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my friend the monastic

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Daitetsu Hull has been living and training at an American Zen monastery for the last 12 years. Here he writes about giving up (renouncing) certain things and the effect that practice is having on his life.

The process of renunciation has been surprisingly joyful, as I’ve come to see that I don’t need what I thought I did to be happy. Our school of Japanese Zen Buddhism allows the priests to marry, so I didn’t have to renounce a romantic partner, and I’m happily married. All that said here are five things that I struggle with renouncing.

A cat – I feel a deep kindred with the feline race and take delight in their company. We have a No Pet policy at the monastery, the wisdom of which I don’t doubt, but I do miss having a cat in my life. I find a cat’s love supportive and comforting in part because it’s so fickle. I find their independence and self-assurance is inspirational and can’t help but take myself less seriously in a cat’s presence.

A car – I miss both the freedom a car brings and the visceral joy of driving. When I owned a car my spontaneity had no limits, and I could drop in on friends or go see a movie with little or no forethought. Living in a community is challenging, even though there are cars available. Here an individual’s use of a car is measured against the community’s needs, and often my trips are cut short, changed, or cancelled altogether. And then there’s the issue of missing keys…

All forms of entertainment – One of the reasons I decided to live in a monastery was that my life was beginning to revolve around entertainment and I wanted to spend my time directed towards a deeper purpose. I have succeeded and now I must admit I miss the very things that were beginning to dominate my life; movies, books, and music. All three of these exist at the monastery in a limited form, however there is very little time to experience them. And more to the point the purpose of the monastery is to learn to be satisfied with life as it is, and to see this life as our own novel unfolding, hear these sounds as our own private concert.

Down time – The monastery is a contemplative refuge from a busy world, it’s also a busy world itself. It takes a lot to run, and all of us in residence soon realize that the contemplative part is balanced by an enormous amount of activity. There is very little time when we’re not doing something, although often what we’re doing is sitting still and attending to our breath. That’s very different from down time, that sweet time when there’s really nothing to do, and so instead of doing nothing you do something unexpected. I miss that time and the surprising creativity that comes from it.

Control – The monastery is a community with a hierarchy. There are two abbots and then six ordained who are ranked by how long they have been ordained. Beyond that there’s the mere fact that when living in community the needs of the community must be balanced with our own personal, immediate desires. All these things compounded mean that I have a lot less control over what I do, where I go, when I sleep, and what I eat then I used to. This is most often a blessing and gets right at the root of what we’re trying to realize – that happiness comes from our ability to meet, accept and then respond to what is, rather than our ability to control or escape it.


8 responses »

  1. I am moved by Daitetsu’s honesty, it is refreshing. And by his dedication and insight. I just want to say that this phrase jumped out at me when I read it

    “Happiness comes from our ability to meet, accept and then respond to what is, rather than our ability to control or escape it.”

    and I find myself wondering if, by entering a monastery and renouncing many things, someone is, in a way, actually ‘controlling’ or ‘escaping’ what is, or rather, what was, before it was renounced.

    If the purpose of a monastery is “to learn to be satisfied with life as it is”, why then do people leave ‘what is’ (eg. cats, entertainment, cars), instead of finding a way of accepting and responding to that reality, without changing it? In a way, it seems to me that removing those things from a life is, in its own way, a form of control or escape….???

    I am not sure, and I am surprised by my response, but it has given me food for thought! Any observations about this would be welcome!

    • Fiona,
      Thanks for the insightful question – and your interest and curiosity about the choice to live in a monastic setting. Here is my answer:

      There are two frames of reference to meeting circumstances that have the same spiritual foundation but different time-lines, and thus look very different. The first is the immediate – someone speaks kindly to us and we smile and respond, or someone yells at us and we feel anger arise and do our imperfect best. Usually we suffer to the extent that we try to control or escape whatever comes towards us, and we feel satisfaction to the extent that we’re able to stay present and accept them and our response to them. We learn from our mistakes and do our best to cultivate a mind that can respond to many circumstances with an openness and flexibility. The order of these responses is in seconds or minutes.

      The second way of responding to circumstances is over time. That is, we can look at our life over the course of months or years. From this vantage we can see places we are stuck or need to change, accept them and then respond to them. This “need to change” is tricky. It’s not “I’m a terrible person and need to change” – It’s more like “This choice I’m making is creating more suffering than happiness, and I and everyone I know would benefit if it changed.”

      I’ll give a personal example. I came to see over time that the people I surround myself with have a HUGE impact on my state of mind. Realizing this I decided to put myself in an environment where I would be surrounded by the wisest and most compassionate people I could find. People who were interested in a topic (Zen) that I was also interested in. This is another level of accepting and responding to what is. The “what is” in this case is my own susceptibility of being swayed by the people around me. My choice to move to the monastery was a response to this, rather than an escape from it.

