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

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Ninth Patch

Everyday I proclaim my faith by wearing my robe. I have no special vestments or ceremonial dress. It is the same robe each day that protects me and steers me from worldly pursuits. It links me to the ancient roots of the path I walk and to all disciples of truth. Comprising five main pieces, the largest robe is a head higher than me and almost double the width of my two arms outstretched. Swathed in its folds, I surrender race, nationality, gender, family, culture, and education to the holy life.

My robe defies age-old practices of beautifying the body and contravenes the norms of fashion. Held in place by a sequence of twists and folds, its cumbersome dimensions are also the least practical choice for modern lifestyles and conditions. Yet for these very reasons, it serves as an exquisite if subtle training for the one who wears it.

When I traded dresses and jeans for the robe, I gave up running, climbing, cycling, driving – and relearnt how to sit, walk, kneel, bend, bow, and work gracefully while swaddled in metres of cloth. This took some years of practice and long struggles with feeling painfully awkward and self-conscious. I persevered with being mindful not to catch the robe on doorknobs or sharp objects, trail it on the ground, lose the folds from my shoulder, let my sarong droop unevenly or, worse, fall down.

Even after years of working on these skills to tie and hold the robe in place, there were still 'moments'. Every nun would know how I felt after sailing into the temple to lead the evening meditation meticulously decked out, and bowing mindfully in front of everyone only to hear the shoulder folds of the robe gently plop onto the mat. Such tests were kinder than those to come outside the sanctuary of the monastic cocoon where merely mastering the physical technique of wearing the robe did not go far.

Buddhist monks and nuns are a rare sight. Over the years, my walking down a Western city street bald and wrapped in bolts of brown cloth often generated anything from disdain, amusement, hostility, fear, and even outright shock. Schoolchildren would giggle or sneer at what was so alien to them. Once, a woman ran up to me and asked, "Are you the Dalai Lama?"

When I travelled on trains and buses, more intimate opportunities to practise patient endurance arose. Sometimes passengers would stiffen or expand into the next seat if I moved towards it. Others might stare unblinkingly, scowl or lean towards a neighbour to make a mean remark. Recently, a policeman snickered when he saw me and barked with disgust, "What’s this?!" When I was on my own, this cowardly abuse took on more menacing tones.

To be ridiculed and vilified for wearing the uniform of what I love was humiliating, stressful, and punishing. It eroded my self-esteem. Gradually, I created an oasis within myself not to take these episodes of pillorying too much to heart. If people only knew more about my way of life, I assured myself, they would receive me as a friend.

The insults that I suffered taught me the pain of those who are routinely shunned. I confronted the very source of that fear within myself and knew I had to summon even greater courage and compassion. Such vigorous reflection and resolve would still not make the victory over vanity an easy one.

My Rule prescribes replacing a robe only when it is shabby, threadbare, damaged, or has been repaired with ten or more patches. Once, when my upper robe, already patched nine times, tore, I painstainkingly sewed a new one from cotton fabric I'd received as a gift. But it was poor quality cloth and faded badly after a few washes.

A senior nun advised me to dye it. Unfortunately, as often happens with dying used cloth, the result was too mottled to be worn. I could only request more fabric but of a better quality and begin again. Finally, when the new robe was sewn and I was able to wear it, I smugly presented myself at evening tea with the other nuns. As we sat on the floor with our steaming cups, one of them snorted, "You're always getting new robes".

I felt both bruised and rattled. At that moment, I would have happily returned to my old patched robe or its discarded successor than be so misjudged. But the anger in my mind was uglier than the comment itself and the lack of empathy behind it. There in the mirror of my heart was my own impurity staring back at me.

One who wears the robe may still be proud, vain, jealous, resentful, or angry. I could not know beauty of heart through perfecting the art of wearing the robe just as I could never achieve modesty simply by covering the skin. To live with gentleness, humility, and wisdom – and die without regret - that would be beautiful.

