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Why I Became a Monk: Reflections & Aspirations shared at Soten & Kisei's Full Priest Ceremony

How great the robe of liberation, a formless field of benefaction.
I wear the Buddha’s teaching; freeing all beings.

The archetype of monk is timeless, sometimes seen as a mendicant, a beggar, one who has renounced the world, other times as a being cloaked in silence, serenity and service, one at home in the mystery, or at least living into the questions. In 21st Century, modern America — we are discovering what this archetype can teach, as we balance evolving cultural values with the timelessness of the drive towards truth.

What compels someone on the path of renunciation in this day and age?

Kisei and Soten just completed their first five years of Novice Priest training, making them Full Priests in the Soto Zen Lineage. On Sunday December 15th, they each gave a a brief dharma talk about their experience becoming monastics, and wisdom gleaned from their last 8 years of monastic training.

What is notable is that each chose the teaching of impermanence as their central theme. Impermanence is one of the three marks of existence that characterizes all Buddhist teachings (the other two marks being emptiness of self and suffering/nirvana). Impermanence means change, and is a truth observable in our direct experience.

We know that human beings mature, age, grow old, die. We know that this maturation process happens to all living things, and even inanimate things, including nuclear waste. On a more intimate level we can observe the ever-changing nature of experience, as our thoughts, body sensations, continuously change from moment to moment.

Observing impermanence, can bring us into a halting clarity. The clarity required to ask the questions that bubble below the surface of our lives, perhaps heard as faint whispers: What is true? Is there something, that does not change? Who I am? Am I any more then the collection of continuously arising and ceasing impulses, sensations, perceptions and thought?

When turned outward, the question looks at the world asking…Is there really choice? What can I do? Does life have meaning?

When these questions breakthrough our unconscious, or quiet suppression, they can propel someone into a spiritual emergence, thus initiating them on the spiritual path. The spiritual path is often portrayed as one of seeking. And I would say that most people come to spiritual practice with a healthy mix of awareness of suffering (the third mark of existence) and inspiration/aspiration.

Inspiration/aspiration being an intimation or taste of a more stable truth, a curiosity in what is reliable. And so this is where the seeking comes. Its almost innate in us. To seek for relief from suffering. In Zen this is accomplished through awareness, we seek to bring attention to the way things actually are, relief from suffering can be found in the moment to moment experience of life’s rapidly changing nature, every sense, every thought shining for an instant and vanishing. Here freedom is in direct understanding.

Understanding impermanence in this deep and existential way, births equanimity, true peace of mind. Equanimity is celebrated as one of the four immeasurable qualities of heart/mind. Its beauty being in its complete and utter acceptance of the way things are, said another way - that all things have the same taste, are of the same nature. We need only to truly look, to know this for ourselves.

Liberation begins here, and this is also the fruit of practice. From equanimity we take our ordination vows. Which are not vows of becoming something better, but invitations to truly discover who we are and what the world is. For it is in this uncovering, that we are fully able to live a compassionate life — one that is in connection with all living beings, the earth, sky, trees, computers, emotions, friends and enemies alike.

Below are the vows made by Soten and Kisei, they first took their original ordination vows and then made these personal vows.

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