The Hermitage: Becoming Ordained
What it Means to be a Buddhist Monk or Nun
life dedicated to the spiritual path is not for everyone. To choose to
be a monk or nun in any tradition means to adopt a life that is not easy
at all; it can involve a lot of hard work, a struggle to stay on the spiritual
path, and it can be quite lonely. Nevertheless, all down through human
history there have been those individuals who have just felt impelled
to dedicate themselves to the attainment of personal Enlightenment. These
are they who have the vocation—the inner calling—to receive
ordination and take up the spiritual life of a monk or nun according to
the gentle path of the Buddha.
It's not easy being a monk or nun in the West. On the whole, our culture
does not support the monastic tradition. This means that apart from dedicating
themselves full time to the spiritual path, newly ordained Buddhist monks
and nuns in the West generally have to find their own means of livelihood.
This can create a difficult split between, on the one hand, trying to
live the monastic life, and on the other, having to be "in the world"
to earn a living.
However, as Buddhist communities evolve in the West, we hope that the
monastic Sangha will gradually find ways of supporting itself. We need
monastics in the West. The Buddhist tradition has always depended on a
monastic heart: an essential core of individuals capable of giving themselves
over full time—as the Buddha did—to the spiritual path. These
individuals become the inspiration, the shining examples, for the rest
of us. We all deeply depend on the prayers and meditations of our ordained
monastics to make this world a better place.
It's also important in the Buddhist tradition that men and women seeking
to live a fully committed spiritual life have equal opportunity. This
means that we believe monks and nuns should be treated as equals in every
possible way. Too frequently in the past, when society was feudal, women
have tended to get the raw end of the deal. Equality between monks and
nuns is an important matter.
If you are seriously thinking of dedicating yourself to the spiritual
path in a traditional way, then here are some preliminary questions and
answers you should think about:
"I realize that the monastic life is not an easy one, but
I am prepared to help make it possible. I have felt drawn to the Kagyu
tradition of meditation for some time and would like to fully immerse
myself in a spiritual life. Would it be possible to receive ordination
and reside as a monastic at the Hermitage?"
Yes, but you have to be a responsible individual. No one is going to
look after you or offer to simply support you. This is the West and in
that sense anyone taking ordination here is really going to have to be
a pioneer. To be a "pioneer" monk or nun requires some creativity,
independence and a strong sense of determination. It will require work,
and that work is the foundation that must be laid to make it easier for
future monks and nuns to adopt the spiritual life. It's always much harder
at the beginning.
"Can anyone apply for ordination?"
Yes, but first there is a probationary period to see if you have made
the right choice. When you take vows you are making a big commitment.
Some people in the West jump in, take ordination, and then quit rather
soon afterwards, when the initial excitement has worn off. Western culture
is not based on Buddhist principles, or in other words, it does not have
a long Buddhist history, so people can have quite exotic ideas about what
it means to dedicate oneself to a spiritual life. For that reason, because
the Buddhist monastic tradition is new here, we feel that you should live
for about a year or longer as a "postulant" before taking vows,
and we have made this a rule at the Hermitage for all except those who
already are monks and nuns.
The first monks ordained at the first monastery in Tibet similarly had
to go through a probationary period. The idea of being a "postulant"
for ordination is to live fully as if one were a monk or nun, without
actually having taken the vows. This allows you to thoroughly discover
whether the spiritual life is truly the life you want to lead. It also
gives you a chance to see if the Hermitage is what you are really looking
for, and alternatively it will allow those already associated with the
Hermitage a chance to see if you and they are compatible together.
There are many different types of monastic situations, some quite different
from what we envision for the Hermitage. There are monks and nuns who
are quite active in the world. Some are called out of compassion to help
others, in one way or another. Some are active as scholars and some are
attracted to the supportive spiritual companionship that a monastic situation
can afford. In this regard, it is important to understand that the Dharma
Fellowship's Hermitage is essentially a place for meditation—it's
a meditation hermitage. This means that it's quite eremitical, quite the
contemplative hermit experience. One goes there to spend a lot of time
alone, in silence, and in meditation and prayer. Those most compatible
with this aim, are those truly looking to live the life of meditating
yogis and yoginis. The aim is to attain Enlightenment in one's present
the monks and nuns at the Hermitage in complete isolated retreat?"
