Knocking Down Monastery Walls II - by Jundo

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Hello Everyone,

I would like to begin a series of posts I call "POINTS FOR POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT" in the traditional monastic model. Before doing so, though, I want to emphasize a few things again:

- I generally see monasteries as treasures, shining beacons of light, places of practice and learning which have helped preserve our traditions for thousands of years. As well, they are the right path for so many. My purpose IS NOT TO CRITICIZE ... AND ONLY TO CELEBRATE ... ANYONE WHO HAS A CALLING TOWARD MONASTIC TRAINING, EAST OR WEST. I just see a bit of bent brass in there too that could use a little polishing and fixing. 

- I will be talking about "monasteries" more as religious, political, social and economic institutions, and as the citadels maintaining a "church" or "sect", rather than as a place of retreat. However, sometimes I will be touching on the latter too. 

- I (and I think I speak for Taigu too) favor completely dropping the barriers between "lay Zen teachers" and "ordained Zen teachers", and just having Wise and Compassionate, Awakened and Awakening, Skilled and Ethical "Zen teachers" ... "Priests" who are neither layman nor monk. But I do not feel that "out in the world" priest training is in any way inferior or superior to the monastic model. Better said, each has its own strong points and weaknesses ... perhaps (in my view) some combination is best, or better suited to some individuals than others. 

- I, as much as any Zen Buddhist teacher, believe thoroughly in high standards and training for Zen clergy because (as a friend commented) being Zen clergy "is important work where lives are at stake". I also generally support monastic training for a period of time for those for whom life so permits, or who are the right flowers for that soil. I just disagree with those who insist on the exclusivity of the monastery door as the "one size fits all" road to priest training for everyone, while I support various paths depending on circumstances. I just happen to believe that "all of life is the uninterrupted monastery" when pierced as such. 

I believe that Enlightenment is not to be found in any one place, but can be found in all places when seen. We honor the right and ability of any priest to train in a monastery, we honor the right and ability of any priest to train in other ways too. Where possible, perhaps training both "within and without" is best ... even beyond all thought of "in vs. out". 

so, without further ado ... 

POINTS OF POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENT IN THE MONASTIC INSTITUTION - No. I - Have monasteries, throughout their history, been (not just necessarily exclusive in order to maintain levels of training, but) -too exclusive- in their availability to those who may wish to enter and undertake the Dharma? Although monasteries also have a function of training the next generation of gifted Teachers ... have they, in fact, excluded many more individuals who would be gifted Teachers but could not enter the monasteries for social, political or economic reasons? Rather than admitting those who should be there, have they tended to admit those with the political and social connections, and (even today) economic means to be there? Have they tended to admit, not just the many great talents and serious "seekers", but also a disproportionate number of folks who are there for the wrong reasons or should not be there?

Throughout the history of Buddhist monasteries in North Asia, the institution functioned as a center of spiritual training. However, monasteries also served other functions. Sometimes, they served in places such as China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan as a method for the government to license and control the number of priests (so that not everyone ran from work in the rice fields to the relative comforts of the monasteries). 

Although there are many stories of true seekers "getting in", there were tremendous hurtles to doing so, and the monastery also frequently served as a place where those "already in" could keep what they had by keeping others out (like my old joke about how, when my family moved from New York to Florida many years ago, we wanted to close the doors on Florida so nobody else moved in!

Certainly, anyone familiar with the history of Buddhism sees a disproportionate number of teachers mentioned who came from elite backgrounds, the sons of aristocrats, samurai, wealthy farmers and other societal elites. The story of Hui-neng (the illiterate rice grinder) aside, most peasants and others were shooed away at the door ... assuming they made it to the door in the first place despite the many economic and social obstacles ... (and even Hui-neng was just put in the workhouse, grinding rice). 

Most of us are familiar with the countless complaints by Dogen, Hakuin and others about the generally low quality of the monks at many institutions that they were encountering in China, Japan and elsewhere. Does this possibly show that these institutions were better at admitting those, perhaps, not so well qualified to be there, or who were there for the wrong reasons, than folks there for the right reasons? Much of that could be due to the fact that, throughout their history, most monasteries have been places of refuge ... not for the spirit ... but also for bastard children of the elite, those who did not wish to work morning to night in the hot sun (compared to the peasant lifestyle), and the like ... as well as true spiritual seekers (I do not mean to say that ALL residents of monasteries were like that ... only lots and lots). Granted, ALL the great Teachers in Buddhist history have been the product of monasteries (Although, ya know, that is not true ... as the likes of Layman Pang and Vimalakirti and many others attest ... though even they had some bucks. Perhaps the old woman in the "rice cake" Koan besting Te-shan is a better example). How many excellent potential monks and Teachers never had a chance because they were peasants, working people, or decided to stay at home to nurse an aging relative or child without having the economic means (as the Buddha himself did) to leave one's family in the charge of the servants in the family palace? 

