Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Solitude as a Career (Part 3)

The Brahmaviharas (Divine Abodes)

metta - lovingkindness
karuṇā- compassion
mudita - sympathetic Joy
upekkhā - equanimity

Thank you to Ayya Sobhana for your comment about how "the monastic life is really equal parts of seclusion and deep love." That brought about very beautiful images and feelings in me. Ayya Satima, who was the monk who gave the dhamma talk I attended last Saturday, is bursting at the seams with lovingkindness! It is so joyful just to be near her.

I have only met a handful of monks and nuns and it is interesting how being a "thinker" or a "feeler" impacts the emphasis of their practice. The thinkers are mostly interested in analysis and concentration. The feelers are mostly interested in cultivating the beautiful qualities of the heart. Our personalities play a big part in the way that we view and understand the practice and the goal.

Most definitely love is the focus of my practice. And my life. Pretty much everything I have done in my life, I have done it because of love. We all want and need love. And it is so easy to make mistakes in terms of how to get and keep love, like it is a limited and scarce thing. Throughout my life, there have been so many times when I did not feel like I was loved enough or had enough love. So many people suffer because they can't find the deep love inside themselves.

The funny thing is, that love is always there inside each and every one of us without exception. It is unstoppable. It is boundless. We get stuck in delusion sometimes and that love gets covered up. But sometimes we experience deep love spontaneously. Perhaps many do not recognize it for what it is. It is difficult to describe too. Perhaps the Buddha would describe it as the absence of ill-will.

Sometimes we need to pray or meditate to find it again, but we can trust and be certain that it is always there.

You Got the Love - (Originally by Candi Staton in 1986, performed by Florence and the Machine in 2009)

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying, "Lord I just don't care"
But you've got the love I need to see me through

Sometimes it seems that the going is just too rough
And things go wrong no matter what I do
Now and then it seems that life is just too much
But you've got the love I need to see me through

When food is gone you are my daily meal
When friends are gone I know my saviour's love is real
Your love is real

You got the love

Time after time I think, "Oh Lord what's the use?"
Time after time I think it's just no good
Sooner or later in life, the things you love you lose
But you got the love I need to see me through

You got the love

Monday, January 17, 2011

Solitude as a Career (Part 2)

Monastics pass on wisdom and insight to us directly through their verbal and written teachings. But this is only part of what they give us. It can sometimes be a small part.

The most powerful thing they offer is their example.

Just to see a monk in orange robes and shaved head causes one to pause. There is just something about that sight that touches something deep and primordial in me. Something quite subconscious. A powerful archetype representing something that cannot be put into words. A monk is a symbol of possibilities. Possibilities of a different way of living and being. Possibilities of simplicity, non-attachment, happiness and freedom.

Sure, monastics are dependent upon their benefactors for food, clothing and shelter - but consider all that they have let go of for the sake of purifying their hearts and minds for the benefit of all beings. Bhikkhunis have undertaken the training of 311 precepts. These are rules that they follow in order to experience ‘the happiness of being blameless’. The precepts are the way by which Buddhists practice morality for the purpose of higher happiness and freedom. As a layperson, I do my best to follow the five precepts (in Pali and English):
1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
There is no one to condemn me or expel me or send me to hell if I do not keep these precepts, however. These are practices. Trainings. The natural law of cause and effect does the trick when I am not keeping them. Pain naturally arises. I am free to be happy or suffer, it is my choice.

Monastics have an expanded version of these rules. The 311 rules they follow are based on the 10 precepts, which are the five above, only with the third precept being total abstinence of sexual activity, and these additional:
6. Vikalabhojana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at the forbidden time (i.e., after noon).
7. Nacca-gita-vadita-visuka-dassana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from dancing,singing, music, going to see entertainments.
8. Mala-gandha-vilepana-dharana-mandana-vibhusanatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics.
9. Uccasayana-mahasayana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.
10. Jatarupa-rajata-patiggahana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from accepting gold and silver (money).
This is an austere training, and not for the weak-willed person. A person must be "ripe" for this type of training, as I mentioned in a previous post. They must be on the verge of giving up all these things anyway, naturally. A life of total repression is not helpful if one is not on the verge of giving these things up (hence, I am a layperson and not a monk).

Thus, a person who does undertake this sort of austerity is truly inspiring to me. They are spiritual warriors. Spiritual heroes. They are doing something difficult and amazing. They are putting the Buddha's teachings to the test. They are experiencing the teachings first hand. They are reaping the benefits. They are showing that it can be done. That it is possible to transcend sensual desire and attachment. They show us what it looks like. They give us something to aspire to. And whenever I am blessed to be in the presence of a monk, it seems the merit of that event is similar to many lengthy retreats I might attend in terms of how I am inspired in my own practice.

In the last few days I have noticed more opportunities in my life to let go and find simplicity. And it truly is a gift.

Solitude as a Career (Part 1)

Hermit. That is what the Venerable Bhikkhuni (honorable female monk) called herself at the dhamma talk I went to hear last Saturday. A hermit lives in solitude from the world, which is conducive to a spiritual purpose. Solitude not as an end in itself. Solitude as a means to an end, a spiritual purpose. Solitude as the condition for spiritual insight.

I wonder how I would fare with such solitude. Certainly at this point in my life it would be a shock to my system.

Or would it be? If I had unlimited solitude to do inner work, or rather, continue the inner work that I tend to do daily when I technically should be doing outer work, maybe I would be very happy. Maybe I would finally work through my own neediness and loneliness and craving.

