Sunday, September 15, 2013

News from the Canadian Forest Sangha

Please visit our new Sati Saraniya Hermitage website

Sati Saraniya Hermitage
1702 McVeigh Rd.
RR #7
Perth, ON. K7H 3C9

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Perfectly Rapt

Sky Temple view - Penang
It’s December again in Penang. The malls are manic with shoppers thronging to eateries, shows, and sales of every conceivable electronic gadget. Strolling in air-conditioned euphoria under mammoth snowflakes that hang precariously from on high, you can catch sight of Santa Claus sailing a Norse longship with a polystyrene chicken and a gingerbread man as First Mate. I prefer a quiet walk beside the sea under casuarinas and coconut palms laced with jewels of light.

Few here know the story of Christmas. Still, most will join the frenzied merriment of buying and receiving presents. The practice of generosity is supposed to turn us away from self-cherishing. How can it when we are raised on a diet of getting what we want from the tooth fairy or our parents for every good grade, birthday, or holiday we celebrate? As long as we are fed by a culture of materialism, what can be the true marrow of our giving?

There are many reasons we give: out of love, sympathy, gratitude, wanting to flatter, impress, appease, pamper, or reciprocate. We also give because it is expected of us, we hope to exact a favour, or want recognition. And there are as many possible outcomes. Whatever our impulse, the results can be destructive – particularly when we endeavour to buy love from each other; or with our own children, use gifts to compete for their affection.

Being honest about our intentions – no matter how self-serving – can steer what, how, to whom, and when we give. A gesture of friendship may be more meaningful than flamboyant expense for the wrong thing. When would you offer it? In public or invisibly? Is it for someone you respect or do you feel obliged? Would you ignore an addict begging on the street? What if it's your own child?

As a mendicant not handling money, I am caught in the paradox of being unable to buy presents yet wanting to give them. In a monastic calendar packed with ordinations, festivals, retreats, and rituals honouring our teachers, opportunities for exchanging gifts abound. We become adept not only at recycling what we have received but also making something out of nothing.

The cards I create from scraps of fabric, broken pots, shards of glass, shells, wood, feathers, stones, sand, skeleton leaves and dried flower petals become poems and prayers of well-wishing. As I give them away, I have to ask, “Why am I doing this?” What I discover about myself is not always uplifting – sometimes an eagerness tainted by expectation, at other times resistance when I have been coerced into giving.

'Stay in the Temple' - handmade cardDuring one of our annual kathina* events, well into the night I painstakingly prepared a special card for an elder with some of my best collectibles. After discreetly propping the finished product against her door, I came away well-pleased, certain that she would be effusive. The next day, her lukewarm response left me understandably crestfallen, and confirmed what I already knew. I’d been fishing for approval - hardly unconditional dāna*.

Despite its obvious spiritual value and the joys associated with it, sometimes giving comes hard. A friend travelling overseas asked if I wanted him to bring a gift on my behalf to a mutual acquaintance – someone I had grown to mistrust over the years. My hesitation was palpable. “Don’t you want to send a card or small gift?” he prodded innocently.

Embarrassed, I felt compelled to produce an offering, at least as camouflage for my faux pas if not out of genuine friendship. Surprisingly, I found myself not only making a card and wrapping it with care but also trying to think positively of someone I had long shunned. By the time the package was ready, it had already become a gift – to me.

Generosity contains the whole path – from precepts to liberating consciousness. But to mature and develop it well, we may have to confront charred memories and perceived injustices that stall and weaken our ability to be magnanimous. Ferreting out our intentions – whatever they are – enables us to see through, and try to forgive, the mind’s covert games or prolonged tantrums. We can then dislodge selfish and caustic attitudes, or entrenched feelings that divide us from others as well as from the riches of our own heart.

As long as we determine not to compromise what is true, we can trust our own goodness. Then, when we do give, it is from an unsullied place that extends beyond self-concern and self-congratulation. Guided by wisdom, at least we try to act from loving-kindness.

One afternoon, reminiscing about times of personal suffering, a brother monk recalled his worst experience of pain following an operation to remove a kidney he had donated anonymously. In time, he met the recipient, a young village mother. He quietly recounted the joy of restoring her life and staying in touch over the years as she raised her children.

Perfect giving is truly selfless and compassionate - and is its own reward. We may not be required to be so heroic but we all can practise kindness in small, ordinary, hidden ways with no thought of return: help carry a package, take in a neighbour’s laundry when it rains, or buy a coffee for someone having a bad day. It need not cost much.

Just letting that person know that you care or being there for them is a joy – perfect in itself – and a gift for all seasons.

*dāna: offerings to the Sangha
*kathina: robe-offering ceremony at the end of the Rains Retreat

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see Red Erring]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Right Speech, Right Silence

What makes us pacify and fawn on those we don’t respect – only to lose respect for ourselves? Or hold our peace when someone insults us or another? Are we intimidated into a silence that breaches our core principles lest we offend, draw criticism or anger? In life’s conflicted moments, how do we judge when it’s right to speak out?

There’s nothing golden about a silence that shrugs its shoulders because we’re too scared to say what we feel. We may dodge the vitriol aimed at us or – to our unspoken relief – at someone else, but each time we do so it may be at the cost of our own integrity.

Some years ago, when my kappiya* underwent a major operation, the charge nurse visited, checked her charts, and supervised the attending staff with a crisp efficiency – for which we were grateful – and a loud and ostentatious competence. The following day she arrived with an obese young woman in tow, introduced her as the hospital dietician, and pronounced mirthlessly, “She’s so fat, that’s why she’s in charge of the food!” adding an affected chortle.

The hapless dietician winced while my pallid devotee and I looked on – stunned by her odious manner. Still we continued to chat amiably as if nothing unusual had happened. I neatly rationalized my passivity, thinking, “Not my place to remonstrate” and “Better steer clear”. In truth, I just did not know what to say.

Seeing the poverty of my silence unearthed its ill-conceived rationale: her role as my kappiya's carer. It simply would not do to upset her. And, besides, confrontation is downright uncomfortable.

So is the feeling in my heart when I recall the pained expression on the face of the overweight nutritionist. How could I pretend there was nothing wrong as the head nurse casually humiliated her colleague? Was my silence a subtle form of complicity? Giving into fear, I reinforce moral weakness – in myself and others – and unknowingly open the door for shabby conduct to end in abuse. Can any good could come at such a price?

We have all been the object of different forms of invective. Once I was invited for vegetarian lunch dana* at a temple where religious volunteers served a buffet of fresh curries, rice, and desserts on a donation basis. Buddhist monastics and their supporters came regularly to have their meal in the tranquil garden with its canopy of flowering trees, shrubs and sculptures of smiling deities.

My restriction to finish eating by noon meant I had to be very mindful of the time. Usually, by 11:30 a.m., I could begin pindapat at the servery while my kappiya dipped spoonfuls of food directly into my alms bowl.

As it was getting late, we stood ready near the food line. The cooks on duty, who were familiar with my rule, informed us that today’s meal was delayed and we would have to wait longer. By the time I received the food offerings and chanted a blessing, I had only a few minutes to eat and could not finish. So I emptied the leftovers onto a plate before washing out my alms bowl.

At that very moment, the head volunteer rushed towards me from behind the counter and launched into a sermon, berating me publicly for the terrible sin of wasting holy food. Referring to my rule, I apologized and assured him that no insult was intended, but my kappiya’s strident defense derailed any hope of conciliation. Even as I accepted responsibility and gently appealed for compassion, he continued to reprimand me.

These disturbing exchanges violate us. Responding from the principle of non-harming, my hesitation to choose what is ostensibly right may come not for lack of courage but because of the ethical complexities of human dynamics. While silence spun from fear is a poor cousin of peace, intervening might well be futile. Worse, I could exacerbate an already untenable situation.

In the case of our mistreated nutritionist, any protest may have added to her embarrassment. As for the pietistic temple cook, he would neither be placated nor would he realize how mistreating his guests demeaned his own moral ground.

Silence can be the harder choice. I bite my tongue and restrain the impulse to express how I feel. Doing so would be foolhardy without discretion and diplomacy for anger or indignation is less powerful than kindness - unless we succumb to it. But even if I uphold core values by saying my piece, must I do so at any price? Can I never be excused from failing to take a stand against poor manners let alone vileness and injustice?

Whatever we decide to say or not in the patchwork of human interaction, though guided by our moral code, it provides no precise script. Today’s insight may be a poor fit for tomorrow’s encounter. But the responsibility for restraining abuse belongs first to the one who perpetrates it; next, to those caught in its path. In most cases, we teach others – subconsciously – how they can treat us. Only I can set the bar for myself not to end up a victim or scapegoat.

