During the lifetime of the Buddha, when you got to the point where you thought that what he was teaching was so good you wanted to become a full-time disciple, it was called ‘going forth’.
You ‘went forth’ from the life of a householder into the life of a homeless wanderer. You’d follow the Buddha around, listening to what he had to say, hanging out with his other disciples, and begging for food.
In a very real way, you’d left any family you had, left the job you had, and left the home you had. Not only that, you left the class you were born into. In ancient India, this was a big deal, as the presiding belief system of the time said you had to stay well and truly in it if you wanted a good rebirth. Fine for the Brahmins. Not so hot for everyone else.
When you went forth, you also left your name, and were given a new Buddhist name – symbolising the shift into your new life.
Going forth in the modern era
Nowadays, things aren’t so extreme. People get ordained into established orders. Those orders own stuff (like monasteries). Because you don’t move around all the time (and because of the internet) you get to keep some of your gear and your relationships.
Many orders don’t work on the ‘dana’ (generosity) basis, so you have to work. In a job.
Not only that, but a whole bunch of them aren’t even celibate – so you can get married, and have kids. Or even keep the spouse and kids you currently have.
Does that mean we’ve got corrupt and lazy?
Maybe. Maybe not.
If you look at the history of religion and religious practice, it’s always bound up with the cultural and economic conditions of the time. Specific practices and rules often have as much to do with these as with any inherent ‘spiritual’ benefit.
Does this mean the concept of going forth is now irrelevant?
Revisiting ingrained beliefs
Going forth may not be practised very often in a literal sense these days, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.
There’s a principle involved that we can still reflect on, and express in our lives.
Psychologically, we can decide to go forth from the limitations placed on us by our conditions. While paying respect to what is good in the traditions and norms of our culture, we can decide to reject that which is oppressive and unjust.
We can also look at our own internal culture. What is oppressive and limiting in our beliefs? What’s holding us back?
Just making the decision to go forth from our limited beliefs can have a massive transformative impact on our lives. Because what we believe limits what we can achieve.
Here are some things to think about:
- How much love do you feel you deserve?
- How many hours do you think you must work?
- How much stuff do you think you need to own in order to relax and enjoy your life?
- How much do you think you can realistically earn in a day, a month, or a year?
- Do you believe you can become a Buddha? How long do you think that will take?
- Do you feel good about your body and your health? If not, what would it take to get that feeling, and do you believe you can have it?
- Do you believe you can have a meaningful, interesting job that fulfils you?
- Do you believe you are, or could be, a great meditator?
- Do you believe you are, or could be, the kind of person who loves life?
To revisit your ingrained beliefs about who you are and what you can do and be is a useful practice to repeat from time to time. But only if you’re prepared to go forth from the ones that no longer serve you.