Perhaps my deep interest and draw to monasticism originates from the fact that the two traditions I most identify with – Christianity as my family and cultural religion and Buddhism as my chosen religion – also contain the largest monastic traditions in the world. These are by no means the only monastic traditions (and I will treat some of the insights from other traditions in future posts), but they are a useful place to start.
In the wonderfully rich Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Mathieu Boisvert analyzes the monastic practices of early Christian and Buddhist monks and finds an essential thread in both: the single-minded dedication to a goal (1). For Christian monks, that goal is union with God; for Buddhists, it is realizing nirvana.
Boisvert also notes some similarities between traditions on how this commitment manifests. Both traditions value celibacy as a means to remove relational distractions from one’s life. Similarly, there is an emphasis on seclusion so one can focus on practice and avoid attachments to worldly things – this includes physical seclusion and wandering from place to place, though becoming internally solitary and cultivating a feeling of being a stranger in the world and to oneself is even more important. Contemplation of death and dead bodies was practiced by both traditions as one means to realize these ends. Monks aimed to experience a “harmonious and undivided mind” on the path to realizing the primary goal, which ultimately led to a falling away of cognition and full contemplation of that goal.
Single-minded focus is an important aspect of meditation, and runs contrary to our contemporary value of multi-tasking. But the single-minded commitment that Boisvert points to is greater than a focus of attention. It is a full-bodied, full-minded, and full-emotioned dedication to realizing ultimate truth or ultimate divinity. Full-bodied, meaning it takes work of the body to achieve, working with the body’s mortality, its desires and its limitations, as well as it gifts, such as its capacity to wander. Full-minded, meaning it takes mental dedication to work through cognitive distractions and ultimately through cognition itself. And full-emotioned in that the emotions must be understood and dealt-with in a way that they don’t keep the monk from attaining their goal.
It is important to remember (and remind myself, always) that this commitment is not to anything of the world. Early Christian and Buddhist monks gave up their homes, families, possessions, relationships, and often their names and other parts of their identities, in their aim to realize union or nirvana. The monk is not committed to a career, to financial stability, to recognition.
I am forever practicing this, reminding myself that there is nothing fulfilling in the world, and that I am, indeed, unfulfillable. The Buddhist teachings that there is nothing permanent in the world, including the self, and that life is suffering, elucidate these truths.
As is the tradition in Soto Zen, I will depart with a gassho, in which I bow to you with my hands pressed together. One way it has been described to me is, “buddha bowing to buddha.” Or roughly, the Buddha nature in me bows to the Buddha nature in you, understanding that there is no real me, no real you, and no real separation between us.
Please share any thoughts or comments you may have, or contact me directly if you have ideas for future posts.
(1) Mathieu Boisvert, “Origins: Comparative Perspectives,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston and Claire Renkin (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 2:967.
(2) Image from http://belosticalle.blogspot.com/2016_01_01_archive.html
(3) Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananda