The number of years the members of our community have lived as nuns, when added together, is over 30. In that time, we have found many reasons why monasticism makes sense to us in this historic moment and to us personally. Indeed, when continue to find new reasons with each passing year living in our vows.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, born in England and living as a nun for over 40 years, responded as follows to a group of students from California who asked her whether monastic truly offers something to Westerners.
Jetsunma: “One of the things we can truly offer as nuns and monks is reliable proof that living with very little and not seeking to accumulate more is possible but in fact shedding more and more objects of attachment.
“Nuns and monks live a celibate life, happily. They are satisfied with very little, not taking intoxicants and probably following a vegetarian diet. As they live in simplicity, they are demonstrating that this is a life of great happiness. This is the message that Westerners have forgotten and we need to see living examples to recognize it.
“As an example, recently a group of Buddhist nuns in the UK left their community and moved to California. They weren’t sure how they would be received but they were greeted with great enthusiasm. They lead an ascetic life in the midst of great abundance. Their life is really, really simple. Just seeing how radiant they are, one knows that they are happy and content. They live in a way that others might see as terrible deprivation, but they do not feel at all deprived, because they have inner richness and joy bubbling up inside them. I believe that this is something the monastic Sangha can offer in the oversatiated West.
“Ideally, nuns and monks in general, are not caught up in their careers or personal relationship. Because they are not trapped by the demands of a workplace or close relationships, they have time and energy: the emotional energy needed to dedicate themselves entirely to study and practice and become a genuine embodiment of Dharma. We need this. We need people for whom Dharma is the absolute center of their lives. This is what the West needs, because we have plenty of intellectuals, a huge number of brilliant erudite people, but we don’t have many devoted practitioners. There are not that many people willing to dedicate their entire life to Dharma. There are some, but we need more. This is what the Sangha can offer in the West.
“A king named Mahindra said to the Buddhist monk Nagasena: ‘I have faith in Buddha’s Dharma. I study the Sutras and practice meditation, so what is the difference between me and a monk?’
“Nagasena answered: ‘Imagine, you have a bull’s eye and a bow and arrow, and the arrow is adorned with many garlands, ornaments and flowers. When you shoot, that arrow won’t hit the bull’s eye. Because it is very heavy, it will be pulled off course and eventually fall to the ground before it reaches its objective. But if you have an arrow that is very elegant and unencumbered by decoration—it only has its own natural shine as decoration—when you shoot it, it will hit its mark directly.’
“This is the difference between lay and monastic life. Monastic life is not tied to all the elements of lay life, such as relationships, earning money and being successful. These and many other distractions, such as computer games, television and other entertainment, prevent lay people from shooting straight to their goal.”