|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1991|
Beginners' Minds: Newly-robed bhikkhus
My final year as an anagarika was spent at Harnham, and Luang Por Sumedho spent most of that year abroad. I had already determined in my own mind that I would take the Going Forth at the earliest opportunity, but it remained very un-certain when Luang Por would make the invitation. Some two months before the ordination day word came: Would I like to join the Bhikkhu Sangha?
My immediate response was just, 'Wonderful! Yes, of course!' - no hesitation. For the next three weeks I gloried in the thought, 'At last my anagarika days are coming to a close!', and I bathed in this amazing sense of uplift that I had been invited to become a bhikkhu.
That soon changed.
Later on I found myself anticipating just how difficult life could become for me. Old fears arose like phantoms: 'Supposing I don't get on with this monk or that monk? There must be an easier way. . . . Maybe it won't work out how I want.'
I determined to relinquish, to put down, all these fears and anticipation of the future and to give up this old self, who was about to die and be reborn as a monk - a new start! I had been a terrible anagarika; now I had this opportunity to start anew.
When I was ordained I experienced an extraordinary sense of good-will and support from everyone. The Ordination event itself was infused with a deep sense of uncertainty of the future, a genuine sense of burning one's bridges, of relinquishing the past. I thought of my mother, who I knew was dying. In any heart I thanked her for all the support and goodwill she had given me, knowing that my best offering to her was this Going Forth.
A natural response is to ask, 'What can I offer in return?'
So, having become bhikkhus, we six undertook to study the discipline regulating the conduct of monks - the Vinaya. I expect I will always be learning what it is to be a monk - I am sure the appreciation for the life- style grows as the years pass by
Half-way through the vassa I had an urgent letter from my brother recommending a visit to my mother before she died. I was fortunate to be with her the day before she passed away. I made my offering to live this Holy Life to its fullest. I know she was happier for me now that I had been fully accepted into the monastic community. I felt certain this would be our last meeting, so I made my farewell very final, thanking her for all the kindness and support she had given for a lifetime.
On hearing of her passing away the following morning, I could only marvel at my good fortune to have been able to speak with her - so there was nothing left unsaid, no regrets. Two days later I returned for a retreat in Chithurst Forest. It was a time to contemplate just what it meant to Go Forth from the home life into homelessness. In the forest there is just nature, nothing outstanding to distract the mind. I found living amongst the trees for two weeks very conducive to just abiding in the present moment, with this quality of relaxation - relinquishing any concern or anxiety I had of past and future. I felt a greater appreciation for the newness of the present moment, which is always now.
ONE of the most striking impressions soon after the ordination was the increased respect and devotion shown by the laity. As an anagarika I had received some of this, but a considerable change seemed to have occurred. The realisation was, and continues to be, a powerful one. Whereas, from one perspective, the Going Forth appeared as personal experience - concerning me solely as an individual - I see that inevitably the repercussions, and responsibilities, are much broader. In a sense, I went forth not just for me but also for others who share a similar aspiration. The monastic form reminds me of this relationship continually, as my daily material requisites depend on the kindness and faith of the laity.
A natural response is to ask, 'What can I offer in return?' The main emphasis as a junior monk is to become acquainted with the Patimokkha discipline and related duties. Primarily this means paying close attention to those senior, who act as guides and teachers. Fortunately, we are not asked to go out immediately and teach Dhamma - normally this doesn't occur until one's fifth year - but we do have the opportunity to speak with guests and visitors in the monastery. However, I see this as happening incidentally, during informal moments.
So what can I offer? Firstly, I can make the earnest effort to learn and live by the training rules. The experience as a junior monk is a humbling one; continually one makes mistakes, as the focus of one's attention is refined to so many new areas. An attitude of beginning again becomes necessary. Laity who witness this process can be inspired; it is an important reminder that the virtue of morality requires cultivation - we aren't simply born with good conduct.
Helpful guidelines are necessary, too, for lay life to establish a useful and suitable moral code. The five precepts can be interpreted broadly, and the monastic discipline - which is essentially an expansion on these - offers skilful means on how one can apply them in one's life.