Feeling too appalled or confused, can I wait to speak when I have a better chance of being heard? Though I risk losing the opportunity, I must take care to strike a balance, neither undermining my commitment to Right Speech nor mowing down others with sanctimonious zeal. At the same time, I should refrain from untimely apology or retreat that fail to uphold my own truth.

I speak well not by keeping silent, but by practising speech that is wise, compassionate, and true, protecting and dignifying my relationship with myself and others. And if I have no ‘right’ answer, at least silence can give me pause to reaffirm what is inviolable for me and guard it well.

*kappiya: devotee, attendant
*dana: meal offering
*pindapat: alms round

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Heavenly Blue

My alms bowl, a heavenly blue
On this metal pot my life depends. It demands no ordinary faith but one that enables me to go anywhere trusting that I can survive as long as it is replenished.

This is not the first pot of my monastic career. On my ordination day, I received the traditional glazed ceramic bowl, heavy and easy to break. My relationship to it and the mindfulness I was to practise in handling it define the spirit of our early years of training. We gain expertise not only in the rules governing its use but also - as with our other requisites - learn to take meticulous care whether setting it out at the meal, eating from it, cleaning, carrying, or storing it.

At the end of these five Rains Retreats - the way our monastic years are reckoned – comes that special moment in the life of a nun. Even if she has cracked or broken her alms bowl – the mortification being punishment enough – she still remains eligible to receive the more durable stainless steel one that replaces it. That will be hers to use for the remainder of her life or until she disrobes.

Naturally, I was overjoyed the day I surrendered my ceramic bowl to accept the new metal one made ready for me - wrapped in a cloth harness and perched on its bamboo stand beside my sitting mat. In the hierarchal system of our community, the bestowing of the steel bowl marks a quasi-graduation from junior to intermediate nun – by which time we are considered mature enough to begin teaching. I felt quite ‘grown up’ to be using it – as if now, at last, I had ‘arrived’.

As renunciants, we abstain from luxurious furnishings or possessions. So the shiny stainless bowl would have to be fired to discolour it. But wouldn’t it be great if it were burnished evenly all around, and especially if the inside turned a topaz blue...

Three monks helped me locate a large oil drum that could serve as an oven and collect enough chunks of discarded wood to build a bonfire over it. I cleaned the bowl and set it face down on a grille inside the drum. Some shards of glass placed beneath it, their radiant heat chemically reacting with the bowl's interior, promised that special blue finish.

By late afternoon, using soil to seal the crack between the ground and the lip of the drum, we doused our woodpile with kerosene and lit it. Once it ignited, we ceremoniously circled the bonfire and chanted blessings. It would burn through the night.

Still too dark in the predawn hours, I waited until after our morning meditation before slipping out to retrieve my bowl. Now copper-coloured on the outside, when I turned it over, my heart leapt to see a heavenly blue sheen.

As I carried it proudly back, the nun occupying an adjoining room – more senior in the robe and an expert at firing alms bowls – examined it. Peering inside she declared, “Very nice. Shame about the smudge.”

Once she mentioned the word ‘smudge’, I could see nothing else. All day my thoughts focussed on the streak defacing the lovely new blue interior. Obsessed with how I could get rid of this odious flaw, I found it difficult to settle my mind, let alone meditate.

Eventually, I concocted a way to refire my bowl on a smaller scale - in my room. Kneeling in front of my shrine with the bowl propped on a thick wad of rags, I decanted a small amount of kerosene into it. No sooner had I dropped the match than flames shot up, forcing me to retreat.

Strange black spots soon appeared on the inside accompanied by the stench of burning fibre. A patch of carpet hidden by the rags was melting! I raced to collect water and rescue it – and my poor bowl!

Once I had tidied whatever I could of the mess, I was confronted with the damage – an unsightly carbon pelage had affixed itself to the bottom of the bowl. Applying various solvents that I scavenged from our workshop, I managed to dissolve the burnt wool but now my bowl was visibly - and permanently - scarred.

Disconsolate and hoping for guidance from that same nun whose remark had propelled me on this course, I confessed the whole story to her. “Too bad,” she chirped, hardly glancing up from her book, “Too attached.”

Her perspicacity stung. At that moment, no amount of reflection or remorse would assuage my sense of humiliation and foolishness. Too embarrassed to join in our communal meal, I lingered at the back of the refectory. One of the novices solicitously asked what had happened. “It’s only a smudge,” she observed.

At last, I saw how I had been needlessly thrashing in the river of my own attachments. To live contented and at peace with the way things are, I have to let go perfection. This means honouring what I am given with unconditional gratitude.

The blemish on my bowl is an enduring – and endearing – reminder not to give so much credence to the opinions of other people. Nor to try to fix things because I can – or think I can. And, not to play with fire.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Noble Warming

Ayyuthaya tree BuddhaHaving navigated for so many years by the maps of my mentors, I now steer my own course – infusing the old with wisdom appropriate to the new issues of our changing times. The ancient monastic code that I honour remains the cornerstone of my life but I will not grow wise adhering to it blindly or literally. Just being able to keep a set of rules is no barometer of spiritual integrity.

Core to my training has been self-inquiry. I must apply rigorous and unremitting introspection, weighing the karma of every choice I make and its effects on others as well as myself. To be morally accountable, I constantly ask, “Am I living with awareness? Gratitude? Commitment? Compassion?”

But these questions now fall short. It is no longer enough to be aware, grateful, committed, and compassionate – sitting under a tree meditating to purify my mind – when the trees, earth, air, and water are endangered. I may have let go worldly aims and values, but I cannot abdicate my individual responsibility to humankind nor ignore the imminent danger of global warming to our planet. Threatened with a tipping point of unprecedented ecological collapse, it is incomprehensible that I should pursue my spiritual goals as if all were well.

Some Buddhists speaking to me about climate change preach impermanence, “We’re all going to die anyway,” – a logic true, but also spurious and unthinking. What it really suggests is that “It’s not my problem.” But it is. Today this is not someone else’s problem. Our moral imperative is not only to be aware of the karma of our personal choices but of our undeniable connection to a shared human predicament. When illness strikes we seek medical help immediately; when our home is on fire, we rush to put it out: we have to engage.

As a nun, I live simply and ethically by rules that prescribe and proscribe every last detail of my life – not just the practice of mendicancy, wearing the robe, and being bald but down to shaving my eyebrows. This contrasts with contemporary society’s vigorous celebration of personal freedom – at great cost: the breakdown of family leading to a constellation of social illnesses as well as soaring material excess and self-indulgence.

Caught as I am in the net of so strict a code, still I have the freedom to choose well – and also, to deal with the repercussions when I fail to do so. Though my Rule separates me from current affairs and politics and bars me from voting, I have a voice. And the power to make changes in my own life, however small – aware that, as much as I am intrinsically part of this problem – I also have an active role in its remedy.

I question choices that until now seemed harmless – like air travel. How do I reconcile flying half way around the world to lead retreats for a few dozen meditators when other teachers are available in the same city? My core precepts have to be the ground for ethical as well as socially responsible decisions. What is not killing, not stealing, and not misusing our senses if in keeping precepts literally I fail to protect life? Not just that of the wretched mosquito whining in my ear – but also the very ecosystems upon which we all depend.

In seemingly insignificant ways, our mere existence encroaches and creates pressure on the environment: driving vehicles, heating or cooling our homes, purchasing over-packaged and disposable goods, even the foods we choose to eat. Already, the bees are disappearing. How will our crops be pollinated and sufficient food grown for a burgeoning population? What changes can I adopt in my own life to counter the momentum of greed, aggression, ignorance, and waste that have led us to this crisis?

We take the first step by realising the need to live more simply. This means not only getting rid of material things but also modifying our own - as well as our children's - habits and expectations, reining back some of our comforts to reverse the heedless destruction of our habitat.

Can we consume and demand less? Filter our own and give up buying bottled water? Eat local produce in season without importing from every part of the world? Not replace our cars, computers, digital cameras, and mobile phones every year just to sport the latest model? Can we begin to understand the difference between what we want and what we truly need?

Our own health and wellbeing are inextricably linked to the social and ecological health of the world. We can bring healing but not without initiating personal changes that require sacrifice and scrupulous attention to the smallest details of our lives. We start with signs that we care for our community – as simple as fixing a broken window.*

One sustainable project, consistently attended to, declares an honest commitment to repair the world. It restores us to wholeness, to what is noble in our hearts. And offers a palpable example and catalyst for others to do the same – not out of idealism nor just to impress or feel good – but because that is our only hope.

What legacy can we possibly leave our children as we casually continue to exhaust the planet’s resources? We have the freedom to choose well and safeguard our survival – but little time left to do so. It may already be too late to pull ourselves back from the brink. Still we must do all we can – for if not now, when?

