By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2000
In topic: Religion
Summary: Zoketsu draws on his years of residential Zen practice to posit a series of stages that often happen during intensive practice.
Wind Bell, the journal of San Francisco Zen Center
STAGES OF MONASTIC LIFE
Religious texts make monastic life sound like something very deep and very constant. Like some life that has been the same for a thousand years - timeless and seamless. In a way this is really true - underneath who any of us are is another person, the monk, who is living a true and perfect life. I believe that all of us have this monk in us. All of us want to live this life of silence and perfection - and this life does go on in us, underneath our other life. When we’re completely out of touch with it we suffer a lot - we run around looking for something we can’t seem to find, and our lives don’t work. And when we are in touch with it more or less - as we are in a retreat or even in a few moments of practice or at the beach or on a long hike or alone sometimes under the stars - we feel whole. Then we can approach others and the complicated world with a measure of equanimity.
So this is what I mean by the monastic life - the way of wholeness, a sacred way, a sacred place, a clear place, an ideal, in a sense, that lives at the bottom of our hearts and is reflected back to us in religious experience and in religious literature. But, as we all know, ideals can be poison if we take them in large quantities or if we take them incorrectly - in other words, if we take them not as ideals, but as concrete realities. Ideals should inspire us to surpass ourselves, which we need to aspire to do if we are to be truly human, and which we can never actually do- exactly because we are truly human. And that’s what ideals are: tools for inspiration, not realities in and of themselves. The fact that we have so often missed this point, accounts, I think, for the sorry history of religion in human civilization. Ideals become poison when we believe in them too literally, when we berate ourselves and others for not measuring up. No one measures up and no one ever will - that’s the nature of ideals, that’s their beauty. So at their best, and if rightly understood, ideals ought to make us pretty light-hearted: they give a sense of direction, which is comforting, and since they are by nature impossibilities, why worry? Just keep trying.
The monastic life as it appears by implication in the texts of any religious tradition is this kind of an ideal. You know - we stay in delighted obedience with our teacher forty years, living peacefully day by day. Hearing the sounds of the bells, deep in meditation or prayer, in the mountains among the clouds and forests, living in harmony and calmness. Well underneath it may be like this, but up above, in our conscious world where we live what we call our lives, it really never looks like that.
What is the monastic life really like?
I’ve been living in a Zen community for about twenty years and I’ve developed some thoughts on this subject. Our community isn’t exactly a monastic community of course, but it is a residential religious community where people come to live their lives for many years, and I think what we’ve experienced and come to understand over time turns out to be fairly typical of monastic or long-term residential religious communities.
I want to speak of a series of stages in monastic life as a way of describing what happens in that life and what kinds of problem come up. Of course there aren’t any stages, or the stages happen simultaneously or in no particular order, and one goes through them many times. Further, people - even people who share a taste for a religious life for one reason or another - are very different. No setting forth of stages could possibly do justice to the variety of people’s experiences on the path (and this is another sometimes violent preconception: that there is a definite delineated path, and that things happen in the same way and in the same order for everyone). Still, systematic thinking has its virtues, and there are some general tendencies most of us can notice and recognize, at least to some extent. So let me speak of eight stages of monastic life.
The eight are first, the honeymoon, second the disappointment or betrayal, third the exploration of commitment, fourth commitment and flight, fifth the dry place, sixth appreciation, seventh love, and finally, letting go of monastic life altogether.
The first stage, which is probably typical of the first stage of almost anything, is the honeymoon, a time when we’re really thrilled with the life of the monastery. The contrast with what we’re used to in the world, or what we’re fleeing from in the world, is so great that we’re in a state of ecstasy. We see the people we’re living with as really kind and wonderful. The sounds of the monastery bells, the simple hearty food, the early morning meditation, the landscape, the weather, the peace and quiet, the brilliant teachers and teachings - really nothing could be better. We’re learning about ourselves at a great rate and we’re learning about the Dharma too. So much of what we hear seems absolutely true, seems to be what we sensed inside ourselves all our lives without ever really being aware of it or having words for it. We feel relieved and resolved and renewed. We feel as if suddenly and unexpectedly, perhaps in the midst of a great sorrow, we turned around in the middle of our ordinary life and found to our amazement a brand new life in which all the assumptions and behaviors were different and fresh.
