Few would disagree that monasticism, with its vows and disciplines, provides the time and freedom to reflect on the dharma and a conducive framework for cultivation of concentration and insight. For this reason, since the time of the Buddha, the survival of the dharma has been seen as dependent upon the survival of a monastic community. ln most Asian countries, the very term “sangha” (community) excludes the laity and has come to refer to the monastic community alone. While a sympathetic laity is required to support the monks and nuns, the laypeople’s limited opportunity for realizing the scholarly and contemplative goals of Buddhist practice has led to their assuming an inferior status to monastics.
We find ourselves in such a different kind of society from those that prevailed in Buddhist Asia that it seems sensible to investigate the kind of role a monk or nun might play in the present world. A monk or nun acts as a visible challenge to the shallow, distracted lives in which many people find themselves trapped. By their very presence monastics assert values that are either ignored, denied, or simply forgotten. Monastics are a reminder of that part of our lives that may be dimly recalled but is usually neglected. Irrespective of one’s opinions about monasticism, to encounter a monk or nun in the flesh can have a powerful impact: for the faithful they act as a concrete affirmation of their values; for the skeptics they challenge preoccupations with what is fleeting and self-centered. Monastics are living symbols who point beyond their own personality to something that is always present, even though awareness of it may be suppressed.
Prince Siddhartha himself was motivated in his quest for awakening upon encountering four sights, one of them a wandering monk. The encounter with the monk is put on the sane level as those with the sick person, the old person, and the corpse. Just as the meeting with the concrete realities of sickness, aging, and death opened his eyes to his own existential dilemma, so the sight of the monk opened his eyes to the possibility of a response to this dilemma. lt was not necessary for the monk to say anything: his mere presence as a homeless renunciate was sufficient to force upon the prince the awareness of the values he had neglected in his life of sensory indulgence. Here lies the meaning of monasticism as a form of life standing in a polar relation to secular society.
The issue of monasticism today does not concern its validity as an exemplary way of life in which to practice the dharma. It concerns its relationship to the sangha, the Buddhist community, as a whole. Should communities of monks and nuns still be considered as the essential core of the Buddhist sangha? Or does the present situation call for a definition of sangha in which the role of monastics is less central?
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