Monastic Separateness & Engagement (part 1): Problematizing Separateness

Posted by on Nov 22, 2010 in Otherhood | No Comments

[This series of posts, “The Elements of Monasticism” asks the question, what exactly is monasticism? “Separateness & Engagement” will unfold in a series of 4 posts (links: 1234).]

Why put on the robe of the monk, and live aloof from the world in lonely pride? —Kabîr

For monks are not a special sort of people, but only what all people ought to be. —Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov [1. via p.1, Benedict’s Dharma, edited by Patrick Henry, 2001.]

The world is a rare case of selective asymmetry./ The capitol is redolent of burnt monk. —From “Mad Lib Elegy” by Ben Lerner [2. From Lerner’s collection of sonnets, “The Lichtenberg Figures” (2004) Link]

This is a post about how monks are and are not “aloof from the world.” I will hypothesize that our idea of monastic life need not be limited to the ways in which it stands apart from the worldly. There are many flavors of separateness, and the one that is often associated with monks and nuns is just one way of being monastic, and not even the most essential or most useful aspect.

But first, some meta-jabber.

One of this blog’s hidden tasks is to undermine some assumptions (mine and other people’s) about monasticism.

Of course, there is no one monasticism. If I aim to untangle some of the simplistic ideals about monasticism from what is actually shared among monastic traditions, I have to be willing to end up holding nothing (except for robes and beads, maybe).  If I want to boil down monasticism to some kind of essence that we can mix into the secular brew, I have to be willing to admit that “monasticism” may be the phantom name we use for various aggregates of many different strains of culture, and that we only have a word for it because of the resemblance of its external forms.

At the same time, I have another hidden task: to suggest that monks can feel empowered to be identified as “monks” however they choose, whether by their community, by society, or by themselves. Some will self-identify the way an artist may (e.g. before ever acting on it, or only after years of hard work), and some will be credentialed the way doctors and academics are. Some will take vows, follow rules and live or work in communities. Some will be monks only in their minds.

It is perhaps with this task in mind that this post will unfold the way it does. I must feel like I’m defending someone. Maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s everyone who feels like “a monk in the world.” Whatever the source of the voice in my head that says “if you’re not a hermit, you’re not monk enough,” I suspect I’m not the only one that hears it.

Monks are not special people. “We are all ordinary human beings working with ordinary problems,” says Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Monasteries likewise are not special; they are just communities. They deal with the same problems that all communities deal with. Monasticism is not a special institution. The whole monastic mystique (Monastique™) and the air of privileged access to or closeness to the Divine are in need of a good airing out.

Separateness

There are as many ways of relating to separateness as there are traditions (or even as many as there are monastics). There are monasteries perched on the tops of mountains and monasteries in the middle of cities. There are traditions where monastics live their entire lives behind cloister walls, and there are traditions where monks spend just a period of their life in the monastery. Some monastics live in community, some live in isolation, some live off what is handed them on the streets.

I think there’s a fourth class of monks operating incognito in society, with families or communities or alone, with careers and wealth or in poverty, with political leanings or in oblivion. For these people too, there is separateness.

I aim to tease out a few of the different flavors of separateness, and to see of which forms monasticism is essentially guilty. Which forms of separateness have something to offer the contemporary secular world?

Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Reggie Ray, of Dharma Ocean, says:

We are a very extroverted society. Even though within the Western tradition the practice of seclusion and retreat are very much a part of our own spiritual culture—the contemplative practices of Roman Catholicism, for example—most people are not aware that they are part of our heritage.

I think the other reason is that not only has the typical Western person spent little or no time alone, but many of us have an underlying fear of solitude. Possibly driving some of the misunderstanding of retreat is a deep-seated fear of being alone without distraction, without entertainment, without “work,” without other people around to constantly confirm our sense of self. We live in a culture driven by consumerism. Many of us feel, perhaps without realizing it, that unless we are “producing” in some sort of external, materialistic way, our legitimacy as a human being is somehow in question. We don’t really see where retreat fits in.

