Life in a Monastery

Main Ramakrishna Temple
Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

There are stages in life.

Vedanta has the idea that people basically go through four stages: first education, then house and two kids, then retirement, then leaving it all and finding something more important. Monastic people skip the middle stages and go straight to the last step. There’s nothing wrong with going through all the stages, but if you’ve got the bug, you’ve got the bug.

Do I have the bug? Friends have been wondering for years if I will go monastic. I have, too.

This question reemerged within hours of my arrival at the Ramakrishna Center in Delhi, my home base while in India. I had visited the center before, briefly, but I wasn’t sure if the place was a “center,” an “ashram” or a “monastery.” While these terms overlap and all are applicable, on my arrival I quickly learned that it definitely is a monastery; there are roughly 10 Sannyasins who live monastically on the campus, and a handful more in training. (Sannyasins wear orange robes, sannyasins-in-training wear white robes and go through at least eight years of training before getting their “color.”) All day I watched the Sannyasins, wondering if I could be one of them.

Monasticism is about renunciation, so I knew living conditions would be basic. My host had warned me about this, writing in an email that “accommodations will be austere, but there will be lots of love.” If anything, I was surprised it was not more basic—the room had a shower and hot water, which is more than I got the first few days I was in the country.

The room still is pretty basic: seven wooden bed frames, thin roll-out mats that masquerade as padding, an old desk, some water jugs and a place to hang hand-washed clothes. The room is one of many in a dorm building in the back that houses guests, permanent staff, the stray sannyasin (who have their own floor), and classrooms.

My spaceThe rest of the campus also impressed me with its livability, neither too basic and resource-shy, nor indulgent and unnecessarily state-of-the-art. There is a large lending library, two auditoriums for conferences, a homeopathic medicine dispensary, two small saint museums, a computer training facility (using Windows 7, I hear), a private mess hall, a bookstore, two administrative buildings, a separate dorm for sannyasins, a garden, and a grand central temple where the public comes for worship. Also, strangely, there is a textbook library for Delhi University students.

So far, time to observe monastic life takes place during meals and scheduled public worship services; meals are promptly at 7am, Noon and 8:30pm, with a more leisurely tea break from 4:30-5:30pm and music in the temple at sunset (currently 5:40pm or thereabout). Most residents and any guests congregate in the mess hall during these meals, so it brings cohesion and daily social time when otherwise there might not be much.

At least it provides social time for me; I don’t know what these monastics do all day in their sannyasin dorm and the side rooms of the temple. I imagine it is some combination of meditation, chanting ritual, study and service.

It doesn’t feel very social, though, and that’s what gives me pause. For the first 24 hours, I was completely enamored with my orange-robed brethren and the routines of the day; I immediately identified with the sannyasins, and I do believe in renunciation; any attachment is partisan, and partisanship is completely at odds with the key Vedanta goal of realizing the oneness of everything. I also adored the idea of having a label that quickly signaled my purpose; most of my unusual habits make sense and even become virtuous in the context of Vedanta. But the social side concerns me.

There are no women around, and the monastics feel set off from everyone else. They have their own quarters, for instance, and in the mess hall they have their own separate towel. Not possessing people is important, not showing favoritism is important, not missing people is important, but not being set off from others—anyone at all—also is important. Which is why I am pulled toward monasticism at the same time as I am repelled.

There’s at least one good reason why monastics are a bit removed from everyone else: peak performance. Realizing God and getting beyond less developed understanding is hard, more so when almost every social meme, cultural structure and conversation is a push in the wrong direction. Remaining true, staying focused, acting faithfully on one’s beliefs requires a lot of effort when indiscriminately in the world. A serious athlete does not put just anything into his body, and a serious spiritual seeker must likewise limit the inputs.

How much must be limited, though, and is the diet inherently against the goal? Being a part of God means that you are a part of everything else that is God, so essentially you are everything. If you are everything, there’s no room for discrimination of any kind. Discrimination is a move against the goal.

Either renunciation and monastic isolation is a temporary exercise—a move that’s two steps forward and one step back—or the isolation is less real than first appears.

My first couple days at the monastery raise more questions than they answer. There’s still time to wager on my monastic future.

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