I am a monk. I have had no formal training per se, by choice. What I have had, is a “Vision”. From as far back as I can remember, my “Vision” has been my True Teacher, the Spirit which continues to drive me, my Guiding Light. I have been a student of several great teachers, before, and after their deaths. When they were alive they would say to me this, they would say to me that. Some of “this” I would remember and apply. Some of “that” I would forget and discard. My Vision has been my primary formal training. Everything I have done, everything I do, has been, and continues to be a manifestation of that Vision; an expression of either my understanding of it or my lack of understanding. Either, or, has served me well.
From as far back as I can remember my Vision has been marked by a real sense of connection. I have always felt a deep and profound sense of connection with what remains nameless, by choice, yet very real for me. I have made reference to It by many names, calling It, God; Lord; Papa; Father; Mother; Jesus; Buddha; Sacred, Holy, True-Self. Of all the names I have called it, I prefer whenever referring to it, is “Mystery”. Because of this, my sense of connection continues to grow deeper and more profound over the years. What began as a more formal reference, evolved over the decades into a more intimate and very personal experience of being connected. My Vision is the Heart and Soul of my work. Like the artist I am inspired to communicate what I experience, I have shared my Vision as a monk, as a teacher, as a friend, and more recently as a parent. I have expressed my Vision as a vow, a promise, I made very early on, as an expression of my life and my life’s commitment.
I believe that the problems people face in their lives today, especially “spiritual people,” is that they lack “vision”. Most people are driven by ideas, by opinions, or beliefs, and certainly their desires. While there may be nothing inherently wrong with that, living that way is limited and restrictive. Most peoples “spirituality” is one of the many “contents” of their lives, you come to know that just by listening to them talk about it. My “spirituality,” is the “context” of my life, it is my life, my life is “spiritual”. I am always coming from the place of “being a monk,” with a “vision,” and whose life is a “vow,” a promise I made very early in my life. The immediate circumstance or situation I may find myself in at any given moment is irrelevant. In all circumstances, in all situations, I am a monk; I have taken a vow, I have made a promise. Whatever question or questions my circumstance or situation may require my answering, my answer is always the same — “I am a monk. I have taken a vow. I have made a promise.”
Vision, gives you “Purpose”. Purpose gives you a “way”of living your life with clarity while navigating through a culture that lacks any real purpose or clarity. The life of the monk is a concentration on “Realizing his or her inner divinity and manifesting his or her inner enlightenment, for the benefit of all sentient beings”. It is not necessarily a matter of giving up things, as it is about learning to live a life that supports the Vision and the Purpose of our lives. The monk “lives in the world, but not of it”. Worldly people live for their own happiness, while the monk lives for the enlightenment of all beings, everywhere.
To live ones life with “true clarity,” is a function of living ones life without options. The Third Patriarch of Zen wrote, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.” Most people spend their lives searching for answers. When ones vision and purpose for one’s life are clear, there are no options. When there are no options, there is only “The Great Way”. We do not need to achieve or develop insights or understanding. We need only to know and follow The Great Way.
My model for living in the world, remains a monastic one. In the monastery “the bell rings,” and you rise for morning meditation and prayers. The bell rings again, and you prepare your meal, and eat your meal. Once again the bell rings, and you proceed to “take care of business,” discovering whatever is needed throughout the day and produce it but, with the “mind of a monk”. The mind of a monk is one “without preferences,” the mind of “no gaining, no knowing,” the mind of “benevolent and compassionate service.”
Whatever it is I must do in any given day my practice is about experiencing my “original nature,” the true-nature of all sentient beings; and to bring an attitude to whatever I am doing, which is informed by that experience, which includes all things. Absent of any preference for it to be this way or that way, the monk meets every challenge no matter how difficult, with the intention of attending to the challenge “wholeheartedly”. When preferences rise, as they most surely will, the monk simply notices there rising and returns to being present to the challenge at hand. When the evening bell finally rings, he or she lays their head upon the pillow, and sleeps soundly until the sounding of the morning bell; bringing another day to rest allowing the world and things to also rest just the way they are.
While my “vocation” has been with me my entire lifetime, or two, or more, I stepped into the life of a monk in my early adult years. I did so because I was convinced that it would bring me closer to my original experience of “being connected.” I had fallen in love at a very young age and have never fallen out of love. I admit I have strayed on occasion, (perhaps it has to do something with being an Italian male), and whenever I have, I have always returned. I strayed for what I have told myself to be the “last time,” nearly a decade ago, and I have no intention of straying ever again. I have grown too old for traveling. Also it’s true, “There is nowhere to go, and no one to be.” When one is truly present to the life one has, really present to it, without any preferences, the life one has no matter the content, is sufficient. Just as the Sun rises all over the Earth, and the rain falls on both the good and the bad, everything we really need “Pervades the entire Universe”. We need only to develop the sight to see the entire Universe in ourselves, in others, and in each moment, and to experience “The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth,” in each breath.
We are living in radical times, which I believe will require a radical response. I remain convinced that if we continue to try and solve our problems by applying the same limited efforts we have in the past, life for millions will continue the way it always has, and suffering will only compound. While it may not be new, I would like to offer a “radical response” which has almost always been ignored or minimized by a majority. Nothing will change until each person, individually takes responsibility for their part in creating the problem. The next step is for each of us to personally commit to being the solution or the cure for the problems we have created, for ourselves, for others, and for the world. We can begin with “our personal desires and affections for the few persons nearest to us,” but then we must, “widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
True “responsibility” is not blame, or shame, or credit, or praise. True responsibility begins with the willingness to experience yourself as the source in the matter, whether realized or understood. It is the very essence of the “life of the monk,” whose sees suffering and for no other reason but “choosing to be responsible,” responds with “Loving-kindness, Compassion, and Benevolent Service,” no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation, no matter the person or the being.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then they will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, my sisters, you did it to me.”
The Zen monastery is not limited by walls, it extends throughout the Universe as a place of refuge for anyone who is sincere, who know themselves as visionaries, and who are convinced that there does exist a Light, which in time will shine through the darkened corners of our world. Zen spirituality is relational by nature, the same is true about human-nature. While each of us must be responsible for the world we want in the future for ourselves and others, we were never intended to make this journey alone. If we ever want to make contact with our True Self, we must first wholeheartedly embody our lives, then we must welcome others into our lives and be a part of theirs, manifesting our interconnectedness with each other and the whole of Nature.
No one ever finds their True Self alone, they find it in relationship with others. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Twenty-five hundred years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha proclaimed that the next Buddha will be named Maitreya, the ‘Buddha of Love.’ I think Maitreya Buddha may be a community and not just an individual. A good community is needed to help us resist the unwholesome ways of our time. Mindful living protects us and helps us go in the direction of peace. With the support of friends in the practice, peace has a chance.”
You do not have to be a monk to live like a monk, but I remain convinced if we are ever going to change the world, “You have to live in the world but not of the world, like a monk”.
I love you,