Casting aside that red robe
I was very happy in the monastery, and I was good in my studies, but my family was in
Rakesh Awale still remembers the tears in his teacher’s eyes the day he left him with some fruits and a red robe, the symbol of a Buddhist monk.
Awale committed himself to monastic life at 16, with absolute surety that he will never leave that life. Little did he know that he would have to break the vows of a monk and his teachers’ hearts for his family — his first obligation.
“I was very happy in the monastery, and I was good in my studies, but my family was in financial crisis,” said Awale, now 43. “My father wouldn’t be able to feed my brothers.”
We see the red-robed Buddhist monks everywhere, often giving us a smile to make our day brighter. Their time is committed to prayers and their life is dedicated to help others. Being a monk means taking endless vows of self-sacrifice. But what happens when a situation like Awale’s walks into their life that make it impossible not to break the vow?
Growing up in Patan, Awale couldn’t help but fall in love with the archaic temples where Buddhism thrives. He often wandered from monastery to monastery. In one of those wanderings, he saw a 16-year-old monk, just his age at that time, who was praying. He didn’t think twice before running to his parents and getting their blessing to be a monk. He still remembers his first day at the Shakya Sinha Monastery.
“It was a very nice day. All my family, neighbours and friends were there,” recalls Awale.
“They were all crying, but they were all happy.”
What distinguishes a practicing Buddhist from a monk is the red robe, which is a symbol that he has taken the vows, such as no killing, no stealing, no lying, and no sexual contact or attachments. Like all new monks, on his first day Awale took 10 of the biggest unbreakable vows, along with over 300 other smaller ones. He was explained the sacrificial life of a monk, but Awale took it all as a life of giving. This was also the day he got his red robe, the colour symbolising peace.
He loved his life at the monastery. Life there started early, but the simple life was also strictly scheduled not to lose a single moment of study time, or prayer time.
Monastery life started at 4:00 am with meditation and kept on being busy with breakfast, morning prayer, government school, dharma lessons, teaching the illiterate elderly about Buddhism and more lessons until 11 at night. Awale’s favourite moments were when he was teaching about Buddhism to others. He even established a Saturday school that runs to this day.
“One day a great master monk from India came to the monastery, and he consulted with me about developing Buddhism all over the world,” said Awale about his favourite moment at the monastery. “That was a great day.”
His life went on for more than five years, and he was on his way to becoming an exemplary monk when his father showed up one day at with tearful eyes to have his son back.
“My father asked to take me away, but my teacher didn’t give permission,” he said. “After the third time, he visited me and said, ‘If you don’t come home our family will suffer’.”
Awale still didn’t have the heart to leave the monastery and break all those vows.
He kept promising his family that he would leave the next month. Then he sought the advice of another teacher, who said his first priority was his family. Then he said goodbye to all his friends, and with tearful eyes, gave a pooja to break most of the vows he has taken on his first day.
“My family came with some clothes for me and fruits and liquids to offer my teacher,” he said. “My teacher cried, we offered tea and I prayed.”
While bringing his father’s business to success, he always thought he would go back, but he eventually settled down and now is married with two children.
A senior teacher at the Kopan Monastery, Tenzing Luodo, said many monks decide to leave the monastery because of family obligations, attachment to a girl, or they dream of a better life outside. He said it’s through denying the self and reclusive life in the monastery that protect the monks from such attachments to materialistic dreams and individuals, but it’s usually harder to forget the family.
“We all want happiness, not suffering,” said Luodo. “Even for monks, it’s so difficult not to indulge in an attachment and even more difficult not to recognise the attachment.”
For Awale, he is still servicing the monastery and said being a monk once in your life is life changing.
“People should become a monk at least once in their life for a better life.”