Monday, September 23, 2013

Leaping Off the Wheel

by Ven. Tenzin Chogkyi

In order to answer the question, “How does one know that one is ready to be a monastic?” I would like to share a bit of my own circuitous path towards ordination. I had been a serious practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for about twelve years before deciding to ordain. For most of that time, I had the attitude, “Oh, I just don’t have the karma to be ordained in this life. In fact I think it’s even more beneficial to show people the aspect of being a serious lay practitioner, so that people like me who don’t have the karma for ordination will have an example to follow.” I actually fooled myself with this rationalization, which was only the flimsiest way of covering up the fact that I really didn’t have any renunciation and was still trying to find happiness in samsara!

Then my karma for ordination ripened quite suddenly during one lamrim meditation on karma and refuge during a long solitary meditation retreat. I was following one of the meditations in the excellent book Spiritual Friends: Meditations of Monks and Nuns of the International Mahayana Institute. At one point during the guided meditation, after being asked to reflect on how many of our actions and thoughts would actually create the cause for beneficial karmic results and how many would create causes for negativity and suffering in the future, the next contemplation came: “Why deceive myself by following the desires of my deluded mind which, at most, bring only temporary pleasure?”

In that moment it suddenly became clear to me: If I really believed in karma and if I really believed in this path, I had no choice—I had to become ordained. I saw how, even in my life as a so-called serious student and practitioner, I had been on the fence. Even though I had worked hard at my job for Lama Zopa Rinpoche, went to every single teaching at the two centers in my area for years and had many practice commitments, I was still trying to make samsara work, still chasing after samsaric happiness by trying to find the perfect place to live, the perfect partner, going out with my friends, and entertaining myself. I finally saw that I was holding back from the level of commitment that was necessary if I were to advance significantly further on my spiritual path. At that moment, I made a wholehearted decision to ordain and suddenly felt like an eighty-pound bag of sand that I never even knew existed had been lifted off my back. I was filled with an incredible feeling of lightness and bliss.

Over the years I had been involved in the Dharma, the thought of ordination had crossed my mind from time to time. Several years before I entered retreat, one of my closest friends was ordained and the idea came up strongly for me at that time. Of course, for most of us, the main issue one struggles with when considering ordination is celibacy. I remember talking to my friend about this and saying, “I don’t think I can become ordained—I still have so much desire!” Her answer was, “You don’t wait until you’re completely over desire before you get ordained. If you had to do that, only about three or four people in the world would be ordained!” And it’s true—to think that you need to subdue desire completely before ordaining is putting the cart before the horse. I have found that since I am still a very ordinary being who has not yet overcome my mental afflictions and obscurations (by any means!). I still have desire. But the difference is that I no longer believe that following desire will bring me lasting happiness. I see the desire arise but instead of following the object of my desire and thinking I will live happily ever after, I realize that it would just lead to more suffering and disappointment. Fortunately, my heart has been broken enough times that it is not difficult to draw upon my own memory to support this conclusion! And because I no longer believe that following my desire will bring me happiness and don’t do anything to feed it, the desire usually fades quite quickly.

Before I decided to ordain, I read an article by Karma Lekshe Tsomo called “Ordination as a Buddhist Nun” that I had found in a newsletter of the International Kagyu Sangha Association [click link for similar article; original is no longer available online]. I think that article planted a powerful imprint in my mind that helped to ripen my karma for ordination. In it, Karma Lekshe Tsomo says, “The decision to remain celibate is particularly significant for women. It is the ultimate rejection of life as a sex object. It becomes a symbol of independence from the typecasting that sees women only as adjuncts to men or as capable of nothing more worthwhile than partner relationships. For ages women have allowed themselves to be stereotyped in this role, and it requires nearly superhuman effort to step out of the mold. It means opting out of the body market and going on to something more meaningful.”

