Adjusting to monastic life

A talk given at Thosamling Institute for International Buddhist Women.

  • A A A
  • The importance of Western Dharma communities in India

    • The situation of Western monastics in India
    • Internal factors that support keeping ordination

    Q&A Thosamling 01 (download)

    Maintaining one’s ordination

    • External factors that support keeping ordination
    • Cultivating a monastic mind

    Q&A Thosamling 02 (download)

    Daily practice for Westerners

    • Basic practices for busy lay practitioners
    • Right livelihood for Western monastics

    Q&A Thosamling 03 (download)

    (Excerpted from the talks)

    Community living

    An attitude of transparency

    One important element in forming a community and what’s initially difficult in the West in forming communities, is you need people with experience to help guide you. When you are a baby monastic, you really don’t know what to do. It’s hard sometimes, as babies and toddlers, to set up a community. But we try. The best thing is to get the help of some seniors. Whether they live with you or not, it’s important to listen to advice. And to really help each other in the community.

    This is one thing that we try to do at Sravasti Abbey. I call it an attitude of transparency. We train our mind to be okay with who we are and to not try and hide things from other people. To do that, we need a great deal of self-acceptance. I think self-acceptance is a very important quality for us in our Dharma practice—to accept ourselves but at the same time to continue to practice so that we can change.

    We try and create an atmosphere where we can talk about what’s going on inside of us. In my early years as a monastic, I was living in communities, but we were all trying to be very ‘good’ monastics and we only wanted to listen to the instruction of our teacher. We didn’t want any of our fellow monks and nuns telling us what to do. We also didn’t want to reveal what was going on inside, because if we did, then everybody else would know how horrible we were! My mind was full of negative stuff but I could not let anybody know that. I had to look good and keep everything inside. This doesn’t work!

    And so at the Abbey, especially during mealtime or tea time, we try to talk about what is going on inside of us. We really emphasize how our life together as a community is part of our practice, how life together as a community is part of our training. When problems come up between people, that’s natural. Of course problems are going to come up—we’re sentient beings!

    Having different opinions doesn’t mean we have to be angry at each other. That’s the main thing to remember. We can have different opinions, it doesn’t mean we have to be angry at each other. We get angry when we start identifying with our opinions. When my opinion becomes ‘me’, then if you don’t like my opinions, it means you don’t like me. Then I get angry. But if we remember our opinions are just opinions and don’t identify with them, then whether people like or don’t like our opinions, we’re okay with that.

    And then, when we see that we are identifying with our opinions, to be able to say that to everybody in the group: “Oh everybody, today I was kind of in a bad mood and I was a little rude to people. I’m sorry about that because I was really stuck in one of my opinions.”

    And then everybody goes, “Oh, you know what? I was stuck in mine too.” In this way we learn to be able to talk about what was going on in ourselves with a great deal of self-acceptance and without fear. I think that’s very, very healthy, because then we can really help each other on the path.

    I’ve seen this happening in our community in the States. There’re two people who have been there for quite a long time. Our community is only three years old, so ‘long time’ is relative. But they’ve really changed. One of the women suffered a lot of abuse when she was a child and came in with a lot of negative self-talk and anger towards the world because of the things that had happened. During the last winter retreat when we were having our Q&A session, I was listening to what she was saying and I was going, “Oh my goodness! This is unbelievable!” She was beginning to identify those things and let them go. She was able to share that with the rest of the community as it was happening. And when she got stuck, she was also able to let the rest of us know that.

    And so similarly, all of us, when we live together as a community, will go through different things, and we kind of let each other know what’s going on. In that way we’re able to develop some compassion for each other.

    At the Abbey, we have a house to live in, but we also have some building to do, and that entails working with architects, contractors and engineers. This is my real Dharma practice, I tell you! Before I ordained, I never owned anything. I never owned a car. Never owned a house. Really. I didn’t own anything. And here I am, trying to build a 2½-million-dollar building! Where’re the funds going to come from? Where is the design going to come from? I’ve never worked with an architect. I don’t know anything about engineering! But this is my practice.

