The Gift of Monasticism

· Teachings, Zen Training · ,

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

Gatha on Shaving the Head

In this drifting, wandering world,
it is very difficult to cut off our human ties.
Now I cast them away, and enter true activity.
It is in this way that I express my gratitude.
As I shave my head, I vow to live a life of
simplicity, service, stability, selflessness
and to accomplish the Buddha’s Way.
May I manifest my life with wisdom and compassion
and realize the Tathagata’s true teaching.

Monasticism has been around on the face of the earth for thousands of years. Buddhist monasticism dates back 2,500 years to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, who pointed out the pivotal role and power of this form of spiritual practice. Christian monasticism in the West and Buddhist monasticism in Asia have played a profound role in the historical and cultural development of our world.

Because of the intrinsic mystery of the monastic calling, the unheralded nature of monastic work, and the dominant trends of our consumerist, goal-oriented society, very few people today have any accurate sense of what monasticism is about—why and how people become monastics, what does it mean to be a monastic, and how does monasticism fit within a society and the world.

The ceremony of tokudo, or full ordination, gives me a rare opportunity to shed some light on the nature and functioning of monasticism. It is a rare occasion because most of the Buddhist community in the West—some ninety-nine percent of it—is made up of lay practitioners, or as we refer to them within the Mountains and Rivers Order, home-dwellers. Consequently, most of my teachings are directed to those living in the world and usually don’t take up the issues pertaining to monastic practice.

Yet, it is the monastic institution of Buddhism that has provided the container within which the forms and the teachings that we are enriched by today were cultivated and transmitted. In my view, it is absolutely necessary that we establish deep roots of Western Buddhist monasticism to ensure the continuity of that transmission.



Zen Monastic Practice flourished in Tang dynasty China. It was shaped by great masters such as Baizhang, who is credited as the author of the first Zen monastic rule. During the Sung dynasty, art became the major thrust of much of Zen training, and some of the monastic forms were consequently diluted. Later, when Dogen returned to Japan from his stay in China, he created his own rule or shingi, reviving the monastic form. Zen then traveled to Korea, Vietnam, and eventually to the West.

As Buddhist practitioners, we are witnessing an unprecedented growth of involvement in lay practice, and at the same time, we are challenged to establish a distinct, yet relevant monastic tradition. Both forms of training are essential. Both have to be authentic. Lay practice and monastic practice are two wings of the same bird.

Lay practice is of vital importance to the future of Buddhism in America and to the equanimity of our culture. But it cannot exist without monastic practice. Monastic practice is equally critical. Like everything else in this universe, these two streams are interdependent, mutually arising, and have a mutual causality. They support and sustain each other. Both must be nourished.

There are hundreds of Zen centers in this country. There are hundreds of teachers and hundreds of ways of training. Across the vast landscape of American Zen Buddhism, there is very little agreement on what represents authentic practice. And there are many questions and uncertainties. What constitutes kensho, or breakthrough? What is mind- to-mind transmission? How do you train in and receive the precepts? How does the practice of a lay practitioner differ from that of a monastic? What exactly is Zen monastic practice?

These questions are important because we are on the same path that Buddhism followed in all the Asian countries. After a few hundred years of being part of a particular society and culture, the vigor and vitality of what was once a very powerful kind of spiritual training became diluted and co-opted. Gradually, the tradition became compromised. The same process seems to be taking place now here in the West.

Many American centers have developed a monastic form that’s essentially indistinguishable from the training of lay practitioners who have actively taken up the moral and ethical teachings and have received jukai, the Buddhist Precepts. Most American Zen monastics live and train like home-dwellers. They stay with their families in the world, have jobs and responsibilities, and occasionally spend time at the training centers with the teacher and sangha. Their vows are the same as the vows of lay practitioners. Apart from the color of their robes, everything else about their practice is essentially the same. It’s little wonder, then, that there is so much confusion and debate about the role of Zen monasticism in the modern Western world.