As a lifelong committed feminist, in addition to the personal decision to ordain as a way of subduing my own mind, I also saw ordination as the ultimate radical statement. In a society dominated by global capitalism, consumerism, and gender stereotypes, it seemed the most powerful way to dissociate completely from these influences, to make a bold statement that one’s life was no longer dominated by these forces. In this twenty-first century secular, capitalist culture for a woman to shave her head, limit her possessions and opt out of relationships struck me as the ultimate transgressive statement!

Land of Great Compassion
Tse Chen Ling Center for
Tibetan Buddhist Studies, 2008
Click here for teachings
When I meet people who have managed to keep their ordination for many years, I make a point of asking them how they did it. For most of them, the answer is lamrim meditation, especially on the lower and middle scope. I think if you really have some realizations of karma and the nature of samsara and the way in which you remain trapped in the cycle of rebirth, the thought of renunciation, “definite emergence,” will arise. I remember a few months after my ordination when I was back in retreat, I was meditating on the twelve links of dependent origination. This was a teaching that had always been a little dry for me: I knew this was supposed to explain the nature of our suffering and how we keep ourselves stuck in the cycle of samsara, but I had never quite gotten it. I kept thinking, “Wait, that’s IT? That’s the big breakthrough the Lord Buddha realized?” But one day in meditation, I finally got it—I saw clearly that by following desire and grasping at sense objects, we keep the wheel of samsara turning. In that moment, because of my recent ordination, I thought, “I’m free!” I saw that I had really entered the path to liberation from my suffering and a sense of incredible joy and freedom arose in my heart.

So how do you know when you are ready for ordination? In my opinion, not when desire no longer arises, but when you realize that by following desire, you are setting yourself up for future suffering. When you have a thorough understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the Twelve Links; when you have a realization developed through meditation of the way in which you create your suffering. When you have enough of an understanding of emptiness, dependent arising, and karma to know that happiness and suffering do not come from the outside, from chasing after desirable sense objects and avoiding unpleasant ones, but that they come from the mind—you understand that whatever pleasure we experience is a result of virtue and not from external objects.

So what about family, friends, livelihood? Shouldn’t you prepare for ordination by sorting out your life, paying off bills, breaking up with your partner? I think all of this will follow from the lamrim realizations. You can spend a lot of time preparing for ordination externally, but if you have not prepared your mind, “given up on this life in your mind” as the Kadampa lamas advised, no amount of external preparation will matter—you will be miserable as a monastic and eventually disrobe, even if all your bills are paid and you have organized the perfect monastic living situation for yourself.

The way to prepare for ordination is to study and meditate on the lamrim, develop the lamrim realizations in your mind. When these realizations are firm enough, then you will have the confidence not to be swayed by the false allure of this crazy materialistic, consumer world we live in and you will be able to travel the path to freedom laid out by Lord Buddha and all our monastic forebears for over 2,500 years. You will understand Lord Buddha’s response to a monk who questioned, “Why do we live like this, practicing celibacy, eating only one meal a day, wearing only simple robes?” and the Buddha responded, “Because it’s the happiest way to live.”

Bhikshuni Tenzin Chogkyi: Resident Teacher, Gendun Drubpa Centre

Tenzin Chogkyi first became interested in meditation after reading Be Here Now and Autobiography of a Yogi in the early seventies. For the next twenty years, her spiritual path was meandering and haphazard, and included several dead ends, until she bought a one-way ticket to India in early 1991 with the intention of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Venerable Tenzin became a student not only of His Holiness, but also of Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche and Lama Zopa Rinpoche during the year she spent studying at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala and Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu.

After returning to the US, she worked at various positions within Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition: director of Vajrapani Institute, co-director of FPMT International Office, FPMT center services coordinator, and also completed several long meditation retreats.

Tenzin Chogkyi took novice ordination in 2004 with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and since 2006 has been teaching at various FPMT centers around the globe, in North and South America, India, Nepal, Australia, and New Zealand. She’s also a visiting teacher for the Liberation Prison Project, having taught in prisons in the US, Colombia, Australia, and New Zealand. In March of 2013 she relocated to Canada to become resident teacher at Gendun Drubpa Centre in central British Columbia, although she still tours and teaches at other Dharma centers from time to time.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this offering, Venerable.