When I grow pure in conduct as much as in appearance, worthy of honour and trust but wholly from my innermost state, when I want nothing else beyond the ninth patch, then will I know,

    "Whoever is purged of selfishness,
    well-established in virtue,
    filled with purity and self-control,
    she indeed is worthy of the ochre robe."
             - adapted from the Dhammapada 1.10

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Lenten Feast

Smiling Burmese Buddha, Paekakariki shrine, NZAs a nun, I practice Lent every day – not just because I fast after midday but because my fast is a devotion. I choose this path out of love for a truth that reveals the depths of my humanity even in the humdrum of daily life. But this only happens when I surrender my personal desires for that love. And my Rule is the primary yardstick of that renunciation.

Theravada monastics have fasted since the Buddha lived and taught in ancient India twenty-five centuries ago. Many people question me about the value of ascetic practices that seem not only out of step, but also self-obsessed, pointless, and impractical.

Living outside the safety net of an established community, I too have pondered the merit of subjecting myself to a stress that is relentless and enervating. Years of fasting make it no easier to bear hunger – just as scaling a mountain is hardest at the top - because our resources are spent.

But this is exactly the sacrifice that defines religious vocation. It is not a punishment nor is it renunciation for its own sake. Like the kiln that fires the clay pot to strengthen it, by this sacrifice we are made tough – we are purified. While undertaking a discipline such as a period of Lent, silent retreat, abstaining from meat or giving up luxuries, we are called to examine our habitual lifestyles and the ways in which we uphold – or compromise – core values.

Recently, in the solitude of my hermitage, I took a vow of silence during the traditional three-month ‘Rains’ retreat. Faithful to my Rule, I routinely waited to 'break fast' after sunrise with food items that had already been offered: dry cereal, bread or fruit. For the main meal, on most days, one of my supporters would drive the long distance from town to bring cooked food and other provisions I might need, sometimes even fresh flowers and candles for my shrine.

When the weather was fierce, I worried for their safety. But as the hour grew late, my anxiety would turn inward – would they arrive to offer the meal in time for me to eat? Then I would hear the telltale sound of a car door slamming shut, and breathe more easily. On those days when no one was available to bring a meal, I ate more of the dried offerings of that morning. Whatever happened, I was determined to be content.

One Sunday morning, after two days of fasting, the promise of a meal heartened me. I paced back and forth in front of the window, waiting for the familiar sounds of a car and footsteps on the porch. With little time left before noon and no one in sight, I rummaged hurriedly through the remaining breakfast offerings to assuage my hunger.

I tried to console myself but an overwhelming sense of fragility gnawed at this veneer of composure. By mid-afternoon, my confidence collapsed. Reflecting on the immensity of my commitment, I felt unequal to it. I pined for rescue from the hunger to come, from this seeming poverty, abandonment and vulnerability.

In the dim light of winter’s evening, I sat before the ever-smiling marble Buddha, my robe wet with tears, my faith in tatters. I was anything but fearless. A single flame illuminated the Buddha's face while I demanded to know: How will I find the strength to keep going? Where is the faith that held me through long years of spiritual travail?

Steeling myself, I recalled my lifetime vows. A strength of resolved surged in my heart. I silently declared myself a daughter of the Buddha, resolving anew that I would never forsake my vows to live the holy life. I would endure hunger, discomfort, danger – any obstacle – to continue walking in his footsteps.

These vows are not for bargaining. I did not dedicate myself to this path so that the Buddha would feed and pamper me all my days – but to empty and purify my heart, to be a worthy vessel for everything that is sacred.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Composting the Heart

Shwedagon spires, MyanmarJust as church steeples or temple spires once symbolized the essence of what we cherished, these days, our tallest buildings tend to be commercial in nature - as if to signify the moral erosion of contemporary civilization. We are in a state of decline and those who believe that ethical living is supported by largely being carbon-neutral and environmentally-friendly fail to acknowledge this.

Their view would render purity of intention, action and expression – the true essentials for ethical living – as practically irrelevant. There are issues of greater urgency than eating organic vegetables, giving up meat, using fair trade produce and recycling waste. What comes out of our mouths and how we behave must take priority over concerns about the origin, quantity, and quality of what we consume.

We must care for the state of our minds where all conflict and unhappiness take root. This then will enable us to address the source of our dis-ease and so overcome the moral inertia that brings harm to ourselves and others – our mental and emotional addiction, aggression, instability and excess. And we accomplish this by applying moral principles even to the smallest details of our daily lives and relationships.

