Forest Sangha Newsletter July 1992

Suffering and the Way to Cessation; Ajahn Sumedho
Flowing with the Pain; Jody Higgs
Towards Simplicity; Sister Thanasanti
Washing Away the Blood; E. Bernstein, Y. Moser
Out in the Outback: Letter from Australia; Ven. Kovido
Life of Forest Monk (Pt IV); Luang Por Jun
Highland Retreat; Venerable Suriyo
Aspects of Training: A Universal Order; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:
Editorial: Ajahn Sucitto


Towards Simplicity

Sister Thanasanti, who has been experiencing the draining effects of ill health for the past couple of years, reflects on the use of monastic form as a support for waning energy.

Often we are encouraged to make use of whatever conditions are present and not to seek out special situations within which to cultivate mindfulness and awareness. While I appreciate this teaching, I also value the opportunity to renew and deepen insight that sustained meditation practice offers. I have noticed for myself that life becomes difficult when the present moment is no longer good enough, when satisfaction and contentment become some fantasies that are projected into the future. So as the time for the monastic retreat approached, I felt cautious about looking forward to it too much. I was a bit weary from the turmoil of the autumn and felt the need to emphasise awareness itself rather than the objects of mind. And still, I was reluctant to invest too much hope or expectation in the retreat.

During the retreat, the nuns' community was separated into two groups to look after the two elderly women who live here. One month was designated as a month of 'active care': cleaning their rooms, making daily visits, and assisting them in walking wherever they needed to go. The other month allowed for more uninterrupted times of formal practice. Initially, I didn't have much energy to collect and focus my mind but was happy to share a cup of tea and a bit of a chat with one of our elderly. I was quite willing to be a part of the first group involved in active caring.

So that is the way things started. At the beginning of the retreat, I knew intuitively that cultivating awareness of body and form would be helpful and so determined to keep things simple: to come as often as possible to the group meetings, listen to the teachings, do the walking meditations, and bow. I discovered that the beauty of bowing was that no matter what state of mind or how little energy I had, I could almost always bow. Even when my mind was rather dispersed, when thoughts and feelings seemed to merge into an amorphous blur and there was little energy for anything, I could still gather all of it under my wings, so to speak, and bow.

When the mind is more collected and aware, it becomes easier to contemplate Dhamma.

The schedule required that we come to meetings throughout the day. To respond to this form, I had to stop and change direction. A bell would ring, and I would have to stop whatever I was doing and go. A meeting would finish, and once again I had to disengage and go. It was an opportunity to put things down again and again and move on. The routine was a way of strengthening both the power of discrimination and the ability to let go.

The details of looking after our requisites also helped me to keep sharpening and focusing my mind. As a junior member of the community, I have a clay alms-bowl which I have to hold carefully when I wash it and move it about so that it doesn't drop and break. I also have to be very careful where I leave it to prevent someone else from accidentally knocking it over. Paying attention is a constant and necessary practice.

Once could compare the monastic form as it is embodied in the discipline of these daily routines and duties to the physical body. Both can be used as anchors around which awareness can gather and collect. The emphasis on physical experience grounds the attention and attunes it. When the mind is more collected and aware, it becomes easier to contemplate Dhamma. Soon enough, the simplicity of walking, sitting, looking after my robes, bowl and cup, and not talking so much was, for me, its own medicine. My system began to feel rejuvenated, more balanced, centred and energised.

With a bit more energy, I was better able to focus on the objects arising in my mind. One of my frequent objects of contemplation was an inner inferno of heat and pressure that had a tangible physical base and general location. This inferno was connected to a lot of thoughts and feelings, to the inner boss, the tyrant, the machine that manufactures views, the judgement generator. Attending to the physical experience of the inferno diffused the heat, the attachment in my mind, and the power of the associated thoughts and feelings. Contemplating in this way, the question would often arise: Where are the defilements? Where is the problem?

I also felt strengthened by Ajahn Sucitto's teachings. They were rich and insightful, filled with light and lightheartedness; it was a privilege to receive them. I noticed that the brilliance of the teaching was separate from my ability to open to and understand it. And I discovered that when I didn't understand what was being said during the desanas, relying on my intellect left me feeling disassociated from my heart. I found focusing on the experience of confusion much more helpful.

Throughout the year, all of the nuns look after the elderly women who live here. However, spending more concentrated time with them during the retreat taught me a great deal. Simply due to their age, they don't remember things so easily. Often, during the course of a morning, they would ask the same questions again and again. And yet each time I answered the question, it didn't matter that I had just said the same thing two minutes ago. The contact and the communication that was really transpiring had little to do with what was actually being said. Similarly, with the rooms: ultimately I wasn't there to clean and tidy. My practice was more to let the talking and cleaning be a way of communicating love and acceptance.

This way of communicating helped me to understand the issue of personal trust which I had been contemplating for some time. Usually, when I experience genuine personal trust, I am at ease and uninhibited to say what needs to be said. And this requires a certain spontaneity. Yet within the monastic form, we follow very clear guidelines about when it is suitable to speak with each other. We often refrain from casual conversation in order to enhance one-pointedness of mind and coolness of heart.

But when one is not feeling centred or self-confident, this silence can contribute to a sense of loneliness, alienation and even misunderstanding. Then the natural response can be a strong desire to talk to and connect with others. In fact, in the normal way of doing things, it is that engaging in casual conversation which oils the wheels of the communication machine.

Establishing personal trust doesn't seem to be a priority within the monastic form. But this is where the sustained contact with the elderly living here helped me see things differently. With them, the ability to communicate verbally is limited. And yet there is another type of communion that comes from accepting them just as they are, a trust that is born from letting go of expectations. This type of trust, stemming from a more unconditioned love, is of a different order. The monastic form rubs against more conventional ways of communicating, but encourages and allows for this ultimately more fulfilling contact.

One morning, I went out to the field just as the sun was first making its appearance. The night had been very foggy, and during the pre-dawn hours, the temperature had dipped below freezing. Drops from the fog had formed and then frozen. The sun illuminated a wondrous, jewelled landscape. Previously unseen spider webs suddenly became a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. The ice crystals created prisms, and miniature rainbows could be seen in each drop. Then, as the sun got warmer, the ice began to melt. The very same ingredients that gave rise to the experience were the cause for its transformation. This theme was reflected throughout retreat, both in the formal teachings and in what my heart revealed to me.

Perhaps the greatest reinforcement came after hearing of Luang Por Chah's death. We held a special memorial and meditation vigil for him, which was an occasion rich with opportunity to reflect on the significance of his life and teaching. Difficulties and turmoil may come, and yet the Dhamma and discipline continue. We are constantly guided and encouraged to deepen our understanding during difficult times and to use the monastic form skilfully - using it to understand the nature of form, its limitations and the way to transcend form in order to realise true freedom. What greater living memorial to Luang Por Chah's life can there be?

Now the winter retreat is over. It seems to have receded into the far-distant past as activity at Amaravati resumes its usual pace. I ask myself; what is left now? As I think of all the responsibilities we have to carry through the day and the number of people we interact with, my appreciation is for the simple things, the ability to use physical experience to stay centred, for instance. As much as possible, I try to walk when walking and sit when sitting, to look after my cup, bowl and robes and, at times, enjoy a cup of tea and chat with an elderly one.

And, oh yes, bowing. When I remember to really stop, drop everything and bow, then I tuck everything under my wings, so to speak, and just bow.