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Going fourth, conducive to meditation practice or bogged down with monastic duties?

Some lay traditions are well established in providing space for longer retreats in meditation. The tradition of vipassana that I am a student in, allows for teachers to sit in seclusion for up to 60 days, and students for up to 45 days. During this time, the meditator has room and board provided. The students sole responsibility is meditation. This sustained seclusion is great for developing samma samadhi and for doing the hard work of removing deep sankharas.

Many lay followers decide to ordain after becoming well established in meditation. Which leads to the question; is there opportunity for monastics to retreat into meditation for sustained lengths of time or are there too many duties that would make this style of practice difficult? I’m sure some monastics will retreat for years, is this common? What are the realities of ordaining? I’m sure there are a variety of answers stemming from a variety of traditions and I would love to hear them all. With metta :pray:t3:

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First 5 years, under dependence, have to learn all sorts of things, like a phD course on how to become a monk. Depending on where you ordain too, meditation maybe the main part of the schedule too. Eg. Pa Auk tradition.

Things I am learning now:

  1. Vinaya
  2. Chanting (need to memorize)
  3. Pali
  4. Sewing

Then of course, there’s chores, walking for alms, etc… so many things to occupy the time, but still, I found a lot of free time to read, a lot.

It’s good to have strong meditation, but sutta foundation still need to be there to make sure right view is there.

Monks, depending on how you wish to live your monk life, should also eventually learn how to:

  1. Give Dhamma talks,
  2. Write Dhamma articles,
  3. Teach, in many situations, like for general laity, for the newcomers in the monastery etc.
  4. Learn to live in harmony in a group.

So it’s not that easy to be a monk as well, many social intelligence are involved, but also, it’s the best platform for practise because:

  1. You’re expected to practise (even if it is just mindfulness in daily activity), or you’re like eating alms food for what?
  2. You’re freed from financial worries, time limits on how long to go into seclusion etc. If you’re freed from dependence, or find a good monastery, you can set up such that other than food, you’re alone to practise most of the time. However, this requires that your meditation is already at a certain level.
  3. There’s readily many doors opening for you that laity just don’t get. You get to meet many teachers and stay with them.
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Although you are asking about the modern situation, it would be good to tie this back into EBTs wherever possible.

The Buddha set up a situation where the lay people support the monastics. In the tradition you are talking about, it is lay people supporting lay people. In a place where lay people support monastics, then the monastics have the opportunities for retreat. Not so complicated.

In the west, where lay people are supporting other lay people to do retreats, then yes it is more difficult for monastics to find this opportunity (especially junior monastics who are not super-stars :star_struck:). But in many places in Asia (and of course some in the west) the monastics’ duties can be limited to simply keeping their own dwelling in order and some basic chores.

Of course there are reciprocal duties that the monastics have towards lay people, too. In practice there are often monastics in the monastery who enjoy those duties and are quite good at them.

This is by no means universal (as I’m sure you know) . There are meditation monasteries where monastics only learn the most essential Vinaya and start doing almost exclusively meditation all day from the very beginning. The major downside of this is that they don’t often have the monastic skills you mention to be able to stay in robes outside this kind of “hot-house” environment.

I believe in most of the Ajahn Cha monasteries in the west there is a period of winter retreat where the monastics and long term residents go into retreat (with rotating periods of pure seclusion) for three months while outside volunteers come and and run the place. As well, the monastery (except for people dropping off food) is shut down to outsiders. This is separate from the rains residence which is often used as a period of Vinaya instruction. Some of these monasteries also have a rotation where one or two people are on retreat at any given time. But outside of all that, the places can be quite busy. In another hundred years once communities are better established there will probably be more time for monastic seclusion.

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If you ordain within the Mahasi tradition, as a “meditation monk”, during the ordination procedure you can/will make a request to be free from your duties towards your elders and so on. The English text, according to The Ordination Procedure and some Vinaya Rules by the Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw Ashin Janakabhivamsa is:

Venerable Sir, I would like to request you to exempt me from my monastic duties to you in order that I may meditate very well. I, too, make you free from your monastic duties to me. (3x)

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This includes the teacher should send the disciple to doctor, hospital/ take care of the disciple when the disciple is ill. Seriously, they want to not have that assurance?

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Venerable Sir,

This is just an inappropriate take on the Mahasi tradition and I believe it would be good to reconsider.

