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Question for US citizens who live at American monasteries


#1

Hello,

I’m interested in your experience, tips, advice of leaving full-time jobs with health care and such to live at an American monastery.

I’ve had the urge to give monastic/Buddhist practice my all for years but it’s hard to pull the trigger. I feel like I’m reaching the “if not now, when” moment. I’m on the verge of putting in my two week notice and visiting a monastery with the intention of long term stay and eventually ordain.

For those of you who were in my shoes in the past, living in America, full time job with benefits, and left all that to live in an American monastery… Is there any advice, things you had to do? Is there government paperwork you have to sign, Healthcare arrangements? Were there things you had to do that you didn’t forsee?

I guess I’m asking, if you knew someone that was planning on leaving their job and benefits, to live with you at a monastery, what kind of legal preparation (or practical) would you let them know about that they would have to do.


#2

What do the monks at the monastery you are interested in ordaining at say? They may be the best resource.


#3

dhammacorps’ advice is good. There will certainly be many monks who have transitioned from a “regular life” to that of a monastic.

I’d suggest not making any hasty decisions like putting in your two weeks notice. You could use your vacation time and go stay at some monasteries so you can get a feel for each of them and build a frame of reference.


#4

Well, I ended up deciding on a monastery in Thailand, but a year and a half ago I left my high-paying job in New York City to ordain. I’m happy to share my experience:

I had lived at monasteries for a total of about 30-40 days in my life (a weekend here, a week or two there… not including retreat centers) before deciding to jump. After leaving my job, I took about half a year to tour the world and try different monasteries. I stayed for about 8 days at a time at over a dozen monasteries in the US, Canada, Asia and Australia. I observed and evaluated each teacher and community, took notes, asked questions, and tried to learn as much as possible about what I needed and was looking for. I stayed with some friends in California for a while at the end of my tour to decompress and plan next steps. At first I was thinking of spending a month or two each at my favorite few monasteries before making a “final decision” but a mentor of mine encouraged me to just pick one and stay there as long as I like. I picked one in Thailand and, a year later, I’m still here and still liking it.

RE healthcare: I tried to get government healthcare in the US after leaving my job, but being itinerant in a system where health insurance is state-by-state… it wasn’t really possible. Assuming you have no chronic health problems, I recommend just going without insurance for a while. This was a bit frightening to me at first, but eventually I realized that over the counter medicines in the US (and clinics in Asia) are really cheap and are far better than even the best medical care a few hundred years ago. Just take it as a practice in renounciation and being content with what’s available.

RE paperwork: There’s not much. I’ll echo the above about the people at each temple knowing more. Each community (and country if you go international like I did) will have its own thing. Just read the information online, ask around when you visit and you’ll figure it out.

The only critical thing I did before setting out was I took the time to get my family on-board. I spent a while living with my parents over Christmas to explain my decision, what it would mean, how they could help, to get my parents’ permission, etc. That was tough, but it has been very helpful both practically and emotionally.


#5

Thank you for this interesting account :grinning: Did you find large differences between monasteries and teaching methods or did you find that they were largely similar? I have not been to any monasteries in Thailand, but reading about some monasteries in the Thai Forest tradition they seem to emphasize quite a belligerant attitude against one’s defilements, they refer to the teacher as the ‘Tiger’ and they speak of monks being so scared to see their teacher that sometimes they choose fasting so that they do not have to go to lunch and be scared by him. This seems to be considered an effective pedagogical attitude.
In contrast someone like Ajahn Brahm emphasizes a very different attitude it seems to me; he doesn’t make people around him scared at all, he says that all effort coming from the will actually reinforces the ego so he teaches to ‘relaaaaaaaaaax to the max’ rather than going to war against your defilements.
So I am wondering whether these different attitudes are reflected in very different ‘atmospheres’ in the monasteries you have been to. Or perhaps these differences are exaggerated when reading accounts and biographies (as I do). For example Ajahn Suchart in his book My way generally praises strict teachers and attitudes and fighting one’s defilements, but then had a paragraph where he said that if one day your mind doesn’t want to meditate, you should not force it and perhaps read some Dhamma instead, which seemed a softer attitude than that shown in the rest of the book.


#6

Well, I pretty much only visited Thai Forest monasteries, so compared to (for example) the Tibetan or Zen traditions, they were all quite similar. But, as you astutely pointed out, the attitude of the senior monks (sometimes not even the main teacher!) can really shape the feeling of a place.

Many people need or appreciate a “tiger” pushing them. I myself am immensely grateful for those teachers and friends in my life (ordained and lay) who challenged my thinking on various ethical matters.

But some people are hard enough on themselves and just need time and space and encouragement to do their practice, while still other people will get lazy or distracted if they have too much unstructured time. Some people really appreciate the harmony, discipline and aesthetic of a more rigid routine. Others appreciate the chaotic flexibility of discovering their own discipline.

So, this is what I mean by learning what you need.

In practice, Ajahn Suchart is actually rather hands off. He gives no dhamma talks to the monastic community, and largely tries to stay out of the day-to-day workings of the place. His style is to make himself available for questions every day. He then just waits until you approach him before hitting you with the thunderbolt of wisdom :joy: So here, it’s up to each of us to recognize when we are in need of help and to summon the humility and courage to actually ask for it. A nice balance of soft and strict, at least for me.


#7

These are great points. Yes it seems that different people respond very differently to a teacher’s attitude. Some people actually seem to respect more those teachers who intimidate them, an take their message more seriously (I work exactly the opposite way, probably because like you point out I am already quite strict with myself). I noticed that this is also true in the University environment, where I am working.
The other very interesting point is that it’s not only the abbott that determines how you feel in the monastery. I am getting the impression that some very famous and highly regarded abbotts end up spending little time at the monastery outside vassa, so like you say other senior monks are important. And I have been in a monastery where the second most senior’s monk attitude couldn’t have been more different to that of the abbott. I had only a brief interview with the former, but I came out of that discussion feeling totally put off and discouraged. And even now that memory persists and gives me many doubts (which shows I am somehow a shit collector rather than an egg collector, since I remember one bad memory perhaps more than the many happy ones). So yes probably in the end the way to think about it is that even in the best monasteries there will be lots of difficulties and things that do not work well for you, all external situations are dukkha in the end and the real happiness and peace can only be found when you come home inside yourself.


#8

Dear stef, when I first saw this expression ‘shit collector’ I started to laugh, then I thought “Hey, maybe I am a shit collector too!”
One question though: Is this shit collecting thing a Buddhist concept, or a generically human thing, or both? :woozy_face::heart_eyes::sunglasses:


#9

It’s from a story told by Ajahn Chah, that Ajahn Brahm has told in his Dhammatalks. So in this sense it’s a Buddhist concept I guess. It’s about someone who has chicken and hens, and instead of collecting their eggs collects their shit (an analogy for those who instead of cherishing the good memories, focus on the bad ones)


#10

Oh…cool! Thanks for that. That shit thing is apparently a popular, or at least persistent aspect of the Dharma. Are you familiar with this one, entitled “A Truckload of Shit” by the lovable Ajahn Brahm?


#11

Thank you so much for the information and tips, it’s greatly appreciated.

I’ve stayed 3 times at one monastery, but I want to try another one. If I don’t like the second one, I was thinking of visiting ajahn Martin’s monastery in Thailand since I like his stern inspiring teaching style. I find the no-nonsense, straight aim for the goal style from ajahn Mun’s disciples to be motivating.


#12

@JuanG I know very little about this and perhaps shouldn’t comment. But, I’ve heard that with ordination in one of the western wats, one needs to have their health insurance covered, as some wats don’t have the funds to provide policies of coverage for, for example, anagarikas during the one year of training. If you are under age 26, your parents might be able to still cover you under their policies. You also might consider obtaining state funded coverage that might be available for the unemployed and underemployed. In the US, each state governs this kind of coverage for the unemployed.

In Thailand, there are state hospitals that are, in some cases (Bangkok, Chiang Mai) that are quite good, and some people simply pay out of pocket for healthcare. There are also companies that provide for around $1000 annually US a basic health plan in Thailand that many expats and retirees in Thailand pay for. These policies provide for basic coverage at both the state operated Thai hospitals as well as private hospitals.

If you choose to train in Thailand, and are of sound age and and in good health, you might be OK setting aside with your parents or a friend an amount of money to cover any medical costs that might be incurred during the training period. During the training period, be it in the west, or in Thailand you’ll learn from other monastics how they handle their healthcare costs. Some wats do provide basic funds for healthcare, but one friend of mine (he’s American) in a Thai wat feels that the level of funding for his care (he’s over age 60) is somewhat miserly. He uses the Thai government hospitals and is doing OK, and his medications are paid for.


#13

Yes it’s a story from his book and also the title in one of the versions of the book (Who ordered this truckload of dung). I am familiar now with the shit thing, I think Ajahn Chah used it a lot; he once even gave the advice to someone who was missing his girlfriend to ask her to send him something very intimate if he missed her so much, i.e. a bottle full of her shit - it is also recounted in that book by Ajahn Brahm (a story which initially shocked me since I come from the land of Dante, Petrarca and Leopardi, but I later realised that Buddhism does not have the ideal of ‘amor cortese’… :wink: ) anyway sorry about getting a bit off topic, it was just to reply to the theme of your message.


#14

I think the use of shit is a Thai if not a specific Ajhan Chah lineage, device.


#15

Greetings Juan G, You didn’t mention about disposing of your financial wealth before going forth. Also how to manage future financial bequests from your family. This is a deep question, and various communities will have different rules. Many monks have a friend or family as kappiyakaaraka ready to provide needed requisites. This can have a distorting effect, but it’s better than nothing, especially for those who go forth in their later years depending on help from their children. In ancient times it seems that the natural thing was to just give the wealth to one’s family, knowing that family support is the normal form of social insurance. Good get advice and think this through in advance.
As to medical care, it seems like in Asian countries there is a lot of free care, but not so much in USA. This is a real issue for US monasteries if their supporting foundations wish to provide all four requisites for their resident monastics. Here in California the Affordable Care Act [Medi-Cal] makes it possible to grow our sangha … we get similar care as indigents in our State, which seems about right.


#16

Thank you for your reply and sharing information!

At this point I am not seeking actual ordination, but planning on visiting/staying at a monastery with the intention of long term staying. So at this point, I am still going to keep my money in savings and such. I understand that further down the road, if I end up feeling that I 100% want to become a monk with my life, then I would have to get rid of my money. Right now, I do feel like I need to try monastic living fully, no distractions, both feet in. I don’t feel taking a week off of work a couple times a year is adequate to see if I truly want to/can live a monastic style of life practicing constantly.

It is a shame the USA doesn’t provide free health care. I have some money saved up in a health care savings plan, but it’s not even a fraction of what a real medical procedure would cost. I’ll just have to hope I don’t get injured or severely ill.