This stage can last for some time but it usually comes to an end in fairly short order. We enter the second stage, the stage of disappointment or betrayal. Of course what happens is we lose the sense of contrast with the world at large and what’s inside us becomes stronger than our perception of the newness of our surroundings. Whatever festering problems we have, known and unknown, that were held in abeyance while we marveled at the greatness of the religious life, now come out full blown, and rather than see them for what they are - our own internal contradictions - we project them outward onto the community. We begin to see the truth - that there are plenty of imperfections. The food gets tiring. The people aren’t as nice as they were a few months ago. The many restrictions on our life style becomes wearing. We begin to notice a lack of creativity and energy in our fellow practitioners, especially in some of the old timers. We’re a little sleep deprived and weary. And we begin to notice too that there are many baffling and unacceptable aspects to the teachings - in fact, on one hand, the teachings sound purposely confusing and incomprehensible, and on the other hand, they sound suspiciously, in many cases, like the religion we grew up in and fled from. And the teachers turn out to be a lot less fantastic than we first imagined. We’re seeing them stumble and make mistakes - and if we haven’t seen it we’ve heard about it, or if we haven’t heard about it or seen it then the teachers are perhaps a little too perfect - there's something suspicious and even coercive about their piety. Are they really real? Little by little a sense of disillusionment, of betrayal, comes over us.
All of these perceptions, as disturbing as they are, are in fact quite true, so when we bring them up no one tries to talk us out of them. Old-timers in the community may become defensive, but they can't really disagree. Yet the truth of all this doesn’t really account for what we’re feeling - cheated and disappointed. The only thing that accounts for that is our inner pain - we were feeling, for a moment, better, redeemed, and now, suddenly we feel even worse then when we came - and eventually we realize that imperfect though the community is (and it may even be worse than imperfect, it may be in some ways actually toxic) it’s us, not it, that is the source of our present suffering. It can take awhile to come to this, sometimes a very long time if there are, as there have been in many communities of all religious traditions over the years, flagrant cases of betrayal by leaders or other important community members. But whether it comes soon or only after many years, and whether its causes are spectacular or quiet, it is something we have to come to on our own. Because when we’re deeply disappointed with the community it’s hard for long-term committed community members to point out that it’s our eye, not the visual object, that’s cloudy. They can’t tell us this because they know we won’t hear it; they know that if they tell us this they will only appear to us to be defending the status quo, and we will mistrust them for it; and besides, many of them don’t understand that this is the case anyway; many of them are themselves confused about the community and where it and they begin and end. So for all these reasons the older members of the community tolerate us and our views, and there is very little they can do to help us through this stage. If we feel this sense of betrayal or disappointment acutely enough, and especially if a difficult personal incident happens to us when we are in the midst of it, we may very well leave the community in a huff, which happens, though seldom, and when it does it’s a real tragedy. If this doesn’t happen then it is likely that after enough time goes by we will realize what’s really going on.
Now we begin to get the picture that there’s a lot that has been going on in our lives for a long time that we were simply unaware of. We came to the community to find peace, to live in a kind of utopia expecting that that will make up for the fact that we ourselves aren’t entirely perfect human beings. Perhaps in this utopia we will become enlightened and our problems will end; few of us actually think these thoughts this baldly, but in fact most of us have some fuzzy and unexamined version of them in our minds as we arrive. But instead of this scenario we find that we’re living in an extremely flawed community and that far from being “not entirely perfect,” we’re actually a raging mass of passion, confusion, bitterness, hatred and contradiction, and a state of anything remotely like enlightenment or even a little peace of mind, is very far away. In other words, we’re much worse off now than when we began. So we have to acknowledge that the job we’ve undertaken is much larger than we thought. It’s going to take quite a while. And part of what we need to do is to make up our minds that we’re really going to do it, we’re really going to roll up our sleeves and stay in it for the long haul - one or two or three thousand lifetimes.
