Thursday, December 20, 2007

Perfectly Rapt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see Red Erring]

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Right Speech, Right Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Heavenly Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Noble Warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī


Monday, June 11, 2007

Kindly Wait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Friday, May 25, 2007

To See or Not To Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī

[see The Mantra of 'Good Enough']

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Holey Bagels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**umptiyampi: dutiyampi, tatiyampi, etc.

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Monday, January 29, 2007

Still Bowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Ayyā Medhānandī