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forest sangha newsletter

October        2007               2550                 Number  81
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

Pushing at the edges

An interview with Ajahn Upekkha

When I came to the monastery I had a sense of urgency because my sister, just one year younger than me, had died. I cared for her through that process. She showed me that I had work to do, this was her gift. I didn’t want to die the way she died, with terror and fear. In the end, bless her, she found peace. Her death accelerated my spiritual process. I had been taking my time, then wham – I realized I didn’t have time.

I also had a strong motivation to help people. As a child I wanted to create a world of beauty, of love and kindness. From very young I was living in an ugly place. I am from a big family, being number twelve out of fifteen (two died). I was separated from my family to go to an orphanage. I didn’t want anybody to feel the deprivation I experienced. The orphanage could not offer better than it did, nobody was to blame. Wherever I went I had the motivation to create abundance.

When I arrived at Amaravati my commitment was not to a community or to a religion. It was about realizing the Truth; being free from fear. I’ve found it challenging because I had strong reactions to religious orthodoxy. Some people are insistent about how to hold the rules and what we should or shouldn’t do. I struggled because I find community life is alive when we pay attention to individual people not just to a system of values that looks good from the outside. That was my battle; between what it looks like, and what is important for us as individuals and as a group.

The fortnightly Vinaya recitation, for example, is like a foreign language to me. If I want to investigate desire, sexuality, attachment, anger, it’s not by such recitations that I will learn about them. It’s in my daily life – using Luang Por Sumedho’s teaching – by reflecting on Dhamma, by being mindful and aware, that I learn the most. I find that reciting rules, or focussing more on them, can shame you if you don’t understand what Vinaya is all about. You can feel guilty because you are eating too much chocolate, or are attracted by someone. Whereas, in fact, it’s a process of discovery of what it is to be a human being. You have to understand what the senses are, the process of feeling – and experience it all, neither rejecting nor indulging in it. What the Vinaya shows me is that when I have sense desire, for example, I can reflect, ‘this is how it feels when something is not available’. Then I see, ‘Oh, believing that something is missing is causing me suffering’, rather than the experience itself. If I don’t allow myself to feel, out of fear of the Vinaya, then I’m not doing the real work. I never wanted to be part of an institution. Rather, I want to use rules as tools to help me understand who I am, and to detach myself from wrong views and opinions.

At first as a nun it felt like I was in military training. I thought ‘Where is love? Where is kindness? Why must the discipline be harsh?’ That’s something I could not accept, with my passion to create a world of beauty and love. I came here, because of the Buddha’s teaching, to find wisdom and joy in life. Though this is not based on external conditions, in the beginning of the training we do need some support of kindness from outside. That was something I felt was missing.

It’s a strange feeling coming to the Sangha when you have been an independent woman. I had my job, I had my flat, I was divorced. I travelled freely around the world. I was passionate about independence yet here, at that time, I was not allowed to go out of the monastery alone down the lane. This was something I couldn’t understand, and at first my objections were dismissed. It felt painful but prompted me to stand for my truth. I would keep on pointing out what would support the nuns.

So, my twenty-two years involved pushing at edges to find what works for women. And Luang Por responded to that by explaining that little by little he and the monks were learning to understand women. I didn’t know anything about men either. I had brothers, I had a father, but I learned more about men in the monastery. I heard their reflections and they shared their space with me. Over the years we’ve been having dialogue; when we listen to each others’ experience then we can support each other. Luang Por made space for it because he wanted to learn. I’m grateful to him for enabling women to be ordained here. He has said he would support us in establishing independent places. He wants to support women; that is his gift and his wisdom. He took that risk and not everybody wants to take such risks.

What do you think the risk is in supporting women to live this life?

I think it was risky for him in relationship to Thailand because he is committed to Ajahn Chah, and to the Thai community. In the first ten years they were watching how we would behave, and he didn’t know what we would do. So he did take a risk. But I think the result is great. He has said he has no regrets and that it is a benefit for the monks’ community to have nuns. I have gratitude for Luang Por and the monks’ community; and for the nuns who had to bear with me for the last twenty years with my passionate character. I’m grateful also for the laypeople who support us; we are able to practise here because of their trust and support.

What changes have you seen in the nature of support from laypeople, and in the type of people who come to the monastery?

Initially mostly Thai and other Asian people supported us. As the years passed by, more English and European people came through. They were interested in meditation but didn’t know much about alms mendicants. But they did learn. It is clear that we can go anywhere and we will be supported by Western people. That’s thanks to Asian people who supported us from the beginning; without them we could not have created this community. We started with nothing much at Amaravati. Everything was broken, just rice and beans to eat, and in the winter nobody wanted to come because it was too cold. I particularly remember Mr Tan Nam and Khun Lim bringing blankets and cooking food for us. If they hadn’t sustained us from the beginning we could not have stayed. And now it feels important – and, thanks to that support, possible – to create something independent for women as the next stage in the development of the nuns’ community.

What form might that take? 

I’d like to have a hermitage to give the opportunity for women who want more time in retreat, a small place with no more than six kutis (huts). It is said that a good-sized community is when you can all sit around a fire. I have never experienced a small community. Even in my family I was in a big group. This is my last longing. Maybe I will experience it before dying, maybe not. But I feel sure that in the future there will be a monastery for nuns. The ground for it has been prepared over the last few years. Though some of us feel not quite ready….

What would it take to be ready for it? 

I think more trust in one another. We can’t wait for someone perfect. We have to support someone to do her best. If we don’t empower her, then it will not happen. Everyone has something to offer. If we focus on having to ‘look good’ – comparing ourselves with the monks because of the wider support they have – it weakens us. This denies our particular strengths. There is not yet the trust to recognize and accept those strengths.

We can bring our particular understanding of life – of what suffering is all about – because many of us have been through so much ourselves. We can reach and help a wide range of people. We have an aspect of acceptance, we embrace all, we don’t separate ourselves off. This can be a limitation too because we can become weak by depending on other people. But when we are able to stand on our vertical, we don’t separate ourselves from the world, we understand it. I think this is a gift women have.

My experience through these twenty years is that I always received what I needed. When I felt low, someone always gave me a hand, a smile, a cup of tea. I always had support to take the next step. I came here because I trusted intuitive awareness - my inner voice saying ‘This is your place’. I arrived five years after the nuns’ Sangha was established. Later, the people who had been with me all disrobed. This was not necessarily because of a lack of faith, or misunderstanding of the Dhamma, or because they were too weak, or whatever. I respect them for trusting their intuition: for them it was time to go. We are all on the spiritual path of one form or another, so I find it important that we live true to our life. Trust and faith are essential; they make us powerful.






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