The Monastic Calling

Monasticism in the Mountains and Rivers Order

Featured in Mountain Record 25.3, Spring 2007




Gatha on Shaving the Head

In this drifting, wandering world,
it is very difficult to cut off our human ties.
Now I cast them away, and enter true activity.
It is in this way that I express my gratitude.
As I shave my head, I vow to live a life of
simplicity, service, stability, selflessness,
and to accomplish the Buddha’s Way.
May I manifest my life with wisdom and compassion
and actualize the Tathagata’s true teaching.


Monasticism has been around for thousands of years. Buddhist monasticism dates back 2,500 years to the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, who pointed out the pivotal role and power of this form of spiritual practice. Christian monasticism in the West and Buddhist monasticism in the East have played a profound role in the historical and cultural development of our world.

Because of the intrinsic mystery of the monastic calling, the unheralded nature of monastic work, and the dominant trends of our consumerist, goal-oriented society, very few people today have any accurate sense of what monasticism is about—why and how people become monastics, what it means to be a monastic, and how monasticism fits within a society and the world.

The ceremony of tokudo, or full ordination, gives me a rare opportunity to shed some light on the nature and functioning of monasticism. It is a rare occasion because most of the Buddhist community in the West—some ninety-nine percent of it—is made up of lay practitioners, or as we refer to them within the Mountains and Rivers Order, homedwellers. Consequently, most of my teachings are directed to those living in the world and usually don’t take up the issues pertaining to monastic practice.

Yet, it is the monastic institution of Buddhism that has provided the container within which the forms and the teachings that we are enriched by today were cultivated and transmitted. In my view, it is absolutely necessary that we establish deep roots of Western Buddhist monasticism to ensure the continuity of that transmission.

Zen monastic practice first flourished during the Tang dynasty in China. It was shaped by great masters such as Baizhang, who is credited as the author of the first Zen monastic rule. Later, during the Sung dynasty, art became the major thrust of Zen training, and some of the monastic forms were consequently diluted. When Dogen returned to Japan from his stay in China, he created his own rule or shingi, reviving the monastic form. Zen then traveled to Korea, Vietnam, and eventually to the West.


photo by Cameron Broadhurst