Monday, December 15, 2008

Blogs of Interest

I'm in the middle of studying for exams so I don't think I'll be posting for awhile. Please visit these blogs by my fellow Western nuns studying in India: A Year in India by Ani Damcho and The Path Less Travelled by Ani Yejung.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

My Roomates

These are my roomates, Pema Chodron (not the famous one) on the left, and Ngawang Sherab on the right. Pema is from Ladakh and in her first year of shedra. Ngawang is from Tibet, and in her second year. I feel lucky to have these woman as my roomates.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Young Nun Studying

Considering Ordination Part 2

People seem to have a vast array of projections about monks and nuns. For Westerners these are largely carry-overs from their image of Christian monastics and other clergy. We also seem to take references from Hollywood's vision of peaceful Zen monasteries or even the Shaolin monks in our projection of what monasticism means. This is not negative, per se; it is just how the conceptual mind works. We take bits and pieces from our experience and imagination and we solidify them into a conceptual projection. The tension comes in when we try to fit mundane appearances into the shape of our projections-- the way things are vs. the way things should be.

Often as not monks and nuns in the West are isolated as the single ordained person in a community of lay people. For the monastic himself or herself, a great deal of guidance can be taken from the Vinaya (the monastic code) as per what is appropriate. Traditionally, lay people do not study the Vinaya, and it certainly is not expected for lay people to have a comprehensive understanding of the monastic vows and rituals. In fact, too much awareness of these things can lead lay people to criticize the ordained for not behaving 'correctly'. On the other hand, difficulties arise when lay people have no recompense other than popular culture and Christianity in forming their understanding of Buddhist monks and nuns. It is neither comfortable nor desirable for Westerners to act Asian in a desire to be 'correct' as monastics. This may work if the Western monk or nun is in training in Asia, but in the West it does not lead to a style of monasticism feasible for Westerners. We need to discern what is Vinaya, and what is merely a reflection of its host culture. I think much can learned from Christian monasticism, but we also need to be aware of the differences between our two traditions. For example, most Christian monks and nuns are trained prior to taking lifelong ordination. In the Buddhist tradition ordination is often the very first step in training. This leads to difficulties when one gets ordained by a travelling lama. Who trains the new monastic? It is also confusing for some lay people who expect that the ordained person has been ordained on the basis of qualifications.

I think these issues are very much worthy of consideration, especially to prospective monastics. The Buddha taught that there is no permanent, truly established identity. Thus, we need have mindfulness when it comes to pursuing a 'monastic identity'. Since my last post I have given this a great deal of thought. Why do people desire so deeply to be ordained? Why do they later disrobe? I think it sometimes has to do with grasping after identity. Identity grasping, after all, is the linchpin of samsara. Learning to identify and deconstruct identity grasping is an extremely significant part of the Buddhist path.

How, then, should we approach monasticism? I think we must see it as a practice, and we must view monastics as people doing a special kind of practice. The Vinaya itself is not merely a set of rules for the ordained; it is a description of the practice of monasticism. We don't choose to abandon sexual conduct etc. because we aren't interested in it. We abandon it because we see it as harmful. Why is it harmful? Because it increases desire and thus binds us more tightly to cyclic existence. All of the monastic vows have to do with abandoning actions harmful to oneself and others as well as creating a situation were mental virtues may naturally increase. So instead of ordination because 'this is who I want to be', I suggest ordination because 'this is how I want to practice in order to attain enlightenment'.

Tug of inner peace?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Consdering Ordination Part 1

From time to time I receive letters from people who are considering monastic ordination in the Buddhist tradition. At the moment there are two young women in my home town who are looking in that direction. With them in mind I'll offer some tips and thoughts.

Dear Friend,

Thank you for your letter. I am always glad to hear from people who are considering the monastic life. Ordination is a special way of life unlike other vocations in this world. Whether you ordain or not, there is great virtue in merely giving rise to the thought of doing so.

You may feel a big rush to take vows. Be wary of this feeling. Like marriage, vows are nothing to jump into without preparation. A life long comitment must be based on a solid and well informed foundation.

Please take time to carefully read this guide called Preparing for Ordination. Buddhist masters and experienced monastics have put this book together especially for Westerners who are consdering ordination. I think it is broadly aplicable to anyone who is interested in monasticism.

You may meet lamas in the Tibetan tradition who seem hesitant to ordain you. This is not arbitrary. They have see hundreds of people rush into ordination, full of devotion and ambition, only to disrobe to within a few years or months. Why do people disrobe? My own opinion is: People jump into ordination in a search for identity. When they discover that ordination has not bestowed upon them the identity they seek, they feel discouraged. Yes, ordination is full of blessings, but eventually you still have to confront the same old habitual tendencies which have governed you up till now.

If you are planning to live as a monastic in the West, or even in many places in Asia, take a long look at the situation for monastics. Many monks and nuns must work to support themselves. Some live on their own, others are accomodated in Dharma centers. It impresses me that people are able to maintain their ordination while working at normal jobs and paying rent and bills. I don't think the Buddha intended for monastics to work in this way, but from the depths of my heart I salute the people who manage to do so.

It takes many conducive conditions to maintain ordination. A new monastic needs the guidance of a senior monk or nun. Traditionally the novice will stay with his or her master for ten or twelve years. The novice emulates the master and seeks his or her guidance in all matters. These days it may be hard to find this sort of training. Even if you decide to live on your own as a monastic, consider spending at least a few months under the tutelage of experienced monks and nuns.

The Buddha had his monastic followers live in communties together. These monasteries became great factories of enlightenment where people could study, meditate together and support eachother on the path to enlightenment. We are very fortunate that such communites still exist today, even in Western countries. Please take a look at Gampo Abbey, Plum Village, Sravasti Abbey, and the F.P.M.T.. These are just a few of the organizations which provide support for monks and nuns.

More to come in Part 2.