So we enter the third stage and we begin to explore honestly and without too much idealism the actual nature of our commitment to the practice and to the community. And this is a very difficult thing to do because now that we are really looking without too much distraction, we find many attitudes in ourselves, and they’re not always consistent with one another. We want to practice always, to take vows as a lay or priest practitioner, to devote ourselves completely to the path - there’s absolutely nothing else to do. Many people feel these things sometimes- perhaps rarely or perhaps on a regular basis. But how strongly do we feel them? And how do we know whether or not to act on them? But even if we feel a strong and clear sense of commitment, there may be at the same time many other strong feelings - we want also to get married, have a house, a career, children. We want to travel. To serve others more directly. Or maybe we’re just restless or we know somehow this isn’t the place or time - we need to go to another tradition or another teacher or group. And so on, on and on. This is really a difficult stage, and it can go on for some time. In fact it should go on for some time. If we make a determination too soon about how our commitment really is, it’s probably wrong. We probably haven’t listened to ourselves enough. There are a lot of cases of people who leave at this stage and really shouldn’t have; and there are cases too of people who make commitments that they regret having made. So it’s good to take our time and to seek advice from teachers and other senior and junior students. The advice doesn’t help all that much. In fact we’ve got to come to what we come to on our own. Sometimes following the view of someone else whom we admire can be a big problem - and our elders have to be careful to be sensitive to what they’re hearing from us - and not to impose their wishes and views on us. Nevertheless, the advice can serve as a useful, and probably a necessary mirror.
The fourth stage I call commitment and flight, which sounds like an oxymoron, but is, I think, a good name for it. In this stage we have come to find solid ground under our commitment. We accept our wobbling and human mind and know now that underneath it there is finally something solid and reliable, although we are often out of touch with it. Looking back, we can see how much we’ve changed since we entered the practice; we see how much we are the same too, of course, but the change is apparent. We are more solid. We are calmer. We are quieter in our spirit and less apt to fly off the handle inside or outside. Not as solid or as calm or as quiet as we had hoped or expected to be, but we have by now given up that hope as unrealistic and we are more able to settle for how it actually is with us, and to find it good, or at least acceptable, with a degree of joy. So we feel ready to make a commitment to the practice and the community. This commitment can only take one form: renunciation of one sort or another, a giving up of self and personal agenda, as we see that self and personal agenda don’t in fact help us to get what we want and really need in our lives. They only cause suffering. As this becomes more and more apparent to us we are more willing to enter into a serious commitment to the practice. In fact after a while we feel that without even choosing to do so we have already done so. There isn’t any other way. We are committed; we have already renounced our life. Here is where we take on a responsible position and make a practical commitment to stay in the community for some time, or take initiation as a priest or lay practitioner. We feel responsible for the community.
But as soon as we feel settled in our commitment, particularly if that commitment is marked by a particular event such as ordination or entering the monastery on a long term basis, the demons of confusion return. Immediately our old interests and desires come back in force. Maybe we fall hopelessly in love the day before we are to go off to the monastery for an indefinite stay, or maybe we find ourselves roaring drunk two days after our ordination as a priest. Such things have actually happened. They catch us quite off guard. We had thought we had the thing figured out, but what we hadn’t counted on was the fact that there were still a fair number of unopened doors in our heart, and the power of the commitment we are now ready to make and have made is such that it violently throws open those doors and we are shocked at what we find inside. We are humbled by the sheer power of our own- and therefore of human- passion. Humbled and shocked and amazed. We are reeling perhaps for some time with this. More ashamed and confused than ever. It is unusual I think for people to enter the monastery for a long stay or to take ordination as a priest without suffering some version of this. It is in many cases a rude awakening. Sometimes our teacher and elders seem very knowing when this happens to us. Sometimes they even have a chuckle over it. This can be either comforting or maddening, depending on our temperament. At this stage sometimes there literally is flight. People take off, disappear overnight, run off with a lover, leave the monastery in the middle of the night. But such things are becoming more rare. More often it’s an internal drama. You see it in people’s faces, a kind of grim determination mixed with a very pure innocence, even if the person is middle aged or older when this happens. The power and surprise of these feelings is enough to send any of us back to square one, with almost no identity left. In fact the work of this stage is the reconstitution of identity. And this is why we feel often like children now, like babies. And this of course feels wonderful and terrible at the same time. Because we thought we were grown up, we thought we were advancing.
