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