2 months ago, I quit my job and went to go live in a buddhist monastery. Full time. For 2 weeks.
Quitting my last job was a burdensome task. I didn’t realize the amount of stress my body was in until the moment I finally did it. I slept for 14 hours each night for the first week. It was a strong case of burnout. I was craving a change. I reached out to a friend who had been living at the San Francisco Zen Center for the past year. I didn’t need much more convincing after that chat. I packed a small suitcase of comfy dark clothing and was ready to go.
When I arrived at the monastery, I was greeted by the work leader. He was mellow Japanese man in his 50s. He gave me a rundown of the schedule: the wake-up bell rings at 5:10am, morning meditation starts at 5:30am and ends at 7:30am, breakfast is at 8, work is from 9am-4:30pm, and then evening meditation starts at 5:30pm and goes until dinner which is served at 6:30pm.
He explained that in Zen Buddhism, there doesn’t exist a separation in meditation practice and work. “Work is practice. Everything in life is the practice”, he said. I didn’t really understand what he meant. He gave me a mask to wear, keys to my bedroom, and assigned me my first task.
When people have asked me about my experience living at the monastery, the first 3 words I say is: “it was hard”.
The Hard Stuff
My first couple days at the monastery, I cleaned toilets. Many, many toilets. I also mopped floors, raked leaves, and carried heavy boxes up and down stairs. My body ached. It was physically demanding work.
The schedule was strict. 5:30am meditation meant you had to be in the meditation room on your assigned cushion and facing the wall by 5:20am. The countdown bells were loud and threatening.
There were particular procedures to execute every minuscule task. You had to enter the meditation room with your right foot first on the left side of the door, with your left palm over your right fist, followed by multiple bows and turns before sitting down. There were different types of bows, for different types of ceremonies and situations. There were particular chants for each meal. There was a particular way to walk up the stairs - to bow at the halfway point, facing a shrine of the founder of the monastery. There were particular periods of silence which I still don’t know the purpose of and, to be honest, felt quite unpredictable.
I come from a culture where bowing and shrines are considered immoral, especially when dedicated to another human being. It was a challenge to address the beliefs I’ve held since my childhood and let go of my ego to participate fully in the monastery.
I felt alone. I spent much of those first days questioning my decision to be at the monastery. The only thing that stopped me from leaving was a conversation I had with some of the monks over lunch. I was really transparent about the struggles I faced. The monks seemed to have similar stories as me - they were all initially turned off by the cult-like practices of the monastery and struggled deeply in the first week or so. But each and every one of them could describe a distinct moment at which their mind shifted.
The reason I stayed is to feel that exact moment. I eventually did.
The most important learning I had was that suffering only exists outside the present moment. In the time I had spent scrubbing toilets, I remember thinking about how I hate the smell of the vinegar cleaner. I complained to myself in my head. I wished for other tasks. I was thinking about ways to become more efficient at cleaning the entire bathroom - maybe I could mop the floor while I pre-treat the sinks with cleaning product to complete my task list faster.
It took a few days of practice to realize that I wasn’t truly present. For every task, I was either thinking about the past - decisions I had made or things I could no longer influence, or the future - person, places, or things that had no relevance to the current moment. The narrative that I was “suffering” while cleaning those toilets was entirely created in my mind. It was created by comparisons of my past and expectations of my future. Without those comparisons and expectations, it becomes nearly impossible to “suffer”.
Suffering only exists outside the present moment.
Meditation is the practice of being present. Every morning at 5:30am at the monastery provided me with the opportunity of accepting the present moment. I could suffer through those long periods of stillness by ruminating over past mistakes or creating fantasies of my future, but to truly accept the present moment, I had to fight those urges.
It isn’t enough to understand how and why suffering occurs. It’s more important to understand that every moment is a new opportunity. The true unlock is the ability to simply begin again. There is no real measure of success in meditation imo, or at least not one that I have heard of. If meditation is the practice of being present, then every moment is the opportunity to practice. The practice does not end.
“Everything in life is practice.” - Roger, from the 3rd floor.
Another pivotal realization I had is that there is no good or bad, there just is. And more specifically, bad intentions don’t exist. That’s been a controversial topic among my friends so I’ll write about that more thoughtfully in my next essay.
The real world
Two weeks may sound like a short time, but it definitely did not feel that way. Getting back to my real life was an odd experience. I remember going to a cafe in San Francisco the day after I left the monastery, and being truly disturbed by the impatience and selfishness that I was noticing. A woman was texting on her phone with her AirPods in and simultaneously banging on the restroom door which someone else was using it. It had been two whole weeks since I heard someone yell. It had been two whole weeks since I heard someone make a loud noises out of frustration. It had been two whole weeks since I saw someone act without regard for others.
By the end of my stay at the monastery, I had grown close to the community. The community was made up of primarily elderly people. Many of them were citizens of other countries - China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico. It was truly beautiful to witness a group of strangers come together and commit to the act of being present - through 5am meditations, work periods, and all the chanting + bowing rituals.
They were all exceptionally kind people. They were open-minded as I questioned their beliefs and lifestyles. They provided me with warmth as I struggled to find my purpose behind my stay.
The monastery was a bubble of its own. A place of refuge. I felt safe there. I believe it’s due to a combination of the people it attracts + the practice itself. As much as I would love to spend more time at the monastery, I’m more motivated to create a similar environment in own my life - through both the people I’m attracting and consistent meditation practice.
I haven’t quite figured out how to do this in a sustainable way yet. Something tells me I have a long way to go before I do.