Self-Isolation is Monasticism

By Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD

Knowing emptiness, deluded vision is purified;
Contemplating loving kindness, behaviour is perfected,
Understanding the unity of multiplicity is meditation;
And the ultimate goal is the ubiquitous one taste.

Mahasiddhi Bhadrapa (The Exclusive Brahmin)

Guru’s Instructive Poem:

Bodhisattvas are the highet beings,
Not priests or kings,
The precepts of the lineal Guru,
Cleansing body, speech and mind,
Alone gives the real, matchless purity;
Washing the body can never do that.
Desirelessness is the best table and repast,
Not milk, cheese and curd.

As Plotinus said, let he (she) who has the strength, girdle their loins and look within! The original monasticism is a lay-practice in both East and West (nobody ‘ordained’ the Buddha). The Essene Jews of the 1st century BCE were all lay-people, and the original Christian monks 500 years later were considered ‘lay-brothers’ and were not ‘ordained’ priests. However, as communities of Christian monks (and nuns) often lived in remote areas, it was difficult for them to travel and met with ordained priests to receive the Sacraments. In the light of this reality, it was decided that certain monks would be formally ’Ordained’ as a priest to minister to his monastic flock. This evolved slowly overtime to virtually all settled (Coenobitical) monks being ‘Ordained’ as part of their individual transition from lay-life into a cloistered existence, although ’Anchorites’ quite often live as hermits ‘free’ of any worldly or religious hindrances and attachments. Buddhist monastics (Bhikkhus) are nothing but ‘beggars’. They are lay men and women who ‘give-up’ all involvement in what is considered all ordinary ‘worldly’ existence, sit at the base of a tree to meditate, and beg food and water for their daily sustenance from lay-people still living the worldly existence. In some Tibetan orders, a Buddhist monk or nun may take a marriage partner, and whilst following the Vinaya Discipline – also participate in ‘spiritualised’ sexuality (even raising off-spring). This ‘tantric’ attitude certainly appears in principle in old Pali texts such as the Dhammapada, etc. In the Mahayana tradition, the idea that a lay-person living and practicing at home can achieve Enlightenment is preserved in the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Surangama Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Hua Yen Sutra and Hui Neng’s Altar Sutra (as well as the wonderful Mahasiddhi literature). This idea can also be found in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, whereby a practitioner of the Dhamma does not discriminate and ‘sees through’ the veil of material existence ‘here and now’. Being celibate is just one form of ‘monasticism’, if monasticism is defined as independently ‘looking within’ and realising a ‘sense of oneness’ that ‘includes all things’.  

Evidence suggests that the Buddha did not intend to develop a formally ‘Ordained’ Sangha, but viewed the ‘Sramana’ existence as a means to an end to ‘escape’ psychological and physical suffering. He guided the men and women under his care so that they continuously followed the ‘Middle Path’ whilst living in the forest at the edge of the villages. The forest had to be within easy walking distance for the daily begging rounds not to be rushed or too tiring. The Buddha wasn’t opposed to sexuality as such, but deemed it unimportant and more or less irrelevant when living at the base of a tree and seeking ‘escape’ from worldly suffering (which was caused by conception during the sexual act). There are times to engage in sexual intercourse (even the Buddha had sex with his maids and obviously conceived his son – the Ven. Rahula – this way) and there are times to guide the usual sexual energy used in procreation to other uses. Although the Buddha is correct by advocating a celibate life for his ‘tree-root dwellers’ (a life I have lived and benefitted from), it is also true that with the right kind of training, sexual activity is just as ‘empty’ as any other pursuit in the physical world, but genuinely ‘seeing through’ sexual pleasure at the point of its greatest intensity is difficult (but not impossible) for many people.  

This must be the case as Vimalakirti lived with his wives, had numerous children, and yet never once broke the prohibition against celibacy! This suggests that Buddhist celibacy has two clear components: 1) literal, physical and psychological abstention from all sexual activity (such as the pure Theravada monastics), and 2) a new (realised) state of mind-body existence, whereby ALL material phenomena is permanently ‘seen through’ so that the empty mind-ground is continuously evident in all circumstances, and is the essence of ALL experiences (as in the teaching of Heart Sutra). The problem here, is that some people dishonestly ‘assume’ this state of achievement, and through their continuous delusion cause endless suffering to others in the world. As this contradicts the foundation of the Dhamma, the Buddha openly taught a strict ‘celibacy’ for the tree-dwellers who lived with him (and live like him), with certain (Pali) Mahayana teachings ‘hinting’ at slightly different approaches for other people. The point is that someone who truly ‘penetrates’ and ‘realises’ the empty mind ground pays no attention to physical circumstance whilst always ‘acting’ out of loving-kindness, compassion and wisdom. How this realisation is achieved depends solely upon personal requirements and the time one exists within.  

