How to enter a Zen monastery

Hi, I’m an 18-year-old recent high school graduate from France. I remember your article about staying in a Zen temple for a year. I am looking to do something similar. Could you tell me how you set that up, what you had to know beforehand, and that sort of thing? Thanks a lot, Ductile

Hi Ductile, That sounds exciting 🙂 I’ve had similar questions from different people who are interested in longer stays, so I’ll give you the long answer, and hopefully it’ll answer them too.

Getting started

Once I realised that I wanted to commit completely to studying Zen, it felt urgent. I rang up the first good monastery I heard of and said “I want to go there immediately!” The monk on the phone sounded bemused and said calmly, “well why don’t you start by attending an introductory weekend next month, then we’ll see?”

I was annoyed that he wasn’t taking me more seriously. There I was, ready to give my whole life to the Dharma, and he was suggesting a pesky beginners’ weekend? My ambition, I felt, carried more gravity than that. So why was I not being welcomed with open arms?

As the monk knew and I eventually found out, the answer is simple: you’ve got to start somewhere, and a weekend is a good start. The equivalent of my fantasy would be if someone with no experience decides they want to work in TV, so they ring up the BBC switchboard and expect to be given a job.

I’m not saying that this is what you think, and it doesn’t sound like you want to be ordained as a monk. It can be helpful to remember all the same, that even from a practical point of view monasticism is one of the most serious vocations there is.

The entire monastic community is signing up to work side-by-side with you day and night, seven days a week. In many temples there’s no privacy at all, and you eat and sleep in the same room together. In a relatively closed and sensitive community, every personality has a magnified effect on all the others and vice-versa. It’s a pressure cooker. If one person gives up, messes up or leaves – which happens as often as it does in any other job – it feels like a serious blow to everyone who is left behind.

So it’s safe to say that they’re going to want to get to know you before signing you up to a longer stay. Along I went to the introductory weekend, at a temple that someone had recommended.

Sunflowers at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Photo by Maria Stephenson

Sunflowers at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Photo by Maria Stephenson

The first question

The question to ask yourself after the introduction is not “do they like me”, but do you like them? Not in a sentimental way, but rather, do you trust them to be reliable teachers? Do they seem to know what they are talking about? Does the kindness and compassion they preach show in their day-to-day actions? Are they genuinely humble and yet confident? How do they handle conflict or disagreements? Do you feel respected and at ease? In some places (sects in particular), the question to ask yourself is are they manipulative or trying too hard to impress you?

Trust your gut feeling on whether it’s the right place for you. This can be tricky because most of us have mixed feelings when we start spiritual training. I was suffering and confused when I started out, and projected my pain everywhere I went. As a result, the main impression I got in my introductory weekend was that everyone was irritating!

However, despite this I could tell that the teachers knew what they were talking about. All my questions were answered with care. If a teacher didn’t know the answer, they were happy to admit it. Both teachers and long-term students seemed content and relaxed, and yet they weren’t going around boasting that I needed them or that theirs was the best school among all schools. There was no pressure on me to join, and there certainly wasn’t any pressure to pay donations.

A common complaint among beginners is that they don’t get as much access to the teachers as they would like. Again, this is something that builds up with time and patience. As in any school, beginners are often assigned junior teachers, and senior students then see more of the senior teachers. You wouldn’t expect to immediately get regular meetings with the abbot, although in smaller priories where there are only two staff, that’s more likely.

Sustained practice

After the introductory weekend I signed up to a week-long retreat, which went equally well, although it was hard. I was learning so much and felt like I couldn’t get enough, so I started to attend as many week-long retreats as I could. Gradually over several years, I got to know the monks and they got to know me. It was a very slow process, because the monastery isn’t a social club exactly, and most of the time we don’t say anything at all.

After about five week-long retreats, I still felt that I would benefit from staying longer-term. So I spoke with the Guest Master and then the Abbot to explain why I felt that way. Together with other senior monks they then considered my progress so far, and whether they agreed that I would benefit. It wasn’t a case of whether I was “accepted” or not. It felt more like we were all considering together whether a longer stay was the right path for me at that time, and if so, if that was the right place for me to do it.

