Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader: Becoming a Monk

Question: Becoming a monk has always been something I felt I wanted to do since I started my Zen practice. But how does one know when they are ready to take on the challenges of a monk’s life?

Reply: When I first told Dae Soen Sa Nim that I wanted to become a monk, he asked, “How much percent do you want to become a monk? 99%? or 100%”

I thought, for a moment (big mistake!), “Be honest! Be honest!” So I answered, “99%,” thinking that this would be enough – I could work out the other 1% as years rolled by. It wouldn’t be a steep hill to climb.

“If only 99%, then that’s not enough. One day, this 1% will kill you, kill your monk-mind. When you have 100% become-monk mind, then come back, I check you. Until then, not possible.”

I was totally crushed

So, after some more practice (and a lot more suffering), I came to his room one day. “Sir, I want to become a monk. My mind 100% wants to become a monk.”

He took off his glasses, and scanned my face.

“Wonderful! Wonderful!” he said, with a big smile. “This 100%-mind then anytime, anyplace have no hindrance.”

September 7, 1992. A day that will live in infamy.
Become-monk moment, Temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Nam-Hwa Sah, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China, September 7, 1992. Dae Soen Sa Nim brushes my head with water before tapping it with a small sword, symbolizing the act of cutting the hair. From this moment on, you’ve been stuck with what he did there that day.

That was 27 years ago.

So, “feeling” that you want to become a monk and actually needing to become a monk – as if you suddenly discovered your head on fire – are two vastly different things. It would be much better not to become a monk if the reasons are not clear. I have met many, many people as monks (and nuns) who ordained for reasons that were not clear when they ordained, and their whole monastic lives just reflect those unclear reasons. This is especially true in Asia, where Buddhist monasticism is more institutionalized: Maybe they ordain because they come from a poor family, and see it as a path to better education. For some, it is chosen because of family expectations. For some, being a monk can be a kind of job which takes care of your living conditions for life.

Among Westerners, you meet some who chose the monastic path because of some spiritual fantasy. Then they often get disappointed to see how much hard work is required, how little (actually, no) privacy you have, how much you must be aware of hierarchy, etiquette, and form; there is very very little “free time,” at least for the first 5-6 years, and you really have to give up your freedom altogether. But this is just your “outer” freedom, your opinions and likes and dislikes. Yet many people who experience this get too disturbed, and they end up leaving the monastic path soon.

Becoming a monk is a process of great disorientation and destruction, and if your reasons are not clear, then this great disorientation of your conventional thinking and expectations never orients itself toward wisdom and compassion, and the destruction of your illusions and ignorance never become recreated as Dharma. You really have to have a very strong intention in order for the medicine of monastic practice to fully penetrate to the root. And it requires great patience, suffering, and endurance for this penetration to happen fully.

Anyway, this is too many words: I think you get the point. The best way to know if you can become a monk is to be perfectly frank with yourself: How much do I need to do this? How much am I willing to truly give body and soul to this Path, no matter what the heavy burdens and trials I am given? There are many other paths in life which can be just as fulfilling – even more – for practicing Zen than becoming a monk.

99%? or 100%?  Only you can know that for sure.

Good luck.

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