Saturday, November 05, 2011

Urban Monk Blues

I've categorized myself many times here as an "urban monk."  Perhaps it's time to discuss what I mean by that.

A monk can generally be characterized as one who practices religious asceticism, either alone or with other monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose.  In Buddhism, one encounters descriptions of monks who reside in monasteries apart from society at large, as well as more reclusive mountain and forest monks.  One monk sat alone in a cave facing the wall and another in a monastery of hundreds. One monk lived in a remote valley, drawing water from the stream with a ladle, and another was an abbot with dozens of students.  

Some depended on charitable contributions and others survived by begging for alms.  Some monasteries were more or less self supporting, with their own farms and labor force.  Some mountain and forest monks survived by performing menial tasks, like chopping wood and carrying water.  But whatever their means, mendicant or mercantile, they were all engaged in some form or another of commerce - in this interdependent world, no one survives without some form of assistance from others.

Here in the 21st Century, one can be as removed from the everyday world in the city as in the mountains or what's left of the forests.  In fact, the sad truth is that in cities across the globe, a great many people are living in virtual anonymity.  Not having chosen to be removed from society, they are still unseen and forgotten by the world at large, barely scraping by for survival.  One can retreat from the world by moving far from the city, and one can disappear from the world right in the middle of the city.

My life has been in the latter category.   I live alone.  I am geographically removed from family.  I consider my house to be a monastery for one, a refuge from the chaotic world.  It provides shelter from the elements, it provides safety and security, it provides privacy from the world so that I can pursue my practice.  It has a separate room dedicated to zazen, a library full of books on koans and sutras and commentaries on koans and sutras, and a kitchen in which food can be prepared for sustenance and strength.

I survive by selling my labor for wages, and my expertise born of many years of experience means that I can sell my labor for substantially more than the minimum wage.  I live well, no where even remotely close to the 1% to be sure, but fabulously wealthy by the standards of many in the world.  In addition to the monastery for one, I have a dependable automobile and don't have day-to-day financial worries, such as how I'm going to afford my next meal.  This modest wealth has been my great blessing but it has also been a difficult obstacle in practice of the Way.

Zen Master Dogen encouraged his students to embrace poverty. "When we look at people in the secular world," he said, "men of property inevitably have two kinds of troubles; anger and dishonor. If they have some treasure, others wish to steal it, and when they try to protect it anger immediately arises. Or in talking about some matter, argument and negotiation eventually escalate to conflict and fighting. Proceeding in this way anger will arise and result in dishonor. Being poor and unselfish, releases people from these problems and they find peace." 

"Proof is right in front of our eyes," he continued.  "We don’t need to search for it in the scriptures. Not only that, ancient sages and wise predecessors criticized being wealthy, and heavenly deities, buddhas, and patriarchs have all denounced it. Nevertheless, foolish people accumulate wealth and bear so much anger; this is the shame of shames. Our wise predecessors, ancient sages, buddhas, and patriarchs have all been poor yet aspired to the Way."

One day a monk asked Dogen about what to be careful of in learning the Way. Dogen replied, “First of all, a person studying the Way should be thoroughly poor.  If you possess great wealth, you will definitely lose aspiration. If a person learning the Way still clings to wealth, covets comfortable housing, and keeps company with relatives, despite having the aspiration he will confront many obstacles in learning the Way."

The proof is indeed right in front our eyes.  My house is my monastery for one, but it comes with a mortgage and obligations and debt.  And in this economic time of upside-down real-estate values and sluggish sales, I find myself unable to free myself from those obligations, unable to break free of the many demands and requirements of a materialist society.  I am obligated to sell my labor on a full-time basis for the required wages, and able to take little time off to pursue other endeavors.  When the opportunity presented itself to move to the Northwest, the house and associated financial obligations prevented me from doing so.  

Such is life in samsara, I tell myself.  Liberation from this situation is not necessarily found in running away from it, but in mindful recognition and acceptance of the predicament.  Just breathe, and then get on with the chopping of wood and carrying of water. But just as I begin to convince myself that I'm neither attached to wealth and comfort nor grasping at a life beyond my reach, someone or something threatens to disrupt the flow of the required wages, and anger arises, as well as resentment and anxiety and irrational fears of homelessness, starvation, and medical neglect.  It is then that I can see that Dogen was correct, to have wealth is to want to protect and preserve it, and anger arises when the protection and preservation are challenged.  

To be sure, it's not a unique situation I find myself in.  In fact, as a so-called urban monk, I don't have the additional pressures and responsibilities of most of my neighbors and peers - no wife and children to additionally feed and clothe, no setting aside of funds for future college tuition, no second or third (or more) cars.  With so much less to lose and so fewer dependents, I can see that it's not really the loss of possessions that's so upsetting, it's wounded pride that's reacting so strongly, pride born of attachment to reputation.  To be blunt, I'm not so anxious about losing my home or my job as I am about others knowing about the loss.  It sounds silly when I say it, but that's probably why I choose not to be cognizant of it most of the time (which sounds even sillier when said).

The ancient Chinese Master Layman Pang was not a monastic, but lived in a house with his wife and at least one daughter.  After entering the Way, he supposedly placed all but his most essential possessions in a boat and rowed it out into the middle of a lake, where he let it all sink to the bottom.  Some criticized this move, saying he could have given it all to the poor and needy, but Pang replied that he could see how his possessions and his wealth had caused him so much suffering.  "Why would I inflict that pain on others?," he asked.

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