|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1992|
In the Deathless Land
When I was invited by Mother Anne to take a two month sabbatical, I had no doubt about where I would like to spend the time: at Amaravati Buddhist Centre, Great Gaddesden, a few miles from Hemel Hempstead. Nuns from Amaravati had visited us at Boxmoor and Fairacres and I knew from that contact and from their publications that I would have much to learn there, especially from the teaching of the abbot, Ajahn Sumedho. I wanted to let it be a real Sabbath, to allow some things to remain undone and attend to what is vital, life-giving. In this I looked to the long and highly developed Buddhist tradition of meditation as a guide to the art of paying attention. Two other factors encouraged me: Theravada Buddhism is non-theistic, reverently agnostic about ultimate answers of any kind, so I would not need to either defend or compromise my own position; and it is nothing if not monastic. I felt intuitively that I would be at home with their silence and their life-style, and this indeed proved to be the case.
If there is one word which sums up the teaching given at Amaravati it is 'mindfulness', the practice of attention to the present moment, awareness shorn of projections. This is not unlike the 'practice of the presence of God' associated with Brother Lawrence, or that clear-sightedness desired by Van Gogh who longed to see a cornfield merely, and marvellously, as a cornfield.
Mindfulness is a deceptively simple discipline. It is not dependent on particular techniques or conditions, nor confined to the time of formal meditation. It requires only enough hopeful faith not to be discouraged when the mind wanders off, gets bored, and bolts into the blue. Very often the breath, in its natural rhythm, is taken as the focus for attention. The very dullness of that makes one notice both how constantly the mind flits about and that what we perceive is itself changing. Perseverance bears fruit in direct insight into the nature of what is there and this gives rise to serenity. It is no longer necessary to be so anxious. It is possible to live at peace with oneself, and so to live wholeheartedly. Mindfulness is as much a matter of the heart as the mind and, I was told, 'the whole practice takes place within the body.'
Buddhism, skilfully used, punctures the illusion that the universe revolves around me, and so calls a halt to ego-centric demands and all our consequent discontent.
|I did have some misgivings about attempting to come to any understanding of Buddhism outside of its native culture: could it be 'the real thing' in the buildings of a former school in the home counties, where most of the monks and nuns are Westerners? Yet in a bare two months I could not have hoped to appreciate the meaning of life and ethos I was sharing in, had it not already been subject to a considerable process of translation. The complexities of that process are witnessed by the varying fortunes of the English Sangha Trust, which has been trying to facilitate Buddhist monastic life in Britain since the 1950s. At Amaravati now there is a sense of purpose and stability, undiminished by recent disrobings, and it is striking how people from Buddhist countries as well as Westerners feel at home there. Members of the Thai, Sri Lankan and Cambodian communities from London come regularly to offer the meal and to practise because they feel that it is their monastery. While I was there, a Thai couple came for a blessing of their marriage and whole families came for blessing or to 'take the Precepts'. For my part, I soon learned to be at ease with oriental customs, to take off my sandals on coming indoors, to sit on the floor, to join my hands in a gesture of greeting, and to appreciate the graceful simplicity of the traditional robes and shaved heads of the monks and nuns. But, more important, I learned that Buddhist experience is not foreign to me and that a meadow ringed with oak trees is as good a place as a Thai jungle for meditating on impermanence.|
I arrived at the beginning of September and the onset of three charmed weeks of unbroken sunshine. We were woken each morning at 4 a.m. by gentle strokes on a Burmese bell (a flat bell-shaped gong) and I went across to the meditation hall while it was still dark, the sky pricked by Orion, with Venus low on the horizon. I came to relish the sight of the sunrise and the sunset and the sense of wholeness which comes from witnessing the beginning and ending of each day. Because the monastery's weekly 'observance day' is determined by the phases of the moon, I also found myself using that ancient 'clock': I looked with wonder at the thin sickle which defines the dark side of the moon for us, and stood spellbound on clear nights when she was ringed with rainbows, or on windy nights when she seemed to run wild in a private heaven, rushing clouds in her wake. Then one morning the whole hilltop was thick in mist, and the sun, when it did appear, could have been the full moon, white and ghostly behind the black jaunty figure of the Buddha in the courtyard intent on walking meditation. When the mist cleared, every shrub and hedgerow was festooned with shining wheels, cobwebs, which by mid-afternoon were in tatters, flying like streamers in the grass.
