Jainism. Wow, what a trip huh?
This has not been the most popular month, however it is one of the most controversial. Simply put, it’s hard living as an ascetic, but twice as hard doing it while part of a family. I never said it would be easy and in many ways, I knew I’d fail. But success was never the point; experience and learning was the idea.
Let’s review the Jain basics.
Jains believe in the nine tattvas (principles), the centerpiece of all Jain thought. They are:
Jiva (soul/living being)
Ajiva (all non-living matter–including karmic particles which give all Jiva their bodies)
Asrava (the influx of karma such as attachment to feelings, objects, or people)
Bandha (the actual bonding of karma to the body)
Punya (virtuous acts)
Papa (sinful acts)
Samvara (stoppage of karma accumulation)
Nirjara (elimination of accumulated karma)
Moksha (total freedom from karma)
Jainism was not founded by an individual, but reestablished and taught by 24 successive Tirthankaras (ford-makers), the last of which was Mahavira in this time cycle.
Every Jain takes at least the following five vows to some extent:
- Ahimsa (non-injury/violence). This includes harmful/negative thoughts against others.
- Absolute truthfulness.
- Vow of absolute celibacy (for monastics) and chastity for the laity.
- Vow of non-possession (monastics may own little to nothing while the laity are encourage to avoid attachment).
Observation of these vows and meditation practices cultivates one toward the Triple Gems of Jainism, which are Right Faith, Right Knowledge, and Right Conduct.
This month I decided to live as closely as possible as a Jain monk. Jain monastics are quite intense in their austerities and because monasticism is a crucial element of the faith world, I wanted at least a taste of this lifestyle during my year. The inherent problem is that monks don’t live with their families, however I had no choice but to live among mine.
This dynamic situation created tensions in the beginning. I observed eating only one, small meal a day–one that my family had to serve. I didn’t bathe for three days for fear of harming other lifeforms. I slept on the floor (but usually ended up on the couch). I also didn’t drive anywhere. One day, I walked nearly two miles to my wife’s Bible study (they enjoy learning about each of my months) in the robes and was approached by three police officers. November made me the odd man out.
But what was it like, living this way?
Honestly, it’s hard as hell. The days are slower because I’m not busy occupying myself with anything outside of study and meditation. Boredom is a powerful enemy. I no longer jogged or worked out (the laity are free to do this, by the way) out of fear of harming life around me. Hunger was an issue for a few days, but soon I felt better–lighter, and it was no longer an desire.
As a compromise, I started bathing after day three, however I avoided soap. After a month without using soap, my skin actually feels healthier. Go figure!
The Jain way of life is all about non-violence, so much so that their philosophy influenced Mahatma Gandhi and even Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s about avoiding and shedding karma in order to free one’s soul. It’s a tough regimen that even the laity have a hard time with. I compared it to Marine Corps. boot camp. The system is harsh, but you’re in the best shape of your life. Some folks were highly critical of the faith’s ideals but what they may not realize is that not everyone shares Western values. Some forget that my journey through each faith isn’t a matter of convincing others of that faith’s principles, but simply showing them what they are. There is little room for judgement, negativity, or animosity here. I heard many say that the Jain way is selfish when a monastic leaves their family. In most cases, a Jain family is highly honored if a loved one takes on the robes in the same way a Western family is proud of a member who gets a dream job or promotion. One situation is proud of their loved one letting go, the other of getting more. The values are simply opposite. So why not turn the judgement on yourself? Is it not selfish to go through life wanting this, and wanting that, accumulating things and situations that will only evaporate in the end? A Jain monk let’s go of all this and reduces his/her life to serving his/her community and the improvement of their spiritual state. How is that selfish?
I understand that not everyone geeks out over religion like I do. In a way, I suppose I’m like a kid super-excited over a new video game when all his mom wants him to do is clean his room. Sometimes I get disappointed when folks aren’t as into something along my adventure as I am. But all of that is cool. I enjoyed my time as a Jain monk (even if I messed up, a lot), because it taught me how to reduce the noise and negativity in my life. I haven’t worn shoes, used soap, and barely wore “normal” clothes in 30 days. It all feels…liberating.
This month taught me–perhaps more than any other–about the sanctity of life. I’ll never forget the day I accidentally killed that ant. Remember that? I was devastated and fasted afterward! Jains believe that every living thing, plants and microbes included, has a soul, a soul that is on the same journey as we are toward liberation. Killing in any way is abhorrent. My wife hated that she had to dispatch any insect home invaders this month because I simply refused to kill them. If anything, I’m just a little more sensitive to life around me, and I see no fault in that.
So now, the transition from one faith to another begins all over again. The special part is that December is my last month in this journey. Today, I transform from a Jain monk into a Catholic. Two ends of a wide spectrum. I want to thank all of you again for hanging with me this month. Considering I had no Mentor and very little involvement from the Jain faith community, I think we did okay.
What are your favorite features of the Jain faith, laity or monastic? What are your least favorite? Are there any concepts, values, or practices you could use in your own life?