What does a Buddhist monk know about the real world anyway?” It’s a common question because there’s a sense of the monastery being an isolated sanctuary where we say, “Goodbye cruel world,” then we come into our beautiful sacred space and suddenly we’re spiritual. That’s a bit of a sweeping generalization, but it’s often the way people think.
What is a monastery, anyway? What is the purpose of a sanctuary like Abhayagiri and what is the “real world”? Anyone who has stayed here for more than a few hours realizes that far from getting away from the world, monastery life is designed to be a place where we meet the world—the world of our own perceptions, our own preferences, our own fears and desires, and our own opinions. We might think, “Oh, there are so many difficulties in the world: social stresses, problems of climate change, the collapsing economy, so many suffering beings in the world. What am I doing in a monastery, how am I helping? Am I just trying to hide away from the real world?”
That’s a reasonable enough question. But what we find is that because there is a meeting with the real world of our own mind, our own bodies, and the physical reality of our existence that we are, in a sense, more genuinely engaged with the real world than when we’re running around outside. The blur of activity in an ordinary everyday life, even though it can be involved with a lot of compassionate and beneficial activity, can actually mean that we’re on one level doing a lot of good things, but on another level we’re disconnected from the people around us.
Living in the monastery and undertaking monastic training is about bringing our attention to ordinary everyday activities. Just the way you carefully put two pieces of pvc pipe together, the way that you chop a carrot, the way that you clear a trail or edit a Dhamma talk, the care with which you bring your attention to each action, and the attunement of the mind to the present moment, is what creates a sacred space. This is what creates this place as a monastery, rather than just an aggregation of individuals following their own wishes, opinions, and habits. The fact that there are sanctuaries such as this in the world is a tremendous benefit and blessing. That people know there is a place where others will not lie to them, cheat them, try to flirt with them, get money from them, or wish them harm, is a tremendous gift.
We may ask ourselves: “What am I doing for the world just chopping carrots or pruning branches on the trail? How is this helping the world?” It’s important to realize that the intention to bring mindfulness, care, and the cultivation of unselfish conduct in these simple and apparently insignificant, acts is a way in which we are helping the world. The very fact that this monastery exists at all with a couple of dozen people choosing to live and train themselves in this way has an effect. It’s a beneficial and guiding presence in people’s lives all over the planet and is something in which to rejoice.