by Ven.Thubten Pende
Since the Buddha’s time, monastic communities have relied on the fact of ordination order to establish simple things like seating assignments and to delegate responsibility. Observing the ordination order is also a way to training in respect for those who are senior to us. Ven. Pende shared her struggles and insights with this custom in Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talk. You can watch it here.
Today I would like to talk about monastic seniority—what it means to me at the gross level, why misconceiving the meaning and notion of seniority caused me so much mental suffering in my early monastic life, and how it has had a transformative effect on my personal growth and spiritual practice over the last one and a half years.
Like any workplace, organization, and institution, a monastery also adopts a seniority system — a ranking or hierarchy among monastics based on the relative length of their full or novice ordination.
At the gross and individual level, seniority refers to a position or status that a monastic holds relative to another monastic. Much to my surprise, when I was preparing for my Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talk today, I realized that my naive thought when I ordained was that my seniority in the ordination order made me feel special and important. I had no idea what it entailed until a few years later.
Indeed, seniority does have several positive factors to its name. Firstly, it provides monastics a clear understanding of why certain roles, duties, and responsibilities are designated to seniors such as novice mentors, novice master, guides, and so on, and what to expect. Secondly, it is used to assign monastics to specific tasks or responsibilities based on their seniority on different rotations or to different roles in formal events. Lastly, it really makes it easy for the people in charge of setting up for teachings, rituals, and formal events to know where to place monastics properly.
Trained in Vietnam
Before I move on to the next point, I would like to share my past personal experiences with you. I was trained in a nunnery with about 150 nuns in Vietnam for about six months after I ordained. As a “baby” nun in that nunnery, I felt left out because I was the last one in the long food line or in the last row during chanting and during confession ceremonies. Conversely, I did not feel at ease sitting in the middle section of the big dining hall reserved for seniors with 20 years of seniority or more, when there were no seats available for the most juniors like me when I showed up late for lunch. I didn’t feel that I belonged to that group at all.
Then, a few months later, a group of 10 young lay women went forth and ordained. I was a little arrogant because I was more “senior” than they were, especially since I was no longer the last one in the long food line.
Full Ordination in Taiwan
My misery continued when I went to Taiwan for full ordination in 2017. I remember that I felt irritated and resentful over the seniority issue for quite a while. All the negative thoughts kept popping up in my mind: Who came up with the rule that allows the junior monks to stand or sit in front of the senior nuns? The Buddha or the ancient masters? Why do the nuns have to walk behind the monks?
It was unfair that all the junior monks became senior to me overnight because they did not have to go through the dual sangha to receive full ordination. Fortunately, I was able to let go of my nagging complaints and rumination over that issue because I had to finally accept the philosophy that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I had a great laugh at myself when recalling my initial motivation—I came to Taiwan to receive training for full ordination and not to protest over the seniority or gender inequality issue!
Only a Convention
Next, you might wonder why I struggled against the meaning and notion of seniority in my early monastic life that triggered anger, jealousy, pride, competition, arrogance, irritation, and resentment. Let’s examine, explore, and investigate what the real trouble maker is. Indeed, what I call “seniority” is merely a convention.
When I ordain, I am told my seniority or position in the ordination order. After being in that position for a while, I start to think that my seniority—called “most junior,” “newly ordained,” “novice,” “training nun,” and eventually “bhikshuni”—actually exists.
Furthermore, I identify with my seniority and all that pertains to it—status, privilege, authority, title, role, and responsibility as something I possess or something that is actually who I am: I am more senior than you, I am behind this monk, I am ahead of this nun, I am a chant leader, I am a Pratimoksha reciter, this spot is mine, I am number 11 in the ordination order, and so on.
Upon very close examination and reflective investigation, I realize that seniority is not who and what I am. Indeed, the sense of self and self-obsession are the real troublemakers. Because I am unable to recognize this perception of self, I keep wrapping myself up in that feeling or perception of self, giving weight to it, believing in it and worst of all, buying into the I-making, my-making habit.
As a result, I carry a useless burden with my increased attachment to my seniority along with an unrealistic expectation about its fixed and unchanging nature. I completely ignore the fact that I might move up or down in the ordination order in different situations at any time.
I am very happy that my mental misery related to seniority issue gradually becomes less troublesome over the years.
Last but not least, I would like to share how seniority has had a positive and transformative effect on me over the last one and a half years. Personally, seniority has helped me develop a sense of respect for the seniors, seek guidance and advice from them when needed, and learn from their examples, knowledge and expertise, their skills, and their personal experiences.
In addition, I feel the need and responsibility to take the initiative to explore suitable opportunities in order to learn more skills so that I can step up to many roles that a senior holds.
Furthermore, accepting seniority and my place in the community has helped me overcome my shyness and passivity and become more engaged in more activities such as leading the chanting or participating in the discussion group.
Spiritually, each time I move up in the ordination order, it is a perfect time for me to perform a self-evaluation by examining and asking myself: do I climb up the staircase to liberation or do I climb up to the monastic’s career ladder? Am I a role model and a good example for the juniors? Are my transcendent virtues and good qualities growing? Am I getting more stable, steady, and grounded in the Dharma? Am I getting a little more mature in my practices?
These few questions help me to reflect back on my practices so that I can take firm and decisive steps to stay on track in order to progress on the path.
Even though I have been ordained for a few years, I still consider myself a “baby” nun with so much to learn, to improve, and to grow. I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere and heartfelt gratitude to Ven. Thubten Chodron, Ven. Sangye Khadro, and all the seniors who have lifted me up with your unending kindness and support.