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The Benefits of Being Monks and Nuns
by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche Some people ask why it is necessary in the modern world to live an ordained life. Is it necessary when as a lay person one can practice Dharma and achieve enlightenment?
If you tell some Western people about Buddha displaying the twelve deeds first being a child, then living a householder’s life, married life, then renouncing that and becoming a monk — they might think ordination is only for Eastern people, for Eastern culture. Because Buddha’s life happened in India, they will think it doesn’t relate to the West and, especially, they will think it relates just to ancient times. People think like this, it’s normal.
Likewise, Western people don’t know about the mind, nor do they know much about karma, or, for example, about the existence of the hell realms. Because these were taught by the Buddha in ancient times, people feel that hell doesn’t exist now. If hell doesn’t exist now then that would mean that nobody creates the negative karma to get reborn in hell. If no one could possibly get reborn in hell then everyone would have to have stabilized realizations.
Usually, in order to not be reborn in the lower realms any more, one would have to have attained the Patience level, the third of the four levels of the Path of Preparation. Of the five paths to liberation, this is the second.
Jesus Christ also revealed the method of living in ordination. From that, so many monasteries and nunneries were established, which have produced so many saints and monks and nuns in Christianity.
It’s mainly because of delusion that people say ordination is not relevant to the twentieth century. You should protect your mind from delusions so that you don’t harm other sentient beings or yourself. In this way you won’t receive harm from others, and you will receive much peace and happiness. That is the nature of karma. This is the immediate goal; the longer-term goal is good rebirth, and then by far the longest are liberation and enlightenment.
Even though Buddha and Jesus revealed the method of ordination, however, it doesn’t mean that all lay people can be monks or nuns — just like some lay people can practice well, but that doesn’t mean that all lay people can practice well; it doesn’t mean that. It’s difficult for most lay people. Everybody doesn’t have karma to become sangha. Everybody cannot become sangha. Only some people can become sangha, because you need a lot of merit and no obstacles to be sangha. If there is no obstacle coming from your mind, manifesting out, then also there is no obstacle from outside.
The main point is that you need much time to practice Dharma, by keeping distant from the object of delusions. This is especially true for a beginner. You need to practice until one’s mind is stabilized in the realization of the three principal paths (renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness) — if possible, even up till one is an aryan being (liberated). This is why monasteries, nunneries, caves, hermitage — ascetic places — are needed. This is why monasteries have discipline — discipline in the mind and externally. There you see the Importance of morality.
In order to actualize the fundamental path, you need the conditions for that practice: you need a lot of meditation; a lot of time to study and to meditate. The most important thing is to not distract the mind. The more negative karma you create, the more obstacles to realizations you make. And that means it takes longer and is more difficult to become free from samsara, even just for your own happiness.
Therefore, as much as you live in pure ordination, that much less you engage in negative karma. Renouncing the householder’s life and living as sangha cuts down so much negative karma. The idea is to have less external activities, work, less distractions, and therefore much more time for meditation, study. There are a lot of advantages to living the ordained life; a lot of time to meditate, to study, to develop one’s mind.
One of the most important things for really developing the path to enlightenment is the realization of samatha — single pointed concentration. And for that, you need a lot of discipline, a lot of protection, a lot of morality; you have to cut a lot of distractions. Even to meditate well for one hour, you need to cut distractions and apply discipline; you need to renounce attachment even for that.
If you follow attachment, you cannot meditate even for one minute; you cannot find the time. For example if you sit down and your mind follows attachment towards your boyfriend or girlfriend, the desire object, then you won’t be able to meditate for even one second. Even from this simple example one can understand that living as an ordained person makes life so much easier.
The environment is very important in order for sangha to continue to be inspired to remain monks and nuns and to continue — month after month, year after year — to practice and develop the mind in the path to liberation and enlightenment. Especially for a beginner, whose mind is not stabilized with the three principal paths, calm abiding and so forth, the environment has a strong effect on the mind. It controls the mind of the person who doesn’t practice lam-rim, someone who, besides having no realizations, doesn’t even practice. If you know the teachings but don’t practice, whether you are lay or sangha, then external objects will control your mind, overwhelm your mind, and that makes you seek and run after objects.
But when you start to meditate on, to practice, lam-rim, the three principal paths, the mind is able to overcome the outside objects. The mind is more powerful than the outside objects when you meditate effectively, when you apply the teachings of the Buddha, especially the lam-rim, in daily life.
During the time that you apply the meditation, the mind is able to control the outside object, whether it is a living being or a non-living thing, whatever. Whether the object is a handsome, beautiful person or a beautiful flower, when you apply the lam-rim, the mind is more powerful, and the objects are under its control. Why? Because the delusion is under the control of lam-rim practice, the practice of the teaching of the Buddha.