Oh, sure, ya could say that their "Karma" kept the poor as "the poor" and unwashed ... but has this not been an excuse at so many times in Buddhist history for Buddhists to do little about the poor?

On the other hand, even today, it takes a certain social freedom and economic means to head to a monastery for months or years. There are many folks who might truly sell their houses and quit there jobs to do so ... and that is to be commended. But a disproportionate number of folks who head to monasteries, even today, will do so only after figuring out how to have "themselves covered", sufficient savings, a job to return to after (can that truly be called "home leaving", or only "home leasing"?). They are not really giving up their wealth and property to "leave home", so much as calculating how they can "swing it" for a few months. 

However, there are also a lot of folks who might be attracted to the monastery because they just got dumped by their wife, fired from their job ... and have nothing to lose. That is perhaps an excellent course in times of life's troubles. These may be people who are just meeting the twists of Karma or bad luck. However, I propose that one will also find a disproportionate number of people who cannot "make it" in the world, have troubles with relationships, holding down a steady job, folks with personality issues (e.g. OCD and other psychological issues) attracted to the protection of the monastery. For them (like the bastard sons of Samurai in Medieval times), monasteries are as much a "refuge for spiritual practice" as a refuge from the complexities and demands of life. 

On the other hand, countless folks who would make wise and compassionate Teachers are excluded precisely because they are functioning in life, maintaining healthy marriages, holding down jobs, maintaining a business. These people who may actually have something to say about swimming through life with Awakening, Wisdom and Compassion, are excluded by those very responsibilities. (Could this be a reason that we seem to be getting a high number of social misfits, nervous and shy folks, OCD types, the psychologically vulnerable, ne'er do wells, the sexually abusive and questionable personalities among our many many fine priests and teachers? Should we be instead encouraging participation by those who can combine Wisdom and Compassion with actually living and making it "in the world"? Or, is it just the same number of such folks as in the general population or any group?)

This was summarized very nicely by a comment posted here awhile back in the thread by an advocate of the monastic path ...

There are many life situations which make someone not a proper candidate for ordination. Parents of small children, people in deep financial debt or legal difficulty, pregnant women, people in the armed forces... they have other obligations and are not proper candidates for ordination. They are also not proper candidates for the space program, a traveling circus, etc. This is not about "who is good enough." ... It's called home leaving.

But why need that be so? Why cannot a pregnant woman or mother be a Zen priest, teacher of Compassion? Why cannot a Soldier be a Zen Priest, Master of the Precepts? Might they not frequently be betters teachers than some fellow who, having graduated from the right institution, knows with which hand to hold the incense, how to tie his robes with the correct knot, and all the words to the Sandokai in phonetic Sino-Japanese? Why are the others excluded again?

Certainly, the fees to get into a monastery can be prohibitive ... with all the expensive robes, bowls, hats, studybooks, donations, sect taxes, gifts, room and board, and such that are required. (This is well described on Muho's blog over at Antaiji in the case of Japan and the Soto-shu. ) Daddy usually swings the expense because he wants sonny boy to take over the family temple/funeral service. But is it not also true in the West? Although most monastic facilities may claim that "we don't turn anyone away because of economic need" (do most claim this?), the fact of the matter is that training needs to be paid for somehow, by both the institution and the student. Is this one reason that we are still seeing a disproportionate number of white, middle-class or wealthy "monks" ... but not the working class African-America and Latino or other economically struggling groups in our priesthoods?

Anyway, enough for now ... 

Gassho, J

PS - I forgot to mention that monasteries traditionally kept women out, with a few minor exceptions. I wanted to say that, at least, we have fixed that part. However, someone wrote me to say that my description is not accurate, and that the exclusion remains in perhaps the vast majority of the Buddhist world ... and de facto in large parts of the Chan/Son/Zen world too (only lessened in some places after years of challenge). ... sexism.htm ... -synopsis/ ... -of-women/

"Sôtô Zen Nuns in Modern Japan: Keeping and Creating Tradition" by Paula K.R. Arai ... J-Arai.pdf

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