The robe of a monk is a sign, not just for the person who's going forth, but a strong sign for society as well. It is a sign that there is spiritual aspiration and that there are beings who are very serious about this; there is truth and people are seeking the truth. This is a very healthy thing for society to see: a robe. Sometimes we mix up other religious perceptions with what Buddhism is. A monk isn't a priest. It's not like a monk is some kind of intermediary with truth. Each one of us has to discover truth for ourselves. So a monk or a nun practices in this particular way with the intention to realise truth. In the same way, lay people are practising in their environments with their conditions. A monk doesn't ordain to become a teacher or a counsellor or a lecturer. The primary intention is the realisation of nibbana. From that, teaching or counselling in a community can take place but that's secondary. If there isn't that primary intention of realising nibbana then it becomes corrupted and the monk is just speaking from books rather than from wisdom and insight. The realisation of nibbana isn't selfish. It's kind of like the selfishness that puts an end to selfishness. Then from that you get monastic beings trying to share their insights with the lay community.
Not everyone has the vocation of being a monk or a nun but everyone has a bit of the monk or nun in them. So we can look at the monk or the nun as a kind of archetype, an image of someone who is seeking truth. Each one of us has different ways of trying to realise truth. A society which supports a situation where men and women who really want to do that are given the opportunity is enriched. And a society which does not have that and where those energies are not allowed to flower or are thwarted suffers a great loss. Just like a society which allows great artists to flower or good plumbers or good ecologists or whatever it might be. These are all important parts of a healthy society.
Sometimes people ask, 'what if everyone wanted to become a monk or a nun?' And my joke is, 'what if everyone wanted to become a hairdresser?' I don't think it's ever going to be a problem. What we're trying to do here is to develop a community where the community includes the monastics and the lay people. Where spiritual aspiration, the love of truth and goodness is encouraged, honoured and brought strongly into consciousness. This is that kind of sanctuary and the kind of ceremony which reminds us of that possibility.