Friday, 11 February 2011

Bite Me, Batman!

Candid portrait of my practice:
written and recorded teachings;
 twine and rings for making fudos; 
 mat where my bowl rests; 
laptop, sole link with the outside.
I'm often questioned about my monastic practice, since I don't wear vestments or live in a monastery. It's a fair question. Here's a fair answer.

Christ and the Buddha defined monastics in astoundingly similar terms: They answer a unique call and walk a personal path. They reject personal ambition, and family and social obligation. Though encouraged to seek each other out for wisdom and solace, they are self-ordained. Neither Jesus nor Gautama recognised any other clerical model.

Such renunciates are called monks, from the morpheme mono-, meaning "single." Unfortunately, as individuals who follow a personal call and have no use for human authority or the credentials it sells, we quickly fell afoul of power. As a result, The Man redefined the word as "one who lives in a monastery," that is, a "place where people are alone together." (Hey, don't look at me.) Monasteries are owned and operated by The Establishment, which claims sole right to train and ordain residents. Let's be clear: there is no scriptural basis for this presumption, or this practice.

Today, ordained monastics have all but wiped alternatives from memory, so that an old-school monk like me risks being labelled a fraud for claiming the title. But I do anyway.

Later we stick-and-sandal types took the term hermit, by way of clearing up the confusion, but this too has become problematic. For starters, it calls up images of a crotchety old man who hates people and lives in the woods and never bathes. And I'm not that crotchety.

By whatever name, monastics who live by a rule of their own authorship have been around since the first human suspected there was more to life than the opposable thumb. To my certain knowledge, only the Roman Catholic church recognises us officially today. And the Vatican has been under pressure to ordain us ever since, but so far, successive popes have defended the eremitic vocation.

I confess I'm a bit envious of my Catholic brothers and sisters. Thanks to papal protection, there is now a sanctioned hermit movement within the Church that helps to dampen, if not eradicate, the sniping. Most Catholics I meet have still never heard of us, but the ordained monastics have, and that's huge.

Zen, sadly, is another matter. Although one of the most hermit-bound traditions on earth, the current Zen establishment is largely hostile to free-range monks. It's koanic, really: the Buddha was a hermit; Bodhidharma was a hermit; Huineng, father of all extant Zen lineages, was arguably a hermit; Ryōkan, one of our most beloved ancestors, was a hermit; Ikkyū, whose teachings are an essential antidote to Buddhist hypocrisy, was a hermit. But the Asian cultures in which Zen is rooted have a demonstrable contempt for individual initiative, and that has led us into a cul-de-sac of guru-worship. Today, Zen hermits are often accused of imposture and egotism for living the Buddha's own given precepts. The resentment is mutual and conspicuous, particularly in the West, where autocracy is dimly viewed and self-sufficiency a virtue.

For the record, I consider ordained monasticism legitimate, and even necessary. Alright, it's not scriptural; stuff doesn't have to come from the suttas to be valid. If it weren't for monasteries, what would I study? Most Zen teachings are generated, and all are curated, by ordained monks. The typical hermit has been inside before. I have done, and am likely to do again. The monastery is an important touchstone, and a weighty counterbalance to the hippy-dippy narcissism of hermitry. I shudder to think what we would become without it. Finally, it's an effective, irreplaceable practice for many who are drawn to that path, as synonymous to their lives as mine is to mine.

In sum, if I had a million dollars, I'd give it to a monastery. What the hell is a hermit gonna do with money, anyway?

But when the ordained sangha dismiss us homeless brothers as heretics or wannabes, or insist that our sacred birthright path leads nowhere but astray, then I just have to say it, loud and clear:

"Yo, Batman! You got a problem, you talk it over with the Buddha. I got more important lives to live."


  1. I bet a lot of monastery traditions were started in areas where it was for some reason or another unsafe for hermits to live alone. I don't base this on anything of course.

    Your reflections for some reason brought to my mind recollection of a film wherein Tibetan Buddhists living high on the plateau had never seen trees, but learned about them in the monastery.

  2. Well, I can attest that the classic hermit life is still unsafe. Not only are there natural risks, like weather, mishaps, and wildlife, but the danger of human violence is still very real, even in the so-called "developed" world.

    I think the monastery is above all an attempt to make the contemplative life more accessible, to mass-produce enlightenment. Plus it's simply better-suited to the nature of many people.

    Both forms of monasticism present serious danger of straying from the matter at hand, though. Hermits risk getting caught up in ego-centrism, which the opposite of enlightenment, and of rushing off down ridiculous practice paths, since they don't have many, or maybe any, external navigational aids. Ordained monastics risk becoming attached to a system or premise, which is also the opposite of enlightenment, and wasting their lives serving the worldly fears and desires of others.

    And both of these ugly scenarios are extremely common. I firmly believe that we are the cure for each other. The Way requires both the forest monk and the cloistered monk, the seeker and the student, the rebel and the soldier. If only we could all get that through our wooden heads, we might make real progress on this enlightenment thing.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Lao Cha Gui.

  3. If you catch any guff from us house cats, it's mostly jealousy, longing, and um, jealousy. Yesterday, I went to town and ate a cheeseburger. It was the first time I'd been alone in about 7 months! And I had to hurry back to hit the han for a dharma talk.

    The schedule can be down right crushing. My mondays are the most gnarly: 4:30am to 9:00pm, I am supposed to be somewhere doing something with about an hour lunch to usually sleep.

    On the other hand, the Zen tradition does seem to emphasis the teacher-student transmission, whether it's mind to mind or warm hand to warm hand. I think as long as you have a teacher, you're accepted.

    But I feel for those who fall outside that box. Not all of us are so lucky to find kanno doko (teacher affinity). Out of the many teachers that pass through here there (possibly 10-15?) I've seen one or two that I would pursue; this is not based on merit, mind you, but affinity. Some famous teachers come through here, like Okamura who I know people go nuts for. Just no sparks there for me.

    Luckily, I've got my teacher who rings true. He's in Texas, but he's there. And while I'm here, there are people who care and who I can go to with questions.

  4. Well brother, I've been inside myself, so I feel you. My teacher experience wasn't all incense and light though, and that's much more common than the Zen establishment wants us to believe. Guru worship isn't good for people, either student or teacher. As for the "Zen" emphasis on teachers, it's really a Confucian emphasis. Zen itself is entirely self-oriented. Hence the tension between Zen teaching and Zen practice, and hermits and cœnobites.

    As I said in the post, I'm not opposed to the monastery. In fact, I could easily see myself back there, if life brings me around that way again. My cœnobitic training has been invaluable to my hermit practice, and I recommend that others interested in this path get as much of it as they can. It's just the "Zen = submission to another's will" that I have to reject. Loudly. Because I can read the source teachings for myself, and it does not. More to the point, I ain't gonna quit being a hermit because somebody else says I'm being too Buddhist about this.

    I am warmly glad for you, Farmer Monk, in your well-fitting in-house berth, grateful for your part in preserving the teachings, and a little envious of your sense of belonging. I do miss the life, and that's a fact. It's hard to explain to outsiders how beautiful oryoki is. But you and I get it.

    Thanks for the good word, brother!



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