Why Bother with a Monastery?
Right Livelihood and the Middle Way in Practice
When we awaken to the utter impermanence of our lives, all the bull shit excuses we’ve been spinning since the birth of this “I” lose their grip. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the livelihood part in-a-bit, I just want to talk about myself for a little bit…) The mind orients itself entirely towards what can practically be done moment after moment. Not that we don’t buy tickets for our trip to Japan in two months – why bother, after all, the future’s just a dream? Nor do we stop watering the carrots and the daikon in the fields – no need, we have plenty of food at Antai-ji already. What ceases is the pointless, fantastic dwelling on what could be or should have been. The pointless, “I wish I did not drink all that sake and spend all my travel money on a stripper named Candy. I’m so irresponsible. I need to stop drinking. In fact, I promise never to drink again. Never! And no more strippers named Candy, too. Only strippers named Tina and Latoya from now on!” Instead, the thought pattern changes. The questions change. What can I do to get my money back? Who do I need to call? And what can I learn from this situation? All that wasted energy we usually spend on frustration, anger, and then the fantastic changes which we promise to occur in the future – “Never again!” as I would often say to myself…again and again and again…concentrates itself into this very moment, the moment at which we have some freedom, some choice, to decide who we are to become and what we are to do.
Sitting sesshin after sesshin here at Antai-ji, sitting into the long, cold nights alone in the hondo well after everyone else has gone to sleep until only the sounds of the cicadas and a few lonesome birds remain, sitting, sitting, sitting, and then sitting some more…and then making an effort to maintain that awareness and focus during each moment of the day, I awoke partially from the hazy dream called “my life,” from that endless circuit of “never again”s and agains. I awoke to this.
If you’re reading this right now, then you too must have partially awakened to the Way (that’s lofty Zen-talk for this, your life, this moment, precisely as it is – the boredom and confusion from reading this – when will this idiot start talking about Right Livelihood? The sound of the clock registering each second – tick-tock, tick-tock, and the sight of your breath dissipating into the chilly autumn evening), otherwise why bother looking elsewhere? Are stripper and sake binges, and then the “Oh I’m such an idiot!” the morning after no longer doing it for ya?
Seeing the utter impermanence of everything, I realized that I could not waste a single moment. I needed and need to be doing what needs to be done, not dragging my feet around in a lazy haze repeating the same stupid patterns of behavior. I realized I need to not waste “my life” and settle for an eternal “later,” a mirage which lived on the horizon of my life, moment after moment dragging me through only to find miles and miles more of scorching desert.
Not later, now.
If I am to do a single thing, it must be that which must be done.
So the first question that needs asking is: What do you want? In the Noble Eightfold Path (Right View, Thought/Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration), this question can be found under Right Thought/Intention. For some people, it’s a bottle of sake and a stripper named Candy. For some people, who seek liberation and to awaken to the Way (more lofty words for this), it’s looking for a place to realize it, to renounce the ever-wavering mind (lofty word for the mind of that) which constantly craves satisfaction from drinking binges, strippers, chocolate chip cookies, and other things.
That, no that, no, no, now that.
So, what do you want?
From this intention, all the six other parts of the Noble Eightfold Path arise: Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration. Therefore, to be clear about what one’s intentions are is of utmost importance. As the Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” In some ways, living more and more from the intention of liberation, of awakening to the way, of being this through and through, is both the beginning and the end of practice. The more and more that this intention drives our life, the more and more we speak rightly, act rightly, live rightly, apply ourselves rightly, and be aware of and focused on the right things.
Of course, most of us are humble and wise enough to acknowledge that we can not do this alone, that the conditions of our lives are not right to support this type of intention, and that we continue to find ourselves distracted by strippers, sake, money, the unceasing attempts to maintain this illusion of an ‘I’ to satisfy others, and other cravings. This humility and wisdom acknowledges one of the fundamental truths of our lives and of Buddhism: no-self, or that all that this “I” is is a product of causes and conditions and not a separate, permanent being. So, with the intention towards liberation, we seek to find communities and livelihoods which will support our search.
