Guardians of the Way;

The Importance and Benefits of Monastics Living Together

  • By Gelong Tenzin Legtsok

 

Homage to the Sangha rare and sublime,

In whose mind-stream exists the profound Dharma,

Foremost amongst whom is the sovereign Buddha.

 

In December 2014, during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Jangchub Lamrim teachings at Ganden Jangtse Monastery in South India, about 30 IMI monks and nuns gathered for a meeting.  The main topic was an initiative by the IMI office to increase connectivity and sense of community among IMI members, by having people connect to monastic community wherever they existed in their region. Enhancing communication via the internet was a suggestion from some of the members that could help to increase the sense of community.  I voiced the opinion that, while it is a good step to build a stronger virtual IMI community, we should see this as a step toward building more actual brick and mortar monastic communities within the IMI because it is physical living monastic communities which have played a central role in upholding the Buddha’s teachings since their origin.

One of the sangha members present replied with the question, “Why do we need monastic communities anyway?”  Naively, I was dismayed that an ordained person would not see the benefit and need for face to face living Buddhist monastic communities in the West.  One of the other sangha members present asked me to write an essay on the history and need for monastic communities.  As I began to research and write about the first monastic communities during Shakyamuni Buddha’s time it became clear that more than historic precedents, what is needed are plain reasons why monastic communities are essential to the life and training of monks and nuns, and for the preservation of the Buddhist path in the world.  This is how the essay, Guardians of the Way, came to be.

 

In order to clarify for myself, coming from a culture in which the ways of Buddha-dharma are foreign, the virtue of monastics to live together, I will compose this essay.  If it acts as a condition for others to taste the joy I have tasted through living in a monastery, then it will have been meaningful.

Wherever there is a gelong, a holder of the Vinaya, that place is luminous; that place is illuminated. See that place as not devoid of me. I also abide unperturbed in that place.

  • Shakyamuni Buddha, Vinaya Bases

Think, “The Sangha teaches the teaching, practices it, and reflects on it.  It is the teaching’s sphere.  It upholds the teachings, entrusts itself to the teaching, worships the teachings, and conducts itself according to the teachings.  It has the teachings as its sphere of activity, and is the most excellent practitioner of the teaching.”

  • Compendium of the Teachings

Every instance of suffering ever experienced by any sentient being has arisen from ignorance grasping at an inherently existent self.  For as long as a person does not realize the emptiness of such a self they will continue to suffer endlessly.  Knowledge of this wisdom realizing selflessness, ultimate truth, and how to use it to eradicate suffering from the root is extremely rare and precious.  So long as there are groups of people in the world who keep the knowledge of this truth alive there is a way for others to gain freedom from suffering.  A passageway is held open for others to escape samsara.  When there are no longer people who keep this truth alive, then the door, the only door, from a realm of darkness into a realm of light, has closed.

The general notion that grasping at a false sense of self is the main obstacle to fulfillment is found in the writings of sages from many traditions such as Christian mystics, Sufis, Hindus, and philosophers of Ancient Greece to name a few.  However, Buddhist teachings are unique in the clarity with which they define and explain how to train in wisdom realizing selflessness to overcome afflictive emotions, their stains, and even obscuration to omniscience.  Although this path is open to all, through the ages it has been the responsibility of the ordained Buddhist Sangha to devote themselves wholly to training in, realizing, and teaching this path to subsequent generations.  Thus the existence of a Buddhist Sangha is of inexpressible importance not just for ordained people but for the entire world of sentient beings who suffer and want relief.

Why though must we nuns and monks live together in communities?  In researching relevant sutras for this article I found advice about how to ordain people, how to guide and train them, the benefits of living together, how to live together harmoniously, and how to avoid and resolve disputes.  However, it is difficult to find statements directly indicating the need for ordained followers of the Buddha to live together.  One gets the sense that in the past perhaps it was an underlying assumption that it is good for ordained people to live communally.

