is a monk in a Tibetan tradition:

    Yeah, it's disgusting. Long-term there seems to be nowhere for Western monastics, apart from scrabbling around trying to save up for visas and stuff and having to work teaching to have the dubious honour of staying in a monastery with useless monks.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby yegyal » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:16 am

And what tradition are you a monk in? Sorry, but I keep forgetting.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby greentara » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:32 am

Does it really matter what monastery you are attached to.......the overall pool of seekers may only contain a handful of homing pigeons who are self guided, and the rest can expect the high likelihood of so called teachers retarding their growth and billing them for it.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:35 am

yegyal wrote:And what tradition are you a monk in? Sorry, but I keep forgetting.


I don't have any identifiable tradition. I am an ecumenical śramaṇa. I don't really belong anywhere, though it means I can go anywhere.

At the moment I'm hanging out in a Theravada community here in Singapore, but I attended an empowerment by HH Sakya Trizin the other day. My main research interests concern ancient East Asian and Indian Buddhisms. I do translation work for a Taiwanese organization, though I might help out with 84,000 soon, too. My personal liturgy I either recite in Japanese or Chinese. I memorized some stuff in the former, but if I'm reading Classical Chinese I use the modern Mandarin pronunciation. Sometimes I recite some things in Sanskrit or Pali. At Tibetan pujas of course there's Tibetan.

Later next year I'm going to get back to intense Sanskrit studies in Kathmandu. Before that I'll probably stay at the gonpa again up in Ladakh for a few months of quiet meditation and reading. I'll possibly go back to Japan for a bit of training. I've been invited to Sri Lanka, too.

So, thinking about it, I belong nowhere and thus have the freedom to roam, both intellectually and spiritually.

For better or worse, eh! :cheers:
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:44 am

greentara wrote:Does it really matter what monastery you are attached to.......the overall pool of seekers may only contain a handful of homing pigeons who are self guided, and the rest can expect the high likelihood of so called teachers retarding their growth and billing them for it.


That's a good way of putting it.

I personally think a bit of disruptive chaos once in awhile is healthy. Evolution is in part due to chaotic mutations.

Towing the party line and following the rules doesn't work for everyone. In fact, arguably playing by the rules can be a hindrance to real growth. There is the assumption that just playing along you'll somehow manage the same results as predecessors apparently did. That doesn't mean you go out and do questionable things or harm others, but just that you decide for yourself what is best. That's not something everyone can or should do of course.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby maybay » Sun Aug 18, 2013 11:34 am

Indrajala wrote:Let me share a quote from a friend who is a monk in a Tibetan tradition:
    Yeah, it's disgusting. Long-term there seems to be nowhere for Western monastics, apart from scrabbling around trying to save up for visas and stuff and having to work teaching to have the dubious honour of staying in a monastery with useless monks.

Sounds like he was just venting.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby JKhedrup » Sun Aug 18, 2013 5:29 pm

My observations after 9 years of ordination, 6 spent in the Tibetan tradition and 3 in Theravada and Chinese monasteries.

Western monks and nuns in the Tibetan tradition are in a catch 22. There is no funding for training, and no one wants you unless you are trained. For most this means either waiting until retirement for ordination, working at an outside job, or being a lifelong administrator/staff member at the centre. Also, there are some Western practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism who will not like Western monks and nuns no matter what they do.

Even if a Westerner is young enough and good in languages and moves into a Tibetan monastery in India or Nepal, there are loads of obstacles people might not think of. For example, right now, 5 monks who were studying at the monasteries in South India, and have made it through the first few years, are running into problems with the Indian administration. The government delayed the renewal of their permits to stay until after their visas had expired, so they were forced to leave the country. Three of those monks have applied for Indian visas from their home countries and again been refused. From what I understand, the situation in Nepal is even more difficult with visas. At the big monasteries there are no exceptions made, so monks often cannot move up with their class due to missing course time as no exceptions are made for foreigners. Some cannot return for years, and are not able to complete their studies. Others run out of money for airfare etc. while renewing the visas.

I found myself with no money, a visa about the expire for the third time, and no support so went from South India to Thailand. I had worked all the way through university in order to have a little money to live in India after ordination but could only get 6 month visas. No one offered to help, so I went to stay with a friend who was a monk in Thailand (after requesting permission from my Tibetan preceptor) and decided to study the Theravada tradition. A wonderful experience through which I learned a great deal, but one which was broadly criticized by Western Vajrayana practitioners. After not helping me, they criticized me for shopping traditions (I saw my loyalty to my ordination and knew if I spent another summer in Canada in robes editing legal documents in a lay office setting, it would be hard to maintain my vows).

Eventually after my teacher's suggestion to try and continue Tibetan studies and some help from FPMT, I was able to complete a translator training program in Dharamsala and have been translating for a fantastic geshe for the last 2.5 years. Now with a skill centres want me, though I realize when I am old and no longer able to perform this function I will likely find myself with no work and no means of support once again, and may have to spend old age in a government shelter type environment (I know 2 translators who this happened to after they could no longer work). The fear or the future is something I have decided to live with as a cultivation of renunciation. I realize that right now I have an amazing opportunity to serve the dharma and accumulate merit. But to say it is not a concern would not be honest.

To compound the difficulties, there are a number of not so well-adjusted people in our tradition who were ordained by lamas with good intentions. This means that often people in robes might not behave well, become rigid dogmatists, or be seen as mooches. It is very unfortunate. Also, when people ordain later in life it is far more difficult to challenge one's habitual tendencies or live in a community. I don't necessarily think people should be ordained if they will continue to live alone in their apartment and work. HHDL has guidelines on his webpage that make it clear he will nor ordain people under those conditions.

The way to handle this would be to train young monastics so that they can serve the centre in some capacity, though many centres don't see the long-term benefit in this. Rather than send someone to India/Nepal and fund their translator training, for example, to save money they would rather have someone in the community translate even if that means the teacher will be severely limited in what they can present, and the quality will be lower. Rather than fund a Westerner in a monastery people want to save for their own retreats and empowerments. This is fine, people are free to make choices, but if no one is interested in supporting education for Western monks and nuns it seems a bit hypocritical to then complain about them being not qualified.

To close, though, I want to tell would be monks and nuns not to lose hope. Try to build some skills to be able to serve the Buddhist community, and continue to help others according to your present capacity. Most importantly, be kind and courteous, and try to maintain good relationships with everyone. Over the last two years, I have to say there are some laypeople who have shown me tremendous kindness and appreciation, and have helped from time to time. It did take many years of hardship in the beginning, but maybe that was about my karma. If you remain determined eventually people will see that determination, and slowly you might find that support manifests. Just the other week someone I met through this very board gave me a beautiful thangka to support my practice. Last year several people in Canada who I knew as a teenaged dharma practitioner organized funding for Geshe la and I to sponsor empowerments with his uncle, the abbot of Sera Jey, for a large group of monks and nuns in India.

Conditions are hard but things can change when you feel you are at the end of your rope.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby maybay » Sun Aug 18, 2013 9:03 pm

JKhedrup wrote:The government delayed the renewal of their permits to stay until after their visas had expired, so they were forced to leave the country. Three of those monks have applied for Indian visas from their home countries and again been refused. From what I understand, the situation in Nepal is even more difficult with visas.

It's unfortunate visas are issued entirely on economic grounds. Are governments shortsighted in this, or would issuing religious visas not be in their best interest do you think? Tibet wasn't interested in having any foreigners in their country at all. Why should we expect governments with their own monks to be interested in foreign monks? Any International Relations experts around?
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby JKhedrup » Sun Aug 18, 2013 10:21 pm

Remember that India and Nepal are not Buddhist countries and the Tibetans are stateless refugees living within those countries. So the situation is very different from a Buddhist country like Thailand, for example, where it is rather easy to stay up to 10 years as a monk on a religious visa (after 10 years it can become a problem). Taiwan is another place where one can stay a fair while as long as one has the support of a monastery that is responsible enough to keep track of the people it invites (usually the larger temples). Sri Lanka I have also heard is accessible, and I do have friends that have spent long periods in Burma despite its xenophobic government.

For those interested in specifically Vajrayana monastic training they have no choice but to live with the uncertainty, pretty much. The only Vajrayana country ruling itself at the moment is Bhutan and they are notoriously reluctant to issue foreigners long-term visas. I am uncertain as to whether even a well known Bhutanese lama like Dzongsar Kyentse Rinpoche would be able to secure visas for his students. I have not heard of any long term Western practitioner or monastic residents in Bhutan.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby greentara » Mon Aug 19, 2013 1:00 am

jkhedrup, I do feel sympathy and it's certainly a difficult, challanging path and way to live but of course it's a yearning, a calling, someone ripe cannot resist. Still it doesn't sound easy under any circumstances.
It's interesting to read all the obstacles the Indian government puts in place, bureaucracy and 6 month visas only! Contrary to this Indians are flooding into western countries without reciprocol visa limitations. Here in Australia there are countless Indians here on 457 visas; unfortunately gobbling up the local jobs and causing much hardship in the IT, banking, analyst areas etc.
This really suits the large corporations as they want a cheap, compliant workforce!
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 19, 2013 2:44 am

Also keep in mind if you apply for an Indian visa outside your home country, they can and often do only issue you three months, or sometimes only one month. So, if you go to Nepal on a visa run expecting to get another six months, you can sometimes end up with your plans foiled.

You can stay in Nepal long-term quite easily if you have the money. A visa agent can secure business visas which enable you to stay indefinitely provided you renew every year. You need a few hundred dollars for one. Failing that, enrolling in an educational institute ensures a student visa.

I have to apply for a new Indian visa soon here in Singapore. I hope I'll get six months, but there is no guarantee.

It is possible to get five year visas for India, but this requires applying from your home country. That would mean going all the way back to Canada to apply for a visa I may or may not receive.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby greentara » Mon Aug 19, 2013 3:57 am

I know a man who managed to get a five year visa for India, he was attached to a well known ashram and followed a 'charismatic' teacher. It did not end on a high note as he left the ashram disillusioned.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby JKhedrup » Mon Aug 19, 2013 4:23 am

Americans can get 5 or even 10 year visas, I am not sure about Canadians though.

After years of problems I did finally manage to secure a 5 year visa to India in 2008, before my translation course. (Sadly, it has now expired and I will have to courier my passport to my parents in Canada even to get 6 months- which you can do via mail). However, I noticed the 5 year option is no longer on the website except for people who have family in India. I wonder if there is a way around this.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Huifeng » Mon Aug 19, 2013 5:09 am

May all who aspire to renounce and train in the Dharma be able to realize their aspirations.

:namaste:

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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Aug 19, 2013 5:24 pm

I've often wondered what kind of arrangements the Buddha would have tried to make for his practitioner disciples if he had appeared in a modern western society. Maybe the premise is ridiculous, but it seems clear to me that the Buddha was basically pragmatic and would try for something that at least had some chance of working. What do you think?
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby Indrajala » Mon Aug 19, 2013 5:44 pm

dzogchungpa wrote:I've often wondered what kind of arrangements the Buddha would have tried to make for his practitioner disciples if he had appeared in a modern western society. Maybe the premise is ridiculous, but it seems clear to me that the Buddha was basically pragmatic and would try for something that at least had some chance of working. What do you think?


In the absence of a sustainable social mechanism for supporting mendicancy, we can only speculate.

Basically, I think western monastics, if they're going to last, will have to earn incomes or possibly be partly self-sufficient by means of food production. There are too many factors working against monasticism in the west. I anticipate support from Asia will dry up, possibly starting in a generation or two. Younger generations are increasingly secular minded and allergic to religion.

This is why strict adherence to the Vinaya might be the undoing of some communities. There is of course the saying of the Buddha where so long as monks stick to the Vinaya the Dharma will remain in the world, but I think the spirit of that is more behaving oneself rather than abiding by archaic ecclesiastical law.

On the other hand, in the absence of a strong sangha, there is the possibility that a kind of lay priesthood could maintain things, which seems possible especially with Tibetan Buddhism as well as Japanese Buddhism. Such communities are possibly more resilient and adaptable than a sangha model.
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Re: Ordaining as a monk or nun in the west

Postby RikudouSennin » Mon Aug 19, 2013 11:19 pm

started wandering agian......
i'm just not meant to live a modern american lifestyle....
i guess im a wannabe sadhu...stuck in america
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