© Ayyā Medhānandī


Monday, June 11, 2007

Kindly Wait

Retreat sunset at Galilee, Arnprior, OntarioOn a recent teaching trip, I had to stop at Hong Kong International Airport for several hours between flights. Waiting at air terminals, my life is suspended between the place I’ve left and my final destination – however near or far. These points are connected not by city names flashing on an electronic screen, but intimately within me, in the tones and dialectic of my passage between time zones and travellers.

A stranger here with no local identity or reference, I walk the polished floors through steel and glass-framed concourses with endless streams of passengers, alternately disgorged from and reboarding their flights. Inside this shiny concrete behemoth, I could be anywhere – east or west – hustling across miles of homogenous space. With no sense of community, shared culture, etiquette, or convention, our sole and common purpose is to wait and navigate the honeycomb of the airport so that we can leave as effortlessly as we came.

Disparate and endless, these throngs move through the terminal buildings with a passivity only natural to such transience. Zigzagging immigration and security queues, I watch the restless shuffling back and forth that punctuates our waiting. Still, an occasional member of the cleaning staff or friendly airline employee is receptive to a greeting. I am happy to catch a smile and chat briefly with them on my way to the nexus of connecting flights.

After seventeen hours of travel, hankering for the comfort of a hot drink, I entered a café. In keeping with my Rule that prohibits me from handling money, water is the only thing I may ask for. A young woman waiting on a customer poured her a cup of coffee while they exchanged pleasantries. Then it was my turn.

We were both in uniforms, she in her starched black apron and grey and white polyester suit, and I in my brown robes, not an unfamiliar sight in this part of the world.

“Please may I have a cup of hot water?” I asked.
“Two dollars”, she pronounced flatly.
“I’m sorry, but I have no money,” I explained.

She spent not a second more with me, turning away to stack cups behind the counter. I composed myself and left silently. Snubbed so comprehensively for something as basic as water – and having no recourse – stung. I wandered directionless for a few moments, pondering and digesting my intrinsic worth being devalued to less than two dollars.

I had never before been refused water – her abruptness made even more insupportable by the profligate wealth around us. Who would believe that a request so simple and undemanding could be spurned in the presence of so much material abundance?

From corner to corner, everything seemed new, efficient, ultramodern, and glossy - travellers watching video screens, talking on cell phones, filing through cafés, or shopping in kiosks stuffed with the latest fashions, high tech goods, and otiose trinkets. Yet even steeped in such affluence, a waitress lacked the generosity to pour a cup of water for a thirsty soul who had no means to pay. It would have cost her nothing. Had she lost her heart along with her humanity?

As one already so dependent, how demeaning to be denied a basic right of every living creature. I realised that observing my Rule required a gradient of surrender that would always leave me open to such treatment.

Of course I could drink from one of the many water fountains. But feeling tired and cold from the air-conditioning, and to dispel the aftertaste of that encounter, I made my way to the airport restaurant area – trusting that someone would be kind.

And he was. At the very first sandwich bar, I asked the busy waiter if he would give me just a cup of hot water – adding that I was unable to pay. He was quick to assure me, “Yes, I can do that.” And from a hot water dispenser identical to the one in the café where I had been refused, he pushed a button to fill a welcome cup, proffering it steaming hot with saucer and napkin. Such kindness continues to hold together the fabric of my life.

After my return, on a scorching day downtown with a devotee, we walked several blocks in search of a bus stop. Waiting on a busy dual carriageway, suddenly, a battered blue heap claiming to be a bus appeared at the end of a stream of cars and rattled towards us – on the opposite side of the road. With the heavy moving traffic, we would not manage to cross in time.

Undeterred, I eagerly motioned for the driver to stop. Seeing our predicament, he slowed down noticeably and appeared to be considering what to do. But where would a car, let alone a bus, be able to stop in that crush of steel? He had no choice but to keep going. Acknowledging his kind intention, I smiled and waved forgivingly.

After turning at the next corner, unbelievably, the bus juddered to a halt. What good would it do to hurry across now? Surely he could not wait long enough for us there – with all his passengers and a surge of traffic on his tail. But wait he did.

We must do what is right in the immediacy of the moment or risk living content with mediocrity and a sterile heart. It is so easy to remain oblivious or indifferent to each other, desensitized and distracted by our own needs, or tempted by a flippant chance to flex muscles and display power over someone – anyone – and so fail to do what is great.

On a broken seat at the back of the bus, I felt a rush of gratitude for this sweet driver. Dressed simply, creased and shrunken with age, his huge heart steered the wheel of that ramshackle bus with commanding magnanimity. His kindness stopped everyone.

It may have been a small thing. But the place from which he acted was not small. For that I thanked him, not because he rescued me from discomfort or inconvenience, but for the heroic compassion with which he had reached out – so unexpectedly – to help, and with such natural grace. Unknowingly, he restored my faith in that inexhaustible goodness on which this world truly revolves.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Friday, May 25, 2007

To See or Not To Be

Ayya Medhanandi meditating at Vulture's PeakI have walked and lived in mountain ranges the world over – the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps, the Picos de Europa, mountains in the Azores, South Asia, and North America. But not until I stayed in a condominium for a few months did I notice a visceral discomfort with heights.

Then how was I able to roam those steep summits enjoying the view? I was aware of it though I concealed my phobia well. When I needed to ground myself, I would keep my eyes on my feet or straight ahead on the path. I would also direct my gaze to the scene around me or look at the horizon to avoid the sight of sheer cliff faces or dizzying vistas.

Unwittingly, I relied on a natural tendency that is also consonant with my way of life as a Buddhist nun. I focus on my spiritual work, concentrating on where I am and what I am doing rather than on the past or future. Just as I avert my eyes from external views that might throw me off balance, distract, or unnerve me, I distance myself from troubling thoughts or feelings: a painful memory, the face of someone threatening, or a loved one whose loss still haunts.

But eventually, this turning away from - while still being aware of - what disturbs me no longer serves. It is all very well for tramping through the wilderness but on the spiritual path I have to descend to face what I fear – to see life as it is from exactly where I am.

More vital to wisdom and understanding than being cushioned by exhilarating panoramas or placated by moments of calm is an ability to see Truth and live it. To grow in stature and be able to accept what is real – no matter the terrain of feelings we have to traverse – tortuous or peaceful, rocky or smooth: this is our life's work.

Though I have trekked over lofty passes, fear has been the most punishing mountain to scale – especially on my own as an alms mendicant. For years, to survive in a western hamlet and dependent on a scattering of locals for my daily meal, I was forced to adapt. Too frightened to mention when food I received caused digestive disorder, I compromised my health to preserve the status quo – and not jeopardize my food source. Taking my lead, why wouldn't my supporters, too, believe all was well?

Not wanting to see, I had chosen to suppress, deny, and blind myself to what had been brewing. I had an unrealistic idea of how a nun should be: to want nothing and be content with and grateful for all that was given to me. So I clung to this flawed dynamic of seeing myself and being perceived through rose-coloured glasses.

Only by letting that go could I free myself to enter authentic relationship with my supporters. They began to regard me as a person with legitimate needs, and in doing so, honour their wish to look after me properly. And being more honest about my needs, I could take better care of myself while respecting their goodwill.

Ironically, I had fallen into this predicament by flexing the old muscle that had helped me cope so well with heights. As long as I could ignore the altitude, I would not have to feel what I was feeling - in this case, hunger and distress. But this deception, moulded by stifling compassion for myself, had only made me ill. It was a foolish and unsustainable sacrifice. And in time, I would be brought down to earth with a bump - literally.

During this same period, while on my own in a house that had been offered for my retreat, I was asked to water the plants. To reach one of them, I would have to climb on a folding chair. Without properly judging the stability of the chair or my own ability to balance, barely poised on top, water jug in hand, it collapsed. Everything came crashing down, water, jug, plant, and myself – knocked unconscious and one leg maimed.

When help arrived, I refused to see a doctor so as not to inconvenience anyone. True to form, my mantra of 'good enough' rolled off my tongue: “I’m fine. Everything is okay.” But I had already managed to undermine myself three times: reaching beyond my capacity – to my own detriment, discounting that same detriment, and even after it dawned on me that I had been seriously hurt, continuing as if nothing had happened!