When Prince Gautama first took up the life of a wandering mendicant he initially sought instruction from several renowned teachers of the day.  It is recorded that during this time he lived and practiced near these teachers among groups with other trainees.  At the time of the Buddha most of His ordained followers lived together in order to receive guidance from Sariputra, Maudgalyayana and other senior disciples.  Until today nearly all monastics in the Theravada and Chinese Buddhist traditions live within monastic communities.  The vast majority of Tibetan and Himalayan monks and nuns live as part of one or another monastic community.  Yet precious few communities of Western Buddhist ordained people have arisen.  Some Western monastics even seem to doubt the value and importance of establishing such communities.  Here I will present some reasons why monastic communities are important, and some benefits of being part of one, to encourage us to work towards forming more of them in the West.

Wisdom directly and non-conceptually understanding the truth of selflessness is the actual Dharma Refuge.  This wisdom actually eradicates suffering from the root and brings us deepest satisfaction.  The actual Rare Sublime Sangha consists of people who have generated this wisdom, the Dharma, in their mind-streams.  They are the Arya Sangha.  Groups of monks or nuns who devote their lives to upholding this truth are also called the Sangha because, by living in the Pratimoksha vows, they are similar to, and follow the way of life deemed best by the Arya Sangha.  Where such an ordained sangha exists, ideally the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are upheld.  Where the teachings of the Buddha are upheld, there is a way for people to come to know how to free themselves from suffering.

To fully inherit the torch of Dharma from previous generations, junior monastics must learn from knowledgeable elders.  In order to make the Dharma available for future generations, elders must offer their guidance and insight gained through experience to juniors.  This transmission requires a profound level of face to face communication among many people over extended periods of time.  Moreover, transmission of wholesome values happens in an entirely organic fashion, based on juniors watching and learning from the uncontrived actions of dedicated elder monks and nuns.  Individuals living alone lack access to such an organic process, and their growth will be stunted.  If the continuity of this stream of communication declines and breaks, future generations will lack living examples of people wholeheartedly striving for liberation and enlightenment, not to mention those who’ve achieved it, and will thus find it extremely difficult to discover and believe in the possibility of liberation or the path to it.  Thus the existence of Buddhist monks and nuns’ communities is of immeasurable importance for the welfare of sentient beings.  To contribute to the thriving of such a community is profoundly meaningful.  Having the opportunity to be part of one is something to treasure.

If you’re not signing up yet, some further advantages of being part of a monastic community are: we are directly part of something bigger then ourselves by contributing to the life of a community which has the potential to benefit many people in a profound way.  We gain the companionship of friends who share our deep commitment to spiritual development in the Buddhist path.  We have access to more teachers, teachings, and role models then if we live alone.  When we have questions or wish to discuss our doubts, others with the relevant knowledge and experience are close at hand.  As we develop, we have opportunities to support other monastics in their practice and studies.  Thich Nhat Hanh sums up some of these points eloquently in his excellent book on building sangha communities, Joyfully Living Together:

The essence of Sangha is a community that lives in harmony and awareness.  To achieve that aim we need to rely on each other’s wisdom and insight. By cultivating our humility we can gradually integrate ourselves in the Sangha body.  That means allowing others to advise us, to support us, and to guide us.  We are aware that we cannot grow independently from others.  Our progress, our spiritual growth is interdependent with the progress and practice of the whole community.  In turn we learn to offer support and guidance to others.  We especially receive guidance from our elders, from those who have trodden the path before us, and we offer support to those who are younger than us.  In this way there is a clear connection between everyone in the Sangha.  We can also receive support from those who are younger than us, and we can offer support to our elders by our sincere and wholehearted practice. (p29)

At different periods in our monastic life, the community we live in benefits us in different ways.  As a newly ordained person it trains and informs us how to wear the robes, how to keep the vows, how to skillfully deal with different situations, and offers us role models of people who have been able to keep their vows well for a long time.  When we engage in meditation retreats it helps provide for us.  When we become weak with sickness or old age the community looks after and nurses us.  When we die, our fellow monks and nuns pray for us.  In dependence on others in the community we even create causes to have close companions on our spiritual path in future lives.

