Monk(ey) Business Part 16: The End of Meeting is Parting

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Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

For the most part, I loved being a monk. I learned ways of being with myself that I don’t think I would have had the opportunities for if I took another route at age 28. Although challenging, being a monk was an incredibly precious opportunity to look at my mind and emotions from within the boundaries of the Buddhist monastic tradition. It’s really amazing what gets triggered when you place a firm boundary between what you think you want to do, and what you actually do. After a few years into being a monk I really started to see the preciousness of what the Buddha laid out for his disciples. Buddhist monasticism not only allowed me to go into deeper long term practice and study, but the vows became like a 24/7 laboratory for growing my mindfulness and attention to what I was doing with my body, speech, and mind at any given moment. Of course I had my share of faults, slip ups, and transgressions, but I found the real long term value to be in the quality of mindfulness I was applying to my experience, rather than getting caught up in trying to be the worlds best monk. These days many of us jump head first into Buddhist tantric practices without considering the challenges of actually committing to the Vajrayana samayas. Similarly, we may also be inspired to take on the Bodhisattva vows of the Mahayana tradition without an understanding of what these imply, and the deep mindfulness, introspection, and care they require to keep. For this very reason, the pratimoksha vows (lay or ordained) within the Buddhist Vinaya are the stepping stones for engaging in the vows of the Mahayana and Vajrayana paths. I feel this is why we cannot ignore the value of paying attention to our behavior and ethical conduct. As mindfulness meditation continues to explode within the Western world, we are also seeing it’s Buddhist roots be devalued and co-opted into Neo-liberal ideologies that we all end up adopting implicitly or explicitly. When we place so much emphasis on meditation, but easily forget about the view and conduct, we end up like a blind person trying to climb a mountain with broken legs. The real value rests within having a wholistic practice that aims to understand the nature of identity, not in a commodified relationship to meditation where we end up just buying more shit to adorn it. 

The process of becoming a monk was like shedding one skin for another, as when you stand in front of your ordaining master and formally take vows you ceremonially cut your hair, change your clothes, and receive a new name. At the time I was so blissed out to be sitting so close to the Dalai Lama, I didn’t even think to contemplate into the deeper meaning and significance of such a radical identity shift. It wasn’t until I started to witness the reactions of friends and family that it really began to hit me. At first I couldn’t understand their reactions, as becoming a monk felt so natural to me, but when I reflected deeper I could see how shocking it must be to witness someone you’ve known for so long go through such a radical change. Because my inner identity as ‘Scott’ was still more or less intact, I tried to explain that I was still the person they knew, but something in the shaved head and long flowing red robes couldn’t quite convince them. Internally, and amongst the more immediate inspirations of becoming a monk, old habit patterns and identities also still lingered. It took much more effort than just cutting my hair and changing my clothes to understand that adopting a monastic identity was only a short-term skillful means for turning one’s mind towards the Dharma. Eventually, if inner Dharma qualities are not developed, than it’s easy to just continue along as merely a shell of a practitioner.

At a certain point, right around my 7th year as a monk, part of my monastic identity just dropped. A large part of this was beneficial for my practice, and was the result of some inner healing of long term low self-worth. I started to feel okay in my own skin, and I realized I had been partly using my monastic identity (just like every other identity I have adopted) in order to feel useful and worthy. Having experienced that real self-worth is an innate quality within that is not conditioned, I felt the freedom to just be. Though beneficial in the short term, as I could begin to relate with my monastic life with more ease and joy, I soon noticed that it became easier to question if I should remain a monk. Intellectually, and somewhat experientially I knew the benefits of staying a monk, but as I began to travel and teach more the following year, it became increasingly challenging to muster the inspiration to keep the monastic discipline. Eventually, and after a lot of deliberation with my teachers and monastic elders, I decided to return my vows. 

My last full day as a monk I practiced and recited prayers amongst the waves of sadness that arose. It felt like I was losing a partner who I was still in love with, while knowing deep down that the relationship wasn’t going to work anymore. The following morning, and in a somber mood, I drove to meet my monastic friend I would be returning the vows to. It was like the day I got ordained but in reverse. As I handed my monks robes back, my friend, rather than scolding, congratulated me for the years I put into my monastic training. At first it kind of threw me back, as I was expecting him to match my mood, and tell me that there is always next life! Instead he encouraged me to rejoice in the years I was a monk, and to continue to practice just as before. This was incredibly uplifting for me on a very sad day, and his comments really helped me to openly mourn, without falling into a spiral of self-loathing. Driving home I reflected on my practice intentions and continued commitment to serving others in the Dharma. I made strong aspirations to continue to meet with the Dharma, my teachers, and the skillful means of the Buddhist path in all of my lives until samsara ends. 

Again, like shedding one skin for another, I returned to lay Buddhist life. At first I felt a kind of mini-liberation, as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Of course this was short lived, as now I had to figure out how to be in the world post-monk. Other than possibly meeting a partner at some point, I really didn’t have any plans for a drastic change in my life. I didn’t/don’t see much point in having a lot of big worldly aspirations. At the end of this life we all return empty handed, naked, the same way we came in. When we take our last breath, the only thing that will matter is how we showed up in the world, and how much Dharma we were able to put into practice with our body, speech, and mind. So far I have had the fortune to continue to meet with my teachers, my practice, and serve others in the Dharma. I feel a lot of gratitude for this. Life is full of possibilities, and no matter what we do, if we can live with Bodhichitta in our minds, hearts, and actions we will have lived a life worthwhile. I have no aspirations beyond this. 

“The whole thing, so many practices, all come down to live the daily life with bodhicitta motivation to put all the effort in that whatever you do. This way your life doesn’t get wasted and it becomes full of joy and happiness, with no regrets later, especially when you die and you can die with a smile outside and a smile in the heart.” - Lama Zopa Rinpoche