White Robed Monks of St. Benedict

The Way of the Monk


The following information is an edited and adapted version of the Prologue to a handbook of various monastic traditions, East and West. The participants include monastics such as Stuart Elkman; Fr. Gregory Elmer OSB; Pravrajika Atmaprana; and Swamis Brahmeshananda, Lokeswarananda, Vidyatmananda, Vivekananda, and Swahananda.

The publisher writes:
The monk strives for his/her emancipation through service to humanity. Renunciation and service joyously go hand in hand. The renunciation, however, need not be always external. The spirit of self-sacrifice for the welfare of others can be cultivated by any earnest individual.
We present this article to:
  1. to serve as a reflection for those discerning a monastic career with the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict,
  2. to offer the person who has embarked upon a monastic career with the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict a refocusing reminder of one's way,
  3. to offer the interested reader some insight to the nature and purpose of Monasticism from a general (meta) perspective, rather than a perspective grounded within a particular religious tradition per se.
A monk is generally more inclined to appreciate spirituality (the experience of the Divine) rather than religious dogma and doctrine (a belief in a divine), if one were to venture such a distinction. When one experiences reality as it is (rather than what one might think reality to be), one does not need necessarily to believe (i.e., think), one just knows. Hence the monastic admonition: Be still and know that I am God (Ps 45:10). The word monk comes from the Greek monos, meaning one. A monk experiences the unicity of God (by whatever name), as there is no mediator when only one party in involved, and God is one (Galatians 3:20) as God is love. (1 John 4:16)

. Hence, a monastic appreciation of

Hence, the aim of the monk is to enter the stillness and silence of the Heart of God so that (they) can reveal it to the world. (R. Branigan OSB, The American Benedictine Review, Vol 60:2 June 2009, p. 209).)

The essence of this article may be contained in the saying of A. Wizard:

Laugh and be Merry!
Quiet and be still.
Peace and Joy!

The White Robed Monks of St. Benedict

The following has been adapted from Monasticism: Ideal and Traditions (ISBN 81-7120-359-0):

Who is monastic?

"Monasticism is a subject of vital interest to every spiritual seeker. If you are earnest and sincere seeker of God, you are a monastic whether you know it or not. This answer is not meant to startle you. It is a plain statement of fact, which most people seem to have somehow forgotten. How can a true spiritual seeker be considered a monastic? This calls for some explanation.

Realization of being 'alone'

When you renounce everything — all worldly relationships, possessions, attachments and supports — you stand alone. You find the same idea when you trace the origin of the word monasticism. It is derived from the Greek monos, meaning alone, solitary. A host of other words associated with monasticism also come from the same root, monos, one. They all indicate the idea of solitude and isolation. This solitude need not necessarily imply absolute isolation such as that of a hermit in the desert or in a forest cave. It is basically an inner solitude in which one is separated from all worldly values. Whoever realizes this inner solitude, whoever intensely experiences in his heart this sense of being alone, is a monastic.

It is not easy to know and feel that you are alone. There are any number of factors that prevent you from feeling your aloneness. You have your blood relations: father, mother, brother, sisters. Then there are the other relationships you subsequently forge: as a husband or a wife with children and grandchildren. And you have your friends and colleagues, superiors and subordinates, teachers and students, and even enemies. You feel yourself connected to them in one way or the other. You also feel identified with your domestic pets, property, your new car, your favorite singer, your garden, your country. Then you have your likes, your dislikes, your preferences — one can go on and on.

All these things are a part of your life you simply cannot wish away. Even if you separate yourself from others physically, you cannot be alone. The real problem is in the mind. And the simple fact is that your mind is afraid to be alone. So even if you are living alone and are in need of company, all you have to do is to switch on your TV set and peep through this 'window to the world,' and drive away the neurotic feeling of loneliness that may occasionally creep through your veins.

