Full ordination entails a lifetime commitment to these vows. Monastic candidates need to push into these vows, investigating their motivation and edges within the guidelines that the vows provide.
For twenty-six years, the monastics living these vows have offered their lives to support the practice of the sangha, just as the sangha has supported these monastics.
Monasticism is a revolutionary institution. It is always fundamentally counter-cultural. It is hard for us to turn towards and recognize the power of monasticism because we live in a world that is narcissistic, exploitative and violent. It is virtually impossible for us to imagine a way of life that is based on equanimity, love, and compassion.
As Thomas Merton pointed out in his essay Cistercian Life:
...What matters about the monastery is precisely that it is radically different from the world. The apparent “pointlessness” of the monastery in the eyes of the world is exactly what gives it a real reason for existing. In a world of noise, confusion, and conflict it is necessary for there to be places of silence, inner discipline and peace: not the peace of mere relaxation but the peace of inner clarity and love based on ascetic renunciation. In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be men who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness! Let no one justify the monastery as a place from which anguish is utterly absent and in which men “have no problems.” This is the myth, closely related to the other myth that religion itself disposes of all men’s anxieties. Faith itself implies a certain anguish, and it is a way of confronting inner suffering, not a magic formula for making all problems vanish. It is not by extraordinary spiritual adventures or by dramatic and heroic exploits that the monk comes to terms with life.
The monastery teaches men to take their own measure and to accept their ordinariness; in a word, it teaches them that truth about themselves which is known as “humility.”
As for functioning in the world, it is certainly true that monastics, in a sense, function in the world in terms of much of their activity. But this particular view, unfortunately, suggests a kind of “inner busyness and spiritual bustle” that is not in keeping with the monastic life.
Monastics do not function in the world inasmuch as they respond to the needs of the spirit in the world. They always respond in accord with the imperative they encounter. Their activities are largely immeasurable, and because of this, monastic life is not something that we can easily measure and quantify. What counts is not the amount of activity and compassionate works that the monastic engages in; not the multitude and variety of their ascetic practices, not the ascent through various stages of spiritual development or degrees of enlightenment. Again, in Merton’s words, “What counts is not to count and not to be counted.” He continues:
The seemingly fruitless existence of the monk is therefore centered on the ultimate meaning and the highest value: it loves the truth for its own sake, and it gives away everything in order to hear the Word of God and do it.
We would say that it gives away everything in order to realize wisdom and compassion, and to actualize them in everything the monastic does.
The monk is valuable to the world precisely in so far as he is not part of it, and hence it is futile to try to make him acceptable by giving him a place of honor in it.
[This is] not written for the sake of argument, nor in order to “sell” the monastic life to anyone. [It is] simply a meditation on what one may frankly call the mystery of the monastic life. That is to say that it attempts to penetrate the inner meaning of something that is essentially hidden—a spiritual reality that eludes clear explanation.
Though it is certainly reasonable for men to live as monks, mere reasoning can never account for the monastic life or even fully accept it. Yet for centuries this life has been and continues to be an inescapable religious fact. Certain men find themselves inexplicably drawn to it. Some are able to follow the attractions or the inner urging of conscience, and they become monks. Others attempt to live the life and fail, but when they “return to the world” their lives are henceforth completely changed. To come face to face with the mystery of the monastic vocation and to grapple with it is a profound experience. To live as a monk is a great gift, not given to many.
As Merton said, to be able to live one’s life as a monastic is a gift. It’s a gift that should be treasured and celebrated. It should be cared for with the totality of our being. It should not be taken lightly. May we, through our practice and training, continue to celebrate this gift as individuals and as a sangha
John Daido Loori, Roshi is the founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, and a lineage holder in the Rinzai and Soto Schools of Zen. Loori is known for his unique adaptation of traditional Buddhism into an American context, particularly with regard to the arts and the environment, and the use of modern media as a vehicle for spiritual training and social change.
He is the co-translator with Kazuaki Tanahashi of The True Dharma Eye: Master Dogen’s Three Hundred Koans, to which he added his own titles, commentaries, capping verses and notes.
From The Heart of Being: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen Buddhism, by John Daido Loori, Roshi. Copyright © 1996 by Dharma Communications.