Planning, Monastic Style

Peter Kowalke
Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Two brahmachari and I were sitting at a table in the dining hall, sipping chai. Brahmachari are monks-in-training, a process that takes at least eight years.

“Sometimes I ask brahmachari about their lives,” I said. “They don’t always answer. Is this them just not wanting to answer, or is there a deeper spiritual reason for their silence?”

They grew silent. The older of the two brahmachari paused, then answered slowly. At first each word was measured.

“We try to live in the present. That’s the main idea of Buddhism. Live in the moment, not in the past or in the future.”

“What about people who are not monastics?” I asked. “If they don’t plan, won’t this lead to ruin?”

He nodded. “We don’t recommend that householders follow this advice.”

“What about the Secretary of the Mission? If he doesn’t plan, it will be hard to hold events and keep the Mission running.”

“Planning is okay if not planning for yourself.”

“Because planning for yourself could introduce ego and attachment to particular outcomes?”

“Exactly,” said the monk.

“But isn’t there still the possibility of attachment to the success of your organization?”

“It depends on the Secretary’s own spiritual development.”

“If he does it only for the organization, and doesn’t plan with himself in mind,” I answered myself, “he can avoid attachment.”


Okay, that answered the future. Planning is okay, but not planning for one’s self; it makes a person care about particular outcomes too much, and reinforces a sense of self instead of a sense of being something larger. Among other reasons. But what about the past?

“I do a lot with archiving and history,” I explained. “I’ve long suspected that one day I will have to give this up. For instance, I keep a daily journal.”

“You don’t necessarily have to give up your journal.”

“The journal reinforces my personal narrative, though. It emphasizes the little me, the ‘Peter,’ which takes me away from the Whole. Every day I write about myself, about Peter.”

He said something about having kept a journal himself many years ago. But I had stopped listening to him by then. I was lost in my own thoughts. I was not present.

“I probably should give up my journal right now. But I’ve written every day since I turned 14. Stopping is a big deal. So it will probably be one of the last attachments to go.”

I talked a few more minutes. Then we went back to work.


  1. by Kalhan

    On February 13, 2012

    Every quanta of interaction is valuable to a socalled, ‘outsider’, for the present; who could be an ‘insider’ , as a plan of The Lord, in later years.
    As long as we are in the body-sense/state, everything is ‘true’ around, via discrimination we learn to delate the nonessentials, and learn to live in the nonattachments; eventually nonattachment-ness shall become ‘natural’, even living in the present, even being in the body-sense, (as assessed by an outsider), socalled planning goes in super-fluidity, effortlessly, in peace…..but it takes appropriate conditioning phase, in the evolution in the genetic dimension, supporting phase of ‘Sanskar’ is stored , by and by.

  2. by Mae

    On February 16, 2012

    I like how you ended the story in the middle–in the present. Unresolved, just like life.

  3. by red crow

    On August 3, 2014

    My guess is that it does not matter. The monks have an attachment to not having an attachment. Do the journals bring you happiness? You have a personality whether you relate to it or not. We have a god self and a social self. Is keeping your journal part of loving yourself? That is good. Do you reach out to other people to relieve suffering? Of course you do. Is your loving of yourself and of others done in remembrance of God (however you conceive that) ? Of course it is. What more could you possibly ask for? You are awesome. You are divine. You are human. love, rc

  4. by Todd

    On August 4, 2014

    Many of us are familiar with the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant planned for the future by storing food for the winter but the grasshopper did not. And when winter came the ant survived; the grasshopper starved. When we travel on airplanes we are instructed to fasten our own oxygen mask before we fasten our children’s or else we may pass out before we are able to help them.

    Learning from the past and planning for the future – whether our own or that of others – is an inherent part of human life. If we do not review the past we cannot learn from mistakes and grow spiritually. If we do not create future goals we similarly cannot grow. Communities are made of individuals. If these individuals are not cared for, even ourselves, then the community suffers. So to not take care of oneself is, in a very real and direct way, to not serve others. For example, aid workers in Africa may be feel very guilty about having a sandwich for lunch when those they are helping do not have enough to eat. But if the aid worker does not take care of herself, she will soon be in the same situation as those she is attempting to help.

    In yoga, the intellect is viewed as a tool and, like other tools, can be set down when the job is done. I believe that the same applies to the moments we dedicate to thinking about the past and the future. I do not believe that maintaining awareness of the present moment inherently excludes the activities of thinking of the past or the future. Because we can always perform this activity with the awareness that we are doing so within a particular moment. Maintaining awareness that we are doing so for a selfless purpose – whether attending to our own basic needs or serving others – makes this easier I think. And we can stop once the job is done.

    I think the trouble many of us run into are the anxious ruminations that arise from uncertainties such as fear of the future or bad things from the past repeating themselves. This fear is difficult to overcome as often it is habitual and subtle. Becoming aware that we are doing so in the present moment – waking up inside the dream – can help.

  5. by William Page

    On August 4, 2014

    Many years ago I heard that monks don’t like to talk about their premonastic lives because that’s all dead and gone, burned away in the homa fire. Sometimes it’s even hard to get a swami’s premonastic name out of him. One devout disciple of the late Swami Pavitrananda, who subsequently became a pravrajika, tried to write a biography of her guru but could never find out his premonastic surname. I presume this is all part of the policy of self-effacement that monks are supposed to follow. I never knew the premonastic name of Swami Damodaranandaji, who founded the Vedanta association in Thailand. As householders, we should refrain from prying and give monks as much space as they need.

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