That requires sacrifice, but it is right sacrifice because it is fundamental. It assures a level of integrity that will automatically shoulder environmental responsibility whereas acting on the premise that protecting the earth is the ultimate good of human existence can never bring the security or happiness we seek. Nor will it foster peace between individuals, cultures, religions, and nations.

So, rather than composting the earth, the first step of ethical living is composting the heart. With a moral imperative to honour life, property, and the sanctity of our relationships, we nurture the trust on which peace depends.

Do this: just for one day, live honestly. Be scrupulous in every act. Treat everyone with kindness, even those you dislike or with whom you would not normally interact. Reach out to help if you can.

For one week, speak truthfully. Use no white lies or habitual excuses that avoid taking responsibility for shabby behaviour. Give value to every word and live up to it. Keep every promise you make.

Stop the tiniest pilfering from company stationery. Refuse the miscalculated extra change at the grocery store. Use legal software.

Don’t exploit the good nature of others – or make them feel beholden. Be loyal to friends and family. Refrain from unkind gossip.

Practically, we are human and imperfect. But if we understand the intrinsic value of these ethical practices, we create stability for what is true. We should never compromise that. Such moral compost safeguards our own well-being and that of everyone around us. This is the basis for a truly ethical life.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Taming of the Shrewd

First head shave finishing touches, Burma, 1988My personal identity was dismantled on the day I donned the robes of a Buddhist nun in Rangoon. After months of intensive meditation, I prayed at the Thursday Shrine of the Shwedagon Pagoda, being born on that day, to ordain as a nun. Within three weeks, I was accepted, my robes were quickly sewn, and the nuns gathered to chant while one of their elders scraped away the remnants of my hair with a cutthroat razor.

Fledgling NunAppearing before Sayadaw U Pandita in my pink robes, I glowed with readiness to complete the precept ceremony and receive my new Pali name. It would begin with a letter that matched the day and time of my birth according to the ancient system. And Sayadaw, knowing my strengths, weaknesses and potential, would have chosen a name to reflect a quality of mind worthy of my spiritual aspirations.

Sitting tensely on the teak floor that full moon day, the whirring fan blades punctuated my anticipation. When I heard my new name, I blenched. Sayadaw looked surprised. "What’s the matter, you don’t like your name?" he asked. Chastened, I expressed my gratitude. But he had clearly read my heart. That name did not resonate at all with me.

The next evening, at the end of Sayadaw’s discourse, he summoned me. I approached his dais, still awkward in my new robes and anxious at being singled out. “I want to change your name”, Sayadaw announced. I was stunned. This was an added blessing for me – and I liked the new name instantly. It meant, he explained, the bliss of discerning wisdom. This was what I was to live up to.

When I returned to the West to live in monastic community, the moral code under which I trained governed the most refined details of our life, even the way monks and nuns addressed each other. Regardless of our personal feelings, we always used a title of respect for elders, such as 'Venerable' or 'Sister' followed by the ordained name. This applied even to those younger in the robe during communal meetings, formal events and in public.

After ten years in the robe, the monks were called 'Ajahn', meaning ‘teacher’. Eventually, the nuns were also given this honorific. Although only a title, still it indicated a certain standing, of one qualified to teach, lead and train younger monastics, and the respect due a teacher. 'Ajahns' receive special considerations, but at the same time, they shouldered greater responsibility in running the community and caring for its members.

As the ten year mark approached, I worried about falling victim to self-importance and conceit in the use of such an august title. As it happened, in my tenth year, I travelled to New Zealand for an extended sabbatical and lived there as a solitary nun. Rather than 'Ajahn', I chose ‘Ma’, the Burmese way of address, and later, the more eclectic ‘Amma’ as I was known in Asia.

With this, I whetted the blade for my own suffering. While everyone happily addressed me as ‘Ma’, they reserved a special respect for ‘Ajahns’ and these all happened to be monks – that rankled. Wanting due recognition as one who was just as able to transmit the Dharma, I felt diminished and so became a casualty of my own making. Even when I settled on ‘Ayya’, the name used at the time of the Buddha, nothing changed.

In the end, no name can confer authority or self-respect, nor does opinion, tradition or entitlement bestow them. As the Buddha tells us, “One does not become a noble one by birth... It is by one's deeds that one attains to nobility.”

