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