Our mind is the creator of our happiness and suffering, and
our motivation is the key to our actions and their results.
Therefore, the motivation for receiving monastic ordination
is of great importance. When we reflect deeply on the disadvantages
of cyclic existence, the determination to free ourselves from
it and to attain liberation arises in our mind. The method
to do that is to practice the Three Higher Trainings: ethics,
concentration, and wisdom. To develop the wisdom that liberates
us from cyclic existence, we must be able to concentrate.
Otherwise we will not be able to meditate on emptiness in
a sustained manner. Developing concentration requires us to
subdue the manifest disturbing attitudes in our mind. A firm
foundation for doing this is created by pacifying our gross
verbal and physical actions motivated by these disturbing
attitudes. Ethics -- living according to precepts -- is the
method to harmonize our physical and verbal actions, and thus
to subdue the gross disturbing attitudes. Thinking that we
can ignore our bad habits and how they manifest in our daily
life and yet still develop spiritual realizations by meditating
Ethical discipline challenges us to live the Dharma in our
daily interactions, that is, to integrate what we experience
in meditation into our relationships with other people and
with our environment. The Higher Training in Ethics is developed
by taking and keeping one of the various types of Pratimoksa
vows: the lay vow with five precepts or one of the monastic
vows: the novice vow (sramanara/sramanerika) with ten precepts,
or the full vow (bhikshu/bhikshuni). For women, there is an
intermediate ordination (shiksamana) between novice and full
ordination with six additional regulations. Because transmission
of the bhikshuni lineage did not occur in Tibet, women seeking
this ordination must go to Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese
masters to request it.
Since there are different levels of ordination and each
successive level requires greater mindfulness and awareness
due to the increased number of precepts, it is advisable to
progress gradually, rather than immediately receiving the
full ordination. In this way, we will be able to adjust to
the commitment required at each stage. Sometimes in people's
enthusiasm for the Dharma and for ordination, they quickly
take full ordination. However, experience has shown that this
can prove difficult, and some people feel overwhelmed. A gradual
approach allows a solid foundation to be built and sustained
and joyful practice to ensue.
Ordination is easy to take, but difficult to keep. If we
sincerely want to remain as monastics our entire life, we
must cultivate a strong motivation before ordaining, and continuously
develop it afterwards. Without thinking deeply about the disadvantages
of cyclic existence, our motivation to ordain will be weak,
and the precepts will seem like many "shoulds" and
"don'ts." In that case, keeping the precepts will
seem burdensome. However, when we are aware of the preciousness
and rarity of this human life and our potential to attain
higher spiritual states in order to be of benefit to others,
then living in accord with precepts is a joy. In comparison,
the happiness of family, career, relationships, and pleasure
are seen as unsatisfactory and our interest in them pales.
We have a long-range and noble spiritual goal, and this gives
us the courage to go through the ups and downs of life and
of Dharma practice. Having this long-term goal and stability
in Dharma practice over a period of time enables us to keep
the ordination once we have taken it.
The disadvantages of cyclic existence are many: in addition
to birth, sickness, aging, and death, while alive we face
not getting what we seek, being separated from what we like,
and encountering undesirable circumstances. All these problems
are caused by our internal disturbing attitudes and the actions
(karma) that they fuel. As a householder, we must do many
things for the sake of our family. We easily find ourselves
in situations where we must create negative karma by lying
or cheating. We are surrounded by distractions: the media,
our career, and social obligations. It is easy for disturbing
attitudes to arise and more difficult to accumulate positive
potential because our lives are so busy with other things.
We face the difficulty of finding the right life partner and
then the difficulty of making the relationship last. At the
beginning we have the problem of no children, and later the
problems of raising the children.
As a monastic, we have more freedom from such distractions
and difficulties. On the other hand, we also have great responsibility.
