Ven. Damcho gives an illuminating description of monastic life, starting with the mind of the new arrival.
Finally, the big day arrives. After thinking deeply about monastic life for a number of years, attending meditation retreats, visiting monasteries and speaking to monastics, you decide to take the leap: you will move long-term to a monastery to prepare for ordination. You leave your job, break up with your partner, sell or give away all your belongings, and bid farewell to your loved ones.
Your family is devastated, but they try to remain loving and stoic. After all, you are already an adult, and they just want you to be happy because they love you. Secretly, they harbor the hope that you will give up and return home within a few months. They remain in contact with your ex-partner and console him quietly behind your back.
Your non-Dharma friends express mixed feelings. “Really? You’re going to be a what?” Some of them try to be supportive. “It’s so cool that you’re following your heart. I wish I could be like you!”
Your Dharma friends rejoice and express their admiration. “Wow! You’re finally doing it! You have such good karma! We’re so happy for you!”
You feel upbeat, hopeful and positive that you are taking a step in the right direction, to live in accordance with your values and progress along the spiritual path, for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Then you arrive at the monastery. There are guidelines, there is a schedule, there is a community of strangers. You try your best to fit in, to fall into the established rhythm of life, to adapt to whatever arises. The days are generally peaceful and happy. Each day starts to look the same, and you begin to lose track of time. Occasionally, however, you catch a glimpse of how your mind works, and it is anything but holy – it is filled with self-centeredness and the eight worldly concerns. Your mind fixates on food – “Why isn’t there dessert today? Not salad again!” You worry about material possessions – “I need a new pair of shoes. Nothing here fits me!” You want everybody’s approval – “Why don’t they like my ideas? These people don’t know anything!” You strive to appear like a Good Practitioner – “I must sit still in meditation for hours! I will not break a single precept!” Seeing the worldly state of your mind, you beat yourself up for being a failure.
You become critical and judgmental of yourself and others. Your mind runs through the faults of every community member, one by one. Why don’t the people here treat you the way you were treated outside of the monastery? You were a star pupil, a high-performing colleague, an interesting friend, a good daughter… Why don’t the people here applaud your virtuous efforts? Why do they give you feedback about your behavior? Why don’t they behave the way you expect them to? Why don’t they buy into any of your trips? What is wrong with them?
This is a turning point: either you accept that your habitual tendencies and the stories that you construct and replay are the true causes of your suffering, or you blame the external world around you. The latter is easier. It’s the schedule. It’s offering service. It’s the lack of study time. It’s the community. It’s the Abbess. I am being oppressed here; nobody appreciates or listens to me; I am so lonely; why can’t I just have some space to do what I want, whenever I want to? This is your self-centered mind talking, and if you can’t recognize it, you soon find yourself in a deep hole, ready to pack your bags and run down the hill.
But you are too proud to leave. You are not going to fail in the first few months. You have given up too much for this. Maybe, you think, you should do what you came here to do in the first place: practice the Dharma. So you decide to stop blaming the world around you (for now), and you sit and look within. You sit, and you sit. And you are horrified by what you see. Who knew you had so much anger? So much pride? So much jealousy? So much attachment? So much ignorance? What have you been doing with your entire life, living on automatic? Looking at the mind feels like staring into a bottomless pit of snakes.
At some point your teacher’s voice breaks through the thick fog of self-centeredness and self-grasping: “Don’t believe everything you think! All suffering comes from the self-centered attitude and self-grasping ignorance. Train yourself to see your Buddha potential, and to appreciate the kindness of others.” This sounds like Greek at first, but your teacher keeps saying the same thing, again and again and again. And because you trust your teacher, and because you have some small faith in the Buddha’s teachings, you decide to put in a bit more effort in applying the teachings in your life.
To counteract anger, you meditate on loving-kindness. To counteract pride, you do prostrations. To counteract jealousy, you rejoice in others’ good qualities. To counteract attachment, you meditate on death and impermanence. To counteract ignorance, you meditate on cause and effect, and what little understanding you have of dependent arising. To counteract the proliferation of discursive thoughts, you meditate on the breath. This feels contrived, unnatural and at times, downright impossible. You set a good motivation in the morning and forget about it for the rest of the day. You flare up over the chore rota. You eat three chocolate chip cookies at lunchtime. You fail to live up to your own expectations and aspirations, again, and again, and again.
But slowly, your mind starts to change. You realize you are not the only person in the entire universe. You see that you live in community with spiritual friends who are doing their best to move in the same direction, to purify the mind and to generate an altruistic intention. You start to see others’ good qualities. You learn to accept your limitations. You start to see what you are working with in your mind, and begin to unravel the beliefs and patterns that you have clung onto your entire life, even though they cause you suffering. Day by day, your conviction that the Dharma is the path to liberation grows.
You begin to see that the precepts not only help you clean up your life, but are a source of refuge. Initially you think they are “external rules,” but gradually you see that they come from within yourself – the desire to live according to ethical precepts protects the mind from being completely out of control. Thinking back on all the times that keeping precepts has prevented you from following your afflictions and creating a ton of destructive karma brings great relief to your mind.
You begin to experience how having the precepts of celibacy and giving up adorning the body really cleans up your relationships with the opposite sex and enables you to listen to others without any agenda. By taking the precept not to handle money, people know that you are not interacting with them for financial gain, which is entirely different from how worldly relationships function.
Hearing, thinking, and meditating on the Dharma, you slowly learn to accept reality. This body is subject to aging, sickness, and death. Death is certain, the time of death is uncertain. You have no idea when your past destructive karma is going to ripen. There is no pleasure that lasts in cyclic existence. Faced with the truth, you feel like you are in rehab, coming off of hallucinogens you’ve been addicted to since beginningless time.
The path to sobriety feels painful at first, but you know it is worthwhile. If you know that you are on drugs and harming yourself and all those around you, the most important thing to do is to get clean. This is the best way to benefit yourself and others. Eventually, knowing from your own experience how to get clean and stay clean, you can help those around you who are also hallucinating drug addicts to do the same.
This is the goal, and the path is long. You forget what little you know of the truth every single day. Your mind keeps grasping at illusions, desperately hoping for one fleeting moment of pleasure after another. You rein in your mind when you can and apply the antidotes again and again and again. There is no ecstasy, only the laundry. But how nice it is to have clean clothes.
The Buddha counseled:
Just as a carpenter or a carpenter’s assistant sees on his adze-handle the marks made by his fingers and thumb, but does not thereby have the knowledge, “So much of the adze-handle was worn away by me today, so much yesterday, so much at another time,” but merely has the knowledge that it is being worn away by its wearing away, in the same way, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu living devoted to the practice of mind-development does not have the knowledge, “So much of the taints was worn away today, so much yesterday, so much at another time.” But he has the knowledge they are being worn away by their wearing away.
Just as a sea-going boat, stranded for six months on the shore by the tide in the winter, has its rigging spoilt by wind and sun, and then, warped by a shower of rain in the rainy season, easily weakens and rots away: in the same way, bhikkhus, for a bhikkhu living devoted to the practice of mind-development, the fetters (samyojanaani) easily weaken and rot away.¹