21 June 2007

So, you want to be a monk?

How can we overcome our ignorance if we pretend that we are wise?

Master Hsing Yun
Buddhism, Pure and Simple

Buddhism. I needed to start somewhere so I went back to the Buddhist temple I knew because I’d gone along on one of Mark’s school trips: the Hsi Lai temple in Hacienda Heights, California. Why? It had classes on Buddhism taught in English. One of the pieces of paper I’d scarfed up after my first class was an invitation to attend what the flyer said was a “Short-Term Monastic Retreat .” Anyone could take one. Anyone could apply. Its objectives were “to teach traditional Buddhist practice and discipline” and to allow lay people “to experience the monastic way of life.” It was happening in just two months so I filled out an application, telling them exactly who I am, what I’m doing and how little I knew about Buddhism, and then went to the temple for the required interview. I figured, if they’d let me go, I’d go.

It was a beautiful day, an easy drive. I brought oranges for the temple and, when I walked in to the entrance hall (Bodhisattva Hall), an attendant gave me a plate and even showed me where to assemble it. It’s kind of great that at least some of this is feeling a bit less bewildering. I mean, you don’t go empty-handed to someone’s home for dinner and you don’t go empty-handed to a Hindu or Buddhist temple.

As I waited for my turn in an auditorium with raked seats, I watched the two monastics - both nuns - doing the interviews. One was giving a Caucasian woman a stern talk I could only partially overhear. Something about "very hard" and "no make-up” and "no communication at all. You understand?" And who was at the other table? The meditation nun from my one and only day at the temple, the one with the road-building story. I was relieved when she waved me up to her table.

She motioned for me to sit in the chair in front of her while she read my application. I watched the crown of her shaved head as she turned the pages where, in answer to their questions, I'd explained exactly who I was and why I wanted to come. All that kept me from exploding in anxiety about what she might ask was that I'd been completely honest about my ignorance about Buddhism. I’d also been explicit about this project.

She lifted her square face and said, “So you’re finished with Hinduism?”

“Well, no, I’ll never be finished,” I said, “but it was time to come here.”

She smiled. “When you think of a monastic retreat, what’s your idea of it?”

“I think it’ll be difficult, that I’ll find things inside myself that I’ll have a hard time with. But I also think I need to deal with them to learn. I can’t really learn just by reading books. I have to do something.”

“Yes, but why do you want to do this?”

“I don’t know. All I know is a couple of years ago I felt I had no choice.”

“I know what you mean. I had a good job, lots of money and one day it wasn’t important anymore. My boss said, ‘I don’t care about money.’ I said, ‘I don’t either.' But I meant it. So I renounce. So I know what you mean.”

I was taken aback. First, I tried putting hair and a business suit on this dumpling of a woman, who wore nothing but robes and eyeglasses, but got nowhere. She seemed too content with being precisely where and what she was to have ever had any of the accoutrements of drive or ambition. But I wasn’t just my imagination spinning out that froze me. It was that this nun saw something of my situation, of what’s driving me to do what I’m doing, in her own decision to become a monastic. What? I started trying to figure out what I said or wrote that might lead her to such a mistaken conclusion. I’d felt there were little arrows pointing at me, as I walked up the steep steps, past the burning incense and the first altar with all of the offerings to get to the interview, labeling me as what I am: “Unqualified” and "Too late, too far to go." But there she was, smiling at me, thinking we had something in common. I had no idea how to respond.

Luckily she asked what I knew of Buddhist principles.

I told her I knew about the Four Noble Truths. “There’s suffering in life, it’s caused by desire, eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering and Buddhism tells you how to do that and the importance of, uhm, cause and effect.”

She corrected me: “Dependent origination.”

“Yes, and I know detachment is the answer.” I mentioned that I’d taken her meditation class and I liked her story about the road builders. (see very end of the 3 Nov 2008 post)

She said, “I love stories.”

“Me, too.”

