Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1993

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:


The Rains Retreat - First Rains

The Rains Retreat, or Vassa, is a three month period during which time monks and nuns reside in one monastery. It is a time for quiet and reflection on the rhythms of spiritual life, the good work done, both inner and outer, and the cumulative effects of that work in nourishing one on the path ahead.

Ven. Sunnato was one of the six men who were accepted into the Bhikkhu Sangha at Cittaviveka (Chithurst) this year. Here he reflects on his first three months as a bhikkhu.

They say that in a moment of impending doom, just before the axe falls, your entire life will flash before your eyes. A similar thing happened to me on the day of my ordination as a monk.

So much was happening, on Chithurst grounds and in my mind. There was a sense of rightness to it all, that what had been my preoccupation for most of my life was to become my occupation. The urge to spiritual growth which had kept me from remaining in countless jobs and relationships was to be my basis for living during the next five years.

The mind flashed through pages of personal history in moments between the preliminary requests. What had often seemed to be a threadless sequence of adventures through almost all the possible sectors of North American society now was an obvious journey to this one moment.

You might expect that after forty-one years of living, often in some very jaded parts of the world, there would not be much childlike enthusiasm remaining for anything, but not true. For a few weeks following the ordination I leapt from bed each early morning, filled with delight. Spiritual truths that, for years, I had struggled so ardently to discover in lay life were being dished out left and right; in conversation at morning gruel, in books of chants, instructions to new monks, and in evening Dhamma talks. I was 'a kid in a candy store'. The completeness of the Buddha's teaching which had revealed itself through Ruth Denison's* skill in a somewhat unorthodox fashion was now, lump sum, placed in my lap in the very orthodox form of a forest monk's training. I knew the 'honeymoon' wouldn't last but decided to enjoy it while it did.

There is a sense of finally living sanely in a world gone mad.

It seems precious that I've arrived at a time of community renewal and recommitment. A number of changes in the last year have forced the monks and nuns to seriously examine their chosen futures, so this becomes a time of refocusing and gathering on spiritual themes.

Chithurst is under new leadership and it's a direction I can appreciate and trust. As Ajahn Sucitto assumed the position of senior monk, he offered us the opportunity to gather as a community in formal practice, with long periods of meditation throughout the Vassa as well as two weeks of solitude in the forest. I was a little nervous that the good fortune was lasting so long and began to wonder when it would end.

During this time, some of the jewels of monastic life shine through. I enjoy my companions very much, the varied temperaments, approaches, and skills of people from around the world. Here I can talk to others about subjects like impermanence without watching their eyes dart nervously as truth gets closer, or without feeling as though they would rather talk about their new couch. Even in lay Dhamma centres where interest is strong, the main focus is often on how to use Dhamma to make life more palatable and not on what unhealthy behaviour patterns one may have to relinquish.

There is a sense of finally living sanely in a world gone mad. The crudely sensual appeal of a Los Angeles advertising hoarding is hardly conducive to the establishment of peace of mind and in that setting the word 'serenity' becomes the name of a car instead of a human possibility. Here in the monastery there is a sense of supporting life on many different levels. The moral standard that I am asked to live by does not allow sinking into old habits for false security. My psychological 'homes' are taken away as never before. My own previous attempts at this were strong but not to the constancy and detail of this tradition. I've found myself wondering why I had not been ordained sooner, but it's a foolish question. Lessons learned have been hard-won and they allow me to accept this training now.

Has the honeymoon ended? Yes, it happened about 3 o'clock on the afternoon of August 25 when a small voice whispered, 'This is for five years,' and another shouted 'Celibate?!! I thought they said celebrate!' The memory banks spewed forth the song stylings of Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, and James Taylor. They even threw in that Louis Armstrong piece, 'What a Wonderful World'. The emotions plummeted for a day or two, demanding foundation on firmer soil. I've had a growing appreciation for our one meal a day - or should I say expectation? - and the tedium of monastic life is now surfacing. Gone are the fireworks of newness, as they always have. Boredom will be one of my companions, and restlessness another.

Who can say what lies ahead. The underlying joy of spiritual life, as I've experienced it, is the freedom to face this unknown moment and the unknown future with grace and strength, the grace of quiet acceptance and the profound strength of understanding. Many religions present descriptions of their goals and processes and they can seem quite wondrous but I've never found any offering as beautiful as the Buddha's Ovada Patimokkha. It urges living simply, restrained in needs; being kind, patient, and supportive in thoughts, words and actions; and purifying the mind (ultimately by accepting and investigating life as it is). Spiritual 'bells' seldom ring as true. The sheer ordinariness of it is its power; with this attitude of living, I've come to know a release from life's confusions and constrictions.

Some spend their entire lives as monastics and I don't know whether I am one of them. But I do know that this life of a monk allows me to move wholeheartedly into the only way of living that has ever made sense to me. I am fortunate that such a situation exists. Right now I have only one problem. How does that old Bill Evans - Toots Thieleman tune go? The one that makes you feel like you are sitting in a Parisian café ... Oh well, never mind! I can let it go.

* Venerable Sunnato was for ten years a student of meditation teacher Ruth Denison at her centre in the Southern Californian desert.