In some southeast Asian cultures, it is considered a rite of passage — and a part of normal culture — for boys in their teens to enter a Buddhist monastery for a short period. In the West, such a tradition does not exist, and Christianity — which has been the dominant religion in Western Europe for the last thousand years — is generally regarded with hostility by secularists and spiritual people alike.
This may be partly the fault of Christianity today, which focuses on the moral and social aspects of the faith — rather than the mystical — and yet wants to appeal to modern people, for whom morality is “relative.” But it is also the fault of those who claim to be interested in the spiritual, but who cannot look beyond the exoteric — as they can with other religions — to find the spiritual heart of the faith.
My first stay in the monastery was about ten days long. I had read the Christian mystics St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and was well aware of Christian esotericism. Like many “spiritual” people, I also disliked the religion as I saw preached it in daily life.
Though not a Christian, I decided to go to the monastery because Christianity had been the religion that, more than any other, had, for the last thousand years, significantly shaped Western thought — from philosophy to esotericism, and even politics, art, and so on.
Christianity inside a monastery is different to Christianity outside of it, of course. The religion wasn’t a big topic of conversation, because, I believe, the monks lived it 24 hours a day, waking early for Vigils (night prayer, said in the early hours of the morning), and going to bed after Compline.
The food was simple, as was the architecture and lifestyle of the monks — prayer, meditation, rituals, reading (lectio divina), silence at meal times, work (such as growing plants or teaching), walks through nature, and, of course, importantly, the cultivating of the community of monks.
I think it is true to say that it was a very Zen experience, even aesthetically speaking.
I mentioned my interest in esotericism to one of the monks, who I still count as a friend. He mentioned the Christian mystics, but suggested that I needed to focus more on the ordinary, since that (that we and the world exist at all) he said, was the great miracle.
To a great extent, I have found my life guided by that piece of advice. I have always tried to become more ordinary. And the more ordinary I have become, the more I have been able to do, and the further I have been able to go — for example, in researching into areas that others have not been able to find.
Why is this? After all, today we are encouraged to believe that we are “special.” I believe it is this: when we become more ordinary we become more awake — awake to everything. (We can recall the Buddhist saying “Samsara is Nirvana.”) We do not have to worry about how we look to other people — that is only a concern for people who think they are special. Instead, we see what is possible.
It is like learning a martial art. You just have to accept the fact that you will be stuck at the front of the class, failing at what the more experienced students are doing with ease. Yes, it is embarrassing. But then you discover that they aren’t judging or laughing at you, because they were there once, too. They want you to develop. And when you do, it is because of their help, and your practice, persistence, humility, and your being concerned less with yourself and more with what you have to do.
Lastly, I will say this: I am always struck by people who are being praised for doing something heroic or remarkable. I’m sure you will have noticed that they will often say that they are just “an ordinary person,” and that anyone could do the same if they worked hard enough.
Perhaps there is no one more qualified to give such advice than a monk, but it seems that those who have the courage to become ordinary can sometimes do what is extraordinary.