|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1997|
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
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."|