|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1990|
Ajahn Sumedho will be absent from Amaravati for most of the first half of 1990 (he'll be here for Wesak). While we are practising on our winter retreat, he will be taking up an invitation to have a retreat on his own in India - his first opportunity for more than a week of private practice in sixteen years. After that he will visit Thailand. One could have expected 'Ajahn Sumedho withdrawal symptoms' to manifest in the community, and to a certain extent this is inevitable; however, the response has mostly been a sense of happiness for his welfare. At such times, one recollects with gratitude the singleness of mind and tenacity with which he has pursued his aim of making the Dhamma available for such a wide rage of people.
'Dhamma' is a very useful word. Among its meanings are: phenomena as contemplated objectively; the essential nature of a thing - the wetness of water, for example; the order that encompasses all created things - e.g., that they are impermanent; the Totality that includes the created and the Uncreated; and of course the teachings of the Buddha in their conventional (sammuti) and transcendent (paramattha) aspects. Transcendent Dhamma is based on the realisation of not-self and emptiness, or Deathlessness; conventional Dhamma works within the apparent reality of someone experiencing suffering, practising, having skilful results and so forth. This is where most people have to establish their practice, and it is very fully expounded and supported by precepts, observances and conventions. At the bottom line, this Dhamma can be understood to mean 'proper or appropriate conduct'.
Taken purely from the personality viewpoint, mendicancy can make one feel either privileged (and unworthy), or powerless (and useless).
For those gone forth, this area is mapped out in great detail by the Vinaya - the Dhamma of the Holy Life. Whatever opinion one might have about the content of the rules and conventions for lay or monastic, their essential nature is to bring around a high degree of personal responsibility and sense-restraint. And in total, they create a form that can be used as a reference point against which to measure the impulses and conditioned values of the mind. In the practice of Buddhism all these dhammas fit together - if we practice the Buddha-Dhamma and live with proper conduct, we live in harmony with our essential nature and realise Truth in relative and absolute terms.
Most Buddhists are familiar with the Buddha-Dhamma as it expounds the teachings on mind-cultivation, but can leave their practice rather slack when considering the area of suitable lifestyle. The conventions that lay Buddhists should make use of are set forth in may instances: there is an example of the 'Vinaya for lay people' quoted below; you can find more of it in the Suttas, especially the Mangala Sutta and the Meeta Sutta from the Sutta Nipata. Such teachings stress the importance of the quality of relationship between oneself, relatives, duties and ideals.
This Dhamma of relationship brings about a sense of interdependence, co-operation, and self-effacement that is the basis of the Sangha as an Order and a way of practice. And it allows virtues to arise that incline the mind to Nibbana.
Contemplated from the viewpoint of the personality, Buddhist conventions are not necessarily that attractive. They seem rather antiquated. It's not difficult to form critical judgements about the relationship of the Sangha to the laity: 'living off charity, not in touch with current trends, irrelevant to Western society....' Or, on the other hand: 'interrupting my meditation, always bothering me with worldly problems, not really interested in The Practice....' Taken purely from the personality viewpoint, mendicancy can make one feel either privileged (and unworthy), or powerless (and useless); deference and hierarchy can breed feelings of superiority and inferiority, power and domination. Someone in a senior position could feel: 'Why do we have to support these heedless scatterbrained people?' And someone in a junior position could feel: 'Why do we have to follow this rigid hierarchical power structure?' Or you could get caught up in gender issues; all based on the belief that you actually are senior, junior, male or female, as some true identity. All that and the ensuring aggravation is the world, isn't it? ''Grrr, incompetents; grr tyrants; grr, women; grrr, men; grrr, people, work, rules, traditions, responsibilities ... all set up to get in the way and annoy ME!'
So the Dhamma of relationship goes against the grain. More credit to those monks, nuns and lay people who pick up their training conventions in the same spirit as Anuruddha with reference to his fellow bhikkhus:
or Mahapajapati Gotami, with reference to accepting the junior status of bhikkhunis to bhikkhus:
Or the innumerable lay people who have sustained a commitment to the family or put something of their own aside to support a monk or a nun who they would hardly ever know. To the lay disciple Visakha the results of dana were quite obvious:
The effect of allowing oneself to be guided by conventions can be witnessed in the example of the Sangha community. People come to envy the monastics' clarity and composure in a lifestyle that emphasises collectedness but is open to all kinds of choiceless impingement - and consequent frustration. (These are the aspects that people don't envy). There is even a grace and a joy about a samana who has fully trained in the Vinaya and practises it with mindful reflection. It's not a matter of resigned acceptance of a Rule. Someone who has realised the highest aims of the conventions willingly upholds their training because they see the Dhamma of conduct as conducive to the Dhamma of Deathlessness.
Dhamma practice always opposes the tendency to centre one's life on what is gratifying to the ego-personality; in fact its very goal is towards that transcendence where the blinkered personality is deposed from the mastery of our actions and perceptions. Seen in this way the conventional Dhamma presents wonderful and rare opportunities: to be co-operative, vulnerable, and exist in a relationship with others that is based on responsibility rather than on swings of mood. But the world does see things personally, and that's the difficulty. People can find conventional form intimidating, unfair or absurd - until they learn to approach it from the heart and see what virtues it causes to arise. Only then will the comparisons as to 'who's got the better deal' stop, and with it the irritation that life is not the way we want it to be. That dissatisfaction will be found irrespective of time, place or convention as long as there is self-view. To get past it, so that we can experience compassion, gratitude, and gladness for each other's well-being, seems to be vitally relevant and well worth the apparent sacrifice.