Sunday, 5 December 2010

Stop thinking and chant ( and listen, of course.)

At the end of November, Ajahn Sumedho, Sumedho Bhikkhu, Luang Por Sumedho, or Tan Chao Khun Rajasumedhacariya, retired. Can monks retire? From what? Well one can put aside the duties of running a monastery (although no-one really runs monasteries). One can bring down the curtain on an aspect of group participation, and one can trim the threads of involvement. But no-one retires from kamma through a formal act; and no-one suddenly stops meaning anything to anyone else through an announcement. So when it’s time to leave, change gear, or die, we need a ceremony to summarise and contain all the unfinished stuff. Love, regret, misunderstanding, gratitude and disappointment – that’s relational life, and we need to place it. Once placed, we can each carry it away like a pebble or a gem, take it out on occasion, rub it and hear how it speaks to us as time goes by. For years afterwards, it can say some useful things.

So life with Luang Por has left gems and pebbles. Monastic relationships have their own flow. Sometimes you seem to go deeper with your fellows than you ever thought, to places where polite personalities don’t go. At other times the connections are sideways, rather than head-on – you’re just sharing duties or sitting beside that monk in the Hall. And then he’s gone – off to some other part of the planet, or out of the loop into lay life, or dead. There are the disagreements which at times seem to block the flow - until relational energy being what it is, the flow eventually moves around them like water around a mound of sand. You look back a decade later and find the mound’s got slowly washed away. A lot of the time awareness of the fragility of personal connection hovers over the relationship. And along with that, there is the understanding that what we experience as self and other are not mine or yours, but a shimmering dependently-arisen play of perceptions, emotions and appearances.

Part of all relationships is the unspoken. It sits right there under the ribs. Then what can you say that’s real, at a time when you have to say something? One answer is: you stop thinking and chant. With Luang Por, there were probably all kinds of things that each individual would have liked to say, but the ‘impersonal’ communality of monastic life doesn’t accommodate – at least among the large numbers of the extended community. Instead you close, or open , all that with chanting. And that’s how we took leave of Luang Por: chanting, offering blessings and asking for forgiveness. When you chant, especially as part of a group, you have to listen - to tthe timbre and tonality of your own voice and to that of others. And in that timbre is where the emotions are sensed. Chanting carries the resonances of about all that can be expressed on an emotional level; and you hear in it what your kamma brings up.

Chanting has an impeccable tradition. All the original Buddhist teachings were formulated and transmitted orally. (I expect much is the same for other religions.) The pragmatism of that is that when a group learns to recite a teaching, the transmission is less likely to err than if it was written down (copyist’s errors, fires, termites). But it’s also the case that the chanted voice comes from and touches a different place in us than the visual word. With the written and read, you can pore over the words, take them as separate units one at a time and mull over their meaning. It excludes the speaker, it is non-relational. Then we subsequently employ the faculty that has read and ‘understood’ the meaning to guide us in a life that is holistic and relational. What often occurs then is an attachment to views, or fundamentalism, or at least an awkward handle on life. It’s not that the words aren’t true, but the organ that receives and uses them is the organ of abstraction for which things stand still as discrete entities. And living experience isn’t that way.

On the other hand, for the system that speaks, chants and listens, meaning is resonant, shifting, and nuanced. What is said rides on a wave that is not separate from the speaker, the listener and the context in which it happened. Then even simple words go straight to the central nervous system and cause a shift. Ajahn Chah taught like that. And this of course is also the essence of Zen teachings – enigmatic on paper, right on the mark in the flesh.

So even though writing was known in Buddhist India, no-one used it for teachings; for accounts and lists maybe, but not for the sacred. Sacred words have to come with the breath through the body: then they carry the ineffable quality of lived-in experience. They are heard and given added meaning by their resonance, by who spoke them and when. They’re not frozen and fixed as squiggles on a sheet to be read out of the context of their utterance.

In a literate culture, we are in danger of losing our meanings in words. Of course the great writers can pull it off, can use rhythms, spaces, metaphor and character to get across what this flat medium of ink on paper can barely convey. But most of what is written is far from great. Moreover we neglect a skill that is perhaps even more sacred than utterance: deep listening. So life in the public sphere becomes dangerously remote and disconnected from our human responses. When I travel on an aircraft and they go through the safety routine, it’s like nobody’s speaking and nobody’s listening. It’s just flat words. It feels so bad that even though I know the drill backwards by now, I listen deeply again, just to respect and acknowledge the presence of the stewards. While I’m alive I want to be here. Perhaps because of that, on this last flight I ended up cushioning an invalid as he was laid on the three sets next to me, and unwrapping sweets for him to suck. But it felt a lot better than being boxed in my seat looking at the screen.

Some Dhamma-friends of mine even formed a group whose practise was to chant – not for luck or promotion, but just for people to feel their way into Dhamma. It brings us together out of the books and into participation in which every voice offers something. And every ear has to listen to its voice and resonance as part of the whole. Once you’ve got that ear, you keep it cocked all the time to hear those truths that words stumble over; that ear connects to the heart. Moreover you get more clued in to when the words are complexities that are missing the point. For example, when I do dialogue, it’s often the case that after someone gives out an extensive and intelligent metaphysical question, the first response that pops up is ‘It sounds lonely where he’s at,’ or ‘She’s struggling to find self-worth.’ I really can’t get the bit about the nature of the Cosmos or the Self, because other nuances are speaking so loudly.

Maybe one of our most basic needs is to speak and be heard. When you don’t know relational logic, that sounds like an overwhelming duty. ‘Surely there’s so much to say, this is going to go on forever...’ However Marshall Rosenberg, the founder-teacher of Non-Violent Communication, used to say that most of the time people are trying to say one of two things – ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you.’ I might add two more: ‘Hello, I’m here’ and ‘Goodbye: blessings and forgiveness.’ Then we can move on. Perhaps this is what our life together is all about.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Handful of Almonds


In the world of Theravada monasteries this is the ‘Kathina’ season. Kathina is a big event, in many monasteries the biggest event of the year. At any place where a Kathina is being held, you can hear the explanatory story: in the time of the Buddha a group of bhikkhus were making their way to where the Buddha was staying in order to spend the three-months Rains Retreat with him. However the monsoon rains had swelled the rivers and made the land impassable, so, deeply disappointed, the group had to spend the three months during which a bhikkhu is barred from wandering in a place nearby. Still, they settled into the situation as it was, and spent the Rains together in harmony. However as soon as the Retreat had concluded, they hastened to meet the Buddha before he started to move on. Hearing of their difficulties, the Buddha recommended that they make up a frame on which cloth could be stretched out to assist in sewing robes. This frame was called a ‘Kathina.’ He also stipulated that they should choose one of their number to receive a robe from this cloth, a robe that the others would all help in making. As the cloth would only accrue through the free-will generosity of lay people, this Kathina-event would set a happy seal, one of giving and working together, on the Rains retreat.