The riches of my being come from what I know myself to be – spiritual friend, spiritual mother, daughter of the Buddha, devotee and supplicant of the Way. My true name is the pure presence behind every name, the emptiness in which all personal identity dissolves. And where only love abides.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Monday, February 13, 2006

I Gave Up the Froth

Dyed in brown, Amaravati 1990Monastic life can be a regime of intensifying renunciation. This turning away from worldy pleasure is not undertaken for its own sake but to keep us on our toes, clarify our truest goals and sweep away the many webs of desire that constantly deceive, distract and thwart our spiritual development.

Traditionally, the three month period of the Rains Retreat or ‘Vassa’, is a time suited to special practices of study, seclusion, or renunciation in order to sharpen or perfect wholesome qualities of the mind. Carried out in the right spirit, these special renunciations, like spring cleaning in household life, can have a purifying effect.

One Vassa, while I was still living in community, I decided to give up chocolate, one of our few afternoon allowables. With little reserve in the body and a tendency to feel very hungry at night, I felt some resistance to doing this. I enjoy chocolate, and for years had delayed giving it up. That year, I felt ready. So I made a strong resolve to do it.

I also love simplicity, so taking on a new austerity promised to simplify my daily choices. Already our afternoons were free of activities connected to the preparation and consumption of meals, and cleaning up afterwards. This lent more time for study, meditation, community meetings, or ongoing work projects.

One of the junior nuns began to notice my absence at evening tea and would sometimes invisibly leave allowables outside my door - a basket would appear with the familiar shiny red wrappings. I had not informed anyone of my vow so these offerings continued as my retreat unfolded.

Whenever I caught sight of the basket with its attractive contents, I became agitated. Assaulted by pangs of hunger, yet remaining faithful to my resolve, I wrestled with the maggots of craving.

At dusk, I would return the chocolates to the tea room or leave them for other members of the community. Offering in this way to my sisters brought me joy, albeit slightly tainted by a sense of self-congratulation. So I took to distributing the chocolates anonymously. Finally, I left a note to explain my Vassa vow so that no more would be sent in my direction.

It worked. The deliveries came to an end and with no more chocolates to share I was released from the buzz generated by these peripheral activities. Peace, I thought, would return and I could concentrate on my meditation practice undisturbed.

Still, in the evenings, I would find myself peeking with curiosity out the window of my cabin for the familiar basket and wondering if anything would arrive. “What is this?!” I asked myself. I was besieged by a new wave of intrusive thoughts.

Sometimes, I would parent myself, stopping the mind by reflecting, “This is greed. It's a little thing really” - not as disruptive as fear or anger. And so, in the ensuing months, I studied and sat with the insidious ways that greed arose, determined to abandon it so that I could dedicate myself to the silence, to emptiness.

Sustained by that relentless effort, my preoccupation with chocolate eventually fell away completely. It was not chocolate that I had renounced, but the yearning for something that would comfort, console or occupy the mind and relieve its desire for stimulation.

I gave up the distraction, the worldly sweets of this life, to taste much more – just from one intention to renounce. I never understood this until I began monastic training. Prior to that, I believed that my faith in, and application of, formal meditation practice would be enough to transform me.

These days, I no longer pride myself on special renunciations. I live a simple life, committed to my vows, a disciple of kindness, compassion, and truth. If someone offers me chocolate, I have a little. I see the way the mind grasps the world and the peace that comes from letting it go. I even drink cappuccino. But I gave up the froth.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Uncooked Rice and No Ice-Cream

Living with contentment sounds easy. And it can be, particularly for one already withdrawn from the world and committed to a life of simplicity and renunciation – until that inevitable day when we are confronted with not getting what we want or, conversely, getting what we don’t want. Discontentment seeps in as soon as mindfulness grows slack, especially when our primary needs are not met.

Ironically, such privation was unknown to me in the monastery. Though I had taken renunciant vows, I never feared going without daily food, medicine, or my other requisites. In that abundance lay the danger of complacency and the dulling of appreciation for the support and attention lavished upon us as members of a community upholding the Buddha's teachings.

It is mealtime and a young couple have brought offerings for the almsgiving. I must finish eating before noon. It is their first visit and they are late - but it is kind of them to come.

