If you talk to Westerners about the life of the Buddha and the twelve deeds—the circumstances of his birth, his life as a child, his marriage and the birth of his child, then his renunciation of the householder’s life, becoming a monk, and so forth—they might think that ordination as a Buddhist monk or nun is only for Asians. Because Buddha lived in India, they might think that it’s an aspect of Eastern culture unrelated to the West. Moreover, because Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, they might also think that ordination is no longer relevant today. This is common, a normal way to think for people who don’t understand the mind or know about karma.
It’s the same when we describe the hell realms. Because the Buddha explained them in ancient times, people now think that they’re simply an outmoded concept. If the hells don’t exist, it means that nobody is creating the karma to be reborn there. In other words, everybody must have developed stable realizations. Why does it mean that? Because in order never again to be reborn in the lower realms, you must have attained at least the third, or patience, level of the path of preparation. (There are five levels of the path to liberation; the path of preparation is the second of these. The path of preparation itself has four levels, of which patience is the third.)
Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ also revealed living in ordination as a method of practice. As a result, many Christian monasteries and nunneries were established, and over the past two millennia this still viable tradition has produced many saints.
People who say that ordination is no longer relevant in the modern world misunderstand its purpose. This method was taught by both Buddha and Jesus to protect us from delusions, to prevent us from harming ourselves or others. As a result of the karma of not harming others, we receive the immediate benefit of not being harmed by them, and experience great happiness and peace. Of course, there are long-term benefits as well: rebirth in the upper realms, liberation, and enlightenment.
Nevertheless, some people will still ask why today, when lay people can study and practice Dharma and attain enlightenment, is it necessary to live an ordained life?
It’s true that some lay people can practice well, but that doesn’t mean all lay people can practice well. Most lay people find it difficult. But just because Buddha and Jesus revealed the method of ordination doesn’t mean that everyone should become monks or nuns either. Everybody can’t become Sangha because everybody doesn’t have the karma to become Sangha. To do so you need a lot of merit and no inner obstacles. If there are no obstacles in your mind, there will be no outer obstacles to your ordination.
The main point here is that until you have developed a stable realization of the three principal aspects of the path in your mind, to practice Dharma properly you need to spend a lot of time away from the objects that induce your delusions to arise. This is especially true for beginners, but in fact applies to anybody not yet liberated from samsara. Hence, the need for monasteries and nunneries, caves and hermitages, and the discipline that goes along with living in such ascetic environments. And by living in places like those, you can easily see the importance of morality.
To actualize the fundamental paths, you need a great deal of study and meditation. For that you need much time and conducive circumstances. The most important thing is for your mind not to be distracted. The more negative karma you create, the more barriers you erect to your own realizations. That makes it much longer and more difficult for you to experience even samsaric happiness, let alone the bliss of liberation from samsara.
Therefore, the more you live in pure ordination, the less negative karma you create. By renouncing life as a householder and living as Sangha, not only do you create less negative karma, but you also cut down a lot on external work and other activities. This leaves you much more time for meditation and study; you have fewer distractions. Thus, there are many advantages to being ordained: more time to study and meditate, more time to develop your mind.
One of the most important meditations that you need to accomplish in order to really develop the path to enlightenment in your mind is mental quiescence. To realize shamatha, you need much discipline, protection, and morality; you have to eliminate many distractions. Even for an hour’s good meditation you need to cut distractions, apply discipline, and renounce attachment. If you follow attachment, you can’t meditate for even a minute. If your mind is occupied by desire objects such as boyfriends or girlfriends, you can’t meditate for even a second. So, on the basis of that simple example, you can understand how living in ordination as Sangha makes it much easier to practice.
For all this then, the environment becomes very important. To maintain the inspiration to remain Sangha, to continue practicing, to develop your mind in the path to liberation and enlightenment, month by month, year by year, to continue as a beginner whose mind is not stabilized in the three principal aspects of the path or calm abiding and so forth, you need the right situation. The environment has a strong effect on your mind. It controls the mind of the person who, let alone having no realizations, doesn’t even practice the lam-rim.
Even if you have an excellent understanding of the lam-rim teachings themselves, if you don’t practice, external objects will influence, control, overpower, and overwhelm your mind. Whether you are a lay person or ordained, without choice you will seek out and run after objects of attachment. But as soon as you start to practice, to meditate on, the three principal paths—especially the basic one, renunciation—your mind becomes more powerful than external objects. The moment you begin to apply the teachings of the Buddha in daily life, your mind starts to become more powerful than external objects and can overcome their attraction, no matter what those objects may be: living beings or non-living things, handsome people, beautiful flowers, whatever. Why? Because while you are practicing the lam-rim, your delusions are under control.