Almost all of us are in some way or another drunk on the three poisonous minds which are symptoms of our own distance from this: greed, hate, and ignorance which give rise to the that-mind and distract us from the freedom, peace, and joy which is always right before us. The three poisonous minds drive our lives, spinning us into this stupid cycle of strippers. Even many “successful” people suffer from this mindset: wealthy lawyers, powerful CEOs, and celebreties. Unless they have in some-way addressed these poisonous minds, and there are many ways, then they will continue to ceaselessly crave more and more until they painfully experience the result of their craving. Without any forbearance or wisdom to guide them, some of these live their lives much as a man who, consumed by desire, eats and eats and eats; after already satisfying his hunger, though, the desire for pleasure drives him onwards to eat more and more and more until he stuffs himself to the point that he feels great pain in his stomach. The sight of food at all soon sickens him and his desire now turns to hate. He seeks to now push away the discomfort of a stomach too full, but he cannot reverse his actions. So too it is with many of these “successful” people who lack forbearance and wisdom. In their own success and power, many of the restraints of conventional life become undone and their desires go unchecked. Many celebrities, for example, who lived in poverty before their fame, quickly fall victim to their own success because they do not have the forbearance to control themselves. They become fat, at least if they can do so and maintain their success, or addicted to drugs. It helps, in fact, to think of the three poisonous minds and the resolve to free ourselves from them (a dualistic way to say awakening to this) through the metaphor of alcohol.
Say you are an alcoholic. If you look at the lives of many alcoholics, especially of the youth, they surround themselves with people who behave in similar ways – drinking too much, staying out too late, and always talking about how much so-and-so drank and what so-and-so did when he was so drunk he blacked out. In America, the fraternity perfectly embodies this mentality. People drink constantly, sometimes at parties, sometimes socially while watching a football game, sometimes just sitting around doing nothing. Drinking for some fraternities becomes the axis around which their lives revolve. If you were to suddenly stop drinking, though, it would become extremely difficult. At each moment of the day your will would be tested – you open the fridge and staring you in the face, all thirty-two cans and a handle, is alcohol. You speak with your friend and all that they talk about is how much they drank last night and how much fun they had drinking. You go out with your friends and they spend most of the evening drinking, playing drinking games, and talking about times they were drunk.
It would be naive to say that that environment is helpful. Only someone of great fortitude and wisdom would be able to bring an end to this bad habit in such an environment. The irony, of course, is that if that person were strong and wise they would likely not develop such a poisonous addiction in the first place.
Seeing how distracting this environment is and acknowledging the frailty of your character, you decide that if you are to cease being an alcoholic you must find a more supportive environment. Some go to rehabilitation centers where there are doctors, nurses, and others who share the same intention and the same bad habit. Others find new friends and fellows who have decided to stop their addiction and join Alcoholic Anonymous groups while still trying to carry out their daily lives as best they can.
After some time in this environment, and constant effort and vigilance, the craving lessens and you find some stability, wisdom, and compassion which then begin to guide your life instead of the habitual craving. There might be back-sliding, or one might all-together give-up the endeavor and return to the fraternity house to join once again in the endless cycle, but, if you properly apply yourself within these rehabilitation centers, then the craving will lessen like a fire, which, after one stops throwing wood and coal into it, ceases to burn until only ashes remain. The process, though, takes time, patience, and vigilance. So too with one’s desire.
Often in practice, people decide to leave the safety of the rehabilitation centers out of pride of understanding. They see that the flames of craving have died away and think that they have conquered their alcoholism, but they do not yet see that the embers have not turned to ash. A careless action might throw more wood onto the embers and begin the flame anew. That is not to say that alcoholics should waste away their entire lives until they have extinguished all trace of desire. This attitude might, in fact, inflame their problem by neurotically rejecting it every time it arose. We need a middle-way to find peace. After some time in the rehabilitation center, then, you return to your new home and new friends. After some time in this new environment, you soon find yourself feeling comfortable around alcohol and then revisit your old friends, largely unmoved by their own destructive habits.
So too with practice and the three poisonous minds. First, we acknowledge our painful addiction. This is Right View. We see that spending all our money on booze and Candy, or on fancy cars to impress Candy and win her, will only lead us to more dissatisfaction. We see that this unceasing that-mind will bring us no rest and that only by awakening to this-mind, this ordinary mind, can we come to experience and share peace, joy, and freedom.
