Monday, July 21, 2008

In Western Robes

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" (1920)

Recently (3/10/08) an aspirant and blogger wrote of her desire to ordain. "This morning as I was doing the Seven Rounds of Contemplation (Loving Kindness), I had a strong urge to become a nun. How do I know that this feeling is real? What if this desire to become ordained is only an escape? Should I try to become a temporary nun?"
Wisdom Quarterly editors responded: We want a purpose driven life. What's the ultimate point, the "purpose" of life? In brief, that word is "liberation." What else is living for?
The way of Truth that leads to Liberation
Long ago, unsettled spirits (independent, wandering ascetics or samanas) set out to find a way. One found it. Two came close.
There was the Tirthankara ("ford finder") Mahavira, the 24th in an ancient lineage. He had married, had a daughter, then had left the home-encumbered life.
Practicing rigorous asceticism for 12 years, he ascended the Srini ladder of spiritual perfection and came to a realization. He had achieved an exalted state of existence (roughly, the 22nd plane in Buddhist cosmology), which he regarded as the end of rebirth. This, however, was not the ultimate. His teachings are now called Jainism.

Patanjali was another such sage. Rather than rejecting the ancient Vedas and becoming a restless wandering ascetic, he revisited what remained of the teachings long handed down in search of moksha (liberation).
He revealed a path of practice (Ashtanga) that led to Samadhi and exalted states of existence, to be sure. There were siddhis (powers) and liberation from many mundane things.
Alas, the path did not lead to a FINAL respite from all suffering, not to perfect peace, not to nirvana. These teachings are part of what we now call Hinduism.
There is yet another widely known albeit often misunderstood figure. He discovered the ultimate. He was the 25th Tathagata ("well-gone one") in this age, known to us as the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. He had married, had a son, and had rejected the burdensome home life.
He ascended the jhanas (meditative absorptions) and came to a profound realization. This was his last life. This attainment of suffering's end was the reason for all the other lives that had kept him wandering in Samsara (rebirth).
He declared this liberation "nirvana" -- a blowing out of all the substrates of clinging that lead once again to suffering. The Middle Way he made known the Noble Eightfold Path. These teachings, or Dharma, are what we now call Buddhism.
Therefore, should anyone aspire to make an end of all suffering in this very life, three excellent paths are open. There is the way of extreme asceticism, the way of integral yoga (which is much more than poses), and there is the Middle Way. It is not a requisite to leave home to live this path. However, leaving home to ordain allows one to focus on it single-mindedly, maximizing the benefits that are sure to come from taking action.
"If by giving up a lesser happiness,
One could experience greater happiness,
A wise person would renounce the lesser
To experience the greater" (Dhammapada)
And what are those benefits? The Buddha, apart from his aphorism in the Dhammapada, explained them in the "Fruits of Recluseship Discourse" (Samaññaphala Sutra). Wisdom Quarterly therefore encourages ordination -- be it temporary, indeterminate, or permanent -- in whatever tradition speaks to you. The following is the story of one successful American woman who did just that.

You're Becoming a What?
Living as a Western Buddhist Nun
by Ven. Thubten Chodron (aka, Cherry Greene*)

When people ask me to talk about my life, I usually start with "once upon a time...." Why? Because this life is like a dream bubble, a temporary thing--it is here and then gone, happening once upon a time.

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, doing everything most middle-class American children do: going to school and on family vacations, playing with my friends, and taking music lessons. My teenage years coincided with the Vietnam War and the protests against racial and sexual discrimination that were widespread in America at that time. These events had a profound effect on an inquisitive and thoughtful child, and I began to question: Why do people fight wars in order to live in peace? Why are people prejudiced against those who are different from them? Why do people die? Why are people in the richest country on earth unhappy when they have money and possessions? Why do people who love each other later get divorced? Why is there suffering? What is the meaning of life if all we do is die at the end? What can I do to help others?

Like every child who wants to learn, I started asking other people--teachers, parents, rabbis, ministers, priests. My family was Jewish, though not very religious. The community I grew up in was Christian, so I knew the best and worst of both religions. My Sunday school teachers were not able to explain in a way that satisfied me why God created living beings and what the purpose of our life was. My boyfriend was Catholic, so I asked the priests too. But I could not understand why a compassionate God would punish people, and why, if he were omnipotent, didn't he do something to stop the suffering in the world? My Christian friends said not to question, just have faith and then I would be saved. However, that contradicted my scientific education in which investigation and understanding were emphasized as the way to wisdom.

