Throughout history and regardless of geography, monastic institutions have routinely served as centers of learning, education, and the arts. More fundamentally, they have been a source and model of spirituality—leaders in the revolution of awakening to what it means to be completely human. Buddhist monasticism is no different.
All the schools of Buddhism agree that buddhas are those who, within their enlightenment experience, have reached the pinnacle of human evolution, have completely satisfied their own personal interests, and are therefore able to effectively help others with their relative and ultimate concerns. Practice, realization, wisdom, and compassion are not just a personal achievement, but must include all beings and the planet we live on. In order to achieve true liberation, wisdom and compassion, we cannot leave even a single being behind. The question is, how are we to do that?
As Buddhist practitioners, we are witnessing an unprecedented growth of involvement in lay practice, and at the same time, we are challenged to establish a distinct, yet relevant monastic tradition. Both forms of training are essential. Both have to be authentic.
Lay practice and monastic practice are two wings of the same bird. Lay practice is of vital importance to the future of Buddhism in America and to the equanimity of our culture. But it cannot exist without monastic practice. Monastic practice is equally critical. Like everything else in this universe, these two streams are interdependent, mutually arising, and have a mutual causality. They support and sustain each other. Both must be nourished. The question is, how?
There are a few monasteries and hundreds of Zen centers in this country. There are thousands of teachers and a myriad ways of training. Across the vast landscape of American Zen Buddhism, there is very little agreement on what represents authentic practice. And there are many questions and uncertainties. What constitutes kensho, or breakthrough? What is mind-to-mind transmission? How do you train in and receive the precepts? How does the practice of a lay practitioner differ from that of a monastic? What exactly is Zen monastic practice?
These questions are important because we are on the same path that Buddhism followed in all of the Asian countries. After a few hundred years of being part of a society and culture, the vigor and vitality of what was once a very powerful kind of spiritual training became diluted and co-opted. Gradually, the tradition became compromised. The same process seems to be taking place now here in the West.
Many American centers have developed a monastic form that’s essentially indistinguishable from the training of lay practitioners who have actively taken up the moral and ethical teachings and have received jukai, the Buddhist precepts. Most American Zen monastics live and train like homedwellers. They stay with their families in the world, have jobs and responsibilities, and occasionally spend time at the training centers with the teacher and sangha. Their vows are the same as the vows of lay practitioners. Apart from the color of their robes, everything else about their practice is essentially the same. It’s little wonder, then, that there is so much confusion and debate about the role of Zen monasticism in the modern Western world.
For the past twenty-six years, the Mountains and Rivers Order has created a definition of who we are through practice and training. We have delineated the paths for both lay practitioners and monastics, specifying the criteria for each, establishing ways for people to clarify their spiritual calling, and honoring both the distinctions and the interdependence of the two paths. This appreciation arose from and continues to be refined through our experience, and through direct and thorough study of monastic and lay forms and religious training available in the East and West.
The process that leads up to full ordination is called monastic formation, and within the Mountains and Rivers Order, it begins when the aspirant becomes a formal student and passes through the five barrier gates of entry. These barrier gates are not so much intended to keep people out, as they are meant to help them clarify why it is that they are coming here. We try to make the process of entry very clear so that when they begin training they do so with a real sense of clarity and direction.
Prospective monastics in this Order reside at the Monastery for a minimum of five years before taking full ordination. After entering as students and being in residence for at least two years, aspirants can become candidates to the monastic order. At this point they have already received jukai, so they understand the moral and ethical teachings as lay practitioners. They are also involved in various forms of training through work assignments, liturgy, and study. And all the while, with the help of the order’s vocation director, they are exploring whether or not they have the calling for a monastic life.