For The Past 25 Years, the Mountains and Rivers Order has created a definition of who we are through practice and training. We’ve delineated the paths for both lay practitioners and monastics, specifying the criteria for each, establishing ways for people to clarify their spiritual calling, and honoring both the distinctions and the interdependence of the two paths. This appreciation arose and continues to be refined through experience, through direct study of monastic and lay forms and of religious training available in the East and West.

In the Mountains and Rivers Order, the ceremony of full ordination is part of a response to the challenge of each religion to remain vital and true to its spirit, and not to cave in under the insidious societal norms and pressures. The pressure to modify and water down what we’re trying to do has been enormous. In our world, we want it all. We want poverty and riches, a simple lifestyle and everything we can get. We want to serve, and we want to be served. We want to be free, and then we want to do what we want. We want privacy, a personal life and family, and we want liberation. Indeed, to cut off our human ties and enter true activity is not easy.

Monasticism is a revolutionary institution. It is always fundamentally countercultural. It is hard for us to turn towards and recognize the power of monasticism because we live in a world that’s narcissistic, exploitative and violent. These are the norms. It is virtually impossible for people to imagine a way of life that’s based on equanimity, love and compassion.

Throughout history and regardless of geography, monastic institutions have routinely served as centers of learning, education, and the arts. They have also been regarded as a source and model of spirituality, as leaders in the revolution of awakening to what it means to be completely human.


All the schools of Buddhism agree that buddhas are those who, within their enlightenment experience, have reached the pinnacle of human evolution, have completely satisfied their own personal interests, and are therefore able to effectively help others with their relative and ultimate concerns. Practice, realization, wisdom, and compassion are not just a personal achievement, but must include all beings and the planet we live on. In order to achieve true liberation, wisdom and compassion, we cannot leave even a single being behind.

Through the years, a handful of people have stepped forward and declared in front of the community, “I wish to give my life to the dharma, unreservedly and wholeheartedly. I want to take the vows of simplicity, service, stability, selflessness, and to accomplish the Buddha’s Way.” These monastic vows are unique to the Mountains and Rivers Order. They are rigorous and demanding. But they are also ultimately liberating. Because they ask a lot of the person who is taking them, they need to be studied and clarified carefully by those who are called to them.

Prospective monastics in this Order reside at the Monastery for a minimum of five years before taking full ordination, which means a lifetime commitment to these vows. We don’t take this process lightly. Monastic candidates need to push into these vows, investigating their motivation and edges within the guidelines that the vows provide. For twenty-six years now, these vows have steered the monastic life within this Order. For twenty-five years, the monastics living these vows have offered their lives to support the practice of the sangha, just as the sangha has supported these monastics.

The five vows are:

Vow of simplicity—a vow of poverty, which means monastics are totally dependent on the sangha for their well-being.

Vow of service—following the guidance of seniors and teachers, monastics vow to give themselves freely.

Vow of stability—this vow requires that monastics have completed major life changes in order to give themselves wholeheartedly to their vows (this doesn’t exclude a stable binary relationship, but does include parenting).

Vow of selflessness—the realization and actualization of one’s life as the life of all beings, rather than a personal entity.

Vow to live the Buddha’s way—to act as a model of the manifestation of the moral and ethical teachings of the Buddha, manifesting wisdom and compassion in all actions.



Many People Argue That monastics are not so different from anyone else. They assert that monastics have a very definite role to play in the modern world; that they are part of it. These arguments miss the point of what the heart of monastic life is all about. To say that monastics are justified because they con- tribute their energy and work and because the monastery is really functioning within the world is to misunderstand and compromise the real meaning of monastic life.

