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Am I a Monk?

This is a question that comes up often, especially among new members of our Order. First let me say that we - like Western Soto Zen - use ‘monk’ to define both male and female members of the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists, so there is no distinction among us between ‘monk’ and ‘nun’ nor any about the duties or responsibilities based on gender.

The dictionary definition (freed from Christian context) is simply: “A male member of a monastic order”. Interestingly, even though most definitions I could fine specify that monks live together in a monastic community (as opposed to friars in Christianity who live outside a community) the root of the word is the Greek for ‘alone’ or ‘solitary’. If we remove the ‘male’ part of the definition then OPB members are monks - with the simple distinction that Shaner sensei has defined our monastery as ‘the world’. The problem is we don’t “look like” monks; so let’s look at these expectations.

We are - sometimes - married. True this is a distinguishing characteristic from Christian or Theravadan or Tibetan monks, but many if not most Soto Zen monks are married. This is also true of some orders of Chan monks in the West, and Chan and Soto Zen are the lineage of Pragmatic Buddhism.

We don’t always wear robes - although I do generally don mine when I represent the Sangha at interfaith or intersect events, for special services and when I want them to be a catalyst for questions about the Dharma - but when was the last time you saw a Christian nun in her habit, and I know many Christian monks who wear ‘civvies’ when out in the world.

Judging ourselves based on expectations is a sure road to dukkha. Yet, even setting aside the expectations of others; if I claim the name monk I need to be able to show just cause. So what are my reasons?

First I want to point out that there is a basic difference between the way monks (and/or priests) are seen in Buddhism and the way they’re viewed in Western Christianity. In Christianity there is seen to be an ontological difference between monks and laity - a difference in being. When a Christian monk/priest is ordained they are believed to be “set aside” and “marked for all time”. They are indeed a different type of human than laity. This is not the case in Buddhism - although traditional practice aspects of Theravada make it seem like it is the case. In Buddhism there is only an epistemological difference between monks and laity - a difference in knowledge (and I would say discipline). A Buddhist monk may well take up the robe for a time, put it down and return to a lay status then put it back on when they’re older - or not at all - but this only serves to distinguish what type of service they’re able to give to the community.

Monks of the OPB are trained in the Dharma, and in philosophy and Buddhist history and many other topics. We are also trained in meditations techniques so we can effectively teach others to deepen their practice. Finally, those of us who work in Centers are trained in conducting the services that bring a group together as a community - or sangha - such as weddings, funerals, counseling, etc. More important than all of these, however, is our dedication to disciplined practice and the Bodhisattva Vow. Whether we operate from a Center or on our own, monks of the OPB are dedicated to practicing a life of mindfulness and contentment so that we can best offer ourselves to teaching and guiding others in the ways of the Dharma.

In the end, the answer to the question is, “It doesn’t matter.” You can call me a monk or ‘teacher’ (the meaning of the title ‘shi’) or just Glenn because all names are only conventions. No name or title changes my learning or my dedication to the Dharma or to teaching it. I happily call myself a monk because that connects me to our heritage and lineage dating all the way back to the Buddha. This is not a source of pride but a weight of responsibility that keeps me focused on my practice, my teaching and my actions in life.

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