Here in my home town in Ohio, there is a house that was rented and converted into the local center for a specific sect of Buddhism. A few months later, a monk moved in and now lives there. Other groups used the facility as well and on occasion, the Westerners that practiced there would see him. The fellow had many monastic duties. But he also had a lot of down time to catch up on daytime soaps and smoke cigarettes. I never got to know him but it was valuable for me to realize that he was both a monk and just another person.
When most people think of monks they naturally think about people living in monasteries, disconnected from modern life and spending all their time meditating and studying sutras. In the Buddha’s time, this was certainly true – lay followers provided the daily food that monks required as well as often provided shelter for monks. And of course this is still true in many Buddhist countries – monks are given donations by followers in a way not so dissimilar as how a Christian priest may be provided for here in the United States.
I only personally know a few monks – they are ones who were born and live in the United States. They represent a few different traditions – Eastern traditions like Vietnamese Zen as well as Western such as Pragmatic Buddhism. These monks do not avoid working. The culture of the USA is one that financially supports the dominant religion (Christianity) but is less likely to support the Buddhist monk. It isn’t unheard of, but less likely than a Christian minister.
So if they are working and not living in a monastery, are they “real” monks? To answer this, we have to ask – can someone still follow the precepts of there tradition that are required of monks? For myself, as a novice, the ’25 Precepts To Be Kept by Dharma Teachers’ as well as the three pages on the ‘Novice Training’ list do have some activities that require being in a monastery or temple. But to the best of my knowledge, they do not require I ‘have no other other abode’. The point of being a monk is not to live in a monastery – it is to be responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teaching. And although monastic practices can be valuable to assist in a monks training, we have to remember it is still simply a place, a building, an empty stack of bricks. So, does the modern layperson benefit from a monk living in a monastery? Perhaps so. But perhaps there is also benefit to the monk that lives with the people, facing the same issues and challenges. After all, if someone came to me and asked about troubles at work, it can be valuable to say “I work with people like that, here is what I do”. And to be seen by people who never get to a monastery.
In truth, this post was started more of an exploration of my own questioning. Can I be a legitimate monk without living in an Eastern monastery? Shouldn’t I give up my phone and laptop and motorcycle? Yet, the phone allows me to communicate with those that seek me. The laptop allows me to share a view via this blog and forums and to research. The motorcycle? Well, that is about enjoyment. Perhaps upon ordination as a full monk it will be advised I surrender those two wheels. Although the Buddha walked everywhere he went and avoided riding in carts, perhaps he would have chosen differently if he has a nice little 650cc to cruise around on.