Q: What is monastic life like? Isn't it just an escape from the reality of life?
Bhikshu Heng Sure: Probably there's no single thing in the world that is more misunderstood than someone leaving home to become a monastic. There are so many judgments that people make and feel like they have a right to make of monks and nuns. They get exactly the way it is not, which is: “Oh you're escaping.” One thing for sure, if you want to escape reality, DON'T leave home. Society gives us lots of ways to escape reality: alcohol, drugs, uppers to get you through the workday, downers to go to sleep, T.V., relationships, pursuit of career, amassing riches. These are ways to get us to not to look at what's going on in our lives. If we don't stop, look, and listen to our minds, then it always seems like we are victimized and powerless, and that something outside us is manipulating us.
Now if you leave home, do you suddenly take charge? No. But you can watch the script being written. You kind of step into being the director of what's going on. If you have to, ask a simple reason. “Why?” You can't avoid the reality of cause and effect once you start listening because you see the thoughts rise and you get the results of your thoughts. You can see the connection. If we don't listen and watch, it still happens, but it always seems that the connection between thought seed and event fruit are not connected. You forget. But once you stop and reduce the externals so you can see the sixth sense making the world you live in – thought by thought by thought – you can see, “Oh right. I remember I did that, I thought that, and look what happened.” It is not an escape from reality at all. There's nothing around you to hook your senses up.
One of the most amazing things for me is to walk into a layperson's home, and I remember how the word in Chinese is hui yin – how mixed up the home is, especially if there are kids. This is because there is no filter on the average home. Now when I walk in, I immediately pull back because I feel my six senses just scattered out into the environment. It's not like being in the monastery. When you walk into a monastery, by and large, there is a lot of space, and there are white walls, and the things that pull you out are things like the statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which immediately bring you back to balance and to a center.
Is a layperson's home wrong? No. That's not my point. There is no judgment. It is to say a choice of environment for a purpose. To be able to live in an environment where your six senses [eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind] are not constantly dragged out allows you to listen to what's going on inside, because in the end you still have to connect the cause and effect from your thoughts, your words, your deeds and the world that you create. Otherwise, we do it anyways, but we didn't get a chance to notice because we are too busy dealing with all this stuff.
The monastery is a place where you go to get in touch with reality, not escape. The reality of my incredibly powerful mind is that it's out there creating the world every second, thought by thought by thought, and if we miss that and assume that it's not happening… it is still happening: planting seeds with every word, deed, thought, and getting results every moment. It is not an escape from reality. It's your choice of reality. One is, “I'm powerless and stuff happens,” or, “I act in my family, my society, and my universe.”
So the monastery is a place where you create the place to notice, to listen, so you know what is on your mind, so you begin to clean up your world. It is really empowering. It is a choice of lifestyle, but it is closer to the bone, closer to the nub of what's going on.
Q: How did you become a nun?
Bhikshuni Heng Yin: I wasn't thinking of becoming a monastic. When I was in college I heard about Buddhism when the Venerable Master's delegation went to the University of Texas. That was the first time I heard about Buddhism, and it blew my mind away. I had never heard such principles before and the meditations were really great. So I made a conscious choice to do more of those things. I joined the local Buddhist association and started to simplify my life, so there weren't so many things to absorb my energy. I cleaned out my closet and gave away my books–even some things that I kept for memories. I started to spend a lot of time studying sutras. I would go to the library between classes, and study the Shurangama Sutra on my own. It was joyful. I recited some mantras and the Heart Sutra all the time on the bus and wherever I was. I became a vegetarian. I tried eating one meal a day, but that was really hard because other people around you aren't doing it and there's food available everywhere. I also tried sitting up at night and that was not very successful either, but having made these attempts led me closer to coming to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I still didn't think I was going to leave home but when the time came, it felt very natural because I had taken all these little steps. I really admired the Sangha but didn't think that I would be able to join them just like that.
Q: Why do you want to be celibate? And what about relationships?
Bhikshuni Heng Yin: There are a lot fewer energy outflows and it's a lot less complicated when you are celibate. Most monks and nuns are dedicated to a life of practicing the Buddha's path, and that really takes full concentration. Relationship, family, career, and all that have to be put aside.
Bhikshuni Heng Chih: Way back when I took the precepts and left home, it was a very conscious decision. It took me a long time to come to that decision because I knew I violated a lot of those precepts and now I would really have to change my whole lifestyle, including relationships and the ease of having a glass of wine when I felt stressed out. When I decided that I wanted to be a nun, I decided to be a nun in a sense that I want to dedicate my whole life to it. I love my family very much, so it was an extremely difficult decision to make, but I have never regretted it. And even for my family, I think it was the right decision. The way the Venerable Master presented it: monastic life is a dedication that we take on fully. I think that's why I decided to follow that fully.
In the Buddhist monastic tradition, no monks and nuns are married so there is no split between a public life and a private life. No split between love of family and love of all living beings. It's a choice and many of you have a chance to make that choice when you are not in a relationship and don't have the family, and the responsibility associated with them.
Bhikshu Heng Sure: The fundamental principle in Buddhism is that life is suffering. But another fundamental principle is that suffering can end. The main cause of suffering is built in our body being born, getting old, getting sick, and dying. The Buddha saw that and decided not to accept that. It's thrilling to know that there is an alternative and there is something you can do to end it. The main cause of birth and death is sexual outflows. The way to transcend that is to take that energy and transform it.
The real question is, “Are we ready to be liberated from suffering or not?” If not, then stick with the confusion of, “I love you. I don't love you anymore. You love me. You don't love me anymore.” Or, “I love you for a while, but now I understand you had a girlfriend.” Or, “I love you and saw an email from your boyfriend.” There is infinite suffering in that mix. It is all about the body – sexual outflows. Do you really ever possess the person you love with your mind? Is that the issue? How frustrating... And then you watch them die. So being a celibate monastic isn't for everybody.
To be continued