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An Interview with Ajahn Upekkha

This past spring Ajahn Upekkha, a senior nun in the siladhara community who has practised in our monasteries for over twenty years, decided to make a leap of faith she had been considering for some time: to leave the communal life of the monasteries in order to share her practice with people who are close to death. She left with the blessing and good wishes of all – we wish her every good fortune and fruit of the Path.

Sister Dhammadhira recently asked Ajahn Upekkha about her new direction in the following interview.

Ajahn Upekkha in London

Ajahn Kovida, senior nun at Cittaviveka Monastery, wrote the following by way of introduction:

Earlier this year Ajahn Upekkha made a long-planned move to London, to offer Dhamma teaching in hospices. Out of gratitude to her and as a preface to this interview, I’d like to acknowledge her leading role as a senior nun. Over many years she has shared her compassion and integrity of practice with the community. Through her role as Novice Nun she helped newcomers to undertake the training. Her wise counsel and her metta will be greatly missed. We all wish her well. 

~ Sister Kovida

What made you decide to live in London?

The inspiration came a few years ago when people started to ask me to help them when they became terminally ill. They were not all Buddhists but as a last resort they would come to the monastery and this is where I would meet them. I found these encounters very powerful in my own practice, as a reminder of what the Buddha teaches about the dying of the ‘self’.  It isn’t easy. When people are terminally ill they are cornered and have to face the reality of death. They would often find it very difficult to integrate this new experience in their lives. As samanas we are encouraged to contemplate impermanence and death as part of our practice. If the opportunity arises, I may view a corpse or visualize myself as being a corpse. Even so, it is possible to understand death intellectually while missing a deeper level of application in one’s daily life. I know this because while I am present and at ease in many situations – allowing the natural flow of life to occur – there are still situations where I’m afraid to be exposed. Then, the sense of self becomes solidified in the body and mind again. Anxiety arises when one feels the need to protect something or someone. At these times, I am not able to die in the sense of the Buddha’s teaching because I am still attached to the idea of who I think I am or what I think the world should be. So in taking care of people who are really cornered, I find it helps me to reflect in my own practice and is a good support.

The second motivation for me came from seeing that there is not much support for people who are going through the process of being in this world and going to the next. I wanted to make myself available to offer that. I’ve been moved by the openness and trust that develops in relationships with the dying person and their families.

Were there experiences in your background, even before you came to the monastery, which gave you a sense of the significance of the dying process?

When I was younger, I had a brush with death when I suddenly came down with a mysterious illness and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Even before that, what actually brought me to the monastery was my sister’s death. She was one year younger than me, only thirty-four years old when she died. At that time I used to think I had plenty of time to develop my spiritual life and that there was no rush. But when my sister died, I realized that this is not necessarily true. For her, it was quite a difficult process because she didn’t accept it straight away. She was fighting it; she didn’t understand why it should be her. She had a lot of anger and fear. In the end, she died peacefully, but it was quite a difficult process. I thought to myself at the time, I don’t want to die like that. I don’t want to learn everything at the last minute. This is what brought me to the monastery. I thought I had plenty of time but really I may not. Then my mother died, followed by three of my brothers. None of them had the same kind of death. All were different. Fortunately, in the end, they all died peacefully.

Now that I’m in my sixtieth year, I’m eligible for a ‘Freedom Pass’, a pass which allows seniors free travel on London transport services. I thought, ‘Wow, what a good opportunity!’ This pass would make it easier for me to get around without depending as heavily on the support of others. Before, when I would visit sick people, especially if they weren’t Buddhist, I would find it uncomfortable to mention they needed to buy my ticket for me to be able to come see them. In addition, this ‘Freedom Pass’ has another meaning for this transition I’m making. It reminds me to find my freedom in this path of practice, in preparing for my own transition at the end of this life. So I find this phrase very good and an interesting reflection. Do I really have my freedom pass?  I don’t think I’m there yet, but getting closer. I hope to help people to get their freedom pass to Nibbana. This is my wish.

How has the transition from living in the monastery to living in the city been for you?

