A few months ago while on a Taego Order retreat I was having a conversation with an ordained American Taego monk about the ordination requirements since I was training to be a monk myself. We were talking about the rigorous physical requirements for the eventual ordination ceremony in Korea, which entails performing 1,000 full-on standing-to-kneeling-to-forehead-on-the-ground prostrations while trekking uphill in the hot, muddy mountains leading up the big event at the monastery. You can see what I’m talking about here.
While I had some minor reservations about going through this process, I felt confident enough in my ability to handle the rigors since I’m very physically active and not at all unused to going ape-shit with my body. However, I do know of two guys (both of them young, physically fit and practicing martial artists) who confessed to finding the ordination process extremely difficult despite their high fitness levels. One of them said he almost thought he wouldn’t be able to complete the ceremony as it is so taxing on the body.
(All of this was just before I was made aware of the discriminatory ordination policies and double standards that exists for LGBT people, straight women, and the physically challenged within the Taego Order, and their continued lack of transparency about these policies.)
So as I was talking to this monk about this order’s prostration requirement, I said something about my assumption that they must make allowances for people with physical issues or older ordainees who might not be able to do a full prostration, let alone 1,000.
“If someone can’t do prostrations, they shouldn’t ordain!”he replied indignantly.
Surprised, I asked him “Do you think someone can’t be a good monk unless they can do prostrations?”
He rolled his eyes, looked away, and remained silent.
It was at that moment that I began to more deeply consider what the dharma was really about and what it often gets mistaken for. It also highlighted for me the dilemma we face at this point in time about how to assimilate very old Buddhist traditions from the East with our culture here and now in a way that makes sense and works for the people it claims to want to help. All too often Buddhist temples and dharma centers get so caught up in form, appearances and traditions that they end up alienating the very people that need them the most.
Taking a 1,200 year tradition like bowing prostrations and trying to force Westerners to do them is a foolish and pointless as asking a Christian convert to walk down Fifth Avenue with a cross on her back.
I’m not saying that this lineage or any other lineage requires it’s lay students to engage in such extreme forms of practice, but it does highlight a greater issue in Western Buddhism today.
There are many, many tools that can help in training our minds; sitting and walking meditation, chanting, prostrations, art practice, etc. But getting attached to any of them is a mistake. I bet the Buddha himself never did a bloody prostration in his 80 plus years, so why the hell should anyone today be expected to if they just can’t handle it physically?
It’s ridiculous to create more obstacles to a person’s practice in this day and age. We already have more than our fair share of distractions. The Buddha taught about the importance of not getting attached to the raft once you cross the river. While he was talking about the importance of not clinging even to his own teachings, this parable also applies very well to the different forms and traditions that have sprung up since his death, that too many people still desperately cling to today.
A lineage isn’t more valid simply because it’s few centuries old or because it was originated in a foreign culture. Personally, I no longer recognize the Taego Order as valid given the discriminatory policies it enforces and it’s refusal to be clear about those policies from the start.
It’s counterproductive and harmful to get too caught up in the rituals attached to the dharma. When people do this, the true spirit of the teachings risks being lost or subjugated, and all one is left with is a hollow, shadow of a practice.
There’s no need to be so hardcore and geeky about this stuff, we’re already hard enough on ourselves as it is. We have to find a way to make the dharma work for people here and now, and not cling to how it used to work for people in days past.