East & West
Mendicancy, living on alms, is a vital component in
sustaining the holy life. Monks and nuns freely choose to relinquish
worldly wealth, not through aversion or any moral criticism of the
world but more through a recognition of its limitations. The basic
assumption for the religious seeker is that there is more
to this life than the material - there
is the spiritual. This aspect of being is more subtle than
the physical dimension and when one's energy is taken up working,
shopping, eating, playing, building, etc. then it is more difficult
to cultivate an understanding of this spiritual dimension. To develop
this understanding one needs to step aside from complexity and move
towards simplicity. The higher material standard one requires in this
life, the more difficult this 'stepping aside' is and the less
time one has to give to it.
To maximise the time available,
ordained mendicants take a vow of poverty and effectively relinquish
power over much of their material circumstance. Buddhist mendicants
are technically homeless and in Asia spend many months of the year
wandering. With general emphasis on the material, and a lack of familiarity
with the mendicant lifestyle in the West - and the cold, wetter weather
- it means that mendicants tend to live in monasteries. To this degree
mendicant = monastic.
How does it work?
The presence of monastics in any situation is usually the result of
an invitation. Say, an individual
or a group has some interest in Buddhism and want to have monks present
- this leads to an invitation. It is usually quite specific: 'come
round for a cup of tea', 'come and bless our house', 'please take
up residence here', (not necessarily in that order) - and the monks
will respond accordingly. Implicit in any invitation is the agreement
to provide for the monks' needs and, because these needs are quite
simple, making appropriate provisions is not that difficult. The outcome
of this principle of invitation is that those who want monks provide
for their needs and those that don't or are indifferent aren't called
on to contribute in any way. One very practical result of this is
that monks don't proselytise or solicit.
A very simple summary of
the relationship established is that lay people offer material
requisites and monastics will offer spiritual
sustenance. This 'sustenance' can be thought of in many
ways but one expectation is that monks will give talks, teach, lead
retreats and perform other 'good works'. The danger here is that for
the monastic to do these things means giving up the time gained by
taking up the renunciant life. It is a matter of finding a balance
point. This will likely vary among individuals and it is important
that expectations are discussed and made clear at the point of invitation
to avoid possible confusion at some later date.
Establishing and sustaining the mendicant lifestyle - from both the
point of view of the donors and the monastic - assumes faith in the
Buddha's enlightenment - that there is indeed Truth to be realised
- that transcendence of the conditioned is possible. Although Buddhism
is often viewed as a 'practical', sensible religion, this faith has
to be present to a certain degree. Without faith in the transcendent
aspect of the teachings the practice becomes nothing more than a useful
psychology or a tidy lifestyle. It does include elements of both these
but the Buddha was very clear: 'I teach suffering, its cause and its
cessation'. Along with the faith that this Truth exists there is often
an appreciation of beings who wish to give time and effort to investigate
it. This process of investigation can take many forms and, for lay
supporters, there also needs to be faith in the individual or the
tradition that they belong to. There is much of mutual benefit to
be gained when the relationship is properly honoured.
Truth (in big letters) is often veiled behind various mental confusions
and misperceptions and the seeing of it is not so easy. Because we
start not knowing quite what Truth is there has to be an ongoing relinquishment
of what Truth isn't. We attach to a great variety of things thinking
that they will lead us to peace/ happiness - but they don't. So what
to do? Because of the support offered by the lay community, monastic
life can be reduced to very simple elements - food, clothing, shelter
and medicine - so there is the opportunity to strip away a great many
of these things that Truth isn't. There is a lot of emphasis on silence
and solitude which, combined with material simplicity, gives monks
and nuns the time and space to directly investigate their inner world.
The results of this work are often insights into what obstructs a
vision of Truth, rather than a vision of the truth itself. Ideally,
once these things have been seen, they can be let go of. The difficulty
is that many of the things we are attached to are quite firmly stuck
in the mind/ body; they have become a habit, part of our 'normal',
familiar selves. Sometimes we need to observe ourselves putting our
hand in the fire many times before we can truly appreciate the value
of letting go of being that close to fire. Mindfulness is the primary
tool in this work and it is strengthened by meditation.
The third Zen Patriarch suggested that: 'The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences'. Appreciating the truth of this
and realising it are two different things and a mendicant lifestyle
is a great opportunity for practising this renunciation. The things
that we are attached to - those things that we prefer - are not always
so obvious. It is often only when what we prefer is denied us that
we get a clear perspective on the degree of attachment. Like the cigarette
smoker who could easily give up - tomorrow - if they had to. Take
away their cigs and see just how attached they are. The renunciation
required in a monastic situation means that a great many things are
'taken away' and degrees of addiction soon become apparent.
If there is any strong
preferences around hair these soon manifest when there isn't any.
Women often find it more difficult to shave their heads than men.
People often have many
preferences around food which become apparent when living on what
is offered and that there is only one meal a day.
Monastic clothing is fairly
standard and quite simple, so, if you don't like brown or have strong
elements of identity with certain fashions then the discomfort that
comes from holding to these preferences will soon appear.
distracting, and absorbing activities are not so common in a monastery.
No TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, videos, games, shows, etc.
Take away all these things and what are you
left with? Just the body and the mind - kind of naked and exposed.
What is its nature? How is it when it is unsupported by all the usual
props? This is all part of the investigation and the depth to which
one can explore is very much supported by the mendicant lifestyle.