|Photo by Sunny Shender. The tiny robed figure |
standing in the middle ground was me.
When I tell people that I was a monk for two years and that I lived in a monastery in the remote coastal wilds of Nova Scotia, their reactions usually fall into one of two categories.
For the majority of people, who don't have experience with long retreat practice or monasticism, the standard reaction is: "Oh my God. You did that for TWO WHOLE YEARS?" Watching their faces, you can see their minds boggling as they try to imagine spending such a long and intensive period of time immersed in practice, in such an isolated place, and being silent so much of the time.
For a small minority of people who do have experience with these things, particularly with monasticism, the standard reaction is more like: "What? ONLY two years? What happened?" Watching their faces, you can see them wondering why I couldn't hack it for longer than that.
One of the things that's often hard to explain to both of these audiences is the fact that the monastery where I lived offers something fairly unique among monastic institutions in the West, which is temporary ordination. Rather than diving headfirst into a lifelong commitment to being a monk or a nun, Gampo Abbey offers people the opportunity to come live at the monastery and hold temporary monastic vows for a year or two.
Like quite a few others, I came to the monastery for a year, and ended up staying for two. I went there with an open mind, not really sure whether this whole monastic thing was really for me or not, but interested in exploring the question. Eventually the answer (which, in my case, was "no") emerged in my heart quite clearly, in its own time. For a few people I knew at the monastery, a "yes" answer came to them, and they ended up taking lifelong monastic vows. So, while temporary ordination is a doorway, the door doesn't lead everyone in the same direction. It depends on their calling. Holding temporary monastic vows gives people time to listen deeply to their inner voice and hopefully find the answer that is truly authentic to them as individuals.
This is a wise approach, because I think Westerners practicing Buddhism often have romantic ideas about what it's like to live as a monk or a nun. Holding temporary vows for a while gives people the chance to burn through some of the initial romantic glow and figure out whether their calling toward that life is deep and genuine and lasting.
And in many cases, people aren't even trying to explore that question; they just want to come live at the monastery for a year and immerse themselves in a retreat-like practice environment before returning to their lives in the "outside" world. That, too, is deeply transformative, and the effects are felt for the rest of their lives. In some southeast Asian Buddhist countries it's not uncommon for young people to go live in the monastery for a year or so before moving on into adulthood.