Forest SanghaNewsletter July 1997

Spiritual Friendship; Ajahn Amaro
Regret and Well Being; Ajahn Munindo
The Joy Hidden in Sorrow; Sister Medhanandi
Commitment to Practice in a Non Monastic Environment; Ajahn Santacitto
New Year in Italy; Ajahn Sucitto
Lessons in Living; Ajahn Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Commitment to Practice in a Non Monastic Environment
Ajahn Santacitto left the monastic Sangha some three years ago. Sincethen, as Stephen Saslav, he has been continuing his practice within thecontext of relationship. Here he offers some of his own reflections on thetrials and blessings in the 'real world'.

For most disrobing monastics, as for most lay practitioners, connecting with'good friends' can be a major issue in the 'real world'. After tasting someof the challenges of practice in a non monastic environment, I find that Itreasure the blessings of good friends (kalyanamitta) and spiritual family(sangha) all the more.

As a young monastic, I used to find Ajahn Chah's example of meetingall 'with eyes like a babe' incredibly inspiring. Later, when teaching, Iwould sometimes put forth perhaps a bit glibly the challenging suggestionthat, through empathetic appreciation (mudita), there are aspects of a 'goodfriend' to be discovered within everyone we meet. Although I am now blessedto have a partner who is a good friend, the biggest challenge of this time oftransition has been to remember to re member with the good folk of this 'realworld' just to keep offering warmth and friendliness without being lulledinto insensitivity, amidst what feels sometimes like an onslaught of tritepoliteness and trivia. I have been chastened by finding that the simpleverbal monastic answer that I used to give is not in itself the easy solution.

Talking with other lay practitioners at Amaravati who have expresseda similar weariness with the triviality of 'normal' social interaction, Ifind that we share much enthusiasm for the development of upasika communitygatherings. They can provide an opportunity for offering the support andencouragement that nourishes and enheartens the practice of day to day humanrelationships. Of course, open hearted acceptance and empathetic appreciation(metta and mudita) may not come easily even towards the people we meetregularly, say, in a meditation group. It is important to remember then thatour meeting is in the spirit of Sangha; that we can show respect and supportfor each other's commitment to practice, just as with those in robes. When wemeet in this way, it allows each of the brahmaviharas* to grow more easily.As the Dalai Lama has said: 'Most important of all is that we respect eachother, and learn from each other those things that enrich our practice.'Within the containment of a monastic community, difficult personal chemistryamong people who would not normally choose to live together sometimes createsa kind of pressure cooker effect; it is then inspiring to see the deepeningmaturity that can evolve from the practice of rising up, and letting 'self'be cooked.

*The Brahmaviharas the Divine Abidings:
metta -- loving kindness,
karuna -- compassion,
mudita -- appreciative joy
upekka -- equanimity.
Without the support of good friends, worldly influences can easily pull usdown into an ocean of boundless opportunities for boundless mediocrity.

Though pressure cookers are not hard to find outside the monastery, they maybe leaky and malfunction. In an environment influenced by social mores whichrather than awakening and maturing urgency entice and habituate us to let offsteam unskilfully we can continually distract ourselves, escaping into thecomfort of food, drink, or entertainments of one kind or another. Without thesupport of good friends, worldly influences can easily pull us down into anocean of boundless opportunities for boundless mediocrity. The monasteryitself provides a peaceful environment and the company of good friends, andthese can empower us so that we are not dragged down by this stream ofworldliness. Of course this is enhanced by the intention, while there, to putaside worldly responsibilities and favoured distractions.

This laying aside is certainly far more challenging amidst thedemands and comforts of home, and so I have found that it has been importantto reflect on some of the things that support practice. The highest priorityhas been to trust the instinctual 'call of the heart' to find (or make!) timeregularly to develop and maintain my practice. I used any technique thatwould enable me to be well centred and to see clearly; first of all,'reflective walking', only later, sitting. The need to return to a solid baseof calm and clarity is probably best met by developing a framework ofroutine; for example having regular pujas, meditation etc. Another thing thatI have found helpful during this time of transition has been having thepractical needs of another to be caring for.

