I spent ten or fifteen minutes this morning reading about life in and around a Buddhist monastery in West Orange, New Jersey. As I absorbed the story, written by Rachel Martin, thoughts in my head returned to some of my earlier contemplations about Buddhism. But those earlier contemplations revolved more around monasticism in general than about Buddhist monasticism in particular. Off and on for at least twenty years, perhaps more, I  have considered visiting a monastery for a period of time—long enough, at least, to clear my head of the clutter that seems always to keep me from the serenity that has long eluded me. Each time that idea has come to me, I have let it stew for a bit; wondering whether it would take hold long enough to spur me to action. And each time I have allowed myself the luxury—and accepted the penalty—of insufficient self-discipline. I want to explore it, but I fear the allure of monasticism might be so strong that I cannot resist it; it might tear me away from a way of living and thinking that now has taken almost seventy years to develop.

When I allow myself enough time and freedom to think about the appeal of a monastic life, I wonder about what motivates my thinking: is my inclination toward monasticism a search for serenity or is it an effort to run away from chaos? In other words, is it interest that drives me, or is it fear? And when I experience fear of the allure of monasticism, is that a way for me to override its growing appeal? More fundamental, though, is this question: why have asceticism and monasticism and other expressions of simplicity always so powerfully appealed to me? And why have I always lived my life in ways that seem diametrically opposed to the way I perceive that simplicity? I “own” things. I listen to music. I imbibe in alcohol. I sometimes revel in drowning in the flood of millions of inputs: sounds, sights, emotions, sensations, etc., etc., etc. Why does the absence of that almost overwhelming sense of absorbing all of life’s experiences draw me toward… emptiness?

In reading the article, I thought of the hundreds—or more—of increasingly commercialized opportunities to experience the “quietude of Buddhist retreats.” My thoughts about them have become increasingly negative over the years because I question their legitimacy; are they really “pure” opportunities to understand and pursue and experience serenity, or are they simply ways to enrich the organizers of the events? The latter; that’s the conclusion I usually reach. Yet, still, I continue thinking about them; about finding one that might really connect me with an understanding that, heretofore, has eluded me.

A friend in Dallas once expressed an interest in participating in a Buddhist retreat in east Texas; she invited me to join her. For all sorts of practical reasons, we never followed up on it together. I have no idea whether she ever did; I should contact her to ask. And, if she did, what was the experience like? I know she continues to live the same lifestyle she did when I lived in Dallas; awash in materialism and worldly experiences—so, even if she attended, it did not transform her in the way I might wish I would like to be transformed. All of this, of course, is just musing and pondering. But it is musing and pondering that will remain with me, I am sure. Because there’s something about my inclination toward monasticism and my search for simplicity and welcome emptiness that has enormous appeal. Yet, as I think about it, my “wanting” it may be evidence that it does not hold the keys to serenity I have always believed it might. Curious, that one’s mind can identify opposites that are at once answers and questions, but in fact are neither.


Thus completes a few of my morning thoughts. Or, at least, puts a few of them on “pause” for a while. Now, onward toward the day.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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