|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1992|
One of the occasional irritations to life at Amaravati is the unwanted attention of disaffected youths who come into the monastery, generally at night, break into the letter box, try to force their way into the office, or get up to some other mischief. One year, the very night before Wesak, a group drove in and pushed over the statue of the standing Buddha in the courtyard, causing it some damage. I remember registering my indignation to Ajahn Sumedho, who simply replied: 'Wanting the world to be other than it is, is suffering.'
That's the response in terms of attitude: in mundane terms it means more attention, and people staying up at night to patrol the grounds. And it's true - once you've let go of the notion that it shouldn't be this way, it's not suffering and there are some good results that come out of that. For instance, on a night patrol one has the opportunity to be quiet and practise on one's own with very few disturbances. And you are caused to reflect on aspects of the human realm - the bored nonsensical violence of it - that you forget about in a monastery. You wonder why people behave in such ways: perhaps it's through having no prospects for employment, or living according to repetitive routines, feeling personally insignificant, having nothing to look forward to ... short of cash ... in fact, just those conditions that define the status of monks and nuns in worldly terms.
When the sensory perks run out, or the social reassurances of position or relationships fail to come through or the possibilities of advancement dry up, people glimpse the black hole at the centre of the personality's realm. Everyone half realises it's there, but the responses differ - some, through effort and fortune, stave off the eventual dissolution of the self with occupation and preoccupation, many dip in and out of moods of boredom and pointlessness, some become violent or nihilistic to the point of suicide ... and a few learn to let go into that void.
For a mendicant, the bowl entails renunciation. It is not a begging bowl for the simple reason that one is not allowed to beg. It is a receiving bowl...
A samana's lifestyle is ideal for those who wish to try the last option: it places them at the edge of that black hole with a teaching and a training in letting go. Letting go, of course, if more than a matter of lifestyle, and the insightful teaching of the Buddha presents a way of selflessness that can be practised by householders. Yet, as a symbol, the Buddha walks in the human realm with an alms bowl because the bowl presents the occasion for all of us to abandon self-interest.
For a mendicant, the bowl entails renunciation. It is not a begging bowl for the simple reason that one is not allowed to beg. It is a receiving bowl in which one may, and in fact is obliged to, receive what people wish to give. Having no food is one thing, being passive about that state entails a further letting go, and the practice of publicly demonstrating one's helplessness takes the humility a step further. We don't like to feel helpless; we don't want to hand over the power of our survival to persons unknown and to the will of fortune. So the renunciation in living from an alms bowl is more than not having money and possessions - it is a giving up of much of the power and control that establishes our personality.
For those who offer, the bowl is a symbol of generosity not based on personal affection, but on respect for the spiritual path. A donor can give one spoonful of rice and have the happiness of wholesome action through something quite humble and ordinary; the uplift of generosity is that something from ourselves is received with respect. It's worth considering with what little attention and respect most of what we bring forth in terms of body, speech and mind is received - even by ourselves. A lot of life is dismissed or attended to in a grudging perfunctory way; or tremendous expectations are made about what life should be giving us. But to give from oneself in a situation which doesn't demand that one's offerings be fantastic is a very precious possibility. In that, we can let go of our desire to have things for ourself or to impress others with what we offer.
In the giving and in the receiving there can be a selfless communion which is intimate and yet does not entail personal attachment. When giving and receiving are experienced as the same, the separative existence stops. A soaring of the spirit replaces the normal gravity that connects consciousness to birth and death; instead of evoking violent spasms of despair and denial, that self-emptiness can fill us more wonderfully and boundlessly than any happiness.
So to receive it all graciously, even the disappointment and pointlessness as you stump around the monastery on a cold night; to take what comes and make use of that; to be prepared to relate to life on its own terms rather than from the personal view of how things should be - there's the lesson of the alms bowl! It is the way out of suffering in the ambivalent human realm where, although we aspire for the best, we still have to witness the frustration of our attempts to make things go well.
Asalha Puja - July 14th
Bhikkhus in California.
Vassa - The 'Rains Retreat'