For the first couple of months, I was quite enthusiastic and had the energy to come. I have a great friend who helped to make it possible by offering me space in her flat until I found something else. Other friends also helped in whatever ways they could. I felt very good and straight away made contact with St. John’s Hospice. Also, the Royal Brompton Hospital contacted me to see if I’d be interested in working in the chaplain program. I felt so welcomed by both places. To be wanted is a very nice feeling and it encouraged to me to trust that everything would be OK.

The transition is not easy. After living in the countryside all my life, especially for the past twenty-four years in the monastery, the thing I find the most difficult is the noise. I tell myself that I am bigger than the noise. Moving through the crowds of people on the streets, taking the underground, etc. … I try to remind myself in my everyday actions that this is the time for practice. Inside myself I say, ‘May I be well. May all beings be well. May I be free from suffering. May all beings be free from suffering.’  I’m doing this all the time when I’m sitting on the tube or when I’m walking, so this way I don’t feel so affected by what is going on around me. I can see now, after being in London for two months, I am starting to feel a little more fatigue physically. My heart is still happy, but I experience more fatigue, so I have to find ways to take care of myself. Going to a park just to see the green trees and grass helps me. On the level of relationship, I get support from the Hampstead group and many other friends – both Buddhist and non-Buddhist. I’ve recently been invited to stay at a friend’s house in Wimbledon. On one level, I miss the friendship of the sisters. I can see how this is important. The Buddha talked about the importance of kalyanamitta. Friendships that have developed over a long time don’t just go away and I hope when I get more settled I will visit the monastery on a more regular basis.

What has it been like going pindapat (almsround) on the streets of London?

I wasn’t sure how going on pindapat would be since usually here in the UK I have gone together with another nun. When I started I was a bit hesitant, but quickly I began to see it as standing meditation. I would focus on seeing the world passing through and began wishing all beings well: ‘May I be well and free from suffering. May you be well and free from suffering.’ 

Almsround in London

Relaxing into that, I have found that very quickly people come and want to put money in my bowl. After acknowledging their generosity, I have to explain that I can’t accept money. ‘Then, what do you want?’ they ask, and I explain that it is food that I need. Some people walk away while others go into the shop and get food. I was surprised at how quickly people connected with what I was doing, and very moved by the generosity and support I received. This built up my trust: Yes, this does work! Every day different people would come and more and more was offered. I had to carry a rucksack with me to put it all in. I find it especially touching when children come and put food in my bowl and I’m moved to see how they really like it when I offer them a blessing. Others say how much they appreciate my presence or ‘How wonderful. You warm up my day’ or ‘You make my day happy.’ Others are surprised that I don’t want money. They say, ‘That is a wonderful thing to do.’ Then they leave and not offer me anything. Or they say ‘Good luck’ and go off. But what’s so nice is to see how they connect. They come and want to talk about their lives – what they worry about, their experience of getting old, their vegetable garden or whatever. I’ve realized how important it is just to be there and make myself available. That is what I want to do. I never lived in a big city before this, but I feel very contented as though this is where I should be.

How has your experience in the city been compared to monastic life in terms of the daily routine and the structures that you were used to?

Right now I’m not into a regular routine, but when I settle down to one location, I will be able to organize my time better. I will then be able to decide how I can meet people in a way that would be beneficial for them and for myself. My intention is to start very slowly – to be one day in the hospice and one day in the hospital. On Friday evening, I can offer meditation followed by a question and answer session for those interested. I’m happy to do that. Maybe, I will do a little bit of counselling for one or two people. That is how far I want to go, because I want to keep some time for myself for my meditation practice and for exercise. I hope to have two days a week totally free so I can have a break. This is my wish.

You’ve been volunteering your time at the Royal Brompton Hospital for about one month so far. How has that been?

I’ve been working alongside Reverend Robert, the young chaplain. He is an Anglican priest, also quite new to this position. Previously, he worked for eight years as a hospice chaplain. He is an incredible, kind and open-minded person and we get along very well. He introduced me to the doctors, nurses and staff who were all very welcoming. For the hospital, this is a new experience.

