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Monastic Life and the Way of the East

monastic life monksTo someone who wrote about joining the monastery and receiving “monastic training.”

This I tell you very sincerely: monks are born, not made. The idea of “monastic training” gives me the horrors, for it is just brainwashing. The Roman Catholic Church specialized in it for centuries, calling it “formation,” another chilling word. A monk is not a performing animal to be taught tricks.

Here is the real way monastic life works in the true East. Someone visits a monastery and observes. If he feels at home and finds it natural, then he stays (unless there is a space problem), or leaves to settle his affairs and returns. He lives there and follows the routine. He alone can be doing interiorly what he should be doing, and he realizes that it is all in his hands.

Saint Silouan of Athos wrote that after just a few days at Saint Panteleimon’s Monastery. He discovered that he could go to hell just as easily in the monastery as back in Petersburg. No one can make a man be a monk, and only a fool tries to make him act like one, because if monastic life is not spontaneous for him, then living there is a mistake.

And now for something completely different…

I do not mean that a man does not discover that the monastic way is different from anything he has previously known, and that it requires an attitude and outlook completely different from that of “the world.”

I had to learn a goodly bit, but it was just practical, sensible nuts and bolts conduct appropriate to monastic life. (One time I made a suggestion to the abbot and another senior monk about something I thought would be a good idea in our routine, and they laughed so hard the monk had to hold on to a wall to keep from falling. In just three weeks or so I looked back on the incident and laughed myself.) But everything was always easy and freeing. I never was asked to think and feel contrary to the way I did think and feel. Nor was I told to pretend to think and feel differently.

I did have to learn things, but learning them was understanding them. There is never anything unreasonable in true monastic life. If so, then either the monastery is not right, or the man is not right. In either way, the road lies outside the door and should be taken.

Yogananda quote monastic lifeIn a recording of Yogananda he says: “Master always said, ‘The door is always open. Whenever you want to go, go.’” No genuine monastery wants to make slaves, just as no true teacher does. In the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Autobiography of a Yogi, the incident of Yogananda’s abortive “running away to the Himalayas,” and Sri Yukteswar’s reaction is the way it should always be. In the same recording I heard him say: “The great masters who liberate do not want disciples.” This is the great secret.

When a person enters a monastery it should be with the idea of living there always, not learning the externals and then going away to make a yoga center or monastery to be a lotus for him to shine in as the jewel. (Through the years quite a few people obviously had that intention but we did not let them into the monastery even for a visit.)

A giver or a taker?

It is assumed that a man can ask: “What benefit can this monastery give me?” A sensible question. But it is a two-way street. The monastery brotherhood asks: “What benefit can this man give us?” A single wrong-headed and wrong-hearted man can disrupt the entire community externally and internally. I speak from firsthand experience.

One who didn’t belong

When I became a novice there was another novice in the monastery who thought he was clever, talented and a real personality kid. He made everyone miserable with his arrogance, his insistence on being above our discipline, and his outright cussedness. Yet in mercy the monks tolerated him, even when he went into the kitchen where another novice was working and began knocking him around with no provocation other than his discontent with himself. (I witnessed this.)

Finally he chose to leave on a major holy day, upsetting our routine and demanding things he “deserved” to take with him. No one was angry with him, but truly sad at seeing his disintegration. He left in the afternoon, and the resulting peace was astonishing to us all.

Of course he went to another monastery and made tremendous trouble there, even at one point threatening to sue that monastery. Our abbot in an act of colossal mercy asked him to return to us and try to straighten out. He did not, but went home and ended up a Zen priest whose main occupation was abusing all comers in the true psychotic Rinzai tradition. So he remained a misery to all around him for the rest of his days.

In the beginning our abbot had told him forcefully that he should not come to live in the monastery, that he would not find it tolerable, but since childhood he had gotten what he wanted so he came anyway and started his career of chaos. This is an unpleasant story, but I have seen what can result from the wrong person in the wrong place.

Here we get rid of his kind within one or two days, but we know in less than half an hour (more like ten minutes) which way the door is going to swing. It is our opinion that indulgence is neither kindness nor mercy.

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