When we are studying, a monastery or nunnery offers us the opportunity to study with more supportive conditions and fewer obstacles.  Mundane tasks like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and maintenance etc. are shared by all freeing up much time and mental space.  By studying the Dharma in a community, especially a large one, we are exposed to more well qualified teachers and students with a broad range of ideas and perspectives, deepening and enriching the quality of our learning.  The greater our wisdom of hearing, the greater our wisdom of contemplation will become, and accordingly the greater will be our wisdom gained through meditation.  Recognizing such benefits, monastic scholars of the past naturally formed major communities of study and practice, like Nalanda and Vikramashila in India, and the Three Great Seats in Tibet.  The great yogi saint, Shabkar, said that the Three Seats where the most powerful objects of offering in Tibet.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche often comment that without the Three Seats and the two tantric colleges it would be nearly impossible to produce individuals with a broad, deep, and accurate understanding of both Sutra and Tantra.

Our teachers are especially pleased to instruct groups of monastics engaged in serious studies because these groups are the students who will be responsible for upholding the Dharma in the future.  In the West, there are more and more departments and professors of Buddhist studies at universities.  These programs are certainly beneficial; however, to fully inherit and maintain the lineages of teaching and realization we receive from our Tibetan and Himalayan lamas we need communities of people who combine scholarship with serious practice over multiple lifetimes.  Monastic communities provide a basis for such continuity of practice.

The commonly held expectation in a monastery or nunnery is that each person spends his or her time meaningfully by studying, meditating, or serving the community.  This underlying expectation makes it natural and easier to persevere in these activities than in a setting where they are not the norm.  A common saying in the Three Seats is that although monks learn from hearing their teachers’ explain texts and from independent reading, their greatest source of knowledge is the classmates with whom they debate.  In the debate courtyard classmates help us by simply talking through material we have read, restating main the points succinctly, in plain language, and thus creating stable memories of the meaning in our minds.  They also help us unravel thorny doubts by both suggesting explanations to resolve apparent contradictions, and asking us many questions which we would not think to ask.  When we are unable to answer satisfactorily, we see our own ignorance in sharp relief and are both humbled and spurred on to learn more.

Even if we are not inclined to study, by contributing to the running of a monastic community where studies are available we give others the opportunity to focus more on their studies and create causes for ourselves to have the same opportunity in the future.  The same logic holds true when we support others in retreat, providing translation, and teaching.  We need the fuel of merit in order to develop realizations.  By being part of a community we accumulate much more merit than by practicing alone because we all share in the merit that the community creates.  Anyone who has taken bodhisattva vows at large teaching events with His Holiness the Dalai Lama can attest to the uniquely powerful sense of inspiration that arises through engaging in such a powerful virtuous action together with a great number of people.  At Sera, I sometimes find it very moving to be with a large congregation slowly chanting melodic prayers, reflecting on the incredible aspirations they express, and feeling that these are ideals we aspire to together.  Even something as simple as offering tsog together with a few others is more powerful than doing it alone.

In a monastic setting we are surrounded by monks and nuns holding the Pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, by speech concerning dharma, by a plethora of virtuous activities, and by holy objects.  Simply by rejoicing, we have ample opportunities to accumulate merit and plant imprints of dharma in our minds.  Such opportunities are rare in samsara.  When I have been away from the monastery for some days and return, just seeing monks in robes walking around on the street brings joy in my mind.  Others in the community who are also disciples of our lamas are “pores of the lama”, by serving and making offerings to them we create more merit than making offerings to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  Monastic communities provide us with countless such precious opportunities.

Monastics living together harmoniously is also pleasing to the lama.  When we take ordination from a preceptor we see him or her as akin to a parent in our new life as a renunciate.  In the same way, we should see other sangha, especially those who have ordained with one of our lamas, as sisters and brothers in ordination.  Just as a loving mother is pleased to see her dear children getting along well and helping one another, it pleases our lamas when we live together supporting one another with mutual respect and concern.  Of course personal conflicts arise, but a monastic community provides the best setting to resolve them with methods the Buddha taught in the Lam-Rim and Vinaya.  In such a way, personal conflicts can actually become opportunities for growth.  If we live alone, we may study countless teachings on compassion, yet still find it difficult to get along with others in simple day-to-day living.  Past lamas founded monasteries and nunneries because they are excellent places to train individuals to develop realizations.  In many biographies of great lamas, one common measure of their holy deeds causing the Dharma to flourish is how many monastic centers they established.  When the Abbot Shantarakshita and Guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to Tibet the first thing they did was establish Samye Ling, a monastic community.