Secondly, I can act as a symbol of quietness which makes the monastery such a precious place. Such quietness is a rarity in a world which does not encourage restraint regarding action of speech and body. I believe that stillness and peace of mind are greatly facilitated by a quiet environment. One is not obliged here to maintain certain social customs, like casual chatting or even making eye-contact with others. Of course one is welcome to do so if one wishes, but there is the opportunity to refrain. Possibly this is confusing, even intimidating to people - especially new-comers. I hope that there is a minimum of misunderstanding in this. I can honestly stare that other people's presence needn't be a distraction or disturbance for me. In fact, I am greatly uplifted in being with other people who, I feel, equally treasure quietness - from this a lovely kinship comes about.
So for those who similarly seek refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, I hope that I can act as encouragement and live honourably in this life of mutual dependence.
THIS summer I was given a small jade plant to look after in my room. I was glad both for the life and colour it brought to an otherwise barren room, and for the associations jade plants have with my mother who tended, took cuttings, and kept many of them around our house while I was growing up. It became a focus for attention, something to care about, watch grow, and attend to its need for water and sunlight.
It was a rather small plant, and after a few days I noticed that there was a clump of hearty, fast growing grass in one corner of the pot. 'That's not very nice,' I thought, as I reached to yank it out by its roots.
But then I remembered, 'Oh yeah, I can't do that any more. It's an offence to damage any living plant.' And my hand stopped in mid-pluck. A little peeved at that moment of mindfulness and conscience, my next thought was to go straight out and beckon an anagarika to perform the task. I wouldn't have told him exactly what to do, but a rather strong hint surely would have gotten the job done - and after all hinting is permissible for bhikkhus, and it's only a weed and it doesn't look very nice and why shouldn't I. . . ?
I watched my mind race down this course of justification, gathering momentum and conviction with each successive argument. I stopped, and laughed at myself for having worked myself up into a lather over a blade of grass. This led to a very important insight into how the Vinaya actually works, and to a deeper appreciation for the refinement of training that this bhikkhu life offers. It also increased my respect for the value of restraint, which enables one to see more clearly the subtleties and complexities of the motivations and impulses within one's own mind.
Had it been any other occasion that clump of grass would have been gone in a flash. But, due to the prohibition against harming or destroying plant life in the Patimokkha rule, I was forced to restrain my impulse and conditioning, much to my chagrin, but much for my benefit. For I saw the complete arising and passing away of an aversion event. How just upon merely seeing that grass, my mind immediately went through the programme: "It's a weed, get rid of it, do anything you can, just get rid of it, it's spoiling MY jade plant, the rule is get an anagarika, GET RID OF IT!'
Our minds do this - more often than we'd care to admit! There are so many things we don't like, can't stand, or can't be bothered with, and this fact causes us much irritation and pain. But a clump of grass is just a clump of grass, you might say; unwelcome perhaps in a potted plant, but certainly not worthy of a moral dilemma. But does that excuse the feelings of indignation, aversion, and violence that took shape in my mind? Are petty irritations really any different, other than in degree, from more tangible and volatile thoughts of anger to- wards animals, other people, ourselves, or nations - no matter how solidly justified? Or are we each individually responsible and accountable unto ourselves for such thoughts of ill-will and malevolence that arise in our minds? Not that we shouldn't have them and should try to get rid of them (does that sound vaguely familiar?), but because we really do have the potential to understand and be free from our identification with all thoughts of harm and reproach. That seems to be the point of Vinaya: to stop one's habitual reactions; to lead one away from harmful influences and compulsions; and to yoke one to a practice through which one can see clearly that which leads to harm, and thereby train oneself not to move in that direction. The Vinaya forces us to bring awareness into the mundane aspects of our lives - into the watering of plants and the washing-up. We bring our attention to observe and learn how we relate to the things and the people around us. By witnessing how this works on the small and ordinary scale, we familiarise ourselves with the mechanisms and movements of our habits. Through understanding how they function, we can begin to hold in check and dismantle those forces that cause so much disruption and conflict in our lives as well as in the world.
The grass is still growing. It's taller than the jade plant now. I water them both equally and they continue to be my teachers.