Secular Monasticism

The ‘Waving Man’ of Torbay

‘Neither the same nor different…’ 

Ven. Nyanaponika Thera: Abhidhamma Studies – Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time, Wisdom, (1998), Page 44 

The religious experience should not remain the sole possession of the established religions. There is no logical reason to assume that the holistic experience of the monastic should be associated with the theology, dogma and doctrine of any dominating or defining religion. The general assumption is that religious doctrine causes or generates the experiences the cloistered monk or nun experiences, but this is an inverted assumption. Why is it inverted? It is inverted because the sense of bliss, well-being, integration, purpose, benevolence, ultraism, compassion and knowing have existed for as long as material life, whereas the imaginings of theology have existed only as long as humanity has possessed the brain development to think such thoughts. Evolutionary science explains that the physical body developed first, whilst the higher capacities of the brain developed much later. If ‘holism’ as a concept is stripped of its religious baggage, it can be defined as a profound and deep experience of ‘integration’ and ‘unity’ of body and mind. If a deep and profound awareness of depth of psychology is equated with ‘spirit’, then the notion of ‘spirit’ may be added to this interpretation. From a scientific perspective, the monastic experience is real, but only in the sense as it pertains to the body and perception of the individual experiencing it. If this experience is not imported from an external theistic entity, then from where does it originate? Monastic development is the product of an individual living in a peaceful and natural environment free of the stresses associated with the fight for survival, and the brutish nature of modern living. When certain animals are domesticated and treated as pets (being given ample food and a life of leisure and pleasure), those which would normally hunt one another, or be treated as prey, often abandon these roles decreed by nature, and become the best of friends, treating one another as playful siblings. This is just one example of what a change of circumstance can achieve.  

What is the monastic experience? No one can give you ‘permission’ to pursue independent monastic training. When the time is right, the practice will develop by itself. Environment is important, but this could be anywhere an individual calls home which is made peaceful. A suitably defined living room or bedroom floor is as good as the oldest cathedral or temple. A monastic then needs a method which disciplines the body, calms the mind and directs the perception. This is usually some type of meditation or prayer, but tends to ignore those methods which are too elaborate or distracting. Calming the mind and relaxing the body are key prerequisites to monastic training. Achieving a profound relaxation of body and mind is the entry point to this practice. Aligning the bones and joints in the seated position often facilitates a sense of ‘holism’. It seems that the monastic experience at its deepest level is a radical chemical re-alignment of the cellular body. What might be called ’bliss’ or ‘samadhi’ in Sanskrit, appears to be a body-wide low-intensity ‘orgasm’ akin to the sexual experience, but obviously (in this context) by-passing sexual activity (this may be different in certain Yogic or Tantric practices involving partners). This sense of ’bliss’ permeates every cell of the body and is not generally associated with the sexual mechanism from which it arises. 

This is the physical pleasure associated with the monastic experience, which has definite healing properties for the mind and body. A prolonged exposure to this kind of self-contained pleasure can cure depression, stop depression from developing, and assist the body in healing, or the mind and body in coming to terms with injury, long term disease or terminal illness, etc. Anger and hatred are removed and replaced with love and compassion, whilst the intellectual capacities are purified and strengthened. All these attributes of monastic training are beneficial to society. This experience, however, no matter how profound and far-reaching it may seem, does not extend beyond the material boundary of the physical body that experiences it. Science explains the reality of the physical universe, and we know from this that the theological view of existence is incorrect. The inner sense of ‘bliss’ experienced by the monastic was not associated with the sexual drive that created it, but was rather interpreted as being projected into the mind and body by an external (divine) force. From this initial misconception, the entire edifice of theology was constructed. An insecure foundation inevitably leads to an unstable structure that requires ever greater efforts in the defence of its security (to prevent it ‘toppling’ over either literally or figuratively). 

Having divorced the monastic experience from its enveloping religiosity, does theology have a purpose? Yes, it does. If used in the correct manner, the rhetoric of the chosen religious path can act as spiritual fuel for the inner journey – which although desired – is often not easy to attain. Turning the senses away from the physical world is not an easy task, as they are trained to exist in the world of ‘desire’. If it is understood that theology refers to a non-precise inner world of boundless imagination (that does not extend in definition or meaning into the physical cosmos), then theology assumes what is probably its original purpose of inner guidance and sustainability. Of course, religionists would have to give-up their claims upon the external world, and truly assume a humble attitude in the face of science and secular politics. A Church or religion that turns its attention away from inner development and instead focuses on gaining wealth and political power in the external world is a corrupt entity misleading and deceiving the masses. Be this as it may, the corruption of a few religious men does not, and cannot invalid the genuine experiences of the true monastic as he or she sincerely ‘looks within’ and cultivates peace of mind and a boundless love for all that exists.  

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