A friend of mine once told me about an experience he once had when he went to see the Dalai Lama. It was in 2006 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The Dalai Lama was there to teach both Tibetan monks and nuns as well as the general public. My friend told me that he was really impressed with both the Dalai Lama and his disciples. To him, and to most Americans, monastic Buddhism is the epitome of Buddhist practice. Monks have dedicated their entire lives to practice, separating themselves from daily concerns.
There was an intermission between lectures, and my friend exited the auditorium looking for some snacks and the restroom. On his way out of the hall he passed a hallway that entered into the kitchen area. The door to the kitchen was wide open and he glanced in. Inside were many of the Tibetan monks who had been sitting in the front row of the Dalia Lama’s lecture. They were all dressed in saffron robes. But to his surprise many of them were lounging around and smoking cigarettes—even drinking a Diet Coke! And they were watching a soap opera on the television!
Seeing this really upset him and it shook his faith in Buddhism. If monks can’t resist cigarettes, Coke and soap operas, then what hope is there for all of us? But then he told me over time this event actually gave him hope. Perhaps Buddhist monks and nuns are just like us, human beings just doing the best they can practicing Buddhism. He realized that perhaps there are two equal but separate paths; both valid for ordinary human beings. One being monastic and another for everyday life, neither one requiring us to be super heroes.
When I first began to practice Buddhism, I thought I would have to move to India to become a good Buddhist. The Dalai Lama actually advises us to stay put. Do not move. Do not learn another language. Just begin to practice where you are at. Practice has to be practical; something that is accessible. We also have to acknowledge that everyone is different and we each have our own unique way to practice.
Even during the Buddha’s time, there were many different types of monks and nuns. Some were very academic, some very disciplined and others were more natural in their practice. But the Buddha seems to have praised all of them equally – seemingly encouraging each of the Sangha to find their niche. He did so by highlighting what each excelled at, almost like a high school yearbook.
Each member is one of the Who’s Who of our Sangha. It might be singing, it might be bingo, it might be lyrics or it might even be stacking tables and chairs. But this is the key that opens the door to our path and practice, connecting us all and adding value. When combined we then have a very powerful and dynamic path that we may all partake in and benefit from even if we still drink Diet Coke and watch soap operas.
Rev. Jon Turner