Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1991

Sense Contact; The Fount of Wisdom; Ajahn Chah
Another Going Forth; Joseph Kappel
Why I Became a Nun, Pt. II; Sister Sundara
Harnham Monastery Anniversary; various impressions


Another Going Forth

Ajahn Pabbakaro, formerly the abbot at Harnham Monastery, disrobed in March, a few months before he would have begun his twentieth Vassa as a bhikkhu. Disrobing, especially after such a long period of time, can be very traumatic for those staying as well as for those leaving. In the following interview, Joseph Kappel (as he now is) talks about his decision.

You've been a monk for nearly 20 years. What are the things that made you want to disrobe?

When I first came in contact with the teaching of the Buddha, it had a powerful effect on me, and I had a strong desire to pursue it in as whole and complete a way as possible. I was aware that one could become a monk and that was something that I was really inspired to do. Thinking back, that inspiration always carries you for a time and then there comes a time when that starts to fade and you're dealing with the problem of the struggle to live a life of restraint, restriction and a very high standard of discipline.
    I think that's when you really begin to practise and are challenged with the discipline and I feel that if that isn't happening, certainly from my personal perspective, there would be room for concern. I see now that the discipline entails nothing less than complete and total surrender of your personal preferences, worldly pursuits, pleasures, everything. The beauty is, of course, that we have the space and time to go at our own pace, to see what level of commitment we feel and so a gradual deepening of the commitment can occur. I remember in Thailand people used to ask me about disrobing and would say, 'Do you want to disrobe?' and I would answer, 'I don't want to disrobe.' That didn't mean that I was committed for life. I never felt right in saying in that way; one, because I didn't really know and, two, because it just didn't feel like an honest thing to be saying.
    So, as time goes on there is constantly this challenge. You have to see whether your level of commitment is deepening. It's easy once you've learnt the form and how to fit in; you can get along quite happily and kind of stagnate - especially this last year Ajahn Sumedho has been really clobbering people for settling in to this kind of stagnation.
    As the years have gone by, staying as a monk has always been the right thing for me to be doing and the staying power and the strength has almost been a daily renewal - although it wasn't like I had to sit down every day or every morning and think, 'Can I make it through another day?'. It wasn't that kind of thing. It was more like 'This is the right thing for now' - and that in itself had a momentum of a daily renewal. Then, of course, I was challenged.

It was just too painful, so I had to put it all down and wait. And it was after that that the decision just appeared.

We're all challenged - having doubts and problems with certain aspects of the discipline and so on - and, of course, it's in coming through those periods of great struggle and difficulty that one gains great strength and staying power. So this constant renewal and deepening of commitment is something which has really carried me through all 20 years. Things had never come to the point where I had to ask myself whether it was right to leave. I was never challenged or backed into a corner where I really had to make such a decision.
    Things only came to a head during the last six months, when I was faced with having to make a decision. I feel strongly that every monk and nun is faced at some point with this decision in monastic life. I'm sure it applies to other lifestyles - commitment in marriage, occupation or whatever. You come to a point of 'This is it'. I think it is much more intense in monastic life, because it is such a complete commitment. Your focus is very clear. You know why you're living this life and that there's nothing else that really interests you. And that has such strength that doubts and longings are really peripheral, and not seriously pulling you in any direction.
    During the very challenging period of this past winter retreat I was pushed into a corner, and I forced myself to stay in that corner until something gave. It was either I had to stay or I had to leave. There could no longer be a 'one foot in, one foot out' kind of situation. It hadn't always been that way, but it came to where I saw that I did have one foot in and one foot out, and I had to either get both in or both out . . . there could no longer be this vacillation. I was wobbling with indecision and looking back at all the time I had invested ... and then looking ahead, 'What will I do?' And at the end of the day, I could nor consciously make this decision. I couldn't do it.
But I had to struggle for a good month, and go through a stressful and really horrendous period of trying to decide - and it was the pain of that trying to make a decision that took me to a place of surrender. It was so painful, it was thrashing me so severely that I could no longer follow that doubt. It was just too painful, so I had to put it all down and wait. And it was after that that the decision just appeared. It kind of unfolded, as it were; I quit trying to rationalise and look at the benefits of staying - all the time I had invested and all the people I would be letting down. And in the end I realised that I had to take responsibility - and that I couldn't be staying because I wanted to keep people happy. I had to be staying because my heart was in it. And with that, everything took care of itself.
    So, over a 24-hour period, the solution whether to stay or to leave just unfolded. I had a meditation and it just said, 'Yeah, it's right. I'll be all right.' I just needed to feel that I would be all right, because there was such a kind of . . . guess a fear, of stepping into the unknown. I'd be leaving something I feel very secure in and something I have given 20 years of my life to, this institution that I really love and respect - and a part of me didn't want to leave. But overall, the rightness in leaving overruled everything else, because this was the next phase of my life.
    This is now. . . .
    I have certain skills in life that I can now take and use in something else. Looking back to 20 years ago when I left America to go off to Thailand to become a monk: all I knew then was that it was the right thing to be doing and I really trusted that - even though I didn't have a clue what I was letting myself in for. And with this move there's that same kind of confidence and faith that this is what I should be doing but, then again, not knowing what I am letting myself in for.