All I could do was be honest about how things looked to me, and then be open to the views of the hosts. It didn’t help to be attached in my mind to the idea that I had to stay “or else my life will be directionless”. Be confident that there are always other paths. The way to find the right one is to accept that you don’t know the whole picture, and to be willing for any of those paths to be the ‘right’ one.

To get back to how the admin worked: I asked to stay for nine months simply because my gut feeling was that that’s how long I needed to stay to learn the practice. The abbot responded, “Maybe. Start with three months, then we’ll see.” Every week, I reported back to let him know how things were going. My reasons for residency were reviewed a couple of times during the stay, and eventually it felt like the right time to leave.

Other temples have long-term residential structures worked out and you can apply formally, but the spirit of the process is similar. These days almost all of this info is easily available on temple websites. At the very least, there’ll be a phone number you can ring and ask them about how to get started. The  most comprehensive online directory is Buddhanet, or you can simply google e.g. “Zen” and your area. If you ask enough people for their advice, you’ll soon figure out which places have the most solid reputation.

Garden path at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Photo by Maria Stephenson

Garden path at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey. Photo by Maria Stephenson

Do you need to know anything beforehand?

The less the better, I can imagine some teachers saying 🙂  They taught us everything we needed to know at the introductory weekend, and on the website they said what things we might need. (Working clothes, toiletries. Obviously.) What I’d also learned to bring is a rather pedestrian list:

  • A blindfold, to help me sleep on bright summer nights
  • Earplugs. We shared a large room and people snore.
  • Insect repellent in summertime
  • Smart but comfortable clothes. Some people wander around in tracksuits, but I feel more respectful in trousers and a shirt.
  • Wet tissues to clean up fast, because often there’s little time between a work period and a talk.
  • Small packs of tissues to salvage my hayfever with, and pockets in all my clothes to keep them in.
  • Shoes that are quick to slip in and out of, since we take our shoes off when popping in and out of the cloister. You’ll also need a pair to get muddy in outdoors.
  • For long stays: small things you might want to gift to new friends, e.g. small packs of chocolate or little souvenirs.
  • My friend Jason is very fluffy coming back from retreat just now, and would like to add that men tend to forget: a razor, nail scissors, dental floss and tweezers.

What I realised I didn’t need was

  • Books – the emphasis was on practice, not reading, and we were encouraged to take a break from what we normally do (for me, that’s reading.) There are books there, as well.
  • Computers and a phone. It’s liberating to take a break from these things we enslave ourselves to every day. The temple was out of range anyway, and there’s a guest phone when you need one.
  • A stinky deodorant. It’s really embarrassing at close quarters. Stinky sweat is embarrassing too, of course. See “wet tissue” entry above and bring toiletries that don’t smell.

That’s enough about deodorants. What about the intellectual stuff?

From a point of view of zazen practice, I’d suggest that the less you know the better. Some of my fellow trainees had taught Buddhism for 25 years, but it was all intellect-based so they felt that they had to start from scratch. What the monastery does is point you back to your sitting cushion, and you don’t need anything to do that. They even supply the cushions (or chairs, for the many trainees who can’t sit on the floor).

One of the things that surprised me the most was the other trainees. In my solipsistic mind, I’d imagined that they’d all be like me – i.e. in their 30s, single-minded in a sort of masculine way, flown in from all over Europe, and dressed in black. But there were all sorts. Most were actually easy-going retired men and women from the local area. Don’t be disappointed if it isn’t what you expect 🙂

Another piece of advice I’d give myself in retrospect is, don’t take everything that all teachers say to heart. Not even masters are necessarily clued up about how emotional psychology works. Insight into the Dharma is not the same as worldly awareness, and understanding compassion doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to put your interests first. I gratefully soaked up every word of every formal Dharma talk; but there were things said in between to trainees personally, that were not always on the mark. Ultimately the only person who can know you and stand up for you, is you. Concentrate on your own training, while being kind to those you find yourself working with. Keep a non-judgmental and humble beginner’s attitude, but at the same time, trust yourself.

I hope this answers your questions. If not, please ask more.


18. September 2013 by Mia

Comments (23)

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *