The Real World

Ajahn Amaro • October 2009

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, “Good-bye cruel world,” and then 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? 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 real world, monastery life is designed to be a place where we meet that world—the real world of our own perceptions, preferences, fears, desires, and opinions.

Even those of us here 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? Those are reasonable questions. But what we find at the monastery is that because there is a meeting with the real world of our own minds and bodies and the physical reality of our existence, we are, in an important way, more genuinely engaged with the real world than when we’re running around outside. The blur of activity in an ordinary, everyday life, even when it is involved with compassionate and beneficial activity, can also entail being disconnected both from oneself and those around oneself.

Living in the monastery and undertaking monastic training is about bringing our attention to ordinary everyday activities. The way we carefully put two pieces of PVC pipe together, chop an onion, clear a trail, or edit a Dhamma talk, and the way we carefully bring our attention to each of those activities—attuning the mind to the present moment—is what creates a sacred space. That is what makes this place a monastery, rather than an aggregation of individuals following their own wishes, opinions, and habits. Sanctuaries such as this are a tremendous benefit and blessing to the world, because they let people know there are places where others will not lie to them, try to cheat them, try to flirt with them, get money from them, or wish them harm. This is a tremendous gift.

We may ask ourselves, How am I helping the world by chopping onions or pruning branches on the trail? When a reasonable doubt like that arises, it’s important to realize that the intention to bring mindfulness, care, and the cultivation of unselfish conduct into 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 dozen people choosing to live and train themselves in this way—it does have an effect. It is a beneficial and guiding presence in people’s lives all over the planet and is truly something in which to rejoice.