For many years I have read, studied and translated about the Saṅgha of the Bhikkhus, the Order of monks, about the reasons that led the Buddha to create this particular society different from the society in which it is inserted and from which, no doubt, it depends. But, just as one of the characteristics of the Dhamma is “ehipassiko” –come and see–, as my theoretical knowledge was growing, I was becoming increasingly aware that I could only truly understand it through my own experience.
During the last years, I have been assessing the possibility of a temporary ordination, as allowed by the Theravada tradition and it is customary in some Asian countries, looking for the right opportunity and enough time that allowed me to have that experience with a double objective: to understand the reasons for the existence of the Sangha of the monks and to know from within the operation of this small-scale society to assess the extent to which it could adapt to the characteristics of Western society.
From the reading of the canonical texts and innumerable essays and studies of the different traditions it is deduced that the development of Buddhism over the centuries has only been possible due to the close relationship between the Saṅgha and the laity based on a series of reciprocal duties and mutual support. The monks are in charge of study, practice, preaching and, above all, the example of a moral life; the laity, support the monks in their material needs in the form of clothing, food, lodging and medicines. This model, which has been successfully reproduced in Asian countries with a Buddhist majority for more than two thousand years, has, however, a number of conditions that, a priori, make it difficult to adapt to increasingly more materialistic and utilitarian Western societies in which spiritual values have almost no value. This experience would allow me to have a clearer idea about this reality.
So, with the help and support of my teacher, Venerable Dr. Khammai Dhammasami, the summer of 2019 has been that of my ordination as a Buddhist monk of the Theravāda tradition; the summer in which, finally, I have been able to realize one of my most beloved personal projects. And now, with this article, I have the opportunity to share it with all of you, my friends and colleagues within the European Buddhist Union.
I arrived at the Shan State Buddhist University Campus, in Taunggyi, Myanmar, in mid-May and I was warmly received by a community of monks and laity who make up the team in charge of the development and growth of this newly created university. The monastic community, under the direction of its abbot, Venerable Vicitta Kyaungleng, is a very lively young community, committed both to academic life and to its spiritual development and monastic obligations. From the first moment I felt welcome, which encouraged me and reaffirmed myself in the plans that had led me there.
From the first moment I had in mind that this experience could leave a deep and indelible mark on my life so I did not want to allow myself a single carelessness that could mean that some of the aspects of the monastic life I was going to share to go unnoticed. In this case, it was not about having one more experience to add to the set of multiple experiences that make up the life of any person; it was something much more important in my scale of values. Therefore, my first concern was to “be up to” in order not to fail, neither to my teacher, nor to the monks nor to myself. I had about ten days to prepare before the scheduled date for my ordination, so I decided to embark on a small academic research around the Pāṭimokkha, the 227 rules of the bhikkhus contained in the Vinaya. To do this, I turned to the original texts in the Pali language and some reference books in English and French. This work and the help of the venerable bhikkhu who was in charge of my instruction allowed me to write a Spanish version of the book while understanding the deep meaning and the reason for each of the rules. My serious personal commitment was to respect each and every one of them during my months as a monk.
After receiving the ordination as a samanera -novice- the previous day, on June 3 I received the complete ordination as a monk from my preceptor, the Venerable Dhammasami. The simple ceremony in the intimacy of the space of the simain the temple, with the presence of all the monks of the community as witnesses, was an intense moment and I think I will always remember it as one of the most exciting and important days of my life.
If the life as a monk were to be defined with one word, it would be “simplicity”. All the rules and norms related to the uses of monastic life are aimed at simplifying things, at making the monk to forget the accessory and to focus on his goal of spiritual liberation. The monk only owns three robes and a bowl to receive food. Everything else is accessory and will depend on the generosity of the lay donors. And this, far from supposing a limitation, is a liberation; that of being able to walk without a lot of baggage.
Being a Western professional with commitments and responsibilities, I always assumed that adapting to monastic life was going to be difficult, but it hasn’t been that way. The monks’ time is highly stipulated, meal times, time dedicated to work, activities, chanting and meditation in community are duly established so, once again, one can even free himself from the schedule. In my case, the work has been academic, eight hours a day in the tranquility of the library, dedicated to reading and translating, which has finally been very fruitful.
The fact of feeling liberated from the accessory, from what normally in our secular daily life is urgent, although trivial, makes the monk can focus on the truly important, which begins with the inner gaze and self-knowledge. The result is the constant practice of mindfulness to everything that arises at every step, to people, to circumstances, to nature, to one’s surroundings … and, much more interesting, to personal reactions and mental processes before all that. Everything that is recorded in the form of a story in the Piṭaka Sutta and in the Abhidhamma Piṭaka in a technical way, in the monk becomes pure practice. Moral discipline is not an effort, but is assumed and, at the same time as cultivated, it is naturally part of life. Monks make up a community of mutual help and support and that daily practice together with others such as alms of food favor the development of moral perfections.
When I arrived in Spain, some people asked me about possible conflicts between the monks in the monastery and, honestly, I couldn’t remember any. In short, I have only been able to summarize my stay as three months without a watch, without taking care of my physical appearance, without having to think about what to do, without criticism or bad comments from anyone to anyone, without stress and without competition. Three months in which I have been able to appreciate the things that normally go unnoticed, that I have been able to be attentive to people, learning from some and helping others, and that I have been able to verify the usefulness of the Saṅgha for the spiritual development of its members and that of the community that supports it. I could write much more, because many mentions and thanks remain in the inkwell, but in conclusion I have to say that, after this experience, I can recognize with greater knowledge the greatness of the Triple Jewel, the Buddha as a guide and teacher, the truth and actuality of Dhamma and the relevance and great value of the Saṅgha.