Reflections on the first Exploring Monastic Life, 2005

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From August 8-26, 2005, a diverse group of women and men with a deep interest in ordaining in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition gathered for what was possibly a first in America: a residential program entitled Exploring Monastic Life, which gave students the opportunity to learn more about and experience aspects of Buddhist monasticism.

Although pre-ordination courses (such as the annual event at Tushita in Dharamsala, India) certainly exist, this course instead offered what might be called a pre-pre-ordination course: an opportunity to experience communal living and the daily schedule of Sravasti Abbey in the context of a life devoted to monasticism, although without a formal commitment to pursue the ordination process.

The ten participants consisted of one woman who has been ordained for a year, the three full-time residents of the Abbey, and six other visitors who came mostly from the Northwest. Ages ranged from 19 to the late 50s, which enabled the students to have wide-ranging discussions about societal expectations and conditioning of both males and females in different generations.

This three-week course featured daily teachings, discussion groups, animated post-lunch discussions, offering service to the community, and other aspects of monastic life. A primary focus of the program was a deepening understanding and cultivation of what Venerable Chodron calls a “monastic mind:” an attitude of humility, simplicity, generosity, service, and courage (sometimes we all had to face some of our most painful mental junk).

Here are reflections from some of the course participants.

Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi

Ven. Chogkyi with other participants of the EML program.

Venerable Chogkyi with other EML participants. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

The Exploring Monastic Life program was, by far, one of the most transformative and beneficial experiences I’ve ever had. As a novice nun, ordained just over one year, I came due to my interest in developing what Venerable Chodron calls a “monastic mind.” In other words, we received teachings not just about keeping the specific vows, but also on using ordination as a profound thought transformation practice, and examining and changing our relationship to possessions and other people. I found Venerable Chodron’s teachings on these subjects based on her nearly 30 years of experience as a monastic remarkably insightful, practical, and personal.

Some Westerners enthusiastically ordain and then subsequently disrobe, as a result of not exploring these issues thoroughly prior to ordination. I feel strongly that this ground-breaking program is invaluable and essential for anyone considering the radical change in lifestyle and perspective that monasticism involves.

Nanc

I decided to attend the course to gain information and to see how my heart would respond. It has been quite amazing. Between the clear teachings from Venerable and the group of sincere people who came to the Abbey and shared deeply in our daily circles, I have been able to start looking at my life here at the Abbey as the beginning of a profound healing. I have had major obstacles to my practice and my own inner happiness as a result of many powerfully ingrained false conceptions I had about myself as a person. Every time Venerable taught or someone shared an insight, I got closer to seeing what I needed to do to start trusting myself and my life, so that I could make wise decisions from my own wisdom and not from what I thought others expected me to do.

I am not sure what I will decide about ordination, but I am absolutely certain that I am on a path that will give me the compassionate and wise heart I will need to make the choices that both serve my deepest call and my wish to be of benefit.

Jan

Many thanks and much gratitude to Venerable Chodron for organizing and leading this extremely beneficial and unique program. The deep reflections possible in the last weeks have many causes including the energy and honesty of the group, the daily teaching by Venerable Chodron, the co-created safe space made by all of us, and the presence of another monastic, Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi.

A few shifts have occurred for me. As Miles and I discussed one day, our self-confidence has increased. I had the space to examine my life through the lens of reflections regarding success, friends, family, commitment, and trust. This opened many doors in my mind, and looking inside these rooms to examine the contents was very beneficial. In addition, the pervasive conditioning of our society, media, family and self-imposed structures became vivid. Looking into this conditioning so honestly was challenging due to the energy necessary to expose this reality to ourselves.

Nerea

This course has been one of the most beneficial things I have done in my life. Many of the wrong views and misconceptions I held on to became so apparent. It opened the door for me to see how I was conditioned; for the first time I was able to see suffering and see that it came from within.

Venerable’s skillful means not only shook my views, but she was also able to show me a side of my mind I didn’t know existed. Yes, there are many disturbing attitudes running my entire life, but there is also this incredible potential to do so much good and really be of benefit. It is no longer an abstract concept, but something that seems possible. I also learned that it takes so much time and so much practice. This isn’t something I’ll master anytime in the near future, and that’s okay. As long as I keep my eye on the goal and try to make sure that each step I take gets me further along the path, my life will be meaningful. Ordaining is the best way for me to do this; so the question of whether I should or shouldn’t ordain no longer arises. I have no choice at this point, I have to make my life meaningful.

Miles

I learned so much about who I think I am. I’ve never felt this feeling of continuous meaningfulness. This program has opened me up to a new way of life, new possibilities. We lived with the purpose to benefit all sentient beings (including ourselves) without any confusion or running around which is the usual environment for lay life. Living in a community of people who are trying to make the world a better place, trying to transform their minds and let go of self-centeredness is so inspiring and encouraging, especially during a time when our world is in much suffering, confusion and self-centeredness. To feel safe while being openly vulnerable and to be brave while expanding your positive qualities is truly wonderful.

For many years I have dreamed about the lifestyle of a monastic, but to actually experience it in this environment with these people and to have the peerless guidance of Venerable Chodron has been undoubtedly the most precious experience in my life. Whatever merit has been created and whatever wisdom has been learned, may everyone be happy and inspired to practice their practice.

Joan

Venerable covered a multitude of topics but the one that made the strongest impression on me was the sessions devoted to the mind of the monastic. Many of the outward behaviors of a monastic are the result of a conscious decision to cultivate the kind of mind, which contrasts greatly with our usual, societally conditioned attitudes and hallucinated lifestyles. Getting an overview of the many characteristics of the monastic mind definitely convinced me that this kind of mind could help me deconstruct my solid sense of self that is so attached to getting “what I want when I want it”—which I know is the cause of so much of my suffering.

The greatest benefit for me, however, was watching my teacher and Venerable Tenzin. They shared their experiences, trials and tribulations with such honesty, clarity and compassion. Their interactions with each other were so kind, so filled with respect and so imbued with conviction and passion for the decision they made to become monastics. They radiated a confidence and joy that for me was “the proof is in the pudding!”

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