To reiterate – anyone can decide to be a Buddhist monastic (I.e. ‘Sramana’) ‘here and ‘now’ – but this statement needs clarification. In the strict Theravada School, a layperson is never a ‘monastic’ regardless of his or her devout nature and seriousness of practice. The Theravada School defines the ‘Sangha’ as only consisting of Ordaining or already ‘Ordained’ monks and nun – with Buddhist laypeople forming a separate non-Sangha body. Within the Mahayana School, both the laity and the Ordained monastic form the collective Sangha (with monastics often referred to as belonging to the ‘Mahasangha’ or the ‘Great Sangha’) a declared ‘Sramana’ (I.e. ‘ascetic’) is not a ‘Bhikshu’ if the former is a layperson. What is it that transforms a ‘Sramana’ into an ‘Ordained’ Buddhist monastic? Essentially, it is the taking (and keeping or upholding) of the 227 Precepts for monks (310 for nuns) as contained in the ‘Patimokka’ (Disciplinary Code) of the Vinaya Discipline. Although a Buddhist layperson only has to adhere to the first 5 precepts (extending to 8 or 10 in various traditions), this commitment does NOT constitute formal Ordination in any Buddhist tradition. A Layperson, therefore, must never claim to be a member of the Ordained Sangha (Mahasangha) if the Patimokka in its entirety is not upheld. Such a false and corrupt claim is believed to attract a ‘hellish’ karmic retribution, and place the integrity of the Dhamma in jeopardy.  

Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was of the opinion that the Dhamma only truly exists in a country if the Ordained Sangha correctly follow ALL of the Vinaya Discipline. Since 1952, and at the behest of Master Xu Yun, it is now a ‘legal’ requirement in China that Buddhist monks and nuns follow the Vinaya Discipline correctly. Furthermore, both Chinese Buddhist monastics and laypeople take exactly the same ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ as celibacy is not required in this equally disciplined methodology (which emphasises ‘compassion’ for all beings). Indeed, many laypeople in China use the various forms of the ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ as the basis of their personal monasticism within the ordinary world. This is a very good and effective path – much like the ‘oblate’ of Christian monasticism. Master Xu Yun, however, passed on another monastic method to his lay-disciple Charles Luk (1898-1978). Master Xu Yun explained that the Ch’an School represents the ‘original’ teaching of the Buddha and is only associated with all the establishment forms of contemporary Buddhism. Although a very strict disciplinarian with regards to Ordained monks or nuns – Master Xu Yun was of the opinion that laypeople should realise Enlightenment ‘here and now’ regardless of circumstances, and to achieve this by not being ‘attached’ to material conditions. Master Xu Yun inherited ALL Five Schools of Ch’an but his personal (or ‘root’) inheritance was through the Caodong School – this is the Dhamma he passed-on to Charles Luk (who transmitted it to Richard Hunn 1949-2006). This lineage has many names and does not distinguish between ‘Ordained’ and ‘lay’ practitioners. Master Xu Yun stated that it is the ‘Mind Precept’ which the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa on Vulture Peak. The ‘Mind Precept’ is the essence of ALL Vinaya and Bodhisattva Vows. The ‘Mind Precept’ is the method of ‘seeing directly’ into the empty mind ground so that no distinction exists between ‘seer’ and ‘seen’ remains (generally [but not always] achieved through the practice of the Hua Tou method). A practitioner of this lineage lives his or her life in such a way that inner vision supersedes outer vision through the cultivation of ‘non-identification’ with thought. Master Xu Yun stated that this is the most difficult type of Buddhist monasticism – as the practitioner does have the support mechanism enjoyed by the ‘Ordained’ Sangha. Once the empty mind ground is realised and penetrated, the practitioner must remain neither attached to the void, nor hindered by phenomena. This is Buddhist monasticism that is beyond ‘lay’ and ‘Ordained’ practice.  

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