During this period of candidacy, aspirants take the first step in the process of monastic formation, which is postulancy. Approved by the vocation director, the candidates then make an application to the Monastic Council. Postulancy is a time when prospective monastics are brought into active participation in various aspects of the training. During this time, postulants learn to live the monastic life by doing it, discerning further their calling to the religious life. This is an opportunity for the community to get to know them better, in order to judge whether they have developed harmonious relationships with the larger community and have demonstrated sufficient human and spiritual maturity to enter into the novitiate. It therefore becomes incumbent on postulants to constantly and continually examine and practice the barriers they encounter within the context of their germinating monastic life, using the form, the teachers, and senior monastics to help them appreciate and integrate this new way of living one’s life into their whole being.

 

photo by Paul Qaysi

 

This period will continue until postulants have either entered the novitiate or the Monastic Council and abbot have concluded that there is a clear indication that the calling to monastic life has not yet taken place, in which case the candidate can return to lay life.

Once accepted into the novitiate, novices begin studying the monastic life in greater depth. They study Dogen’s and Keizan’s shingi or monastic rules, the sutras, Buddhist philosophy, comparative religion, liturgy, monastic history and spirituality, and the meaning and obligations of the monastic profession.

The novitiate period lasts for as long as it takes for a clear formation to have taken place to satisfy both the abbot and the Monastic Council. At the end of the novitiate, the novice and novice master determine whether or not they feel the time is right to take full religious vows. When the novice is ready, he or she makes a formal application to the Monastic Council and finally is accepted into the profession. Full ordination takes place and the novice becomes a junior monastic, taking the solemn vows of tokudo. The head is shaved, the monastic receives the o-kesa, bowl, precepts, monastic name, and takes the order’s monastic vows. This ceremony marks the beginning of a formal and lifelong commitment to the religious life.

But it is important to note that after full ordination, the formation of the monastic is hardly over. Formation is a lifelong endeavor and each monastic continues his or her conversion and development for life under the guidance of the abbot or abbess of the monastery. It is a practice in and of itself, with no other purpose than to live the monastic vows for the rest of one’s life.

For monastic formation to take place, there needs to exist in the aspirant a strong inner impulse, or calling, to live the religious life. It needs to be more of an imperative than an intellectual justification of an impulse, a strong need to serve and to give, a feeling for the sacredness and mystery of life, a compatibility with the community as well as with solitude. There must be clear bonding with the abbot, the sangha, and the teachings, as well as an inclination to discover the truth of existence. A certain sense of urgency to enter the vocation is also necessary, as is a clear openness to learning and practice.

One should not become a monastic in order to run away from something else, but instead must have a clear sense of entering into something of supreme importance.

Neither is the monastic way a path to dharma transmission. Denkai, daiji, denbo, shiho, inka—these are forms of teacher sanction that take place between a teacher and disciple and have no bearing on monastic formation or on whether a person is a monastic or lay practitioner.

In the Mountains and Rivers Order, the ceremony of full ordination is part of a response to the challenge of each religion to remain vital and true to its spirit, and not to cave in under insidious societal norms and pressures. The pressure to modify and water down what we’re trying to do has been enormous. In our world, we want it all. We want poverty and riches, a simple lifestyle and everything we can get. We want to serve, and we want to be served. We want to be free from desire, and we want to do what we want. We want privacy and we want liberation. Indeed, to cut off our human ties and enter true activity is not easy.

Through the years, a handful of people have stepped forward and declared in front of the community, “I wish to give my life to the dharma, unreservedly and wholeheartedly. I want to take the vows of simplicity, service, stability, selflessness, and to accomplish the Buddha’s Way.”

These monastic vows are unique to the Mountains and Rivers Order. They are rigorous and demanding. But they are also ultimately liberating. Because they ask a lot of the person who is taking them, they need to be studied and clarified carefully by those who are called to them. In greater detail, the five vows are:

•Vow of simplicity– A vow of poverty, which means monastics are totally dependent on the sangha for their well-being,
•Vow of service– Following the guidance of seniors and teachers, monastics vow to give themselves freely,
•Vow of stability– This vow requires that monastics have completed major life changes in order to give themselves wholeheartedly to their vows (this doesn’t exclude a stable binary relationship, but does include parenting),
•Vow of Selflessness– The realization and actualization of one’s life as the life of all beings, rather than a personal entity,
•Vow to live the Buddha’s way– To act as a model of the manifestation of the moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha, manifesting wisdom and compassion in all actions.