This uncomfortable state is cured only with the passage of time, which is the great healer if we will let it be. Time will heal everything; this is its nature. Usually we hold onto the past and so don’t allow time to do its real work in our lives. But those who get this far in the practice usually - but not always- have enough concentration inside and enough support outside to avoid this entrapment and so they can allow time to work its magic and after a while they can settle into their new commitment, go beyond the child-like stage, and begin to mature. They reconstitute their lives around their new commitments. They take on new practices, new studies, deepen their Dharma relationships, let go of all aspirations and fantasies and illusions and are content to just go on day by day with the practice. More time passes.
Here is where we sidle into the fifth stage- the dry place, and we get here bit by bit without knowing it. Because we are not perfect in our letting go to the healing winds of time. In fact in a subtle way we hold onto our life even while we have given it up entirely in renunciation. This time this subtle fact is not necessarily announced to us in a dramatic way, we may not necessarily notice it at all. We go on practicing sincerely, seemingly going deeper and deeper with our renunciation, becoming more and more settled in the life of the Dharma. But this becomes exactly the problem. We are too settled. We seem to be getting a little bit dull, a little bit bored. We’ve lost the edge of our seeking and searching mind and are feeling fairly comfortable. We have a position in the community, we are an experienced person, a respected member. We have a good grasp of the teachings- or at least we have heard them so often that we seem to have a grasp of them. And then, whether we notice it or not, we strike a dry patch, a time of nothingness and dullness and lack. We can’t go back into our old life, it seems, and yet there seems nowhere to go forward to. And we can’t even believe in the notion of going forward or backward- where could we go forward to, and certainly how could we ever go backward? So we are quite stuck. And then fear arises. Fear of never realizing or even glimpsing the path; fear of the world we have left behind; fear of what we ourselves have become. Sometimes none of this surfaces at all. We just go about our business in the monastery, feeling quite self-satisfied, but actually dying a little but more every day. Up until now our path may have been difficult at times but it has always been positive- we have always been growing and learning. But at this point we have stopped growing and learning, this is exactly the problem. And we have mistaken the laziness or dullness that cover our fear for the calmness that comes of renunciation. It’s true that our mind is calm but it is a dark not a bright calm. Our creativity, our passion, our humanness, is beginning to leave us, little by little, and often we have no idea that this is happening to us.
This is the hardest stage to appreciate and work with. Often no one, not even the elders and teachers of the community, can recognize that this is happening to us. Indeed, those very elders and teachers may themselves be in the midst of such a stage and be unaware of it. In this stage what we have seen as the cure for our lives, what everyone in the community has affirmed and has devoted their lives to, now becomes the very poison that is killing us off slowly.
I have tried to discern the signs of this stage in myself and in others, and it is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy in one’s self because it is so subtle, and not easy in others because it is subtle, though less subtle, and they often do not want to hear it. Because to overcome this stage, to go beyond it, might very well take leaving the community or otherwise doing something very radical to shift the ground. And most of us have a hard time, after going in a particular direction for ten or twenty years, a direction that has involved great effort and sacrifice, changing direction. Our fear, acknowledged or not, holds us back. And we may stay this way for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of our lives. This happens of course to anyone in any walk of life, and it may be no better or worse when it happens within the context of a religious community. But a religious community holds very strongly to a commitment to awareness and truthfulness and so when it happens within such a community- even if only to a few individuals- it is like a disease in that community. And the effect of the disease can be felt in many ways and on many levels. There can be a subtle occlusion in the flow of communication, an almost imperceptible dishonesty, a jarring or not so jarring sense of disjunction. Even though no one may recognize that a failure to discern the effects of this stage is a few community members is the cause of the disjunction, people who come can feel the disjunction, perhaps not at first, but after a while it becomes subtly apparent. So it is very important for each individual to remain open to the possibility that this dry place may be arising in his or her life, and to have the courage to address it when it comes. Because it will come, and it must come. And it will come again and again. If one is willing to address it it becomes an opportunity to go deeper, a chance to let go a little more, and open up to time’s healing power, and the love that comes only in this way.