I think it’s good to consider that the procedure you mention is, to my knowledge, not one found in the Vinaya. It is naturally shocking to some of us that one’s very first request of the monk who ordained you would be to release yourself from your obligations to him. I’m sure people in that tradition want it to be taken as “wow, look at that monk who wants to be completely dedicated to meditation.” But to me the first thing that comes to mind is Ven. Meghiya’s ill conceived desire to leave the Buddha. I guess what strikes me as most odd is that one would try to make it something official and in Pali rather that just asking if you could spend most of your time meditating. The idea that one could sit guilt-free in ones kuti while your preceptor needed help simply because you had officially opted out of that part of monk life is strange.

I realize that this is perhaps the most uncharitable slant on this practice. I’d be happy to hear why you think it is actually a positive thing.

Anyway we can see what those duties to ones preceptor and teacher are and why the Buddha laid them down here. Of course there are many other duties in that chapter laid down by the Buddha.

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Here’s some quotations from Buddhist monastic Code 1 and 2, by Bhikkhu Thanissaro. You can see where my comment came from.

The mentor’s duties to his pupil

  1. Furthering the pupil’s education, teaching him the Dhamma and Vinaya through recitation, interrogation, exhortation, and instruction.
  2. Providing requisites for the pupil. If the pupil lacks any of his basic requisites, and the mentor has any to spare, he “should make up the lack.
  3. Attending to the pupil’s personal needs when he is ill, performing the services mentioned in section 1 under the pupil’s duties to his mentor.
  4. Assisting the pupil in any problems he may have with regard to the Dhamma and Vinaya, performing the services mentioned in section 2 under the pupil’s duties to his mentor.
  5. Teaching the pupil how to wash, make, and dye robes. If for some reason the pupil is unable to handle these skills, the mentor should try to find some way to get these tasks done.
  6. Caring for the pupil when he falls ill, not leaving him until he either recovers or passes away (Mv.I.26).
    According to the Commentary, the preceptor, going-forth teacher, and acceptance teacher must observe these duties toward the pupil as long as both parties are alive and still ordained. As for the Dhamma and dependence teachers, they must observe these duties only as long as the pupil is living with them.”

Excerpt From: Thanissaro Bhikkhu. “The Buddhist Monastic Code, Volumes I & II”. Apple Books.

It would be good to clarify from your knowledge, if the Mahasi Tradition actually does observe these duties from preceptors to the pupils.

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Many monasteries have a combination of work for the community and personal practice. It’s actually good to have a combination of these things and to have them well balanced with the flexibility to do more of one or the other if desired or needed.

Doing meditation is great, it looks after our mind and helps our interactions. But we can become attached to having our own solitude and everything our way and forget we are part of a community. Monastic life is not hermit life. We are dependent on each other and the lay community. But there is also lots of room for personal time and retreats.

Doing duties for the community and being useful becomes an opportunity for joy which infuses one’s meditation practice. It reduces the sense of me and mine, which is helpful on the path. It also is productive for people to see their practice as part of a big picture rather than getting caught up in “my spiritual practice” as if they aren’t part of a community or larger spiritual tradition.

Too much isolation and solitude too soon can also lead to undesirable consequences, such as ego-centric behaviours and selfishness, as well as a superiority complex, sense of self importance, disordered thinking, mental health issues, and also delusions of attainments. This is actually a big problem - for the practitioner and for those living with them!

I’ve noticed that people who have only stayed in retreat centres beforehand sometimes have trouble adjusting when they stay in a monastery for the first time. The reason is that they have come to rely upon the artificial environment of retreat conditions, with it’s total silence, limited interactions, no chores, and so on. Retreats are also very much about an individual’s personal experience, it’s all about you and can become very fixated. This might be fine for short/medium periods but not long term. Weekend, ten day or even month or 3 month long retreats are rather like sprints and have a sense of being contained to a fixed timeframe. But monastic life is not just a long retreat. It goes on and on. It’s more like a marathon and it needs to have a sustainable momentum.

So, people are sometimes surprised at the necessary activity of monastery life and think that it is not as good as retreats for meditation. But this isnt really correct; it just means they haven’t yet learnt how to integrate meditation practice with being part of a community in daily life.

I’ve noticed that there are certain types of people who want to have full retreat conditions all the time, even in monasteries where they are visiting as guests. These people are the types that show up and don’t want to do any work, or help out, but still want to have shelter and food and be looked after by others. They say things like “I came here to meditate not wash dishes!” They have an idea of what spiritual practice is - the solitary hermit on a remote mountain top, a fantasy not based in reality. Even on a mountain top the dishes will still need to be done.

It’s much better to integrate our practice into our life. Those who really yearn for full retreat conditions are often people who haven’t yet managed a daily practice - but they might not admit it! They dream of a fantasy where their meditation will be perfect, if only they can have all the time and luxury to meditate - then it will be perfect… but there is still the mind! :laughing: They want the conditions to support their meditation rather than using meditation to support their life. Instead of being like a hothouse flower that can’t survive outside, we need to be able to meditate even with the challenges of monastic life, other people, complex situations etc.