As beginners, you need both to practice lam-rim strongly and to keep away from disturbing objects. Your minds are weak because since beginningless time they have been habituated to attachment, not to the path to enlightenment. Therefore, your delusions are very strong, especially when you’re surrounded by disturbing objects. Your intention or desire to seek liberation is very weak, but your wish for samsara, objects of delusion, pleasure, and desire is very strong. Therefore, you need strong lam-rim meditation to subdue, to control, your mind, your attachment, and at the same time you need to retreat, to keep your distance from objects of attachment. If you don’t withdraw from the internal suffering of attachment and desire, then living in ordination surrounded by objects of desire is like trying to get cool by sitting in front of a fire.
So of course, setting up a good external environment for Western Sangha is one thing, but individual Sangha members choosing to stay there is another. We can establish a perfect environment, but individual monks and nuns can decide not to stay there and stay instead in the wrong environment. Then, if your minds are weak, if you have no realizations or stability in the path, you will be overwhelmed by external objects. Delusions will take over your minds, you will follow the delusions, and you will, therefore, be unable to practice Dharma or live in your vows.
Then, on the basis of this fundamental error, instead of enjoying your life and feeling how fortunate you are when you think of all the advantages that you will experience—the good results of liberation and enlightenment, the absolute certainty of a good rebirth no matter when you die—your life will become so difficult, and living in ordination will seem like living in prison. Morality is a passport to success, a guarantee for an upper rebirth. It’s like a university degree that guarantees respect and a good job. The immediate, urgent thing is to stop rebirth in the lower realms: not only does morality guarantee you that, but it is also the basis, or foundation, for liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, it is extremely necessary to establish the right environment for practice.
The Buddha explained the many benefits of ordination in his sutra teachings and they are also enumerated in the lam-rim. In the twice-monthly so-jong ceremony, we recall the shortcomings of breaking our vows and receive inspiration by reciting the benefits of keeping them. Such benefits include enjoying the glory of a radiant body, effortless fame, others’ praise of our good qualities, and the gaining of happiness.
If your moral conduct is pure, others will not harm you. This is an important point to note: to be harmed by others, you must have created the cause, that is, you must have harmed them. You should think of the logic of this. Just as a blind person cannot see, neither can an immoral person be liberated. Those who do not live in morality are like people without legs, who cannot walk wherever they wish. Just as a vase meant for holding jewels cannot hold anything if it is broken, similarly, since morality is the basis for all realizations, if you break your vows, you will be unable to achieve any Dharma realizations. Without the foundation of morality, there is no way to attain the sorrowless state of nirvana. These are but a few of the benefits taught by the Buddha and recited during so-jong.
It is the responsibility of each monk or nun to make a plan to protect him- or herself by living in the right environment. That is the purpose of monasteries and nunneries; that’s why there are vinaya rules. They help protect the mind. By protecting, guarding, your mind, you free yourself from all problems, obstacles, and suffering, ultimately liberating yourself from the oceans of suffering of each samsaric realm. You fulfill all your aspirations for happiness and bring much happiness to all sentient beings as well.
Many of the precepts in the vinaya that tell you what to do and what not to do were given by the Buddha in order to protect the minds of others. If you follow the vinaya rules, you prevent others from criticizing the Sangha, which, karmically speaking, is a very heavy object. Negative karma created with the Sangha as its object is extremely grave. If, however, the Sangha is careless with sentient beings’ minds, feelings, happiness, and suffering, it is easily possible to provoke their criticism. Therefore, since you, the Sangha, are responsible to guide the laity, you should follow the vinaya correctly. If you do, others will generate faith in their minds toward the Sangha, planting in their minds the seeds of liberation and enlightenment. It may even inspire them to follow the path by taking ordination themselves, since normally, sentient beings follow the Buddha’s example of how to practice Dharma.
Being Sangha makes others respect you, and thereby, they create much merit. The more purely you live in your ordination, the greater will be your power of success when you pray for others. Your prayers and pujas on behalf of others will be more likely to succeed. If you are living purely, you can achieve the result more easily, the mantras you recite will be more powerful. The deities, buddhas, and Dharma protectors have to listen to your requests, have to help you. Because of your purity, they have no choice. Even if you don’t make requests, they naturally have to serve and help you. Also, since your life is pure, when sentient beings make offerings to you, they create even more merit, and also there is no danger to yourself in your accepting their offerings. If, as it says in the teachings, you do not live purely and then eat what is offered to you, it is like drinking lava or molten iron. It is said that you’d be better off consuming molten iron than consuming offerings made by others out of devotion.