That injury is a daily reminder of the lesson I learnt. The heights we aspire to are not measured in physical parameters nor in pretence and performance, but in the dimensions of coming down to earth and being true, exactly as we are. It is not enough only to open our eyes, we must also see clearly. Ascending too high or impatiently, unaware or blind to our limits, we can fall hard. Instead, bowing low and knowing our real strength, we truly ascend.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see The Mantra of 'Good Enough']

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Holey Bagels

Morning Sun card handmade by Ayya from dried flower petalsWe are not “foodies” in the monastery. We’re simply human. The traditional incantation over the meal (translated from the Pali) goes like this:

  Wisely reflecting I eat this alms food,
  not for fun, not for pleasure,
  not for fattening, nor for beautification,
  but only for the maintenance and nourishment
      of this body,
  for keeping it healthy and helping with the holy life.
  Thinking thus, I shall allay hunger without overeating
  so that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.

I often wondered why we recited those unforgettable phrases each day when we sat together in the great hall to eat our main meal. But not at breakfast. Breakfast was for bagels*.

How exciting it was when we got bagels of a morning – never mind that they arrived on the wrong day, infuriating the donor who was not informed when the senior monk - seeing that we were receiving too many 'special' breakfasts - had casually postponed the memorial offering for her mother. Eventually they came - bagels and all the traditional trimmings heaped onto trays and passed down the line with excruciating mindfulness - to be rounded off with freshly-brewed cups of coffee.

For nearly 365 days of the year, we eat gruel and drink instant tea or coffee. But on that handful of days, benevolent lay friends would lavish us with another kind of breakfast. Porridge is unbeatable on cold wet English mornings. But marking festive days, death anniversaries, and other auspicious occasions with fruit, crunchy organic cereal, or bagels - every so often - was a most welcome change.

With our lives so regimented, restrained, and, in the darkness of winter, at moments dour, it was no wonder that such treats could do much to brighten the heart – even just fleetingly. There was plain enough fare in those early years. After meditating in the chilly shrine room on an empty stomach, we would be hungry enough to appreciate breakfast – however humble. Gruel and a steaming hot cup of tea in the same mug; and for our main meal before noon - beans, pulses, and rice were staple. Some made it a practice to forego breakfast, but to absent oneself from the community almsgiving ceremony was 'unthinkable'.

Not only was it a fulfilment of our lineage but so much of our training transpired in those well-orchestrated moments of assembling to collect alms. Lined up in hierarchical order, we slowly processed alongside the cauldrons heaped with food to receive offerings from the laity. Then, after returning to our mats and chanting a medley of blessings – at times subdued, now and again off-key, and at times glorious – we would reflect wisely that the contents of our bowl were not for fun, not for pleasure, etc. and eat in silence.

As our community burgeoned in size and constituency, extravagant meals began to arrive so frequently that it became difficult even to contemplate eating yet again barely three hours after a bagel dāna. But there would be grave repercussions if we did not make a showing. And an overdose of calories if we did. Several monastics coped by noticeably downing enough mouthfuls as proof of their attendance before mindfully disappearing. Some of the more daring sloped out within a few minutes of chanting the blessing.

A few, on the other hand, chose to abscond altogether – if they could get permission to do so or were senior enough to be busy with something else. I had fallen into all three categories over the years. It was not quite in the spirit of renunciant practice or the Middle Way to 'fess up to one’s seniors or be seen by one’s peers as being unable to eat the main meal because breakfast had been too heavy.

Cases of strategic planning were not unknown. Eat a huge breakfast and then fast for the rest of the day. That was a clandestine way to buy privacy, finish up a project one had pending, or take an extra long walk which was unmanageable in the clockwork timing of our normal regime. Those walks were important. Sometimes, when community life reached a boiling point and we needed to let off steam, a brisk, long solitary walk among the fields and gentle rolling hills was healthier and saner than sitting through the rituals of the meal with one’s heart on fire.

Our seniors, sensing that and empathizing, tended to respond leniently. And yet, over time, I also came to realise that there was something to gain from surrendering to the steam, giving up one’s preferences, and just being with the group, no matter how much it grated, no matter that each bite stuck in my throat and tasted of pain.

Then there was the practice of skipping breakfast for a host of similar reasons – getting time out from the community, indulging in austerity, or because we were either too tired or too unwell to attend. That could also mean a non-physical ailment. For some, it was simply unbearable to face, yet again, being hemmed into the silence of that intimate communal space – ‘huddled’ monastic fashion around our affable abbot while he held court from his place of honour in front of the refectory shrine.

Within this proximate community circle, monks ostensibly on one side and nuns on the other, and our lay residents and visitors neatly filling out the zone between us, it became palpably clear who was missing and why. We always knew. And we were compassionate.

Seniors had first pickings - so the holey delights would circulate down the line, polishing our patience as those in front pondered which would get priority: poppy or sesame seed. When the trays and cups had passed between us umptiyampi** times and the hour or so of digesting and listening to more esoteric pabulum had been well-savoured, we would dutifully scrape the leftovers into plates to be sent with flasks of coffee to the sick or otherwise absent.

Verbal lots were drawn who would deliver them. And I can testify to the joy of coming out of one’s room later in the morning, slightly sheepish, having missed the communal meeting for rather fuzzy reasons, to find a forgiving tray of edibles and steaming drink with – not infrequently – a tiny vase of fresh flowers carefully positioned on the carpet outside my door.

I will never forget those mornings of monastic gruel – and all that was given to us, exotic or plain. But more than the memories of years grinding through the heart’s lesions and holding fast to the sameness of rituals that redeemed us from losing the plot, what is pressed in my heart is how we could open to our pain and learn to feel the joy punctuating our tears.

*bagel: holey food, dense, chewy and circular, tasteless
            but for the toppings.

**umptiyampi: dutiyampi, tatiyampi, etc.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Monday, January 29, 2007

Still Bowing

Lea & Jay Fiksel circa 1991, parents of Ayya MedhanandiMy father once asked me, "What is the most important thing in life?" Contemplating the chaos, greed, and violence in the world, foremost in my mind was love. I had only to look at the thick wrinkles around his smiling eyes to confirm what he most believed in and lived for was just that – love, and the kindness born of it.

This month, the sixth anniversary of his death, I remind myself how lucky I am to have had such a father. He was genuinely enthusiastic about and respected my religious choice and way of life though it took getting used to. Once he saw the teachings working through me, he became my advocate, deflecting hostility to – and outright rejection of – my lifestyle from immediate family or anyone else.

His life with my mother was a partnership of devotion greater than the war, hunger, homelessness, old age, and debilitating illness they endured together, especially her nearly twenty-year siege of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have survived the ordeal of watching a loved one slowly and excruciatingly degenerate will recognize the scale of this endurance.

Well into his eighties, my father tenderly and selflessly cared for and nursed her at home through all the years of her dementia until she died. Heroically patient, he bore the unremitting spiral of sleepless nights, bedpans, regimes of medication, isolation, physical weakness, and despair - never giving up. Such was his love for her and legacy to me.

Unconditional love makes possible that kind of stamina and resilience. In that same spirit, I took the lifetime vows of a nun. Buoyed by an ancient tradition of moral and mental purification, I resolved to stay the course, training in the renunciant precepts, meditation, and monastic conventions that govern life in the cloister.

These practices have the power to erode what is false and deceptive in us for only truth can weather the force of their insistence. Surviving that wear and tear is testimony to their efficacy in maturing us. But secure in the monastic cocoon, with all our physical requisites provided, how will we gauge the strength of our resolve?

We are not called to live in jungles and walk from village to village through the habitats of tigers to receive alms. There may be times of fasting but they are not exigencies of our lifestyle. Apart from the physical rigors of prescribed times for meals and sleep, and constant sense-restraint, our renunciation focuses on surrender to our moral training and the needs of the community.

At the same time, pampered by a doting public, we enjoy a spiritual exclusivity, the luxury of silence, and conditions conducive to facing and tangling with our inner demons. But often, when privilege accrues to seniority in the robe, the mildew of self-importance steals in. Our 'perfect' detachment may be only formulaic posturing that inures us to the real struggles and pains not only of our own companions but also our enthusiastic supporters.

Without profound challenge or personal sacrifice, does our commitment fade into careerism? Do we cling to the robe from habit, lack of options, or the fear of returning to the insecurity of lay life? In the years of repetition and regulation, when inspiration runs aground, it is easy enough to grow complacent, critical, and self-concerned. Though we may bow uncountable bows on worn and tired knees, how do we face the monotony of days and weeks and months of life together?

To be true to our commitment, we must continuously renounce power and privilege and return to our original motivation for choosing this path. After ten years in the same community, my choice to live as a solitary - far-removed from the systems that had supported me so well - was a necessary risk, a second home-leaving, and a true test of faith.

Whether in community or alone, I benefit from feedback that reflects my blindspots and alerts me to my omissions. Still, I must continue to question the quality of my commitment and restore myself to the path and its core values. How do I make peace with inertia or depression in the humdrum of daily routine? Am I kind to others or impatient and averse? Conscientious or careless? Considerate or proud and stubborn? Pure of heart and joyful or divisive and fearful of loss?

I best serve that which I love most when I can practise waiting – not a waiting that bargains silently with the moment for life to be a certain way, nor that rationalizes with hope, impatience, interest, frustration, or excitement; not a waiting that reviews and analyses events and all their possible outcomes. My waiting must draw verve from the heart and catapult me towards Truth in every contour of my life. To know cold and contentment, restlessness and peace. To begin to understand change and set my life in order. There is nothing that does not pass without value.

Through the peaks and troughs of daily life, I must give voice to my intuitive knowing. When my heart contracts in fear that I will not be supported, I may feel nothing firm enough to stand on. But I know that sense of groundlessness forces me deeper, beneath the coral reefs to the immeasurable fathoms below. It is in those depths that I can move towards greater freedom.

There may be little visible effect. But to navigate the interior stillness, that's enough. On the wide horizon of life, I always receive what I need. Today I feel fragile, tomorrow, stronger; sometimes exhilarated, sometimes spent – as long as I remember to trust, I can keep going.

For the sake of love, there has to be sacrifice. Living more attentively and consciously, we open to what we would instinctively avoid or fear. And sometimes, out of the very act of accepting what is hard and not giving up, we find an unexpected resting place, the peace of not-wanting that allows us to grow still.

Ever grateful, we endure – and prevail. And, for the sake of love, we keep bowing.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Jingle Belanja

During my kappiya’s long search for suitable accommodation, a handful of owners refused even to show their rental properties once they were informed she would be housing a Buddhist nun for several months of the year. One building manager declared that renting to Sangha* would not be ‘fair’, whatever that meant - and he was Buddhist!

The others conveyed their wishes through estate agents. Such overt discrimination is surprising for Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim land, blessed with a rich tapestry of races and religions. In this exotic melting pot, the main Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu festivals are also national holidays.

Christmas Day is a good example. While locals of other faiths may not know what it's all about, they happily join the celebrations. Traffic swells the streets as families venture out to air-conditioned malls, parks, and beaches to spend time together. By early morning, food stalls of every flavour are magnets for hungry customers.

I am invited to share a meal of typical Malay cooking with my devotee’s family. Decanting from the bus into the mayhem of vehicles, we meander towards the street stands where a colourful display of mild and hot curries, sambals, and a smaller selection of vegetable dishes have already attracted a crowd.

Inside the restaurant, we save a table large enough for us all to sit together. Mindful of completing my meal by midday, it's already time to join the punters milling around the trays of food. In one corner, we discover the giant cauldron of boiled rice. This is the starting point.

I stand quietly holding my bowl. A gruff middle-aged Malay man in his long apron is busy dividing a stuffed omelette. He brusquely orders me to wait as if to assert that only he can serve the rice.

Patience always redeems such moments. In the commotion of plates being heaped full, I wait. A second man in charge, burly but with a beaming face, approaches the pot and lifts its lid. “Fresh rice is ready,” he confides pleasantly in perfect English.

Encouraged, I watch him supervise two kitchen helpers hoist the new pot into place. Once it is installed, he reaches to fill a plate for me. My kappiya protectively intervenes to explain how the offering is done. Smiling, he generously scoops the steamy rice into my bowl.

Next, we tussle to reach the vegetables where she plies me with spicy petai, beansprouts and a melange of greens, then return to the friendly owner where she can pay. Peering at the contents of my bowl, he chats exuberantly with her in Malay – to be certain that the selections are acceptable – and ends with the word 'belanja'. This is to be his dana* – a treat.

In the frenzy of collecting our food, one simple gesture of kindness dispelled all trace of frustration. Nor did the charm escape me that, as a Western Buddhist nun, here I was receiving dana spontaneously offered by a Malay Muslim patron on Christmas Day in a Chinese Taoist eatery – enough to restore my trust in human nature.

After we settled ourselves indoors, I made dedications and softly chanted the sharing of blessings. Nearby, the proprietor of the building sat nodding approvingly as she observed our ritual. A few staff and onlookers stood by in curious appreciation.

Tua Peh Kong, Taoist God of Prosperity Through a kitchen door, the startling face of a Taoist god of prosperity presided over a shrine of burning incense and half-melted candles, his copious white eyebrows and beard as time-worn as the smoky walls and bare crimson light bulb suspended from the ceiling. Under the surreal gaze of this god-figure, a cacophony of street sounds, kitchen clatter, conversations, and radio music percolated vibrantly through the hall.

I feel at home here – not least for this unpretentious fusion of diverse peoples enjoying each others' foods and festivals – but especially for the simple acts of kindness that defy religious and cultural boundaries and differences. Just as calling someone overweight ‘Fatty’ is not considered an insult here, being refused tenancy by a few landlords may simply echo that same honesty about one's feelings.

In a Western setting, such language might sound politically incorrect if not impolite. Here, it seemed more likely an attempt to protect the sanctity of their own tradition rather than discriminate against my way of practice. Like the requests for prayers I receive from friends of every faith, today’s Yuletide belanja manifests the power of respect and kindness to repel the bigotry and hatred in this world.

But it must begin at a personal level, human to human, eye to eye, smile to smile. From such seed true peace is born.

*Sangha: Buddhist monks and nuns
*dana: meal offering

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Red Erring

Mid-morning of a quiet Friday and time for my meal of the day. Weary from the tropical heat, I settled at a table outside a spread of hawker stands in the abbreviated shade of a cheerful scruffy over-sized umbrella. While my devotee went off to order our favourite spicy noodles, I waited. Clattering against blackened woks, a staccato of spatulas punctuated the bustle of bikes, pedestrians, vendors, and pigeons and dogs vying for scraps.
Beautiful hawker umbrellas, Penang

Out of this collage of vibrant aromas and colours, a tall man with a halting gait stopped at my table. Oblivious to the fact that I could not understand him, he muttered supplicatingly in the Hokkien dialect as he shoved bits of paper in my direction. I assumed he was selling lottery tickets and shook my head. It was not uncommon for petty traders to flog their merchandise and coupons to hungry locals downing bowls of noodles and drafts of coffee. Though I showed no interest, he kept up his monologue.

Just then my kappiya* reappeared. Before she could sit down, he pressed the handful of pink and yellow slips towards her, urging his cause. I felt irritated by the intrusion but she took time to look them over. It seemed he was a beggar, not a pedlar. Clasped in a single paper clip were his admission card, prescriptions and medical bills from the general hospital. Unhesitatingly, she pulled out a five dollar note and handed it to him.

Astonished by her willingness to believe and a gnawing contrition percolating through me, I watched him pick his way between the stalls and tables, displaying his bundle of papers to everyone he solicited. For the most part, he was ignored. As he shuffled up to two matrons seated nearby, they waved him away dismissively. This seemed evidence enough for me to question my kappiya why she thought his cause to be genuine. “Better to err on the side of kindness,” she told me. “If he is too poor to pay his hospital bills, who will help him? I’d rather err on the side of trust.”

Her spontaneous charity both shattered my doubt and exposed my complacency. So many poor are forced to beg. Better to err on the side of helping in case there is real need. Why had I not considered this? Having seen enough sham monks and nuns – one with a rich head of hair deftly braided out of sight, trousers and trainers concealed under her ‘robe’, and collecting money in her makeshift temple-gong ‘alms bowl’ – already primed me to treat him as an imposter. Yet there was an artless frailty in his walk, a cheap bag weighing down one shoulder, a haunted look. He plied the street in subdued, almost mechanical, fashion. What if it was not an act?

My devotee’s gracious outreach more authentically mirrored the noble compassion I espouse than my bout of cynicism. How could I presume to know who was worthy and who was not? Secure and lacking nothing, face to face with human misery and helplessness – myself a beggar – I had dangerously missed that greater dimension of faith that could embrace, rather than ignore, another human being’s need.

Chanting over our simple fare of noodles, I blessed her pure spirit and our sick friend, grateful to be reminded what it means to really wear the robe of kindness. Even if we are able to help one another, when our hearts become inured to life and the suffering of others, we too easily stray into misjudging those who need or deserve. Whether we are certain or not, we have to be willing to take risks to err on the side of kindness.

Not half an hour after our meal, I received the complement of this teaching. Outside the entrance to an open-air vegetarian eatery, I spotted a Mahayana nun. Shod in telltale cloth monastic shoes, she scuttled inside to collect a takeaway meal and was already emerging when we nearly collided. Her expression - both focused and dour – was accentuated by the distinct traces of a moustache.

Though from a different school of Buddhism, I instinctively felt a kinship – as if seeing a younger version of myself. We even wore the same colour robes! As we met, I pressed both palms together in anjali, our traditional greeting of respect, and smiled. To my surprise, there was not a flicker of acknowledgement.

It would have been impossible for her not to realise that I too am a Buddhist nun. We are not so common a sight on the street, especially I, a foreigner, bald and wrapped in a Theravadan-style robe. That, I thought, would have elicited some form of response, however understated – a nod of the head or half a smile if not a full one – any sign of reciprocation. Respect is the universal currency of monastic etiquette. That is our training.

But then I remembered my encounter with the beggar, and my failure to give him the benefit of the doubt and empathize with his plight. Now I would have to accept that the nun, too, may have had doubts about me that prevented her from responding as a spiritual cousin. Or she was merely too preoccupied to spare even a friendly look.

The heart grows miserly through the self-concern and arrogance that alienate us from one another. Setting too much store in what we do rather than how we are, we live careless and unaware. Whenever we become inflated by the vanity of our worldly accomplishments, status and wealth, or assume an ethnic or religious superiority, we betray our own humanity and intrinsic connectedness. We fail to know what it is to give and receive tenderly, to recognise that we all walk the same path – and are equally enriched by kindness.

*kappiya: devotee, attendant

© Ayya Medhanandi

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Frayed Knot

One-armed Buddha of AyyuthayaWise living cannot be legislated or simulated through script or form. It needs to grow from the inside, maturing when we reflect on our omissions and misjudgements – if we resolve to learn. Valuable as they are, the lessons we garner from yesterday’s choices may be inadequate, for old wisdom bears renewal and re-examination in the light of the new moment.

Courage is indispensable for this ripening of the heart. Woven together with goodness, it provides a safety net through the trials of life. I must secure the knots with care and diligence not to hurt anyone, especially when I'm afraid, for harm is the willing consort of cowardice.

When I see injustice, at times I am compelled to protest. That may not be the right recourse. Yet keeping silent because of weakness rather than wisdom, I tacitly – and unwittingly – support what I would oppose had I the courage to speak out.

Even if my voice fails me, I am committed to uphold what is morally right. At least, I must acknowledge how my silence might violate what is precious to me. Still, there are moments when holding my tongue may be the more appropriate response.

On the day an elderly friend was rushed to intensive care, she begged to see me. I hurried to seek permission and organised a lift to the hospital. Out of nowhere, a junior nun informed me that she had petitioned to go and would be taking my place: I was forced to yield.

Unable to find alternative transport, I had to wait another two days. By then, my friend's condition had deteriorated. I finally reached the hospital only to find all visitors barred. She died that night.

While I felt discounted by – and resentful of – my younger colleague, I grappled to quiet my heart, afraid to convey my feelings lest I be challenged over what seemed a trifling issue. Choking back outrage, I kept silent - at a price.

Every capitulation to fear is a collusion. It devalues me and wears thin the fabric of our spiritual community. Choosing to run from a situation or disparage and blame myself or others, I betray the best in me. Whereas the more I confront anguish or fear and their elaborate deceptions, the more I am able to dismantle them.

Each time I trust myself to feel what I am feeling, as awful as it may be, I move towards integrity. Simply knowing the truth of this moment may seem insignificant, but it is enough, for it is honest. No longer hidden behind conventional 'shoulds' and 'musts', the mind gives up finding fault or lamenting – and can bless whatever life brings.

This is possible – but not easy. So I practise, ever alert to the beguiling and illusory ways of coping that appear safe but are, in fact, self-harming. They lead not to peace or well-being but to spiritual poverty - to a festering discontent that undermines my ability to make wise choices.

Unless I succumb to fear, bullying and condescension do not diminish me. Though I may be misunderstood, ostracised, even abused, I take full responsibility for how I live. Then I can respond to life – not from the negativity and pain that teach us to act out of desperation – but from a sovereign connection to the heart's natural purity.

Every moment that we free ourselves from treacherous and unworthy thoughts, we make it possible to live consciously, sowing the seed of true harmlessness and peace in the world. It is a peace founded on the resolve that we not let the sun go down upon one more day of violence or duplicity towards ourselves or anyone else.

We may condone being afraid but we never abandon goodness.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ripened on the Vine

Fledgling nuns, MyanmarThis morning, as I passed through the 'wet' market of Pulau Tikus with my devotee, an elderly man supporting himself with a walker shuffled awkwardly towards me. His daughter held him on one side, her elbow in his arm. Seeing my robe and bowl and shaven head, he let her go and, with palms pressed together, made anjali, respectfully bowing his head and incanting the formulaic ‘Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu’.

In wholehearted abandon, he began to pick fruit from the neighbouring vendor’s stall. At first he placed two apples into my alms bowl. Spotting a fancier variety, he set about selecting the choicest he could find. As he reached for the grapes, the shopkeeper motioned to him to hand over the fruit for her to weigh before removing them. But when she saw the cause of his excitement, she softened. For he was swept up in the devotion of giving and could not offer enough.

So effusive was his joy that he appeared to have forgotten his disability, his daughter, the fruit vendor and the protocol of the market. Beyond apples and grapes, the old man harvested the finest imported fruit with the urgency of one feeding a long lost friend – as if in that brief encounter he would offer all the generosity of a lifetime.

That generosity informs the power of my faith and renunciation. It acknowledges the sacrifice I make for what we all know to be true. And it nourishes my body and my heart. In the humbling that comes from walking life’s byways, powerless and content with little, I learn to trust giving myself to the unknown. And mysteriously, kindness provides for me.

Sometimes it is abundant, sometimes not, sometimes pleasant, at other times not. This is a universal predicament. None of us know what will come next and how we will respond – especially in this age of outrageous and unrepentant global terrorism. Though we may, for the most part, live with calm and confidence, we need just one grenade of the mind, one bad mood or ill-wind to blow before we are inundated by negative feelings.

As a mendicant, my happiness hinges upon the way I am able to bear not just physical rigours, but all the austerities of life. Whether I am praised or criticized, comfortable or poorly supported, calm or in despair, instead of following the bleak and destructive habits of the mind, I try to remember to be empty like my bowl, accepting whatever tightness of breath or furrowing of the heart may arise. And I use the mantra that everything is there to teach me. So as long as I am able to invoke gratitude for what is, I taste the unexpected benefit of being a beggar in the face of the present moment.

In community, the internal roar of discontent could easily be catalyzed by one unforgiving remark or interaction with a colleague that would send me into the rapids of feeling good enough, not good enough, worthy, unworthy, proud or humiliated. Living as a solitary, I am most vulnerable when – unmindful – I decry the present situation, hanker for change or brood over what was lost or could have been. In each case, the mind runs to thoughts of blame – outward or inward – instead of to blessing.

Whether what crushes me is the pressure of the group or the thrashing of my own internal critic, it is always a retreat from pain, a yearning for safety. And that safety is to be found nowhere except in the silence of being with the way things are. This wafts a benevolent wind into my sail and a calm enough sea to navigate my way back to serene and joyful presence.

Calling upon patient acceptance and unruffled resolve as allies in the most irredeemable moment is not enough. I need heroic stamina to persevere in my commitment, taking care not to fall into wrong sacrifice which would imprison me in my comfort zone. For clinging to what appears secure and stable eventually leads only to stress and distress.

Ultimately, the trust with which I give myself to the unknown moment comes from a heart that is open and willing to surrender. It is a generosity of spirit that enables me to move out of complacency and take risks. This giving is not selfish, smug, or self-congratulatory. It is asks nothing in return, just as the elderly man in the market who fed me so lovingly.

That generosity brings a greater joy. For in giving to what we love and respect, we feed the goodness in ourselves. And it is mutual. I become for him, as well as for myself, the fourth of the Heavenly Messengers - the renunciant.

My aging body and the illnesses of recent years serve to remind me of the first three - old age, sickness and death. And in the frailty of his advanced years, my old benefactor also acts as their herald – more potent for the way he overcame even physical dysfunction by the ardour of his faith.

Devoted to this work of emptying and opening the heart, the fruits we taste, like his joy in offering them, are greater than those of the earth. They are indeed heavenly - beyond pain, beyond death.

[see The Mantra of 'Good Enough']

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Sunday, April 30, 2006

A Community of One

What continues to nurture me outside the formal structure of monastic community? Living with a group of companions committed to the holy life was a boon to my spiritual development. More telling has been the process of detaching myself from that framework and spreading my spiritual wings on my own.

Outside the cloister, there are few possibilities in Western countries for a solitary female mendicant to live in safety while remaining true to the ancient Buddhist monastic code. When I first arrived – a newcomer to the antipodes – the monks of a branch monastery were not prepared to offer shelter beyond a period of three months. In the secular culture of twenty-first century suburbia, I would have to find a roof over my head and muster willing helpers to feed me and take care of all my needs.

