3 months in a Buddhist Monastery

The Stupa is a classic symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism

This summer I lived in a Buddhist monastery for three months. When I tell this to most people their first reaction is that I’ve sentenced myself to some sort of prison. It’s not usually something they say out loud, but it shows up in their facial expression, body language and tone of voice. Our society clearly views a monastery as a place that is opposed to life in the “real” world, and it’s scary.

The irony is that whenever I encounter such a reaction I realize that not only do people ideas of monastic life come from random and generally uninformed impressions, but that they contrast this image against an idea of their own life that is equally fictitious. How we view our lives is rarely an accurate portrayal of what is really going on. When seen from the monastic viewpoint, “real world” life is actually the prison to be escaped. The creation of monasteries was intended to provide a cocoon in which seekers of truth could live a pure life and explore their inner world without the distractions that bind us to a status quo hamster wheel that is just an “illusion”.

So, what is the truth? I cannot lay claim to a universal truth that works for everyone, but I can share my own experience…perhaps it will enrich and expand you.

The Daily Grind

Skycliffe is a monastery nestled in the kettle river valley in the interior of British Columbia. This 220 acre property is largely wild terrain, with about 40 acres being actively used and maintained by the resident monks on the property. The Buddhist Teacher, Wisdom Master Maticintin, is by no means a conventional one. She founded HUMUH: Transcendental Buddhism as a fourth Buddhist school, culling the nectar of essential teachings from the various Buddhist vehicles into a clear and direct Buddhist Path that is both pragmatic and capable of guiding disciples into some of the deepest aspects of human consciousness.

Every morning we arise around 5:30 am, meeting in the forest temple at 6:30 to read a meaningful prayer, chant a 66 stanza mantra, and then meditate for little over an hour. Work begins at 9 am and the whole operation runs like a pretty tight ship. Mostly the men are working outdoors on the property on a wide range of activities: tending gardens, mowing lawns, chopping good, repairing things, building structures, painting etc. Many of the women are working in the main house to in editing videos and books, transcribing, developing communications to the sangha — while both women and men are actively involved in the lunch preparations.

There is a spiritual teaching or practice from 11am to noon, and lunch is usually around 1 pm. People then continue to work until 5 pm, after which we break until we meet again at the forest temple for another hour of meditation at 7pm. After evening meditation some people return to the dining hall for tea, study or to briefly check the internet (there is no cellphone reception on the property), and then head back to their quarters for the night.

Work is viewed as a spiritual practice where everyone works as a collective, maintaining mindfulness, quite supportive of one another and maintaining good communication. There is very little ego involved and everyone is in the spirit of service. Many of the monks are older and have secured funds that allow them to live on the property without relying on donations, which allows a refreshing degree of independence and allows everyone to focus on the most important work at the monastery — spiritual awakening. I was on a work-study that provided me accommodation and participation in the courses in exchange for labor, and I contributed a modest sum to cover food expenses (we are very well-fed with nutritious and delicious food to sustain us).

Its all about intention

The Buddha created the monk order and the monastic life as a way of fast-tracking individuals who were keen to attain to the spiritual realization of Buddhahood in their lifetime. He was a pragmatic man with a keen insight to human nature — he knew our propensity for distraction, our tendency for unconscious habitual behaviour and the difficulty of changing ourselves without support systems. Just as someone who wants to recover from a serious illness will go to a hospital to heal, or a music student to a conservatory to study, a monastery is a place for those who want to heal inner divisions, study pure wisdom teachings and restore clarity to the delusive mind.

The fact that urban life is filled with conditions that foster a frenetic pace of living — laden with distractions of all kinds — makes a monastic life much more suited for spiritual development. Work is performed in the context of a natural life with a collective of individuals that share a unified intent. While not highly social, there is an invisible yet tangible bond that is built between people by virtue of sharing a deeply held mission to heal and awaken for the benefit of all sentient beings.

After living a monastic life for some time we become more natural in a lot of ways, the only drawback is that it can be hard to integrate and socialize with our worldly life when we return. There is sometimes a rigidness that can be developed depending on the rules of the place and the style of teaching, but sometimes that is just part of the territory and so it’s up to each individual to find what works for them.

The way of the Disciple

The most valuable thing I learned at the monastery was how to be a disciple. The root of the word “discipline” is “disciple”, and while the word has fallen out of favor in modern times, it is discipline that gives us a sense of dignity, integrity and nobility. Living a disciplined life rooted in a noble aspiration for spiritual evolution fosters an innate sense of self-confidence that isn’t derived from the ego. While it is possible for the ego to lay claim to this discipline and its aspirations — what spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa referred to as “spiritual materialism” — the presence of the Teacher is a balancing force. As we apply ourselves day-in and day-out to the steady work of training our minds, we become more aware of our habits, our delusive thoughts, and the inherent joy and clarity that is the very nature of our pure consciousness. We discover something very beautiful and natural about ourselves, something that does not need to be defended nor promoted by ourselves our society…we start to discover who we are.

When people ask me why I go to study at the monastery, I tell them that I love it. To wake up each morning to the sound of the river running by, to hear the temple bell calling me to sit in the silence, to experience the flashes of insight and deepening peace of nature, to listen to pure Teachings that resonate the truth, to return to bed each night knowing that in some small way I may have moved closer to authentic freedom — this is a gift.

While I don’t envision myself living as a full-time monastic, the monastery life is a form of cleansing, disciplining and immunizing the body, mind and spirit to live in the “real world”. I believe it is an essential opportunity for a sincere spiritual aspirant who wants to learn to live a meditative life and discover a greater sense of naturalness. It is important to find a monastic path that is not steeped in ritual and dogma (unless that is what you want); I am lucky to have found such a path and a Teacher — so I can say that they exist.

Over time many of the attachments to people, things and situations that no longer serve you will be seen for what they are and naturally fall away. People fear change, and the truth is that giving yourself wholeheartedly to living a monastic life for any reasonable amount of time will change you (I can attest) and for the most part, the changes are for the better. There is the danger of developing an aloofness and a colder kind of detachment, but this is an aberration of the Buddha’s true teachings. Our detachment is intended to give us the freedom to love without strings attached, to give without expectation and to relate without clinging. It is a different way of living life than we are taught from family and society, so as with any deep change, there are growing pains along the way.

It’s important to remember that there’s nothing to lose that wasn’t truly yours to begin with — you’ll find that most of what we identify with as ‘ours’ is just an attachment to an idea. Indeed, this may be the deepest lesson I learned at the monastery; everything is for you, but nothing belongs to you. Responsibility is a choice and we should be mindful of what we bring into our world because we must feed it in order for it to grow.

Living at the monastery returned me to a noble simplicity, helping me clear space to focus on what I truly want and disciplining me to see that all conditions are contained in the mind. One day you may choose to give yourself the gift of putting the world aside for a time, not as a vacation, but for the purpose of discovering a different way of life and performing a more integrated kind of work where the inner and outer come closer together. It is an essential education that is missing from our culture, so consider taking a break off that kit-kat bar that we call the “real world” and take a chance to taste something totally different for a time…you just might like it.