If one can do it- and it is never done alone, it is always done in the company of and with the help of others- then there is a great although a quiet opening into the simple joy of living the religious life everyday. The monastery may have great controversies and problems, as any group of people will have, but these no longer have a stickiness that will catch us. We can enjoy being with the others but don’t need to feel compelled by them. The simple things of the daily round- the quiet meditation periods, the sounds of the bells, the daily work, the sky and air and earth of the place where we live and practice- all of these things take on a great depth of peacefulness and contentment. We come to appreciate very much the tradition to which we now truly belong, we feel a personal relationship to the ancients and see them as people very much like ourselves; texts that formerly seemed arcane or luminous now seem autobiographical. We have a great gratitude for the place where the monastery is located, for the whole planet that supports it. Our life becomes marked by gratitude. We delight in expressing it wherever and in whatever way we can. This is the sixth stage, the stage of appreciation.
Little by little this appreciation, which begins as a religious gratitude and is private and quiet and joyful, becomes more normal and ordinary. We begin to take a greater interest in the practicalities of caring for the monastery and in doing so we begin to notice how marvelous are all the people with whom we are practicing. We see of course their many faults, as we see our own faults, which remains very numerous. But as we forgive, and are even grateful for our own faults, we forgive and are grateful for the faults of others. We see others as they are, but despite this- or because of it- we love them deeply. We are as amazed by our community members as we are by the sky and trees and the wisdom of the tradition itself. In fact, we can hardly, after a time, tell the difference between these. This is a different kind of love from the love we have known before, the love we have always understood as what love is. Because this love doesn’t include very much attachment. We are willing to let people go. In fact this willingness to let them go is part and parcel of what the love we feel is. It doesn’t include jealousy or attachment of any kind. We know that we will eternally be with these people and that wherever we go we will see these same people. So we don’t need to fear or worry. We are willing even to see them grow old or ill and die and to care for them and to bury them and to take joy in doing this, to cover the grave with some dirt and chant a sutra and to walk away full of the joy of knowing that even in the midst of our sadness nothing has in fact been lost, no one has gone anywhere; only a beautiful life, that was beautiful in the beginning and in the middle has become even more beautiful in the end, even to the point of an ineffable perfection. That the brother or sister that we are burying is exactly Buddha, and how privileged we have been for so long to have lived with her, and to be able to continue to live with her in memory and in the tiny acts of our own lives in the monastery. And we know too that we go that way too, and very soon, and that in doing so we can benefit others, and give to others what we have been given in the passing of this brother or sister. This is the seventh stage, the stage of love.
The eighth and final stage- although I must repeat here what I said in the beginning- that there are in fact no neat stages, there is in fact no ending, that the stages are simultaneous, spiraling, overlapping, both continuous and discontinuous- is the stage of letting go of everything, even of the practice. At this stage there isn’t any practice or teaching or monastery or Dharma brothers or sister. There’s only life in all its unexpectancy and color. We can leave the monastery or stay, it doesn’t matter. We can be with these people or any people or no one. We can live or die. We clearly want to benefit others- but how could one not benefit others? We have certainly plenty of problems- a body, a mind, a world- but we know that these problems are the media of our life as we live it. There isn’t much to say or do. We just go on, seeing what will happen next.
These stages on the way of monastic life are perhaps stages for the human heart in its journey to wholeness, whether we live in a monastery or not. Monasteries do help however to bring all of this into focus, to bring it up into consciousness, and I believe that monasteries should be open to all of us for at least some time in our lives, because all of us have a monk inside us. Once you spend some time in a monastery, to the point where you internalize and make completely your own the schedule and the round of monastic life, then you take that deep pattern and rhythm with you wherever you go. The world itself can be your monastery when the monastery is within your heart. But this takes time, and patience, luck, and some help.