“There’s another one that might be good for this retreat.” She started putting my papers back their folder. “There was a man in the back of a temple, bowing down and doing prostrations yet people are beating him. He say to Buddha, ‘It’s not fair. You are a statue, doing nothing and yet you are untouched up there, and here I am, doing my best and yet people are beating me. Why?’ And Buddha say, ‘When you make a statue, you scrape and hit and chip away until it’s in its perfect form. We are different because I have accepted all of these blows, these difficulties. You haven’t.’” The nun looked up from my file and raised her eyebrows at me with a smile. “It’s these difficulties, these hard things that lead to your perfection. We must go through them without attachment to what we think it should be. You remember that (on the retreat.) Mm?”

“I will.”

“You may not understand everything – we try, but it’s very hard to make everything clear – but, when you don’t understand, just go inside and notice what comes up for you, mmm?”

“Okay," I said. "and thank you.”

As I picked up my bag from the floor, she smiled and put my file away.

21 June 2007


  1. Go, Marley! Great "Buddha statue" story. As always, I find something of value for myself in your journey.

  2. A comment from Alec...

    A bunch of questions pop into my head. So you have an application and there are interviewers. I find it interesting that you are nervous about their judgment. Is this because of some rooted-in eagerness to please, a dislike of failure in a testing situation? A competitive desire to surmount any threshold? I'd certainly be eager to be admitted if I bothered to apply for some of these reasons and more. But is that set of desires central to the desire which should motivate you to want to enter?

    Or is it because you really desired this retreat? Does that desire hearken back to your feeling that you need to pursue this spiritual question with in you? What is at stake? If you don't get into this retreat is it the only entry point in tangible Buddhism?

    Do you fear the rejection would be to some imagined scan of your inner self using a kind of possible 3rd eye these nuns have developed? Are you afraid that they will be offended by your "surfing" their belief system? Are you afraid that the physical details (the stated purpose on your application and in your interview) will be used to reject you - but that those artifacts are proxies for an inner you that you feel you may not be able to fully express. And you don't want clumsy surface representations to effect a decision which actually should apply to your "soul?"

    I also wonder, what is the screening process for? Do they receive many more applications for spots than they have available. What is their acceptance ratio? Do you have a back-up Ivy League school in mind? Or are they just trying to filter out the obvious jokers, the people that will falter when presented with a serious of semi-serious questions?

    Did you see unhappy applicants trudge away, rejected because they instinctively answered their cell phone and weren't close enough to rejecting this plane? It seems interesting to me that (other than space considerations) the Buddhists have a screening process at all.

    I've read some stories and seem to remember that telling the aspiring monk to go fuck off is one of the tried and true tropes. The applicant who weathers harsh wind and constant rejection by living outside the monastery and asking every few months for entry eventually begins to learn the path just by accepting hardship and their basic ??


    It seems to me that a willingness to question, a simple and direct answer like your own about lack of precise knowledge and an inchoate need (the inner voice) may be a good answer.



    (“lucky she asked about Four Noble truths…) Why is it lucky? Are you still assuming you hadn't already passed the test? I don't honestly know at what point you gained entry. Is it lucky because you got to show some knowledge? What is the point to the initiate of having any knowledge to gain entry? Other than to clear away the tourists. To prove a certain seriousness about the material? I'd think I'd want a tabula rasa as a novice "epopt"(the word came to me and then I double-checked it)

    If you come with knowledge, don't they first have to wipe it all away? I'm sure they are used to that. Seems to me the questions might have been a vehicle just to interact with you and gauge something else other than the content of your answers. I know that when I'm interviewing someone I get more from my sense of them than whether I agree or not with some of what they say. Or at least I hope I do. You want a certain amount of consensus from an employee, but isn't it almost more important if there a glimmer of intelligence, eagerness, wit, energy?

    Then again. I usually assume lack of experience can be surmounted by initiative and brains, but I've never hired an editor who couldn't edit. I have hired assistant editors who have no experience. So I guess we're all used to balancing experience and innate qualities depending on how much will be asked of the hire right away. I wonder how much experience you needed to get "hired" here?