On a more personal level, in a monastery setting we form unique bonds of friendship.  Our relationships with others are largely free of the tensions that come with money, familial commitments, extensive possessions, employment, sexual relationships, alcohol and drug use and so forth.  We fill the emotional space created by the lack of such drama and turmoil with our personal practice, and with relationships based on the view of dependent arising and the conduct of loving kindness and compassion.

Having healthy emotional bonds with others is essential for human happiness and health.  Not only common sense but also many scientific studies indicate that people with more friendships live longer and are less prone to sickness and depression.  An article in the 2014 September/October issue of the magazine Scientific American Mind described the findings of five researchers who did a meta-analysis of previous studies to find out about the relationship between being part of a group and depression.  They looked at sixteen studies involving over 2,600 people from many countries.  “The common finding across all studies was that the more someone identified with a group the less severe his or her depression symptoms were.  Thus a sense of connection to a group rather than just contact with individuals is what protects mental health.” (p. 62-3) If such a sense of identification is important even for laypeople, its applicability to  Western monks and nuns, engaged in a life’s journey so incredibly alien to our societies and cultures at large is even greater.  Another study found that when people just think about the social groups with which they identify, they are more resistant to viruses, less likely to lash out at others who have offended them, and tolerate physical pain better.  Members of a monastic community live a lifestyle and strive for goals that are totally different from those of most people in the world.  These are goals that they deem exceptionally worthwhile, and so they develop a strong sense of positive identification with their cohorts in monastic life.  This sense of belonging is cause for a unique joy.

While still new at Sera, experienced monks would often tell me that the friendships I would form with my new classmates would be some of the closest and most rewarding in my life.  I was skeptical as we could not communicate well and our backgrounds and life experiences where totally different.  Some of the monks even seemed to disdain Westerners or see me as simply an odd-looking source of entertainment.  Twelve years later, I understand the truth of their words.  Although sometimes we still cannot communicate so well, and our backgrounds are still different, as classmates we have shared what will probably be the most significant years of learning and transformation in our lives.  Through the hardships and pleasure of studying and debating, praying, memorizing, and following the discipline of the monastery year after year, together we have grown close in ways I never had with other people.  It’s not like the closeness with parents or siblings, nor with lay friends or lovers, or even with the other monks with whom I live.  It’s not that we especially enjoy eating out or going for walks and such things together.  In fact we rarely do.  I think the unusual affection among classmates arises largely because the motivations for having the relationships and the content of them are pure, largely unmixed with the eight worldly concerns.  Our friendships have developed due to our shared wish to learn the Buddhist path.  As we meet primarily on the debate courtyard, our conversations revolve around the many treatises and ideas through which we come to understand this path.  Such friendships are unique to a nunnery or monastery.

Before I was a monk I sometimes feared of ending up destitute and alone like people I had occasionally come across.  Having settled into Sera I feel that no matter what happens, I’ll always have a safe place and kind people to live with.  This sense of safety and protection is yet another benefit of being part of a monastic community.

We are creatures of habit.  For better or worse, we tend to emulate to habits of those around us. If we want to subdue delusions and develop positive qualities it is wise to live with others who strive to do the same.  Through countless past lives we have been habituated to following the energies of self-cherishing, anger, attachment, laziness and so forth.  If we truly want to give ourselves the best possible chance of overcoming these pernicious afflictions we should put ourselves in an environment with others who have subdued them or are striving to do so.  Like trying to go upstream in a swiftly moving river, if we simply swim it alone we’ll quickly tire and be swept downstream.  If we band together with a few others in a streamlined boat, each with and oar in hand and with an experienced guide at the helm, we’re likely to make good progress with little difficulty.  As Lama Yeshe said in his first advice to his Sangha community:

If monks and nuns have difficulty just keeping their physical lives together, how will they ever get a chance to study and retreat?  The strength of the Sangha community is that it ensures that everybody has a chance to take teachings and retreat; it makes sure that everybody is okay, and minimizes the external conditions that cause one to lose mental discipline.  I think this is really worthwhile.  It helps a lot.

