Being an Island as to one self is not a chosen position in this form, but a living fact for many of us western nuns in the Buddhist Vajrayana tradition.
In the old days nuns and monks were embraced in to a Monastic environment as they took theyre vows, and thereby entered the Sangha. That is not the case of today. At least not for us westerners. Were on our own. No support, no home base, and in most cases no education is given to us either, unless we pay for it. We have to find our own ways to sustain our selves, and make sure we have the finances to keep us going.
Seeking out the genuine living Buddha Dharma we many times find our selves in environments and cultures that are foreign to us. Environments that are providing a reality of shelter and food that are challenging our possibilities to stay healthy. Despite the facts of immune and digestive systems braking down when traveling abroad, we need the closeness it gives us to the living dharma, the masters and the pilgrimage sites. Cultural differences are inevitable and the gap to be bridged over, between western and eastern monastics frame of mind, needs to be taken in to consideration.
Youre old world is gone and there is no new world to enter.
Many of our family members and old friends rejects us, or feel alienated to our new world. Even with the best of intentions and most sincere efforts to adopt a compassionate heart from our side, especially towards those who misunderstand us or carry prejudice about our choice of life, we meet many challenges with our old relations and some closed doors. From our side its a path of no return once you've seen the futility's of Samsara. Then its even harder, not to say impossible to stay satisfied in the loop of the projected dream world. It becomes like a mutual vomiting. The worldly world spits you out, while the created self cracks open, and sheds its old engagement in the worldly concerns. Yes, we are abandoning a wrecked ship, and with us we carry the wish to rescue everyone, including our selves, who is also about to drown in the stormy waves of birth, sickness, old age and death.
No turning back. No where to go.
We take ordination for life just to discover that the social context in which to grow and learn from are deprived from us. So we become individual satellites floating around in the world of Buddhism with our twinkling search lights. Its a very lonely position. Most of us doesn't last very long. During my first year as a nun more then 8 western monastics in my immediate surroundings disrobed. It was very discouraging. With a heavy heart I looked at these seniors of mine thinking; - Is that the way were all gonna go?!
With the lack of a supportive environment to up hold Shakyamuni Buddhas teachings in the West, then how is it going to be done, and by whom? There has to be some inspiring examples of the Buddha some where in the West in order for the Dharma to stay available and be upheld. Best case scenario monks and nuns are setting examples of spiritual discipline and acting as inspiration to others, which is the foundational prerequisite for the Buddha Dharma to stay alive. We have so much more time to devote to practice, and there is so much merits arising with every breath taken while holding the vows of a monastic.
As long as we dont fall prey to becoming "lay people in robes," due to lack of support for a monastic life style as westerners, we might be able to continuously be the spearheads for the path of sanity called Buddhism.
For many grown up westerners that enters this path its a choice of following the awakening heart. No one else made this choice for us. Many of us did it out of a a sincere longing to find out the truth and nothing but the truth, no matter what. The path of enlightenment is not to be used as an escape from not being able to live up to the values of society, not being able to start a family, shying away from coming out of the closet as a homosexual or using it as a retirement plan. To run away from not being able to live up to mainstream core values will not create a fertile soil for sustained monasticism, nor be helpful for the individual to grow up in a genuine sense, and take responsibility to face one self.
For us westerners there is very seldom any Monasteries or Nunneries to turn to. Especially as nuns were kind of left in the gutter.
It becomes a contradictory situation were we on one hand are not supported, and on the other hand not are encouraged to take an employment and keep a household. So then how is a westerner in robes supposed to survive and develop? If you have a sincere aspiration to give your life to the Buddha Dharma but there is no social structure there to hold you, youre more or less forced to become a loner that no one can relate to, and thats not a very sustainable situation.
Few individuals has stubbornly succeeded to keep them selves for decades on this lonely path to enlightenment. Those are the handful of living legends that we admire today, but whose lives hardly can stand as role models, as theyre exceptions to the commonality.
My path as a western nun in this tradition has been very blessed in so many ways, and in other ways its also reflecting a typical scenario of what happens to many westerners who enters this path. No home. No Sangha. No support.
Those of us who are interested in philosophical studies usually struggle to get an education, and end up financing it our selves. If we can. Some occasionally do take temporary employments back home in the West to fill up the emptying bank account, and a very few fortunate once has financial support from Buddhist lay people, usually for some limited time. Most western nuns Ive met end up staying in separate apartments and pay for theyre own lodging, travels and food. They might never have had the good fortune to live with other nuns or to get some formal training. Many give up after 3 years or so...
Integrating Monasticism in our Modern World
There is a few things we can do to integrate our selves in the worldly sense without having to disrobe, but its a very delicate balance as how to make the monastic tradition functional in our times. Some crafts, such as Translating, Creating Sacred Music, Graphic design and Architecture is usually fine, as long as were not harming anyone or braking our root vows.
Those who find the opportunity to commit them selves to a monastery or dharma center soon become aware of the tendency for those institutions to be fertile grounds for power struggles. When creating monasteries and dharma centers that involves monastic presence, the main responsibility of carrying for worldly concerns, should in an ideal world, be in the hands of the lay practioners, not the monastics. While the Abbots and spiritual directors should preferably be monastics. For us to be able to hold the Vinaya and Pratimoksha rules in our day and age, we need a collaboration with the lay sangha as in the traditional way. The Vinaya principle and the continuity of the original tradition needs to be followed as much as we can, as its a path proven to re-ignite our inherent recognition of our true nature. Here we find the importance of the virtuous collaboration of the four pillars by staying true to these 2600 years of vintage ideas.
Not to tight, not to loose
On the other hand you many time ripen a bitter practice when becoming to tight around the principals of training that the Buddha laid down in the Vinaya. A tendency that is especially strong among the westerners, as this life style is something we often didnt grow up with, and therefor not always fall in to so naturally. As nuns we are furthermore being expected to be the second class citizens in the Monastic world, so it seems as we easily fall in to the "good girl trap," trying to prove our selves as a worthy existence in this medieval system.
What the Vinaya is concerned, its about how to live a healthy life all together. Its an extended form of yogic life, not a book of hardcore rules that you will be punished for when not following them exquisitely. Punishment and original sin doesnt exist in Buddhism. So hitting our selves on the head when we fail to be perfect picture book nuns wont help anyone. Our true inherent nature is good, pure and awake, and the only thing that separates us from the Buddhas are that they have recognized this goodness within them selves, while we ordinary beings fail to do so. Because of this ignorance it is useful with some guidelines, without becoming to rigid about the whole idea.
Then there are certain things that can only be upheld within a monastic tradition, and others where there is not much difference between laypractioners and monastics. In our tradition things has slightly degenerated trying to fit the pure learned lifestyle of the monastics with a life of rock stars on motorbikes. On the other hand, standing to much outside of modern day society will not be helpful as how to integrate Buddhism in our time either.
In the old days diligent lay practitioners were living around the monastery and kept it going, but where do we find such motivation today in a society that are filled with values and ways of life that not always are so helpful...How do we go from a place of encouraged self indulgence to a shared space of basic sanity?
We need to find away.