To realize your aloneness, all the factors that prevent you from doing so must be negated. How is the negation brought about? This question is difficult to answer, for there is no one way in which this takes place. Somehow — how exactly one cannot say, but somehow — some people realize that all the so-called relationships in this world are superficial and all identification of any sort with any living or non-living thing is plain
delusion. Sometimes this realization comes spontaneously, even from early age. In a few cases it may come suddenly and overnight the person's life gets a new orientation. ... The majority has to learn the hard way. In most cases it requires resistant blows from the world to awaken (humans) to the reality of (their) being alone. all-one. (The universe, as we know from life experience) manipulates things in such a way that every time you feel yourself alone you are made to forget it somehow and you carry on blissfully for a while until the next blow comes.

The realization of being alone may also come as a result of discrimination and deep thinking. Everyone has the capacity to think but not everyone utilizes fully this wonderful power. Even those that do think, usually exercise the thinking faculty only on matters related to the objective universe. Very few turn this light of thinking inward and focus it on their own selves and ask fundamental questions. Richard Bach, the famous author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, gives a very practical suggestion in one of his less known books. He says:
The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in a while, and watch your answers change.
When these questions begin to rattle in your brain, the effect can be quite unsettling. Everything begins to slip through your fingers. All relationships, all possessions suddenly become hollow and meaningless. Through stories and parables great saints have always taught the superficiality and frailty of all worldly relationships. And if all this gives too gloomy a picture to you, just think how far and how long can all your relations, friends and well-wishers accompany you. When death calls on you, it is going to take you alone. No, not even one of your closest buddies can or would like to accompany you beyond the portals of death. At the most they may accompany your corpse up to the cremation ground or the graveyard and weep for a few days. The journey beyond is your own, to be done all alone. What will accompany you on this journey is your character, the power generated through righteous living. (An) ancient law-giver says,
Righteousness is the only friend that accompanies you after death. Everything else perishes with death of the body.
Whether the realization of being alone comes to you spontaneously or through some cataclysmic life-transforming incident, whether it comes to you gradually after getting repeated rebuffs from the world or as a result of discriminative thinking, the effect is the same. It cuts you off from the conventional stream of life in which millions and millions of people seem to be sailing smoothly but unconsciously. Getting a glimpse of the 'inner solitude' is the first effort of the soul to become conscious and to awake to the higher levels of reality.

It is certainly a difficult period, because you are coming out of the conventional, unconscious stream of life, but have not yet entered the spiritual, conscious stream. For a while the neophyte appears to be just stranded. (S/he) is assailed with doubts, inner conflicts and bouts of forgetfulness. This is because usually the realization of being alone is only partial. Former attachments and habits try to drag you back into the unconscious stream of the world. A tug-of-war ensues and much depends on your inner strength, patience and perseverance.

If you are overpowered, back you go and fall into the stream of worldly life. Perhaps you make another attempt to get out. Or perhaps you give up hope, surrender the memory of your aloneness, and float along merrily in the unconscious stream of life. But if you are a hero and are determined to fight to the finish, you won't give up. There is nothing that a strong will cannot conquer. If you have the will to succeed, succeed you must. All hurdles gradually melt away and your aloneness leads you to the next step: renunciation.

Renunciation, The Beginning of Spirituality

Renunciation is the real beginning of (spirituality). Listen to the words of Swami Vivekananda:
...tremendous purity, that tremendous renunciation is the one secret of spirituality. 'neither through wealth, nor through progeny, but through renunciation alone is immortality to be reached,' say the Vedas. 'Sell all that (you have) and give to the poor, and follow me,' says the Christ. So all great saints and prophets have expressed it, and have carried it out in their lives. How can great spirituality come without that renunciation? Renunciation is the background of all (spiritual) thought where ever it be, and you will always find that as this idea of renunciation lessens, the more the senses creep into the field of religion, and spirituality will decrease in the same ratio.