|Not to see clearly that birth leads inevitably to death is a recipe for unhappiness - we cling to what is transitory and feel aggrieved when nature is simply taking its course. So at Amaravati we were encouraged to notice beginnings and endings and how we ourselves are part of nature, subject to arising and ceasing: each breath, each footstep, all that is received by our senses, all our complicated responses, will in time go as they have come. In the romantic poets, how often this realisation gives rise to melancholy: elegies and laments, at best Keats glutting his sorrow on the morning rose whose beauty will fade before the day is out. Not so in Buddhism where, skilfully used, it punctures the illusion that the universe revolves around me, and so calls a halt to ego-centric demands and all our consequent discontent. It offers the possibility of disentangling ourselves from webs of our own making and opens up another way, the religious way of going beyond. And this, as one of the nuns commented, is achieved not by floating off and ignoring the world in which we live but by penetrating to the heart of it.|
Amaravati belongs to the southern Buddhist tradition which traces its lineage back 2,535 years to the Buddha himself. The name Theravada means 'elder way' and the fact that the monastic order (the Sangha) was founded by the Buddha gives his authority to the code of discipline followed by the monks. This is called the Patimokkha and consists of 227 rules of conduct. It is recited aloud (it takes about forty minutes) every two weeks on the full and new moon observance days. It would be almost unthinkable to change it and, in the Theravada school, certainly every effort is made to keep to it in both letter and spirit. Questions of interpretation are decided by the abbot or the Sangha, not by the individual. The point is not that the form is ideal, but that it is the given and serves the purpose of enabling the bhikkhus (monks) to practise and realise the teachings of the Buddha in a comprehensive way.
The teaching of the Buddha is summed up in the word Dhamma, 'the way it is', and the way to practise Dhamma is to pay attention, 'mindfulness'. So alongside respect for tradition and commitment to it, there is another and essential element characteristic of the Buddhist quest for enlightenment: go to your own direct experience. The monks and nuns are asked both to 'surrender to the form' and to 'believe your teacher only fifty percent'. Investigate, find out for yourself.
|At Amaravati there is also an important area in which the Sangha itself, under the guidance of Ajahn Sumedho, is experimenting. The Buddha in his life-time, and under pressure from his female relatives, did found an order of nuns as well as an order of monks, but the Bhikkhuni Order survived for only about a thousand years. In Theravada Buddhist countries it is the Bhikkhu Sangha which alone carries the tradition and is the third object of refuge for Buddhists. If there are nuns, they are in a very inferior position, hardly more than servants to the bhikkhus, and not permitted to ordain fully. But there is now a considerable Buddhist community in the West and naturally there are women who want to undertake the Holy Life in its fullness.|
In 1979 Chithurst Monastery was opened with the 'Nuns' Cottage' on the grounds, and in 1985 Amaravati was opened as a monastic centre for both monks and nuns. Sister Thanasanti 'went forth' as a nun near the beginning of my stay and there are now ten nuns, committed to the Ten Precepts as the basis of the Holy Life. However, they do not follow the Patimokkha and are not on an equal footing with the monks. Ajahn Sumedho commented on the experiment: 'It works well, but it is under fire from both sides - the conservatives in Thailand who say it goes too far, and feminists who want the nuns to be on equal terms with the Bhikkhu Sangha.' I was impressed by the attitude of one of the first nuns who embarked on monastic life about twelve years ago now; she said, 'When people ask me about the Bhikkhuni Order, I reply that I don't know, and that is very peaceful. I did not come to the monastic order to become anything anyway, so it is not a problem. To be free is what is important. It is not important to become somebody, becoming is suffering.'
What the nuns are doing is a striking instance of the daily practice at Amaravati: discerning and continuing to honour the essentials of a venerable tradition while living in a modern (and non-oriental) culture.
The shaved head and almsbowl, traditional signs of Buddhist monasticism, symbolise renunciation and mendicancy and therefore another subtle balance in the life of the monks and nuns: they have left the world, or, as they proclaim it daily in the morning, have 'gone forth from home to homelessness', and yet must have daily contact with people in the lay Buddhist life on whom they depend for food and the basic necessities of life. They renounce everything in order to receive everything as a gift. When there is the possibility of a new monastery being opened (plans are afoot to do this in California) the first question to be asked is, 'Is there a Buddhist lay community of sufficient size, interested and committed enough to give on-going support?' Lay people who come to the monastery are regarded not as visitors so much as participants with an essential role in its life, whether they put food in the almsbowls, prepare it, or give of their time, skills and energy in helping to maintain the monastery in other ways. They come in great numbers and with great generosity, and the interaction in giving and receiving builds up a very strong natural relationship. The traditional way in which the monks and nuns repay their benefactors is by giving Dhamma teaching, by talks, but also by the witness of 'living blamelessly', simply being what they are meant to be.
