Forest SanghaNewsletter 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 toconduct a Christian/Buddhist retreat at Worth Abbey in East Sussex. Sheoffers some reflections on the event.

Having been brought up in a nominally Christian culture, I attended churchregularly and passed through its traditional rites of passage. Although therewas already quite a deep sense of devotion and reverence for the mystery ofthe sacraments, in my late teens I entered a period of disaffection. It wasas 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 ineasing the sorrows and difficulties of human existence became quite obvious,and I began to be interested in meditation. Over time there was a gradualrekindling of interest in Christian spirituality, and I was blessed with goodfriends and guides along the way. However, in spite of such blessings, Icould find no way of reconciling what I perceived to be the ideal ofspiritual life with the pathetic struggles of the mind and heart towardsactually living it.

At the time, there were neither the concepts nor the words to expressit, but basically it was a case of dukkha being thoroughly tasted. So theheart was well primed for the Buddha's teaching of Dukkha, and the Way to EndDukkha; it says in the Upanisa Sutta that 'Suffering brings faith' (KindredSayings: Ch xii, On Cause 3.23). I attended a ten-day retreat with AjahnSumedho, 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 andpractices of Theravada Buddhism, but it also, to my surprise brought newlight into the teachings of the Christian gospels; I could see that at somelevel these teachings were pointing to a way of life and renunciation thatseemed to accord more or less exactly with the Way that I had just discoveredin Buddhism.

One thing led to another in what felt like a truly awesome andmiraculous process and now, after almost two decades of practice as a nun inthe Buddhist monastic communities of Chithurst and Amaravati, an opportunityhas arisen to present Buddhist teachings in the context of aChristian/Buddhist retreat.This is the second year that I have participatedin such a retreat at Worth Abbey in East Sussex. Father Roger Bacon, whoseinspiration this has been, encouraged and 'engineered' the event. I sharedthe responsibility for guiding the retreat with Elizabeth West, who hadformerly been a nun for 25 years and is now resident at the ChristianMeditation 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 opportunityto 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 comfortableexperience for me. Last year I had found that the juxtaposition of a Buddharupa and icon of Christ on the main shrine felt strange almost as thoughthe reverence one wished to accord these remarkable beings could only beadequately expressed on separate shrines. This was what I had planned tosuggest for this year, with the central shrine simple: no image justcandles, incense and flowers. Interestingly, it was soon clear that Elizabethhad had exactly the opposite vision of how it should be, and a young friendhad made a painting to represent that vision: Jesus Christ and the Buddhastanding in an attitude of friendship, presenting teachings side by side. Itis an image that is challenging (even shocking) for some, while for others itbrought a sense of relief, even delight. Why should they not be there at thesame level? It represented a challenge to any Christians who might have hadthe 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 Buddhistsanyway!" Needless to say, the retreat itself fostered no such prejudice; itwas not an exercise in 'comparing and contrasting' the two traditions.Rather, it was an opportunity to find and to rest in the silence that isbeyond words, images or concepts. Of the 40 or so people who attended theretreat, the majority were practising Christians, many of them with analready well established meditation practice. There were also Buddhists whohad followed a similar path to my own and felt the need to review theirrelationship with the Christian doctrines and observances they had moved awayfrom. Several had attended similar retreats before others had had little orno experience of meditation.

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

Elizabeth and I had no particular plan, other that an agreement toshare equally in the teaching, alternating sessions throughout the days.Themes seemed to emerge quite naturally often in response to what had gonebefore. For myself, I also felt the need to present at least the basicframework of Buddhist teachings, since the majority of retreatants were froma Christian background and were continuing to use the structures within thattradition as the basis for their personal practice.
One striking feature of the retreat was how little seemed to be required interms of interpretation or 'packaging'; there was an extraordinary opennessin people, so that it didn't seem to be necessary to explain or justify whatwas being presented. Of course the terms, Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha requiredsome interpretation, but seeing them as Wisdom, Truth and Goodnessimmediately transformed them into something that was in tune with a commonaspiration about which there could be no disagreement. Similarly, prayer,when described as 'being completely present with what is', didn't seem to bethat much different from mindfulness; whether in the context of formalmeditation or in 'daily life practice'. The Buddhist teaching on the FourNoble Truths points clearly to the mechanism that limits or blocks perfectprayerfulness or mindfulness: to the greed, aversion and wrong ways ofregarding ourselves, and to the way of gradually freeing the heart from thesehindrances.

In considering the practice of metta/karuna (kindliness andcompassion), a resonance could be felt with the basic principle ofintercessory prayer. A difference (or may be it's not such a difference) isthat in Buddhist practice these are qualities that can be brought forth fromwithin the heart itself and consciously directed, whereas often forChristians, 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 toreflect that perhaps the link with the Source of kindliness and compassion isto be found deep within the human heart also.... Could these be simplydifferent ways of speaking of the same thing? Perhaps one of the mostsignificant insights of the retreat was that in order for it to be trulyeffective, this metta/karuna has to be directed first of all towardsourselves; we have to be kind, patient and accepting of ourselves of ourown suffering, weakness and limitation. The extent to which these can bemanifested towards others is in direct proportion to the level ofunderstanding, acceptance and forgiveness of these within ourselves. It isquite impossible to love and be truly compassionate for others if, at thesame time, we continuously nag and hate ourselves for our faults andweaknesses!

So whatever our chosen Path, we need first of all to be clear about where weare and where we want to go. In other words, there needs to be an honestrecognition of our own shortcomings, as well as an appreciation of ourwholesome aspiration. We need to learn to recollect our own goodness as a wayof gladdening the heart and bringing a sense of self respect, instead ofchastising ourselves continually. In this way we can investigate theconsequences of our mistakes or 'sins', and then put such painful experienceto good use as an incentive to try to understand why we went wrong, andconsider how we can avoid repeating them; we don't allow feelings of guilt orinadequacy to overwhelm us. I am left with many impressions: the simplespaciousness of the main sanctuary from which the brothers' melodious officecould be heard during our morning meditation, the changing light, thesunshine, wind and rain; the smiles, tears and laughter and, above all, thatattentive silence human beings together picking up and chewing overteachings, testing them out, extracting goodness from the practice, andfilling the heart with that which goes beyond words. As the young artistcommented touchingly in the final sharing, "I realise that it is the silencewhich brings us together, not an image, concept or idea."