“Excessive self-deprivation is just as harmful to the soul as excessive self-indulgence.”
This shouldn’t seem shocking or even new to a Buddhist. Gautama-Buddha is said to have found the Middle Way – the way of balance. Yet, the popular perception of Buddhists is that of suffering, of trails, and of life in hidden away mountain monasteries drinking yak milk and eating rice. Why is this perception so widely held? Sensationalism, probably. I don’t truly have an answer to that question. However, let’s take a moment to examine it.
You live in the mountains – the Himalayas, probably. It’s cold there, far colder than your old house in Pittsburgh. The air is thin, you probably have trouble breathing. Add to that, no one speaks English, so more than once you’ve suffered the embarrassment of having missed some scheduled activity. You have difficulty with the chants. The diet is far more Spartan than you’re used to; the labor more demanding.
Those are the cons. Now, let’s imagine the benefits.
It is starkly, serenely beautiful. It is easy to imagine oneness with such things. Everyone around you is on the same path. They may lead you, as far as they have gone. It is easy to imagine your labor as Right Action or Right Effort.
But wait! Are those real benefits, for a person on the path to Nirvana?
No. They are simply indulgences of ego. They present you with the idea that you are moving closer to spiritual attainment with the accompanying enlightenment.
Looking closer, even the supposed cons are indulgences of ego. You were raised in the televised West. Your perception of Buddhism has been shaped by media. You expect cold, suffering, Spartan diets, and manual labor. Thus, by doing such things, you are merely fulling a prefabricated expectation. This too can lull you into the comfort of false spiritual advancement and the bane of a “holier-than-thou” attitude.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not fully decrying monastery life. I am pointing out that monastery life is perhaps not the ideal start of the Path for Westerners.
If you want to walk the Path, start in Pittsburgh. Start in Los Angeles. Start in Tampa. Seek to change yourself, not your surroundings. Do not give in to the egotistic lure of excess-deprivation nor the ego-driven lure of hedonism. You’ll find it more challenging, and more rewarding. If you want to walk the Path, start in Denver.
If you want to walk the Path, start.