Flavors of Separateness

Monastic vs. Worldly Dualism

To kick things off, a (rather casual) remark by Arianna Huffington in an EnlightenNext interview:

I have chosen both to be on a spiritual path and to be politically engaged, and I don’t see any tension between the two, provided I remember to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There are a lot of religious traditions that require isolating oneself from the world and praying—the monastic traditions. My form of spirituality is not a form of withdrawal but of engagement, personal and collective. And that comes partly from my own Greek tradition. The word idiot comes from ancient Greek—an idiot was someone who was not engaged in public life. So there is a deep Greek tradition of engagement. It’s part of what has shaped me. For me, engagement in the world is an extension of my spiritual life.

Huffington’s view—isolation is the same thing as disengagement, monastics are isolated, therefore monastics are disengaged—is among the more benign of a handful of assumptions about monasticism I’ve encountered recently. Yet it stands for a simplistic perspective, which happens to be the very a straw man I’m so intent on hacking apart here: the Monastic versus Worldly dualism.

There is the world over here, and there are monks in monasteries over there. To be a monk, you must dwell in permanent separation from society. You leave it alone, and it might leave you alone.

The fact is, monks and nuns are as entangled as anyone else in the web of mutuality that defines our world. Even if they live their whole lives behind walls, monastics are still “engaged” with the world.  As I will argue later, they are economic actors, subject to laws, morally involved and politically influential/influenceable. The world is as constantly molded by their actions as it is by anyone else’s.

Neither monks, nor monasteries, nor monasticism as an institution are actually separate from the world, nor has separateness ever been the dominating point of the monastic endeavor. It is only a means among many means (and a limited meme among more useful memes). The goals of monasticism are as varied as the monks that enter monasteries, and (I would speculate) running away from the world is rarely a long-lived one. The world keeps rushing back at you.

The view that the monastic and the worldly are wholly discrete (the one dwelling forever in transcendence or in mockery of the other) is one that both opportunistic monastics and politically-minded laypeople have taken advantage of for thousands of years. I wonder if behind this view is a fear that monks are up to something special in there, as well as an anger that monks are just trying to avoid the difficulty that all of us have to live with from day to day. I’m sure the Monastic vs. Worldly dualism has served many people well over the centuries, keeping greedy or abusive monks in check and scaring off anyone who would be inclined just to escape the world. Even today, in places where monks can still make money off the superstitious, or where life is so bleak that the monastery is seen as a viable escape, a degree of skepticism toward the institution is justified.

The monastic vs. worldly dualism exists in large part, I would posit, because of a conflation of the other types of separateness in which monasticism more genuinely participates. It somehow manages to subsume all other, more nuanced separatenesses.

Physical Withdrawnness

For example, the most basic, obvious form of separateness: physical withdrawnness. This is a temporary state of being, a relationship to certain kinds of sensory experience, and to people and institutions. It’s nothing special, and we do it every day. When I leave a roomful of people and step into the bathroom, I’m physically withdrawn from them. For minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years, monks or lay people become physically withdrawn. Hermits may become physically withdrawn for decades. “For example, today, in all of the Theravada countries, in addition to the classical and conventional monasticism, there is a forest tradition. Within the forest tradition, monks live in isolation in the jungle, where they devote themselves to meditation all day and all night long.”

One of my main points here is that being physically withdrawn from people, society, or sensory input is just one aspect of a monastic’s life, and it exists in a wide spectrum from tradition to tradition. More radically, being physically withdrawn from the world isn’t necessarily being disengaged from it. While you are in retreat, you are engaged, and when you come back, you are more engaged. Ray again:

What solitary retreat practice provides that I don’t think is possible in any other way is freedom from the distraction and the reinforcement and confusion of interpersonal relationships, so over a period of time your mind is able to open up to a much greater depth than would otherwise be possible. We talk about living in the moment, but it’s just a concept for most people. In retreat you actually learn how to do it. In fact, it occurs naturally.

