I recently asked a monk I'm in contact with about his thoughts on ordination and the following is his reply. At his request I won't name who this came from, but nevertheless it is from a senior western monk with a lot of experience. I found his honest remarks insightful, so I asked if I could share them here. I've met a lot of people who are inclined towards becoming a monk or nun, but for various reasons do not pursue it. I figure this might be some food for thought. Keep in mind this is from the Theravada perspective.
After 20 years in the Thai sangha I can only say I don’t recommend joining it. There is almost no esprit de corps or mutual support so that when it comes to emotional support or meaningful spiritual guidance you're completely on your own. You will have no duties because you are not expected to do anything, except the odd blessing and frequent danas. On the positive side this gives you plenty of time for meditation and/or study – if you can find a monastery that will just leave you alone (not too difficult). But all this free time can be destructive if you can’t discipline yourself and give yourself distinct goals. Also, the general sloth and aimlessness of the others tends to get you down after a while. It was the clouds of cigarette smoke that I found difficult to deal with. Another thing, within traditional Theravada societies you are constantly hemmed in by a million petty and irrational rules, not all from the Vinaya, many of them cultural, which can really grate on you after a while.
Should you go to the West you tend to become, perhaps like Taiwanese monks – very busy. Another problem of being in the West is people’s totally unrealistic idealized view of you, one that few can ever live up to forever. And when you fail to live up to their expectations they can get very nasty very quickly. Overnight the breathless adulation dissolves. Tell someone quite honestly that you are having doubts, that you are struggling with sexual frustration (a very common problem) or that you still haven’t reached the fourth jhana, and they are incensed. All this compels you to pretend, to fake it, and this isn’t good for you. I used to think that Western Buddhists were more open than Asians to straightforwardness and honesty, but they are not, at least not when it comes to the sangha. Of all the several hundred Western monks I have known over the years few have lasted, the rest left bitter, disappointed or glad to be done with it, some even after 25/30 years.
As for the Chinese sangha, I can’t say. Generally I got a good impression, particularly of nuns in Taiwan. But I know that you have to be inside to know the real situation. The only two negative things I noticed about Taiwanese monks was the opulence of their monasteries and the rather pronounced narcissism of a quite few of them, the first also very noticeable in Thailand, and the second very much so in Burma and Thailand. But at least Chinese monks don’t seem to spend all their time sleeping. My personal view is that being a lay man, having a small income and a quiet place to stay is many more times conducive to spiritual progress than entering the sangha. It may have been different in the past but this is certainly not the case now. It just doesn’t work anymore. Sorry to be so negative, but that’s my assessment after 20 years.
The remark there about being a layman as being more conducive to spiritual progress is worth consideration. I know more plenty of monastics who are bogged down with day jobs and monastic politics that absorb much of their time. As a layperson you might actually have the freedom and resources to go off to do meditation retreats or seek teachings elsewhere. As a monk or nun tied to an institution this might not be the case as you may not have either the permission or resources to leave, or even go into retreat.
I know there are only a few monks or nuns that read this forum regularly, but I reckon a number of people here might have an interest in ordination. With the above remarks in mind, do you think it really optimal to ordain? How would it differ in a Tibetan or Korean context?
Another concern is the number of westerners who inevitably quit and drop the lifestyle. Ani-la Dhamchoe wrote about this recently here:http://damchoe.wordpress.com/2012/04/23 ... ople-quit/
It does lead me to wonder if we'll see stable and long-lasting monastic institutions in the western world.