Both Judaism and Christianity instruct "Love thy neighbor as thyself," which certainly makes sense. But no one said how to, and I did not see much brotherly love in practice. Rather, Christian history is littered with the corpses of thousands of people who have been killed in the name of Christ. Some of my schoolteachers were open to discussing these issues, but they too had no answers. In the end, some people with kind intentions told me, "Don't think so much. Go out with your friends and enjoy life." Still, it seemed to me that there must be more to life than having fun, working, making money, having a family, growing old, and dying. For lack of a sensible and comprehensive philosophy or religion to guide my life, I became a devout atheist.

After graduating from UCLA, I traveled, married, returned to school to do graduate work in education and taught elementary school in the Los Angeles City Schools. During summer vacation in 1975, I saw a poster at a bookstore about a meditation course taught by two Tibetan Buddhist monks. Having nothing else to do and not expecting much, I went. I was quite surprised when the teachings by Ven. Lama Yeshe and Ven. Zopa Rinpoche proposed answers to the questions that had been with me since childhood. Reincarnation and karma explain how we got here. The fact that attachment, anger, and ignorance are the source of all our problems explains why people do not get along and why we are dissatisfied. The importance of having a pure motivation shows that there is an alternative to hypocrisy. The fact that it is possible for us to abandon completely our faults and develop our good qualities without limit gives purpose to life and shows how each of us can become a person who is able to be of effective, wise, and compassionate service to others.

The more I investigated what the Buddha said, the more I found that it corresponded to my life experiences. We were taught practical techniques for dealing with anger and attachment, jealousy and pride, and when I tried them, they helped my daily life go better. Buddhism respects our intelligence and does not demand blind faith. We are encouraged to reflect and examine. Also, it emphasizes changing our attitudes and our heart, not simply having a religious appearance on the outside. All this appealed to me.


There was a nun leading the meditations at this course, and it impressed me that she was happy, friendly, and natural, not stiff and "holy" like many Christian nuns I had met as a child. But I thought that being a nun was strange--I liked my husband far too much to even consider it! I began to examine my life from the perspective of the Dharma, and the Buddha's teachings resonated within me as I thought deeply about our human potential and the value of this life. There was no getting around the fact that death was certain, the time of death was uncertain, and that at death, our possessions, friends, relatives, and body--everything that ordinary people spend their entire life living for--do not and cannot come with us. Knowing that the Dharma was something extremely important and not wanting to miss the opportunity to learn it, I quit my job and went to Nepal where Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche had a monastery and Dharma center.
Once there, I participated in the community life of work, teachings, and meditation. The Dharma affected me more and more deeply as I used it to look at our present human situation and our potential. It was clear that my mind was overwhelmed by attachment, anger, and ignorance. Everything I did was grossly or subtly under the influence of self-centeredness. Due to the karmic imprints collected on my mind-stream through my unrestrained thoughts and actions, it was clear that a good rebirth was extremely unlikely. And if I really wanted to help others, it was impossible to do if most of my attitudes were self-centered, ignorant, and unskillful.

I wanted to change, and the question was how? Although many people can live a lay life and practice the Dharma, I saw that for me it would be impossible. My disturbing attitudes--ignorance, anger, and clinging attachment--were too strong and my lack of self-discipline too great. I needed to make some clear, firm ethical decisions about what I would and would not do, and I needed a disciplined lifestyle that would support, not distract me from, spiritual practice. The monastic lifestyle, with the ethical discipline its precepts provide, was a viable option to fulfill those needs.

