By Ven Rinchen Gyatso
I spent nine years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition, and several more as a lay practitioner.
I loved (and sometimes still miss) the basic practices like Chenrezig and Tara, but I could not continue practicing Tibetan Buddhism. I knew before I ordained that I would need to support myself, though it soon became apparent how incredibly difficult it is to properly pursue and maintain a monastic life without support. Putting on lay clothing and going to a job everyday tends to erase one’s monastic identity and steal one’s focus from formal study and practice (and later, teaching), which is supposed to be the primary work of monks and nuns. This was, therefore, a topic of conversation in our community.
I repeatedly said that we could not keep calling India or Nepal for a new lama every time we needed one; we needed instead to start “growing” our own. To do so, material support is very necessary for those willing to give their lives to Dharma study and practice full-time. The general attitude among American lay practioners is, however, “It’s wonderful you’re ordained, but you’re not our responsibility,” as one person put it to me just after I ordained. Others would say that we did indeed need to start supporting Western monks and nuns, but then nothing would change. Western monks and nuns in Tibetan Buddhism are nothing but free labor at lay centers, with exceedingly rare exceptions almost exclusively among the Gelugpa.
The main problem I encountered was the complete lack of organized training and education.
I had conversation after conversation with the lamas in the community I was a part of about the need for this form of support, and they would say that yes, something needed to happen, but then with this as well nothing would change. I once asked a lama if he would at least train us in the musical instruments so we could more fully participate in the rituals performed as this would not require a translator. He said he would, so I immediately pulled out a pen and paper and asked him when. He wasn’t expecting to have to actually commit, but he agreed on a date and we did the training. After that, we were at least able to help in this way to some extent during larger programs.
However, a lama came to visit during a teaching tour of North America and he could plainly see that the Tibetan monks were preparing everything while we largely watched. Then when the program began, the Tibetans started doing some opening prayers that we had never heard before. The lama sat on the throne looking surprised that we weren’t participating. A few days later, he saw me in the lobby of the center and asked me how long I had been ordained. I told him it had been about two years. He raised his eyebrows in a look of surprise and disappointment, turned his back, and walked away.
Education in the Dharma was even more lacking.
I began receiving complaints from some in the lay community about how we monks and nuns weren’t learning anything and weren’t able to teach. No matter how many times I said that the monastics in our community had no more access to the Dharma than the lay people—that we all attended the same programs—this criticism continued. I talked about this with the lamas again and again to no avail. On one occasion, a lay person asked me about some minor detail on the altar but I had no idea how to answer their question as to what it was. A lay woman standing nearby said with a disgusted look on her face, “You’re ordained and you don’t know that?”
Psychologically, this started taking a toll. I looked at leaving that tradition and studying with the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), but I felt no connection with the Gelug tradition.
I eventually left and went to graduate school where I met monks and nuns from around the world. I began pursuing East Asian Buddhism and eventually received the Bhikshu vows at a Vietnamese temple. I later did take another stab at Tibetan Buddhism and studied in Nepal for a year, but I ran out of money and had to return to the U.S. I also returned because I realized during that year that I really had absolutely no faith in the tulku system and deeply distrusted guru devotion. Fortunately, the community in which I had practiced hadn’t had any abuse scandals, but it is clear to me that when you put someone on that high of a pedestal, if there are problems, you can’t confront them. (For the same reason, I don’t trust Dharma transmission in Zen, either.)
So, I returned to the states and gave up Tibetan Buddhist practice all together.
I also moved into the Vietnamese temple where I received my bhikshu vows and continued my graduate education, and recently completed my doctorate. Equally as important, I am also valued in the community in which I live and practice, even though I still do not have full material support. I have a room and some food covered, and occasional offerings, especially at holidays, which really help, but I will need to work in order to get rid of student loans and to cover the gaps in my day to day needs. Before anyone complains that monks shouldn’t have student loans, without them I would just be an ignorant, bald, white boy running around in robes…or I would have long since quit monastic life altogether.
I have been told by some of my friends still in the Tibetan tradition that Western Dharma centers struggle to keep the lights on and to take care of the lamas so support for Western monks and nuns just isn’t on the table. In the richest country on earth, I think this belies a willful ignorance of the perfection of generosity.
I cannot count the number of times that I saw people say they could not afford to support the teachings who would then show up to the center with the latest cell phone or an expensive new car. If we talk about the need to support the Dharma (forgetting about Western monks and nuns), people complain that the Dharma should be free. But the lights, water, mortgage on the Dharma center, and food, clothing, medicine and shelter for the teacher(s) are not free.
If the lay community is serious about the Dharma, then people need to forgo that new gadget and the expensive shoes and get a less expensive car and put more toward the support of the Dharma they claim to love. We need to think beyond our own immediate wants and understand that we are the Dharma kings and queens of our age who have the responsibility to build the infrastructure, including training and education programs for monks and nuns, to properly establish the Dharma in the West.
In addition, the Tibetan monastic establishment needs to understand they have a responsibility to train those ordained in their traditions. Western monks and nuns are ordained and then left flapping in the wind, torn apart like so many prayer flags. It is deeply unethical to ordain someone and then to leave them out in the cold.
For the record, I have no problem cleaning toilets and running errands, but that’s not enough. Monks and nuns the world over need an education in the Dharma if they are to make something of their monastic lives and contribute to the establishment of the Dharma in the West. Reserving that education for a privileged few is simply wrong and is not in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching.
Ayya Yeshe is the Abbess of Dakini Bodhicitta Monastery, which is now forming in Australia. She is the director of a socially engaged Buddhist charity for ex “untouchable” Dalit Buddhists in Nagpur, India. Ayya is a contemplative, activist and a socially engaged Buddhist who travels internationally to teach. She is the author of Everyday Enlightenment by Harper Collins and her sacred chants on Youtube have 58,000 hits.
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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