by Ven. Thubten Kunga

Christina Manriquez first came to Sravasti Abbey for the Exploring Monastic Life program in 2016, where she took the five lay precepts. She then returned to her job at the State Department and considered her options. After some months, she decided to return to the Abbey for a longer visit and requested training. After another few months, she requested the eight anagarika precepts of a pre-monastic trainee. After over a year of careful consideration, she made the decision to request monastic ordination and in May 2019 became Ven. Thubten Kunga. (See her ordination photos.) She wrote this essay in the period between requesting and receiving ordination with the wish to support future monastic aspirants in their decision-making.

Frustration and confusion can arise while deciding whether to ordain, so I wanted to share my own experience in case it might be helpful. If I had to summarize the key ingredients for reaching a decision, it would be:

  1. Deepen your understanding of the Dharma
  2. Practice as sincerely as possible
  3. Have the aspiration to reach a conclusion
  4. Don’t worry about when the answer will appear

I found the decision-making process to be a big practice in dealing with uncertainty and learning to have patience, most of all with myself. Many doubts arose and I couldn’t be sure that all of them were afflicted, so I had to work through them all, one by one. I felt like my whole confused predicament in life had been compressed into this one particular decision point and timeframe. I found that what helped in life more generally was helpful here too—having a relaxed and happy mind and lots of time and space to allow all things to be considered that needed to be considered.

Intention and Allowing

nuns shaving laywoman's headTo receive monastic ordination, we must have the intention to hold the precepts for the rest of our life. It’s hard to put a timeframe on a decision as vast as this one, so the best one can do is to have the intention to reach a conclusion and then relax. When the conditions are ripe, the conclusion will emerge. Our desire to have an answer as soon as possible actually interferes with the process of reaching a decision. Like many other areas of practice, letting go of the craving for an answer clears up space for virtuous influences to enter and work on us at deep levels and creates a relaxed mental environment for them to bear fruit.

Venerable Chodron gave a talk during the 2009 Exploring Monastic Life program about how the Buddha brought himself to renounce his life as a prince. He said, “Suppose that being myself subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to aging, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, I seek the un-aging, un-ailing, deathless, sorrowless and undefiled supreme security from bondage, nirvana.”

Venerable Chodron suggested that the method of saying “suppose” is a gentler way to steer our mind in a different direction than commanding it to change on the spot. She continues:

(By using ‘suppose.’ the Buddha was) not pushing himself. He’s not saying, ‘You shouldrenounce, you shouldgive up. What you’re thinking is stupid, just change it.’ Instead, he’s trying to understand. We get so dissatisfied with the situation that we meditate on the dissatisfaction instead of trying to understand the situation. What really changes our mind is not pushing ourselves but understanding with wisdom. When we understand with wisdom, our mind changes automatically. When we push ourselves, it seems like Dharma practice is like having your teeth pulled!

We always have to go back to understanding. What do I need to understand in order to change my mind here? What do I need to meditate on in order to relax this attachment, anger, or jealousy, or to let go of this confusion? We come back to the importance of taking the Dharma medicine. We have to stop to think about things and really make that understanding part of ourselves. That’s why practicing Dharma takes time. We need to repeatedly contemplate so many things about life over a period of time in order to transform our mind and develop understanding.

Wisdom Takes Time

nun offers gift to another nunThe ordination decision-making process takes time because developing wisdom takes time. Just by living at the Abbey—following a schedule structured solely around Dharma practice, surrounded by people practicing ethical conduct, living in precepts—one’s wisdom is bound to grow. And one really cannot reach the decision to ordain until one has a certain degree of wisdom. This is why ordaining is so rare in the world—you need wisdom to have any interest in ethical conduct, but you have to practice ethical conduct to gain wisdom. It’s like a Catch-22.

Thankfully most of us come into this world with some degree of wisdom. We are human beings after all, and we have an interest in the spiritual path. In fact, our enthusiasm for spiritual practice is our most valuable possession and we should always focus on sustaining and enhancing it, whether we are a layperson or a monastic.

At the beginning of our spiritual path, we practice in a way that suits our lifestyle, in a way that enhances its quality and minimizes disruption. Naturally we will see the benefit and want to increase our involvement. Then we may come to a point where we want to immerse ourselves in the Dharma deeply, setting other interests and priorities aside, at least for a time, so we go on retreat. If we like that experience, we will probably repeat it. Then comes the question, “What if I lived my life like this all of the time? Would I be happier? Would my life be more meaningful?”

One cannot really know the answer to this question unless one tries it out. There will be resistance in some (or many) areas of course, but hopefully the anagarika experience of training with eight precepts will be positive enough to outweigh the discomfort of dropping old habits and safety blankets and adjusting to a new set of values, people, and living conditions. Then there comes a time when a decision feels natural. If you aren’t yet sure, don’t push it.

It’s not so unusual if one day you feel in your bones you were born to ordain, while the very next day you are wishing you were lying on a beach. This is natural and to be expected. We are, after all, fresh off the streets from lay life with all of its addictions and distractions. We have been accustomed to rushing to these false refuges our whole lives, so our interest in them is not going to fall away overnight.

Decision Comes Naturally

It will take quite some time to completely reorient ourselves away from worldly concerns. It is difficult because we have received what we perceived to be genuine pleasure from these activities in the past and we haven’t yet received the kind of contentment and spiritual happiness that comes from practice. It is like jumping ship but not being sure the next boat will be there at the time you need it. But again, we have some wisdom already in us to be spiritually inclined; we have experienced the benefits of spiritual practice or else we never would have made the effort to seriously explore monastic life. So we can at least find some comfort in our ability to make sound decisions based on evidence and the courage to look in unexpected places for answers to questions most people are too afraid to ask.

If we have some endurance and fortitude, we can stick it out until the decision feels natural. Journaling, reflecting, and meditating on foundational Buddhist teachings eases this process along. Our decision should always be in response to the questions, “What lifestyle is best for my practice, my long-term spiritual goals, the best use of my human life, and for all living beings?”

If we decide we aren’t suited to become a monastic at the end of the anagarika period, we will have discovered something very valuable about ourselves. We can remain as a lay practitioner with the confidence that we are pursuing the kind of lifestyle that will most benefit our practice in the long-run.

And then?

monastics pose for photoIf we do decide that monastic life suits us, there are still other questions to be considered. We need to make sure: What tradition suits us best? Do we have a teacher that we can rely on for guidance in Vinaya? Where will we live and train after ordination? How will we be supported? See “Letter to a Friend Considering Ordination” for additional relevant questions to consider.

We should also focus on stabilizing our aspiration, such as by doing purification practices to overcome any obstacles to ordaining or keeping the precepts. We need to reflect again and again on the benefits of renouncing cyclic existence, cultivating the determination to be free, and deepening understanding of the four truths of the aryas so that the intent to ordain remains strong.

Those who are interested in joining the Abbey community make a formal request to the abbess three times. After that, the fully ordained monastics meet to discuss whether the candidate is ready to ordain and fits in well with the community. Specific guidelines for training at the Abbey are here.

You can also read the Monastic Life section of this website for general information about the steps to ordaining as a Buddhist monastic, especially the Ordaining page.  There’s also an entire section on Monastic Life on ThubtenChodron.org.