Prompted by the Abbot to write something for the benefit of those contemplating monkhood, Ven Kumara decides to share his answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about his journey before and after becoming a monk.
Having been a monk for four years, I’ve been asked various questions related to my becoming a monk. Some of these questions have been asked so many times that I sometimes wish I could gather all those who are curious to know and tell them all at one go.
So, is that why I’m writing this article? The idea did spring from that, but there are better reasons. You’ll see as you read some of the top questions and my responses to them.
FAQ1 How did you decide to become a monk?
In a way, the decision came suddenly; yet, it was the result of a gradual build-up — somewhat like a vipassana insight, if you like. When I was just a young boy, I was fascinated with reports of kids going for short-term novitiate programs. A past life tendency, perhaps? But due to lack of contact with Buddhist temples, I never joined any.
My interest in Buddhism was revived about 15 years later, when I was in varsity. With the help of my Buddhist society friends, I was drawn into Buddhism and quickly agreed to join a week-long vipassana meditation retreat conducted by Ven Sujiva in Santisukharama, Kota Tinggi.
The participants underwent a pre-retreat meditation crash course at Buddhist Wisdom Centre in Petaling Jaya. One of the facilitators, Tan Soo Pin, said something that I can still remember quite vividly:
If you want to be a serious yogi (meditator), you have only four options in life:
1. Become a monk
2. Stay unmarried
3. Get married to a yogi
4. Get married to someone who can be made to become a yogi.
That’s it. No fifth option.
Does that sound a bit too serious for you? Anyway, at that time, I was thoroughly inspired. There can be no other options for me. Period. Yet, the desire to renounce did not crystallise.
I went to the retreat highly motivated and practised quite diligently. Near the end of the retreat, I thought, “Wow! This is the most worthwhile week I’ve ever spent in my whole life!” My faith in the Triple Gem took a silent yet significant leap forward.
Some thoughts of renunciation did occur then, such as doing away with the extravagances in life. I was so engulfed in those thoughts that I could hardly meditate. Hor Tuck Loon, who was then a Dhamma worker there, became a victim of my desire to share my noble thoughts. I later came to know that it’s common for a beginner to be sucked into that sort of thing. All the same, I knew then that my life had taken a fundamental turn. What wasn’t clear to me was where it was leading.
Meeting practising monks was perhaps the greatest influence on my decision to renounce. Ven Sujiva, who was my main meditation teacher, praised life as a renunciant and encouraged me to renounce. It seems he says that to most yogis he interviews.
I also met some other good monks like Ven Suvanno, Ven Visuddhacara (who has just disrobed), and Ven Nagasena, and was attracted to the way they lived. Sure, it would mean no movies, no music, no eating whenever I like, no girls, etc. But, it would also mean no wife and kids to deal with, no income tax, no house and car to pay for, no debts and bills to settle, no money to worry about, no shopping for clothes… What a great life!
Although I had never got myself fully entangled with the usual worldly burdens yet, there were enough examples around, such as my own parents, to give me a good picture. I didn’t like it. I found it too wearisome. So, the notion of being free from all that, and having all the time to do Dhamma-related things, was something that I found extremely attractive.
The eventual decision to renounce came quite unexpectedly, when I was somewhere in the middle of my final year of studies. Although I had chosen a course on education, thinking that being a teacher was what I wanted, there was still a nagging sense of uncertainty.
I managed to find and downloaded a career guidance software from the Internet. It had an interactive questionnaire, which I worked through to find out the most suitable job for me. I hoped that it would just tell me that I should be a teacher and settle the matter. I was getting rather sick of the indecisiveness.
What was the result? I can’t remember. Certainly not a monk, though. Whatever it was, I don’t recall being satisfied. So I wandered elsewhere in the program and chanced upon a passage that said something like this:
Imagine if you were to live your life as events led you. You then approached the end of your life, and began to reflect on how you had lived. Now consider: How would you wish you had lived your life instead?
Immediately, this thought occurred: “I’d wish I had lived my life as a monk… and worked towards enlightenment.” I was quite surprised at my own response.
“I’d wish I had lived as a monk.” Those words echoed in my mind. I was utterly amazed. It was like some sort of sudden realisation. (Satori?)
“That’s what I want to do with my life: be a monk.” Nothing else seemed worthy; nothing else made sense. There was not an iota of indecisiveness in my mind. I had sold my ‘soul’ to the Triple Gem!
So, that was how I decided to become a monk. Strange, isn’t it? Who could have thought that a career guidance software downloaded from the Internet would become my final divine messenger?
FAQ2 Didn’t your parents object?
They objected. Oh, yes, they did. In fact, when my mother learned of my intention, she cried cats and dogs; and when my father found out why she was crying, he scolded me for making her cry.
At that time, I hadn’t even asked for permission yet, but there were clear indications that it was definitely not the right time. So I suggested, “Okay, okay! Let’s just leave this aside. Let’s not talk about it for now, okay?” Feeling like I was in hot soup, I was more than willing to abandon the issue – for the time being at least.
As their faith in the Triple Gem was still weak then, I knew they would not be able to take it well, but I had to start somewhere. It was a difficult period that we simply had to go through.
FAQ3 How did you get your parents’ permission?
Like most monks and aspiring monks, parental consent proved to be the most elusive condition to fulfil.
Let me explain this first. When a person wants to join the monastic order, a member of the Sangha assembly will ask him whether his parents have consented. If he did not have their consent and answered accordingly, and the monks in the assembly ordained him nonetheless, each of those monks commits a Vinaya offence. If he said ‘yes’ instead, he would be lying.
In either case, his ordination would not be impeccable. As I personally have never liked such a situation, I waited. During that period, I tried to make use of every opportune moment to gradually influence my parents to have a more positive view of monkhood. The stamp of approval finally came – about one and a half years after I had first revealed my intention to them.
We were in the midst of economic recession in 1998 and my father was getting himself deeper into a financial mess. I was in the kitchen together with my mother and we talked about our situation. It somehow felt like the right time, and so I said, “Mum, if I continue to live my life as it is, I’d regret not having become a monk.”
“If you don’t feel happy as a lay person,” she said, “we shouldn’t stop you.”
For a while, I wasn’t sure what to say; then I thanked her.
“Although I let you go,” she added, “I do it with a heavy heart.”
“I know. ”
Later, when my father came to know about it, he didn’t object. It seemed almost as if they had anticipated my asking, and had decided to give their consent. Aren’t they great?
After my ordination, my parents became better Buddhists and more active in the temple: attending Dhamma talks, joining a meditation course, providing services, etc. I knew things would turn out fine.
FAQ4 How would a person know that he is ready to renounce?
When I was first asked this question, I didn’t know how to answer. Other monks that I checked with were equally at a loss. The fact is we never asked ourselves that question. When you want to renounce, you renounce lah! What’s there to be ready about?
We eventually agreed upon this answer: If a person asks that question, he is not ready.
FAQ5 Are you allowed to disrobe later?
Sure. There’s no lifelong vow in becoming a monk.
FAQ6 Do you intend to disrobe later (or be a monk for life)?
Choy! How can you ask that question?
Seriously, although I did enter monkhood with no thought of disrobing later, I can’t be sure how I will think in the future. Perhaps I can only say that, at present, I can’t find any reason to return to lay life. What’s so great about it anyway?
To those who are on the verge of monkhood, I hope this article can somehow give a few nudges towards the wonderful life. As for the rest, may it plant little seeds in their minds — no matter how tiny they may be!