One stipulation for Westerners taking ordination with His Holiness the Dalai Lama is that after ordaining they live for at least five years in a monastic community.  A main reason for this rule is that the rate of Westerners disrobing shortly after ordaining has been so high.  Of the six or so monks in the first pre-ordination course organized by the Dalai Lama’s office, of which I was part in 2001, three had disrobed within one year.  After five years nearly all the new monks, and even the course leader, had reverted to lay life. Keeping our vows purely is much easier when we live with other monastics, especially when we are newly ordained.

Some people argue that there’s no need for exclusively monastic communities in the West, and that living in dharma centers composed of lay and monastic practitioners is more suitable.  I disagree for several reasons.  In monastic communities decisions about how the community is organized and operated, and how funds are used, are made by monastics with the welfare of resident monastics foremost in mind.  Conversely, at dharma centers the focus is different.  Monastics at dharma centers often feel that their fate lies in the hands of a director who may change unpredictably.  Sometimes monastics members of a center are deemed to be a burden on the center, leading to an uncomfortable situation for both parties.

Monastic communities are ideally places where a monastic can live out their entire life.  They focus on creating optimal study and practice opportunities for their members with a very long-term perspective.  Dharma centers are usually focused on providing shorter-term courses for students who visit the center or live in the vicinity.  As such, they usually have a more limited vision of how to provide for their members.

Monastic communities should be places that train monastics to such a degree that they are well qualified to act as guides in Dharma for others.  These communities thus demand a lot of their fellow members. They achieve this goal due in large part to the organic process of monastics living closely together and coming to know each other in an intimate way such that they can’t hide much of anything from each other.  In dharma centers, since members do not usually live together, or if they do live together, have a significant degree of personal autonomy, the relationships are not as intimate or demanding.

Whereas in dharma centers monastics and the pursuit of a celibate way of life are a kind of side show, in a monastic community they take center stage and are held up as most important.  In such an environment, monastics feel supported and have a healthy sense of pride in being part of such a community.  Being part of a monastic community helps us to be more conscientious about keeping our vows.  Others know the vows we’re holding and if they see us acting inappropriately will bring it to our attention.  At dharma centers, monastics sometimes act inappropriately but are not corrected because there is no senior monastic there to speak to them and the lay members feel out of place doing so.  In a monastic community, since all members are celibate, there is no undercurrent of romantic liaisons as there often can be in centers.  If we break a root vow then we’re expelled from that community.  In a dharma center we can just show up in a new change of clothes.

In a monastic community others act as mirrors and encourage us in our practice, helping us to embody the profound advice implied in the Sojong ceremony when the preceptor asks, “Do you see your faults as faults?” and “Will you refrain from them in the future?”  We can also purify and restore our broken Pratimoksha vows by performing Sojong.  In the Vinaya there is a wealth of advice and prescriptions taught by Shakyamuni Buddha for how monastic communities should function and deal with various dilemmas that arise.  A monastic community takes its lead for guidance from this body of wisdom.  Dharma centers, on the contrary, often do not take this body of wisdom into account, instead taking modern business or charitable organizations as a model.

Following their teachers’ advice and their own wisdom, many monastics serve at centers in various capacities as teachers or SPCs, while others live alone doing retreat and practicing quietly in their own way.  For anyone to follow their lama’s advice and to keep even one vow of an ordained person for just a day in these degenerate times is something truly worthy of homage and deep respect.  In my little experience it is more difficult to live happily in ordination in the West and among lay people than in a monastery in India.  Therefore, I truly admire those who can do so while keeping their vows purely for many years.  It is in large part thanks to the many monks and nuns serving at centers from the 1970’s onwards that people like me have had invaluable opportunities to meet the Buddhadharma in the 90’s and later.  Therefore, without criticizing any, and while rejoicing in the monastic communities that have been established thus far, I think that we monastics from nations new to the Mahayana tradition can offer even better service to present and future generations of Buddhists by forming more monastic communities.

