One of the matters I discussed with the monks I met at Blue Cliff Monastery in 2014 – such as Brother Fulfillment – was whether their residence was a lifelong calling. It isn’t always, of course. In fact in traditionally Buddhist cultures, it is not unusual for young males (it tends to be a gender-specific thing) to spend a period of time in a monastic environment before beginning secular life. It is considered a good grounding for a fulfilling and meaningful existence. The youngest member I interviewed was a 25-year-old novice introduced as Brother Contemplation, who, I have since learned, has left monastic life.
Brother Contemplation grew up in central Florida. “In a Christian family that just went to church on holidays. I tried to believe, and I did go to some youth groups when I was in middle school, but I still had doubts, and Christianity didn’t resonate too much with me. And I saw a lot of people going to church and saying that they were Christian but living quite a worldly life, and they didn’t seem too happy. So at a young age I was already a self-proclaimed atheist, and then I said, ‘Well, actually, I don’t know, so I’ll say I’m an agnostic.’”
Then he had assignment to interview a Laotian Buddhist monk for his high school newspaper.
“And he seemed so genuinely happy. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, and, a lot of kids who went to my school, their parents were well off. So I saw a lot of wealth, and money was never really an issue, but I saw a lot of suffering coupled with that. And I didn’t meet too many people who were deeply happy in the way that this monk was. In fact, I think, at that point, he was the happiest person I’d ever met.”
Brother Contemplation’s life was complicated at the time, and he tells me he was heavily involved in drugs. Then a friend loaned him a book. “The Thich Nhat Hanh Collection, and it’s a collection of three books. Peace Is Every Step is the first book of the collection, then Teachings on Love, and then Stone Boy and Other Stories. And at that point I never thought I’d become a monk. But then all of a sudden, after I started practicing, and I was reading more, these thoughts started coming up in my head. And they were aspirations to become a monk, and I thought about monastics and what kind of life they led, and I thought it was so noble. It was such a wise way to live, and such a worthwhile path to take. But at the same time, I knew it was very difficult to do that. You’re kind of going against the stream in many ways. So that happened when I was 21.
“So I started practicing. I started going to sanghas. I started going to monasteries. It was a slow process. It wasn’t just like I came home one day and was like, ‘I want to become a monk.’ I slowly started expressing this aspiration, and then I think when it was finally clear that I was actually doing it—you know—I was buying the plane ticket to come here, my family was quite surprised. The good thing was that they saw that the practice worked. I was happier. The practice had helped transform my life.”
That had been a year and a half before I interviewed him. One is required to be a novice for at least three years. Brother Phap Vu had told me that fully ordained monks had to abide by 250 rules. Novices only need to abide by ten.
“They’re the foundation,” Brother Contemplation tells me. “A lot of the precepts are actually fine manners or mindful manners. So we have the ten precepts, but then we also have a number of mindful manners which we have to follow. But they’re not precepts. They’re just guidelines.”
I ask what the hardest thing about living in the monastery is.
He thinks a while before answering. “I think living in a community. Because you have to let go of a lot of your personal space, your personal items. Your own ideas. And you have to learn to live with others in a way in which I know I and most of the brothers were not used to. We all share rooms. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a monk. And we live in a small space together. We spend all our time together basically, at least the scheduled time. We do have free time, personal time. But I think that would be the most challenging thing. But it’s not that it’s challenging, but it’s also one of the most nourishing things; it’s just that it gives rise to many challenges.”
“And the most rewarding thing?”
He laughs. “Happiness. Yeah. Peace. Transformation.”
“And if someone asked how it promotes that?” I ask. Just then one of the “mindfulness bells” rings, and Brother Contemplation pauses to acknowledge it.
“I’d probably share with them about meditation, and the happiness that comes from meditation and mindfulness practice.”
“There is actually less formal sitting than in other Zen traditions,” I mention.
“But as I understand it, you take that meditation practice beyond the actual zazen time to doing other things. Like the bell that just rang.”
He nods his head. “Being aware of the present moment—in the present moment, however you want to put it—bringing awareness to right here, right now, is the essence of meditation, whether it’s sitting, walking, whether it’s more focused, whether it’s more open. That’s the essence. And so that’s not just confined to sitting on a cushion, and that’s what we try to practice here.”