There are monasteries that emphasize meditation and retreats. But even in these places one shouldn’t expect just to turn up and be given retreats all the time without doing any service for community or learning the Dhamma and Vinaya.

I would really recommend people stay long term in monasteries to see if it is suitable for them before they decide to ordain. Or if people prefer focussed short term retreats they might be better sticking with that.

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More and more I’m beginning to think that people who want to be hermits should just be hermits. As Ven. Akaliko pointed out, monastic life isn’t hermit life. So people who want to be hermits should buy/build a house in the middle of nowhere and live there alone. Being alone is really the defining characteristic of being a hermit, after all. With remote work becoming more acceptable, living that way is becoming much easier to do. I think someone truly interested in being a hermit would have much more success by going that route than showing up at a monastery and expecting to live as a hermit.

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Hi Akaliko,
I really like this answer. I think it address some very good points while describing the reality and longevity of the practice. There is a flip side to these meditation centres that is easily forgotten. Like the duck peacefully gliding along the waters surface, we don’t see the legs frantically kicking beneath the water. The legs in this case are the long term servers of these retreat centres. A small group of people to which I am a part of, that work tirelessly to make these centres run, but are also able to take advantage of the occasional retreat and daily group meditations. This balance of work and meditation gives us a rare opportunity to integrate practice with life and community, similar -in its own way- to how you describe the monasteries.

When Ananda said he thinks community is half the path, and the Buddha replied with saying the community is the whole path, this really resonated. And I think this helps to describe what we’re both talking about.

To have the opportunity as a monastic to retreat was really the bases of the question. A teacher in my tradition mentioned they didn’t think it was so, and so I had to ask.

I’ll end by saying I love doing the dishes!
:pray:t3:

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Actually plenty of monastics get to do regular and long retreats. We are just starting our annual 3 months Rains Retreat. :smiley:

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I attend a Thai wat in the United States. One of the monks spends quite a bit of time maintaining the grounds and landscaping. I occasionally ask myself if he would prefer to be meditating, and then it dawns on me that he is meditating.

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I love this very practical answer, it addresses all of my questions very well. Thank you for taking the time to reply :pray:t3:

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People also do things out of compassion and wisdom even though it is not a duty.

I guess it is. But why would this be your “default” approach to this subject matter? (It’s a rhetorical question.)

Dear @Benjamin,

When looking for a suitable place to ordain (you may have your own set of circumstances and/or expectations etc), I visited a bunch in Myanmar, Thailand, Malasia, and Europe. Monasteries will differ in terms of their daily routines, emphasis, setup, and [insert word here]. They will also differ in their level of isolation, lay community exposure, amount of daily chores, expectations placed on novices etc. Why not pick a few and stay for a suitable period to feel it out. Nothing wrong with that. I believe it will be appreciated, as it shows dedication.

I ended up ordaining as samanera at the Thai branch of Pa Auk some years ago. As ven. @NgXinZhao pointed out, Pa Auk places a strong emphasis on uninterrupted intense meditation practice. A few-vassa-monks and nuns there will often first practice meditation for a couple of years on a rather intense schedule. If you’re cut up for this and think this is useful, go for it. Those who stick around, will later take on other monastic duties, scripture, chanting, Pali etc as well. People end up at a Vihara at different ages, and for different reasons.

The chores in such places are often symbolic, and you’ll more likely than not end up being grateful for having some cleaning to do or leaves to sweep. Or a bell to ring. Or the teapot to set up etc. First, it’s something else to do - the mind will get bored. Second, it is nice to be part of the community. Creates contentment, which is conducive for concentration practices that these places emphasize. The alms round often takes a more symbolic form as well, being played out as a ritual inside the monastery compound with the laypeople coming in with offerings.

There are numerous reasons for that (for example, a few Pa Auk branches in Myanmar are so huge, they’d probably drain the surrounding villages). And for the branches abroad, the reasons can be a bit more different. A regular Pindapata in a with a small group of bhikkhus in a nearby community can be arranged, but more as a special undertaking to test the effect of this on the mind.
Some other monasteries will place a greater emphasis on overall informal wakefulness in different activities throughout the day.

PS. The remark of @Florian regarding “relinquishing the duties” sprung me down the memory lane and I recall all of the samaneras at our monastery also went through this procedure after requesting the precepts again each time. This was, in fact the only fuzzy part of the ceremony for me, but I never paid much attention to this. But given that Pa Auk monasteries usually focus on a dedicated jhana practice a lot and expect one to practice, practice, practice, it makes sense. It could also be a Myanmar tradition - there are such little traditional idiosyncrasies that differ from Theravada country to country, or even within a country (you know, the different ways of wearing the robes, or the the shaving of the eyebrows in Thailand, or the more melodic chanting in some Sri Lankan monasteries etc etc).

