9

I hear a lot of "spiritually awakened" people, on shows like batgap.com and on forums like dharmaoverground.org claim that the age of the monastic life is over, and in the present day one must learn to mix the spiritual life with the ordinary life. There is also evidenced by popular lay leaders like John Kabat-Zinn, one-time monastic Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, Shinzen Young, Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, Eckhart Tolle and others. Perhaps a lot of lay people on this forum are in this boat too.

These are largely sincere people from what I can tell, who have spent a lot of time looking for the truth. So why do they say this?


There have always been scandals and corruption in monastic orders since the time of the Buddha, as well as rather rigid and dogmatic views taken by some abbots. So, that cannot be a new reason to decry the tradition. The Buddha certainly appears to have spent a lot of time dealing with problem makers of this sort.

And both problems continue to be pretty common in almost all Buddhist traditions today (Tibetan, Theravada, Zen etc) who in addition seem to have also confused culture with the pursuit of the truth.

Now, a monk who isn't a local, enrolling in any foreign tradition spends a lot of time learning the new culture, the language, the food, the social mores, often dealing with racism to boot - all of which appear to be a waste of time, taking away from actual time spent on spiritual development. The saving grace is that it teaches perseverance, patience and doggedness, but is it enough? What's the alternative?

Maybe it is this?


Religion is largely becoming a taboo word in modern times with the trend towards secular materialism ascending. So, it's not like the times of the Buddha when the entire Sakhyan clan decided to follow the Buddha into monkhood. The bar is quite high for someone in the west or in any westernized country really, to forsake all known things, and head off to the other side of the world to become a monk.

Of course many still do.

Maybe it is this?


In the time of the Buddha lay arhats were pretty rare, the general route was to become a monk. Certainly if one must remain immersed in meditation and dhammic thoughts all day and night, lay life with its smells, noises and temptations is far more dangerous today than at any time previously. This alone must make monasticism all the more necessary today.

Yet, some lay teachers I can think of like Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk (at least one of them claims to be an arhat) declare that the idea of 24x7 meditative or dhammic immersion is impossible. One must allow for simple lay pleasures they say. KF even teaches in Silicon Valley, a rather central hub of material pleasures.

It doesn't help that in Buddhist countries like Thailand and Indian-Tibet most monks don't spend all day in dharmic duties either - they can often been seen out in the city, listening to music or idly browsing their smart phones or even smoking. All variously (dubiously?) justified as not contravening the Vinaya.

So, is it this?


Is the monastic life still relevant? The theoretical idea of samsaric seclusion, wise teachers and rigid routine is certainly attractive - but one's resolve is weakened when looking at the reality which often appears far different.

I'd certainly be interested in hearing from monks on the forum like Ven. Yuttadhammo if possible.

  • 1
    In summary this question is asking, - Some people say (and others exemplify) that "in the present day one must learn to mix the spiritual life with the ordinary life": why do they say this? - Is monasticism more a matter of "culture" than "pursuit of the truth"? - Is racism and a language barrier a reason why people look for an alternative? - Does a modern social taboo on religion and an ascending trend towards secular materialism explain why people no longer "go forth"? – ChrisW Jul 2 '15 at 10:09
  • 1
    - Is 24x7 immersion necessary to become an arhat? What about simple lay pleasures? Don't even monastics smoke and listen to music? - Is the monastic life still relevant? Even if in theory it should be good, is the reality different, and ought one therefore resolve on another life? – ChrisW Jul 2 '15 at 10:09
10

This series of questions is quite involved and surely a book could be written to properly assess the status of how well a very traditional monastic community is holding up in modern times.

But a few things did come to mind that can be easily stated. Your comments are from people who are not currently part of the monastic tradition. They've made their decision and had their reasons. But the monastic community is alive and well without those individuals. It's far more interesting to hear the perspective of those actively a part of the monastic community.

The bar is quite high for someone in the west or in any westernized country really, to forsake all known things, and head off to the other side of the world to become a monk.

I suppose that's true. And yet people do it and stick with it and find it to be a meaningful way to live. As far as forsaking material things, an interesting example of this is Ajahn Siripanno. His father is a billionaire and he could have lived a life of extraordinary wealth and privilege. And he choose to ordain as a Theravada monk instead. That's a powerful statement about priority when people see clearly.

Now, a monk who isn't a local, enrolling in any foreign tradition spends a lot of time learning the new culture, the language, the food, the social mores, often dealing with racism to boot - all of which appear to be a waste of time, taking away from actual time spent on spiritual development.