      The difference between response and escape is not so much in the behavior (moving to a Zen monastery) but in my accepting my susceptibility of mind and trying to work with it. And of course that acceptance isn’t perfect! But if I didn’t accept it at all I might try to get my friends to change, or I might still move to a monastery – but I would be wary of anyone not acting in line with what I thought was wise and compassionate.

      So, there’s a long, incomplete answer to a short, pithy question. I imagine this will generate more questions and a deeper level of conversation . . . Wonderful!

      • Daitetsu ,

        Thankyou for responding. I have only just seen this as I have not checked in for a while because of Peter’s break from writing.

        If I understand you, moving to a monastery was a response to the circumstances of your life and your wish to respond differently when faced with those circumstances. You don’t see it as an escape. But you did remove yourself from the external trigger which was causing your response.

        I see that to move to a monastery allows you to be away from the influence of others and, having become aware of your susceptibility to being swayed by them, to accept that tendency and work to understand and change that in yourself, in an environment where the ‘trigger’ isn’t there. And this must be greatly helped by being surrounded by the wisest and most compassionate people you could find. Wise choice!

        If the purpose is to be satisfied with life as it is, then that seems to imply not judging ‘what is’ as being right or wrong, but to simply respond to it as skilfully as possible each time. So, being swayed by others is a response you have to being around them. It is neither good or bad. But, you do not feel it is beneficial so you want to change the way you respond. And in order to do that you remove yourself from the influence that is triggering your response and work on the response within yourself.

        I see that in a monastery the process of looking inward, finding causes, changing habits, choosing different responses is greatly ‘speeded up’, it is a more concentrated way of doing what you may have attempted had you stayed where you were. It’s a way of learning from your mistakes away from the arena where the mistakes occurred, and trying to cultivate a mind that can respond more flexibly, with the support of those with like minds.

        But, however I think of it, it still seems to me that it may not be working with ‘what is’ in the sense of – …these are the circumstances I find myself in, this is how I am responding, I am aware that it is not benefiting anyone, therefore how can I work with this, in the midst of it ? How can I stay with this, outer reality and give this my non-judgemental attention and respond to it in a different way?

        This is what most people find they have to do. Not being able to remove themselves from the external trigger, they have to do their best with ‘what is’, and so the process of learning and gradually responding differently goes on, it just takes a longer time. Frustrating as that can be!

        Another thought I have is that were you to leave the monastery and find yourself in the same circumstances, how would you be? This would be the real test of whether you had managed to ‘not be swayed by others’. Because in the monastery you are not liable to be swayed by them because you are not around them. As I write this I am thinking – but you are likely to be being swayed by different people around you. It’s just that you are being swayed in a way you want to be swayed!

        I hope this makes some sense? I am just thinking as I go along, questioning myself as much as questioning you! I greatly value the opportunity to have a deeper conversation about this, thank you.

  2. good questions, fiona. i’ll wait a day or so to see if other questions come in and then write to Daitetsu, inviting him to respond.

  3. thankyou peter, it would be great to hear Daitetsu’s response and gain some insight.

  4. Daitetsu came to my zen center recently. He was a very refreshing speaking, precisely because of his honesty and respect for the variety of struggles people have out there.

  5. In the last of the ten ox herding pics one returns to the marketplace. As it says in Wikipedia, “Return to Society (crowded marketplace; spreading enlightenment by mingling with humankind).” The way I see it, one can move to new york city or to beijin and work downtown, or one can move to a monastery and work the gardens with anyone else who is there. Cities and monasteries are both market places, both reality. But any one person, in either place oe any place, may or may not be engaged in the process of awkening. The ten bulls indicate that it can be useful to remove oneself from society while searching for the bull. In terms of this discussion that means go to a hermitage or become solitary (metaphorically speaking) in your search. Monasteries are societies involved in the spreading of enlighment through a particular program. So, pick your own program, and place, but do not forget to awaken.

  6. As if on cue, Chong Go Sunim (a Korean Zen monk at posts his translation of Ya-un’s “Admonitions to Myself” 自警文. Keeping in mind that it was written in the 14th century and intended for monastics, it provides historical context for Daitetsu’s article.


    “Nevertheless, if you sincerely repent and want to change your direction, then cut off all attachments to the world. Leave home, carrying your bowls and wearing the kasa, and take the direct path and learn the profound Dharma, which is free of all defilements. Like a dragon in the ocean depths, or Spring coming to a mountain, this profound truth is utterly inexpressible!”


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