I was just reading Brad Warners newest blog over at hardcore Zen and one of the topics was what makes a monastic (monk) a monk? Traditionally it was most folks belief that a monk was a “home leaver”, one who gave up their family inheritance, and the trappings of the rest of society (marriage, kids, property, and sex among other things). These days what constitutes a “monk” has become a bit more blurry, and yet to some buddha folk it remains still very important to decide who is a “monastic” and who is a “Lay-person”..
In ye olden days the Monastic tradition makes total sense, the roles in society were very firm, inherited even, and it was in no ones best interest if a farmer decided not to be a farmer. So the societies of the time (all of them) needed something culturally sanctioned, a new class (or caste) to let the priest segment of society do its thang without upsetting the established, static order, if you were going to sneak an end run around the caste system then you damn sure were going to “act monk-y” . A lot of the mystical mumbo jumbo sprang up around the time as well to make sure that the serfs didn’t get the idea that just anybody was ready for monkdom. Some Japanese sects of Zen, for example, believed that through reciting sutras and mudras (yoga like hand poses) you could experience mystical powers and visions. .
The fact that Buddhism slyly preached that all that cultural and societal stuff was bogus made it all the more imperative that it be placed separate and apart from the rest of society who might take this shit literally and go kill the king/landlord/damyo. It’s why Buddhism was wiped out in India and why even today Indian Dalits are converting in droves to escape the bondage of a medieval caste system. So for these so-called “untouchables” it is very very relevent whether they are “Buddhist” or not, but to those of us in the west, without any sort of Buddhist tradition predating the 1950’s what does the distinction “monk” even mean?
To further complicate the matter is the fact that in many countries with a Buddhist tradition the Priest/monk class has become nothing more than functionaries at funerals and other events. Many practicing western zen folk tell of being shocked at how rare it was to see a Soto temple functioning as a place of Zazen in Japan, the abbots of these temples often inherit them from their families and take on the duties of the family business (funerals). The training these folks endure does not inspire most of them to continue to question and examine the Dharma, it teaches them the correct rituals and pat responses. In the 1960’s, The Japanese monk Shunryo Suzuki came to the US to tend to a Japanese congregation in San Francisco but quickly discovered that his western students weren’t looking for someone who knew the correct sutra for when their uncle died, they wanted to know about Zazen, the deeper questions of the noble truths and to answer that most basic of all questions “why must we suffer?” Some of Suzukis students did eventually travel to Japan for “proper” monastic training only to find that it was far more rote and lifeless than the upstart brand of Zen they had left behind in the Bay Area. In short, the traditional role of Monastic, many of them wrote, led them further from Buddhism, not closer.
These days we look at the Amish and smile at their naive notion that by freezing the world at some idealized “golden age” that everything will be wonderful. Trying to live like a 13th century buddhist monk is much the same way and, in my opinion, brings one no closer to being a “true” Buddhist than being a Hasidic does to being the only “true” Jew or an Amish guy is to a “true” Christian. It is putting on the trappings of another time and pretending the rest of time since then either a) doesn’t exist or b) is corrupt. There are, of course many benefits to extended periods of meditation and the monastic tradition is a great structure that already exists to accommodate that, but it never seems to stop just there. Over and over Buddhists who do not adhere to the stereotype of a monk are regarded as somehow less than worthy of being called Buddhists or of being taken seriously with their opinions or exploration of the Buddhas teaching. The problem is that in old days monks lived their lives in a monastery that was still a functioning part of their world, they were not an anachronism, today the person who lives their entire lives as a monk is.
I’m not advocating that everyone just “do their own thing maaaaaaan” and do away with the monastic structure. I still feel that as a framework for extended meditation, as places of education, and as a method to vet real teachers from charlatans they function just fine, but we must accept that in the modern era that a person with a family, job, and responsibilities can and does function every bit as “true” as a monastic, perhaps even better since they are, as Joseph Campbell once said, “Joyfully participating in the sorrows of the world” instead of hiding from it on permanent retreat. The world is ever-changing and dynamic and it saddens me to see Buddhists, who really ought to know better try to hold onto dusty old books and medieval methods when what the Buddha taught is a perfect method for alleviating suffering here and now in the real world as it currently is, the degree to which we try to avoid that present reality is the degree to which we suffer and cause suffering.