Meaning of Renunciation

What does renunciation mean? If you understand by it merely 'giving up,' renunciation would become only a negative virtue. Doesn't it have a positive content as well? Yes, it has. Renunciation does not mean just 'giving up,' it means 'giving up the lower for the sake of the higher.' You give up the unreal for the sake of the Real. You give up the impermanent for the sake of the Eternal. In short, you give up the world for the sake of God. After describing what true renunciation means, Sri Ramakirshna asked a devotee in order to test him: "Tell me, what is the meaning of renunciation?" He was pleased when the devotee replied:
Renunciation does not mean simply dispassion for the world. It means dispassion for the world and also longing for God.
True renunciation is, therefore, always a spontaneous phenomenon. It cannot be achieved by labored efforts. You don't really renounce things yourself; things drop away from you on their own. When and how does this happen? To know this you must remember that you attached to only what which holds meaning for you. When things lose their meaning and value, when they become irrelevant and useless to you, you automatically become detached from them. So long as you relish and thrive on worldly puppets and sensual supports, you cannot detach yourself from them. The beginning of the realization of your aloneness provides the first spark to ignite the spirit of detachment in you. You intuitively realize that there is a life higher than the type you have been leading so far. When the awareness of the possibility of a higher life draws on you, detachment becomes easier, almost spontaneous. In fact, the two — realization of your aloneness and detachment from the world — then onwards proceed simultaneously, each strengthening the other. The more you feel the inner solitude, the more detached you become, the more you feel the inner solitude. And as a result of this mutual reinforcement, the awareness of the higher life becomes stronger and stronger. ...

What is Renunciation?

Renunciation is basically an internal process. Inwardly a revolution takes place in your attitudes and responses, but outwardly no one may even notice it. You continue with your duties and obligations as before, but your approach to life has changed. In a few cases, this internal renunciation is followed by external renunciation as well. Thus we have two types of renunciation: inner renunciation and inner+outer renunciation. It is the second type that society conventionally accepts as belonging to monasticism. Those with only inner renunciation may be regarded as monks by society (and is the "conventional way" of the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict), but that does not make any difference to the strength and validity of their spiritual realization. (As Sri Ramakrishna writes:)
You may ask, 'Is there any difference between the realizations of the monk/householder and monk/"monk"?' The reply is that the two belong to one class. Both of them are monks; they have the same experience.
It is clear that what matters is inner renunciation. ...

Dangers in Renunciation

Here a note of warning must be sounded. There are two dangers one must guard against. First, mistaking your own will — more correctly your lack of will — as the 'will of God.' One one who sees — "sees," not just talks of — the 'will of God' behind everything happening to and around him/her can really speak about it. Others use it merely as a shield to defend themselves or as a cloak to hide their own weaknesses. This is plain deceit, unconscious though it may be in a few cases.

The second danger is to deceive your own self and others by claiming that you already possess mental renunciation when in fact you don't. There is no instrument to measure your mental renunciation and if you are good at posing you can easily fool the gullible. Believe it or not, many are good at posing and so gullible at the same time that they manage to fool themselves as well. But then deceit has no place in spiritual life. Truth remains far, far away from such people.

Protection from Dangers in Renunciation

How do you protect yourself from falling prey to these dangers? By being honest. It is not enough to be honest while dealing with others. You've got to be honest while dealing with your own self too. You must have the courage to face your own weaknesses, failures and lapses. Accept yourself as you are. Self-acceptance is the first step in spiritual life. One reason why people dread the inner solitude is that they are afraid to face themselves. (To encounter inner solitude the WRB monastic practices zazen. The self settles into the self through only-just-sitting wherein necessary brain reconfigurations occur. These reconfigurations one sets oneself free of prior self-defeating learned conditioned habit patterns of behavior represented by self-sabotaging cravings and attachments of Me-Myself-I that result in perceived pain and suffering. C.f. Zen and the Brain: Toward and Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness by James H. Austin, MD, 1998 ISBN 0-262-01164-6.) When you feel alone there is no one but your own self to be encountered. And in the absence of self-acceptance, encountering your self can be a most frightening or depressing experience.