The full benefit is not really realized in retreat itself. The whole point of retreat is to develop your mind and your state of being so that when you’re living your ordinary life you are more present to yourself and to your life and to other people.

You can look at retreat as a practice to develop compassion for other people. …Far from being an antisocial practice, retreat practice frees you to love people in a uniquely powerful way.

Most of us would love to be kind to others, to be compassionate, and yet we are so tied up with our own hope and fear, our own emotions and our own preconceptions, that we just can’t do it; not really. Through retreat practice, we learn the pathway to the person we most long to be.

Social Transcendance: Apart from the “Default”

Another form of separateness is exemplified by the Burning Man festival. I’ve been a few times, and routinely find it an enriching, transformative experience. What is perhaps most transformative, and also most annoying, about burners [that is, people who frequent Burning Man] is the extent to which they consider themselves apart from the “default” world.

This is something that burners share this with a lot of nascent monastics: a sense that the path of least resistance afforded by the modern world (simplistically put: well-paying jobs, shopping, mortgages and cars…) is not sufficient to meet many human needs. Burners and monastics begin to seek out other ways of meeting those basic needs.

This is similar to what Marsha Sinetar, in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, calls “social transcendence”: “Emotional independence or detachment from societal influences, even from other people when necessary.” For Sinetar, a monk is “the person who, due to an inner prompting, turns from familiar, secure patterns of social custom, relationship and community life toward something altogether unknown.”

In the end, though, I would consider this just one stage of the path of the monastic. Any transcendance of the social is an illusion. Any standing in relation to the “default” cannot but occur in a way that is a part of, and has an impact on, the very default world that is being transcended.  Another post for another day, perhaps.

Contemplative Absorption

A more monastic-smelling separateness is that of contemplative absorption, a more or less temporary state of mind in which the outside world, space & time seem to fall away, subject and object blur, and the individual experiences the unconditioned, timeless, formless nature of reality. This often occurs in certain types of meditation, but has been reported in other activities, such as artistic or aethletic flow states, sexual activity, drug trips, near death experiences, or even randomly while waiting for the bus. Monastics and mystics who abide in this state for months or years at a time, tapped into something deep and formless, can’t possibly consider themselves “engaged with the world”, right? There are a couple perspectives on this. My own is closer to that of Reggie Ray:

You can look at retreat as a practice to develop compassion for other people. …Far from being an antisocial practice, retreat practice frees you to love people in a uniquely powerful way.

Another perspective I’ve heard goes something like this:

[Mystics] hold the invisible fabric of the world’s transformational energies together in a coherent field that supports the upliftment of those of lesser attainment and of the whole of humanity. In some ways, this is even more important than the visible spiritual teaching.

As this latter perspective seems tough to prove, and as the depth of practice this kind of absorption requires occurs both within and without monastic tradition, I’ll leave it to others to argue about.

Non-dual, Alone in the Crowd

Integrating this experience of the unconditioned with the world she has chosen (whether it’s a community of monastics, a family, a life alone in the forest, or among friends and coworkers.), the monastic begins to see that the unconditioned is not something apart from the conditioned. The absolute includes the relative. She finds “this blessed reality,” in the words of Lama Surya Das, “spontaneously present and perfectly manifesting every moment unimpededly.”

Regardless, when a monastic finally chooses to descend from the cloud of unknowing, she finds herself in many ways alone in the crowd. Still apart from the constructed world, but engaging it with a mixture of equanimity and urgency. Rather than feeling a need to de-identify with the the “default” world, or to remain absorbed in oneness with God or the ground of being, the monastic is fully integrated (perhaps more so than ever before) into the world at large.

Problematizing

It becomes problematic when society conflates one of these types of separateness with another. The ultimate conflation, which I described above as the monastic vs. worldly dualism, causes boundaries to appear where there are none and masks the subtleties of monastic life, benefitting no one.

Yet the monastic vs. worldly dualism is just one out of a cluster of assumptions about the relationship of the monastic person and the world. I’ll explore some others in the next post. In the third post in this series, I will look at the larger role of monasticism in society. And in the fourth post, I’ll pose some counter-declarations to the assumptions we’ve explored.

[This series of posts, “The Elements of Monasticism” asks the question, what exactly is monasticism? “Separateness & Engagement” will unfold in a series of 4 posts (links: 1234).]

Why put on the robe of the monk, and live aloof from the world in lonely pride? —Kabîr

For monks are not a special sort of people, but only what all people ought to be. —Father Zosima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov [1. via p.1, Benedict’s Dharma, edited by Patrick Henry, 2001.]

The world is a rare case of selective asymmetry./ The capitol is redolent of burnt monk. —From “Mad Lib Elegy” by Ben Lerner [2. From Lerner’s collection of sonnets, “The Lichtenberg Figures” (2004) Link]

This is a post about how monks are and are not “aloof from the world.” I will hypothesize that our idea of monastic life need not be limited to the ways in which it stands apart from the worldly. There are many flavors of separateness, and the one that is often associated with monks and nuns is just one way of being monastic, and not even the most essential or most useful aspect.

But first, some meta-jabber.

One of this blog’s hidden tasks is to undermine some assumptions (mine and other people’s) about monasticism.

Of course, there is no one monasticism. If I aim to untangle some of the simplistic ideals about monasticism from what is actually shared among monastic traditions, I have to be willing to end up holding nothing (except for robes and beads, maybe).  If I want to boil down monasticism to some kind of essence that we can mix into the secular brew, I have to be willing to admit that “monasticism” may be the phantom name we use for various aggregates of many different strains of culture, and that we only have a word for it because of the resemblance of its external forms.

At the same time, I have another hidden task: to suggest that monks can feel empowered to be identified as “monks” however they choose, whether by their community, by society, or by themselves. Some will self-identify the way an artist may (e.g. before ever acting on it, or only after years of hard work), and some will be credentialed the way doctors and academics are. Some will take vows, follow rules and live or work in communities. Some will be monks only in their minds.

It is perhaps with this task in mind that this post will unfold the way it does. I must feel like I’m defending someone. Maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s everyone who feels like “a monk in the world.” Whatever the source of the voice in my head that says “if you’re not a hermit, you’re not monk enough,” I suspect I’m not the only one that hears it.

Monks are not special people. “We are all ordinary human beings working with ordinary problems,” says Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Monasteries likewise are not special; they are just communities. They deal with the same problems that all communities deal with. Monasticism is not a special institution. The whole monastic mystique (Monastique™) and the air of privileged access to or closeness to the Divine are in need of a good airing out.

Separateness

There are as many ways of relating to separateness as there are traditions (or even as many as there are monastics). There are monasteries perched on the tops of mountains and monasteries in the middle of cities. There are traditions where monastics live their entire lives behind cloister walls, and there are traditions where monks spend just a period of their life in the monastery. Some monastics live in community, some live in isolation, some live off what is handed them on the streets.

I think there’s a fourth class of monks operating incognito in society, with families or communities or alone, with careers and wealth or in poverty, with political leanings or in oblivion. For these people too, there is separateness.

I aim to tease out a few of the different flavors of separateness, and to see of which forms monasticism is essentially guilty. Which forms of separateness have something to offer the contemporary secular world?

Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher Reggie Ray, of Dharma Ocean, says:

We are a very extroverted society. Even though within the Western tradition the practice of seclusion and retreat are very much a part of our own spiritual culture—the contemplative practices of Roman Catholicism, for example—most people are not aware that they are part of our heritage.

I think the other reason is that not only has the typical Western person spent little or no time alone, but many of us have an underlying fear of solitude. Possibly driving some of the misunderstanding of retreat is a deep-seated fear of being alone without distraction, without entertainment, without “work,” without other people around to constantly confirm our sense of self. We live in a culture driven by consumerism. Many of us feel, perhaps without realizing it, that unless we are “producing” in some sort of external, materialistic way, our legitimacy as a human being is somehow in question. We don’t really see where retreat fits in.

