Ever wondered what its like to be a monk?
Hinduism celebrates both asceticism and pragmatism; enlightenment can be attained, the wise explain, both by renouncing the worldly and (properly) engaging with it. Hindus revere the monk — whether a student (brahmachari) or a master (sannyasi) — for his self-sacrifice, detachment, and singular focus on a simple life dedicated to spiritual pursuits. At the same time, the faith also glorifies the householders for their ability to live and work in the general society in a spirit of devotion; householders are the exemplars of being “in the world, but not of it.”
In an ideal Hindu society, the monks and householders should compliment one another, bringing the other a new perspective. Far too often, however, the two end up misunderstanding or even resenting each other. Monks may start to see those with families as spiritually weak, attached to the pleasures of the world and burdened by so many distractions. Householders may condemn monks as self-righteous elitists or even lazy escapists.
One way of overcoming this tendency, I think, is to spend some time
inhabiting the world of the other. For my wife and myself, along with a
few other members of our temple congregation, one such opportunity came
this past long weekend. The resident monks — who live together in the ashram,
maintain the temple, and tend to the service of the sacred icons (murti)
– were attending a much-needed retreat in the country-side, and
requested that we householders move in for a few days and take care of
things in their absence.
The experience became much more than
just a mere house-sitting, however. It was instead, a unique chance to
see life — even if for just a few days — through the eyes of a monk,
and to carry lessons learned back with me. And those lessons, from the
profound to the mundane, were many. Here are a few reflections that
Living in the temple
was an exercise in re-calibrating and discovering, quite literally, that
I am not the center of the universe. In practical ways, that lesson was
unavoidable: the day’s schedule revolved around service (in this case,
mainly a shared responsibility to tend to the deities and care for the
temple). What a powerful and humbling idea: from the time I wake up to
the place I rest my head, every decision or action I take is based on my
service to God and His creation.
Application: Can I
honestly evaluate who or what is in the center of my existence right
now, in my day-to-day life? Can I intentionally re-calibrate and
re-center, so that everything I do is an act and expression of service?
Temples and ashrams are traditionally communal spaces.
Notions of personal space, I quickly learned, need to be re-defined
(and to some extent, transcended) here. This was true on the physical
level; more so, however, on the emotional and social level. Space was
tight and spending all day together, serving and living side-by-side,
was revealing. Familiarity breeds contempt. Irritations and clashing
egos forced us to confront how much we need to work on ourselves if we
want to go deeper in our relationships. We learned to accept one another
and look beyond one another’s shortcomings or quirks in order to share
in a common purpose. I realized that a monastery must function as an
actual family, and could appreciate how transparent and real everyone
must be with one another in order to survive. As householders, we often talk
about community; the monks live it, day in and day out.
Can I be more aware of where my relationships are superficial or
guarded? Can I work on cultivating closer, deeper relationships– even
when it means confronting the minor disagreements and stepping-on-toes
that is inevitable? Can I learn to see those challenges as opportunities
to grow in community?
Discovering Simple Joy
I need to be happy? In my ordinary life, I often conflate my “needs”
and my “wants,” and tend to view happiness as being dependent on the
accumulation of more and more stuff. Life at the temple was, in many
ways, a voluntary fasting from this tyranny of things. For ashram
residents, simplicity is a key. The monks live simply,
sleeping on a mat on the floor and keeping their few possessions in a
tidy locker– one of the senior monks (and a dear friend) jokingly refers
to the lockers as “the most coveted real estate in New York City.” And
in a deeper sense, they have everything they
need. But the “spartan” lifestyle doesn’t turn them into bitter
misanthropes. Quite the opposite– just about every monk I’ve met has a
certain lightness about him, and seems to radiate joy. I got a blessed
glimpse of this during my own stay at the monastery; stripped of a lot
of the external trappings, I suddenly found myself discovering happiness
and satisfaction in even the (apparently) tiniest of things.
Application: How can I simplify my life? Can I learn to resist
the temptation to pin happiness on the latest gizmo or gadget, and
instead grow to appreciate the joy that is waiting to be discovered all
around me? Can I make this type of “fasting” a regular part of my
All of this is not to say that the monks don’t have their share of
challenges– they do. And I am aware that my weekend at the monastery
was just that– a weekend. Like the city slicker who spends a
delightful weekend roughing it in the wilderness, I was grateful for the
experience but relieved to return to the comfort of my own bed on
Monday. Still, even as I strive to apply the lessons I learned there, a
part of me longs for that simple luxury of a mat on the floor and a
locker to call my own. It is a wealth that I am only beginning to see
the true value of.