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 - Ten 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.

Sister Candasiri was one of the first four siladhara (ten-precept nun or 'one who upholds virtue'), given the Going Forth in 1983 by Ajahn Sumedho. Here she shares her reflections on this auspicious marker in her monastic life.

Today, I feel good about saying I have been in the community for 13 years and that this is my tenth Vassa as a siladhara. Six months ago, while on a brief retreat in the forest here at Chithurst, I felt differently; I wished that I could somehow alter those numbers. There was a strong inclination to lie about my age in the Holy Life as it seemed that, after all this time, I should surely be a lot holier, wiser, better at meditating, better at teaching, more disciplined than I was!... However, things change, and now it doesn't seem to matter at all. I can see that in this life there is no need to concern ourselves with our level of attainment, or to compare ourselves with others. True joy arises when we can live simply moment by moment, year by year, making a humble offering from the heart of all that one is - warts, pimples and all. The slight sense of apprehension at the prospect of Vassa has not much diminished with the passing years. Whereas, 'winter retreat' means, 'quiet time, chance to meditate', 'Vassa' conjures up a sense of hardship and striving which is not so appealing. At the start, 3 months seems like a very long time; by the end, one wonders where the time has gone. As with everything, the idea or anticipation has very little to do with actual experience. One anticipates; then there is the ceremony in which we each make a formal statement of intent to remain within the monastery for three months (quite painless) - and the form of Vassa is there to take up and use.

The nuns' community here at Chithurst has been very tiny, with two siladhara and three anagarikas, in relation to the monks' community of about twenty bhikkhus and anagarikas. We have been grateful for the precedent set over recent years of a considerable degree of autonomy - with morning pujas, most evening pujas, Dhamma discussions and Vinaya classes being held at Aloka cottage. This has done much to soften the impression which strict adherence to garudhammas might have created, both in the minds of the nuns themselves and of people associated with the community. The eight garudhammas (important observances) which, according to tradition, were established by the Buddha as a condition for the Going Forth of the first nun, define a relationship of dependency between the nuns and Bhikkhu Sangha. The first of these is that: 'Any nun, even if she has been ordained for a hundred years, must pay homage to, get up for, reverentially salute and respectfully greet any bhikkhu - even one admitted to the community that very day.'

The mendicant life-style of a nun may seem austere in the extreme to comfortably-off people in Western society, but I felt that I was living like a princess.

This, outrageous as it may appear in the eyes of modern society, has actually presented one of the most insightful challenges for me in monastic life. For example: I could see a certain inner reaction when, on the morning after the bhikkhu ordination, another six bhikkhus along with other monks arriving to reside for the Vassa, took their places in front of me in the meal time queue; and I could barely endure the seemingly endless wait for the youngest monk to begin eating, before the nuns could start their meal. One can sense, and sometimes feel the dignity and grace of really not minding, but at times it can seem like a totally humiliating experience - how can one feel so outraged by something so trivial in ultimate terms?!... But that's what we're here for; to see that rage, to understand those plaintive voices of 'self' still hanging on in there, and then gently and patiently allow them to die away.

A short stay in the forest provided an opportunity for further reflection on the use of food. There was tremendous gratitude for the meal which each day sustains us in this life. There was also a slight sense of shame; it seemed so gross and unpleasant to complain about details of form, or the quality or quantity of the food offered, when so many people in the world are starving.

The mendicant life-style of a nun may seem austere in the extreme to comfortably-off people in Western society, but I felt that I was living like a princess. I stayed in a little hut (5'6" x 7'), which contained all that I needed: adequate clothing (including gum boots and a huge waterproof cape), umbrella, hot water bottle, thermos flask, mug - and an almsbowl, which each day would be filled. I had a shrine there too. For the first week there was a Buddha rupa, candles, incense, a small vase of flowers, and pictures of Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Chah. Then I remembered that after Luang Por Chah's death, I had been given several photographs of the body. I had put these away in a drawer. Now, I knew that it was time to find them and put them on the shrine....What was it about them that made me not want to have them there, not want to look at them - whereas I found the other pictures so attractive? So they came out, and for the remaining days I was able to contemplate the quality of death.... There is still much, in this life, to be done!

Walking in the forest, I'd notice the newly planted trees - mostly growing strong and healthy, but every now and then I'd find one in trouble, leaning over at a peculiar angle or with the bark nibbled by deer. I was glad that I could perform a minor rescue operation: finding a new stake and pushing it well down into the soil to support the ailing tree.

The Vinaya classes held two or three times a week, and adapted to suit the needs of the anagarikas in training, gave a wonderful incentive to delve into the Vinaya Pitaka (books on discipline). With less material to cover than would be the case for bhikkhus or siladhara, we were able to linger more on the stories behind many of the rules which were laid down during the lifetime of the Buddha. The extraordinary range of mistakes, misunderstandings and downright stubbornness, which the Buddha had to deal with among his disciples, made one marvel at his skill and patience in guiding the community. Although at times one might be depressed or feel dismay at the misdeeds of those monks and nuns, I personally found it strangely encouraging; somehow the whole life became much more accessible. One comes to appreciate that, while there were many enlightened disciples, the majority were people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and who had differing levels of ability and understanding. They lived, breathed and experienced difficulties much as we do today.

As a community, the nuns and anagarikas have also spent time each week looking into aspects of Dhamma. There was a feeling of uncertainty at the outset, as it was not something that we had had much experience of; however, it seemed very clear that the only way to gain experience was to make the effort to do it. So we did. Our theme for the Vassa was the Paramitas, and we took turns to present our ideas and readings from relevant suttas on one of these perfections. It seems that such Dhamma discussion works best when we let go of the idea of having to give a 'grand performance' - a simple offering is enough to stimulate the minds and hearts of those listening. Each week we were nourished by seeds of reflection which were carried into all we did.

Perhaps the nicest thing about this Vassa has been the growing sense of ease and appreciation at watching and learning from others. The sense that one should be the best, know the most - just by virtue of one's age - is lessening. I smile inwardly as I listen while those 'younger' explain points of practice, and I eagerly gather up crumbs of Dhamma which they let fall. The pleasure of mudita (sympathetic joy) is surprising and contrasts sharply with the more familiar cramped defensiveness which one's misguided expectations have engendered over the years.

It seems that we in the West still have much to learn about the use of form and hierarchy. It is not like a nine-to-five job in which we assume a role just for that period of time; for us, 'monk', 'nun', 'senior' or 'junior' is there all the time. We can bind ourselves stiffly into such an identity, or we can see that the structure is there to help us be fully human. It was established by the Buddha for the welfare of all; to encourage beautiful, harmonious and respectful speech and behaviour, and to provide a framework within which understanding can grow. If we look closely at our conditioned responses - the fear of losing some position, or of being exploited or controlled by some power-hungry authority figure - we can begin to let them go. We can see our position, whatever it is, as a chance to serve and to encourage and respect the aspiration towards freedom, wherever it may arise.

I like to think of Venerable Anuruddha, when he was asked by the Buddha how it was that he and his companions were able to spend a Vassa 'living in concord, as friendly and undisputing as milk and water.' His response was, 'I think that is gain and good fortune for me that I am living with such companions in the Holy Life. I maintain acts and words and thoughts of loving kindness towards those venerable ones both in public and in private.... We are different in body, but only one in mind.'