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.
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.