This talk was given one evening at the first conference of Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, March 1993. The reader should imagine a circle of twenty-five Buddhist Westerners from several different continents, all of whom have been teaching for some years. During the course of the talk, which is at the end of a long day of discussions, several power cuts occur (this is India…) plunging the room into ever deepening darkness. Eventually Robert Thurman, now Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, is persuaded to rise and speak. He is a towering, shambling, golden whirlwind of a man—the readers should therefore regard some of the sweeping statements and generalizations, as well as some of the liberally rendered scriptural quotes, as part of the ribald gusto and good-humored extemporization on important themes that is the beloved Professor’s style.
I was the first monk that His Holiness ordained. I was his first experiment and, of course, I was a failure because I resigned my vows about a year and a half after I was ordained, although I had lived several years before that as a celibate. I therefore have about three and a half years of monk-time logged, but only one and a half of formal ordination. Then, being an ex-monk, I became a kind of “anti-monk” intellectually; I decided that the New Age had dawned—it was the late ’60s—and there was no more need for monks and nuns or monasteries or any of that.
In the process of studying the history of Buddhism . . . I discovered, in the early ’80s, that monastic institutions were to me the most revolutionary and the most important of institutions. When I reported this to His Holiness he just laughed and laughed. “What is this?” he said. “An ex-monk is now going on and on about monasteries? You can afford to do that now. You know, with your beloved wife and your four children, that now you’re safe—you’ll never be back! You can go and promote them as much as you want, knowing you won’t have to go there—ha, ha, ha….” He thought that was very funny.
It is our typical Western thing to think, “Oh well, yes, meditation, we’ve got that from Buddhism but we’re Westerners and so we know about organizations, and of course about intellectual matters.” We may find that Buddhist civilization has a lot to contribute to us on both of those other levels, just as it did on the meditational level.
Shakyamuni Buddha was an engaged Buddhist—there cannot be any question. He was unengaged for about a week or two under the trees in the Bodhi forest. In the Tibetan tradition they have him saying this thing about “How profound, deep, peaceful, untroubled… clear light… how neat, I love this… like an elixir of immortality… I’m totally stoned out here in the woods.” And then he says, “Oh, I don’t think I should tell this to anybody because whoever I tell it to certainly won’t understand it.” That was his unengaged Buddhism; he had about five minutes of it. Then Brahma and Indra showed up and said, “Hey, come on, get down there.” So he walks to Saranath to found a monastery—this is engaged Buddhism.
We think of a monastery as a place for dead people. We have to realize that our culture is formed by Protestantism. Martin Luther slammed the monasteries, saying, “Shut down all the monasteries in northern Europe.” So you shut down the counterforce against militarism on the planet in those countries of northern Europe and what happens? The planet gets conquered by a bunch of berserk militarists. That is what we have been doing, and America is the most rabidly berserk militarist country in history; even with our ideals of liberty, we have the biggest army and defense system and the most nuclear weapons. It’s totally unbelievable. Look at the business in Iraq.
I admit it’s a weird analysis (and my sociological colleagues blink when I tell them about it) but if you remove monasticism from a social mix, what happens is that all the productive energy of people has nowhere to go but into overproduction of everything. So they go out and conquer the whole world. No one wants to produce a spiritual state to invert and internalize the energy, to produce a different, higher world, so they just transform this world and they wreck the whole place—it is within an inch of being wrecked, as we know.
Now, enlightenment is the deconstruction of identity. If you attain enlightenment, in a way you don’t even know who you are any more, much less “Where am I going to wash the dishes?” You might even wonder “What is my name?” If you have no idea of what your name is, you might as well have no hair and wear a weird robe because you don’t even know who you are.
If the Buddha is going to teach you something that will give you the realization of the total deconstruction of identity, he has to take care of you and reconstruct some sort of useful pattern within your own relativities—because otherwise he is not fulfilling his responsibility.
This is the purpose of the Vinaya. He can’t just deconstruct your identity and leave you standing in the middle of the traffic. So he would say “Ehi bhikkhu” and your hair flew off and your robes would change. There you were, floating around happily, living your life as a monk, and people would give you a free lunch.
So we have to go back to the primary thing and forget all that nonsense about hierarchy and who is the big boss—that is all nonsense. The Buddha was deconstructing the serious Brahmanical family/father/patriarch/serious authority/guru business and was liberating people.
If you build a monastery at Spirit Rock, I hope it will be called “Free Lunch Monastery.” There is almost no such thing in the West. Everyone in a monastery is justifying their existence—“We are offering services; we are going to do ‘Dying’; we will help you; we will have therapy….” It is always the production thing of our barbaric Protestant civilization. You have to do something all the time—so if you are going to be a monk, you have got to do something and produce.
But the beautiful thing about Buddhist monasticism is the acknowledgment by people that any human being is like a flower, and of total value in itself. Even if they do not do anything positive but just genuinely and sincerely restrain their negativities—put the iron wall of the monk’s robe of corpse cloth around themselves—they will be developing, and they will represent a point of positive development for the whole community.
My appeal to you is to entertain what is, I grant, this slightly demented vision: that the most activist thing the peace movement, the engaged movement, in the west could do would be to crank up the generosity to provide a permanent free lunch to any group of people who want to take serious ordination, remembering that the key to monasticism is that you can be useless. That would be a turning point for this battle between monasticism and militarism, which monasticism, at the moment, has lost.