Monastic Career Paths

When I was in high school and college, I was preparing myself to choose and enter some kind of career path: a progression of roles or jobs that would accomplish my career goals in the short and long-term. A firm career path, I was told, would help me to grow my skills and my retirement savings, and ideally serve some larger good – if possible – but that probably wouldn’t happen, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

I didn’t make it very far down any of the traditional career paths I explored: programming, education, and even entrepreneurship. I enjoyed the thinking puzzles programming brought me, but grated against the meaninglessness and even evil of the technology I was building. I enjoyed working with children and teenagers, but couldn’t support myself solely as a tutor – and I wasn’t even sure it was ethical to charge for the support I was offering. When I started my own business, I found myself frequently giving others the online course I created for free. No wonder I wasn’t bringing in enough money to make a living.

Since then, I’ve stepped away from traditional careers and industries by joining a monastic training environment. The kind of trustworthy leader we are aiming to create at the Monastic Academy – someone who has the three skills of wisdom, love, and power – doesn’t seek to further their own profit or benefit.

However, these leaders do have goals. Being of true benefit to others – other humans, but also other species and even the planet as a whole – is an ambitious aspiration. Accomplishing these goals requires engagement with the larger economy, not in order to acquire possessions or some sort of worldly gain, but rather to shift and transform the patterns that are destroying the world.

Such large and ambitious goals will likely take a long time. In order to move in that direction, these leaders will benefit from following a sequential path of progressively more challenging and ambitious roles. You might call it a career path – a monastic career path. In this post, I’ll share what several possibilities of a monastic career path might look like.

A Connection Between Monastic Training and the Larger World

Some of these career paths will lead to roles that are inside a monastery, while others will lead outside of a monastery. Both directions are valid, and both should be supported and seen as beneficial to the larger civilization. It’s not ethically better (or worse) for someone

to be in a monastery – it depends on the situation and the person. The life of a lay person or householder is also a valid approach to walking the spiritual path.

Furthermore, different people will benefit from different amounts of time training in a monastery. Some, like myself, may find it useful to go through cycles of training in a monastery, leaving, and returning, as a way to integrate their training with the needs of the larger world. Similarly, the monastic training environment as a whole ought to have a mutually supportive relationship with the larger society. Wider society feeds monasteries with people, money and land, and other things, and in turn, monasteries feed trainees back into the culture in a way that changes society for the better. This exchange and flow between the monastery and the larger world in the larger society is essential.

Roles Within A Monastery:

Inside of a monastery, there are certain default roles. In many cases, monastic trainees will seek to prepare for one of these roles as the apex or culmination of their training.

Wisdom – Teacher: At MAPLE, we are trying to produce teachers so that we can create new locations in our tradition. Teachers are rare, and teachers who are sufficiently deep in their practice and have the skills to start and run a monastery are extremely rare. While our current bottleneck as a tradition is money – and you can support us financially – our true bottleneck, the bottleneck within a bottleneck, is a shortage of qualified teachers. Because there will always be a bottleneck or constraint in a system, this is a feature, not a bug. When our constraint shifts from raising sufficient funds to training qualified teachers, when there is a huge demand for such teachers to support individuals and communities in deepening their spiritual practice, we will have reached a critical milestone.

A teacher embodies the skill of wisdom, but must also have high competence in power and love, and arguably should be most skilled in love despite needing to demonstrate and train others in the skill of wisdom. Teachers who can train their students to become teachers themselves, who can bring their students to a sufficient degree of depth in their practice, will serve our ability to grow exponentially and therefore change the course of human history on this planet.

Power – Director: The Director runs the non-profit side of the training environment. Legally, we operate our monasteries as a national (and soon to be international) non-profit organization, so we are responsible for filing taxes and other forms of paperwork, raising funds, planning construction projects, managing a team, etc. The teacher provides the vision and direction for each location, but the Director is responsible for the success and execution of that vision.

At a minimum, the Director’s work ensures the continued operations and success of a given monastery. However, this person is also responsible for providing trainees with a chance to develop their own capacities and skill in power. The Director relies primarily on the power capacity, although, again, all of these roles will benefit from high degrees of each skill and overall trustworthiness.

Love – Care: There’s a third role that is extremely important and critical to the functioning of the monastic community, which we call Care. This role is the expression of love within the monastery. It has analogues to the Jisharyo role in a traditional Japanese Zen monastery, although the specific ways that our Care people support the community differ quite a bit from more traditional training environments.

The Care person is responsible for the mental, emotional, psychological, physical well-being of the community of the group as a whole. They may take time to see to the wellness of specific individuals, but they do so with a view towards the whole group, making sure that everyone is emotionally, physically, and spiritually prepared to submit themselves to demanding training. The Care person tends to the group and individuals in the group to make sure that the training environment is psychologically safe so that people can do extremely vulnerable inner work, knowing that someone is looking out for them.

Roles Outside of a Monastery:

These three strengths – wisdom, love, and power – also show up outside the monastery.

