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