Smiling widely, they bow and nervously scoop spoon after spoon of tepid white rice as I hold out my stainless steel alms bowl. I hear the grains settle into it with a diminutive tinkle. Soon these are obscured by vegetable curry and a sparse topping of sliced fruit. Once the food has been offered, my young benefactors kneel with joined palms, waiting for the ritual chants.

Though I feel somewhat anxious about the meal, I try to give myself fully to the chanting as if it is indeed a feast. I am grateful that they remembered to come, grateful to chant blessings, to have any meal at all today.

When they have gone, I study the contents of my bowl. It is a private moment of giving thanks and reflecting on what I have received. It will be good enough - it has to be. With an added chant and my lap-cloth in place, I work my spoon into the rice for the first bite - only to find it hard. I chew and chew to no avail. It is simply not fully cooked.

Another mouthful – am I imagining it? Rice is their staple and surely they know how to cook it! But no, it is inedible. And with the curry and fruit well-mixed into it, I won't be able to salvage anything of this meal.

I have only one choice. It feels onerous. Having renounced often, why is it so difficult today? I empty the contents of my bowl for the birds and wash up.

A haze settles over me. I am unable to stretch a mantle of gratitude over the embers of my equilibrium, nor yield to receiving food that I need but cannot eat. Nor can I forgive my humanness in wanting it to be otherwise, anticipating the hunger to come.

It would pass, I knew, but the daily meal is vital for my well-being. I glanced through the glass doors where my supporters had gone, carrying their empty pots. They had no malice - they just didn't know how to cook! Then compassion for them - and for myself - arose and soon, on its heels, a truer sense of gratitude trickled through with its inimitable fragrance of peace.

On another occasion, gratitude again rescued me when, returning with friends from an evening at the temple, they stopped to buy ice-cream. That was an ominous signal of the start of a new training exercise.

Having prided myself that I could easily renounce, I sat in the back seat ‘not minding’ while they contentedly licked their cones all the way home. Without the freedom or the choice to join them, the tone of my renunciation grew shrill - not for want of ice-cream but for them to have shown even a sliver of deference to my Rule if not my commitment to it and eaten their treats after leaving me in my hermitage.

That night, I could relish neither the black hills draped along the coast nor the sea’s thrashing until I was alone again. Listening to my heart, I clearly saw the tricks of the world. In that moment, Mother Gratitude came infinitely more sweet and sustaining than any dessert.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stepping Back Into the River

Bullocks on the Betua River, IndiaI seem always to be stepping back out into the River. Which river is it this time? The same river, but a different step, a mildness, a tender stopping, not to make sure that the bottom is there but to feel the current and know the moment of letting go. When balance is possible and the ties of the past have loosened, it is as if the River decides and I become again a small bird diving towards the waves and refreshing myself for a moment before I cross to the other side.

Now I leave my small temple by the sea, a loose network of spiritual friends and familiar faces, and an archipelago of safe harbours where I have wandered for years between the sun and the wind to be uncreased and cradled in the art of growing whole. And my leaving is pungent.

To some, it is an estrangement, an abandonment, a quixotic turning away from the sought-after place of safety and saccharin assurances that fed long years of vague connection and accessibility. To some, it is an inconsequential leap out of earshot, far from the ground of our encounter on this earth. But to others, it is a sadness, an unspoken cry, lamenting the loss of presence and personal rapport, the long conversations and interactive support, the giving and receiving and the simple sharing of blessings.

For me, this departure is a realisation of something greater to be done, at once acknowledging what I have received and what is needed in order for me to give back. But what an act of unstitching it has taken to send me into the thrashing waters of anonymity and the unknown. How complacent I could have been, how comfortable - lulled to a flawed happiness in the ebb tides of conventionalism, barely in view of the real fibre of life and the precarious landscape I must traverse to realise my freedom.

But stepping out like this is a stepping in. I shear away the props and paraphernalia of my very existence because I must, because it is the only way to be true, deeply true to what I honour most in this world.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Sunday, January 22, 2006

True North

Kapiti sunset, New ZealandSitting here in the stillness of a winter’s afternoon, I find myself in the middle of my life – or closer to the ending – as if suspended between two shores. I hold on to the one, the known, seemingly secure bit of earth where I landed six years ago in search of a haven - although I had the ultimate trust and refuge in the Triple Gem: nothing touches that.