Power – Start-up Founder, Entrepreneur; Politician: When I left MAPLE for about a year, I became self-employed. While I didn’t become profitable during that time, I gained many new skills and made connections to lifelong allies and friends.

Other MAPLE alumni have gone on to create a company or start-up. My friend Toby Sola is probably the most successful example so far. He is the co-founder, CEO, and Head Teacher at Brightmind, a meditation app based around the teachings of Shinzen Young. Brightmind is trying to train people in mindfulness at a deep level, at scale. This is highly commendable work, and certainly a better service to the world than many of the apps and services I see coming out of the technology industry, many of which have a neutral impact at best and extremely harmful effects at worst. Brightmind is a hopeful counterexample to this trend, and perhaps the first of many high-impact ventures with the influence of deep training in a monastic environment.

Another route to power in the modern world is politics. We have yet to have someone become a politician, whether in local, state, or federal government. Others might assume political power by becoming involved in activism, lobbying, or policy research.

If our rate of growth continues, I expect someone will emerge 3-10 years from now who gains a significant amount of power in the political system at some scale, whether they become an inside actor or are working from outside the system.

Love – Non-Profit Founder, Employee: I’ve heard Soryu mention several times that, in his opinion, the creation of the non-profit structure is one of the greatest things America has contributed to human history. Within the framework of wisdom, love, and power, we can see non-profits as the organizational embodiment of love; someone driven by love might choose to work in a nonprofit organization. As mentioned, MAPLE itself is legally a nonprofit, and by doing the training, residents necessarily learn a lot about how nonprofits work just by training here because residents are placed in roles essential to the nonprofit that is MAPLE.

So it’s natural that we’ve had several people go on to found or become heavily involved in nonprofits. For example, Miles Bukiet, who wrote the Monasteries of the Future paper I’ve written about extensively, has started a nonprofit called Dharma Gates that’s bringing intensive meditation practice as well as circling interpersonal meditation to college students so that they can have a community of people to practice with. I profiled Dharma Gates in this post.

Similarly, Harrison Heyl is working with a nonprofit in the Santa Barbara area to bring mindfulness to schools in the school systems there. These are all examples of trustworthy leaders using their love to fuel service projects through non-profit organizations outside of the monastery.

Hermit (Wisdom):

While a monastery is a natural environment to practice meditation and contemplative practice in an intensive way, another and perhaps even deeper method – for those who have the disposition and feel called to it – is the path of a hermit. A hermit lives in seclusion, traditionally in a small hut, cave, or cabin; a modern variant might use an apartment and part-time remote or in-person work to pay the bills while leaving a significant amount of time for practice.

The hermit path prioritizes their own practice above all else; if they need to beg or work for food, this serves as an important component for deepening their practice, since they get to practice in motion and life.

Their job and dedication is to develop their wisdom as deeply as possible. Though they may rarely interact with anyone else, if at all, I believe that such a person’s state of mind has a tremendous impact on the world and in fact, they’re doing what they do for the world. By clarifying their mind, they heal the world. This claim makes no sense in the materialist world-view many of us have consciously adopted or unconsciously received but makes increasing sense to me as my own spiritual path develops. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “It is requisite for the good of the human community that there should be persons who devote themselves to the life of contemplation.” I believe it is also good for the community of all living beings and for the planet itself.

Conclusion

These roles exist on a spectrum. So far, I’ve mostly mentioned the peak or apex of each path – wisdom, love, and power inside and outside of a monastery – but there are other milestones along the way to each path. For example, within the monastic world, you may embody wisdom as a monk, though perhaps not enough (or not enough yet) to be a teacher. This person might find it rewarding to train as a meditation monk.

Outside of the monastery, you could join an existing nonprofit, rather than founding one, and really benefit its progress. Alternatively, one could fruitfully work within a company rather than founding a company of their own, affecting the capitalist economy from within trying to instill better values. This person may find that working in an existing structure has an even bigger impact than if they had tried to start their own company.

Another person might elect to work in the world of business, using their power with a view towards shifting how business is conducted – so that it’s not motivated by greed or selfishness, but aims to serve others and ultimately all life.

For myself, last year I served as the Assistant Director and Fundraising Director while I explored the path of Power within a monastery, investigating whether or not I would be a good fit for the Executive Director role. This year, I did a long-term solitary meditation retreat in a cabin, living the life of a recluse or hermit to a small extent as a way to explore a potential career teaching in our tradition.

I have no idea where my life will take me – I’ve seen again and again that life and the world defy our plans – but regardless of which roles or situations I enter, there is a way to deepen my skill in wisdom, love, and power, becoming an increasingly trustworthy leader. From this perspective, the mental model of a career path is not something worth becoming attached to: instead, it is something to be used so you can develop and grow in a natural progression of skills that build on one another. Wisdom, love, and power are useful in all circumstances and roles.

Thank you to Nathan Hechtman for our conversations about this topic, and for helping me to create the first draft of this post. Thank you to Noah Seltzer for editing this post.

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