    So, once in a while, if this stuff gets too bad, I get a little grumpy. But I will tell the other people and they perfectly understand. For me it’s really nice living with other people who, when I say, “I’m going a little bit nuts with the architect today,” can say, “That’s okay. We understand.” And then in five minutes, whatever I’m feeling is gone.

    Being able to say what’s happening with us and then giving other people the opportunity to be compassionate and understanding in return is such a valuable thing that we as Sangha can give to each other. Because in order to keep our ordination for a long period of time, there has to be a certain sense of belonging, a certain sense of connectedness with other human beings. So we have to make an effort to create that.

    Being in touch with what goes on in our mind

    It’s very easy in Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the Gelupa tradition with all the great treatises and great texts—the four of that, the five of that, the seventeen of the other thing that relate to the thirty-two of this and that divides into four sub-divisions and the first one has eight factors—for us to really get into our studies. Studies are incredibly valuable, very valuable, but we have to make sure that while we’re studying, we practice. It is very important that while we’re studying, we apply what we’re learning to what’s going on in our very own mind so that we can keep a happy mind.

    If we just sit there and we’re like crunching the books—memorizing this and studying that—but we’re out of touch with what is going on in our own heart, it’s not going to last. You have to be really in touch with what’s going on. And what I mean by being in touch is using the Dharma to help us with our own problems, talking with other people about what’s going on, giving support to our Dharma friends when they’re going through stuff, because that’s kind of the basis.

    In my experience, the people who are able to keep their ordination for a long period of time have that long-term motivation and find a way to deal with what’s going on inside. Some people deal with it well. Some people don’t. But they find some way to do it, the best is to deal with it well.


    We all go through periods of loneliness. I would say that the main thing that makes people disrobe is either a lot of sexual desire or loneliness. It’s the precept about celibacy that’s the most difficult to keep. Nobody says, “Oh, I’m going to give back my ordination because I want to go out and kill somebody.” Nobody says, “Oh, I can’t be a monk or nun any longer because I’m going to rob a bank.” Nobody says, “I’m fed up of being ordained because I want to lie about my attainments.”

    Those three precepts are not the challenge. The real big challenge is the celibacy precept. And this celibacy precept is not just referring to physical celibacy. It’s not just jumping in bed, having a climax and then it’s done, because then you got to do it again and again and again because the sexual desire just keeps building up.

    So it’s not just the physical thing. Some people may have more trouble with the physical thing. For other people, it’s the emotional one. “I want somebody special in my life. I want to be a special person to someone else. I want somebody who’s always there for me, who understands me, who loves me more than they love everybody else, because somehow, I need that. I don’t really believe in myself. I need somebody else to love me so that I know that I’m a good person.”

    It could be that. Or it could be: “I’m really lonely. I have all this stuff going on inside and everybody is only talking about the four of this and the seven of that.” We can’t talk to anybody about the doubt or restlessness or loneliness we’re having inside so then we just get more lonely and we sit there and stew in it.

    So around sex is this whole thing of emotional security.

    For some of us, the main thing is emotional security—feeling loved, feeling special, having somebody there for you.

    For some people, it’s fitting in with the rest of society: “Everybody in my family, everybody where I came from is in a relationship. I’m the only one who is not in a relationship.” Most of us grew up in families where there was the expectation that you fall in love and get married. Isn’t that the expectation? It may be okay for a while if we don’t get married, but then it’s like there’s that conditioning inside, “Oh, but everybody else is in a relationship. What’s wrong with me?”

    Or sometimes we think, “I really want to have kids because kids really love you too, don’t they? At least when they’re young.” When they’re old, forget it! But when they’re young, they need you. “I need to feel needed. If I have a child, the child will need me. Then I’m valuable.”