People usually avoid this catastrophic situation through various escape routes such as seeking external company or turning to novels and light literature or some other forms of entertainment. The idea is to keep oneself always busy with something or the other. Much of the craze for even social service is not so much due to genuine love and concern for the poor and the suffering as due to the frantic fear of being left alone to face one's self in the inner solitude of one's heart.

Friend or Not

Your self can be either your friend or your enemy, says the Gita. It is you who decide what the relation ought to be. To have someone as your friend you must invite the other to feel s/he's 'accepted,' s/he must feel you understand him/her, love him/her, care for him/her and are interested in him/her. See whether this is true between you and yourself. The main point is to get rid of self-alienation, which is the prime hurdle in spiritual life. (Once the self settles into the self, you are Friendship.) ...

Spirit of Detachment

We have seen that the realization of your aloneness in this vast universe sparks off the spirit of detachment. As it grows in intensity it cuts you off from the conventional stream of life. Your life becomes different. No more can you revel and find pleasure in worldly frivolities. All that the world holds dear loses its value for you. You feel as if you are being uprooted from the world. You see around you a myriad of people firmly rooted in the world. However delusive the security, you see that they do somehow feel secure in it. But your roots in the world, you find, are being cut off by the ax of detachment. How can you hope to live without roots? If one set of roots is being taken away from you, you invariablly go in search of another set of roots. Thus renunciation automatically takes you to the next step: the search for new roots.

Search for Roots in Ignorance

Every religion deals basically with three entities: God, the world, and the individual. It defines how these three are related to each other, and what the purpose of creation and the goal of the individual are. The fundamental problem in of life is ignorance — of the true nature of our relationship with God and the world. What makes the problem more complicated is that we are not only ignorant but have also forged a kind of distorted relationship with God and with the world. It is this distortion that is responsible for our incorrect (and unhealthy) orientation toward the Supreme Reality or God and toward the world around us.
The spirit of renunciation signifies the beginning of awareness that something is wrong somewhere. You intuitively sense that the kind of life you lived so far was too shallow, too superficial. You realize that the kind of relationship you have with the world, i.e. with all beings and things in it, is inadequate. You reject it. You just snap it off. That is renunciation. As we said, it may be only an internal process or may be followed by formal renunciation and acceptance of a (conventional or the WRB) monastic way of life.

Search for God

What remains? God. You realize that if your search for roots is to become fruitful, you have to go in search of God. What does this search mean? God is certainly not hiding anywhere up above the clouds that you and I need to go and search Him/Her/IT out. All that 'search' implies here is 'discovery.' You are already related to God. Just discover what that relationship is and you've found your roots. There exists an eternal relationship between you and God. In fact, (religion has been defined) as 'eternal relation between the eternal soul and eternal God.' Once you have detached yourself from all worldly values, all that you have to do is to discover what this 'eternal relation' is. Vedantic teachers say that to know what this relation is you've first got to know who you are. Only then can you — the real you — go forth in search of your roots.

Renunciation: Summary

Let us go back to what we said about renunciation. What do we exactly mean by detachment from all worldly values, relationships and associations? When does such detachment become perfect? To answer this you ask yourself another question? What is it that connects me to the world? The answer comes: only two things — my body and my mind. When the fire of renunciation begins to rage within you, it may apparently seem that you are detaching yourself from persons and things belonging to the world outside. But the truth is that the real detachment is occurring somewhere nearer than is immediately obvious. Your detachment from the world is directly proportional to you detachment from your body and mind. It is your identification with your body and mind that is the source of all attachment. It is only when this identification goes away, or is at least considerable wakened, that renunciation becomes natural, spontaneous.

