Being with public over monastery life. What should a monk choose?

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Editor’s Note: This is an article submitted by one of our reader who is trying to see a different facet of monkhood. Please be informed that this is solely writer’s views and not BBN’s opinion although this has very valuable perspectives that made us interested in the article.

By: Ty Phillips

Is the monastic cloister simply escapism? As a householder and a priest, I often ponder this question. I have thought about taking monastic vows for almost the entirety of my life. The silence, the study, the austerity and simplicity have always attracted me; yet these very same attractions (for me at least) also come with a pitfall.

Within a world that is quickly growing smaller and more desperate, how can we better serve mankind? Where can our faith traditions, if at all, bridge the gap between being faith based and action based? Buddhism is known as a renunciation tradition. The very name brings up images of ochre and maroon clad monks, shaved heads, begging bowls, and a life of silent contemplation.  Where however, does this silent, monastic life, benefit those around us?

I heard a saying once, “two hands helping are better than 1000 hands folded in prayer.” I would take this a step further; they are more beneficial than hands in signs of mudra, grasping malas or folded on our laps in meditation. Now don’t get me wrong, each of these actions are a vital part of my personal practice, but what I find and have found more beneficial for my personal growth and enlightenment, is helping lift up someone who has fallen.

The monastic retreat and priesthood is and should remain as a vital part of the community. Our personal batteries can be recharged, our questions answered, our doubts soothed all within the walls of the temple but it is the lay community where I feel the true voice of Buddhism will be heard. It is the lay community that can change Buddhism to be a voice of the people.

A child living in the ghetto will have neither a notion of the Buddhist monastic life nor an understanding of the sutras, yet he or she may be captured by an urban dharma teacher giving voice to the sutras and eightfold path in a way that brings hope and peace to a fragile and young mind. A man involved in the gang life and spending his life behind prison walls may not respond to a small monk clad in robes, but he may engage in conversation with a heavily tattooed former fighter and bouncer turned pacifist and teacher, like me.

American Buddhism has a vital and beautiful chance to give rise to a unique and powerful voice that is unlike anything traditional Buddhism has known in its past. Many may consider this both a perversion and a watering down of the dharma. However, the Buddha also,  was thought a heretic for denouncing the caste system and allowing women and former criminals into the community.

The Buddha addressed the needs of his society in a voice that his society understood—that his society was familiar with and struggling with. He uplifted both prince and pauper and he did this by going against the stream.

Being a dharma teacher and a member of the community at large isn’t easy. This is largely what the monastic community offers us shelter from. It gives us the opportunity to engage the practice full time, within the homes and communities that we live in, within the voices of parents and employers, workers and politicians; not as a form of control like a religious institution, but  a voice of compassion and support for one another.

Lay and monastic traditions need to work together on a larger scale than what was previously done. A priestly laity needs to rise up and go out into the communities for two hours serving instead of sitting for coffee and cookies with 20 minutes of cushion time. Our dharma refuge is within. Our temple is within. Our happiness is within, yet each of these places within will blossom when we are less concerned with ourselves and more concerned with helping each other.

25,000 children die every single day—every day! Where is our practice truly needed? Thousands are homeless, abused, neglected and undereducated. Where is our presence best felt? Billions are spent polluting, hoarding and manipulating land, people and governments, so where is our practice lacking?

Our silence is often times our voice and our answer. We cannot hope that prayer and meditation will change the world. That it will be the whole of our dharma practice. It requires the hard work and diligence that we claim to poor into ourselves in a pursuit of enlightened living. What is enlightened living however, if not fully engaged in the uplifting of all life around us?

What is right speech, right action, right livelihood, right intent, if not put into practice of the encounters we have? What is mindfulness if not the process of being with ourselves while we are with others? Sit with me. Pray with me. Light incense and chant with me, but also, please stand with me, serve with me and offer yourself for the service of others with me.

The Buddha said that if we knew about the power of giving as he knew it that we would never let a single meal pass without sharing. It behooves us to make our practice one of action as well as one of speech and thought; to put our hands to something worth doing and do it with all of our heart.

“We will develop love, we will practice it, we will make it both a way and a basis…”