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