The head monk are our local Theravada monastery, originally from Laos, does not speak English despite having been in the US for a number of years now. Bilingual lay followers at the temple have told me his reason for not doing so is so that he will have fewer distractions. I think this is a smart approach really. Of course, he is not in a position of having to actively seek out lay followers, it's an ethnic community which seeks out the monastery. But that's certainly one way of avoiding the waste of time you speak of.

As far as whether we are moving towards some sort of a "permanent" secularization in society, that would be short sighted speculation. Throughout history, societies have changed and become more or less religious. Religious traditions have become corrupted and then reformed. Religious traditions become more heavily focused on one aspect over another and additional sects emerge (I think this latter is roughly how the "forest traditions" revived in modern times.)

It's not for everyone. But I would think for those "with little dust in their eyes" monastic life will survive all that modern life can throw at it. :)

7

What do you think, how many generations shall do that nice life that we have at the moment (do "we"?) Assembling and metabolizing the Dharma should point away from short-term perspectives. The Buddha - in my understanding - proposed a kind of living, a kind of needs, a kind of "time-table" for a life (little for physical needs, lot for reflecting, meditating and finally staying in an awakened and throughout happy and free mood). Let "monkhood" be "out-of-style" for the mainstream today and even unthinkable for the scene around - a community, staying together, cultivating the good manners of life (8-fold path, for a start) shall be useful for many of us, our children or grandchildren or ... when the current hype of ways-of-living gets down or possibly even breaks completely down.

There is a nice small sutra where the Buddha was asked what would happen if the Dharma goes down, and he tells a story of the people becoming unhappier, angrier, even physically smaller, and each one might kill each other one just like that... And that he expects, that even then some people get fed up with that unhappiness, glue themselves together in small communities, saying "let's stop that mutual killing" etc and a new cycle of the Dharma would occur. But such a sutra was not intended to describe the span of the 1970ies to 2010th, for instance, just one generation: it was intended to describe time-spans of, say, the birth to the dawn of the roman imperium and more.

So the message is: let's see. Why not support people who say "let's stop that mutual killing" and... put themselves together in some community - with communication, with social life, with rules, with - let's call it: a "vinaya" for the between-friend-of-the-dharma-relations.

4

Some people say (and others exemplify) that "in the present day one must learn to mix the spiritual life with the ordinary life": why do they say this?

Begging and homelessness is illegal. Buddhism has no state support in the West. Monasteries that do exist have long waiting lists for application. I hear that in Taiwan, though, it is fairly easy to become a full time monk.

Is monasticism more a matter of "culture" than "pursuit of the truth"?

It's all about economics. In the time of the Buddha, it was a stroke of genius to think up a way to get out of the rat race by going forth, begging and teaching and being moral in return for donations. The business model doesn't work in the west.

Is racism and a language barrier a reason why people look for an alternative?

Sort of, at least in the case of westerners going to Nepal and India, where you can't get a visa to stay indefinitely-- but this is because of ordinary xenophobia and government just not wanting to be bothered with immigrants.

Does a modern social taboo on religion and an ascending trend towards secular materialism explain why people no longer "go forth"?

Somewhat. If you are a secular Buddhist (I consider myself to be one), the focus is on this life and the collective that follows us on earth. In a Mahayanaist path to liberation, you practice in this life as a monk so that in future lives you become a Buddha where you can provide mundane benefits to others. If we don't live after death, then it's more important to be of use to others in a mundane sense now.

Is 24x7 immersion necessary to become an arhat?

The answer depends on what you think enlightenment is. Some sects envision it as something that can be done soon, other in a virtually infinite amount of time, other see it as already done, what ever that means.

What about simple lay pleasures? Don't even monastics smoke and listen to music?

They couldn't if the laity didn't think they should. If a lay follower was going to gain merit by donating to a monk, if that monk was a goof off, then people wouldn't be incline to donate.

I don't believe in the magical sin of alcohol, meat or tobacco. I believe in the real problem of alcoholism, heart disease and lung disease. If I gave a buck to a monk and they spent it on whiskey, hamburgers and ciggies-- all luxury goods, I would think they were probably rich enough to not need by dollar. I imagine the problem with music is not so much that the music is evil, but if you have the leisure to listen to music, then what work of soteriological benefit is being skipped?

Is the monastic life still relevant?

In a vanishingly few monasteries, mostly far, far from where I live. I think I see in person a Buddhist monk or nun about every few years, only because I live in Washington, DC.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.