Forest Sangha Newsletter 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. Since then, as Stephen Saslav, he has been continuing his practice within the context of relationship. Here he offers some of his own reflections on the trials 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 some of the challenges of practice in a non monastic environment, I find that I treasure 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 meeting all 'with eyes like a babe' incredibly inspiring. Later, when teaching, I would sometimes put forth perhaps a bit glibly the challenging suggestion that, through empathetic appreciation (mudita), there are aspects of a 'good friend' to be discovered within everyone we meet. Although I am now blessed to have a partner who is a good friend, the biggest challenge of this time of transition has been to remember to re member with the good folk of this 'real world' just to keep offering warmth and friendliness without being lulled into insensitivity, amidst what feels sometimes like an onslaught of trite politeness and trivia. I have been chastened by finding that the simple verbal monastic answer that I used to give is not in itself the easy solution.

Talking with other lay practitioners at Amaravati who have expressed a similar weariness with the triviality of 'normal' social interaction, I find that we share much enthusiasm for the development of upasika community gatherings. They can provide an opportunity for offering the support and encouragement that nourishes and enheartens the practice of day to day human relationships. Of course, open hearted acceptance and empathetic appreciation (metta and mudita) may not come easily even towards the people we meet regularly, say, in a meditation group. It is important to remember then that our meeting is in the spirit of Sangha; that we can show respect and support for each other's commitment to practice, just as with those in robes. When we meet 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 each other, and learn from each other those things that enrich our practice.' Within the containment of a monastic community, difficult personal chemistry among people who would not normally choose to live together sometimes creates a kind of pressure cooker effect; it is then inspiring to see the deepening maturity 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 us down into an ocean of boundless opportunities for boundless mediocrity.

Though pressure cookers are not hard to find outside the monastery, they may be leaky and malfunction. In an environment influenced by social mores which rather than awakening and maturing urgency entice and habituate us to let off steam unskilfully we can continually distract ourselves, escaping into the comfort of food, drink, or entertainments of one kind or another. Without the support of good friends, worldly influences can easily pull us down into an ocean of boundless opportunities for boundless mediocrity. The monastery itself provides a peaceful environment and the company of good friends, and these can empower us so that we are not dragged down by this stream of worldliness. Of course this is enhanced by the intention, while there, to put aside worldly responsibilities and favoured distractions.

This laying aside is certainly far more challenging amidst the demands and comforts of home, and so I have found that it has been important to reflect on some of the things that support practice. The highest priority has been to trust the instinctual 'call of the heart' to find (or make!) time regularly to develop and maintain my practice. I used any technique that would 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 base of calm and clarity is probably best met by developing a framework of routine; for example having regular pujas, meditation etc. Another thing that I have found helpful during this time of transition has been having the practical needs of another to be caring for.

Since it's not so easy to practice at home, even when there may be time available, we can use such ritual as a supporting framework, both to evaluate what works best for us and to maintain the vitality of our practice and make it more personal. One example of this is after puja to bow to the Triple Gem or 'Good Friend' within each other. While keeping the Eight Precepts on the Observance Days may be a bit much for most home or work situations, we can at least experiment with a day, or part of a day, of practice. 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 like this, it can be very refreshing to be free from the usual distractions, possibly even considering 'noble silence' for some hours as well. But it does help to explain to family and friends what one is doing, in order to avoid seeming antisocial or just plain weird!

Through having a solid base of practice that we can return to when we slip up, we can see clearly our habitual tendencies towards distraction and also the consequences of such behaviour. The monastic training has been immeasurably helpful in this, for basically what is needed is to trust actively in the heart's intuitive 'stop' signs and to hold the reins firmly and kindly. Through repeated, honest reflection on the results of our choices, the maturation of simplicity of living, and its accompanying ease, can be realised. The deepening of understanding in regard to such issues can be enhanced through making use of those times when our clearest reflections tend to arise; perhaps after meditation, on rising early, or while bathing. This process can also be helped to evolve by succinctly recording new insights on what worked in practice on tape or paper. But whatever the ways we take on the worthy path of practising at home or in society, it's good to remember that in the absence of conditions that will truly benefit us, our practice deserves all the support we can give it. It is so important that the strength of our practice is deconditioning the power of samsara, and not the other way round.
Within a non monastic environment, our relationship with good friends is a crucial support for this deconditioning process. Our paths meet to varying degrees; this is particularly relevant when we aspire towards the blessing of a partnership in practice. We can see how the wish to live closely and share practice can come partly from some kind of romantic idealism. Maybe it's a bit like wanting to have one's cake and eat it, and we can find that in a more intensely personal relationship it's not so easy to make the stuff of attachment our field of practice, nor is it easy to shift trust from loving only a particular personality to a more unconditional metta. However, if we are willing to cultivate skill in this, we can find that similar benefits to those found in the less personal communion of monastic life can arise. These include complementing each other's strength in the virtues of practice (parami), upholding each other in times of weakness, and unveiling subtler layers of self. The process is further catalysed through trust, enabling us to remain vulnerable amidst the nitty gritty of our humanity, and by sincerely working at getting 'self' out of the way. With the light and clarity of the brahmaviharas, it is possible to remember the source of it all as 'not self', and to see how ephemeral are even our most important feelings and the most obvious perceptions of the other.

The foundation stone on which all this rests is a commonly felt love of Truth; with this we are willing to allow greater openness, to go beyond self. Sometimes the reward of taking such a risk is immediate; there is a deepening of connectedness and the spaciousness and fun of meeting life afresh 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 that need 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. For it is there that our most tenacious and habitually ignored facets of 'self' get flushed out, replete with all their assumptions.Then the inevitable disappointment of 'self's' expectations can be gently held in the protective embrace of that commonly felt love of Truth; this then can allow opening to deeper self examining awareness.
Of course, all this is a lot easier to do when we know that our partner is working on their end of it (if not now, at least later), but it may be that people we live with have no such interest in practice. In such cases we can find that recognising and respecting their wholesome qualities may require an opening out beyond our habitual perceptions of them. I have found that giving energy 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 is a field of practice.

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