Flavors of Separateness

Monastic vs. Worldly Dualism

To kick things off, a (rather casual) remark by Arianna Huffington in an EnlightenNext interview:

I have chosen both to be on a spiritual path and to be politically engaged, and I don’t see any tension between the two, provided I remember to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There are a lot of religious traditions that require isolating oneself from the world and praying—the monastic traditions. My form of spirituality is not a form of withdrawal but of engagement, personal and collective. And that comes partly from my own Greek tradition. The word idiot comes from ancient Greek—an idiot was someone who was not engaged in public life. So there is a deep Greek tradition of engagement. It’s part of what has shaped me. For me, engagement in the world is an extension of my spiritual life.

Huffington’s view—isolation is the same thing as disengagement, monastics are isolated, therefore monastics are disengaged—is among the more benign of a handful of assumptions about monasticism I’ve encountered recently. Yet it stands for a simplistic perspective, which happens to be the very a straw man I’m so intent on hacking apart here: the Monastic versus Worldly dualism.

There is the world over here, and there are monks in monasteries over there. To be a monk, you must dwell in permanent separation from society. You leave it alone, and it might leave you alone.

The fact is, monks and nuns are as entangled as anyone else in the web of mutuality that defines our world. Even if they live their whole lives behind walls, monastics are still “engaged” with the world.  As I will argue later, they are economic actors, subject to laws, morally involved and politically influential/influenceable. The world is as constantly molded by their actions as it is by anyone else’s.

Neither monks, nor monasteries, nor monasticism as an institution are actually separate from the world, nor has separateness ever been the dominating point of the monastic endeavor. It is only a means among many means (and a limited meme among more useful memes). The goals of monasticism are as varied as the monks that enter monasteries, and (I would speculate) running away from the world is rarely a long-lived one. The world keeps rushing back at you.

The view that the monastic and the worldly are wholly discrete (the one dwelling forever in transcendence or in mockery of the other) is one that both opportunistic monastics and politically-minded laypeople have taken advantage of for thousands of years. I wonder if behind this view is a fear that monks are up to something special in there, as well as an anger that monks are just trying to avoid the difficulty that all of us have to live with from day to day. I’m sure the Monastic vs. Worldly dualism has served many people well over the centuries, keeping greedy or abusive monks in check and scaring off anyone who would be inclined just to escape the world. Even today, in places where monks can still make money off the superstitious, or where life is so bleak that the monastery is seen as a viable escape, a degree of skepticism toward the institution is justified.

The monastic vs. worldly dualism exists in large part, I would posit, because of a conflation of the other types of separateness in which monasticism more genuinely participates. It somehow manages to subsume all other, more nuanced separatenesses.

Physical Withdrawnness

For example, the most basic, obvious form of separateness: physical withdrawnness. This is a temporary state of being, a relationship to certain kinds of sensory experience, and to people and institutions. It’s nothing special, and we do it every day. When I leave a roomful of people and step into the bathroom, I’m physically withdrawn from them. For minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or years, monks or lay people become physically withdrawn. Hermits may become physically withdrawn for decades. “For example, today, in all of the Theravada countries, in addition to the classical and conventional monasticism, there is a forest tradition. Within the forest tradition, monks live in isolation in the jungle, where they devote themselves to meditation all day and all night long.”

One of my main points here is that being physically withdrawn from people, society, or sensory input is just one aspect of a monastic’s life, and it exists in a wide spectrum from tradition to tradition. More radically, being physically withdrawn from the world isn’t necessarily being disengaged from it. While you are in retreat, you are engaged, and when you come back, you are more engaged. Ray again:

What solitary retreat practice provides that I don’t think is possible in any other way is freedom from the distraction and the reinforcement and confusion of interpersonal relationships, so over a period of time your mind is able to open up to a much greater depth than would otherwise be possible. We talk about living in the moment, but it’s just a concept for most people. In retreat you actually learn how to do it. In fact, it occurs naturally.

The full benefit is not really realized in retreat itself. The whole point of retreat is to develop your mind and your state of being so that when you’re living your ordinary life you are more present to yourself and to your life and to other people.

