Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1997

Wings of the Eagle; Ajahn Jayasaro
Living in Faith; tudong - faith & vulnerability.
Universal Loving Kindness; Ajahn Sumedho, 1996.
Beyond Belief; Ajahn Candasiri
Mindfulness & Clear Comprehension, Ajahn Sucitto
Peace on Earth; Ajahn Candasiri
Signs of Change:


Beyond Belief

This summer Ajahn Candasiri helped to conduct a Christian/Buddhist retreat at Worth Abbey in East Sussex. She offers some reflections on the event.

Having been brought up in a nominally Christian culture, I attended church regularly and passed through its traditional rites of passage. Although there was already quite a deep sense of devotion and reverence for the mystery of the sacraments, in my late teens I entered a period of disaffection. It was as though the transition to adulthood required some sort of rebellion against 'the believed', and a plunging into the experience of life itself. Fortunately it wasn't long before the limitation of the worldly pleasures in easing the sorrows and difficulties of human existence became quite obvious, and I began to be interested in meditation. Over time there was a gradual rekindling of interest in Christian spirituality, and I was blessed with good friends and guides along the way. However, in spite of such blessings, I could find no way of reconciling what I perceived to be the ideal of spiritual life with the pathetic struggles of the mind and heart towards actually living it.

At the time, there were neither the concepts nor the words to express it, but basically it was a case of dukkha being thoroughly tasted. So the heart was well primed for the Buddha's teaching of Dukkha, and the Way to End Dukkha; it says in the Upanisa Sutta that 'Suffering brings faith' (Kindred Sayings: Ch xii, On Cause 3.23). I attended a ten-day retreat with Ajahn Sumedho, and it became obvious that this was the Path I needed to follow. There was no turning back. The retreat enabled insight into the teachings and practices of Theravada Buddhism, but it also, to my surprise brought new light into the teachings of the Christian gospels; I could see that at some level these teachings were pointing to a way of life and renunciation that seemed to accord more or less exactly with the Way that I had just discovered in Buddhism.

One thing led to another in what felt like a truly awesome and miraculous process and now, after almost two decades of practice as a nun in the Buddhist monastic communities of Chithurst and Amaravati, an opportunity has arisen to present Buddhist teachings in the context of a Christian/Buddhist retreat.This is the second year that I have participated in such a retreat at Worth Abbey in East Sussex. Father Roger Bacon, whose inspiration this has been, encouraged and 'engineered' the event. I shared the responsibility for guiding the retreat with Elizabeth West, who had formerly been a nun for 25 years and is now resident at the Christian Meditation Centre in London.
The retreat itself fostered no such prejudice; it was not an exercise in 'comparing and contrasting' the two traditions. Rather, it was an opportunity to find and to rest in the silence that is beyond words, images or concepts.

I have to admit that such a retreat is not a completely comfortable experience for me. Last year I had found that the juxtaposition of a Buddha rupa and icon of Christ on the main shrine felt strange almost as though the reverence one wished to accord these remarkable beings could only be adequately expressed on separate shrines. This was what I had planned to suggest for this year, with the central shrine simple: no image just candles, incense and flowers. Interestingly, it was soon clear that Elizabeth had had exactly the opposite vision of how it should be, and a young friend had made a painting to represent that vision: Jesus Christ and the Buddha standing in an attitude of friendship, presenting teachings side by side. It is an image that is challenging (even shocking) for some, while for others it brought a sense of relief, even delight. Why should they not be there at the same level? It represented a challenge to any Christians who might have had the view that the Buddha was "only an ordinary human being, who is now dead"; similarly for Buddhists, who might have been tempted to speak of Jesus as, "only a bodhisattva who probably learnt what he knew from Buddhists anyway!" Needless to say, the retreat itself fostered no such prejudice; it was not an exercise in 'comparing and contrasting' the two traditions. Rather, it was an opportunity to find and to rest in the silence that is beyond words, images or concepts. Of the 40 or so people who attended the retreat, the majority were practising Christians, many of them with an already well established meditation practice. There were also Buddhists who had followed a similar path to my own and felt the need to review their relationship with the Christian doctrines and observances they had moved away from. Several had attended similar retreats before others had had little or no experience of meditation.