We have decided to be more aware and not to act according
to whatever impulse arises in our minds. Initially this may
appear as a lack of freedom, but in fact such awareness frees
us from our bad habits and the difficulties they create. We
have voluntarily chosen to keep precepts, and so we must slow
down, be aware of our actions, and choose what we do and say
wisely. If we have the view that we can act counter to our
precepts and then simply purify later, it is like thinking
we can drink poison now and take the antidote later. Such
an attitude or behavior hurts us.
However, we should not think that we are bad people when
we are unable to keep our precepts perfectly. The reason that
we take precepts is because our mind, speech, and actions
are not subdued. If we were already perfect, we would not
need to take precepts. Therefore, we should do our best to
live according to the precepts, but when our disturbing attitudes
are too strong and the situation gets the better of us, we
should not be discouraged or criticize ourselves in an unhealthy
way. Rather, we can apply the antidotes to purify and restore
our precepts, and make a determination for how we aspire to
act in the future. In that way we will learn from our mistakes
and become stronger practitioners.
As monastics, we represent the Three Jewels to others. People
will be inspired to or discouraged from learning and practicing
the Dharma depending upon our behavior. For example, if they
see monastics who are kind to others and are happy living
ethically, they will try to do the same. If they see monastics
who act brashly and loudly or manipulate others to get what
they want, they may lose faith in the Dharma. When we cherish
the Three Jewels and cherish other beings, then acting responsibly
for their benefit is a joy. During those times that our disturbing
attitudes are strong and we seek our own immediate happiness
and benefit, we see precepts as burdensome and oppressive.
At those times, it is important to cultivate anew our motivation
for becoming monastics and remember that living according
to the precepts benefits ourselves and others.
If we become a monastic with strong conviction in the path
to liberation, willingness to persevere and to face our problems,
confidence in our potential, and patience with ourselves and
others, we will be able to live as monastics happily and for
a long time. However, if we wish to ordain because we have
a romantic idea of living a holy life, or seek an easy way
out of our personal or financial problems, we will be unhappy
as a monastic because what we seek will not be actualized.
By understanding what a crucial role our mind plays in keeping
ordination, we see that keeping the Pratimoksa (individual
liberation) precepts makes not only our words and deeds peaceful,
but our mind calm as well.
Joining the Sangha Community
Ordination is not only about living ethically, it is about
being a member of a special community, the Buddhist sangha,
the monastics upholding the precepts and principals established
by the Buddha. This is a virtuous community of people who
practice the Buddha's teachings and assist others in taking
refuge. As members of the sangha we focus on developing four
- When someone harms us, we try not to respond with harm;
- When someone is angry with us, we try not to react with
- When someone insults or criticizes us, we try not to
reply with insult or criticism;
- When someone abuses or beats us, we try not to retaliate.
This is the behavior a monastic should try to develop. The
root of these is compassion. Thus the main quality of the
spiritual community stems from compassion.
The Buddha's ultimate goal for establishing the sangha is
for people to attain liberation and enlightenment. The manifest
goal is to create a harmonious community that enables its
members to progress along the path. The Vinaya Pitaka says
that this community should work at being:
- physically harmonious: we live together peacefully;
- harmonious in communication: there are few arguments
and disputes, and when they occur, we remedy them;
- mentally harmonious: we appreciate and support each other;
- harmonious in the precepts: we have a similar lifestyle
and live according to the same precepts;
- harmonious in views: we share similar beliefs;
- harmonious in welfare: we equally use and enjoy what
is given to the community.
These are the ideal circumstances we aspire and work towards
in our life together as a community.
The Current Situation of Western Monastics in the Tibetan
The Buddha said that the ordaining master should care for
the disciples like a parent for a child, helping to provide
requisites for daily sustenance, as well as Dharma teachings.
However, due to various factors, one of which is that the
Tibetans are a refugee community, this is not what generally
occurs for Westerners who ordain. It is important to be aware
of this before ordaining, because Westerners face particular
challenges in living as monastics. If, before ordination,
we are aware of the challenges we may face after it, we will
be better equipped to prevent or resolve the difficulties
that may arise.