PS. Samaneras have way fewer formal duties than bhikkhus, starting from the amount of memorized Pali for chanting, ending with the amount of overall regulations to their behaviour and the amount of Vinaya to be known. Some places do encourage a longer samanera period for those whose primary intention is uninterrupted meditation practice. Places will also differ in how fast they want you to bhikkhu up after the initial samaneraing. In some places you’ll be a samanera for 15 minutes, in others, 2 years.

PSPS. A community of bhikkhus is super supportive to have around. The robes and modest uniformity do offer a protection for the mind. I’ve done the “alone in a country house at the end of the world” thing too. It is of course fantastic. But it can be equally tough. A lot of learning on aloneness vs loneliness. And interdependence and independence. And repairs from scraps. I have no romantic ideas around that route. Yes, it can be a tad annoying when some bhikkhus take advantage of their seniority and have a samanera do things for them (men and hierarchies, le sigh), even when the teacher has instructed the samanera to meditate only, but its a moment of learning each time in any case. And the favors are usually small. Some are whims. Some are workarounds for the restrictions in the Vinaya etc. So I personally think a small group of like-minded people at a dedicated location may be sometimes more sustainable than going it alone, in case that involves having to take care of the estate alone well.

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I think it would be much better to read a lot before ordaining

Much better than what? Besides serving at a dhamma centre, reading and meditating is all I do. Do you have any reading material you could suggest?

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It can form an unnecessary social stigma to think like this.

The underlying thinking could be that, as a monk, one shouldn’t waste time reading.

Whereas not everyone can be motivated to read as a lay person.

As a lay person, there’s no rule to prevent one from indulging in games, TV shows etc.

Whereas there’s plenty of time as a monk to read, and some people ordain young, so they have to read as a monk in order to be able to be proficient in the Dhamma.

It’s up to the teacher of the monk to train the monks, up to the individual monks to see how much time they need for meditation, reading, memorising chants etc.

@Benjamin other than the Tipitaka itself, many books by forest monastics, especially Ajahn Brahm. And then read academic books on Buddhism, like history of Buddhism, how it split into different sects, philosophy of Buddhism, social philosophy of Buddhism, books by Ven. Analayo etc. Mahayana books, books by famous authors like Thinh Nhat Hanh, Dalai Lama, etc. Books by secular people, in order to understand how secular Buddhist thinks, so that one can know how to converse with them, bring them gently into the right view.

Rebirth and afterlife study cases, by Ian Stevenson, Francis Story, Christ Carter, etc.

Psychic phenomenon research books by Dean Radin.

Religion books for when as a monk, you’re invited to interfaith conversations. At least you can see the commonalities between religions. Books by Karen Armstrong is especially good in this.

Philosophy books, so that you can compare and contrast buddhist philosophy with other kinds of philosophy, can give talks which appeals to those of philosophical background.

@Ratana, there’s so many things to read, that if one puts as a condition: I must finish all these before ordaining, one might ordain quite late in life. So, better not think like that.

Tip, for faster reading, especially to get you to push through the boring parts of a non-fiction book, use audiobooks, or read out loud features on many softwares, on phones, kindle, PC, Mac etc. Train to be able to listen at times 2 or 2.5 speed, then you’ll speed through books quite fast. It also trains you to be mindful so as not to miss out too much info.

The one thing I would agree if you want, is to get a degree in Buddhism, from Buddhist university before ordaining. As I heard the student monk’s Vinaya there are generally poor, so it might have some incentive to get it done with as a lay person. However, it’s absolutely unnecessary to have a degree in Buddhist studies, just get their syllabus, read up on your own.

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I think one should read the entire vinaya and four nikayas + udana, itivuttaka and sutta nipata(these cover nearly every thing that buddha said)

I have read vinaya by 95% ,Digha nikaya,mahajima nikaya and samyutta nikaya by 90% and planning to read the others

Furthermore I think it’s good if one read commentaries for example I have read fully the progress of insight small book written by mahasi sayadaw that book was translated from pali to English, I plan to read the manual of insight written by the same too

If you have read all those then you can read non pali translated books recommended by @NgXinZhao

Those books including the commentaries are available for free on internet just fyi

Not only reading I think it would be better if lay people can find Time to meditate

I have got up at 3 o’clock in the morning to meditate daily for 5 days but it stopped and I plan to continue that habit again

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