On Becoming a Monk

By Nicholas Ribush
January 1979

An article about becoming a Western Buddhist monk, written for the Tibetan Review, January 1979.

Portrait of Nick Ribush during the month-long course at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, 1975.

I am a Buddhist monk. A fairly extreme thing to be, in the view of many people, but after almost five years I take it pretty much for granted. Too much, perhaps.

If so, then why am I writing about it? Although I have never had any desire to tell everybody my boring story, the editor of the Tibetan Review asked me to write about how a Westerner becomes a Buddhist monk because this issue of the Review is devoted to Dharma in the West, and he thought that some of his readers might be interested in such phenomena. Accordingly, I have agreed to try.

November 1972. The Kopan meditation course. There we were, about fifty out-of-control Westerners from all over the world, strangers stuck together for a month, most of us listening to Dharma teachings for the first time. Up at five in the morning, out into the cold, to sit cross-legged for an hour and a half’s meditation. A one-hour break for breakfast, then the morning discourse until lunchtime. After lunch, a group-discussion period followed by the afternoon discourse. Chai at five, more meditation at six, dinner at eight, bed at ten. This went on relentlessly for thirty days. For the last two weeks we even skipped breakfast and dinner and got up an hour earlier. Most of us had never disciplined ourselves that much before. Most of us enjoyed it immensely.

What I’d come to Kathmandu for was to meet a friend. But I had hardly stepped off the bus when I ran into somebody else, an acquaintance from the Southeast Asian travelers’ trail, who immediately took me to his hotel and then proceeded to show me around town. Enumerating the limitless attractions of Nepal, he mentioned in passing a meditation course that would be starting in a week’s time at a place called Kopan, just outside the city of Kathmandu. As there was no sign of the friend I’d come to meet, as I did have an interest in learning about Buddhist meditation, and as it seemed cheaper to stay at Kopan than in Kathmandu, I decided to enroll for the course.

I had become interested in Buddhist meditation through reading Buddhism, by Christmas Humphreys. In Thailand I had first come into contact with some of the external manifestations of Buddhism, such as temples, statues and monks, and more as a dutiful tourist than anything else, wanting to know about the culture of the country in which I was traveling, I obtained this book. (Planning to go to India later, I also acquired books on Hinduism and Islam.)

The book contained a simple but comprehensive survey of the different types of Buddhism and made a good introduction to Buddhist philosophy. But while reading it a strange thing happened. I experienced a kind of stirring in my heart, and felt that for the first time in my life, I was reading something that was actually true. I can’t describe the feeling much better than that, and it passed away soon enough, but I was left with the idea that to really understand Buddhism you had to meditate, and that meditation was something that you could learn only from an experienced teacher. However, I was not inspired enough to rush off looking for instruction and continued my travels, viewing temples with perhaps a bit more interest than before, and picking up some more Buddhist literature.

I had come to Thailand as part of a world tour that commenced when I left Australia in May, 1972. My original intention was to spend a couple of months in Bali and then fly to Canada to visit some friends. But in Bali I met many people coming from other parts of Asia, and as their stories made the East sound much more inviting than the West, I decided to stay in Southeast Asia for a few months and then travel to India.

Why had I decided to travel? In 1964, I graduated in medicine from the University of Melbourne, my hometown. I spend the next seven years working in a variety of clinical jobs, mainly at public hospitals, and studying for post-graduate diploma in internal medicine. During this time I became progressively disillusioned with the state of medical practice in our society.

Many of the patients I had seen were suffering from the ill effects of drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and analgesics, all of which were being taken for non-medical reasons. Not only that, but most were unable to abandon their drug habits even though it was making them sick or, in many cases, killing them. Drug dependence has a very complicated etiology, but it is basically a disease of our society. For certain individuals there may be no escape from dissatisfaction other than through the use of such chemicals, but for most the need is created artificially. From the point of view of people’s health and happiness, the production, free availability and advertising of these substances is quite unnecessary. I began to feel that doctors were often little more than boxers’ seconds. Patients would come reeling into the surgery from a ring of life, and as quickly as possible we would patch them up temporarily and throw them back out for the next round.

The worst thing was advertising. With so much time, effort and money being put into measures to improve people’s health, it seemed to me ridiculous that even more was being put into forcing patently toxic substances down everybody’s throat. Surely, I thought, the Government’s Department of Health (my last employer) would want to stop the advertising of these. Naïve. When I approached my superiors for support I was greeted with hostility. We did not tamper with the status quo.

