Advice for Monks and Nuns

By Lama Thubten Yeshe, By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
various locations (Archive #233)

In these talks, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche explain the great benefits of practicing Dharma as an ordained person, the purpose of the monastic community, and much more. The necessity for the lay community to support the Sangha is also made clear, and not only monks and nuns but lay practitioners, too, will gain much by reading this booklet.

This title is out of stock but you can find links here to audiobook, ebook and print-on-demand versions.

Chapter One: The First Talk - Lama Yeshe

Today I want to express my feelings to my sisters and brothers, because what we’re seeing here is a very remarkable, revolutionary, explosion of energy. But it’s an internal revolution, not an external one. It has given me a lot to think about, and a very, very good feeling as well.

I feel some kind of intuitive responsibility for the decision you’ve made to live in the Dharma, so I’ve thought a lot about how you can integrate your lives with Dharma so that you can continue to experience this internal revolutionary energy without interruption, and develop your minds to their unlimited potential.

My feeling is that it would be much better if the Sangha were to stay together, communicating with each other, rather than people getting ordained and then going off on their own. If you do go off on your own, worldly conditions will make your life difficult; it will be much harder for you to practice Dharma.

For example, when Sangha are here at Kopan, we help them lead a monastic life. There are always lamas present, and as a result, our students get some kind of energy that helps them control their minds so that it is easy for them to keep their ordination. If, instead, they run off and stay in some other place where there are not such good conditions, their lives become very difficult. If, on top of that, they get sick, the coming together of internal and external problems makes their lives even more difficult.

As you know, just because you’re a monk or nun does not mean that you’ve reached enlightenment. It simply means that you have gained an understanding of the nature of samsara and have decided to work continuously to develop within yourself the everlasting, peaceful path of liberation. That’s all. Getting ordained doesn’t give you immediate control over your mind; it doesn’t mean you are completely liberated. It’s not like that.

Our minds are uncontrolled. We need to control them. Monastic life allows us to develop our minds in a very comfortable way until we have truly achieved complete control over them and have gained such great knowledge-wisdom that even should we go to some berserk place, we are able to control that berserk energy instead of it controlling us.

For us beginners, the desire to attain everlasting peaceful liberation is just like a flower seed. A flower seed needs to be cared for, watered, kept warm, fertilized—many things are necessary. Water alone is not enough, it needs fertilizer. Similarly, we need Dharma teachings. If we get teachings and retreat, we can wake up fantastically; enthusiastic energy always comes. Otherwise, we’re like flowers that have been given only a few drops of water; when problems arise, we will find it difficult to deal with them. Our minds are just like flowers; we have to take good care of them.

In Tibet, lay people looked after the Sangha. They had great respect for the Sangha because they knew that despite experiencing difficult conditions, the Sangha did their duty. By “difficult conditions” I don’t mean that people were beating them. Their deluded minds beat them; their deluded minds didn’t like fighting against wisdom. Lay people knew that Sangha life was difficult, but worthwhile, so they respected the Sangha’s internal knowledge, their control. Therefore, the Sangha had much support in Tibet.

For us, it’s not like that; we have to take more responsibility for ourselves. Wherever our Western Sangha live, even in India or Nepal, it’s not that different from the West. I mean, you eat Western food—you can’t live like Indians or Nepalis. Therefore, we need somehow to put our Western lifestyle and Dharma together. You need coffee; have coffee. You need sweet tea, have sweet tea; you need medicine, take medicine; you need cake, maybe eat cake! You have certain habits, you have a particular heritage, your bodies have been raised in a certain way. We can’t tell you to eat only tsampa, drink only Tibetan tea, that’s all you can have. We cannot force you like that. And you don’t need such external changes; you don’t need to be focused on cutting out various kinds of food, giving up things that you’re used to. Really, it’s not necessary. It’s more important to provide your body with what it’s used to, with what it needs to stay healthy. That’s more important than, “Oh, I’m a renunciate—I should renounce this, I should give up that.” It’s not like that. Renunciation should be more in the mind than on the physical level. “I want to give up my wallet! Please, somebody take it!” That just makes things more difficult, dear. Okay. I think you people understand this.

As I mentioned, I feel what’s happening here is remarkable, and I’ve been thinking about it, thinking about this remarkable energy and how to keep it going. So I worry a little…well, when I say I worry, I don’t mean I’m suffering. Perhaps concern is a better word—I’m very concerned. Therefore, I think we need some rules. Of course, we have our 36 precepts, but in addition to those we have other rules: government rules, monastery rules, meditation course rules. For example, during the course you have to get up at a certain time, have meals at certain times, do this, do that. Those rules are not contained in the 36 precepts, are they? But still, they are necessary if you are living in a certain situation. We make those kinds of rules, don’t we? You can’t reject them: “Who made these rules? Why should I get up at 5:30 in the morning and have coffee? Who says? Lord Buddha never said that.” Well, it doesn’t matter whether Lord Buddha said those words or not; such rules are necessary for a communal way of life.

We have to introduce some kind of small discipline when creating a Sangha community. For example, when you become a monk or nun, you’re not allowed to stay in situations that are too samsaric, such as places where there’s a lot of dancing and drinking. It’s very dangerous if you frequent such places. Bringing your deluded mind to samsaric places is like bringing a piece of paper close to a fire. [Here Lama brings a piece of paper closer and closer to the candle on his table until it bursts into flames.] You’re okay at a distance, but if you get too close to fire, you’ll get burned. Flammable materials should be kept away from fire, and we beginners should stay away from dangerous situations.

As I said before, when you become a monk or nun, it doesn’t mean that you are liberated or enlightened. It simply means that you have decided to act in such a way that you can eventually reach perfect control, liberation, freedom—there are so many words, it doesn’t matter which you use. Somehow, you are searching for that. You get ordained because you understand there’s a better way of finding joy in life. That is why we make these kinds of rules for the Sangha.

Take Boudhanath, for example. Boudhanath is a holy place, but many people, especially Nepalese and Tibetans, also consider it a drinking place, a place where men and women get together for fun. They make chang [Tibetan beer] there. I don’t really know if this is true or not, but this is what people say. There are probably places like that in Kathmandu as well. Actually, you people know this better than I do. When I try to explain samsara, you’re probably thinking, “What’s this lama talking about? I can describe this much better than he can.” I’m joking!

Anyway, if a monk stays in this kind of place, his Sangha friends should say, “Dear, why are you living in this terrible situation? You know you’re not allowed to stay there. Wouldn’t it be better if you came and stayed in a quieter place? Since you are Sangha, surely you’d be better off in the monastery.”

When Sangha leave here and go home, those who remain should keep in touch with them, so that even while they’re away, they still feel close to their Dharma brothers and sisters. Otherwise, they might start thinking, “Oh, now I’m alone, I can do whatever I like. Before I was in my guru’s Sangha community, but now that I’m back in my own country, I’m free.” You can feel the possibility of this happening, can’t you? I’m not just being negative; the possibility is there, dear, okay? Therefore, we need to develop strong togetherness energy instead of allowing the Sangha to split up and go their own way.

I think we should create a community specifically for Western Sangha. But don’t think I’m just talking about the 15 of you in this room. You can imagine what’s going to happen. Now we have this many Sangha; after the next meditation course there will be more. Then after the next one, more again. After some time we might become 100,000 strong! It’s possible. I mean, Dharma wisdom is there, isn’t it? It’s possible. Therefore, we need somehow to develop strong togetherness, and in that way we’ll be able to practice Dharma easily, without being overwhelmed by agitated worldly conditions.

A simple example: a few Sangha come up to Kopan. We don’t have good conditions here, so they feel uncomfortable and leave feeling negative, thinking, “It’s not possible to stay at the monastery. I’ll have to find a home for myself to lead my own samsaric life.” It’s possible. Our minds react to such tiny causes. Therefore, we have to discuss how to face the world, how to integrate Dharma into our way of life.

If monks and nuns have difficulty just keeping their physical lives together, how will they ever get the chance to study and retreat? The strength of the Sangha community is that it ensures that everybody has a chance to take teachings and retreat; it makes sure that everybody is okay, and minimizes the external conditions that cause one to lose mental discipline. I think this is really worthwhile. It helps a lot. There’s a Sangha vibration, you see; when you look at each other, there’s a vibration that automatically helps you control your energy. You should check this for yourselves.

If you stay in a place where everybody is drinking, at first you kind of intellectualize, “They’re like that; I’m like this.” It might be okay or a while, but I’m not talking about what happens at an intellectual level. Subconsciously, at the level of intuitive feeling, something else is going on, and sooner or later, poof! Just as paper catches fire when it gets too close to a flame, you get completely caught up in whatever’s going on around you. As I always say, the mind is just like a mirror. It automatically reflects whatever is in front of it. Intellectually, your mind is saying, “Oh, that’s samsara,” but whatever you come into contact with leaves an imprint on your mind. So, the day comes when you’re a little bit tired, a little bit thirsty, so you have a little drink—a little, little drink. “Hmmm, that was good. I was a little thirsty, and I had a little drink. No harm done.” But that’s just the start. You know how children are with candy. They eat one, “Wow! That was good.” Then they want more…and more…and more…and more…like that. Well, you people know. I’m just giving an example. You know how the mind works in this kind of situation as well as I do.

The conditions in which you put yourself are very, very important. Lay people’s way of life and the Sangha way of life are different. You should discriminate somehow, shouldn’t you? I’m not just pointing negatively, “Oh, that’s bad.” Lay people’s lifestyle is their own trip, but our way of life is something else; our way of life is the 36 precepts. You have to discriminate. If you don’t, then you’re no better than a crazy person. Crazy people can’t tell the difference between good and bad. We have to be able to make the distinction. For example, a butcher’s job is to kill, but our job is different, isn’t it? The butcher’s way of life and the Sangha way of life should be different, shouldn’t they? If someone then accuses me of discriminating, I’m going to say, “Yes! I’m discriminating.” As long as you haven’t transcended discrimination, you should discriminate. Of course, you can argue with words in many different ways, but ultimately, words don’t mean anything. We need discriminating wisdom.

Anyway, all this is just my own opinion, my own feeling. Nobody told me to tell you all this; nor is it an ego game. I just felt that since your Dharma understanding has led you to the conclusion that you want to get ordained, I should express my feelings about the way things are developing. Western people aren’t stupid; they can check up, they can see. If you as Western monks and nuns have a good attitude, behave well, and develop a strong Sangha community with group togetherness, Western people will respect you. They’ll feel that Westerners becoming Sangha is worthwhile. They might even want to help you.

So the conclusion is that you can choose your own way of life, irrespective of what other people in your country or your society do. We have a choice. We can look at things with wisdom; we can check up. For example, we come here to Kopan, and we create our own conditions. It has nothing to do with the Nepalese government. They don’t tell us what to do. We ourselves make sure we have teachings, make sure everybody is okay, make sure we work together to achieve our aims. Accordingly, we create our own world. With the right conditions, it becomes easy for us to do what we want to do. That’s all.

Now that I’ve expressed my feelings, you should discuss among yourselves how to create strong Sangha togetherness. Don’t think I’m attached to keeping you at Kopan. Don’t think that I’m hung up on that. It doesn’t matter to me where you live, as long as you maintain strong Sangha togetherness. You should create those kinds of conditions. Think with wisdom, and be strong.