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On Being a Pragmatic Buddhist Monk

A Dharma Talk for Ordinations

So what is it to be a Pragmatic Buddhist Monk? We don’t shave our heads - well, we’re not required to - we don’t normally wear robes. We’re not celibate, nor do we live in monasteries or beg for our daily meals. We don’t even have to do a sesshin - a period of time in a monastery still required for most Soto Zen ordination. We’re taking the easy way out to calling ourselves monks aren’t we? No, we’re taking a more difficult road.

We don’t live in a monastery, but we’re still expected to build and support a community in which we may never meet some of our brothers and sisters face to face; yet they are to be our brothers and sisters.

We don’t give away the items that make up our worldly life, but we’re still to live a life of no possessions even while having things to use. We have to live what the Buddha taught in the Atthakavagga, “to understand having without greed.” We have to have cars and jobs and families and mortgages and debts all while understanding that none of these belong to us.

We don’t have to do a sesshin prior to ordination, but we’re expected to continue deepening our practice within our daily life of work and family. We must practice not only meditation but the endless search for knowledge. We study not only the Nikaya canon but the writings of Daoist, Ch’an and Zen masters as well as the writings of Western Pragmatic philosophy.

We are fully within the world yet must recognize that we are apart from the normal activities of Western society - we leave parties early to get in our daily practice; we turn down proffered drinks when they will push us beyond moderate consumption; we make time in our lives not for unrestrained fun but for study and thought. We must do these things while still having friends, families, vacations and celebrations.

Giving up these things to live the life of a Classical Buddhist Monk is, of course, difficult and I have great respect for those who choose that Way; but once they’ve been given up living without clinging is much easier than the road we have chosen. When you have only your robe, bowl and needle it’s easier not to cling and not to give yourself over to sense pleasures since most of them are not even available to you; yet we are taking the road of non-clinging while living in the middle of a society that says grasping and accumulating is the measure of a person.

We don’t shave our heads or wear robes yet we’re charged to let go of vanity even while we participate in a society that wants us to “look presentable”. I have to admit to really enjoying clothes myself and I acknowledge that it would be much easier for me to let go of concerns about my appearance if I was expected to wear the same robe every day. It’s quite a challenge to walk that Middle Way between appropriate appearance and vanity; yet that is exactly what we’re charged with doing.

We don’t shave our heads or wear robes so we don’t even get the respect - full of curiosity as it is - that comes to other monks. We’re just people in the community; and that’s just the point. Buddhist monks - even the Theravadin monks in the forest - are not qualitatively different from any other person; there is no ontological difference - no difference in being - that comes from being a Buddhist monk. We don’t have a calling to which we respond and no god marks us as special; we’re just people in the community who have dedicated ourselves to a particular set of discipline, study and practice.

So why do we take up the Robe - however metaphorically that may be? We dedicate ourselves to this discipline, study and practice to teach others the Dharma, not just with our words but in our lives. We study so that we can answer questions appropriately. We practice so that we can show others the ways that dharma practice changes lives, and we discipline ourselves so that we can show these changes in every moment of our lives; within the Sangha, at work, among our families and even out for an evening with friends.

We don’t do this to show the Buddhadharma is superior to other ways or to convert people to Buddhism, but to show them in our lives the truth of how the Dharma can bring an end to dukkha and bring us into the presence of bliss. We don’t get points for conversions, nor do we shout the Dharma on the streets to all comers; indeed the Pratimoksa vows of the monk remind us:

  • "I will not teach the Dharma like a ruler handing down edicts" is a precept which should be observed.

  • "I will not teach the Dharma to those who have no wish of hearing it" is a precept which should be observed.

And again:

  • "I will not speak of other sects of Buddhism or other religions with contempt" is a precept which should be observed.

Yet through our lives we show the Dharma each day in each action. This is the Way of the Pragmatic Buddhist Monk. This is the Way we take up each day.

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