During the first year, I stayed in a number of private homes, moving as each became available. I even endured a stint at an esoteric New Age centre before being welcomed by a group of Cistercian monks who renovated a hermit’s hut in the grounds of their monastery for my retreat.

Finally, I was housed in an old wooden studio above a garage at the bottom of the landlord’s small garden. It was a quiet seaside hamlet that seemed conducive to contemplative practice. Over the years, this was borne out – but not in the ways I had anticipated.

The isolation allowed me time to be with myself unimpeded by the pressures of community. Each day in my temple hermitage, I meditated, chanted, studied, wrote, cleaned, and walked on the beach.
My Friend Daisy
A menagerie of birds and neighbourhood pets regularly visited to feed on scraps emptied from my alms bowl. Observing them, I pondered every aspect of my existence and savoured the blessings.

But practically, my situation as a lone monastic in so conservative a setting was precarious. An insidious and debilitating stress – stemming from the ongoing uncertainty of how I would be fed and the often unwelcome response from more guarded residents of the village – began to take their toll

I had determined to be content with little – even if it meant renouncing companionship and public approbation. Without the veneer of community or a sister in the robe beside me, my self-confidence soon buckled, especially under the stony gazes of parents shepherding their children from school or neighbours ignoring my cheerful greeting.

In time, I became a familiar sight and gained acceptance from the locals. Nevertheless, honouring my vows, I did not join their clubs, casual camaraderie and social activities. This continued to set me apart and frustrated my intentions to find a bridge of connection between us beyond talk of the weather.

Sequestered in this way on the edge of suburbia, I began to wrestle with the narrow parameters of monastic discipline. What was the point of setting out my bowl for the meal or marking my robes in the customary way with only myself as reference – like a pedestrian waiting at a traffic light when there is not a car to be seen? I felt compelled to uphold my vows in their entirety – just as in a marriage – they were not negotiable. Rallying myself not to compromise and recalling my teachers’ exhortations, I parried bouts of negativity and disquiet.

Nothing, however, brought me to my knees as much as falling ill suddenly at the start of a long period of silent retreat. Though a small group of supporters still provided meals, only one person came forward to help. There was no treatment that would bring relief. I just had to be patient. I had long wished to be a hermit. Now, in these times of despondency, I visualised the faces of my spiritual companions far away and felt unequal to eremetic life.

I suffered more from the sense of vulnerability and helplessness – with no one to look in and care for me – than from sickness. Lying on my bedroll on the floor in front of the shrine, I was engulfed by memories of kind novices delivering trays of food, hot drinks or medicine, and nuns bringing freshly-cut flowers, clean bedding, or just visiting to have a chat.

Where once I had lived with the benison of the sorority, now I had to face empty days and nights ‘alone with myself’ – confronting the hosts of fear, anxiety, pain and discomfort. Where I had been burdened with communal duties and schedules, now I could take time to be and do as I chose. But this meant dealing with every situation as a community of one. And so I had to care for myself – body and mind.

Until I endured these struggles, I would never learn how to take each day as if it were a gleaming stone salvaged from the shallows of a stream, and turn it tenderly in my hand. There, I can almost see my own reflection. And that is all I need to do.

[see Not Straying From Ancient Virtue   Lenten Feast   True North   The Mantra of 'Good Enough']

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sole Food

I live on faith - day by day, not knowing if I will eat. Far from the abundance of established community, the alms I do receive can range from feast to fasting. Whatever comes, I accept. Whatever the circumstances, I persevere.

In monastic community, the almsgiving ritual is one of the focal points of the day. Everyone gathers to accept and share the meal offered by the laity. Our training governs each aspect of the ceremony from deference to seniority regarding where we sit and how we collect the alms food to the way we eat out of our bowls in silence.

One day a senior nun reminded us of the observance not to eat fruit unless it is cut into bite-size pieces. Moments later, during the meal, our kindly abbot sat – just as always – composed and radiant in front of the whole assembly. Having finished the rice and curries in his bowl, he picked up an apple and munched happily on it.

Trusting his dozens of years of experience, his wisdom and mindful ways, this became a special teaching, a fresh perspective on what we had just heard. It would serve as an enduring symbol – neither to reject nor obsess over the formulae that dictate our daily etiquette – but always to honour the true intent behind what we do.

I find this both humane and comforting especially when collecting alms alone in a Western city. On the sidewalks of the non-Buddhist world, mendicancy has vastly different overtones. There are no formalities or scripts to follow.

One morning a week, cradling my bowl, I walk to the town centre, leaving ample time to stand for alms and eat before midday. Beggars are generally treated with contempt. With my shaven head and dark brown robes, softly chanting as I meditate on my bowl, I present a strange enough sight to be cast into their ranks.

I brace myself, staying close to the shop windows that line the street - well in view but not obstructing local vendors or shoppers. While holding out my alms bowl, I feel the strain of my years, and tense at the sharp winds and hurried - sometimes disapproving - glances of passers-by. It's hard to know which leaves me more dispirited.

As someone approaches to drop a few coins into the bowl, I explain, “Only food, please, not money.” Being choiceless, even the smallest offering of fruit or bread urges me to free myself from preferences and accept every act of generosity with a thankful heart.

But there are days when I am left with an empty bowl. Taking that emptiness away with me is enough of a meal to reflect on. I have to feel - and make peace - with the hunger that millions suffer routinely, instead of complaining or demanding that I be fed. This teaches me the way of true mendicancy.

One blustery morning, an hour had passed and my bowl was still empty. But in keeping with tradition, I could ask for nothing. I was too cold to repel the rush of worried thoughts in my mind. “Will anyone feed me?” Unable to meditate, I despaired.

My almsbowlThen, seeing the shiny empty interior of my steel bowl, I asked myself, “Can my mind be as empty and as luminous?” There was little time left and I would probably receive nothing that day. But I decided to wait a little longer in case one person came forward – that would bring one more act of kindness into this world.

Encouraging myself in this way, I looked down. A man was silently bowing at my feet – and he put a large hot pie into my bowl. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

A vegetarian even before I became a nun, when I saw that it was a meat pie, I winced. Today there would be nothing else. I had to catch myself to realise, “This man who doesn’t even know me just offered me a meal for the day!”

I sat on a bench at a nearby church and chanted a blessing for him with a sense of gratitude and benevolence. After eating only the crust, I took a few moments to scatter the leftovers to a kerfuffle of scavenging pigeons and sparrows.

Contemplating my love of this simple life, I felt awash with happiness. I no longer hankered for my favourite noodles. I was grateful for meat pie.

[see The Food of Kindness   The Ninth Patch   The Mantra of 'Good Enough']

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Friday, April 07, 2006

Not Equal and Not Less

When Myanmar was still Burma, shortly after my ordination ceremony, I experienced directly the glaring disparity between Theravādin Buddhist monks and nuns. The first whiff came while meeting one of the Sayadaws*. I was with an American nun on temporary precepts who asked the correct way to disrobe when she returned home. His instruction that she don lay clothes and recite the Five Precepts in front of a Buddha statue seemed a paltry counterpart to the procedure required of monks leaving the Order.

Troubled that my vows, so precious to me, carried little weight with our senior ecclesiasts, I soon discovered this was only the beginning. Over the years I would encounter a ubiquitous and entrenched culture of bias. According to scripture, the Buddha himself had to be persuaded to ordain women, predicting that their admission to the Order would lead to its early decline. The disappearance of Theravadin bhikkhunīs* centuries ago certainly weakens the position of all women in my shoes.

That bias is rife among monks who impute women to be inferior and therefore incapable of the highest attainments. They cite canonical references to the precondition of birth as a male for the attainment of Buddhahood. Such attitudes eclipse core teachings and my own intuitive insights about anatta, no self – non-identification with both physical characteristics of the body as well as mental qualities of consciousness. I know that 'I' am not my gender, race or any physical attribute nor am 'I' my thoughts, moods or mental fabrications.

In the Buddha’s doctrine of redemption through individual effort, spiritual equality for all beings is a given. The discourses of enlightened bhikkhunīs who were the Buddha's contemporaries, like arahants Dhammadinna, Khema, or Patacara, remind us that gender does not govern spiritual aptitude. Even so, I continue to miss empathy for women monastics in my chosen discipline and the rapids of religious misogyny are fierce.

Late one night in India, on pilgrimage with my shaven-headed supporter, we arrived on foot, laden and exhausted, at the sprawling complex of a palatial Thai temple. It was off-season. Outside a row of darkened empty rooms, we met a resident monk who interrogated us unsympathetically.

He knew my preceptor and where I had trained. Still, without so much as offering drinking water or a lamp to light our way back to the gate, he ushered us out unceremoniously into the deserted street, refusing us shelter even for one night. This stung – to be rebuffed by my own brother in the robe on ground sacred to the Buddha.

