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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
courtesyofsravastiabbey Doing zazen at Zen Mountain Monastery inTrODUCTiOn BY AJAHn AMArO paulQaysi inTrODUCTiOn BY AJAHn AMArO Why We Need Monasticism FOrUM • rOBErT THUrMAn • JAn CHOZEn BAYs • BHiKKHU BODHi • AYYA TATHAALOKA • Doing zazen at Zen Mountain Monastery M any classical Buddhist texts, of both Northern and Southern traditions, emphasize that monasticism plays an essential role in the health and longevity of the religion and its dispensation. However, in the West, the vast majority of influential dharma teachers over the last forty years have been lay practitioners, or at least householder lamas and Zen priests, such as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Suzuki Roshi, Sharon Salzberg, and S.N. Goenka. Notable exceptions to this trend include Bhante Gunaratana and Ajahn Sumedho, and the late Lama Thubten Yeshe, Mas- ter Hsuan Hua, and Roshi Jiyu Kennett. These teachers and their monastic communities have all had a profound influence in their own way, yet the numbers of those making a monastic commitment remains small. As far as the Asian immigrant communities in the West are concerned, there is no doubt that the forms their faith took in the old country are to be preserved at all cost. However, for those who were born and raised in the West, the encounter with Buddhism—and Buddhist monasticism in particular— raises questions such as: How important is it for the monastic path to be an element in Western Buddhism? Will women ever have an equal place in the monastic order? Since Bud- dhist monasticism was shaped by the various cultures it was exported to in Asia, what will it look like in the West? In Buddhist mythology, the monastic plays the role of the fourth of the Heavenly Messengers, the one that caused Gotama to leave the palace, take up the life of a monk, and seek enlightenment. In order for messengers to do their job successfully they must be faithful both to the intent and meaning of the sender, as well as to the language and mores of the ones who are to receive the message; otherwise the communication won’t get through. Today, the challenge for Western Buddhist monastics is how to be a faithful messenger. That is, one who embodies and respects the values of the source, yet who is also faithful to the values of this time and place. If the messenger favors the origin and doesn’t pay heed to the language of the recipients, the message can become unread- able, with no more spiritual relevance than some of the anti- quated religious forms already found in the West. If they lean too far in the other direction, over-adapting to fit the dharma du jour, the message can become so twisted in relation to its original meaning that its roots become severed and the receiv- ers are orphaned from the ground of their tradition. The Buddhist monastic order is the oldest human institu- tion still functioning under its original bylaws. It’s an entity ripe in years, but whether it sits in the endangered species cat- egory or that of the hardy perennial remains to be seen. Where survival and flourishing are concerned, a lot depends on the skill and faith of the individual messenger, but, in addition, much also depends on whether the society wishes to hear the message, even if it’s being conveyed in an appropriate mode. The following discussion will explore many of these issues and, in particular, how and why the monastic messenger might still be useful in the world. AJAHN AMARO is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. He was ordained as a bhikkhu by Ajahn Chah in 1979.