As a beginner you need to have strong lam-rim meditation and at the same time to be away from the disturbing objects. The mind is very weak because it has been habituated since beginningless time with attachment, and has not been habituated with the three principles of the path to enlightenment. Therefore, the delusions are so strong, especially when disturbing objects are around you, and your intention or desire to seek liberation is very weak. The delusions are so strong in seeking samsara, seeking the object of delusion, of pleasure or desire.
Therefore you need strong lam-rim meditation to subdue the mind, to control the mind, and at the same time you need to retreat from, keep distant from, the object of delusion; you need to retreat from attachment and to retreat from the object of attachment. If you don’t retreat from the internal suffering of attachment and desire, then being ordained with the desire objects around you will be a bit like sitting next to a fire and at the same time wishing to be cool.
Of course, one thing is to set up a good external environment for Western sangha, but from the individual sangha’s side, they need to stay in t he right environment. Even if someone sets up a good environment but the individual sangha doesn’t stay in the right environment, then, as I mentioned before, because the mind is very weak and there is no realization, no stabilization, the external object will take over the mind. Which means you will follow the delusions; the delusions will take over the mind, and you will be unable to practice Dharma, una6le to live in the vows. That makes life so hard, so difficult, and that’s why living in ordination feels like living in a prison. This is a mistaken view.
By thinking of the results of living in ordination — liberation and enlightenment you should feel so fortunate, and you should enjoy all the advantages you can get: morality is like a degree that gets you respect from others, a job to earn a living, and a one hundred-percent good rebirth, whenever you die. Morality is a passport to a good rebirth. Most urgent is to stop rebirth in the lower realms; and then, on top of that, morality is the basis, the foundation for liberation and enlightenment. Therefore there is a need to set up a good environment.
There are so many benefits of living in ordination, as explained by Buddha in sutra and in the lam-rim teachings. In the monks’ confession that is done twice a month, some of these benefits of keeping vows are recited for inspiration, as are some of the shortcomings of breaking vows. Bikkshus who have morality have “shining body glorification.” They naturally become known to people, (famous). People praise those qualities. They will achieve happiness.
There is no way for one who has morality to receive harm from others. This point is very important. To receive harm from others you have to create the cause, that is, causing harm to others. So you should concentrate on the importance of this very logical point. A person who doesn’t have eyes cannot see form. Likewise a person who doesn’t have morality cannot be liberated. A person who doesn’t live in morality is like someone without limbs and so cannot walk on the road to go where they wish (this is not talking about using modern techniques like artificial legs).
As a vase is a basis for jewels, so morality is a basis for all the realizations. If the vase is broken then it cannot act as a container for precious jewels. Similarly if someone breaks vows, then it’s difficult to achieve realizations. So without the very foundation of morality, can one achieve sorrowless state in the future? No.
These are just a few of the benefits from the sutra spoken by the Buddha that are normally recited in the bi-monthly confession for both bikkshus and novices.
Each sangha has to have a plan to protect themselves by living in the right environment. That is why monasteries are set up, that is the purpose of the vinaya rules. They help to protect the mind. By protecting the mind, guarding the mind, you become free from an the problems and obstacles, all the sufferings. You get liberated ultimately from all the sufferings, from samsara, the oceans of sufferings. All your wishes for happiness, up to highest enlightenment, get fulfilled, and also cause happiness to all sentient beings.
Many of the vinaya precepts describing what to do and what not to do were advised by Buddha to protect other people’s minds, to prevent them from criticizing the sangha, which is a very heavy object. That happens if you are careless of the sentient beings’ minds, their feelings, their happiness, their suffering. So one does have the responsibility to guide other people’s minds. If one is able to follow the vinaya correctly, it generates a lot of faith in other people’s minds and plants the seed of liberation and enlightenment. It inspires them to follow the path by taking ordination.
Normally, sentient beings follow the Buddha’s example of how to practice Dharma. Being sangha causes others to respect you and causes them to create much good. Even when they respect you, they create much merit. Also, living in pure ordination causes your prayers to have so much power for success when you pray for other people. Your prayers and pujas have much power for success for other people. If you are living a pure life, that means you can achieve the result much more easily; your reciting mantras has much more power, effect. The deities, Buddhas, Dharma protectors have to listen to your requests, they have to help you. They have no choice because of your purity; and even without your requests they naturally have to serve you, have to help you.
When other sentient beings make offerings to you, they create much merit. Since you are living purely there is also no danger to yourself by accepting offerings. Otherwise, it is said in the teachings, eating offerings is like drinking lava or eating iron when it is afire with flames. It is said that to eat these is much easier than to live on the offerings made by people with devotion.
There is a big difference between lay and ordained people giving teachings. If you are ordained, there is great effect, because what someone sees is a person living in renunciation. Lay people will respect what you are doing, living a life that the lay person cannot do; that quality that is difficult to achieve. Respect comes from the side of the lay people.
Lay people should think in this way, they should look at sangha in this way, and let it cause devotion. If lay people don’t think that sangha have any qualities, and they don’t make offerings, don’t support sangha, they don’t create their own good karma.
Without protecting the mind, without morality, you cannot do perfect service for other sentient beings, even if you are a lay person. When you try to help others, problems and difficulties always arise because you have ego, because of the three poisonous minds. So without Dharma practice you can’t really do perfect service for others. Sooner or later a problem arises in your work, whether you are running a country or doing public service. Even in normal daily life it’s like that. Without morality, without protection of the mind, without some discipline, you can’t really have satisfaction, peace and happiness in the heart, you can’t fulfillment in the heart.
Even Hindus achieve the nine levels of Samatha, which is one of the common meditations that can be achieved even without refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Even they are able to achieve detached mind, renunciation of the desire realm; their pleasure. That means even they follow morality and discipline along with this renunciation. Then they become detached by thinking of the shortcomings of being in the form realm. Even after that they achieve the tip of samsara within the formless realms, which have the four mental states; they get detached from the three earlier realms by thinking of their shortcomings.
So even the Hindus practice renunciation, they are able to achieve renunciation. Not the renunciation of the whole entire samsara; that is not mentioned in Hinduism. To achieve ultimate liberation is not mentioned, neither is a description of the five paths or even emptiness. There is no way to achieve liberation without emptiness, without knowing the Prasangika view of emptiness, from the four schools of Buddhist philosophy.
If ordination does not have a big advantage, if it is not extremely important, then for what reason did Buddha himself show a monk’s life, shaving his head himself at the River Nairanjana? (According to Mahayana, Buddha’s becoming enlightened in Bodhgaya was not the first time; in reality, he became enlightened an inconceivable time ago.)
All the twelve deeds that Buddha showed, and the Four Noble Truths, teach us sentient beings how to practice Dharma. There are all these sufferings and problems, and the one way you can get out of this forever and never experience it at all is by overcoming the cause: by liberating the mind from the delusions and karma. Only then will you achieve ultimate liberation and never have to experience suffering at all. That can be achieved because there is a true path that one can practice, the method. So basically the Four Noble Truths and the twelve deeds show how to practice Dharma.
Generalizing that it is the best thing for everyone to leave ordained life and take up lay practice is a wrong concept. The problem is, one: a lack of real understanding of Dharma, especially karma; and two: the extremely important thing missing is missing from the meditation experience, renunciation by realizing the sufferings of samsara and the lower realms, realizing impermanence and death; no strong experience is there, the realization is not there.
Even when there is some understanding of Dharma, it all remains intellectual, so the mind stays the same or becomes worse: even there are stronger delusions than before, depending on the person. Then of course, the way one lives the life is with delusion: the one from whom one has taken Refuge is delusion, the friend is delusion, Guru and Triple Gems are delusion. Then one follows someone else, and they too are delusion.
Life like this can be very difficult. Life can be extremely difficult, very confused; or sangha in robes, with shaved head, but inwardly the opposite. Of course, nobody is making one’s life difficult; one’s self is making one’s own life difficult, because one is in a prison of samsara by following the delusions. So then, because of your own experience, you, the one person’s experience, from not having practiced Dharma continuously, you tell everybody that it is not a good idea to be a monk but better to be lay and practice Dharma.
In Tibet we have a practice called Tsa-tsa: from a block of Buddha’s image we make many hundreds and thousands of tsa-tsas. It’s like you become the block and make everybody become the same as you. I think that this might be a way of making bad tsa-tsas.
What makes the nun’s or monk’s life difficult living in ordination is like this. If, in your heart the goal is nirvana, then it becomes extremely easy, no problem, even if you face some hardships, it is a pleasure; they are not important to your mind. But if, in your heart, the goal you want to achieve is samsara, the delight of samsaric pleasures, then even if other people don’t make life difficult, you yourself make it difficult. Even if other people think it’s okay, in your mind it is difficult. So, living in ordination depends on what is in your heart as the goal. If you change it from samsara into liberation and enlightenment, and keep that twenty-four hours, all the time, then there is no problem. This way your life is not torn out, and it’s very clear in your heart.
Of course you can’t have both samsara and liberation. As was mentioned by the Kadampa Geshes, you cannot sew with a two-pointed needle. This way you lose Dharma liberation. As the Kadampa Geshes mentioned, seeking the happiness of this life and seeking Dharma don’t happen together. If you seek the happiness of life then you lose Dharma, like the example of the two-pointed needle which cannot sew. Dharma and liberation are lost when you seek both nirvana and samsara.
One can understand from these examples, even without relating them to Buddhism, the importance, the need, for ordained life. So generalizing in the West that it is not a good idea to be ordained, taking lay practice as the best thing for everyone, that is a wrong concept.
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However the very bottom line is to do all ones actions with bodhichitta. That is the best, the most meaningful way to think during your break time. This makes your life most beneficial. As much as possible with awareness keep ones attitude and thoughts in bodhichitta, the thought of benefiting others, try to do all the activities with that mind, including doing your job and throughout the day. This way even in your break time whatever you do becomes the cause of happiness.
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