That night we were warmly received by the abbess of a Mahayana temple where a statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion, signalled a universal welcome to all visitors, irrespective of gender, religion, caste, or race. No questions were asked. She immediately organised a room to be prepared for us. Our weariness and disenchantment melted in the kindness of her community of monks and nuns.

On another occasion, I attended a memorial ceremony for a friend’s mother at a temple in Malaysia. Spotting me, the senior monk shouted confrontationally to my host, “Female?” No greeting, just that. When I approached and knelt in front of him, he brusquely waved me away to sit with the lay women that had gathered.

“Bhante*,” I said, “I just want to pay respects to you.” And I bowed three times before joining the other women.

It is hard to feel compassion for those who bear no shame to wear the robe while acting in ways unworthy of it. I may be junior in the hierarchy but I am not inferior. Any one who mistreats me for any reason does wrong, but their wrongdoing does not diminish me.

Regardless of how I am treated, I try to show respect and kindness to all beings – this is the heart of every true spiritual lineage. More than convention, it is our mandate - never to be ransomed to those who do less.

Sayadaw U Pandita once said he could not make me a bhikkhunī but I could become a bhikkhū*, one worthy of the robe, who sees the danger in samsāra* and having left the home life, 'purifies the stains'. Moved and encouraged by this loftier footing, I would use it as my compass.

In every encounter, I can choose to respond well - with kindness, gentleness, and care towards all – unequivocally. That is the brief for my life.

*Sayadaw: Venerable Teacher (Burmese)
*Bhante: Venerable Sir
: ordained nun
: ordained monk
*samsāra: the cycle of birth and death

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Friday, March 31, 2006

Setting the Pagoda Alight

When I was 37, I undertook an intensive meditation retreat at the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha in Rangoon. Within several months, inspired by the purity and profound benefits of the practice, I felt called to the holy life and, in honour of that intention, navigated through a maze of dusty roads to worship at the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda.

After circumambulating its golden stupa, I knelt in prayer at the Thursday Shrine and offered incense, flowers and candles. A friend of the monastery suggested an auspicious way to support my cause: paying one night’s electricity to light the thousands of lights in the entire Shwedagon Pavilion. I chose the next full moon night. It would be in March, three weeks away.

I shared my aspiration with one of the English-speaking nuns. She pointed to the golden pinnacle of the main Shwedagon stupa ascending into the sky between the rooftops of the monastery. How comforting to see it towering so near like a lighthouse for the Dharma!

The next day, I petitioned Sayadaw U Pandita to ordain me. He agreed only on condition that I take lifetime vows. This seemed unfair. Other foreigners who asked were given temporary precepts lasting several months, just to experience the life in the robe. I alone was singled out to make so final a commitment.

Sayadaw benevolently suffered my protests, and countered that I had tasted “enough of samsara – enough sense pleasure.” It was time to take the step for good. When I stubbornly remonstrated, he sent me to my cell to contemplate the decision.

There was nothing to do but persevere with my retreat. I practised diligently, sitting with the graceful Burmese nuns in the great hall and doing walking meditation in any shady nook of the garden. They, on the other hand, seemed immune to the sun and never flagged. As we paced back and forth mindfully, I felt a mysterious kinship with them.

My restlessness spiralled with the hot season temperatures. I lost track of the days, distracted by reflecting much on Sayadaw’s exhortation. Eventually, one morning after the meal, I found myself drawn to visit him again.

Sayadaw U Pandita in his kuti 2004Barefoot, I entered his residence. Inside the shrine room, my heart pounded. Sayadaw was delivering a sermon to a crowd of local women. Wearing batik sarongs, their hair neatly pinned back, they huddled around him in polite posture, listening intently.

I took my place at the far end of the room. Unable to understand Burmese, there was time to rest on the cool of the teak floor. Sayadaw’s voice had a soothing effect but I was terrified. What seemed like an hour melted away. I plotted a suitable moment to slip out again as quietly as I had entered.

Making my bid to escape, I tiptoed to the door. Just as I raised my arm to push it open, Sayadaw ordered me to wait. The women retreated noiselessly while he beckoned me forward. Crawling towards him, I bowed respectfully and sat tensely at his feet. He wasted no words.

“Have you decided?”
“Yes, Sayadaw.”
“What did you decide?” he prodded.
Breathing deeply, I surprised myself and announced without a flicker of hesitation, “Yes, Sayadaw, I will do it. I will ordain for life.”

Sayadaw smiled avuncularly. He asked if I could be ready in three days and I nodded. Immediately, he called in two elderly nuns who measured me for the robes that they would sew in haste. I became excited.

Three days later, shorn, robed in pink, having taken the precepts and received my new name, I floated through the grounds of the monastery in a blissful state. My wish was fulfilled.

When daylight faded and a gong signalled the end of the last meditation, the tropical night drew in with its smoky fires and chorus of insects. A few nuns locked the hall while I crept up the steps, one at a time, to the darkened walkway that led to my cell, taking pains not to trip in my inaugural robe. Periodically tangled in its folds, I paused to rearrange and secure them. I could only giggle at my clumsiness.

Above me hung a resplendent full moon. There, in the night sky, I caught sight of a single majestic spire, dazzlingly bright, just where I had seen it three weeks ago – the glorious Shwedagon, bejewelled with light. I stood quietly for a few minutes, marvelling. Suddenly, it hit me - tonight, I had set the Pagoda alight.

Throughout the years, I have returned to that vision again and again. My offering of the lights long ago and the decision to take perpetual vows continue to bless me – for they still glow undimmed in my heart.

[see Taming of the Shrewd]

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Not Straying from Ancient Virtue

Prayer flags in a storm over Teluk Bahang, MalaysiaWhile living in monastic community, visitors often asked, “What do you do?” I would describe the daily schedule: rising early, morning and evening meditations, chanting, the almsgiving, work projects, meetings and other duties. But what I am is not just what I do or what is apparent. The physical activities of my day could not convey the inner dimensions of my contemplative life.

Outside the exclusive monastic environment, I am an anomaly, conspicuously out of step with the rush of the world. The same questions I addressed in the monastery follow me here to the concrete fields of suburbia. I must draw from my own faith and experience to answer them, endowing myself with the ambassadorship of our tradition. Still, I cannot adequately portray the ancient process unravelling in me through the simple rhythms and rituals of my days.

So I ponder and re-evaluate what my being and doing mean as a nun outside the cloister. What value does my way of life bring to those around me, my urban neighbours, with whom I have limited contact and who see me as quite alien?

While I left the world behind long ago to enter the monastic fold, my renunciation is not defined by being resident in a monastery - nor is it diminished by living outside of one. I did not simply exchange fashion for robes, a bowl and shaved head, nor abandon certain activities in favour of others.

I truly leave the world when I stop ‘doing’ according to worldly aims and values. This means living with integrity, kindness and wisdom. It also means I am a renunciant – not because I have few possessions – but because I strive to give up my attachment to them.

Sustaining this style of life is difficult in a world churning with greed for, and accumulation of, wealth, power and pleasurable experiences at a frantic pace. Even as a meditator, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to store up blissful mind states as the measure of my practice and spiritual development. It is not.

The riches of my life lie in fully opening to and fathoming the changing seasons of the heart: the fear, weariness, disappointment and insecurity of being unable to provide my own basic needs, or the uplifting faith, joy, and gratitude for the blessings that do come. These insights save me from circling endlessly in my own suffering or spreading it further. And they enable me to share the fruits of the peace they bring with those around me.

Even when I can endure and be content with little, I sense a pernicious psychological need for approval, encouragement, and appreciation – to be remembered and cared for beyond the physical requisites of life. These yearnings of the heart undermine the practice of renunciation.

One day as I sat in the waiting room of a doctor’s clinic, an older woman next to me asked about my robes and how I lived. Our conversation was congenial enough until it emerged that my supporters paid for my medical treatment. “Not bad,” she snapped. “You don’t even work and you get everything for free.”

Before I became a nun, I myself had a similar attitude when I learnt about a friend who regularly drove for an hour in the early morning to bring breakfast to a Burmese monk. But now that I too live dependent on the kindness of the laity, I see the beauty in her actions.

Contemplative sacrifice radically departs from conventional values. The people who support me are touched by a quality that they trust and know to be true. I am also vulnerable to censure from those not yet ready to open to that truth. Recognizing this, I could more easily forgive the uncharitable attack in the doctor’s waiting room.

I choose to live within society, to be connected to its heartbeat, and more accessible to those who may never visit a monastery but feel an existential lack or thirst for something noble. When they come close, they often find that well of goodness within themselves. And the beauty they love becomes what they do.

© Ayyā Medhānandī