Katarina Elise Gebauer
December 10, 2015
How do Buddhist Monasteries and Doctrine Create a Utopian System for Buddhists?
The monastic order of the Buddhist faith is central to the advancement of the Buddha’s teachings to Buddhists all around the world. One of the largest and most eminent of these monasteries is the Kopan Monastery in Nepal, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha. There are numerous examples of the impact the Kopan monastery has had on followers of the Buddhist tradition, which has the goal of reaching Enlightenment through the practice of the Dharma, or the Way. A technique a researcher can use to find reliable information regarding the effects the monastic life has on followers of the Buddhist tradition is by studying first-hand accounts of actual participants. One such example is that of Tenzin Ludup, a Taiwanese-American Buddhist who attended a program at the Kopan monastery and who had an immersive, one month experience within the monastic community.
The benefit of using a primary source like Tenzin’s blog post is that it offers an insider perspective of the Buddhist monastic community. The reader can extract first-hand information from his writings that may not be available in background or argumentative sources. For example, while anyone can study and understand the Buddhist teachings, it takes primary sources, or first-hand accounts, to see the impact of those teachings on the lives of individuals. Tenzin’s story is a perfect example of this phenomenon because his belief system and perspective on life were changed by his time at the Kopan monastery. Therefore, Tenzin’s experience demonstrates one way in which Buddhist monasteries disseminate teachings to Buddhist people. Although born into a practicing Buddhist household, he neither fully understood nor embraced the Buddhist teachings until his experience at the Kopan monastery. He says, “We are just so immersed in our own lives in the West with its Western point of view that emphasizes materialistic happiness and lifestyles. Looking back now, my life was totally void of any spirituality.”
The active practice of Buddhist teachings such as minimalism in regards to possession is the most important way monasteries disseminate their doctrines to those interested in investing their lives with the monastery or monastic life. At retreats such as the one Tenzin attended, participants live as if they were Buddhist monks, if only for a limited amount of time. According to Tenzin, monastic life at Kopan involves early morning and afternoon meditations, study of the Lamrim stages to Enlightenment, vegetarian meals of donated food, and work for the upkeep of the monastery. Tenzin found that “The two sessions of teachings everyday reinforced many of my beliefs and helped me further understand the meaning behind the topics covered in the Lamrim.” These practices help both novices and masters to better understand the Buddhist teachings by infusing every aspect of their lives with Buddhist principles.
Tenzin Ludup’s first-hand-account is helpful for one attempting to discover how the Buddhist monasteries help outsider Buddhists to become more deeply engaged in the traditional monastic code. However, this single source offers no evidence to answer the question, “How do Buddhist monastaries and doctrine create a utopian system for Buddhist monks?” The truth is that the monks live far different lives than the visiting Buddhists who live within the monastery for a limited amount of time. Other various sources, written by monks who live completely ensconced in monastic life, are necessary to provide a more complete answer to this research question. It is important to closely research the monks’ lives because they have lived according to monastic tradition since a young age, usually around seven. This lifelong dedication combined with the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and reflection will allow a researcher to see exactly the process of how monastic life contributes to a person’s journey towards a utopian state.
Once one has looked at both the monks and the visitors to the monastery, one must determine the ultimate goal of these monastic communities. While the monasteries were originally established to provide shelter for travelling monks, their overarching goal is to help those same monks rededicate themselves to the Buddhist teachings. When one looks at those teachings, it becomes obvious that the practice of Buddhism, especially in a concentrated and dedicated form as is found in monasteries, is ultimately designed to help practicing Buddhists reach the state of Enlightenment. The state of true Enlightenment is called Nirvana, which is sometimes explained as the knowledge of the nature of reality without the influences of false projections. Nirvana can be equated with the Platonic theory of the final level of knowledge, that of understanding of the true Forms in the allegory of the cave. All of these practices are outlined by the Dharma, or the Way, which is the universal doctrine that helps individuals reach Enlightenment.
Through an understanding of the ultimate goals of Buddhism, one can begin to contemplate the utopian nature of the Buddhist monasteries. It seems that the monasteries are intentional communities that attract dedicated followers of Buddhism because they offer a sanctuary where the teachings of the Buddha can be practiced with as little interruption or contamination as possible. However, because Enlightenment is believed to be a purely individual accomplishment, the monasteries do not seek to achieve community-wide Enlightenment. One the contrary, the monastery simply acts as a facilitator to give monks the best chance at achieving Enlightenment through their own dedication. Therefore, the object of the Buddhist monasteries is not to create a physical utopian community for all members, but to instead support and aid individuals to reach a utopian state for themselves. The Buddhist monasteries of Nepal have put into practice a code of actions that aids monks and visitors alike along the path towards Enlightenment, and in doing so, help to create a utopian community.
Ludup, Tenzin. “My November Course.” Fmpt.org. September 2012. Accessed November 9, 2015. http://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2012/july/my-november-course/.