The Life of a Modern Zen Buddhist Monk

When many people hear the word “monk,” a stereotypical image springs to mind of a person with a shaved head, isolated from the world in a remote temple living a life of sacrifice with no possessions and no enjoyment. A life that starts well before dawn washing in cold water with only a bowl of rice to eat, endless hours of chanting and cleaning, followed by a few hours of sleep before the day repeats in an endless cycle. While this may seem a somewhat romantic image, it doesn’t sound very appealing. Though this may have been accurate a very long time ago, it is not a reflection of the life of a Zen monk in the modern era.

The world is not the same world it was centuries ago when Buddhism began. Our water is not the same; our air is not the same, even the human body is not the same. So too, our practice as Buddhist monks has changed. Though practices have evolved, they have retained and perhaps further focused the integrity, or intention, of the practice. As such, though the life of a Zen monk has shifted, the heart is the same, and the purpose is the same if not deeper.

When I came to practice Zazen for the first time, I was cared for as a guest that had come to someone’s home. That sense of community and kindness was overwhelming. I don’t think I had ever felt more welcome or accepted without judgement. As I returned repeatedly and began to take responsibility for others, I eventually became a practitioner. Being a practitioner means “practising to be a monk.” So my path and the path of all practitioners is to become a monk.

This path is transparent in my work as an author and speaker, and I speak openly about it. Many people are very curious about Buddhism, and so I am always asked questions. Growing up in Canada, I was strongly drawn to Japan and Zen practice and had many questions and misconceptions as well, so I understand and appreciate this sense of wonder.

For example, one does not “convert” to Buddhism. We are asked to keep, respect and celebrate our tradition should we have one. And not to leave it, but to find a way to unify with it. Buddhism does not replace but deepens your spiritual practice.

Living in Japan, and my continuing Buddhist practice with Rinzai Zen temples are experiences that have transformed my thinking, my feelings, and my approach to my work and personal lives. Through these posts, I wish to share my journey and my limited understanding of the teachings I have been so fortunate to receive.

I believe that to live the life of a Zen monk is to live a spiritual life in the real-world—a life of joy, sharing happiness and creating a bright future for all beings. A Zen monk is not only an exemplary practitioner but strives to be an exemplary human being with an uncompromising level of care for others. To be an exemplary leader—never to be above others, nor below them, but as a layer of an onion gently pressing on the next to stretch it in all directions. A Zen monk strives to lift others up to be their best selves, building their capacity and encouraging their growth and spiritual development.

It is not a life of isolation separated from the world, but conversely truly being in the world fully; participating in regular activities of life, while taking responsibility for holding one’s own ego.

Just as many people hold the image of a monk described earlier, many also think of Buddhism as a religion or as meditation. However, the core principle of Buddhism is the spiritual development of all beings. To develop spiritually is to understand oneself completely. Understanding yourself completely means being able to recognize your ego.

Simply put, Buddhist practice is about understanding your ego, having the wisdom to see it and the capacity to do something about it, while not judging others for their ego.

Without understanding ego, we will only continue the karmic cycle of blaming others for our misfortune and taking credit for our good fortune. This cycle aggravates our feeling of separation from the world, our loneliness and our unhappiness.

When we understand and hold our ego, we can genuinely connect with others, unify our hearts and wish for their happiness, dissolving the walls between us and creating a brighter future for the world—A community, or Sangha, of compassion, of harmony, and of joy. I believe that to be a Zen monk is to be devoted to creating this community in the world, leaving no one behind.

Lee Watanabe Crockett

Lee is an optimist. He believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together through connection and compassion. He works with businesses and schools in several countries, helping them make the shift to regain relevance and establish a culture of excellence.