My family did not understand why I wanted to take ordination. They knew little about Buddhism and were not spiritually inclined. They did not comprehend how I could leave a promising career, marriage, friends, family, financial security, and so forth in order to be a nun. I listened and considered all of their objections. But when I reflected upon them in light of the Dharma, my decision to become a nun only became firmer. It became more and more clear to me that happiness does not come from having material possessions, good reputation, loved ones, physical beauty. Having these while young does not guarantee a happy old age, a peaceful death, and certainly not a good rebirth. If my mind remained continually attached to external things and relationships, how could I develop my potential and help others? It saddened me that my family did not understand, but my decision remained firm, and I believed that in the long-run I would be able to benefit others more through holding monastic vows. Ordination does not mean rejecting one's family. Rather, I wanted to enlarge my family and develop impartial love and compassion for all beings. With the passage of time, my parents have come to accept my being Buddhist and being a nun. I did not try to convince them through discussion or with reasoning, but simply tried as best as I could to live the Buddha's teachings, especially those on patience. Through that they saw that not only am I happy, but also that what I do is beneficial to others....
Our vows center around four root precepts: to avoid killing, stealing, sexual relations, and lying about our spiritual attainments. Other precepts deal with a variety of aspects of our life: our relationships with other monastics and lay people, what and when we eat and drink, our clothes, and possessions. Some precepts protect us from distractions that destroy our mindful awareness. My personal experience has been that much internal growth has come from trying to live according to the precepts. They make us much more aware of our actions and their effects on those around us. To keep the precepts is no easy job--it requires mindfulness and continuous application of the antidotes to the disturbing attitudes. In short, it necessitates the transformation of old, unproductive emotional, verbal, and physical habits. Precepts force us to stop living "on automatic," and encourage us to use our time wisely and to make our lives meaningful. Our work as monastics is to purify our minds and develop our good qualities in order to make a positive contribution to the welfare of all living beings in this and all future lives. There is much joy in ordained life, and it comes from looking honestly at our own condition as well as at our potential.

Ordained life is not clear sailing, however. Our disturbing attitudes follow us wherever we go. They do not disappear simply because we take vows, shave our head, and wear robes. Monastic life is a commitment to working with our garbage as well as our beauty. It puts us right up against the contradictory parts of ourselves. For example, one part of us feels there is a deep meaning to life, great human potential and has a sincere wish to actualize these. The other part of us seeks amusement, financial security, reputation, approval, and sexual pleasure. We want to have one foot in nirvana (liberation), the other in Samsara (the cycle of constantly recurring problems). We want to change and go deeper in our spiritual practice, but we do not want to give up the things we are attached to. To remain a monastic, we have to deal with these various sides of ourselves. We have to clarify our priorities in life. We have to commit to going deeper and peeling away the many layers of hypocrisy, clinging, and fear inside ourselves. We are challenged to jump into empty space and to live our faith and aspiration. Although life as a monastic is not always smooth--not because the Dharma is difficult, but because the disturbing attitudes are sneaky and tenacious--with effort, there is progress and happiness.

While Catholic nuns enter a particular Order--for example, a teaching order, a contemplative order, a service order--Buddhist nuns have no prescribed living situation or work. As long as we keep the precepts, we can live in a variety of ways. During the nearly nineteen years I have been ordained, I have lived alone and in community. Sometimes I studied, other times taught; sometimes worked, other times done intensive, silent retreat; sometimes lived in the city, other times in the countryside; sometimes in Asia, other times in the West....

Being a Westerner means I have been conditioned to believe that democracy and equality--whatever those two terms mean--are the best way for human beings to live together. Yet I have chosen to become a monastic and thus in others' eyes become associated with an institution that is seen in the West as being hierarchical. There are two challenges here: one is how I relate to the hierarchy, the other is how I am affected by Westerners who see me as part of a hierarchical institution.... Read more
*Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene) graduated with a B.A. in history from UCLA in 1971. After traveling extensively in Europe, North Africa, and Asia, she taught in the Los Angeles City School District, and did post-graduate work in education at USC. In 1975, she attended a meditation course given by Ven. Lama Yeshe and Ven. Zopa Rinpoche and subsequently went to their monastery in Nepal to explore Buddhism. In 1977, she was ordained as a Buddhist nun.
about this section:
The Buddhist community includes monastics and lay people. Both are necessary for the preservation of Buddhism. However, monastics choose a life of vowed simplicity, a life directly related to the preservation and dissemination of the Dharma to benefit others. They are the core of that lifestyle that all Buddhist practitioners are committed to. In the article here, Ven. Chodron shares with us the joys and difficulties of being a nun and the special challenges of being a Western Buddhist nun. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be a monastic, read on.

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