A Dharma Talk by Abbot Zoketsu Norman Fischer of San Francisco Zen Center
(Talk originally appeared in Wind Bell, Publication of Zen Center, Vol. XXX1 No. 1, Winder 1997)
So this monastic life, a way of wholeness, a sacred way, an ideal, lives at the bottom of our hearts and is reflected back to us in religious experience and religious literature. But, as we 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. 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. When we believe in ideals too literally, we berate ourselves and others for not measuring up, but no one will ever measure up. That's the nature of ideals and their beauty. So at their best, and if rightly understood, ideals ought to make us pretty lighthearted: they give a sense of direction, which is comforting, and since they are by nature impossibilities, why worry? Just keep trying.
The monastic life appears in the texts as this kind of an ideal. We stay in delighted obedience with our teacher forty years, living peacefully day by day. We are deep in meditation or prayer, living in harmony and calmness in the mountains among the clouds and forests. Well underneath it may be like this, but up above, in our conscious world where we live, it really never looks like that.
What is the monastic life really like? I'll tell you some thoughts I've developed on this subject. Of course our community isn't exactly a monastic community, but it is a residential religious community where people come to live for many years, and 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 the 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 distinct stages, or the stages happen simultaneously or in no particular order, or one goes through them many times. After all, people are very different. No setting forth of stages could possibly do justice to the variety of people's experiences on the path; yet still, systematic thinking has its virtues, and there are some general tendencies most of us can notice and recognize. 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.
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All of these perceptions, as disturbing as they are, have some truth, 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. Eventually we realize that imperfect though the community is (and it may in some ways even be toxic), it's us, not the community, 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.
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 and enough time goes by, we usually realize what's really going on.
We begin to get the picture that a lot has been going on in our lives that we were simply unaware of. We came to the community to find peace, to live in a kind of utopia where we will become enlightened and our problems will end. Few of us actually think these thoughts this baldly, but most of us have some unexamined version of them in our minds as we arrive. Instead of this scenario we find an extremely flawed community and that we ourselves, far from being not entirely perfect, are a raging mass of passion, confusion, hatred and contradiction. A state of anything remotely like enlightenment is very far away. In other words, we feel worse off now than when we began, and we have to acknowledge that the job we've undertaken is much larger than we thought. So part of what we need to do is to make up our minds that we're really going to do it, we're going to roll up our sleeves and stay: one or two or three thousand lifetimes.
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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, so 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.
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This commitment can only take one form: renunciation of some sort, 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 there were still a fair number of unopened doors in our heart. The power of the commitment we are now making 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, shocked and amazed. We are reeling perhaps for some time with this. 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. They may 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. This is why we often feel 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. 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 have enough concentration inside and enough support outside to avoid this entrapment, and so they allow time to work its magic and after a while they settle into their new commitment, go beyond the childlike 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.
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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 bit more every day. Up until now our path may have been difficult at times, yet 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 rather than 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. In one's self it may be too subtle to notice, and in others, though it is less subtle, they often do not want to hear it. To overcome this stage might very well mean 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.
Still a religious community has a strong commitment to awareness and truthfulness, so when it happens within such a community, even if only to a few individuals, it is like a disease in that community. The effect of the disease can be felt in many ways. 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 in a few community members is the cause of the disjunction, people can feel the disjunction, perhaps not at first, but after a while it becomes 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.
After passing through the dry place, which is always done in the company of and with the help of others, then there is often an opening into the simple joy of living the religious life everyday. Even when the monastery has great controversies and problems, as any group of people will have, these no longer have a stickiness that catches us. We can enjoy being with the others but don't need to feel compelled by them. The quiet meditation periods, the daily work, the sky 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.
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Perhaps these stages of monastic life are stages for the human heart in its journey to wholeness, whether we live in a monastery or not, yet monasteries can help bring them into focus. So 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.
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