Also, when you teach, you will have a much greater effect on people’s minds than do lay people when they teach; there’s a big difference. The people receiving the teaching see that the teacher him- or herself is living in renunciation. Lay people respect what you are doing, leading a life that they themselves cannot. Recognizing a quality that is hard to achieve, they will respect you for it. Also, lay students should learn to regard the Sangha in this way and allow devotion to arise. If lay people think that the Sangha do not have any special qualities and fail to make offerings to or support the Sangha, they miss out on a great chance to create good karma.
If lay people do not protect their own minds, do not practice morality themselves, even when they try to help others, they will be unable to offer them perfect service. When trying to help others, problems and difficulties will always arise because of ego and the three poisonous minds. Without Dharma practice, one can’t really offer perfect service to others without running into problems. Whether one is the leader of a country or doing some other kind of public service, sooner or later problems will arise. Even in normal daily life it is like this: without morality, without protecting your mind, without some kind of discipline, you can’t really find peace, satisfaction, happiness, or fulfillment in your heart.
If there were not a big advantage to being ordained, if it were not extremely important, why would Guru Shakyamuni Buddha have set that example? According to the Mahayana teachings, Buddha’s showing that he reached enlightenment at Bodhgaya was not really when he became enlightened. In reality, he reached enlightenment an inconceivable number of eons ago. The reason he went through the twelve deeds—including renouncing the family life, shaving his head, and becoming a monk—and taught the Four Noble Truths was to teach us how to practice Dharma. And as I said before, it is not only Buddhism that teaches its followers to live as ordained persons in monasteries and nunneries.
Also, not only Buddhism teaches the attainment of the nine levels of meditative concentration and the development of shamatha. This practice is also common to Hinduism, where morality and discipline are also practiced along with renunciation, and can be accomplished without taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha by simply developing detachment to pleasure, renunciation of the desire realms, and thinking of the shortcomings of being in the form realm. Finally, by thinking of the shortcomings of remaining at any of the first three of the four levels of the formless realm, they attain what’s called the “peak of samsara.” But they cannot renounce samsara entirely; that’s not taught in Hinduism. There’s no mention of ultimate liberation, the five paths, or emptiness. And without an understanding of the Prasangika view, the highest of the four schools of Buddhist philosophy, there’s no way to free yourself from samsara. Nevertheless, by studying the methods of other religions, without even taking into account the Buddhist way, you can see the great importance they too place on ordination, morality, and discipline.
Therefore, generalizing that in the West, nobody should get ordained and everybody should practice as lay people is a wrong conception. This misunderstanding arises both from not really knowing what Dharma is, especially karma, and much more importantly, from lacking meditation experience or a realization of samsaric suffering, especially that of the lower realms, impermanence, and death.
Even if a person has some understanding of Dharma but it is merely intellectual, then depending on the individual, the person’s mind will remain the same, or get worse; the delusions can become even stronger than they were before. Thus, the person leads his or her life according to delusion: delusion becomes one’s refuge, one’s best friend, one’s guru.
In this way, people’s lives become very difficult and confused. Even if you are ordained, externally you might appear to be Sangha, with a shaved head, but inside you may be the opposite. Of course, nobody but yourself makes your life difficult; you imprison yourself in samsara through following delusion. Then, because of your experiences, which are actually the result of your not having practiced Dharma continuously, you start telling everybody else that it is not a good idea to be a monk, that it is better to practice Dharma as a lay person.
In Tibet we make tsa-tsas, clay images of buddhas and deities usually made from metal molds. From one mold we can make thousands of images. Making yourself a faulty mold by not practicing Dharma and then trying to cast others in your mistaken image is a bad way of making tsa-tsas.
Here’s what makes it difficult to lead the life of a monk or nun. If you set your heart on attaining the bliss of nirvana, your life becomes easy; even if you run into problems, you can bear hardships with pleasure; they’re not important to your mind. If, however, your goal is samsaric pleasure, then even if other people don’t cause problems, you make your own life difficult. Even if others consider something to be okay, in your mind you see it as too hard. Therefore, how you find living in your ordination depends on the goal that’s in your heart. If you change your goal from samsara to liberation or enlightenment and keep it there for 24 hours a day, you’ll have no problem. If your heart is clear, your life will not be torn.
Naturally, you can’t have both samsara and nirvana. As the Kadampa geshes liked to say, you can’t sew with a two-pointed needle. You can’t seek both the happiness of this life and the happiness of Dharma.
If you try, what you lose is the happiness of Dharma. Therefore, you cannot generalize and say that these days, especially in the West, ordination is irrelevant and everybody should practice as lay people. That is completely wrong.