There seems to be a feeling among some practitioners who have never lived in a monastery or Zen center, that it is some kind of cloistered, strange place, where socially awkward people go to be alone and get away from society. That society is one thing and the temple is separate. I thought this as well before I met a couple of folks who had lived in the Monastery I later ventured to in Japan to spend several years.

What I found instead was a group of wild rebellious spiritual athletes, like some band of bald skinny pirates, chasing after the meaning of life with zest and swag and samugi. And the most badass pirate of them all, the most intense, the most extreme, the wildest, was the Roshi, like some transparent Alpha Dog Captain Hook. Being in the monastery is like being in the spiritual major leagues or the Zen biker graduate school, with exceptional people pushing life to the limits. It is like an oven turned up all the way. It is a bunch of determined heroes, men and women, with a problem with authority, only bowing down to the Roshi because of his obvious energetic dominance. His huge sublime state of mind. He walks in the temple and everyone sits up straight, not because of an idea, but because his energy changed the cells in our bodies.

We went there because we saw a huge vessel, human potential at its ultimate expression. We saw someone who would never be fazed by our incredible intensity, our rogue spirits, our inner turmoil. He could take anything we gave him, and show us just how badass one could be. He showed us that our struggles could be transformed to really help people.

And the folks who trained there, they had a brightness, a sturdiness, an unmistakable freedom we wanted. They had been through the shit there, so that every day is a good day, no matter the circumstance. Sitting a billion hours, in the cold of winter, or being swarmed by mosquitos for days, clothes molding on our bodies. Year upon year of training, like Jedi knights.

And being forged in that oven of essence, we saw that the way to truly help society is to find a light within ourselves which can never burn out. Deepening the vow to save all sentient beings, over and over, deeper and deeper. Did we like living in the monastery, getting up at god awful hours every day, for years. Absolutely not. But we longed to be of service in the world. To have something to really offer society. Because we had at one point wanted to just be content and happy in life, but instead lived with a great doubt. We needed some answers. And we had met someone like us, who maybe liked baseball and wanted a girlfriend or boyfriend, but had instead spent some time in the monastery doing the homework, forged a great light in themselves, and seeing that possibility for ourselves had changed our whole lives. We went there and shaved our heads and put on old farmers clothes and learned to love rice porridge.

Most of us people who have done time in the Zen monastery are not “temple people,” but very sincere, radical people, who are interested in creating a new culture in the West. A better Zen culture than in Japan, which is broken. A culture of enlightened artists and school teachers and carpenters. And who are interested in finding ways to be of service, because of the great liberation we found in our training. We are not so interested in talking about all of these old bald men, the patriarchs. The shavepates!

None of the former monastic folks are against being of service in society, or of lay life. Or of living in society. Nothing could be further form the truth. But they just want the homework done, they want the essence there. They’ve had it hammered into them over and over, that to be of real service they have to realize their true nature first. And then to freely offer themselves to society. I hope some newbie who is looking for some answers sees this and gets the fever, and knows they have to discover this great life energy, and gets on the conveyor belt to a great mystery.