Such interdependence extends beyond human and social relations, making a Buddhist community naturally sympathetic to environmental and ecological concerns. The first of the Five Precepts, undertaken by all who seek to follow the Buddhist way, is to refrain from taking life, which is often interpreted in the more searching and subtle form of harmlessness towards all living things. It is stressed that sila, morality, is essential for peace of mind as it is the basis for living at ease with oneself and one's environment. If you live innocently you will be less fearful, and the effect of living well over a period of time is a sense of personal well-being. I certainly experienced Amaravati as a place where I could safely 'let go' because I knew no-one was going to do me any harm. It was salutary to realise that that in itself constitutes quite a special experience in today's world. And I noticed, during the ten-day meditation retreat for lay people in which I took part, how our faces changed as defensive energy was withdrawn from them and we became vulnerable. It was like entering a strange land or returning to childhood. I began to see such quiet virtues as modesty, moderation, patience, and the restraints of the Holy Life in their true colours. Victorian moralism spoilt them for us, obscuring their inherent attractiveness; there is buoyancy and energy there just waiting to be recovered.
Amaravati means 'the deathless land' and what I have said about it may have given the impression that it is heaven, or at least a temporary sanctuary from stress, conflict and the confusion of daily life. It is true that there is a peace there, as there is at Fairacres and in many Christian monasteries, but there is no escape from the contrariness and difficulties of life.
One of the most striking and helpful features of Ajahn Sumedho's teaching, following that of the Buddha, is that it is precisely these things which are our real teachers. 'Are you frustrated, irritated, riled?' (and monastic life there, as here, gives plenty of occasion for it) '... well, go to it, investigate it, watch your mind!' Difficulties are not to be glossed over or repressed, nor is the monastery meant to provide idyllic conditions in which there are no difficulties. Difficulties confront us with 'suffering', not necessarily in acute form, just the commonplace discomforts which make us wish things were different, and so give us an opportunity to understand it. To study the unsatisfactoriness that impinges on us is already to become a little distanced from it - to be in a position to distinguish whatever pain there is from what the heart makes of it. And this will be a valuable skill when suffering, in the more usual sense of the word, overtakes us. Like the Buddha, we may come to see that what we feel is determined less by circumstances, even the most truly painful and tragic of them, than by the insistence of our contrary desires. This is what the Four Noble Truths indicate, saying to us, if we will listen, 'Look, haven't you noticed what is going on?'
We are not going to be able either to avoid suffering or, necessarily, change the processes of the heart, least of all by adding yet another desire to those at work within us. But we can become compassionately aware of our drives and longings, and learn to bear with them without identifying with them or acting on them. We can learn to give time to the heart and its processes; we can wait and allow stillness to arise.
Jesus asks his disciples to watch and to stand as well as to pray. Did he mean something like the watchfulness which is practised in meditation? Are Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation, in some forms, like each other, or even the same?
In my experience, each time of meditation, each time of prayer, is different, so I am loathe to make generalisations. But what I did discover at Amaravati is that the obstacles and hindrances which Buddhists and Christians encounter are the same. Anyone who has seriously tried to pray will recognise those on the Buddhist checklist: wanting something, not wanting something, sloth/torpor (cf. accidie), restlessness and doubt. And the mortal enemies, what Buddhists call 'the defilements of the mind', are all too familiar as well, though we may not be good at naming them: greed, hatred and delusion. So there is a sense in which the task confronting us is the same and all one can do each time is 'kneel down', or sit, 'and hope for the best'. As it is easy to delude oneself and go astray, I asked Ajahn Sumedho how could I know if what I am doing is sound, how to judge my own practice. He said, 'Patience. Are you becoming more patient with the hindrances?'
Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho's teacher in Thailand, was asked, 'What is it like to be enlightened?' He replied, 'Have you ever eaten a banana? You put it in your mouth and eat it! Well, that's it!' He might have given the question about prayer and meditation similar treatment. Somewhere in such immediacy, and within the range of that word like, there is the opening prospect of long dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, holding the tension between continuity and discontinuity, sameness and difference.
So what is it like? It is like watching over a sleeping child, or someone whom I love very much, or someone who is ill and dependent on me. Full of love and tenderness, I read her body as she stirs, and follow her every breath, noting the slightest change, wholly at her service. She is oblivious, she is simply there. I could stay with her like this for ever. Sometimes meditation is like that, perfectly combining uncertainty and contentment, rest and alertness.