The tradition has carried on as a yearly event. The Sangha aren’t allowed to initiate it; so the Kathina is organized by the lay community. Therefore it has become a festival that celebrates both the harmony of the Sangha and the bond between the lay and monastic communities. I’m attending four Kathinas this month, but wherever you go in Theravada-land the scenario is much the same every year. The organizers themselves have generally been planning and inviting and gathering funds for the best part of a year, so that along with the robe-cloth there will be offerings of the range of requisites, including money, that the monastery may need to keep going. There will be free food and drinks for all, and in less strictly focused monasteries some light entertainment on the side. For bhikkhus and nuns it’s also a warm and lively occasion to which they often travel from afar just to visit their Dhamma-companions, ordained or not. So the social aspect of the event is a major factor - rather like Christmas or New Year, the aim is to bring together family and friends, as well as parties who have become estranged. In years gone by, a Kathina at Cittaviveka was held as an occasion for the various groups in the Cambodian community – supporters of the Khmer Rouge, Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen – to find common ground. After a civil war in which a third of the population had died, the one thing they could get together around was offering alms to the Sangha.

In the West it’s also an occasion for Westerners to participate in a culture (as distinct from meditate, or study Dhamma). At first, the more serious types feel out of place: Kathina is anything but quiet - it’s crowded, and the overall mood is one of good-natured chaos. But as newcomers start to merge into the general flow of it all, a sense of belonging, of gratitude and of participation in a living tradition start to rise up. And this sense offers a precious heart-perspective on monasteries, Buddhism, and human beings in general. None of these, as one finds out, are ideal or perfect. And we can itch to understand them or set them straight. But when we meet the human experience through the focus of non-harming, generosity and participation, our minds turn around. Rather than fixing and judging, we can meet the good within this human condition and celebrate it. That brings up something precious and joyful in ourselves, and there’s a chance for a new start.

A friend of mine sent me series of reports from his travels in India; of which one small event in Ladakh stays in my mind. He was walking down a hillside-track and came across a woman standing doing nothing much (which is something you come across in places where there’s nothing much that can be done). As he passed by her, she reached out her hand and opened it. In it was a handful of almonds. My friend wondered what she wanted…money presumably - but he didn’t have any on him and made signs to that effect. But the woman just laughed a little and proffered the almonds. My friend took a few, cautiously at first; she gestured for him to take more. Eventually he got it: she just wanted to give him a handful of almonds!

Events like this, and the attitudes that they bring up are wonderful teachers. We can see on one hand, our own notions of payment and our nervous response to ‘free offers’ (‘Where’s the catch?’). We can calculate who deserves what and how much; we can feel embarrassed by generosity, or under an obligation to pay it all back somehow. And when those attitudes are seen and found to be unpleasant, as well as unnecessary, something realises how much we gain from meeting another person in a straightforward benevolent way. You feel stopped in your tracks, opened out of your calculating mind-set, and blessed with a new perspective: being here as a human is a co-operative project - join in or get stuck in yourself. The choice is to open up or be wretched.

Alms and the giving of them is not exclusively Buddhist. It’s one of the five duties of a practising Muslim, was the axis of the life of Christian friars, and as hospitality to the traveler (‘the guest is God in your home’ is the Indian maxim) is/was the norm in pre-industrialised cultures. In the wages- culture of course, giving alms doesn’t make sense. Claude Thomas, the Vietnam Veteran-turned Zen monk commented that on his cross-continental peace walks, he received greater welcome in Cambodia than in Ohio. It’s not that people are that different, but in societies where there’s an emphasis on being paid for work, on earning, deserving, and being independent, a stranger evokes unease. (‘What do they want from me?). In cultures where what counts is relationship to other people, where that rather than the company or the bank, is what sees you through, giving and sharing is common sense. It’s also a source of self-respect, and joy.

On this point, the Buddha was very clear:
Bhikkhus, if beings knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given nor would they allow the stain of meanness to obsess them and take root in their minds. ( Itivuttaka, ‘Ones’, 6).

However, people have to come to that conclusion by themselves; the spirit of Buddhist alms mendicancy is to make no demands. To the samanas the Buddha’s exhortation was to share whatever is freely offered - ‘even the contents of your alms-bowls’- with one’s companions. So an alms-culture is a special one. And once you appreciate the play of it, monasteries start to shine. For example, in the Kathina ceremony, all of the requisites ( sometimes truckloads) are offered to the one chosen individual. There is a great affirmative ‘Sadhu!’ - then an acknowledgement is chanted…and then the chosen individual announces that all the requisites he has received are to be shared out, or kept for the use of the entire community and for anyone who comes to practise in the monastery. So in the alms-culture, material stuff is steered away from gains and jealousy. Instead it gets passed around and brings people together. In the larger world, monasteries in Asia will channel their resources towards supporting hospitals, schools, orphanages or improvements in the local village. In the West, support goes towards producing free-distribution books and CDs, whilst surplus food, clothes and toiletries go to shelters for the homeless, hospices and the like. And the vast majority of all donations goes towards supporting these amazing places where you can stay and receive teachings free of charge.

This year’s Kathinas in our group of monasteries will also be the last occasions when Ven. Ajahn Sumedho will preside as Abbot of Amaravati. His immediate future at least is going to unfold in Thailand. So there is a prolonged leave-taking, and obviously a very poignant mood: sad, grateful and wishing him well. People are gathering to express their gratitude; and for the more elderly there is the sense of farewell. Having been with him in England since 1978, I’ve seen huge developments that have resulted from his teachings, and the places that have sprung up to support their being put into practice. He has offered a massive handful of Dhamma. But as he himself acknowledges, he and his Sangha have just tapped into and given full occasion for a flow of goodness that is triggered by examples of morality, renunciation and benevolence. And even more useful, when that flow starts generating good feeling and freedom from isolation, it doesn’t have to stop with supporting monasteries. It may be that as the global financial system totters around the edge of collapse, and as societies fragment into factions, giving and sharing will make fully clear the value of a handful of almonds.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Boundary Issues


This arrangement of stones sits on a lawn outside the Main House of Cittaviveka. What it represents is the boundary of a sīma (pronounced ‘seemah’), established by Ven. Anandamaitreyya Mahanayaka Thera in 1981. A sīma is nowadays understood to be a precinct within which formal acts of the Sangha (sanghakamma) such as ordinations and recitations of the Rule can be performed; a consecrated area if you like. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll go into that later. The current news is that this sīma, which was the first one to be formally placed in the West, is about to be deconsecrated so that we can replace it with one inside the Dhamma Hall. Howls of protest? This is understandable - Theravada, in line with the British psyche, greatly venerates the past: part of its meaning stems from the sense of tradition and continuity in time. So just as in this country we have settled on a monarchy that has no functioning power in the affairs of state, but remains as some token of the national identity (and a tourist attraction) we have after years of deliberation, decided to shift the ‘consecration’ to a place where we can perform our formal business in the dry and out of the cold, but keep the marker stones there as a memorial. A vote for functionality over venerability! Actually I think Ven Anandamaitreyya, a pragmatist keen on breaking out of ritualism, would be fine with that. The most important marker remains, one which is more than a matter of location: the slab set flat in the ground is labelled with his chosen words (translated as ) ‘Vinaya-discipline is the life-force of Buddhism.’ Fittingly placed outside the sīma, it describes the greater boundary that the Sangha should dwell within.

Still it may sound odd to make so much of the system of rules, protocols and procedures that constitute Vinaya - what about spirit? What about all-embracing kindness and compassion - with an intent that is measureless ‘to others as to myself?’ True enough...and the goal of the Unconditioned, the release from all definitions, is itself signless, without mark or boundary, and an escape from the constraints of any time or place. No stones and squares in Nibbāna. The short resolution to the apparent ‘boundary/boundless’ paradox is I think most succinctly expressed in Suzuki Roshi’s aphorism, ‘If you want to be a circle, you must first be a square.’ The release from greed, hatred, delusion, views and identity - all the forces that the mind gets stuck in and fired up by - comes around through restraining their influence and through working on them. For that you need exclusive boundaries; restraints around those physical and verbal actions that sweep you into consumer fever, into fixed views, or into ego-building. Also, for contemplative work, a sacred space, a ‘temple,’ is needed; in physical terms, that means a boundary marked out on the ground within which one stands observing these forces of nature. So this is an inclusive boundary, one whose function is to gather in. In this respect, the Buddha offered the four boundaries of mindfulness - mindfulness of body, feeling, mind-states and spiritual processes. Within these there can be a gathering of potency and one-pointedness which informs (literally gives form to) and decides how and whether to act. Furthermore you have to abide within the boundaries for as long as it takes for qualities of sensitivity, spaciousness and strength to arise. Otherwise you don’t stand still long enough to fully know anything, and the mind chases (or are chased by) thoughts, emotions, sensations and energies.

So the boundaries of Buddhism are Dhamma-Vinaya. Vinaya, which it is a samana’s duty to live out and bring alive, is a teaching on the boundaries around action; Dhamma is the centring principle and practice which nourishes contemplation. Together they guard against and dismantle the overflows of passion, opinions, self-conceit and ignorance that well up in the mind. Thus held, without judgement, the pulls and obsessive grasping of our minds are acknowledged; thus acknowledged they can be looked into; thus held in awareness they resolve - and that which is boundless can be realised.

However, to return to the sīma: originally a sīma was a defined territory (which could be the size of a city park or a woodland), the boundaries of which were designated by a group of bhikkhus or bhikkhunis who lived within that territory, with the consent of the local lay community or king. It was a mutual thing, not necessarily owned by the Sangha, but comprising their catchment area - the point being that if you lived within that sīma, you were a member of the governance body of that group. This governance might allocate robes to one member, vote on their various officers who would act on behalf of the group, deal with accusations made against a member, or settle disputes. This then is a local sangha, not a boundless community of all spiritually inclined beings, but a governance body that works in accordance with established standards. Some of the principles of that governance, or ‘sanghakamma’ are: that a vote has to receive unanimous consent before it is passed; that the group can’t make a decision about a person or another group without that party being present; and that in cases of accusation over behaviour, the standard (except in extreme cases), is that the accused party themselves has to confess to a misdemeanour. In such a case, after repeated questioning and evidence to the contrary, a miscreant doesn’t come clean, all that the group can do is declare that that party is no longer a member of the group. Which I guess is reasonable enough. You’re still a member of the wider Sangha, but if the rest of us have no confidence in what you’re doing, then you’re not really part of our local group. The recognition is that in conventional terms, the ways have parted.

One of the most important features of sanghakamma is that the ‘presence’ of all members including accused parties and opposing factions is defined as being ‘face to face’ (sammukhāvinaya) when a topic is being discussed. So as decision-making became more important, sīmas themselves shrank in size to the small precincts that we have today to ensure that everyone’s presence was immediately verifiable. This is wise because the human nervous system responds to messages holistically. That is, only between 7% and 10% of the meaning of any spoken words is communicated by the words themselves. The rest is by voice tone, body language, pauses, and having background understanding of the nature of the people involved. So if you aren’t there ‘face to face’ you don’t fully know and you can’t make a truly informed judgement. Moreover, any reporter on what has occurred will also add a similar percentage of their own meaning to the report via their voice tone and body language.

This is a wake-up reflection: when so much communication is via report and speculation, and is prone to exaggeration, what can we really know for ourselves? Few people are deliberately lying, but the less direct access you have to a topic, the more relevant is the Buddha’s encouragement to the Kālāmas:

...do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in your scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else's ability or with the thought ‘this person is our teacher.’...When you know in yourselves, ‘These things are unprofitable, censurable, condemned by the wise, being adopted and put into effect they lead to harm and suffering’ then you should abandon them... When you know in yourselves, ‘These things are profitable (etc)’ then you should practise them and abide in them.
Anguttara: 4. 65


How we ‘know in ourselves’ has to be through a fuller means than accepting the truth of a report. It seems to me that to ‘know in oneself’ implies establishing the inclusive boundaries of mindfulness. That is being aware of the embodied feeling and mind-states that arise in the context of the topic in hand. Then we really get what it means to us, and an appropriate response can occur. For example, when I read articles on the rights and wrongs of the world or of Buddhism, I consider ‘What’s the assumed basis, the body of this? What’s the context? Is a range of views expressed, or is this one-sided? What mind-state is this coming from? How is the article trying to include and affect me?’ and with no-one being present, when there are no common boundaries, all I get is a sense of the mind-state of the reporter and a ‘maybe so’ to what they’re saying. Nothing has really fully taken form apart from a set of reactions. Yet this kind of communication, an ‘uninvolved inclusion’ in which no-one is apparently excluded, but few reliable factors are included, is the means whereby most of us make up our world.

So I don't go in for internet discussion, because there are no clear boundaries. Operating within boundaries however means there is the factor of involvement. You can fully express, deeply listen and also get a good feel for what’s going on. Views can be expressed and hammered out or soothed in the spirit of confidentiality - particularly important when settling disputes and accusations. Having local boundaries also allows room for diversity. If you don’t like this groups’s observances or allocation of robes, you step outside that boundary. So whilst the major issues would be resolved by the Buddha (and after him by Sangha Councils) local decisions around in-house matters could occur without causing a schism.

One result of this was the creation of various schools and lineages that have never formally split, but whose boundaries arose through following decisions made dependent on climate, specific customs and other factors particular to the location. However, as the Sangha was primarily a group of wanderers, as the members moved the ‘territories’ became internalised and moved with them. This has led to oddities such as the veneration and continuation of customs that make sense in their native land, but don’t fit elsewhere. There’s a confusion between the territories as the mind-set of the group, and the territory of the local culture. Which is generally resolved by referring to the greater boundary of the Dhamma-Vinaya and flexing the local boundaries until a fit is mutually arrived at.

So local boundaries should not be brick walls; there has to be the ability to include. For a start, anyone who can live up to the requirements of the life can enter the Sangha, bring new attitudes to bear and vote. Furthermore, far from being deaf to the concerns of others, the Buddha made many of the rulings that govern the Sangha in response to lay people’s complaints. The lay community can further keep the local sangha in check by refusing to feed them (as in one noted occasion in the time of the Buddha). Where appeals to reason fails, appeal to the belly may yet succeed. So if Sangha works it’s through the grace and co-operation of a fourfold ‘assembly’ (pārisa) of lay people and of samanas living under the Vinaya. That’s the largest human boundary. The Buddha saw this four-fold assembly as a development that would allow him to pass away in the peaceful knowledge that the results of his work had a firm place on the earth.

However to qualify for inclusion there’s the need to deal with one’s own pain and not dump on the group. And part of that is about working on boundary issues. Through friends, territories, walls and inner spaces, we establish boundaries within which each of us feels comfortable and stable - so we can gather and rest in ourselves and also be present with another without feeling overwhelmed and invaded, and without invading and overwhelming others. People get bruised and abused when boundaries around time, place, and confidentiality aren’t there. And if this is chronic, there is a corresponding mistrust, fear or resentment of ‘them’ ( the power group, the rebels, the others).

