As you know, over 5 years ago, I was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk and resided in a temple/monastery for over 4 months. I had many apprehensions going into this challenge. I had never cut off my hair and eyebrows. I had never gone without dinner and monks do not eat after the midday. I had never resided in a community where I was the oldest person with the least amount of authority. I had never vowed to make no physical contact with a female. These are all part of the monastic lifestyle.
I have never been able to fully explain how I went from what was at times an extraordinarily hedonistic lifestyle to monk. The transition was quite gradual but it is incredible that it took place at all. My primary guide was Ajahn Sarayut (ajahn being a honorific for monastic teacher), a monk from Thailand living in Tucson Arizona. We met through his meditation group on Meetup.com.
After attending his monthly 90 minute meditations at the local library, I asked to be given more comprehensive training in meditation. And Ajahn asked me to guide him in hiking the local mountain trails.
For the next year I imagine we hiked about 3 times weekly. Always meditating. And we always had hours of conversation. What do you talk about to a monk? We had no common life experiences in the physical realm. No cultural similarities. As a matter of fact, language was often a barrier to communication. At least Ajahn had studied English or we would never have spoken since I do not know Thai.
I can tell you that the inclination is to discuss Buddhism when you spend hours with a Buddhist monk. And so we did, up and down the mountains and in dozens of emails which I wrote at night as my brain demanded more information. Simultaneously, I read dozens of books, journals and magazines on the subject. Then one day I decided that I would be Buddhist and I would take the vows associated with declaring oneself a Buddhist.
Here they are in Pali and English.
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures. 2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given. 3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct. 4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from lying or gossiping. 5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyamiI undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
I look back now at my “adventure” in spiritual growth. I marvel that the least of renunciations caused me much distress. I so fear/feared being hungry at night that I ate gluttonously at each lunch. It has taken me years to examine why the deprivation of food is so difficult. I am an overeater, that I know. But fear and anxiety about a meal…why?
The idea of self-imposed austerity is somewhat alien to my upbringing. If you can afford it, then eat it, wear it, drive it…own it. Austerity is generally for persons of limited means. While I am not rich, anymore, I can afford to eat. I can even afford to go on some spiritual retreats without having to renounce the life of a lay-person and become a monk. There has to be perceived value in the monastic lifestyle or why bother. In my case I saw it as a vehicle to diminish the fire of anger which burned constantly in me. I was incapable of putting out the flames of self-righteousness on my own. I was expert at rationalization, justification and resistance to change which were the barriers to a calmer life.
In the monastic life I had more time and occasion to reflect on my thoughts and actions. I was not distracted for hours upon hours by music, television telephone. I had my laptop and phone, but the emphasis was on practicing a quiet, contemplative lifestyle. Mindfulness was emphasized. If you eat, then eat. If you walk, then walk. If you drive, you drive. I was urged to do things and speak skillfully. I was encouraged to examine my actions for their intent and effect. Most visitors to the temple spoke Thai so small talk was kept to a minimum.
Cloistered with and managed by lifelong Buddhist monks was weird but simple. No one ever really asked me to do something I did not or could not do., yet I found these simple commands of the monastic life difficult. Ludicrous at times. But slowly, having nothing else to do, I began to engage the world more mindfully.
One of the primary functions of monastic renunciation of so many aspects of ordinary life is to facilitate an inner transformation. Mindful meditation jump-started the process of seeing (awakening) to the truth. The truth being that most things I relied upon for happiness or caused me sadness were not true causes. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist writer says “Renunciation is often difficult. Grappling with the power of desire, attachments, and fear may require great personal struggle. But that struggle yields many benefits. We develop the inner strength to overcome temptation and compulsion. We don’t have to live with the suffering and contraction that come with clinging. Clinging can be exhausting; letting go is restful. We may taste the luminous mind of freedom, which is hidden when clinging is present. And, last but not least, we are more available to work for the welfare of others.”
I had an epiphany after 3 months. I was and had always been in the throes of thought patterns that demanded I create and nurture resentments. Nothing was fully exempt from my manufacturing of disdain and resentments. But suddenly in one of my morning meditations, I saw clearly that I was the source of my problem and a solution. Rather than try to teach the monks how to behave in my Anglo-culture, as I had been doing dutifully, I would simply offer myself to be of service. It was a seismic shift which could be felt by the ajahns I lived with. My new mantra became “what can I do to help today?” My old mantra had been more like, “how can I teach you today?”
It is coming up on 5 years since I returned to my family and the life of a lay-person. Hardly a day goes by that my experience does not directly impact my thoughts and behavior. I still joke mindlessly at times, but I rarely act mindlessly and unskillfully. I wish most people not be as hard-headed as I am about their spiritual growth. But my experience with people leads me to believe that most people are very much resistant to genuine change of a spiritual nature. It requires renunciation not of lust but of comfort. It requires practice in observing the mind, primarily through meditation. Spiritual progress has not come about by judging or interpreting the actions of others, but in keeping the focus and solution on myself.
Soon I will face the prospect of returning temporarily to the monastic life. I am still attached to my hair and dinner. These two things alone lead me to believe my work is far from over. Meantime, I ride my bike and teach. These things are powerful spiritual motors. I have been able to ride them to new destinations previously inaccessible.