Uposatha Day Essay for the Full Moon
Over the last nine weeks I have presented the Art of Lay Life. Summarized in brief the ideal is to live a life that includes those elements, aside from recognized Buddhist practices, that you just have to include, but otherwise is as much like a monastic life as possible. This is an ideal in that I do not expect any readers to take this principle to heart absolutely; lack of conviction, lack of discipline, overwhelming impulses and all of these things conspire against the ideal. An ideal practitioner is a rare thing. However each of you can lean toward the ideal and study your own life to gain conviction that what I write might have some merit.
The Art of Monastic Life is to renounce and simplify, hanging on to nothing, most especially not any sense of personal identity but also not any of those things that sustain and gratify a special person. Now I have made a big distinction between living a monastic life and being an ordained monastic. The reason is most ordained monastics also only approximate the ideal of a monastic life and in this way are not much different than devout laypeople. It is certainly possible for a devout layperson to sustain a more monastic life than most ordained monastics, and accordingly realize great benefit in practice. This raises the question, Why do we have monastics? The answer, it turns out, is very important to the lay Buddhist.
First, although an ordained monastic may be imperfect in living a monastic life they vow to do so and have a social obligation to do so. These vows and obligations can be compared to marriage vows and the obligations of being a husband or life, which are also commonly kept imperfectly, and yet generally do make a big difference in sustaining the marriage as a cycle of transgression and repentance serves to keep a spouse within the understood boundaries. Ordained monastics take a set of vows laypeople generally do not. Moreover just as the wedding ring marks the spouse’s obligations in a way that invites public scrutiny, the robes and the shaved head mark the ordained monastic’s.
Second, a monastic has a clear blueprint for life more detailed than I could insist on in this series. A monastic’s vows have the form of hundreds, of precepts which specify in detain how to Select, Reject, Balance and Simplify. They leave very little wiggle-room. If you examine them carefully you find that systematically they prohibit virtually every opportunity for seeking personal advantage, for self-enhancement, for self-gratification. Most fundamentally they are based on simplicity, renunciation, and sensual restraint. Celibacy is generally taken as definitive of the monastic. The monastic is not allowed to beautify herself, is not allowed to engage in any normal livelihood, like farming, is not allowed to barter or trade, must strictly curtail sensual pleasures. The monastic is not even allowed to purposely endear themselves to laypeople in the aims of receiving better offerings of food and clothing. In this way the pure ordained monastic becomes the ultimate renunciate, and is likely to progress rapidly on the path. This does not mean the monastic cannot live comfortably, it means that it is, except in crisis situations, it none of her business.
Third, the monastic has the institutional support necessary to lead a monastic life uncompromised by life’s many contingencies. The institution is that of monastic ordination/vow and of lay support. A lot of people balk at the very idea of religious institutions or organized religions. (My adult daughter has always maintained that she does not believe in organized religions. She used to often come to the Austin Zen Center, where I used to live as a priest, particularly if some event like a potluck was underway. I would point out to her that someone had to organize that. Ajahn Brahm likes to describe Buddhism as the most disorganized religion.) The importance of monastic institution to Buddhism is evident in the importance the Buddha attached to it. Consider that the Buddha consistently referred to the entirety of his teachings as the Dharma-Vinaya. The Vinaya, half of this compound, specifically defines the monastic institution in its behavioral, procedural and social aspects. So it is important to understand what functions this institution serves, for both monastics and laity.
The immediate reason the ordained monastic requires institutional support is that in letting go of seeking any personal advantage she puts herself in an extremely vulnerable situation, and so is totally dependent on the goodwill of the laity, who must take an interest in the welfare of the monastics if they are to survive as monastics. Monastics are like your cat, who would also have a hard time surviving by herself. With that support monastics are in a unique position to fully embrace the monastic lifestyle with virtually no distractions. Thus institutionally Buddhism provides exceptional support for an exceptional lifestyle, for those who are able and willing to vow to pursue that lifestyle. A Buddhist community, in effect, commits itself to offering this opportunity to those able and willing to take advantage of it, thereby enabling a significant numbers of its members will advance far along the path of Buddhist practice.
This often raises eyebrows in the West, perhaps particularly in a culture like America’s that values individuality and independence. The question arises, Why would lay people trying to progress in their own lay practice support monastics so they can progress in their own?
Before answering this, consider the following. The monastic who takes sincere advantage of the opportunity provided by the Buddhist community, when her mind falls in line with the monastic lifestyle, that is, when any thoughts of personal advantage are totally frustrated, has an enormous reserve of time and energy. These can go in any combination of three directions. First, into contemplative practice and study. Second, into activities that directly benefit others. And third, sleep.
Unfortunately many monastics like to sleep a lot, but it is discouraged, and many spend most of their time in meditation, and many engage themselves not only in teaching the Dharma and providing pastoral counseling (expected clerical functions), but also in general education, founding of hospitals and other social services and public works. This engagement in public welfare is often unrecognized in the West; I was amazed to observe what a significant factor it is in Burmese society. The reason is we tend to think of monastics as pretty idle. They must be idle when it comes to acting on their own behalf, but there is nothing in the monastic precepts that keeps them from being as active as they possibly can on behalf of others. Monastic practice is not about escape from the world, only about escape from self-centered engagement in the world. Ven. Walpola Rahula, author of the classic What the Buddha Taught, wrote another book in which he traces the history of social engagement by monastics in Sri Lanka in the pre-colonial and then colonial times and argues that the idea that monastics are idle came about as the colonial powers disenfranchised the monastics of their traditional social roles as a means of reducing their powerful influence in the society.
So, why does the laity support monastics? This will be the topic of next week’s essay on the Art of Lay Life.