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Buddhist monasteries are a communal (cenobitic) form of monasticism, about 2500 years old, and thus probably the oldest, on-going, communal institutions in the world. The settled sites were called ‘arama’, meaning ‘pleasant park’. Our own specific tradition of East Asian Zen monasticism is about 1600 years old and a continuation of the basic tradition.
Why has it lasted so long? because the teaching and the yogic craft of Buddhist practice has been developed communally and generationally and taught and practiced communally and generationally.
Buddhism is a multi-generational development of yogic practice, an experientially rooted philosophy, and a manifest, compassionate vision of humanity and of all sentience.
Three dharmic aims underlie the basic structure of Zen monasticism and the components of its lived practice. One is to realize freedom from mental suffering. The second is to live in concert with everything as it actually exists. And the third is to create likely conditions for the realization of enlightenment.
This first aim, to realize freedom from mental (psychological and emotional) suffering, requires developing a ‘wisdom-observing-mind’ rooted in stillness. Monastic life is designed to help us realize this wisdom-observing-mind.
The second aim is to live in concert with everything as it is. This comes to fruition through a personal realization of a contextually presenced bodilymind, continuously and successively articulated within ungrounded immediacy. This practice is at the center of monastic practice.
And the third aim, enlightenment is ‘not aimed for’ because it is not anywhere but here. However, it is experienced as an instantaneous shift to, or an incremental establishment of, freedom from mental suffering, an embodied immediacy, and an imperturbable, attentional interiority.
Buddhism is not a revealed teaching to be believed, or a teaching of the ‘book’. Like science, Buddhist teachings are generationally and accumulatively developed. And as science requires universities, libraries, laboratories; Buddhism also requires monasteries; texts; informed practice – and often universities and scholarship.
Of course, you can practice zazen alone and anywhere, and you can practice the teachings at any time in any circumstance. However, zazen and the teachings have been developed through shared practice and its generational transmission. This mutuality and succession almost always occurs with a teacher, with fellow practitioners, and through the equivalent of ‘peer review’.
The ‘Seven Buddhas Before Buddha’ (sometimes 27 are counted) is a mythology developed to emphasize that the Buddha was not a solitary, yogic genius, that his teachings and practices arose within the practices of India of the time, and that these teachings and practices can also arise within the basic conditions of our lived lives.