At present there are few established monastic communities
in the West. Thus we often do not have a community to live
with, or we live in a center with lay people, perhaps with
one or two other monastics, or in a mixed community of monks
and nuns. We are often expected to provide for ourselves financially.
This adds strain to ordained life, for if one has to put on
lay clothes and work at a job in the city with non-Buddhist
people, one may lose the motivation and vision of ordination.
Thus, it is advisable before ordaining to clear all financial
debts we may have and to seek a benefactor or other means
of support. In terms of education, often there is little guidance
or training on how to live as a monastic, and many of us must
generate our own program of study, develop friendships over
long distances with other monastics, and be responsible for
ourselves. Thus, before ordaining it is wise to establish
a good relationship with a spiritual mentor who will guide
us and to find conducive circumstances where we can live and
receive the monastic training and Dharma education that we
In the monastic communities in Asia, we are separated from
Asian monastics by culture, language, manners, and habits.
It is difficult to live in Tibetan monasteries because they
are often over-crowded, and Westerners face visa problems
and illness. Living in Western Dharma centers, we are often
expected to work long hours to serve our teachers and the
public. While doing this is beneficial, we need to have a
balance between service, study, and practice. If we do not
live in a community with other monastics, there is sometimes
the difficulty of loneliness. If we become too close emotionally
with lay practitioners, there is danger that we become distracted
and lose our purpose as monastics. Thus, we are challenged
to acknowledge and learn to work with our emotions. Western
society often sees monastics of any tradition as parasites
because they do not seem to produce anything. We must have
a strong mind and clear goals in order to prevent unnecessary
doubt from arising when we encounter others' lack of understanding
of the purpose of monastic life.
The Benefits of Ordination
The guidelines our precepts provide have great meaning when
we devote ourselves to practice rather than having only an
intellectual or casual interest in Buddhism. As monastics,
our simplified lifestyle enables us to be content with little
and gives us the time to develop our practice in a deep and
committed way. We will become more mindful and restrain ourselves
from getting caught up or going astray by following our endless
wants and desires. We will develop greater awareness of ourselves
and others; we will have a method to deal with our problems
and will no longer be obliged to react strongly to things
for which we have aversion. Rather than acting on impulse,
mindfulness of our precepts will help us to check first before
engaging in an action. We will develop greater tolerance,
will not get emotionally entangled in unhealthy relationships,
and will be of greater assistance to others. People become
calmer, healthier, and more content by living in the conducive
circumstances that precepts create. By living according to
the precepts, we will become an ethical and trustworthy person
and thus become stronger and more confident.
Maintaining our precepts enables us to purify stores of
negative karma and to create great positive potential (merit).
This acts as a basis for obtaining higher rebirths in the
future so that we can continue to practice the Dharma and
finally attain liberation and enlightenment. Living in precepts
will protect us from harm, and through our subdued behavior,
the place where we live will become more peaceful and prosperous.
We will become an example of individuals who are content with
little and of a community that can work together and resolve
its problems in a healthy way. Our mind will be peaceful and
calm; we will no longer be propelled by our bad habits; and
distractions in meditation will arise less often. We will
get along better with others. In future lives, we will meet
the Buddha's teachings and conducive circumstances for practice,
and we will be born as a disciple of Maitreya Buddha.
Living in accord with the precepts directly contributes
to world peace. For example, when we abandon killing, all
living beings who contact us can feel secure. When we abandon
stealing, everyone around us can relax and not fear for their
possessions. Living in celibacy, we relate to others more
honestly, free from the subtle and not-so-subtle games between
people. Others can trust us when we are committed to speaking
truthfully. In this way, each precept influences not only
ourselves, but also those with whom we share this world.
In the Lamrim Chenmo, the
Higher Training in Ethics is described as the stairway to
all other virtuous practices. It is the banner of all Dharma
practice, the destroyer of all negative actions and unfortunate
rebirths. It is the medicine which cures the disease of harmful
actions, the food to eat while traveling the difficult road
in samsara, the weapon to destroy the enemy of the disturbing
attitudes, and the foundation for all positive qualities.