As Thomas Merton pointed out in his book Cistercian Life:

Actually what matters about the monastery is precisely that it is radically different from the world. The apparent “pointlessness” of the monastery in the eyes of the world is exactly what gives it a real reason for existing. In a world of noise, confusion, and conflict it is necessary for there to be places of silence, inner discipline and peace: not the peace of mere relaxation but the peace of inner clarity and love based on ascetic renunciation. In a world of tension and breakdown it is necessary for there to be men who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness! Let no one justify the monastery as a place from which anguish is utterly absent and in which men “have no problems.” This is the myth, closely related to the other myth that religion itself disposes of all men’s anxieties. Faith itself implies a certain anguish, and it is a way of confront- ing inner suffering, not a magic formula for making all problems vanish. It is not by extraordinary spiritual adventures or by dramatic and heroic exploits that the monk comes to terms with life. The monastery teaches men to take their own measure and to accept their ordinariness; in a word, it teaches them that truth about themselves which is known as “humility.”

As for functioning in the world, it is certainly true that monastics, in a sense, function in the world in terms of much of their activity. But this particular view, unfortunately, suggests a kind of “inner busyness and spiritual bustle” that is not in keeping with the monastic life.

Monastics do not function in the world inasmuch as they respond to the needs of the spirit in the world. They respond in accord with the imperative they encounter. Their activities are largely immeasurable, and because of this, monastic life is not quantifiable. What counts is not the amount of activi- ty and compassionate works, not the multitude and variety of ascetic practices, not the ascent through various stages of spiritual development or degrees of enlightenment. Again, in Merton’s words, “what counts is not to count and not to be counted.” He continues:

The seemingly fruitless existence of the monk is therefore centered on the ultimate meaning and the highest value: it loves the truth for its own sake, and it gives away everything in order to hear the Word of God and do it.

We would say that it gives away everything in order to realize wisdom and compassion, and to actualize them in everything he or she does.

The monk is valuable to the world precisely in so far as he is not part of it, and hence it is futile to try to make him acceptable by giving him a place of honor in it.

This is not written for the sake of argument, nor in order to “sell” the monastic life to anyone. It is simply a meditation on what one may frankly call the mystery of the monastic life. That is to say that it attempts to penetrate the inner meaning of some- thing that is essentially hidden—a spiritual reality that eludes clear explanation.

Though it is certainly reasonable for men to live as monks, mere reasoning can never account for the monastic life or even fully accept it. Yet for centuries this life has been and continues to be an inescapable religious fact. Certain men find themselves inexplicably drawn to it. Some are able to follow the attractions or the inner urging of conscience, and they become monks. Others attempt to live the life and fail, but when they “return” to the world” their lives are henceforth completely changed.

To come face to face with the mystery of the monastic vocation and to grapple with it is a profound experience. To live as a monk is a great gift, not given to many.


It Is Important To Note that after full ordination, the formation of the monastic is hardly over. Formation is a lifelong endeavor and each monastic continues his or her conversion and development for life under the guidance of the abbot or abbess of the monastery. It needs to be clear that the monastic way is not a path to dharma transmission; it’s a practice in and of itself, with no other purpose than to live the monastic vows for the rest of one’s life.

Denkai, daiji, denbo, shiho, inka, teacher sanction take place between a teacher and disciple and have no bearing on monastic formation or on whether a person is a monastic or lay practitioner. One of the primary thrusts of monastic formation is that there needs to exist in the aspirant a strong inner impulse, or calling, to live the religious life. It needs to be more of an imperative than an intellectual justification of an impulse, a strong sense of the need to serve and to give, a feeling for the sacredness and mystery of life, a compatibility with the community as well as with solitude. There must be clear bonding with the abbot, the sangha and the teachings, as well as an inclination to discover the truth of existence. A certain sense of urgency to enter the vocation is also necessary, as is a clear openness to learning and practice.

One should not become a monastic in order to run away from something else, but instead must have a clear sense of entering into something of supreme importance.

As Merton said, to be able to live one’s life as a monastic is a gift. It’s a gift that should be treasured and celebrated. May we, through our practice and training, continue to celebrate this gift as individuals and as a sangha.


Edited transcription of remarks given by Daido Roshi at a monastic ordination ceremony at Zen Mountain Monastery. From Zen Mountain Monastery archives. Copyright © 2015 by Dharma Communications.

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