“Should I get married or become a monk? Which one is best?”
It’s a question people ask time and time again. It’s also a question which can’t be answered off-the-cuff. Imagine going into a hospital and inquiring which operation is the best. It’s illogical. Unless they sign you in, run some tests and peruse the results, they can’t really offer any substantial guidance. Everyone is different, and everyone requires something different. Thus, in the traditions of yore, people would take the first twenty years of their life to ‘run some tests’ and understand their psycho physical-temperament. After all, it’s difficult to hear the heart in the noise of life – busyness, expectation, social hype and the hard struggle for existence blocks us from finding ourselves. Taking ‘time out’ to prepare oneself for a lifetime of solid spirituality is indispensable. We can’t jump the gun.
Whilst contemplating the two life paths, however, something did occur to me. Last week I was with a good friend while his energetic 4-year-old son bustled about. Now that young boy was demanding! Having never experienced that kind of responsibility, I was fascinated to observe their interactions. The care, attention, empathy and incredible patience that went into the interaction prompted a striking epiphany. Family commitments, as father and mother especially, undoubtedly usher one into a heightened state of selflessness. It’s so strikingly induced upon you that you can’t avoid it. You quickly accept that the world is not just about what you want – you’re forced to put others before you. If one can deeply internalise such lessons with wisdom, they can serve as crucial realisations on the spiritual journey. When it comes to qualities like selflessness, parents have more than just book knowledge. In that sense, family life does have a unique advantage.
Life as a solo renunciant doesn’t offer the same inducement. It’s easier to sit back and conveniently select when and when not to extend yourself. One has more scope to withdraw from the social demands as and when they please. While it may seem advantageous and supportive of one’s spirituality, it can also stunt one’s progress. Renunciates are not forced to develop selflessness in the same way. It's not that they can't, since we see exemplary renunciates who do go above and beyond the call of duty. But they have to make the extra special voluntary push to help and serve others, lest that sense of selflessness will never really arise. From the externals, renunciates are giving their all. Speaking for myself, however, I know I can pull back and find some space whenever I like. And when my general tendency is towards laziness and doing less than necessary, it’s dangerous. How ironic if I would live a lifetime of renunciation, and still remain self-centred. It’s something I often think about.