In the Footsteps of the Buddha - A Vietnamese Bhikshu's Journey into Monkhood
by Venerable Hoang Van Minh
International Buddhist College
Venerable Hoang Van Minh, a bhikshu in the Mahayana Tradition from Vietnam, welcomes your feedback. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
'Why did I choose to be a monk?' is a question that I have been asked many times. It is difficult for me to answer adequately. Becoming a monk seemed a natural event for me. But I know clearly why I continue to be a monk. Let me try to explain how I got onto the Buddha's path as a monk.
First of all, I feel that I like to live a monastic life. It seems natural to me. It is not something I could explain, but it is the main reason that leads me to choose a monk's life. A Zen master once said that, 'sometimes you cannot choose the way, but the way chooses you.' It means that there is a certain potential that makes one pay attention to something. This potential is known as the 'seed of habit' ('bija' in Sanskrit or zhongzi in Chinese) which is present in one's consciousness. Given the right conditions, this 'bija' will become shoot or a strong impulse in the mind.
I have a Buddhist traditional education from my young age. I was born in a Buddhist family. My parents are sincere Buddhists; therefore, I have a Buddhist influence from them since my childhood days. I met no hindrance from my parents at all on my way to becoming a monk. In some cases, parents do not give consent to their child to renounce as a monk or a nun. I had many chances to get to know the monastic life. This was also a very favorable condition for the seed of Bodhi in my mind to grow. This bodhicitta is known as the first state of mind in a new novice monk or nun. Without this state of mind, one cannot become a monk or nun because he/she cannot overcome the challenge of the monastic life.
I formally became a Buddhist at the age of eight when I received the Triple Refuge and Five Precepts. This is one way for one who to become a Buddhist. From then on, I often went to the temple in my town to do religious activities with some other Buddhist people and also followed them in many charity travels. I was told many stories about the life of the Lord Buddha Sakyamuni and his previous lives. I liked the story about his experiencing the various states of meditative absorption. The picture of the Buddha seated in the lotus position under the rose apple tree was beautiful. The story about the Buddha taking care of his disciples when they were sick impressed on me how compassionate the Buddha was. There were many stories like these which touched me deeply and which sometimes moved me to tears. I had so much respect for the Buddha and I carried the image of the Buddha constantly in my mind. I sometimes felt that he was here with me, but I could not see him.
I was immersed in this Buddhist tradition and culture for many years. I followed my parents to recite the Buddha's teachings and sutras, and sometimes went to the temple to listen to Dharma talks given by the monks there. I learned Buddhist teachings from these Dharma talks. Then I was received by my master to be a novice monk at the age of 14. Indeed, I had met many challenges in my early years as a novice monk because I had to live without my parents' care and attention. Fortunately, I continued to nurture my bodhicitta under these new conditions.
Secondly, I am attracted by the noble monk's life that is not only depicted in some sutras but also in the daily life. The monastic life is very simple. A monk lives very simply, eats vegetables only and regulates his life and conduct with the monastic disciplines. It is a peaceful and harmonious life. There is nothing to pursue, nothing to be sorrowful for. The Buddhist monk studies and practices the way to be mindful in each present moment of life. He has all his time to practice Dharma and help other people. It is important to develop one's Bodhicitta. It is the Bodhi mind that, at the beginning, makes one wish to be a monk. Hence, he must not lose this mind. He must cultivate this mind in this life and make it stronger and stronger. I am very much attracted to this way of life.
As I have mentioned above, the bodhicitta first silently directed me to become a monk. It is the notion of bodhicitta that gives me a great inspiration to follow the way of a monastic. Of course, there are many deep definitions of this mind, but in brief, it is the mind that moves a person to try his or her best to practice the way to attain the highest state of wisdom, and to help other living beings at the same time. This is the way that a monk or nun has to follow if he or she doesn't like to lose his or her direction of practicing Buddhism. It is a practical and not an intellectual notion. It means that one has to study and practice diligently to be able to help others. Isn't helping others the meaning of life?
Another reason is that I don't like the trouble of the worldly life. I don't like the quarrel of the adults in the family, and many other things in the society that make me feel disturbed and sorrowful. I think the simple life of a monk is more suitable for me. It is said that "the most difficult is cultivation at home, the second is cultivation in the market and the third is cultivation in a temple". Cultivating at home or in the market is extremely difficult. Everything can come and disturb you at anytime and you cannot practice meditation or study dharma in peace. Only one who has reached the highest state of Bodhicitta can "enter the market" without the protection of precepts. Cultivation in the temple is easier and more suitable for monks like me. By living in the temple, I can avoid the worldly troubles and also many other charming sensual things. It is one reason why the Buddha advised his disciples to choose a peaceful and quiet place to live and practice.
But people often say that leaving parents or going away is not the action of a filial child. I think leaving the family home for my ideal life in the monkhood is not like I abandon my duty as a child towards my parents. In the contrary, I can help them with their spiritual development. Moreover, a monk has to consider all living beings as his mothers and fathers. It is the basic condition to practice the way of Buddha. Siddhartha was a great filial son. He renounced the worldly life, but then he returned as the Enlightened One and saved his parents and numberless living beings from the seas of samsara.
This fact reminds me about the great event in my life when I was ordained as a bhikshu. The solemn ceremony was held on Buddha's birthday in 2000. I had to prepare many things before the ceremony, such as purifying triple karma by prostrating in front of the Buddha for 3 months. I was taught to go back home to make prostrations to my parents. It is because I will no longer be able to prostrate to my parents after receiving the full ordination to be a bhikshu. This is the rule of the Sangha. It was a memorable time. My parents were a source of great encouragement. And I also prayed to the Buddhas and the bodhisattvas for favorable conditions for me to be ordained. This was because if I could not be ordained this time, I wouldn't know when the next opportunity would arise again.
Finally, Buddha's teaching is the way of wisdom and compassion. It is the way that we have to come and see, not to come and believe. Every person can benefit from it, not only the monks. The more we study Buddhism, the more we can understand our suffering and others' suffering; the more we understand others' suffering, the more we can be compassionate to other living beings so that we can cultivate the loving-kindness toward others in our daily life. It is the loving-kindness that helps us overcome our own troubles and help others. For this reason, I don't like to say that Buddhism is a religion or a religious belief or philosophy. Some people study and look at the religious aspects of Buddhism and say that Buddhism is a religion, so do the people who focus on the philosophical aspect and consider Buddhism as a philosophical system. That is a one-sided idea on Buddhism; it does not reflect the whole Buddhism. Buddhism is Buddhism. It has its own ways of practice that lead to a noble life that transcends the worldly life. The Buddha says, 'Do not do bad things, do good things, purify your mind by yourself. That is the teaching of the ten direction Buddhas.' This is the true teaching of Buddhism and one has to keep in mind to practice.
Buddha's teachings can help me and other living beings to be happy and peaceful in this life. In my case, I would be contented just to live a life as a monk so that I can have all the time to practice Dharma and can help other people efficiently. It is a suitable way for me, but I also realize that there exist many difficulties in monastic life in modern era. As a monk, if I fail to nourish my bodhicitta and loving-kindness in my daily life, I will lose my way.
May all living beings be happy and peaceful.