Yet part of what life brings us is the experience of ‘them’- when another is not included. Moreover there’s ‘it’ - internal boundaries form around what aspects of our consciousness we can’t bring to light and accept. And until I can be present with my own ‘it’ of fear and anger, then I can’t be present with yours, or with what happens between us - and then my ‘it’ becomes ‘you/him/her/them’. Accordingly much of Dhamma-work is about clearing the difficult stuff - but that entails consciously establishing the boundaries of mindfulness, and even then knowing ‘this as much as I can handle of grief/rage/ lust before I get lost and start dumping it on others.’ Doing this personal work is what entitles us to be members of the group.

So something to reflect on is whether we're aware of each other’s boundaries, or check: ‘Is this a good time/place to talk about this?’; ‘Shouldn’t we include so-and-so in this topic?’ ; ‘Do you think that you could give the two of us a few minutes to talk about this in private.’ We can get bashful about placing reasonable boundary markers, such as ‘Sorry, I don’t have the energy to do this right now’; ‘ It’s late and my mind’s not clear - can we talk about this in the morning?’ ‘I need to consult so-and-so before I can give you an answer on that one.’ Frustrating? In my experience with Sangha, it can take months, even years, until everyone has settled and the potency gathered to arrive at a decision: but if a decision gets forced, it generally doesn’t last. Meanwhile an unbounded discussion becomes incoherent and shallow - no-one’s going to go into the deep stuff if what they say is going to be blabbed to the world. So pointing out and mutually determining boundaries is a vital part of the process of decision-making. It’s a good understanding to arrive at.

And also that in all of this the non-differentiating intent of good-will is essential; it allows for the boundaries, by encouraging kindness to all that which feels other, weird or unacceptable ‘as to myself.’ It doesn’t remove the boundaries, but it respects our limitations at this time. ‘May you be well and may I be well - and that works best if we take a break from being with each other at this time...’ Or, ‘You can lead in this area and I’ll take care of this.’ With such an acknowledgement - and the trust that we can still share what is beyond differentiation - anger, fear or the sadness of being excluded don’t have to occur.

On the other hand, blind inclusion - a ‘we’ that doesn’t respect the different ‘me’s in it - is conformism not harmony. I remember an account that Ram Dass gave on this theme. He was teaching a group of social activists on spiritual themes, and began with the view ‘we are all One.’ However, being activists, the group was quick to set him straight. First the black, Afro-Americans members got up and spoke with passion about their own particular history of slavery and discrimination: ‘We’re not all One, we're the oppressed.’ Then the women got up and talked at length on the problems that were peculiar to their group - misogyny, male domination, etc.: ‘It’s not all the same - we’re an oppressed group.’ Finally the white males got their chance - amid a rising tide of emotion they recounted their history: centuries of domination by Church and State, co-opted as slaves by the forces of capitalism and industrialisation, and now saddled with the projections of every other group. ‘We’re the oppressed.’ Finally the entire group could settle: ‘We’re all oppressed. We’re all One.’ In the clear expression of differences - within a safe boundary - qualities of the heart arise that recognise the unity.

We’re all One in suffering, and in the wish to get free of it. To realise that wish requires working within supportive boundaries - who, what and how to exclude, and who, what and how to fully include. We can move the boundaries, but boundaries are needed. It’s only then that we can find our place and settle down in it to do the real work of knocking down the walls of delusion. Then what remains has no boundaries, because there’s no me or you in it.

Monday, 12 July 2010

E Pluribus Dhammam


Here I am with an old Dhamma-colleague, Dharma Master Heng Sure. Note the guitar. Rev. Heng Sure is a member of the Sangha of The Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas in Ukiah, California, a vast establishment that was formerly an asylum/prison for the criminally insane. It was converted into a Dharma Realm (containing monasteries for monks and nuns, a school for children and a University) under the leadership of the Chinese Master Hsuan Hua. So this, as you might deduce, is Mahayana. A day in the City begins with paying homage to innumerable Buddhas, bodhisattvas and patriarchs in all directions; proceeds with transforming the anguished souls of the departed through the blessing power of Kwan Yin Bodhisattva, earnest sutra study and practice, and closes with a group recitation of the Surangama Mantra every evening to ward off demons. From time to time, there are Repentance Ceremonies to clear the bad kamma of previous lifetimes; the overall vision is one of transmitting the countless blessings of the Dharma throughout the Cosmos. Solid Great Vehicle stuff. To clear some kammic errors and up the merit a tad, Dharma Master Heng Sure himself did a bowing pilgrimage with another monk back in the 1970s. They proceeded (very slowly, and through all seasons) up Highway 101 along the coast between Los Angeles and Ukiah (to the amazement of passing traffic) at a rate of three steps, one full-length prostration. He also refrained from speaking throughout the two years and nine months that it took. It’s a practice that goes beyond stress-reduction – although of course there’s room for that too. But the Great Vehicle doesn’t do things in a small way. The place where this photo was taken is Abhayagiri Monastery, situated on land that was originally gifted to our community by Master Hsuan Hua.

The guitar? Since leaving the City to reside in Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, Rev Heng Sure has concerned himself with transmitting the Dharma in ways that may reach those whom sitting quietly doesn’t. He has worked extensively on translating the Sutras from Chinese to English; but the guitar is another medium of translating the Dharma to which he turns his mind. You can hear samples of his Dharma songs at www.paramita.org.

I’m still poking away at watching my breath and a few wholesome etceteras, but I am moved by the aspirations and outreach of the multiple forms of Dhamma. And USA, from which I’ve recently returned, certainly gives you the sense of celebration of plurality. Amongst a few other things, I taught a retreat at Spirit Rock with Ajahn Metta which was attended by a multi-faceted gathering of ninety-two people  – a full house of retreatants. As the retreat was held on a ‘no charge, give what you can’ basis, it allowed for a greater diversity (younger people, people of colour) than retreats that by their entrance fee tend to be limited to the more affluent – in which the middle-aged professional white strata predominate. So this was great, and one of the offerings one can make as a ‘no-fees’ mendicant.

The USA interests me by its diversity and its struggles and successes in that. Notably on the cosmopolitan coasts, the surnames of those who attend retreats reveals the breadth of origins that make up the national mix. While the heartland of the continent leans towards the conservative and fundamentalist end of the spectrum, the fringes proudly brandish options in all things. Including the diversity of kamma. The questionnaire that each retreatant has to fill in includes blanks to write in the range of previous retreats one has had (often an eclectic slew), along with three options for gender, and enquiries as to one’s therapist, current medication, record of abuse and any attempts at suicide. Here is 21st century humanity; and about the only stand one take towards it is one of awe and compassion.

Such diversity catalyses a unifying principle in the mind. For example, when I go for a cup of coffee and am conducted through a process of dialogue to arrive at a ‘Colombian medium-roast, semi-caffeinated, soya latte, tall’ (= American for ‘small’, a no-no concept) and my mind starts to go numb, I know I have to find balance in intention. I can’t expect the world to be simple, but I can find a still centre in simply letting go of my views. To be with how it is without making anything of it. Then a quietness opens that can include, but doesn’t partake of things. It sounds small, but for me it takes an intention focused on letting go of the push, pull and proliferation of the mind. A major practice.