A main hesitation that I think Western monastics have regarding living as part of a monastery or nunnery is being obliged to follow rules.  There is much to say about this topic, but in a word, following the discipline of a monastic community can be seen as the practices of subduing the ego, reducing self-cherishing, and learning to cherish others more than oneself.  In a talk to the early monks at Nalanda Monastery in France Lama Yeshe gave one of the pieces of advice I found most useful as a new monk:

Monks and nuns should be practical in taking care of themselves, socially acceptable, and work for the benefit of the majority.  If the Sangha cannot work for the benefit of others, then what’s it all about?  Honestly, you have to have the motivation, “I am the servant of others.”  Perhaps, instead of OM MANI PADME HUM, this should be our mantra.  We should repeat over and over, “I am the servant of others, I am the servant of others….”

From beginingless time, all our suffering has come from following our ego, putting ourselves first and others second.  To live harmoniously with others we have to reduce our self-centeredness.  As Thich Nhat Hanh says in the passage cited above, “By cultivating our humility we can gradually integrate ourselves in the Sangha body.”  Offering ourselves in the service of a community, putting it first and ourselves second, and following the discipline of a community for the sake of showing support for the community are wonderful ways to reduce our self-centeredness.  This practice is hard on our egos, especially when it means not doing things we want to do and having to do things we don’t like or feel are a waste of our time.  Yet, through analyzing and experimenting we learn to see that following the discipline of a nunnery or monastery helps us let go of strong grasping at I and mine.  It helps us generate contentment by bringing simplicity to our lives.  It helps us learn to exchange self with others, bringing peace and happiness to the mind, and is the best basis for generating bodhichitta.  As it says in the Eight Verses of Mind Training, by Langri Thangpa,

When in the company of others,

I shall always consider myself the lowest of all,

And from the depths of my heart

Hold others as dear and supreme.

Once Venerable Roger Kunsang said that for the first nine years of being Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s attendant his “ego was screaming”.  Real dharma training is like that.  The guru puts us in circumstances that provoke anger by challenging our ego and our attachment, and we learn to let go.  As Lama Zopa Rinpoche once said, “When somebody tells you something that really hurts your mind, that is the best thing for your mind because it goes straight in your heart and touches your ego.”  Having to follow the rules and lead of a group can provoke your ego like that.  For the first five or six years at Sera my ego was often screaming in protest to many of the rules and aspects of the system, especially the continual oversight by elder monks.  It still grumbles sometimes.  But as we let go and entrust ourselves to the discipline of our monastic community we see the childishness of our self-cherishing, the wisdom in the monastic ways and gain more admiration for the tradition.  As others in the monastery see that we are responsible and self-disciplined, and as we become more senior, the external discipline loosens, and gradually we are able to take on the even greater challenges that come with overseeing others.

According to their karma and dispositions, different people have different experiences in monastic communities.  I suspect that because they are powerful virtuous objects, monastic communities cause uncommonly strong purification to happen, and this often manifests as sickness and mental obstacles.  The first few years at Sera were one of the most difficult times in my life.  Having stayed on despite the difficulties, now I sometimes think it is as close to a pure land on earth that I could find.  There’s no other satisfaction like quietly sitting in my room in the late afternoon reading profound passages from a dharma text, going to debate them in the evening with classmates, and then further reflecting on their meaning as we slowly chant the Heart Sutra and other prayers under the vast night sky.  At such moments I often pray that in the future many others will be able to experience this way of life, especially those in the country and culture that I am from.  I hope that this article in some way contributes to the establishment and flourishing of countless monastic centers, especially in lands where the light of Dharma has only recently appeared.

Sarva Mangalam

 

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Tenzin Legtsok is currently in his thirteenth year of the Geshe studies program at Sera Jey Monastic University.  He has been ordained as a Buddhist monk since 2001.  Born in Virginia, USA in 1973, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College in 1995.  The question of what makes for the most happy and meaningful life which compelled him to major in philosophy during college gradually lead to his study of meditation and philosophy with teachers among the exiled Tibetan communities in India and Nepal from 1999 until the present.  For the past ten years he has tried to make basic Buddhist teachings accessible to various audiences in India and the US through lectures and essays.