Reverend Robert and Ajahn Upekkha

They want to explore how it will be for me to support those with cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that limits one’s lifespan to a maximum of thirty years. It is very difficult for the families, often the families break down and there’s a lot of guilt and emotional distress. For the person who has the disease, it is very difficult for them emotionally, having a lot of fear and anxiety that comes with knowing that they have no future. These are the people I am going to work with. The doctors and nurses welcome my support as they are often stressed and find they don’t have the time or skills to deal with these kinds of emotional issues. They hope that I will be able to ease the relationship between the patient and their families. Basically, it’s a combination of mediating and helping in the process of transition so they will be able to better understand what life is ‘for’. Essentially,this is done through being a loving presence. Later on I will start a meditation class for patients and staff that are interested. We are in the planning stages for this now and hope to find a suitable time that works for the nurses to come also.

Most people who read this article may not actually have a terminal illness or be in a life-threatening situation. Nonetheless, our lives are still filled with uncertainty. How can we all practice with the uncertainty we find in our own lives?

What the Buddha teaches is to stay in the present moment. This is the place we realize Nibbana. To be with this is not easy when we feel caught in our habits of mind and wish to control. When Ajahn Chah said, ‘Die before you die,’ he was talking about not identifying with who you think you are, your character or your views and opinions, who you think you should be or how the world should be. All this has to be seen for what it is and then let go of. As human beings we have to go through this process of being born, growing up and dying. The most important thing is what we make of it mentally. The most difficult thing to work with is what we create in terms of who we think we are. If I think I am this person – I am kind, intelligent, I’m a nun – then what am I left with if I let go of these things?  At this moment, I am just this body-mind that is standing or walking, eating or drinking or moving. There is nobody there. The next moment I don’t know; I may not be breathing. I don’t know. Of course, this is the most difficult thing to integrate. I can’t plan it. I can’t just say, ‘I want to be free’ and then I’m free. It needs to be a direct experience. It’s not something that we can make happen. It’s really by practising this mindful attention and awareness that I begin to recognize that I’m not my thoughts. I can watch the tendency to worry about the future. For example, now that I have come to London, I may not know where I am going to be tomorrow. I just need to come back to the present moment. I am here now. I am breathing. I have a shelter for the night and I have received the food I needed. I’m healthy. I have everything I need right now. I don’t need to know more than that.

I can imagine people might read this and think, but wait a minute, I do have to plan things. I have a family to feed, I have to think about their educational needs, I want to go on holiday at this time, etc. … If I don’t plan, how are things going to happen? How do you consider future possibilities?

Well, of course we have to plan. For example, in my diary it says that tomorrow I am going to the hospital at 10.30 in the morning. In the afternoon, the program says I will do a guided meditation with questions and answers. Every Wednesday I plan to go to the hospice. I schedule to meet these friends at this time, go on pindapat at that time. It’s all planned. If I am alive and not sick I will do these things. But I have to know that it might not happen. I might get sick or die or lose my key and not be able to get out of the house. Whatever happens that might stop me from doing these things, I’m not going to get upset about it. I try to stay composed and mindful and present to what is happening. If I feel irritated or frustrated, I just know this feeling in my body. I remind myself that this is the way life is. We don’t always get what we want. Life is bringing me experiences that I don’t expect. I can’t stop or control that. Sometimes people have a hard time accepting this. They ask, ‘Why me?’ We see people around us dying all the time – in our families, amongst our friends or in war. But strangely enough when it happens to us, we say, ‘Why me?’  But why not? 

So when something comes up and I can’t do what I planned, instead of getting upset, I see that this is the reality of how life is in the moment. Sometimes the children are sick or the boss is angry or the weather is like this. We’re not going to get everything we want. Sometimes things flow very well and at other times we face obstacles. This is normal. Nobody is against me. People can think that somebody is against them. Maybe they blame God or feel as though they deserve to be sick. They feel that they are not good enough. When I hear this from patients in the hospital, I feel very sad. By being present and listening to them, my wish is to radiate loving-kindness. We are learning to accept the way life is. We are not punished by anybody. Through this experience, we can learn something. We can grow. We can find a deeper level of freedom. Gradually, we come to understand that it’s not about what happens to us but how we relate to it. When we understand the way life is, we are no longer living in a dream world. This is what it means to be free. §

Ajahn Upekkha may be contacted via the Chithurst nuns’ email: cbmnuns AT cittaviveka DOT org
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