By Rev. Jon Turner
A friend of mine named Larry once told me about an experience he once had when he went to see the Dalai Lama. It was in 2006 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The Dalai Lama was there to teach both Tibetan monks and nuns as well as the general public. My friend of course was in the general public section.
He told me that he was really impressed with both the Dalai Lama and his disciples. To him, and to most Americans, monastic Buddhism is the epitome of Buddhist practice. They have dedicated their entire lives to practice; separating themselves from daily concerns. The Dalai Lama spoke for about two hours on the teachings of Nagarjuna. In a very down to earth way, the Dalai Lama was able to communicate some of Buddhism’s most philosophical teachings.
Then there was an intermission prior to the next lecture. Larry exited the auditorium looking for some snacks and the restroom. On his way out of the hall he passed a hallway that entered into the kitchen area. The door to the kitchen was wide open and he glanced in. Inside were many of the Tibetan monks that had been sitting in the front row of the Dalia Lama’s lecture. They were all dressed in saffron robes. But to his surprise many of them were lounging around and smoking cigarettes. He also said that they were sitting on the backs of chairs. Some even drinking a Diet Coke. Then Larry looked at them with eyes wide and leaned in and said that they were even watching All My Children. The soap opera with Erica Kane.
He confided in me that this really upset him and it shook his faith in Buddhism. If monks can’t resist bad posture, cigarettes, Coke and soap operas then what hope is there for all of us? How can everyday laypeople succeed in their practice if monks even have to take a break from monasticism? But then he told me over time this event actually gave him hope. Perhaps Buddhist monks and nuns are just like us. Human beings just doing the best they can practicing Buddhism. He realized that perhaps there are two equal but separate paths; both valid for ordinary human beings. One being monastic and another for everyday life. Neither one requiring us to be super heroes.
One of my instructors at the Institute of Buddhist Studies warned me about idolizing Buddhist monastics. She told me that many Americans have guru worship and it would be better to think of practicing in two different ways. One away from everyday life and another within everyday life. Each with its own pluses and minuses. It is interesting that the Dalai Lama also promotes this type of understanding and engagement with Buddhism.
When I first began to practice Buddhism, I thought I would have to move to India though not likely to ever happen. While reading a book by the Dalai Lama he actually advised you to stay put. Do not move. Do not learn another language. Just begin to practice where you are at. Practice has to be practical; something that is accessible. We also have to acknowledge that everyone is different and we each have our own unique way to practice.
Even during the Buddha’s time, he had many different types of monks and nuns. Some very academic, some very disciplined and others more natural in their practice. But the Buddha seems to have praised all of them equally – seemingly encouraging each of the Sangha to find their niche. He did so by highlighting what each excelled at. Almost like a high school yearbook.
For example, the academic: “Sariputta excels in wisdom.” The disciplined: “Maha-Kassapa best in observing strict precepts.” And the natural: “Moggallana best in insight.” We also have the great Ananda from The Larger Sutra. The Buddha’s attendant who “had heard most, had the best memory, the most understanding and who served the most.”
And then we have additional disciples recognized for their “most beautiful voice”, being “most fortunate in winning raffle drawings,” “first in poetic skills” and “most skilled in the management of seating mats.” When reading this Who’s Who of the Buddha’s disciples I immediately thought of our Sangha. Each one of us has found our path within our own everyday life, each uniquely expressed in ways that fit exactly who we are.
Each member is one of the Who’s Who of our Sangha. It might be singing, it might be bingo, it might be lyrics or it might even be stacking tables and chairs. But this is the key that opens the door to our path and practice, connecting us all and adding value. When combined we then have a very powerful and dynamic path that we may all partake in and benefit from even if we still drink Diet Coke and watch soap operas.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner