The saying is that the unintelligent will not learn from his own mistakes, but the intelligent can even learn from others’ mistakes. And the man who can learn from others’ mistakes has a great potential. At the age of fifteen, Isan must have learned from others’ mistakes. He must have watched carefully his parents, his neighbors, his teachers – their lifeless lives, their meaningless wanderings, no sense of direction except misery and suffering. All that they have is some promising hope that may be fulfilled in the future, perhaps in the next life or perhaps in paradise. But this life is going to be a suffering, it cannot be otherwise. It is the nature of life and they have accepted it. At the age of fifteen he left his home. He was not going to commit the same mistakes that everybody else was committing.
He left home at fifteen to become a monk, studying under the local Vinaya master. A Vinaya master is only a rabbi, a pundit, a learned scholar. Vinaya is the name of the Buddhist scriptures. The very word vinaya means humbleness, and Buddha teaches that to be humble is to be close to nature. All his scriptures – and they are many – have been called the Vinaya scriptures because their fundamental teaching, from different directions, is the same: just to be nobody, just to be ready to disappear into the blueness of the sky without leaving any footprints.
Obviously he was in search; he went to study under the local Vinaya master. A fifteen-year-old boy does not know where to go. So whoever was in the locality, the most famous and learned scholar – he went to him.
He was ordained at Hangzhou at the age of twenty-three.
Being ordained means that now he is making an absolute commitment to find himself. He is declaring to the world, “Help me not to go astray.” It is an announcement on his part of his innermost longing. Now it becomes socially known that he is a seeker, and in those days seekers were helped by the society in every possible way – with food, clothes, shelter. The whole society seemed to be running around the central longing of becoming a buddha. If circumstances wouldn’t allow them now, people were waiting for the right circumstances so they could escape in the blue sky.
Today we are very small in that sense. Our desires are for money, our desires are for beautiful houses, our desires are for success in the world – fame, name, political power. In terms of spiritual skill we have fallen, certainly. In those old days people were poor, with no science, no technology, but still they were superior in the sense that their whole longing was to search for the meaning of life. And anybody who was searching for the meaning of life…at least if you could not go so far, you could help. Helping anybody who was searching for truth was in itself considered a great virtue.
And I accept the idea. A society should live…of course everybody cannot be a monk unless my strategy is followed. And it is a little complicated to remain a witness in your ordinary life. It is easier to be a witness if you live in a monastery, or if you are a monk and you don’t deal with ordinary life. You don’t earn any money, you don’t have any power, you live just on begging – just one meal a day. Because the society was so poor, Buddha told his ordained monks, “You should collect your one meal” – only one meal was allowed in twenty-four hours – “from seven houses. Just piece by piece, so you are not a burden on anybody.”