You can look at retreat as a practice to develop compassion for other people. …Far from being an antisocial practice, retreat practice frees you to love people in a uniquely powerful way.

Most of us would love to be kind to others, to be compassionate, and yet we are so tied up with our own hope and fear, our own emotions and our own preconceptions, that we just can’t do it; not really. Through retreat practice, we learn the pathway to the person we most long to be.

Social Transcendance: Apart from the “Default”

Another form of separateness is exemplified by the Burning Man festival. I’ve been a few times, and routinely find it an enriching, transformative experience. What is perhaps most transformative, and also most annoying, about burners [that is, people who frequent Burning Man] is the extent to which they consider themselves apart from the “default” world.

This is something that burners share this with a lot of nascent monastics: a sense that the path of least resistance afforded by the modern world (simplistically put: well-paying jobs, shopping, mortgages and cars…) is not sufficient to meet many human needs. Burners and monastics begin to seek out other ways of meeting those basic needs.

This is similar to what Marsha Sinetar, in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics, calls “social transcendence”: “Emotional independence or detachment from societal influences, even from other people when necessary.” For Sinetar, a monk is “the person who, due to an inner prompting, turns from familiar, secure patterns of social custom, relationship and community life toward something altogether unknown.”

In the end, though, I would consider this just one stage of the path of the monastic. Any transcendance of the social is an illusion. Any standing in relation to the “default” cannot but occur in a way that is a part of, and has an impact on, the very default world that is being transcended.  Another post for another day, perhaps.

Contemplative Absorption

A more monastic-smelling separateness is that of contemplative absorption, a more or less temporary state of mind in which the outside world, space & time seem to fall away, subject and object blur, and the individual experiences the unconditioned, timeless, formless nature of reality. This often occurs in certain types of meditation, but has been reported in other activities, such as artistic or aethletic flow states, sexual activity, drug trips, near death experiences, or even randomly while waiting for the bus. Monastics and mystics who abide in this state for months or years at a time, tapped into something deep and formless, can’t possibly consider themselves “engaged with the world”, right? There are a couple perspectives on this. My own is closer to that of Reggie Ray:

You can look at retreat as a practice to develop compassion for other people. …Far from being an antisocial practice, retreat practice frees you to love people in a uniquely powerful way.

Another perspective I’ve heard goes something like this:

[Mystics] hold the invisible fabric of the world’s transformational energies together in a coherent field that supports the upliftment of those of lesser attainment and of the whole of humanity. In some ways, this is even more important than the visible spiritual teaching.

As this latter perspective seems tough to prove, and as the depth of practice this kind of absorption requires occurs both within and without monastic tradition, I’ll leave it to others to argue about.

Non-dual, Alone in the Crowd

Integrating this experience of the unconditioned with the world she has chosen (whether it’s a community of monastics, a family, a life alone in the forest, or among friends and coworkers.), the monastic begins to see that the unconditioned is not something apart from the conditioned. The absolute includes the relative. She finds “this blessed reality,” in the words of Lama Surya Das, “spontaneously present and perfectly manifesting every moment unimpededly.”

Regardless, when a monastic finally chooses to descend from the cloud of unknowing, she finds herself in many ways alone in the crowd. Still apart from the constructed world, but engaging it with a mixture of equanimity and urgency. Rather than feeling a need to de-identify with the the “default” world, or to remain absorbed in oneness with God or the ground of being, the monastic is fully integrated (perhaps more so than ever before) into the world at large.

Problematizing

It becomes problematic when society conflates one of these types of separateness with another. The ultimate conflation, which I described above as the monastic vs. worldly dualism, causes boundaries to appear where there are none and masks the subtleties of monastic life, benefitting no one.

Yet the monastic vs. worldly dualism is just one out of a cluster of assumptions about the relationship of the monastic person and the world. I’ll explore some others in the next post. In the third post in this series, I will look at the larger role of monasticism in society. And in the fourth post, I’ll pose some counter-declarations to the assumptions we’ve explored.

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