IT HAS BEEN SAID that without monasticism there is no Buddhism. When the first sangha—group of followers—began to grow around the Buddha there was, of course, no distinctly “Buddhist” form of monastic practice. The monasticism that the Buddha developed took into account the needs of his disciples as well as the realities of his culture and society. This responsiveness to the imperative of time, place, and people is still the defining characteristic of Buddhist monasticism.
In Zen, each teacher in each generation is a buddha. Each teacher is in exactly the same position as the historical Buddha, dealing with the conditions particular to his or her students. After receiving the mind-to-mind transmission, a teacher is free to manifest the dharma in accord with the imperatives of the day, however those might be interpreted. Once the Buddhamind is realized, its actualization manifests as skillful means arising out of the immediate conditions encountered by the teacher.
In creating the Mountains and Rivers Order, the training matrix at Zen Mountain Monastery, we made a very clear separation between lay and monastic practice. This is a new phenomenon on the landscape of American Zen, one that goes against the grain of many New Age tendencies to synthesize all religious and spiritual teachings and practices.
From the beginning of Buddhist practice in this country there were people who wanted to experience traditional monastic training but rarely were they willing or able to completely abandon their worldly connections. As a result, a unique type of western Buddhist monasticism developed, an eclectic fusion where monastics maintained secular careers, married, and raised children. Because of this change, most of these modern Buddhist monastics did not get much experience with extended communal living, sharing their lives with other students, and studying continually with a teacher under varying circumstances—all vital and transformative aspects of monastic practice.
Most of the lay practice that goes on among new converts in America is a slightly watered-down version of monastic practice, and most of the monastic practice is a slightly glorified version of lay practice. At most Zen centers frequently nobody can tell the difference between a monastic and a layperson, except for the way they dress. Monastics usually wear black robes and lay practitioners wear robes of another color. Most American monastics live in the world, not in monasteries. They don’t shave their heads, and they don’t take vows any different from the vows that lay practitioners take. This results in ambiguity and confusion. To me, this hybrid path—halfway between monasticism and lay practice—reflects our cultural spirit of greediness and consumerism. With all the possibilities, why give up anything? “We want it all.” Why not do it all?
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