The Real You

Vedanta says that the "real" you is different from your body and your mind. To know that you are different from your body is not too difficult. After all, none of us is dumb enough to imagine that the body is going to last eternally. You may not like to think about it: that is another matter. But you know for certain that whether your body lies in a coffin several feet underground or is reduced to a heap of ashes at the cremation ground, "you" are going to live on. So at least intellectually you know you are different from you body. What is more difficult is to know that you are also different from your mind. Mere reasoning in this case is not sufficient because the faculty of reason is itself a part of your mind. Obviously, perfect awareness of our being someone different from both body and mind is not the result of an intellectual exercise, but of a supersensuous experience.

(Some) teachers say that this is the first spiritual experience the renunciate gets — the experience of one's true inner Self, which is effulgent, pure, and completely different from body and mind. The experience comes as a result of (continued monastic practice, zazen for example, and putting into practice compassion for oneself and others and the universe). It is only now, when you have got hold of (experienced) the "real" you — your true Self — that you go forth in search of the Supreme Self.

Awakening to the Supreme Self

The awakened inner Self now goes in search of the Supreme Self. This is the purpose of monastic life. It is a search, a diligent search for higher consciousness which culminates in discovering the 'eternal relation' that exists between the reality in you and the reality behind all creation. (You have emptied yourself of yourself so that yourself settles totally into the self.)

Once your roots are discovered, once you have realized 'the eternal relation between the eternal soul and eternal God,' the scene beings to shift. You are now ready to embrace what you had renounced earlier. All the apparent contradictions stand resolved. In that state, all difficulties vanish. All delusion disappears. Maya, instead of being a horrible, hopeless dream, becomes beautiful, and this earth, instead of being a prison house, becomes our play ground. Dangers and difficulties, even all sufferings, become deified and show their real nature. They show us that behind everything, as the substance of everything, He is standing, and that He is the one real Self.

Your realization of being alone reaches its logical fulfillment. The 'flight of the alone to the ALONE' is over when the Alone alone remains. You are alone but not lonely, because you are not separated from anyone or anything.
Silence. You are alone, only because there is no 'other.' And whatever 'other' there appears to be, is none but you yourself. What a grand state that must be!

Even to think of it gives so much joy! How infinitely more blissful it will be when you actually realize it in the depths of your being! No, you don't renounce anything anymore, for you are all and everything. There is nothing besides you which could be renounced. You begin the spiritual quest by renouncing, by negating, by separating. You now end it by embracing, by affirming, by unifying.

Absolute Freedom

The realization of absolute freedom is the one goal of monastic life. Freedom, freedom, freedom — is the cry of every soul. While the world, blindfolded by the veil of petty desires and passions, unconsciously searches for freedom in wrong places and in wrong ways, a monastic does it consciously in a right place and in a right way, guided as s/he is by (in the case of the WRB, the Zen Rule), scriptures and his/her own awakened power of spiritual intuition (inculcated through monastic practice of zazen and compassionate presence).

A Spiritual Calling

We have seen that the spiritual calling comes with the realization of your aloneness. Detachment from all worldly cravings follows and reinforces the feeling of being alone. All worldly relationships and possessions become hollow and meaningless. Your roots in the world are cut off and you begin to search for your true roots. This search first reveals to you your own true inner Self and then culminates in the realization that it is not different from the Supreme Self. He/She/It alone exists and you are He/She/It (cf Being Christ-like: Self-Emptying. No bondage, no fetters of any kind bind you. You are free. You realize that you have always been free.

To attain this realization, renunciation is a must. Basically an inner process, genuine spirit of renunciation is what makes you a monastic.

Father, may they all be one
as you and I are one,
that they be one in us
Peace and Joy!
Please direct comments or inquiries to Ino: Monks.

Monastic Application Form
Being Christ-like: Self-emptying
Contemporary and Traditional Monks
Stages of Monastic Life
A Monk's Reminder

White Robed Monks of St. Benedict
Post Office Box 27536
San Francisco CA 94127-0536 USA
Phone: 415-292-3228
e-mail: webmaster@whiterobedmonks.org
Page URL: http://www.whiterobedmonks.org/monkway.html
Copyright © 19982009 White Robed Monks of St. Benedict
Valid HTML 4.0!