At the start of the retreat, I noticed a tinge of concern on hearing of the joy and peace that those on the previous year's retreat had experienced, for spiritual practice, although simple and straightforward, is not necessarily easy. In a sense it is like giving birth...I'm told that often the mother remembers only the joy of the experience; that nature seems to blot out any memory of the agony of labour. I was not surprised when, at the end, many people commented on how difficult they had found it. However, I suspect that last year it had been difficult too, and the memory had been overlaid with the sense of happiness and peace that arose as a result of those very efforts! It was heartening though to hear of the joy and lightness that their efforts brought; new insights into ancient teachings, and to have had an opportunity to practice with an assortment of tools that could be implemented within the context of everyday life.

Elizabeth and I had no particular plan, other that an agreement to share equally in the teaching, alternating sessions throughout the days. Themes seemed to emerge quite naturally often in response to what had gone before. For myself, I also felt the need to present at least the basic framework of Buddhist teachings, since the majority of retreatants were from a Christian background and were continuing to use the structures within that tradition as the basis for their personal practice.
One striking feature of the retreat was how little seemed to be required in terms of interpretation or 'packaging'; there was an extraordinary openness in people, so that it didn't seem to be necessary to explain or justify what was being presented. Of course the terms, Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha required some interpretation, but seeing them as Wisdom, Truth and Goodness immediately transformed them into something that was in tune with a common aspiration about which there could be no disagreement. Similarly, prayer, when described as 'being completely present with what is', didn't seem to be that much different from mindfulness; whether in the context of formal meditation or in 'daily life practice'. The Buddhist teaching on the Four Noble Truths points clearly to the mechanism that limits or blocks perfect prayerfulness or mindfulness: to the greed, aversion and wrong ways of regarding ourselves, and to the way of gradually freeing the heart from these hindrances.

In considering the practice of metta/karuna (kindliness and compassion), a resonance could be felt with the basic principle of intercessory prayer. A difference (or may be it's not such a difference) is that in Buddhist practice these are qualities that can be brought forth from within the heart itself and consciously directed, whereas often for Christians, it is a matter of making a petition, relying on a higher being 'out there' to fix things on our behalf. However, we found it useful to reflect that perhaps the link with the Source of kindliness and compassion is to be found deep within the human heart also.... Could these be simply different ways of speaking of the same thing? Perhaps one of the most significant insights of the retreat was that in order for it to be truly effective, this metta/karuna has to be directed first of all towards ourselves; we have to be kind, patient and accepting of ourselves of our own suffering, weakness and limitation. The extent to which these can be manifested towards others is in direct proportion to the level of understanding, acceptance and forgiveness of these within ourselves. It is quite impossible to love and be truly compassionate for others if, at the same time, we continuously nag and hate ourselves for our faults and weaknesses!

So whatever our chosen Path, we need first of all to be clear about where we are and where we want to go. In other words, there needs to be an honest recognition of our own shortcomings, as well as an appreciation of our wholesome aspiration. We need to learn to recollect our own goodness as a way of gladdening the heart and bringing a sense of self respect, instead of chastising ourselves continually. In this way we can investigate the consequences of our mistakes or 'sins', and then put such painful experience to good use as an incentive to try to understand why we went wrong, and consider how we can avoid repeating them; we don't allow feelings of guilt or inadequacy to overwhelm us. I am left with many impressions: the simple spaciousness of the main sanctuary from which the brothers' melodious office could be heard during our morning meditation, the changing light, the sunshine, wind and rain; the smiles, tears and laughter and, above all, that attentive silence human beings together picking up and chewing over teachings, testing them out, extracting goodness from the practice, and filling the heart with that which goes beyond words. As the young artist commented touchingly in the final sharing, "I realise that it is the silence which brings us together, not an image, concept or idea."