Why I Am Not A Monk by Miriam Sagan

Why I am Not a Monk

We go to Tassajara Monastery during the winter interim. I’m young, maybe 27 years old, and you are younger than me, probably 22. Only a few guests, some students, but it is not a practice period, just in-between.
It’s very beautiful, the dry side of the mountains, inland—as the crow flies—from Big Sur. Shady, in a gulch. A stream runs through it. And hot water gushes from the earth, rickety old bath houses over the springs.
Bells ring, a mallet hits a wooden board, it’s time to get up before dawn and go sit in the cold zendo. The hard core students don’t even wear socks, but I do. Sometimes the earth shakes just a little, and pebbles run down a sandy incline. Forest fire, earthquake, things are going to happen here. Might as well sit still, casting a shadow on a paper screen.
After breakfast there is a study period. You can read a religious text, take notes. Other writing is forbidden. I’ve fought my whole life to write, so this doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve written poetry and journals and letters in trigonometry class. I’ve lived on ramen noodles and very little money to write. I’ve written on scraps of paper once discharged from an ICU. I’ll write in labor, on airplanes, between students, in the middle of the night, young, old, happy, wretched.
But for this week I am forbidden my looping illegible script. Or not. I’m reading Thomas Merton for the first time. Of course I love him and I’m reading away. Pretending to take notes. But Thomas Merton doesn’t need notes. And besides, unlike me, he actually really does want to be a monk. So I write poems, many small ones about the winter gardens and people mending by kerosene lamp light.
Decades later these poems are published in Buddhist anthologies. I still get notes from people who like them. Poems written in direct violation of monastic rules.
You did become a monk. Then you died young. I married again and led a life both identical to and different than the one we led together.
Now that I’m old, every so often the thought of home leaving arises in me. “I can’t go on like this,” I tell myself, thinking of the corruption of the world, and how it has worn me down. I’m going to take vows and shave my head.
Then I just write some haiku instead.

naked zazen
by the small pool—-long bodied
wasps skim along

windowsill Buddha
in his robe, me
in my nightie

2 thoughts on “Why I Am Not A Monk by Miriam Sagan

  1. Writing haiku is a vow in and of itself! Thanks for this post as I often have a similar inclination.

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