A series of articles published as Preparing for Ordination, a booklet prepared by Venerable Thubten Chodron and available for free distribution.
Our mind is the creator of our happiness and suffering, and our motivation is the key to our actions and their results. Therefore, the motivation for receiving monastic ordination is of great importance. When we reflect deeply on the disadvantages of cyclic existence, the determination to free ourselves from it and to attain liberation arises in our mind. The method to do that is to practice the Three Higher Trainings: ethics, concentration, and wisdom. To develop the wisdom that liberates us from cyclic existence, we must be able to concentrate. Otherwise we will not be able to meditate on emptiness in a sustained manner. Developing concentration requires us to subdue the manifest disturbing attitudes in our mind. A firm foundation for doing this is created by pacifying our gross verbal and physical actions motivated by these disturbing attitudes. Ethics—living according to precepts—is the method to harmonize our physical and verbal actions, and thus to subdue the gross disturbing attitudes. Thinking that we can ignore our bad habits and how they manifest in our daily life and yet still develop spiritual realizations by meditating is erroneous.
Ethical discipline challenges us to live the Dharma in our daily interactions, that is, to integrate what we experience in meditation into our relationships with other people and with our environment. The Higher Training in Ethics is developed by taking and keeping one of the various types of Pratimoksa vows: the lay vow with five precepts or one of the monastic vows: the novice vow (sramanara/sramanerika) with ten precepts, or the full vow (bhikshu/bhikshuni). For women, there is an intermediate ordination (shiksamana) between novice and full ordination with six additional regulations. Because transmission of the bhikshuni lineage did not occur in Tibet, women seeking this ordination must go to Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese masters to request it.
Since there are different levels of ordination and each successive level requires greater mindfulness and awareness due to the increased number of precepts, it is advisable to progress gradually, rather than immediately receiving the full ordination. In this way, we will be able to adjust to the commitment required at each stage. Sometimes in people’s enthusiasm for the Dharma and for ordination, they quickly take full ordination. However, experience has shown that this can prove difficult, and some people feel overwhelmed. A gradual approach allows a solid foundation to be built and sustained and joyful practice to ensue.
Ordination is easy to take, but difficult to keep. If we sincerely want to remain as monastics our entire life, we must cultivate a strong motivation before ordaining, and continuously develop it afterwards. Without thinking deeply about the disadvantages of cyclic existence, our motivation to ordain will be weak, and the precepts will seem like many “shoulds” and “don’ts.” In that case, keeping the precepts will seem burdensome. However, when we are aware of the preciousness and rarity of this human life and our potential to attain higher spiritual states in order to be of benefit to others, then living in accord with precepts is a joy. In comparison, the happiness of family, career, relationships, and pleasure are seen as unsatisfactory and our interest in them pales. We have a long-range and noble spiritual goal, and this gives us the courage to go through the ups and downs of life and of Dharma practice. Having this long-term goal and stability in Dharma practice over a period of time enables us to keep the ordination once we have taken it.
The disadvantages of cyclic existence are many: in addition to birth, sickness, aging, and death, while alive we face not getting what we seek, being separated from what we like, and encountering undesirable circumstances. All these problems are caused by our internal disturbing attitudes and the actions (karma) that they fuel. As a householder, we must do many things for the sake of our family. We easily find ourselves in situations where we must create negative karma by lying or cheating. We are surrounded by distractions: the media, our career, and social obligations. It is easy for disturbing attitudes to arise and more difficult to accumulate positive potential because our lives are so busy with other things. We face the difficulty of finding the right life partner and then the difficulty of making the relationship last. At the beginning we have the problem of no children, and later the problems of raising the children.
As a monastic, we have more freedom from such distractions and difficulties. On the other hand, we also have great responsibility. We have decided to be more aware and not to act according to whatever impulse arises in our minds. Initially this may appear as a lack of freedom, but in fact such awareness frees us from our bad habits and the difficulties they create. We have voluntarily chosen to keep precepts, and so we must slow down, be aware of our actions, and choose what we do and say wisely. If we have the view that we can act counter to our precepts and then simply purify later, it is like thinking we can drink poison now and take the antidote later. Such an attitude or behavior hurts us.
However, we should not think that we are bad people when we are unable to keep our precepts perfectly. The reason that we take precepts is because our mind, speech, and actions are not subdued. If we were already perfect, we would not need to take precepts. Therefore, we should do our best to live according to the precepts, but when our disturbing attitudes are too strong and the situation gets the better of us, we should not be discouraged or criticize ourselves in an unhealthy way. Rather, we can apply the antidotes to purify and restore our precepts, and make a determination for how we aspire to act in the future. In that way we will learn from our mistakes and become stronger practitioners.
As monastics, we represent the Three Jewels to others. People will be inspired to or discouraged from learning and practicing the Dharma depending upon our behavior. For example, if they see monastics who are kind to others and are happy living ethically, they will try to do the same. If they see monastics who act brashly and loudly or manipulate others to get what they want, they may lose faith in the Dharma. When we cherish the Three Jewels and cherish other beings, then acting responsibly for their benefit is a joy. During those times that our disturbing attitudes are strong and we seek our own immediate happiness and benefit, we see precepts as burdensome and oppressive. At those times, it is important to cultivate anew our motivation for becoming monastics and remember that living according to the precepts benefits ourselves and others.
If we become a monastic with strong conviction in the path to liberation, willingness to persevere and to face our problems, confidence in our potential, and patience with ourselves and others, we will be able to live as monastics happily and for a long time. However, if we wish to ordain because we have a romantic idea of living a holy life, or seek an easy way out of our personal or financial problems, we will be unhappy as a monastic because what we seek will not be actualized. By understanding what a crucial role our mind plays in keeping ordination, we see that keeping the Pratimoksa (individual liberation) precepts makes not only our words and deeds peaceful, but our mind calm as well.