Since it's not so easy to practice at home, even when there may betime available, we can use such ritual as a supporting framework, both toevaluate what works best for us and to maintain the vitality of our practiceand make it more personal. One example of this is after puja to bow to theTriple Gem or 'Good Friend' within each other. While keeping the EightPrecepts on the Observance Days may be a bit much for most home or worksituations, we can at least experiment with a day, or part of a day, ofpractice. As well as meditating, we can make time for reading, listening,reflection; or maybe we need to consider a practical problem, for example:'What should we do about those slugs?...' I have found that practising likethis, it can be very refreshing to be free from the usual distractions,possibly even considering 'noble silence' for some hours as well. But it doeshelp to explain to family and friends what one is doing, in order to avoidseeming antisocial or just plain weird!

Through having a solid base of practice that we can return to when weslip up, we can see clearly our habitual tendencies towards distraction andalso the consequences of such behaviour. The monastic training has beenimmeasurably helpful in this, for basically what is needed is to trustactively in the heart's intuitive 'stop' signs and to hold the reins firmlyand kindly. Through repeated, honest reflection on the results of ourchoices, the maturation of simplicity of living, and its accompanying ease,can be realised. The deepening of understanding in regard to such issues canbe enhanced through making use of those times when our clearest reflectionstend to arise; perhaps after meditation, on rising early, or while bathing.This process can also be helped to evolve by succinctly recording newinsights on what worked in practice on tape or paper. But whatever the wayswe take on the worthy path of practising at home or in society, it's good toremember that in the absence of conditions that will truly benefit us, ourpractice deserves all the support we can give it. It is so important that thestrength of our practice is deconditioning the power of samsara, and not theother way round.
Within a non monastic environment, our relationship with good friends is acrucial support for this deconditioning process. Our paths meet to varyingdegrees; this is particularly relevant when we aspire towards the blessing ofa partnership in practice. We can see how the wish to live closely and sharepractice can come partly from some kind of romantic idealism. Maybe it's abit like wanting to have one's cake and eat it, and we can find that in amore intensely personal relationship it's not so easy to make the stuff ofattachment our field of practice, nor is it easy to shift trust from lovingonly a particular personality to a more unconditional metta. However, if weare willing to cultivate skill in this, we can find that similar benefits tothose found in the less personal communion of monastic life can arise. Theseinclude complementing each other's strength in the virtues of practice(parami), upholding each other in times of weakness, and unveiling subtlerlayers of self. The process is further catalysed through trust, enabling usto remain vulnerable amidst the nitty gritty of our humanity, and bysincerely working at getting 'self' out of the way. With the light andclarity of the brahmaviharas, it is possible to remember the source of it allas 'not self', and to see how ephemeral are even our most important feelingsand the most obvious perceptions of the other.

The foundation stone on which all this rests is a commonly felt loveof Truth; with this we are willing to allow greater openness, to go beyondself. Sometimes the reward of taking such a risk is immediate; there is adeepening of connectedness and the spaciousness and fun of meeting lifeafresh through walking in the footsteps of one's friend's truth and beauty.But there will also be times when one will be confronted by boundaries thatneed expanding where this unconditional acceptance is still being worked on;and it may not be felt to be the potential blessing that it actually is. Forit is there that our most tenacious and habitually ignored facets of 'self'get flushed out, replete with all their assumptions.Then the inevitabledisappointment of 'self's' expectations can be gently held in the protectiveembrace of that commonly felt love of Truth; this then can allow opening todeeper self examining awareness.
Of course, all this is a lot easier to do when we know that our partner isworking on their end of it (if not now, at least later), but it may be thatpeople we live with have no such interest in practice. In such cases we canfind that recognising and respecting their wholesome qualities may require anopening out beyond our habitual perceptions of them. I have found that givingenergy thus is a brilliant investment; besides bringing out the best in them,it can also enable the whole relationship to be transformed into one that isa field of practice.

I feel that it's important to have the humility to acknowledge howvery much there is to learn in all of this. Humility is not just a greatantidote for pride and self righteousness, but it also brings us back to whattruly is 'right': to remembering with kindly awareness the nature of what isarising, and returning to its source. Travelling awhile with a good friendcan help us to remember this truth we already know, but so easily forget inmodern life; it reminds us to re member with the good friend within. The realchallenge in modern life is learning how to stay remembered.