To back that up: in the first sutta of the Long Discourses (The Supreme Net/Brahmajāla), the Buddha, having sketched out his impeccable standards of behaviour as a ‘minor matter’ goes on to expound the sixty-two kinds of views that contemplatives held over the nature of the Cosmos, the Self, the relationship between the two, and what occurs after death. And to all of these he adds the statement:
This, monks, the Tathāgata understands: These view-points thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such destinations in another world. This the Tathāgata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge. And being thus unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathāgata is liberated without remainder. (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, Maurice Walshe, Wisdom, Boston.)

Note that in the Brahmajāla, the Buddha makes his only statement that of the way to release; he doesn’t concern himself with a rebuttal of any view. We can learn from that how to handle the relative rights and wrongs of life, and get them in perspective. In my little world, many of the people I teach enter Dhamma through sitting in meditation; such folk tend to discount chanting, repentance, and rituals. There are those who advocate compassionate action and getting off the cushion; and I’m also in touch with scholars writing papers on the finer implications of the word ‘sacca’ ( is it truth, is it reality, is it honesty?) Then again there are those who celebrate the feminine; there are movements towards liberalising the tradition, and there are those who want to get back to the roots. My head spins if I try to fathom or syncretise it all; and my heart contracts if I dismiss any of it. Accordingly, I teach and practise intention: what is your awareness doing now, where is it taking a stand? Is it absolutising the relative? Or on the other hand, do we dismiss the validity of having a relative point of view? By which I mean that there’s an error in avoiding a point of view or in adopting a definite practice (such as it’s a good idea to spend some time every day sitting quietly focused on breathing). We can hold to the view that ‘all views and relative positions are invalid.’ No, attachment to that view is madness. Whilst a life bound to a point of view has little scope and growth, a life that can’t make good use of points of view has no foundation and no direction.

Hence I teach intention, and of making intention much more than an idea, but of an alignment that is clearly conceivable, heartfully felt and backed up by one’s felt embodiment. One has to stand one’s ground, such as it is, feel it down to one’s nerve endings, and know it in the gut. And for Dhamma-practitioners, that means first of all bringing body, heart and thought into connection and into harmony. Often the first step in this is to keep turning the mind in a sincere and peaceful way to the sensations in the body, or more specifically those associated with breathing. As the connection gets made, as we feel the energy and effects of our thoughts and emotions on our body, we learn a few immediate things about skilful and unskilful by the tension or buoyancy of the felt body. Then you know you have to live in a way that keeps you in touch with the wisdom of that. You have to walk your talk, and know it is purely and humbly your own. This is the entry to a life of ‘three steps, one bow.’

Then within diversity of experience, there is a central guide, or Dhamma. You realise that not only are we living in a diversified world, but each of us is a diversity – my body feels like this, my mind wants that. The mind itself is no thing, but a changing presentation of states that come and go and don’t always harmonise. Nor is there any final sublime state, or unifying self to distil out of all this. Because of this being-diversity, we can only find balance through non-attachment to any single position or statement. And that means we can meet them all, and use the ones that currently can support our intention towards peace, truth and goodness. ‘I assert and proclaim such [a teaching] as does not quarrel with anyone in the world’ says the Buddha (Honeyball sutta).

The Buddha's teachings offer ways to specifically find that centre of non-attachment and non-contention, both in ourselves and in relationship to others. Through such work there can then be a release from the diversity of mind - but not into any single state, level, or attitude. If that release can stand as our unifying intention, there’s room for action, room to work out kamma, room for you and me, and a way to the Beyond.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Who We Really Are


This was in Kyoto. The two ladies are maiko, apprentice geisha, who offer their services as entertainers and evening companions (to those who can afford it). I was visiting Japan with a fellow-monk, and at the sight of this strange confluence of paired males and females wearing iconic robes/dress, someone took a photo.

I’ve never been that comfortable with self-presentation, but I’ve learned to get used to being photographed. After all it’s not me that’s in the frame, but the monk.  We can’t avoid presentation, so maybe the safest way is to make it clear that this is what it is, and abide with the integrity to live out what it refers to.  You don’t go to a monk to get a review of who’s who in the football world. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with these interests, but they’re inappropriate to the aims and values of what is being presented.

The responsibility of carrying such an iconic form, and of living within its outlines is quite a challenge to the personality.  In my noviciate, the doubt I had about taking on bhikkhu life was not about celibacy or not handling money, but more to do with personal freedom. To go for a walk in the park with my dog if I felt like it. To have a lie-in and read the papers in bed, with breakfast, if I so chose. To hang out with a few buddies playing music in the evening. To be me, or what had become me anyway. And what’s the harm in that? Fortunately, one isn’t expected to make a life-time commitment to bhikkhu training, and I thought the experience, notably the meditation, would do me some good. I might even get enlightened, and then disrobe and then take an enlightened walk in the park with my dog…

At first, being a monk isn’t that demanding in terms of presentation. As a junior monk, one isn’t in the spotlight, and having one’s robe fall off, eating chocolate with unrestrained glee, and making verbal gaffes are met with a few sighs by one’s elders and smiles from the benevolent laity. However the criteria get more exacting as the years go by.  As one becomes a spiritual representative, one’s facial expression is scrutinised for signs of the disapproval that, as the projection of people’s relentless super-egos, one must surely feel for all beings. Humorous asides are recorded and examined for signs of disillusionment, repressed sexual desires, or misanthropy.  Twist your neck to relieve a painful cramp and whoever your slightly strained face points towards will feel condemned, perhaps for a lifetime.  

Personality and presentation. For a samana, and a teacher, if we don’t act in accordance with what we represent, there is a weakening and even a betrayal of the faith that others place in us.  Obviously one’s moral standards must be reliable, but what about those personal interests and talents? What does one do with one’s historical, individual personality? I’d say it’s a long process, not cosmetic surgery.  And it’s a deep process, one that involves meeting  the kamma that has made me ‘who I am.’ In the crucible of awareness, there can then be a transmutation of all those inclinations and know-how, in which nothing valid is lost, nothing unique and truly joyful has to be abandoned.  It is perhaps the most attractive accomplishment of realised beings – that their warmth, stability and wit can be directed towards liberation.  Because the living humanity of a selfless person is a lasting inspiration, even when the texts run dry and the meditation gets stuck.
There’s a lot of confusion around about being a person. The word itself comes from ‘persona’ which in Roman times was the mask that an actor wore to represent the hero he was enacting; it was the means of ‘sounding through’ the character of that part.  A persona was certainly not a representation of who the actor thought and felt he was.  Personality, as each individual’s definitive character – which we’d call ‘ego’ – dates from the late 18th century. No wonder the scriptures make no mention of the personality of the Buddha or his disciples – it just wasn’t a reference. Our confusion around this ‘definitive character’ is to make it definitive, a statement of who I am, rather than a collection of programs that best meet the world. We imagine ego to either be an essential and lasting self, or to be connected to it. The ‘right’ (understandable, popular) ego-personality can make people vote for it, and open the door to tremendous fame and power.  Meanwhile for each individual who holds personality as a true self, as a motivating and essential psychological centre,  there is pressure. If self makes the right impressions and attracts, all well and good – if it doesn’t, there’s a problem. Yet no matter how well it goes down, does such an ego-bound self give anyone real assurance? The big names often teeter on the brink of anxiety, depression, drug abuse and suicide.  Supporting a public personality is a demanding task. 

