Living and practice: A road map

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Yesterday I wrote a little about Buddhist monks, but I didn’t clearly say what I was trying to convey. I’ll give it another try today.

The monk leaves his home and family and goes to live with a group of monks, in a monastery or elsewhere. There’s also a tradition of monks who go off alone, into the forest or into the mountains, becoming hermits with a solitary practice. So the life of a monk is often referred to as “the homeless life.” In contrast, lay people are often called “householders.”

In the Buddha’s time, the monks walked and lived with the Buddha. After he was gone, they lived in groups without him. They built monasteries and other permanent residences. Groups of monks settled in various locations. As time passed, Buddhism spread south through India to Sri Lanka, north to Central Asia, east and south to Southeast Asia, and farther East to China, Korea and Japan. Everywhere Buddhism spread, numbers of people took up the homeless life.

It’s easy for a Western person to assume that all those who became monks must have been deeply spiritual and committed to doing good, but that’s a bit naive. Both today and in the distant past, people become monks and nuns for myriad personal reasons. In several countries even today, a boy’s family might send him to the temple to become a monk just because they cannot afford to feed him. He might be as young as eight or nine.

This is not to imply that monks are not sincere. Of course there are, and have been, many thousands of monastics who were devoted to learning the Dharma, teaching others, and so on.

Now, I’m not all that interested in monks and the monastic life — in themselves. But I’ve been thinking about the many various shapes and forms of the teachings we have inherited during 2,500 years, and how the practices of monastic lives have caused those shapes and forms to emerge. It is said we have 84,000 sutras, and that doesn’t even include the other Buddhist texts that have been written, preserved, lost, commented upon, translated, etc.

One approach to Buddhist practice (for monks, at least) is to learn the 84,000 sutras by heart.

Okay, this is totally not practical for a lay person. It’s hard to imagine that even a monk can achieve this, but we are told that some monks have. (Traditionally, there has been a lot of memorization and reciting in Buddhist monastic practice.)

Learning the 84,000 sutras is an example of a goal. If you commit to working toward a goal, you have direction. You know where you’re going, you know what to do every day.

If you read Buddhist texts, you’ll see that a whole lot of goals have been offered and explained.

Your goal might be to get enlightenment. (Many people think that is the whole point of Buddhism.) Your goal might be to save all beings. Your goal might be more humble — to earn a better rebirth for your next life. Your goal might be even more down-to-earth — to acquire merit during this life by doing good deeds or donating money. You might be one of the many people who likes to have a kind of road map, and you’re following a well-defined set of steps — after you master Step 1, you’ll be ready to move on to Step 2. (Maybe you are a Stream Enterer, or a Once Returner.)

All of these things are part of Buddhism. What has led me to pondering the monks and their long history is the idea that so many of these teachings apply very well to giving a monk a goal toward which he can spend his whole life working.

Not every monk is going to have a temperament suited to sitting in silent meditation all day long. Especially not when he is nine years old. Not every monk is going to be good at memorizing or at teaching. But you don’t want to kick him out of the Sangha. So there must be teachings for everyone (and for lay people too), to give everyone the chance to improve and advance.

Then the question: Improve or advance … at what?

What is the ultimate goal? Most people would say it’s enlightenment. Do you believe enlightenment is possible in this lifetime? Well, if you believe in rebirth (which is NOT the same as reincarnation, by the way), maybe you are chugging along in this life with the idea that all good karma earned here will take you closer to enlightenment in a future life. But what if you don’t believe in rebirth? (Many Western people don’t.) Are you working toward a goal, and if so, what is it?

What I’ve been thinking about the monks is this: At the beginning of one’s life as a monk, one needs to hear instructions. The basics: Here are your robes, here is your bowl, here is where you will sleep. There might be a bell or a gong that you must heed. The logistics of the day lived by your body are mapped out. That’s the easy part.

What about the mind? If the mind remains unchanged, nothing changes.

So the monks in each monastery, in each tradition, receive instructions: How to Train Your Mind. The instructions are not a complete road map, with each highway marked in red and each little dirt track marked in gray. No one can make that kind of map until all the roads have been followed. And of course, new roads are built, and old roads are closed and wiped away.

Breathe.

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