Or maybe I would just be in solitude, lonely, needy and craving. I’m sure it would be that way, at least at first. But then it could become the ultimate test of emotional self-reliance. A test to see what is really on the other side of the pain.

Spiritual hermits run toward pain. Spiritual hermits use solitude to look deeply inside themselves and understand themselves and as a result understand all humans, all beings. They find wisdom, love and compassion and it radiates to all beings through their meditation and prayer.

What is it like for the Venerable Bhikkhuni? To do inner work only?

It is no wonder that there aren’t many people in this society that are called to monastic life. Those who do have a bit of a tug toward it may be hindered by the expectations of society to be productive citizens. Inner work is really not valued in this society. There are very few pockets of people in this US culture that understand and appreciate inner work, and even those of us that do are secretly skeptical about those that are dependent upon others for food, clothing and shelter. And I care so much about what others think. I don’t ever want anyone to consider me a burden on society.

I have always been so proud of my independence. But honestly, independence can be such a burden. Pride is such a burden. Being so independent and proud makes it difficult to accept help, to accept the generosity of others when it is really needed. I tend to feel that something must be given in return. I don’t like to feel that I am in debt to anyone for kindness they have shown me.

Much of that feeling of indebtedness is my own making, of course. When I help or give to others, I generally do my best to work through and let go of any expectations of receiving anything in return. So why do I think that others expect things from me in return for their generosity? Perhaps there are some that do have expectations, but for the most part, it is possible for people to give freely, without expectations. Though it is also possible to give only out of fear or obligation, which is a negative side of giving.

What is my intention when I help or give? Is it to relieve a sense of fear, obligation or debt that I feel I owe? Or is it out of a sense of completeness, abundance and compassion? That is the question.

And what is my experience when I receive? Do I feel lacking personally somehow? Or can I feel joyful that I have allowed someone the opportunity to practice generosity? It is possible to feel joyful in giving and in receiving. Not the selfish kind of joy that a child feels when they receive a new toy. But a shared joy. Both the giver and the receiver are participating in a joyful event of generosity and gratitude. Both of which are qualities worth cultivating.

Ultimately once we have found value in something worth valuing, like the dedication to inner work, we should support it in any way we can. That can be a joyful obligation. Right now in my outer, worldly life I sincerely value the insights and teachings of those who have done a lot of inner work. So in that case, it is easy to lose sight of who is the giver and who is the receiver. Is the monk really the receiver because they are dependent? Or is the supporter of the monk really the receiver because of the wisdom that is passed on to them by the monk?

Some may say that becoming a monk is a selfish endeavor. People become monastics because they want to test and experience the teachings of freedom of heart and mind for themselves. They want to be free. They want to be happy. But one who has done that sort of inner work and does become free and happy would be unable to keep the results of that work hidden from the world. It will be shared. Of course it makes sense that one must be free and happy themselves if they are to truly help others to become free and happy. That is the life’s work of a monk. May all beings be well and happy.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


There is so much pain in this worldly life. Some days I feel so overwhelmed. Money, relationships, work, children, driving, cooking, cleaning, commercials, computers, iPhones, politics, crime, injustice, the clock... not enough time, not enough money, not enough peace, not enough humanity in the cold individualism that is this culture.

And I just haven't been very inspired to write lately.

I feel like words have left me lately. Someone asks me a question or involves me in a conversation and my mind goes blank. I just feel like being quiet. It takes too much effort to try to think of things to say sometimes. All my secret aspirations of becoming known as a writer and/or teacher just seem so ridiculous today. I feel way too caught up in my own inner world sometimes and I'm always changing my mind about how involved I really want to be in the outer world.

On and off throughout my life I have had the aspiration of becoming a nun or at least doing some great spiritual thing with my life. When I was in Catholic grade school, I wanted to be a Catholic sister. But then I decided I wanted to get married and have children. I got married without children, got divorced and decided I wanted to join the Peace Corp and never get married again. But instead I decided to get a job and make money. In the corporate world I met a man and decided I still wanted to be married and have children. So I got married and had children. Then I found Buddhism and realized that I would like to be a Buddhist nun. But I already had obligations that I had chosen so I practiced as best I could as a layperson. The changed person I became certainly contributed to the divorce that followed.

So here I am, divorced, with children, living the best lay Buddhist life I know how. Certainly far from living like a monastic. So many worldly demands I must keep up with.

My kids are young - 5 and 7. It's going to be awhile before they grow up and I can run 0ff to the monastery. But would I really want to run off to the monastery even then? Desire for sex and companionship is still much too strong in me now. And when my kids are grown, I suspect that I will still desire that. Even though the world is harsh and seems irrelevant to me sometimes - disenchantment perhaps is a better word to describe how I feel about the world sometimes - I am still strongly pulled by the world and want to experience it. I'm not ready to give up the little pleasures of the world anytime soon. I enjoy my worldly delights.

Still, I couldn't help but well up when I read this story about a 68 year-old woman who was recently ordained as a Buddhist nun. I just figured that once I hit 50 I can forget about getting ordained. How fair is that to live your whole life enjoying worldly pleasures and then head off to the monastery to enjoy a free retirement to contemplate spiritual things to one's heart's content? But maybe it isn't really about fairness. Maybe it is more about ripeness. Some are ripe at age 7, some at 68. Who can judge what is right or not?

Perhaps I am in my longing-to-be-a-nun kick because I feel so world weary lately. A meditation retreat probably would ease this a bit. I'm overdue.

I am not ripe for monastic life. I would rather have a life-long companion. But if I outlive my companion, perhaps I will become ripe then and renounce the world at last.