No. They come together twice a day for the tradition short Kagyu Morning
and Evening Service. This is very uplifting, and forms an essential setting
for each individual's meditative experience. They also prepare food and
eat in common. The sharing of food affords a sense of balance and community
that is felt to be extremely important. However there is great emphasis
on private, individual meditation practice.
From time to time, under careful guidance, individual monks and nuns
at the Hermitage may also enter into periods of isolated, private meditation
retreat. At that time, assuming there are volunteers to do so, food will
be brought to the person in retreat. During such a retreat the monk or
nun will be fully involved in nothing but their own given spiritual practice.
"I have an idea about what it must mean to live a spiritual
life, but in the practical sense I do not know what commitments this takes.
How do I learn what it means to be a monastic?"
Traditionally, to become a novice monk or nun means to take 10 basic
vows. These vows are principles of training. Novice ordination may be
received from a fully ordained Bhikshu who in turn has been ordained by
a Bhikshu, and so on, all the way back to the beginning. Our ordination
lineage is an unbroken golden chain, so to speak, that goes back 2500
years to the Buddha himself. One then starts on the spiritual path, learning
the discipline and the spiritual life from example.
"Do I have to take ordination for life?"
No. The novice ordination is not necessarily taken for life. Many in
the East have spent some time living as novice monks or nuns, and then
chosen to return to the world, get married and have families. They consider
that spending some time as a monk or nun has made them better, more mature
However, full ordination is generally taken with the idea of a life time
commitment. In our tradition, when a person decides they want to take
the vows of a fully ordained Bhikshu or Bhikshuni we assume they are making
a lifetime commitment to the spiritual path. Of course, if later they
decide for whatever reason, that they have made the wrong decision, they
can always hand back their vows.
"What is the practical difference between novice ordination
and full ordination?"
The novice is not independent. The novice is said to live "in dependence"
on the Bhikshus (male) or Bhikshunis (female), meaning that they take
guidance from the latter. They are so to speak, monks or nuns who are
in training, learning what it means to live the life. They are supposed
to be studying the path, learning the Vinaya and the teachings
of the Buddha, and acquiring an historical sense of the tradition. When
they are really familiar with what it means to be a Buddhist monk or nun,
then they can take full ordination—if they feel a lifetime commitment
to the spiritual life. After that they are responsible to no one but themselves.
They are expected to be sufficiently mature to follow the path under their
own direction, in accord with the rules of monastic conduct that the Buddha
established in the Vinaya.
"Can I eventually graduate to full Bhikshu or Bhikshuni
ordination at the Hermitage?"
Yes, but at the present you will have to receive the full ordination
in the East. When one is ready for full ordination it is possible, for
example, it travel to Tenga Rinpoche's monastery in Nepal or to certain
places in India. It takes a quorum of five fully ordained monks to perform
the ceremony and the ceremony is quite involved. Things are getting a
little easier all the time, as Buddhism becomes more established in the
West, but there are still some hurdles to get over.
"What about livelihood and physical work? How will I be
expected to engage in either of these?"
This is going to depend a lot on how the Hermitage evolves. At this stage,
anyone who wishes to adopt the monastic life at the Hermitage has to find
means of livelihood to pay for food, heating and any medical needs that
might arise. You will be literally "building" the monastic life
and Hermitage as you live there. The Hermitage is an incredibly beautiful,
serene 60 acres of land, and it's very private, but has almost no infrastructure
at present. Monks and nuns will have to work to build accommodation and
facilities, and to develop gardens for growing food. They will also be
expected to help the lay community by facilitating the meditation retreats
that we hold there. So, it's not going to be easy at first.
sounds very exciting! I suppose I shall in many ways be helping to bring
the Kagyu Buddhist tradition to the West. Do you find that the local community
Yes, very supportive. This is one major reason why we chose Denman Island
when we were looking for land to establish the Hermitage. Denman Island
supports a large number of artists—painters, potters, weavers, writers—people
involved in all sorts of crafts. It's an especially gentle environment.
The people on the island are very supportive of what we are doing at the
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