Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1991

In Doubt We Trust; Ajahn Munindo
On Messiahs and Other Matters; Ajahn Sumedho
Why Did I Become a Nun?; Sister Sundara
Pilgrimage in India; Aj. Sucitto & Sr. Thanissara
Another Part of the World; Ajahn Anando
The Golden State: A. Amaro


Why Did I Become a Nun?

The following is taken from a talk given by Sister Sundara at the 'Joys of Monastic Life' conference, held at The Spirit Rock Center in Northern California in May 1990.

I studied the programme of this conference when I arrived in America and looked at the different issues - which is a word I have never heard used so often before as in the last few days! - and I discovered that actually as a Buddhist nun, I probably would cover all of them just by talking about the life that I lead. It is about monasticism, and issues of men and women, and issues about the lay community's relationship with the monastery, and so forth.

One of the first things that led me to the possibility of awakening the mind - and being in a wakeful state rather than a dull one - was the need I had to understand. To see clearly what my life was about - what our lives are about, I suppose - and I wanted to find the tool that could help. So I read and I listened to people, but somehow it never really did much to my understanding. I could memorise what was said, but I never felt any sort of transformation. And at the time I wasn't aware of the process of transformation, but I felt the need for finding some place within, that would help me understand. I think this is the case for all of us.

There are many tools, many paths, many teachers that are available to us, but in my case I felt that my mind was already cluttered with many views and opinions about things and issues and, really, the most urgent thing to do was to empty it all out. I didn't know how to do it, though.

We didn't even have to be our own authority, we just had to look clearly, and see distinctly, and focus our attention.

When I heard Ajahn Sumedho for the first time, he talked about simplicity - and this really spoke to my heart. In out society, simplifying our lives isn't an easy thing to do even if we want to. We tend to clutter our minds and our houses with all sorts of things. So, when I went to Chithurst Monastery for the first time, it wasn't to become something; in fact, I was yearning to not be anything at all. It was difficult because, in the world, we all train to become something, usually something very special. To become nobody in a dignified way was very appealing!

I went to Chithurst to see how Ajahn Sumedho and the monks were doing - they had moved out of a flat in London to the countryside, and I was keen to keep in touch with the Sangha. I really didn't know very much about Buddhism; neither had I seen monks before I met them in London. I had little knowledge of the tradition - which I'm grateful for; I really didn't like tradition very much. As an independent character I had very structured ideas about how I should live and didn't want to be told what to do. The only authority I followed was my own, so I was relieved to find that the teaching was pointing to self-realisation through one's own experience. We didn't even have to be our own authority, we just had to look clearly, and see distinctly, and focus our attention.

The questioning, or the inquiring mind, must be recognised; in Buddhism, this is what the practice is about. Then, through attentiveness and mindfulness, you begin to explore things in a different way. You question things and see they are not always as they appear. Before we argue what is right or wrong, we must question: who is looking, who is thinking, who has these views? Is it my view? Who is this 'my'? This is something I found very important to come to terms with. Inquiring about the human mind seemed a very important thing. We have to discover that we have a mind, a heart, intellect, feeling, within this wonderful tool called a human being. Do we want to find out if it is working properly or not?

One of the first things one becomes aware of by exploring this is; No, the human tool is not working very well. Before entering the monastery, I thought I had trained myself to be a smiling and attractive, socially acceptable personality. I had convinced myself of this. Before entering the monastery, I thought I was a nice person - I had no doubts about it. Then I joined the community ...

In the community, one recognises the strong views one possesses about oneself and others, especially under this sort of restraint, when you cannot do what you would like to do and your habits become frustrated. There is a lot of boredom in a monastery due to the lack of distractions. You see the mind desperately trying to be fed on something. You find the slightest things irritating and annoying, whereas before you were really tolerant and accepting of others. Encountering the same people on a day-to-day basis, you find even the nicest people can become annoying. Why does this happen? Why do you harbour grudges or criticism about someone you previously liked very much? Is it me? It's worth investigating; otherwise, we would believe everything we thought and felt.

Actually, I really like to have fun, so I began to take my fun seriously. I didn't want to go on suffering forever. The mind has its way of following the path it should take - when you really want something, you find it. It became clear that the only way of enjoying life was to live it the way that felt right, and we must all discover this for ourselves. Whatever gives one a sense of fulfilment and joy, and respect for others, as well as a sense of freedom -- that's what most people want to do. However, one doesn't usually think of finding joy and fulfillment in an environment where distraction and entertainment seem absent. So I didn't want to become a nun - I didn't think women did that until they were really old and no-one really wanted them any more.