Seeing this, we then form the Right Intention, that we will awaken to this. Making this intention, we then Speak and Act in ways in accord with this intention. Speaking and Acting so, we choose a Livelihood which will allow us to live day-in-and-day out this way. A soldier on the front lines of Iraq or a munitions producer in Alabama does not seem so fitting…but there are always exceptions. Hence, with this resolve, acknowledging our own addictions: greed, hate, and ignorance, we look for places and people that will help us live in this way.
Dogen himself, in the Zuimonki, said that “Associating with a good person is like walking through mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp.” Thus, we choose places which will help us become damp (joke…) with the Right View and Right Intention – for me, for example, it is to awaken to this, just as it is. That being said, choosing the right place to practice is only a skillful means to support our search. We must always find the middle-way between our own efforts while also acknowledging that the circumstances of our lives can dramatically shape who we are and become.
I already used the metaphor of an American fraternity, but let us use the metaphor of food to see how easily we become swayed by conditions. In one case, a friend invites you to join him and his family for dinner. When you arrive, the table is so full of food ? roasted chicken, honey-glazed ham, two whole pigs, and enough bacon to give an elephant a heart-attack, that it is nearly falling off the table. Everyone stuffs themselves with food and you, seeing everyone doing this and all this food, might find yourself easily doing the same.
Another friend also invites you to join him and his family for dinner. This time, the table is neatly laid out with each person having an small portion on their plate. At the center of the table there is more food. Everyone eats slowly and no one touches the center dishes for more. In this case, you might feel strange if you ate the same amount of food as you might have at the other house. If that were the case, you would not only eat the center dishes but ask to look in their fridge to see if they had anything else to eat! Almost unthinkable. In this case, too, we might eat much less not based on any specific intention – liberation, hunger, etc.. But merely to accord with where we are and not cause any trouble.
Although there are many factors which give rise to these conditions, it is precisely these factors by which we at first restrain ourselves that we come to develop and learn forbearance, wisdom, and compassion.
Returning to the American fraternity example, even when an alcoholic leaves such a poisonous environment, the craving remains even among new, staunchly alcohol-free friends or in a rehabilitation center. If that craving goes unrestrained, then they might then they might begin to secretly drinking while going out with their new friends or they might sneak alcohol into the retreat center. Thus, even here it requires constant effort and vigilance for success. So too with any place of practice. Without Right Effort, we can spin the same-old circles endlessly. I’ve seen it here at Antai-ji and at other monasteries and practice centers I have stayed at.
Rehabilitation centers are no guarantee for success, but they sure as hell help.
As we practice more and more and grow firmer in our resolve, more compassionate and more wise, then the answer to the question which began this whole mess: what needs doing?, might change. The intention to awaken to this takes many forms and expressions, although often at first it is incubated within stable and helpful environments designed for liberation, among other things (social control, esoteric magical rituals to protect the nation, etc.) We might find ourselves on an iceberg in the North Pole saving a polar bear or in the jungles of Thailand treating malaria. We might find ourselves in the same rehabilitation center that we once stayed at, helping others along their way as doctors or nurses and recognizing the importance of keeping places like that alive.
So, when looking at Right Livelihood, one should always seek to find the middle way. Some places like Antai-ji, with “Adult Practice” which gives practitioners freedom, can give people the space to grow and learn, or backslide and regress, at their own speed. Other places, like a strict Rinzai training monastery, such as Myoshin-ji or Tofuku-ji, provide much more structure which forces practitioners to, well, practice. Not everyone can endure such an environment, though.
There are many different practices, structures, and styles. Whatever the case, it’s important to develop self-awareness to see and understand what works and what doesn’t, what you need and what you don’t so that you can find a middle-way between what you need to be doing right now and an environment which supports that. This goes for not only retreat centers, but everything in our lives – dieting, physical fitness, study, etc. As for each action must be taken at the appropriate time and appropriate place. Learning this is the work of a lifetime.
I wish anyone who dared to read this, and even those who didn’t, joy, peace, and the courage to do what needs to be done. Good luck on whatever your after, even if it’s just this, or if it’s a sexy stripper named Candy.
With love and in gratitude to all those who’ve helped me along the way,