This Herculean vow was made by eleven novices during the October 2019 ordination ceremony. Our eldest monk and nun, Brother Pháp Ứng and Sister Chân Đức, represented our Teacher and the Sangha for the ceremony. They cut a small lock of hair from each novice’s head as a symbolic gesture as the novices took this great vow. The monastic vow is a commitment to live a celibate life, to join an ancient community with a lineage over 2,500 years old.
It is an impossible vow with no limit, not meant to be completely realized, but serving as a North Star that guides our hearts’ intention to live in the world differently. We learn to transform individual living into community living, nourishing our awareness that we, our ancestors, all beings, and the entire cosmos are interconnected. From this awareness, we dedicate our lives to serving others and transforming ourselves for all beings. It is a beautiful vow that, if remembered regularly, can be a source of great strength, determination, and empowerment. It is similar to “I do” in a marriage ceremony; however, monastics commit not to wedding but to shedding – letting go of old ways and developing more wholesome ones conducive to true peace, happiness and freedom.
Reverence is the nature of our rebellion
As I watched these eleven young men and women prostrate in the center of the hall and receive their ten novice precepts, I was aware of the different movements sprouting up around the world for the sake of Mother Earth—the Extinction Rebellion movement, the global YouthStrike4Climate inspired by Greta Thunberg, and many other movements for climate, ecological, and social justice. This thought was still fresh, probably because in September a small delegation from Plum Village went to Bordeaux to support the thousands of French students who skipped school to take part in the Global Climate Strike, demanding that governments, corporations, and individuals take action, change policy, and address the ecological crisis.
I asked myself why these eleven young novices chose to join our community. Were they running from the suffering of the world, from the urgent responsibility and actions needed to help bring back balance to our climate and heal the damage we have inflicted on the ecosystem? What did their receiving of these vows and choosing to be a monk or nun have to do with world events and our precious planet?
A phrase from one of Thầy’s calligraphies came to mind as I thought about the meaning and significance of this day: “Reverence is the nature of my love.” This teaching instilled in me confidence and trust that their choice—and my choice to remain a monk—is the most powerful, rebellious thing we can do now for the world and the planet.
Many of our family members and friends are shocked when we share our decision to embrace monastic life. To become a monk or nun is a radical choice to rebel against a way of living that has brought about much suffering to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. We have lived in an individualistic and materialistic society with no place for the sacred and simple wonders of life, or for our loved ones, our neighbors and our community. We are too busy, sometimes drowning in our own pain and suffering, too afflicted to pay attention to others and to the wonders of mother nature. The “me first” mentality, our ambition, and our competitive instinct to be number one has been the narrative of the last century, which has brought humanity and the planet to our current dilemma. We mind our own business and keep our concerns within our fences, our borders.
Still, from this blessed day forward, with less hair on their heads, these eleven young people are choosing to make more room for living and being, more room for respect for themselves, their loved ones, and nature. Guided by the insight of interbeing, their choice to revere life, the universe and all its little creatures and wonders has become the aim of their new career. Reverence has become the aim of their rebellion, their renunciation.
What we can contribute to the climate actions around the world is our reverence, our love and respect for each other and everything that makes up this planet—all animals, plants, and minerals; clouds, mountains, and rivers. And we start with love and respect for ourselves because we are also a part of the ecosystem. Self-transformation is inextricably linked to the healing of the world. If every human being would live with reverence in their hearts, it could be a different world.
Cutting off the bondage
After the formal parts of the ceremony was over and it was time to shave the novices’ heads, I started to shave Brother Mario’s head. We shave all their hair off, first using the electric clipper then a triple blade razor to completely remove all the hair, leaving a clean bald head. Brother Mario was now known as Brother Sky-field of the Dharma (Trời Ruộng Pháp). His mother and ex-partner and her new husband had come to support him. After some hesitation, his mother also joined us to shave off her son’s hair as well.
Many parents, friends, and family members come to support their loved ones on this day of transition. Many shed tears as hair is slowly shaved off. It is understandably a painful moment for a few fathers and mothers, a solemn and sacred moment.
Shaving our hair represents the shedding of our bondages and the determination to transform all our afflictions and live a life of spiritual freedom. We vow to cut off all our bonds to worldly desires and romantic love, to material comforts and sensual pleasures, and to an individualistic notion of separation and prejudice. The vow to “transform all my afflictions” is an impossible task, but we take it as our compass to keep us aligned with what is deepest in our hearts. Our afflictions of greed, hatred, discrimination, and fear, at the individual and societal level, are the real cause of social ills, violence, and the ecological disruption and imbalance. Later in our life as a monastic, when we touch our shaven head, we can remember this vow and this moment when we stepped onto the path of spiritual freedom.
Chastity in the midst of overpopulation
We vow to live a life of chastity, to not ever have any children to carry on our genes and our family name. This choice is not for everyone, but some people do not long to have a family of their own or to be wed to one person. We learn true love where there is deep intimacy and connection, yet no attachment or possessive owning; where there is tender care and lasting friendship, yet no fleeting passions and unchecked fantasies.
Bringing happiness to all has become the novices’ aspiration—continually expanding their love by bringing more peace and joy into the world and helping relieve suffering. Again an impossible task, yet it is another compass-vow to keep us on course with compassion and freedom. While we do not have our “own” children, the children of others become ours. While we do not have our “one love,” we are free to care and help others freely without attachments and “owning” them. Every child I meet on the path is my child; every other person, my family. We learn to care for everyone this way. We have more time to be with others and to help when needed. A celibate life is extremely practical if you want to live a life in the service of others.
In light of the rate of population growth on this fragile planet of finite resources, choosing not to have children of our own or to care for the children of others can be a relief for our presently strained planet. The vow of celibacy alludes to the dire situation that we as a human race will eventually have to face—the hard task of feeding, sheltering, and providing for everyone on the planet. At present, the human population is at 7.6 billion people—nearly a threefold increase since the 1950s—and it is increasing at 83 million per year.
Choosing a divergent path of simplicity
We vow to live a simple and modest life without too many material comforts and consumption. No alcohol, no drugs, no meat- or dairy-based diet; no cosmetics, jewelry, or worldly amusements; no amassing money or material things. Monastic life is definitely not for everyone, especially those living in a capitalistic culture where the typical routine is work, spend, own, and be entertained. If we each aspired to reduce our consumption of goods, our energy use (food, water, gas, and coal), and our waste production, especially in the more affluent and developed nations, then we could reduce our impact on the ecosystem.
For these new monks and nuns, having just a little less than enough will be part of novice training. For them, happiness is no longer about having more; it is about knowing they already have enough and being grateful for all the conditions for happiness in the present moment—eyes to see all the magnificent forms and colors, lungs helping us breathe peacefully, or the presence of our loved ones. A novice’s happiness is no longer based on material things. Instead, it is based on spiritual development—their capacity to hold and handle their suffering and pain and to cultivate and sustain their peace and joy. With practice, they will be enriched with the Dharma and thus, can offer it to others.
To diverge from the conventional, secure path can be a painful and scary choice for those of us who have been cultured in a society where our value, purpose, success, and security are based on money and material things. So much of my life was based on these things. I will never forget when I zeroed out my bank account, got rid of my car, and cut all the ATM cards, membership cards, and IDs. I remember feeling happy and free, mixed with feeling fear and insecurity about the unknown future. Now, with no bank account, health insurance, or car, I felt vulnerable and insecure. What will happen when I get sick, when I get old and retire, or when I need to do or buy something? I remember experiencing these thoughts and worries like chains holding me back from doing what was most in my heart, chains binding my feet and keeping my heart from flying free.
Looking deeply, I see we have lost our way as a human family, basing everything around the dollar, economic growth, promotions and salary increases, our bank accounts and expanding storage facilities that amass our excesses. The very things that made us feel secure and safe, and our identifying with things we own, are actually prisons. The bars and walls are our fears and insecurity. We are afraid we do not have enough; or we have a lot yet we still want more.
This materialistic path is not sustainable. We need a path I would call “volunteer recession.” We are overdeveloped, over-sized, and over the limit of what this planet can sustain, especially our developed nations. Our planet needs volunteers to diverge and to live with less than enough and to share with those who are in real need. These eleven novices are these new volunteers, committed to spend less, own less, and consume less.
Choosing a life of sharing and community
We also vow to live in community and share our time and resources and contribute to the welfare of others. Community has to be in the picture of a sustainable way forward for our planet. As the human population grows, the model of individual living, of the nuclear family needs to change. It is no longer sustainable for every person to own a car, a fridge, a stove, and a multi-roomed house, especially with the projected population growth. The dream of what is considered a good life has to evolve.
These novices will learn to live and work with others, to communicate, interact, and build deep relationships. Community living may challenge those of us who are used to living alone. We moved out of our parents’ home to have our own apartment, our independence. The novices will share a room with three others, sometimes with six or seven others in certain monasteries. They will practice to see that their happiness and suffering are inextricably linked to the happiness and suffering of others. They will learn to live in relationship with everything around them—their siblings, their food and water, their clothing and shelter, their feelings and mental states—all conditions that challenge their notion of separation and independence.
Living in community is a concrete practice of the teaching on non-self and interbeing. We practice to see that our contribution matters, our presence affects the life of the community and everyone else’s presence and contribution is valued. We learn to depend on and to cherish others. When we can keep this awareness of interdependence alive, we are filled with gratitude. We learn to nourish and value all the conditions supporting our existence, from the air that we breathe to the metal spoon we eat with.
Community living harmoniously is the way forward for our planet, sharing resources and caring for one another and our environment. A community can become a refuge for so many people who come to revive themselves, to heal and transform their suffering and to learn how to nourish and care for themselves.
Sacrifice—there’s a cost to everything
Choosinga radical path can hurt and can be a little discomforting to our daily routine and habits. To change our lifestyle and be the change we are asking of others, our governments, and corporations is difficult, because it involves changing our way of seeing ourselves, our activities, and our place in the world. There are sacrifices; there is a cost in choosing this monastic path. Each novice has chosen not to continue to live and think the way they used to. It is not an easy choice to make or to keep. Our habits, notions and old ways of thinking will continue to challenge us. It can sometimes be painful – the act of letting go. It is not for everyone.
These eleven novices will not have their own bank account, their own car, their own room. They will learn to share most things and to not have excess, just less than enough. They will live far from their blood family and loved ones, visiting them once every two years. Yet we have found that somehow we appreciate our loved ones more than when we lived close to them. In fact, in having fewer things, less contact with our loved ones, fewer ideas and notions, less thinking and consuming, we cherish more, we protect more, and we enjoy more at no cost to the environment.
We have to let go of a lot of things — our notions about success, happiness, and the purpose of life. We learn to let go of ideas about ourselves, about others, and about the world. From this release, we have a chance to discover the true wonder of being simply alive. This economizing, simplifying our notions about the nature and purpose of life, is the revolution of consciousness needed for real lasting change.
To live sustainably on this planet, we have to be a sustainable element in our lifestyle, in our social and climate actions, and in our way of seeing our place in the universe. We must do more than adjust our CO2 production, change our transport, energy source, or food choice. Such choices are crucial and can have a great impact on the planet. For sustainable change, we must let go of our old ways of seeing the world as separate from us and there to serve us. We must begin to live with eyes of interbeing in the service of others, seeing all beings, the environment, and the planet as nothing less than our own selves.