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 Post subject: Monasticism at Present
PostPosted: Wed Apr 25, 2012 7:58 pm 
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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.


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Dear Jeffery,
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.

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 25, 2012 8:34 pm 
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There are several very good monks and nuns that makes it seem like it is worthwhile keeping the institution of monasticism, but admittedly, they seem to be the minority.

For one who is not disciplined, boredom results or worse, bad things to fill the void. Overall, I think monasticism helps create a community, i.e., Sangha and there are some good communities out there. It would be good if there were some coordinated effort to help with some of the issues raised by those monastics, for example, more support, more emphasis on practice and the needs of the monastics and at the same time educating the lay people about these concerns so that they don't have unrealistic expectations.

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 25, 2012 9:05 pm 
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I've lived and worked alongside a number of Western monastics here in the West, most of whom by all appearances are vibrant, healthy, and relatively happy human beings. However, many of them were ordained in organizations which have quite lengthy and involved application and training guidelines, where the pre-ordination and novice ordination process can last up to 5 years before full ordination is given. This process offers plenty of time for both the applicant and the senior monastics to assess the mental fitness and aptitude of the candidate.


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PostPosted: Wed Apr 25, 2012 11:15 pm 
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Jnana wrote:
I've lived and worked alongside a number of Western monastics here in the West, most of whom by all appearances are vibrant, healthy, and relatively happy human beings. However, many of them were ordained in organizations which have quite lengthy and involved application and training guidelines, where the pre-ordination and novice ordination process can last up to 5 years before full ordination is given. This process offers plenty of time for both the applicant and the senior monastics to assess the mental fitness and aptitude of the candidate.


That's how it generally works in Taiwanese organizations, though the drop out rate as I understand it is high.

I imagine with western monastics a high percentage of them, regardless of the tradition, eventually do disrobe. This isn't necessarily that terrible as "ordination" in the institutional sense isn't necessarily renunciation as the Buddha taught it. In many ways I think institutionalized ordination creates a whole new set of attachments and hindrances in place of the ones a layperson usually faces. The idea of leaving of the home life and entering the homeless life was to sever hindrances, but clergy often seem bound, either willing or unwillingly, to organizations, possessions, positions and hierarchies, not at all unlike the home life.

So, at least in my case, it leads to a lot of questions and doubts about the system, which are often echoed by my friends who are monks themselves.

Lately I've come to think one can, as an individual, do away with institutionalized Vinaya and precepts, and simply live as a renunciate without anyone's permission or sanction. You might not be formally entitled to "receive offerings", but then as Milarepa said if you practice properly the offerings come rolling up the mountain into the cave.

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