To find suitable conditions for deepening my practice was as vital then as it is now, and I have been tenacious, determined to live out my remaining years on these shores. For starting again is a tiring process. And yet, I see how healthy it will be for me as I begin to let go this life – to venture out into the unknown once more. The irony is that I’m not being cast out. No one is asking me to go. I could just carry on here doing what I am doing and letting the years slide by inconsequentially.

Instead, what have I chosen? At this older, more vulnerable age, to thrust myself into the rapids of uncertainty; and to divest myself of the wrappings of a settled and viable life, in a beautiful, peaceful village surrounded by what is familiar and friendly. I really must be mad.

But I understand - and am grateful for - this madness that still flows in me; this clear sound of my own truth clamouring to be heard, offering me renewal and deliverance from habit. As much as my fear of change, so weighty are the bonds of my attachments, as well as the obstacles to my inner growth and freedom from all fear.

I have to trust, to reclaim full authority for my life so that I no longer make excuses for those who treat me shabbily. I may still choose to be silent but it won’t be out of fear that I will not be fed.

Therefore, going is imperative. I see that now. And to have chosen it myself – hazarding all because I believe there’s a truer, more connected way to live. And I have had to wake up to this, that only by stepping out from what is known and secure will I accomplish what may yet satisfy that calling.

Slowly I come to the full import of what it is to give up all that has sustained me here. I say goodbye to them one by one with thanks and a feast of gratitude, acknowledging the ways these varied friends have served and supported me. I don’t just mean the beings, but also the trees, the sea, the shells and the hills, my four legged friend next door, my books, my flocks of birds, the sounds of the wind and its songs, even the crashing waves as well as their often rhythmic whisper lulling me to sleep… I hold each of them for a moment longer, with a bitter sweetness, and I begin to let them go.

This process is a conscious dying - a vital choice for a spiritual aspirant. And I must keep exercising it for it has a power, and the giving up frees me to receive an even greater treasure.

Of course, the kindness and support offered by spiritual friends creates a bridge for the crossing. Without their unflagging faith in me, would I have the courage to do this?

As I step forward to take my leave, I feel at ease, hastening towards ‘true north’ - my home; there is no other choice than this.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Mantra of 'Good Enough'

Young nuns at AmaravatiIn both the spirit and the letter of my Rule, I live as a beggar, completely dependent on the generosity of my supporters. I may not ask for anything to eat or drink other than water, unless a devotee makes a specific invitation on the day.

Likewise, I may not ask for things that I need except when invited. And when an offering is made, I must be mindful of what those who offer are able to provide, and carefully gauge what is appropriate for me to ask.

My Rule prescribes the correct ways for me to conduct myself both in private and public – from the care of my robes and bowl to the manner of begging for alms and how I relate to lay people. So I live simply, fostering contentment with the requisites I receive, particularly with regards to food.

The true basis of this mendicancy is the fact that even when I am hungry or in need, I can neither accept nor handle money in any form. This practice – letting go control over even the most basic resources for my survival – demands a choicelessness that violates the primordial human impulse for self-preservation.

Such powerlessness is greater than the sum total of every other monastic relinquishment. In the face of it, giving up sensory pleasure and material comfort pales because it calls me to live by an exalted faith - to trust that I will be looked after, that the folk around me will not only recognize what I need but also come forward to support me in the ancient way.

I watch the whirlwind in people’s lives, and the burden of stress with which they come through my door; wishing to give but being unable, or being able but not knowing how. I see all the degrees of generosity that the Buddha taught, from princely to pretence, from those fulfilled by the sheer joy of offering to those hoping their good deeds will bring reward or consolation.

In times of plenty, the joy of our reciprocity is sweet. But in the days of lack, of doing without, of enduring neglect, I am left to witness the flights of the mind into expectation, worry, disappointment, and fear. I struggle to accept whatever is given; not to pick or choose, comment or bargain, evaluate or reject; to let go again and again, and to return to that sweetness with gratitude - even while the inner dragons scream in protest.

And yet I have lived in blessing for, in the end, my strength seems to come from a new quarter that is not dependent on my needs being fulfilled but on the quality and measure of my faith.

© Ayyā Medhānandī