And yet everyone has a personality; it’s a natural development of mental behaviours that facilitates our lives as social humans. When we’re born, we’re born with the potential for its development because personality – how we look and present ourselves – does the vital job of acting as an interface. It’s an interactive display that summarises what behaviour or performance you, the other, can expect from it. But as the criteria for performance and behaviour get exacting, the personal self becomes highly stressed: if you don’t do good (fun, efficient, sexy) enough, you aren’t good enough. This stress is the dis-ease that receives attention and consideration in spiritual circles. 

One theme that can come out of this is to be true to yourself, or to know who you really are, beneath or within the personality. It’s an approach that’s aimed at authenticity; at presenting an interface that most accurately aligns itself to what is happening in the mind. For that, you have to both be in touch with your ‘inner life’ and be prepared to stand by it as you present it. There’s something worthy in that. After all, if you can’t bring it out, shouldn’t you discard or shift what’s there? However, is all of one’s inner life that interesting, worth bringing out, or of a truer order than what’s on the surface? Maybe all that too is conditioned and subject to stress. And it can rightly be argued that a lot of social interaction isn’t supposed to be about mirroring one’s inner depth; it’s mostly about getting through the day of functions with as least snagging and conflict as possible.  ‘How are you?’ is mostly not a request for an in-depth analysis and presentation, but a gesture to facilitate superficial exchange.  And in the wide sphere of interactions in the workaday world, superficiality is important: get on with the play of events, don’t get bogged down in depth of presence.  

Nevertheless, spiritual friendship is one of the major resources for development. In the Buddhist sense of the word, such a friendship isn’t aimed at validating our experience as true and essential, but at providing a context in which our inner life can be brought to light for our own inquiry.  Without such a relationship, we may not even know ourselves, and may get very disoriented and unbalanced.  But the aim of bringing all of the mind into the light isn’t to know who we are, but what we’re dealing with.

The quest to know who we really are is problematic. The Buddha didn’t teach anyone to know who they really were and then to align their personality with that. His emphasis was to know stress, pressure and suffering and to eliminate that; as a consequence one’s behaviour, disposition and energies do get transformed. Because it is the dynamic of moods, energies and inclinations that occupy the focus of Buddhist introspection rather than a quest for a unitary picture: ‘this is what I am.’  In fact, a search for or explanation of ‘what we really are’ obscures or freezes that ongoing dynamic by aiming to locate and capture certain elements. There is a bias in the how attention is applied: one takes up an attitude of ‘this is what I am, or need to be, or am not ashamed of being.’  And that attitude contains a pressure; that there’s something that must be expressed, brought out in relationship or protected.  Furthermore, any sense of being something requires the continuation of that something in time – so what happens when we (apparently) die? Where does it go then? Back to the cosmic melting pot? Even more to the point: where or when and why did ‘what I really am’ get into this changing and mortal show? If it chose to climb into the ring with struggle, sickness, ageing and death, ‘what I really am’ wasn’t that smart, was it? Or maybe, one places the self on an epic stage:  ‘There was something I needed to work out, was meant to be in this lifetime.’ In which case my fundamental self was incomplete – so how fundamental was it? On the other hand, if there is a sublime presence that is here and accessible to me, but isn’t a mortal identity – why call it a self in the first place? Why does it need to be labelled?  Therefore, perhaps through seeing these pitfalls, the Buddha would not affirm identity as a goal of the path of liberation. He just taught a practice-path out of suffering, including the agitation that comes with conceiving of self.  Taking on that practice path will bring to light the resources that then present themselves at the personal interface – a persona that isn’t bound by the fears and needs of the ego.

So it may seem that ‘my messy old self can just be tolerated until I disband the whole thing.’  That’s the way Buddhist practice may seem, especially as heading the list of major ‘fetters,’ obstacles to enlightenment, is ‘personality view.’ This fetter is the assumption that the personality system is a real and lasting identity; and with practice that fetter is abandoned. However, the way to cut that fetter is not through denying, suppressing or being careless about the personality, but through handling and purifying the impulses, attitudes and energies that mould it. In other words, to know it for what it is, not to eliminate it. (After all it does a vital job.) For this reason, the Buddha advocated the skill of self-reference, of personal integrity, self-respect and skilful relationships with others. He emphatically didn’t teach self-annihilation. 

The difference between identifying with a personality and handling it skilfully is an important one, something that meditators some times fail to grasp.  On a large retreat that I taught a while ago, three practitioners had experiences that they equated with losing their sense of self.  What this meant was that their sense of being in an interactive context ( not that there’s much of that on a retreat), or of connection to personal history, was highly reduced.  For one of them this was source of concern and even distress, whilst  other two equated their lack of social integration or reference to their fellow practitioners experience with a state of realisation, a glimpse or penetration into nibbāna. After all, ‘no-one in here and no-one out there’; no sense of being affected or interested in functions and identities, sounds like an experience that has left the superficial personal world behind. 

Although one of the three was rightly distressed, it took a while for the other two to recognise that their minds were losing balance.  They had actually been studying Buddhism and meditating for a longer time than the first person. And for them it wasn’t intense introspection, but eventually the disorientation in their behaviour, that showed them that their ‘non-self’ experience was a psychological malfunction.  In other words, the wake-up call came from the personality noticing that their interactions in the external world were distorted. Which validates the need for the other aspect of the Buddha’s teachings – Vinaya – a training in correct or appropriate behaviour.  So the realm and concerns of the personality are not to be abandoned; it’s just the making of a righteous, anxious or obsessive self out of all that that is to be seen through as stressful, and consequently put aside. 

One of the shortcomings of intensive retreat situations is that the emphasis on ‘going inwards,’ on being on your own and refraining from interaction, can displace the personality energies rather than purify them.  That mode of experience may indeed lead to a magnification of the picture of what’s happening in the mind. And one might even experience unusually heightened states of calm or rapture or concentration. However, one is in danger of losing the balance between inner and outer, between self and other; a balance that is the essence of full holistic awareness. As the Buddha succinctly put it:

he abides contemplating mind-objects ( dhamma) internally, or..contemplating mind-objects externally, or..contemplating mind-objects both internally and externally. ( Satipatthana sutta, M.10)

If we keep angling the mind to disconnect from the interactive personality level ( an understandable way of side-stepping stress), it gets difficult to change the habit.  And it’s also the case that disconnection, rather than awakening, is what some people want. But with that there’s no correct attention to one’s kamma, no proper handling and easing of its confused energies, and no complete integration. Such a practitioner attempts to cut off their kamma through avoidance, rather than transmute it through wise attention. Knowing this tendency, meditation masters may include work duties or discussion periods as part of the practice. Actually, in monastic life there are generally a whole range of duties – such as walking out on alms round, cleaning the monastery buildings and learning to chant together – that are a standard. One is also often living with a range of personalities some of whom one has no affinities for , or even would never have chosen to be with.  Although this may not support my manifesting who I really am (because not everyone is interested) it does provide a practitioner with a rich source of mindful practice. And it helps to keep people balanced and in touch.

So living the balance between personality and not-self requires us to inquire into and mindfully cultivate what makes up our personality, but in a way that absolves it from egotistical pressure and bias.  When you go to the source of it, ‘what I really am’ requires bodily presence, heart (the intelligence of empathy and response) and object discernment (how a thing appears to be, not how I feel about it). In brief, for mental consciousness to fully sense and organise experience into ‘me being in the world,’ takes body, heart and head. And whether we want to get out of the world or find our true place in it, first of all we have to know what that experience of ‘being in’ is about. If you try to cut off that experience, you get unbalanced, or even go crazy.

