At the end of May our temple website received two similar requests from young men – one was leaving prison and the other was leaving his good-paying job at Apple. Both wanted to join a Buddhist monastery to devote the rest of their lives to working towards enlightenment. Then this past weekend two young men came to the temple also talking about a joining monastery. One was a white guy who was going to start a job overseas and wanted to spend his summer at a monastery. I told him what I told the two on-line inquirers – to look at the ads in Tricycle Magazine and search on the internet.
But on Sunday an Asian guy with a shaved head came to attend our morning service. I’ll call him “Yul” (didn’t quite catch his real name) and he said he was Mongolian but was leaving soon for Thailand to become a Buddhist monk. I remarked that his own culture was Buddhist, part of the same Vajrayana tradition as Tibet and Nepal, but he responded, “Vajrayana really screwed up Buddhism. Only Theravada preserves pure Buddhism.” I said, “Buddhism in all the Asian countries are going to have cultural elements that weren’t part of original Buddhism. I bet you’ll find that in Thailand there’s a lot going on at temples that are just cultural customs.”
I asked why he was going to Thailand instead of finding a monastery in the U.S. and he said every place he looked into had a waiting list of one to two years. I found it interesting that he was told “one or two years.” I imagine it’s not because they expect senior monks to be passing away soon, but based on past experience the monasteries predict a number of people starting out now will drop out after one or two years of monastic living.
As I told both of the website inquirers and tried to get across to Yul in my Dharma talk, you don’t need to join a monastery to enter the path of awakening. Of the millions of people worldwide who identify themselves as Buddhist, only a tiny percentage are living as monks and nuns. The path of seeking is open to all people – those who don’t have the time or money to join a monastery can still participate in learning the Dharma and performing practices at gatherings for lay people led by trained leaders who may not necessarily be ordained.
In Jodo Shinshu we learn that the idealistic concept of purity that we cling to is as much a lie as believing we could be forever young and able-bodied. Rev. Gyoko Saito said it’s like the image of a deep pool of still, clear water – after a time of being enclosed the stagnant water becomes foul and cloudy. His teacher, Haya Akegarasu said real purity is symbolized by a babbling brook – the water is continually moving and being refreshed. This purity is what is meant by the “pure” in Pure Land. The Sanskrit “sukhavati” also points to this. Sukha is the opposite of dukha, that is, freely flowing with the dynamism of life as opposed to being stuck in one’s fixed ego-centered concepts.
It’s okay if you young men like Yul out there still want to join a monastery. But while you’re on the waiting list or slowly saving up money for your trip to Thailand, India, Japan etc., please visit your local non-monastic Sangha and discover the ever-renewing purity of down-to-earth ordinary life.