I came to the conclusion that people preferred temporary happiness to physical health and were prepared to destroy themselves in its pursuit. That was the way the system worked, but I did not really care that much to be a part of it. Thus freed from the ambition of “getting on,” I decided to drop out for a while and travel.

There were also other reasons to travel. As both a student and a graduate my life had been very full - in the sense of busy - and quite exciting and entertaining. There seemed to be no end of new things to do and I occupied myself by tasting all the distractions society had to offer. Running from one thing to another, I was certain that I was having a good time; a better time than most. Finally, however, I tired of this and settled down a little; another new experience. But neither was this the answer. Theoretically, everything should have been perfect, yet I knew something was missing. Again, world travel appeared to be the solution to my restlessness.

Life as a traveler was free and easy. Although I wasn’t short of money I lived frugally, playing the game of a-dollar-a-day. There were many of us traveling like that, but we still did more or less whatever we wanted and went wherever we like whenever we pleased. Life was very undisciplined. Thus, it was a surprise to find the relatively strictly disciplined Kopan course full of people like this, not only sticking it out but enjoying it. We were surprised to find that rather than being constricting, discipline was quite relaxing.

The spiritual way of life is completely different from the worldly, but unless you find the spiritual path you can never make the choice of which to follow. Thus meeting the teacher, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, and the teachings made attending the Kopan course the most important event of my life. And from the opening discourse, which was an introduction to the meditation course and the first of about fifty that Rinpoche would deliver over the next month, we were confronted with a vast array of revolutionary new concepts. Revolutionary to a Western mind, at least.

The subject was Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. Lama Zopa’s definition of Dharma was “that which keeps you out of suffering.” But suffering to him wasn’t only the pain, illness, loss and mental problems that I’d always taken suffering to be. It went much deeper than that. There were innumerable different sufferings and many levels of it. Even ignorance - not knowing something, even if you didn’t know you didn’t know it - was suffering. This, in fact, was the fundamental suffering, and all others arose from it. No matter, then, that you felt good. If you were liable to experience some future problem, you were still in a state of suffering.

I could see that. Say a person has lung cancer and doesn’t know and feels perfectly well. In the early stages it may be asymptomatic and detectable only by X-ray. You can’t say that the person is healthy. But then the Dharma takes it one step further back. Even if you don’t have cancer, as long as you are susceptible to it, you’re suffering, even though you might be singing and dancing and having a really good time. Furthermore, if that good time you’re having singing and dancing is going to stop, that’s another form of suffering. Having a good time is suffering? That was a new one for me.

The Dharma concept of happiness was also very different from ours, for it taught two levels: temporary and ultimate. Temporary we all knew and it was all we knew. But ultimate happiness - that state beyond suffering - was not something most of us would have considered seriously. But in the face of much supportive evidence and the challenge to prove logically that such a state did not or could not exist and that the experience of countless meditators should be ignored, at Kopan, we had to consider it.

To understand how it was possible for someone to attain everlasting happiness it was necessary to understand how one could last forever. Thus came the teaching on the beginningless and endless nature of mind, commonly called reincarnation. All of us knew there was no such thing. But when called upon to prove it we were unable to do so.

This was one of the most striking features of the course - you didn’t have to accept or believe anything the Buddha taught, but you were expected to know clearly what you believed and why. And if you wanted to reject the teachings of the course you were expected to be able to refute them with common sense and logic.

The Dharma explains all existence - describes, categorizes, classifies. Even if we didn’t want to accept the Dharma view of things, at least the way it approached analysis of all phenomena gave us a framework for thinking about them. No question was unaskable and no answer unobtainable. Suddenly there was no excuse for avoiding further the hitherto joke questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” which most of us tacitly accepted as being futile. We were told clearly what the Buddha saw as life’s purpose and it was up to us to find a better alternative. A difficult task, for the purpose of the teachings was to bring all universal beings to the very highest state of mental development and happiness. It was extremely hard to ignore these teachings, although it might have been more comfortable to do so.

The main topic was the mind - its nature and the different kinds of positive and negative minds. Suffering and happiness were states of mind, and all beings wanted to experience happiness and avoid suffering. But why was our search for happiness endless, and why was the happiness we found so fleeting and of such poor quality? Why did we always experience suffering instead - pain, worry, frustration and loss? Why were we never satisfied with what we had? Because we didn’t know the true causes of happiness and suffering and therefore didn’t know what to do and what not to do.

Thus, Rinpoche made clear what he felt was one of the main points of the Dharma teaching - the cause of suffering is not in the external conditions; it is in the mind. Therefore, the method to eradicate the cause of suffering has to affect the mind and not primarily the environment and other beings. Hence it was necessary to understand and practice Dharma, the inner method, if we were to escape from suffering and make our lives meaningful.