Bodily presence gets developed through bringing attention to posture – standing, sitting, and walking; a basis for meditation.  This keeps grounding the mind in being here. And as the practice develops, it attunes us to the body’s intelligence – of which the sense of balance is the most apparent aspect. But along with comes an enhanced kinaesthetic sense, restoring the body’s co-ordination, agility and sensitivity. These two alone give meditation a suitable ‘non-sensual’ pleasure that is yet fully embodied. I emphasise this intelligence in meditation practice because it is often lost – through propping the body on convenient surfaces, sitting passively in chairs and abandoning feet in favour of wheels, people lumber and lurch around, and get to live in their heads.  Also, a lot of the emotional agitation that powers incessant thinking comes from not fully inhabiting where we are. So there is an ontological insecurity that throws everything out.

To counteract that insecurity many people will rely on their heads.  So I am the thinker, and the thinker tells me what to do, and how well I’m doing, and what I should have done etc. Which means pressure and restlessness – and pain if we get to feel how incessant thinking feels.  Thus at a certain level of stress, the reaction is to cut off thinking, by fair means  or foul. And if I can’t do that, I cut off the heart; and that cuts off joy, empathy and wholeness. 

However, correct practice is a matter of balancing the energies and intelligences of body, heart and head. You start with getting grounded in your body, so that there’s a source of calm. You know where you are. Then through tuning in to the steady flow of the body’s in- and out-breathing, how you are gets to feel good. With bodily presence to relate to, the heart sense doesn’t get wound up in its emotions, and how we are doesn’t solidify into who I really am.  Then there can be empathy with others rather than projections and reactions. We’re less needy and therefore less disappointed by other people being the way they are.  There is presence, empathy and clear thinking, and they support each other.  That’s enough. As for who I really am – let other people argue about that.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Knowing Where You Are


‘You know where you are.’ The Western woman was passing comment on her few days as a guest at Wat Pah Nanachat, N.E. Thailand – the forest monastery for Westerners that was founded by Ajahn Sumedho under the auspices of Luang Por Chah back in 1974. In one respect ‘knowing where you are’ meant living in a section of the monastery walled off and reserved for women; it also meant that she would by and large not meet with the monks; and in the ‘colour-coded’ mode of dress that is the norm, she would be wearing a white blouse and long black sarong. Brown for monks and samaneras, white with a wrap for nuns, white without wrap for ‘pa kow’– long term eight precept men – and white and black for female guests. And that would be the order of the line-up for meals. Thais are firm on outward form and boundaries. You know where you are.

As we knew each other from England, we were conversing. It was her first time in a Thai monastery, so I’d wanted to know how it was going. Admittedly I felt apprehensive as, apart from the oddness of being in a foreign culture, the placing of people in terms of gender and the stratification of one’s position in the group can be a sensitive topic. In the West, we look towards equalising the relative positions – male and female politicians, soldiers and newsreaders; equal pay; Gender Discrimination policies etc. Moreover the woman I was talking with had been a campaigner for women’s rights in the 1960s. Now, much to my surprise, she was finding the clarity of the discriminative positioning calming and peaceful.

You know where you are. For Thais and perhaps for Asians in general, that brings the benefit of knowing how to relate to others and what one’s duties are towards family, employers, and the society in general - irrespective of the changeable and risky area of personal feelings. If you’re a taxi-driver you know that you’re up a notch from a rickshaw driver, but you’ll use the appropriate terms and gestures of respect to a doctor or a businesswoman. There isn’t the need to make assessments, check each other out, or decide and negotiate around who goes first – that’s all sorted out. Supporting this is the fact that, like many of the East Asian languages, Thai is rich with terms of respect that are to be used dependent on where you are in the social scale; correct speech is not the ‘PC’ that we’ve adopted in the West, but based on using the social placement gracefully. This can make Thais uncomfortable in addressing monks in English because they can’t use the ‘correct’ terms of respect – my language doesn’t have them. From our point of view, even when one has some skill in speaking Thai, it’s still difficult at times to really get the meaning of what is being said, because the style of address will contain hints, nuances and invitations rather than direct expressions of wants, dislikes or opinions. Confrontational speech is a complete no-no, and one has to listen carefully for signs of reluctance, evasiveness or low enthusiasm.‘Probably could do’ is more likely to mean ‘Don’t push further on this topic’ than ‘Great idea.’ This sense of personal modesty and understatement is especially a keynote in the monastic sub-culture: whereas Western novices find it stimulating to express a difference of opinion with their teachers (after all this will promote inquiry), among Thais disagreement with one who is senior has to be handled cautiously through hints.

Even more confusing for them, the body language of the West is a monotone. We all sit at the same height; we take whatever seat is available in a room or on a bus; we don’t address others with our hands in anjali; we queue up on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. On the other hand, in Thailand, it’s us Westerners who get confused. I remember shortly after taking on robes as a samanera, being introduced to a Thai lay supporter – who pressed his hands together in the anjali ( prayer-position) to greet me. So of course I made anjali back to him – with resultant confusion and embarrassment – and apologies from the monk who was supervising me. Now on a recent trip I noticed the similar scenario on the plane: the steward greeted all the passengers with her hands in anjali – the Thai passengers filed past her along the aisle with no response, and without even making eye-contact. In their eyes, I imagine, she was just showing that she was a properly cultivated person who knew where she was. Therefore things were in order and they could feel comfortable. The Western passengers all responded to the steward’s anjali by making anjali back and looking at her directly – thus establishing in their way, that they were friendly and were appreciative of her service. The steward retained a bright and even expression throughout. In her upbringing it was important not to show uneven or disturbing moods. This evenness is a social grace; it keeps whatever’s happening within from spilling out, and it preserves a safe sense of separateness. It’s quite the opposite from the West where expressing how you feel is considered a sign of being open and willing to meet the other person on an emotional (or even physical) level. A day in California without being hugged, giving or receiving direct feedback, or divulging intimacies is not quite hitting the mark on being real.

I’d say there are advantages and disadvantages to any social model. Brought up in the West, after graduating from university, I was free to travel and explore what I wanted to do with my life – which meant that at the age of twenty-five I could enter a monastery in Thailand and subsequently take up monastic training. In accordance with the standards laid down by the Buddha, I did have to ask my parents for their permission – which as Westerners they readily gave: this was what their adult son wanted to do, there was no expectation for me to support them, and no duty to produce children. Mentioning that in Malaysia to a group of ethnic Chinese, I could almost hear the jaws drop. Welfare state, free education, social security if you can’t find work, marry who you like and go where you want – such freedom! At times Asians do comment on the difficulties of being fixed in the family/social grid, with its emphasis on obedience and duty; it's that grid however which provides their guidelines, welfare state and source of warmth and belonging.

