Homage to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and Vinaya. I’d like to recite a mantra that lets us recollect our refuge so that our perspective is not a personal one but one based on the Buddhadharma.
First of all, let me express my delight in joining you today among an assembly of religious seekers, particularly those seeking to develop a practice in monastic form.
When in America, I am always asked, “Is it necessary to be a monk or a nun? Is the vinaya accessible to everybody, including laypeople?” To not offend people, sometimes I would give a sweeping answer about how it is available to everyone.
But the Buddha encouraged us monastics to develop our perception as monks and nuns, not just from reading and memorizing sutras or being mindful, and not just because we have shaved heads and wear robes. For some of us who first began this lifestyle, it felt strange and awkward. I felt self-conscious, inspired, and enthusiastic. This whole range of feelings is natural. At the beginning, we usually are worried about how to do things and how to do things right. It’s a burden at times.
Patience and humor are needed for us to fit into this training. Don’t be overwhelmed and don’t take certain things too seriously sometimes. One thing comes to mind about my co-Abbot, Ajahn Amaro. When he was training under Ajahn Chah, he had been aspired to become ordained for a long time and on the actual and first day that he got to wear the brown robes, he went out for alms. This fit his image of a sramana [Buddhist monk]. But he was uncomfortable in his robes, especially with the rain and his robes slipping. He had to set his bowl down to get his umbrella, set his umbrella down to pull up his robes. By the time he looked up, all the monks had gone. He was lost in a village where he did not speak any of its language on that first day of his alms round. All of his hopes and aspirations were dashed. He thought he had made a very big mistake. It’s funny now that he looks back. But this tells us that a novice, Bhikshu or Bhikshuni’s training requires patience as one learns bit by bit.
The biggest difference between a left-home person and a layperson is that a left-home person has to practice in any circumstance one finds oneself in. A layperson will find circumstances that he or she prefers, has control over. Part of, actually a lot of, what a monk or a nun does is having to relinquish that kind of control. We are willing to be in situations of training where we are dependent on the community, the teacher or the circumstances. Furthermore, it’s the tendency of the world to acquire money, power, knowledge, and influence. We give ourselves the opportunity to relinquish our wish and desire for personal control, for positions.
I have been a monk for more than 30 years and once I had made a transgression in the vinaya. Ajahn Chah made me do a period of penitence that did not accord with the vinaya. The penitence was much more severe and way more than what the vinaya required. All I could do was to give myself to the training, to Ajahn Chah. I did the penitence for more than two years, which is a very long time; but I did it. Actually, he made me do it. I had to relinquish my own preferences. It was a difficult time that was very challenging. I had to work very hard on the practice. After one year, I had this insight: I actually understood what he was trying to do.
What Ajahn Chah did and what any good teacher will do is being willing to push us to the limit. This is one of the elements in the monastic training: pushing up against the edge of things. We are not being egotistical or promoting a feeling of invulnerability, but we are exploring limitations, our clinging and grasping. This is an interesting way of challenging ourselves while learning not to be restricted by our limitations.
When I felt the time was right, I asked Ajahn Chah to release me from my penitence. All he did was look at me. I just felt transparent.
When Ajahn Amaro proposed the name Abhayagiri for our monastery, I was very interested in the name, in this quality of fearlessness. Because of fear we pull back from letting go, from hard things. In this training, we are challenged to work with and step beyond fear. This fear is not some external terror but a discomfort and insecurity.
As monastics, we have the opportunity to look at things that are impossible and take them on with intention or effort. In Thailand, for example, Ajahn Chah would have us put on all our robes and make us meditate in our old precept platform. He had all the windows closed to this tin-roofed building. We often wondered, “When will this end?” He didn’t let us go if we were drowsy or dozing off. Only when enough people got enough energy going would he release us. Those were awful times that gave us confidence. Situations such as these don’t have to be obstacles, though they’re not comfortable or pleasant.
Another thing that Ajahn Chah did that was easier for westerners but more difficult for the Thai: after the morning chanting or meditation, during the cold before dawn, he had us take off our robes and lay a single piece of cloth across our chest in the very cold of winter. It was a nice break for me since I grew up in Canada, but it was different for the Thais. I could hear them shiver.
The weather is external and easier to recognize and work with, but the mind that flips and flops between extremes leaves a trail of suffering. We need to push up against the extremes: what we want and what we don’t want, what we approve of and what we don’t approve of, what we accept and what we don’t accept.
Precepts is one of the first areas that we recognize as a part of our training. Other virtues include the virtue of sensuous strength (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind), the virtue of being mindful of the requisites (food, medicine, bedding, robes) and the virtue of livelihood (being worthy of offerings rather than cajoling, developing schisms among donors and using astrology). We learn to follow and apply the precepts in these virtues too. There are major and minor precepts, precepts of comportment and communal harmony. And yet it’s possible to follow the precepts to the letter and still be heedlessly caught up in the senses, such as looking out at the world with our eyes and ears.
One of Ajahn Chah’s emphases and one that I found helpful was that the purpose of all rules and training is to understand intention, volition, the nature of each thought. Karma is created through volition, which is movement toward action that leads to cause and effect. Therefore, to see intention is to understand action. We then disentangle ourselves from creating karma. We investigate the movement of the mind with all actions and complications. The straightforward purpose of the vinaya and our training is about attention and awareness on volition (Sanskrit: cetana). It develops clarity in the heart.
This training is one in which we focus on our own body, mouth and mind, also on living in community. Many are inspired to leave the home-life because they are inspired by the teacher, the wish for enlightenment, or the desire to save all beings; but most people I know don’t recognize clearly that this training is about living with one another. That needs to be made clear. The Sangha is a refuge. Starting the day of Buddha’s liberation, the day of his enlightenment, he established the Sangha. The Sangha is a vehicle for relinquishment.
Living in community is not an abstract principle, it’s about getting along, helping each other, sharing, being patient with each other, admonishing each other skillfully and others. In certain ways, all these are more challenging than meditating. We need to make a very conscious effort to develop these skills. Sometimes it’s easy to think about helping all beings but not the one next to us. One of the monks in our community said: the person next to you in line is responsible for 80 to 90% of the world’s suffering.
To be continued