|Forest Sangha Newsletter||Julyy 1997|
While, broadly speaking, the focus in the April newsletter was meditation, in this issue it is clearly relationship: the benefits, difficulties, sadnesses and the understanding of relationship in the context of spiritual practice.
Entering into community or embarking on life in relationship may, for some, appear to be the answer to all life's problems. There is that phrase from fairy tales: 'They got married, and lived happily ever after'... or, a more cynical version: 'They got married and lived un happily ever after'. However, instead of either endorsing or dismissing any such formalised relationship, it seems that what is needed is a reappraisal of our attitude to it. Are we entering into it to get something, or to maintain what we have or think ourselves to be? Or is the action one of giving ourselves, and being transformed by the experience?
I imagine that most people would assume that the idea of giving and transformation would be the 'right' answer and it certainly has an appealing ring to it. It's the answer that I would give in regard to my commitment to Sangha; but almost 18 years have shown me that often, in spite of all our noble aspirations, what is actually going on accords more closely with a subtle clinging to a sense of 'self' identity. Although we love the idea of transformation, the actual experience of the process is another matter; in fact, there are times when we find ourselves adopting almost any strategy to avoid it!
Through meditation, we become aware of the hindrances and, in the process of their abandonment, we come to a clearer understanding of what 'me' actually is.
Significant events such as the Going Forth, formally entering into a
relationship, or giving birth to a child represent the culmination of a
process, but we also need to remember that they are actually a beginning. It
is more like the image of preparing to set out on the journey putting our
feet onto the path than of finally arriving at our destination.
As the Sangha of Western monks and nuns settles into Western culture, there has been a need for us to reevaluate some of our accepted norms of behaviour, particularly in regard to the hierarchical structure. During this process I have found it helpful to look at the basic principles of training that the Buddha established and some of the guidelines he gave for living in community.*
Majjhima Nikaya Suttas 125+15, Anguttara Nikaya Book of Tens Ch V. 44
Underpinning everything is the need for good friends (kalyanamitta); a relationship with a teacher or spiritual companions, from whom the initial inspiration may come, and who can provide guidance through their teaching and example. So we enter the relationship.
Next comes the training: the curbing of our selfish and heedless habits. It can get pretty uncomfortable at this stage, but the Buddha, likening it to the training of a royal elephant, said that at this stage the trainer speaks kindly and gently, and rewards appropriate behaviour. (Is that something we remember to do for ourselves? Sometimes we can be excessively harsh.)...
Next, comes restraint: 'guarding the doors of the senses'; and then moderation in eating, wakefulness, mindfulness and full awareness. We notice the interplay between the external (what we call 'the world') and the internal how we interpret the messages we receive; this in turn determines our response. Through meditation, we become aware of the hindrances and, in the process of their abandonment, we come to a clearer understanding of what 'me' actually is. We begin to see the stress, or dukkha, that is involved in maintaining that sense of being 'somebody' in relation to other 'somebodies'.
There are also guidelines for offering and receiving admonishment or guidance. Firstly, we should make sure that we understand the training and are practising correctly ourselves. The Buddha goes on to suggest that we find a suitable time and place; that we speak gently; and with real kindness (not while we are still angry or upset); that we speak according to what we know to be true; and say what is helpful... Then, receiving correction, we need humility, honesty and kindness. There is also a kind of courage that enables us to actually feel the pain or the indignation, to allow it to be right there, so that we can learn what we need to learn, pick ourselves up and begin again. Having done that fully, we can then feel the arising of joy and gratitude.
So there are many lessons that we can learn through relationship, if we are willing to take an interest in 'difficulties' or 'problems' as they arise; to be curious about their origin and, through understanding that, help them to cessation.
Finally, on a very different note, Venerable Kusalo, who for the past five years has faithfully translated a mass of Dhamma teachings and other useful information into the form of this newsletter, has had to 'retire' owing to the pressure of other commitments within the Sangha. Tavaro (Robert Brown) has kindly offered to have a go as his successor so, hopefully, Venerable Kusalo's disappearance will be a barely perceptible phenomenon. Also, in November this year, I will be taking about four months to go on pilgrimage to the Buddhist Holy Places in India; and fortunately, Ajahn Sucitto has undertaken to fulfil the role of editor during that time. It's important to be dispensable... and I can see further good lessons in this very situation about appreciating one another but without attachment!
May all beings realise Nibbana.