Joining the sangha community
Ordination is not only about living ethically, it is about being a member of a special community, the Buddhist sangha, the monastics upholding the precepts and principals established by the Buddha. This is a virtuous community of people who practice the Buddha’s teachings and assist others in taking refuge. As members of the sangha we focus on developing four special qualities:
- When someone harms us, we try not to respond with harm;
- When someone is angry with us, we try not to react with anger;
- When someone insults or criticizes us, we try not to reply with insult or criticism;
- When someone abuses or beats us, we try not to retaliate.
This is the behavior a monastic should try to develop. The root of these is compassion. Thus the main quality of the spiritual community stems from compassion.
The Buddha’s ultimate goal for establishing the sangha is for people to attain liberation and enlightenment. The manifest goal is to create a harmonious community that enables its members to progress along the path. The Vinaya Pitaka says that this community should work at being:
- Physically harmonious: we live together peacefully;
- Harmonious in communication: there are few arguments and disputes, and when they occur, we remedy them;
- Mentally harmonious: we appreciate and support each other;
- Harmonious in the precepts: we have a similar lifestyle and live according to the same precepts;
- Harmonious in views: we share similar beliefs;
- Harmonious in welfare: we equally use and enjoy what is given to the community.
These are the ideal circumstances we aspire and work towards in our life together as a community.
The current situation of Western monastics in the Tibetan tradition
The Buddha said that the ordaining master should care for the disciples like a parent for a child, helping to provide requisites for daily sustenance, as well as Dharma teachings. However, due to various factors, one of which is that the Tibetans are a refugee community, this is not what generally occurs for Westerners who ordain. It is important to be aware of this before ordaining, because Westerners face particular challenges in living as monastics. If, before ordination, we are aware of the challenges we may face after it, we will be better equipped to prevent or resolve the difficulties that may arise.
At present there are few established monastic communities in the West. Thus we often do not have a community to live with, or we live in a center with lay people, perhaps with one or two other monastics, or in a mixed community of monks and nuns. We are often expected to provide for ourselves financially. This adds strain to ordained life, for if one has to put on lay clothes and work at a job in the city with non-Buddhist people, one may lose the motivation and vision of ordination. Thus, it is advisable before ordaining to clear all financial debts we may have and to seek a benefactor or other means of support. In terms of education, often there is little guidance or training on how to live as a monastic, and many of us must generate our own program of study, develop friendships over long distances with other monastics, and be responsible for ourselves. Thus, before ordaining it is wise to establish a good relationship with a spiritual mentor who will guide us and to find conducive circumstances where we can live and receive the monastic training and Dharma education that we need.
In the monastic communities in Asia, we are separated from Asian monastics by culture, language, manners, and habits. It is difficult to live in Tibetan monasteries because they are often over-crowded, and Westerners face visa problems and illness. Living in Western Dharma centers, we are often expected to work long hours to serve our teachers and the public. While doing this is beneficial, we need to have a balance between service, study, and practice. If we do not live in a community with other monastics, there is sometimes the difficulty of loneliness. If we become too close emotionally with lay practitioners, there is danger that we become distracted and lose our purpose as monastics. Thus, we are challenged to acknowledge and learn to work with our emotions. Western society often sees monastics of any tradition as parasites because they do not seem to produce anything. We must have a strong mind and clear goals in order to prevent unnecessary doubt from arising when we encounter others’ lack of understanding of the purpose of monastic life.
The benefits of ordination
The guidelines our precepts provide have great meaning when we devote ourselves to practice rather than having only an intellectual or casual interest in Buddhism. As monastics, our simplified lifestyle enables us to be content with little and gives us the time to develop our practice in a deep and committed way. We will become more mindful and restrain ourselves from getting caught up or going astray by following our endless wants and desires. We will develop greater awareness of ourselves and others; we will have a method to deal with our problems and will no longer be obliged to react strongly to things for which we have aversion. Rather than acting on impulse, mindfulness of our precepts will help us to check first before engaging in an action. We will develop greater tolerance, will not get emotionally entangled in unhealthy relationships, and will be of greater assistance to others. People become calmer, healthier, and more content by living in the conducive circumstances that precepts create. By living according to the precepts, we will become an ethical and trustworthy person and thus become stronger and more confident.
Maintaining our precepts enables us to purify stores of negative karma and to create great positive potential (merit). This acts as a basis for obtaining higher rebirths in the future so that we can continue to practice the Dharma and finally attain liberation and enlightenment. Living in precepts will protect us from harm, and through our subdued behavior, the place where we live will become more peaceful and prosperous. We will become an example of individuals who are content with little and of a community that can work together and resolve its problems in a healthy way. Our mind will be peaceful and calm; we will no longer be propelled by our bad habits; and distractions in meditation will arise less often. We will get along better with others. In future lives, we will meet the Buddha’s teachings and conducive circumstances for practice, and we will be born as a disciple of Maitreya Buddha.
Living in accord with the precepts directly contributes to world peace. For example, when we abandon killing, all living beings who contact us can feel secure. When we abandon stealing, everyone around us can relax and not fear for their possessions. Living in celibacy, we relate to others more honestly, free from the subtle and not-so-subtle games between people. Others can trust us when we are committed to speaking truthfully. In this way, each precept influences not only ourselves, but also those with whom we share this world.
In the Lamrim Chenmo, the higher training in ethics is described as the stairway to all other virtuous practices. It is the banner of all Dharma practice, the destroyer of all negative actions and unfortunate rebirths. It is the medicine which cures the disease of harmful actions, the food to eat while traveling the difficult road in samsara, the weapon to destroy the enemy of the disturbing attitudes, and the foundation for all positive qualities.