The root of suffering was ignorance; the ultimate cure was wisdom. Ignorance and wisdom were mental factors. As Dharma brought the highest wisdom and totally destroyed the cause of suffering, it led to permanent freedom from suffering and everlasting happiness. And, in contradistinction to external methods of finding happiness, there were no unpleasant or dangerous side effects from the Dharma. Its practice only brought better and higher happiness. Further, all the different Dharma methods could be integrated into one path leading to the very highest state, enlightenment, which all of us had the potential to experience. All we had to do was create the cause of it in our own minds.

But most of us lead lives that are but a series of disjointed attempts to experience the ephemeral pleasures we call happiness, and most of the time we spend doing the things we “have to,” we are wishing we were doing these things we like to do.

However, it is impossible to describe the month’s teachings here. The clear descriptions of the mind and life we received from Lama Zopa Rinpoche made it sound as if he knew each of us individually better than we knew ourselves. This was the way we were encouraged to listen to the teachings - to use them as a mirror for the mind. When we checked our minds and lives against the teachings we could really see ourselves. After each discourse there was an opportunity to make analytical meditation, subjecting the teachings to the scrutiny of logic, and reflecting upon our own experience to see if what we had just heard was in accordance with it.

There was also another kind of meditation - that designed to make the mind stable and calm - concentration meditation. This was when we got a really good view of the mad elephant of the mind - wild, uncontrollable and dangerous. Until one sits down and tries to still the mind one never realizes just how restless it is. It doesn’t matter how much you tell a person his mind is out of control; until he tries to control it, he’ll never understand. At first it seemed a hopeless task, but during the month of the course under its relatively ideal conditions, some of the students gained a little experience of tranquility of mind. Although I didn’t have any such experience myself, I was encouraged to know that there was a tried and true method of seeing, understanding and developing the mind that would work for those who practiced it properly.

By the end of the course I knew that I had to investigate all this much more and that this was the most important thing to do. There were many things I found difficult to accept - such as beginninglessness of mind - but I had gained enough wisdom, or suppressed enough arrogance, to be open to the possibility that any difficulty in comprehension came from my own ignorance rather than from some intrinsic flaw in the teachings. And I remember lying in my bed the night the course finished thinking, “It’s all true,” trembling slightly at the devastating consequences of such a thought should it still be with me the next morning.

It remained, and so did I - at Kopan. I think I had decided to “practice Dharma,” but the question then was how. There were two possibilities - as a layperson or as a monk. It would be at least six months and another meditation course before I seriously entertained the latter option.

It was the summer of 1973 and I was studying Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings on the perfect human rebirth, which is the state of being a human who has certain freedoms and endowments that allow one to practice Dharma perfectly. At one point, Rinpoche had stressed that it was very rare to find the chance to be ordained, but that ordination made it much easier and much more profitable to practice Dharma. On reflection, I found that I was into practicing Dharma and even more into making it easy and profitable. On the other hand, I couldn’t find even one reason not to get ordained. Some people said that by taking robes you impaired your Dharma communication with others, but I didn’t believe it then, and I now know through experience that the reverse is true. Since the ego was unable to produce any convincing arguments against becoming a monk, and since the benefits were indisputable, I took novice ordination from His Holiness Ling Rinpoche at Bodhgaya in January 1974.

Nine other Westerners were ordained at the same time and together we formed the nucleus of the International Mahayana Institute - an organization of Western monks and nuns under the spiritual directorship of the depthlessly kind Lama Thubten Yeshe. Out of his infinite wisdom Lama Yeshe encouraged us to form this organization for our own sakes, for we had made vows for life and it was therefore necessary for us to protect them. One of the main benefits of the monastic community is that affords its members the best possible environment for keeping their precepts, which is the basis of all spiritual development. As a member of this particular monastic community, one undergoes a thorough all-round training to become a Dharma teacher for the benefit of others, and one can also rely on the organization to provide the material necessities of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter.

One of the axioms of medicine is that, while it is necessary to treat the symptoms of a disease, it is more important to treat its cause. This is my reply to many who regard a medical doctor’s becoming a monk as some kind of loss. Physical disease is symptomatic of an unhealthy mind, and while it must be treated, the underlying mental cause must also be eradicated. This can only be done through the practice of Dharma, which alone offers the possibility of a perfectly healthy mind. Before one can dispense this ultimate remedy one has to achieve it in one’s own mind. This is the way to be of greatest benefit to others.