When I went to Chithurst to live I was asked to take the Eight Precepts and wear white. I didn't mind too much, as long as I could stay with people I respected and who lived a joyous life. Taking precepts was really what I had been looking for all of my life, and there wasn't any sense of being bound by them; it was just an awareness and focus of attention on what I said and did and thought. I couldn't dance or go to the theatre, watch television or indulge in entertainments. The precepts became really good friends to me. I was able to stop acting unskillfully, and then remorse over my behaviour ceased. This is because I was living in a place where the precepts were upheld and I could cultivate trust.

Winter Meditation

Listen - the wind has died in the night.
- Listen again; can you not hear
Your own quiet breath.

Look - the dawn has not come
- Perhaps you should look
From another place.

It is dark; the whole world is asleep.
- Never again; one Eye is always open

Martin S. Kaufman
The beginning of my monastic life was very new for everyone, including my teacher. He had just established a new monastery in the West with monks trained in Thailand - and then four women turned up. The women didn't know each other, you couldn't have put together more different characters. We had an interesting time together living in an environment where everything was experimental.

The house itself was falling apart. In lay life I had always lived in comfortable situations, where cooking and cleaning for myself just weren't part of my lifestyle. I had never lived with monks before, either. It was cold and damp; I had to cook every day, and do many things that were new and unusual. A kind of joy began to develop that took away many obstacles.

When we arrived, none of the four of us had any idea about anything, other than being there to practise and live the life as everyone was leading it - not to be anything special or have any particular privileges. I just wanted to be as ordinary as possible. to be a nobody; I had insight into being a nobody, and realised it was the best way to be. It's not something many people can relate to, and at the time I didn't see this with a Buddhist perspective. I didn't know what a nobody was or how to become one. It really came home when I took refuge in mindfulness and clear awareness, whilst looking for the one who knows. You can ask the question, but you can't ever find anyone who is constant through the impermanent mind-states -- there's just a silence, a space.

At the beginning there was no space in my mind at all. It was full of miseries, ups and downs, me, you, the others, the world, life, yesterday, tomorrow, etc. This was the conditioned mind, conditioned by time and memory, thought and feeling. This was the only perspective I had then and I soon began to see that this conditioned mind was not really a satisfactory tool. It seemed to create problems about everything. One can take problems very seriously and believe, 'Yes, this is MY prohlem'! But you practise, you see that discontentment and dissatisfaction are the nature of the conditioned mind. I used to worry about everything. I could spend an entire lifetime describing my worry. And then I began to understand worry: it is like a boomerang - you throw it, and it comes back to you. If you believe in it, this is what worry does to you.

Living in this situation, you just can't get away from yourself - wherever you are. You can't get rid of yourself. Living in the monastery, you begin to really see very clearly what this means. You have this person, 'yourself' who creates these problems and you are allowed to be with it. The catch is learning the results of the way you think, feel and act. The absolute and the relative world are not separate. The relative world is only your mind, and it seems as though it's 'out there', because that's where you believe your mind to be. This is where the confusion arises.

The absolute and the relative world come together, like confusion and liberation. If you weren't really confused, there would be no need for liberation; there would be no problems, then, would there? How could you let go without knowing that you were attached to something? It's paradoxical. I remember thinking, 'Must I really suffer just to be able to let go of suffering?' it seemed an unbearable process to be free of ignorance by being truly ignorant. It's painful, as many of us don't want to question that.

Do we want to question what ignorance is about? How do we find a solution from a mind that can't even think clearly? For me, this is an important issue. Can we find clear answers from a place that is confused? Feeling unloved and rejected, frustrated with the sense of not getting anywhere made me think I wasn't practising - but something in me knew that I didn't have to believe that. Even if I was confused, I didn't have to believe it, because ultimately I knew it was not really 'me' - my ultimate nature. I could see these problems end, and realise there was no need to try and solve them. They would just go.

Look back at a situation that was based on a very unstructured form (though it was based on the Dhamma and the Vinaya) I can see that most of the things that have since evolved for the Sangha happened when the community was able to let go. Development has come not from creating issues and problems but from purifying the heart and seeing clearly. Looking for personal clarity within the monastic situation, we realise that letting go was the only freedom from the conditioned mind. There is a sense of trust that our limited view of self is not what we are.