    There’re so many different angles to it, but they all come down to some kind of emotional neediness that we have inside—the need to feel loved, to belong, to feel good about ourselves. And these are all tied up in the celibacy precept.

    These emotional issues don’t disappear when we get ordained. They are the very thing that we have to work with. We can’t shove them in a corner and pretend that we’re above all those things. We’re social beings. We need other human beings. We need connectedness. And this is what the Sangha community is for. We are connected with others. The purpose is not to build one special relationship with one Sangha member in a community. It’s not finding one best friend in the Sangha community; it’s learning to open up and trust the entire community. It takes some time to do that, but we should give that a chance.

    There might be some people that we resonate with more than others and so we might seek more advice from those people. That’s nice, but try and avoid making the one best friend in the Sangha. We have to recognize that we are social creatures and we need to talk about what’s going on inside. We need to have connections with others. We can’t be up in our head all the time. But it’s about how to have healthy relationships, relationships that are based on practice instead of relationships based on our emotional clinging.

    I think we should just admit that there are these needs inside of us. They’re there. But we learn to work with them in a healthy way and when our mind gets obsessive about something, then we know, “Okay, this is too much here. What is my mind obsessed about? Is it about the sex? Is it about being loved?”

    “Okay. I want somebody to love me. What’s that all about?”

    “I want somebody to tell me I’m wonderful.”

    “I want somebody to say, ‘You’re so wonderful. You’re so talented. You’re so intelligent. You’re so good-looking. You’re so this. You’re so that. You’re the best one.’” We like that, don’t we?

    “I want somebody to say they love me and to tell me how wonderful I am.”

    And then you go, “Okay. Which one of the eight worldly concerns is that?” It is the attachment to praise and approval, isn’t it?

    “I want my boss or my teacher to praise me.”

    “I want one special person to think I’m the most wonderful one.”

    “That’s one of the eight worldly dharmas. There it is. I’m not a Buddha yet.” Well, what are the antidotes to this worldly dharma of wanting praise and approval?

    What I do is I ask myself, “Well, even if I get those, what good is it going to do me? Is it really going to solve the problem?” And then I remember that in my past relationships, I’ve had many people telling me I was wonderful and special. But it didn’t solve the basic feeling of neediness and loneliness inside. It still remains there no matter how many people told me they love me. So examine what that feeling of neediness is all about. What’s going on there?

    So you kind of learn and do your research on what’s going on inside: “What’s that neediness about? Somebody to love me. Oh, what about me loving somebody else? Oh yeah! Because that loneliness is all about me, isn’t it? I want somebody to love me. Even if I were to start a relationship, that’s not a very good foundation to start any relationship on.” Starting a relationship because “I need somebody to love me” is a recipe for disaster, because it’s full of expectations.

    So what does the Dharma teach? The Dharma teaches us to open our hearts equally to others and extend our love to them. And to do that not just to one special person. “Maybe I’m feeling so lonely inside because I’m not loving anybody. Because I’m all locked up in myself. So maybe I need to open my eyes and look at what’s going on with other people and start being kind to them, start smiling at them, not because I want something from them, not because I want them to be my one-and-only or I want to be their one-and-only, but simply as a manifestation of my own inner kindness towards sentient beings.”

    So then you go back and start practicing metta. Loving kindness. And you start looking at the people around you and try to be kind. And then all of a sudden you realize, “Wow! There’re so many people here that I’m connected with.” Then you don’t feel lonely anymore. And you realize, “Oh, I’m connected with all these other people. I don’t need to be the one-and-only to somebody else.”

    So we work with what’s going on inside and we put the teachings on loving-kindness into practice in our own life instead of just memorizing the types of loving-kindness and the twenty-two types of bodhicitta. Sure, we memorize those, but we also try and put some of it into our own heart in this life through how we relate to the people we’re living with. As we do that, then that solves our own inner feeling of isolation and disconnectedness and loneliness.

    So maintaining our ordination for a long period of time really means taking the teachings into heart. Really trying to transform our mind with the teachings.

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