To make a simplification: the traditional Asian norm is to fit in with the norm, the Western one is to choose the norm that fits your disposition and needs. Over here it’s individual freedom, equal rights and opportunities. In the East, the terms are duties, responsibilities and respect – especially for elders. Actually, ‘respect’ is too limited a word to convey the range of qualities that establish this all -important social medium. Showing respect honours the one who gives it as much as the one who receives it; it establishes a relationship based upon responsibilities in the social order, rather than any personal merits or moods. It isn’t ‘fair’ – I pay respect to my ‘seniors’ who should not pay respect to me. However, it is orderly – and the senior has his/her duty to offer support, and be an advisor and guarantor for the ‘junior.’ Furthermore, where you are isn’t to be held as who you are. In fact ‘who you are’ is not so much a mystery as a wrong view. There isn’t a ‘who’ to it; there’s the ‘how’ of one’s dharma – one’s duties, actions, roles and responsibilities. There’s kamma, not self; there’s the occasion to perform according to the proper order, and the belief that true benefits, mundane and spiritual, will come from that.

Respect encompasses a range of actions and attitudes. Firstly there’s conventional respect – to one’s seniors. In monastic circles, respect to one’s teacher means that monks will generally go or stay where their teacher sends them. In Malaysia I stayed at a monastery which was being looked after by one Thai monk who spoke none of the local languages. My Thai is minimal, but I got to ask how he managed and why he was here. ‘Duty’ was the matter-of-fact reply. I don’t find this way of looking at things ro be common among Westerners. Then there’s also respect in terms of acknowledgement of the individual’s goodness or achievements; and there’s also respect as gratitude. All these aspects may come together in the relationship to one’s teacher, wherein massaging and even bathing him is the norm. While Luang Por Chah was being bathed by an American monk, Luang Por asked him: ‘Did you bathe your father?’ ‘No, Luang Por, we don’t bathe our fathers in New York.’ ‘That’s why you have problems.’ An inadequate sense of respect.

The stratification allows for bonding, but keeps the distinctions. Address to a ‘senior’, especially to a senior monk, generally involves adding the term ‘krap’ (‘ka’ for women), a word that implies acquiescence, at the end of each sentence. At times this is repeated, or strengthened with the more deferential ‘krapom,’ which one utters with one’s hands in anjali – and there are even more deferential and flowery ways of address that can’t be replicated in English in a way that doesn’t seem absurdly obsequious. But although ‘krap/ka’ can mean ‘yes, indeed’ or ‘aye-aye, sir/ma’am,’ it also can be ‘meaningless’ and used as a ‘marker’ of respect. This is a usage that’s found in other Asian countries. For example, when I was walking in India I might ask: ‘Does this road go to Patna?’, and almost certainly receive ‘yes’ as a reply. I would assume that this meant that the road does go to Patna. But not so; it might mean you could get to Patna via that road, just like you could go from London to Athens via Stockholm, but in general what the ‘yes’ really meant was something like ‘I’m attentive to your needs and wish to be helpful.’ What comes first is establishing the relationship, which now makes complete sense to me – we used to do this in England years ago with polite ‘meaningless’ conversation and cups of tea. So in Thailand when someone says ‘krap/ka’, both parties understand that this denotes the appropriate attention and even intention – but that doesn’t necessarily imply firm agreement, or mean that circumstances will allow that apparent agreement to be carried out. How could something so uncertain as the unfolding of the future be something we can expect to establish? But the relationship, which will determine how we interact, is clear and established time and time again through bodily and verbal marks of respect. Conformity to the letter of the decision isn’t expected; but a proper affirmation of the spirit of loyalty, regard and correct relationship is. That’s the basic duty.

The distinctness is also gender-based, and men and women don’t intermingle as freely as they do in the West. Like paying respect, this separation is emphasised in monastic life. For a start the wall around women in the monastery moves with them wherever they are in relationship to the monks. The need to support celibacy is part of it. Distance keeps things cool and clear in an area where people are liable to emotionally flow and merge into each other. A distance of at least two metres is the expected minimum; preferably if one’s voice can manage it, even more. Better still, don’t see each other at all. And then there’s the body language. When there is a need to communicate, the woman will be down a step, maybe even kneeling on the ground, and addressing me with hands in anjali. This threw me at first, but now I can switch to the Thai channel: the woman seems to be quite happy playing her part, and often seems more confident in that than I am in mine.

However the notion of not seeing women doesn’t stand a chance in a typical monastery whose lay congregation is largely female. Women’s familial sense – people first, functions second – and love of serving get channelled into devotional forms through a stable relationship with the group of monks (who as individuals remain unknown and who come and go). Men’s relational sense on the other hand is more ‘social’: to know what people can do and form teams and connections to achieve those aims. For men it’s vital to know who the team leader is – then we know who we are going to follow. For women that’s not so: following is optional, but relating is essential. Interestingly enough, both those modes operate amongst the monks: when the arrangement is social, it’s hierarchical and ‘male’, when it’s familial it’s more ‘female.’ By this I mean that there’s a lot of physical contact, and taking time to be at ease and hang out together. In my monastery, the monks will follow a monk for work, but take advice from the nuns when it comes down to a person’s mental or physical health. A woman applying as a candidate to the sisterhood will be thoroughly screened; for the men as long as you keep the rules, turn up to the right things at the right time and can work in the group, you’re in. The monks will give talks to a silent congregation, the nuns will shine in terms of addressing and counselling individuals or teach smaller groups in which there’s the opportunity for dialogue. There are distinctions that form quite naturally; but it’s not that one is more valid or necessary than the other.

I don’t know enough to say how it all works for Thai nuns. They seem to miss out in terms of the attention of the (female) lay congregation; and also in terms of any social relationship with the monks. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any authority – I’ve been to monasteries where the practical arrangements and finances were run by experienced nuns. And there are certainly many dedicated, skilful and wise nuns in Thailand. But for cultural and historical reasons, it’s the monks who are the Sangha and the bearers of the Dhamma, for the nuns, there’s just the opportunity to practise. This just isn’t a valid set-up for the West.

Here it's natural for nuns to have a more prominent role in Sangha affairs and in contributing to the Dhamma. In my opinion this isn't just to be fair, but because it's part of our conditioning. And transcendence has to include the conditioning – personal and cultural – of the practitioner. Otherwise one isn’t bringing one’s stuff into a Dhamma focus; we’re sidelining our kamma rather than owning it, inquiring into it and purifying it. So while we can draw great benefit from the long tap root (and still magnificent flowering) of Buddhist Thailand, we can’t ignore the norms and history of our local culture. In Britain, ‘knowing where you are’, also known as ‘knowing your place’ died out around the time when the First World War made such concerns irrelevant. In times of universal and senseless annihilation, one’s place in the social hierarchy doesn’t mean much. A generation of men were wiped out, women got the vote, the empire entered disintegration and the politics of the common man and woman became established. Nearly a century following on from all that, we’ve gone global and multi-cultural. Knowing (and staying) in your place is a thing of the past; and it doesn’t bring our current Western conditioning to light. I doubt if my English friend would have remained contented in her place in the Thai monastery for long.

It’s also the case that a valid spiritual culture also has to provide opportunities for the religious to feed their insights into a living form. Otherwise not only does the society not benefit, but the religious feels stifled and their development is hindered. Respect, duty, a strong familial sense and order established through distinct roles are all laid down in the early Buddhist scriptures as worthy values, but it would be a mistake to try to make how they are expressed culture-specific. Those ‘Gone Forth’ have to feed the conditioning of their own culture into the practice, clear the defilements and bring out the results; otherwise something precious is lost. How this is going to take form in the West is an ongoing exploration. We live in interesting times.