Life is truly a dream.
All of its trouble I alone create.
When I stop creating,
the troubles stop.
With a single mind,
with an unbounded heart,
we can wake up to the wonderful existence
in true emptiness
that we are in the middle of right now.
When all in the world ceases to exist,
only the wonderful

Bhikshu Heng Ch'au
(City of 10,000 Buddhas)

So, how do you feel about the Sangha? Do you feel that you deserted them or that some kind of gulf has appeared between you and the monastic community?

Maybe I could answer that by relating an experience I had on the first morning after I disrobed. I was doing the breakfast dana in memory of my father's suicide, and I got into puja at 5 o'clock in the morning and I was at the back, for the first time. It was quiet, just a nice time of the day. Sitting there . . . the chanting started, and I was really feeling good, and as I started to chant, I just started to look at the Sangha and I wasn't seeing personalities . . . I was seeing human beings in robes. I was looking at the Sangha and the Buddha-rupa, and all of a sudden I just started to get incredibly emotional, and it was a combination of sadness and joy.
     A very profound and deep sadness and joy welled up in me, and it was like I was seeing the Sangha for the first time. By the end of the Recollection of the Buddha [the first section of the chanting], I lost control, and I ended up on the floor weeping. The whole profundity of what this community means, with its lineage going back to the Buddha, the Enlightened One, just started to overwhelm me . . . and it was like - if this 20 years has been for this moment . . . if that's it, it was enough.
     There was a second aspect that was a bit more mundane, but just as profound in its own way: I was crying, really weeping, and all of a sudden I was completely uninhibited, I wasn't self-conscious, it was not bothering me at all, and I thought, 'Until you can cry, you're not a man' - and it reverberated in me. There are these things that are a sign of manhood - you know, strength, with fortitude and aggression - but here was the softness, the more yin side of a male that softens men and makes them into sensitive human beings. So for me this weeping experience was one of the true signs of manhood.
     So I had these two things just come up spontaneously in the first morning puja, and I think they sum up my feeling about the Sangha. Now it's like I've got this family, and it's like I have a 'lifetime membership'. You know, I've been a part of this community, and it's been such a part of me, that I feel I'm a member of it for life. There's no way that you can, after 20 years, say: 'So long, it was nice knowing you. See you around some time.' These are my brothers, my sisters, my friends for a lifetime. And that really sums up how I feel. It's still very early days, but having severed myself from the Bhikkhu Sangha, in some ways I have rejoined it in a way that gives me a perspective.
     I can only feel a great sense of gratitude for having invested this time in my life to something of such nobility and profundity. One of the things Ajahn Sumedho put his finger on was when he said to me: 'Well, now you have a proper education to go into the world.' And that really rang true, because we go to university, or we do different apprenticeships, or get a trade, or whatever but what do we have in our culture that actually prepares us for life itself, and its knocks and its difficulties? So I have a great sense of gratitude. I guess it's early days, but I just feel this strength, in everything that I do. There's something in me that has grown, been cultivated, blossomed.
     It's really lovely to know what these ordained people are about. If I'm anywhere and I see a bhikkhu or a nun its like you know that these people live in a way that they require help. So that immediately triggers the response to help them. And it's so lovely to know how to help these people. You know, I will probably be the best kind of supporting lay person because I will know all the subtleties of what monks and nuns need and like!