Incarnate lamas offering butter lamps at the conclusion of a nine-day ceremony at Shechen Monastery in Nepal. Courtesy Matthieu Ricard.

In people’s idealized notions of a monk or a nun, one assumption is very accurate: that it simplifies your life so that you can put all your energy into waking up. Of course, not only monks and nuns are committed to waking up. But for many people, regular life is too distracting—which is to say, they are not at a place where they feel they can follow a path, because their ordinary life keeps overwhelming them or dragging them into passion, aggression, and ignorance.

Brothers, Sonada Monastery, Darjeeling, India, 1989. Courtesy Don Farber.

If you have the good fortune to be a monk or a nun in a monastic community, the environment continuously reminds you of when you spin off the path and when you return to it. Somehow you feel cornered—in a positive way—by your own habitual patterns, and there is no place to hide. In addition, there is the ever-present opportunity to practice and study. But it is actually the element of the monastic community that I think is the most powerful element in helping you to wake up.

I lived for ten years as a nun without a monastic community as a member of the Vajradhatu community. It was a lifestyle that was extremely compatible to me. I never looked back. Nevertheless, I don’t know how much real processing was going on, because as a nun in that situation, keeping the precepts was not very challenging—it didn’t dig into my deep hidden places. But when I finally moved to Gampo Abbey the processing became very, very deep and very, very powerful. As I watch people come into that community either as a temporary monk or nun or with a lifelong commitment, I see the same kind of processing occur. It isn’t easy, in the sense that it’s never easy to see your habitual tendencies clearly, but on the other hand it is a very supportive and nurturing environment for continually attempting to see clearly and for being gentle with what you see, and for helping others.

As I travel around, I see how difficult it is in lay life to bring your life to the path because so much is happening. And so in a sense you could say that becoming a monk or nun, and especially living in a community as a monk or nun, makes this much easier. Living as a lay practitioner in the outside world is actually a much more difficult practice. I say this out of respect for the difficulties of ordinary life, the challenges of the nine-to-five job, raising children, the intensity of the work situation, where it is very hard to find any space in our minds. Becoming a monk or nun and living in a monastic community is a much easier practice.


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