    (re the Buddha sculpture story) Sculpting stories always get to me. She's talking about reductive sculpture (chipping away) but there is also additive sculpture where you add clay or whatever until you get something. My dad had a guy he hired to help him with film work named Michael who was a part-time sculptor. He'd take slabs of granite or marble or whatever and sculpt natural-looking, semi-abstract forms.

    Think of a Weston pepper or sand dunes. I'm pretty sure that Michael was as interested in "finding" what the rock wanted to become as imposing a form upon it. That sounds a little new-agey, but I'd imagine that something with a grain and a internal structure might inform you as you "worked" it that some paths are easier than others. So as an artist you bring an aesthetic to the process and then there is a dialogue between that and the structure of the source material that leads to a visual synthesis - the final piece.

    Did the finished piece "exist" to be "found?"

    The story is about chipping away to find "its perfect form." was that form lurking there the whole time? Only to be uncovered by (sometimes painful) chipping away? Did the chipping away (the pain & hardship) cause the rock to grow a perfect form to meet the experience? Does this mean that all rocks have perfection that exists (immutable - a Platonic ideal within) just waiting for some revelatory hardship?

    Obviously it has to be the right kind of chipping, because some rocks are turned into squares to be used as cornerstones. Does the statue within somehow process and direct the hard experience so that that physical beating helps it reach it's perfection?

    Is there more than one "perfect" form? If you accept hard things that are the wrong kind of blows does this lead to your imperfection? How do you know which blows to accept? Or is it simply the ability to accept that will transform blows into the kind that will lead to perfect form?

    It's a nice story, but I have a little trouble with the metaphor. I'm all into thinking that effort is necessary to reach mastery. I had an old soccer coach who used to say "practice DOES NOT make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." I think accepting the wisdom of the wise before you have the wisdom to agree with them is probably a good idea, generally. I'm trying to convince my 4 year old that there are certain things I can more reliably help him predict (like if you don't eat you will be hungry later) & that if he just accepted my word sometimes (because my success rate on "wisdom" was high enough to give me some credit) he might learn some things. He "may not understand everything... it’s very hard to make everything clear...we try."

    I do this all the time, we call it franken-biting. I changed the order to fit my point, but what she said was what I wanted to say, just the wrong order.

    My dad used to say that it was fine for me to read things or be told things I didn't get. If 20% sticks the first time thru, then maybe 40% will stick the next time.

    The sculpture story implies a craftsman. When you reach perfection you will no longer be "touched." or beaten. The story is meant to prime you to accept hardship, as she said. I have trouble accepting the idea of perfection lying within a raw material. Since I was a teen I've had this more additive self-concept (or to be truthful I synthesize the immutable core idea with this other one)

    What if we are all mosaics? We start with a tar-baby like core and as we meet people, do things, stuff sticks. So fragments of my parents, my friends, girlfriends, teachers, coaches, songs and books and all of it - adhere to me.

    I become a patchwork, frankenstein-like assemblage of what sticks. Things that are incompatible have a harder time sticking. I don't "See" or "hear" certain truths or BS because they have less correlative meaning to me so they slide off. Etc. I'm too lazy to fully develop the idea here.

    Some of what sticks has to do with intention ( if I chose to spend a lot of time in a Buddhist temple - more of that would tend to stick - or because I edit reality TV these days - I am more of a douche-bag(it's true you can look it up)), some to do with what I chance to happen upon, and some to do with what harmonizes with the make-up of both the qualities of my tar-baby core AND what adheres to what has already adhered. Etc.

  3. Marley, this is deliciously well-written and again I really have to commend your willingness to take this remarkable journey...what a shame that J. Campbell isn't still with us, what a wonderful traveling companion he might have been! I haven't yet read all of your previous posts on Hinduism, but I' know we've spoken about the core differences, here. May your touching the elephant from ass to ear, lead you to...the elephant...lol!



I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.