Reading the teachings of Buddhism, one encounters a lot of discussion about the nature of a human being, of a human life. It has been viewed from various perspectives, described according to various systems and frameworks, and explored in meditation and in the daily lives of millions of practitioners. Some say it's pure. Others say it's impure. Here’s how I practice with it.
A human life is a precious thing because it is so fleeting. It is the coming together of countless conditions, acted upon by the energetic principals of impermanence, karma, and dependent co-arising. Each moment is a unique transformation into one particular state of these conditions and energies, as they harmoniously arrive at resolution, at completion. Having come together, the state of the universe, and a human being within it, is so momentary that there is no way to pin it down. There is nothing that can been seen as wrong or right, pure or impure, about this state because it includes everything as mere instantaneous phenomena. It holds all things as mere conditions relating to other conditions in a flux of transformation. This is one way to express the ultimate or absolute perspective of a human life.
However, simply saying such a thing is like a painted rice cake. It doesn't satisfy our hunger. It doesn't satisfy our thirst. For that reason, the historical Buddha got up from the seat of enlightenment and spent the remainder of his life explaining that one can only find one's peace with life by seeing its principles all the way to the bottom. He gave teachings from both the absolute and relative (or subjective) perspectives. He said that "tanha" or "thirst" is the reason for fundamental pervasive dissatisfaction or "dukkha." And he taught that meditation and an ethical life are necessary to have a firsthand experience of how and why this is so. Having seen it and experienced it clearly for oneself, one is no longer willing to engage in a life that creates dissatisfaction and is dominated by thirst.
From then on to the present day, sincere practitioners have received the Buddha's teachings and expressed them in fresh ways, extrapolated from them, or sometimes focused on just one aspect with great vigor. Some had profound revelatory insights and wrote breathtaking new teachings. Some walked the path adhering as closely as possible to the Buddha's own, as they understood it. Some shared the teachings of Buddhism with new cultures and countries, bringing forth those unique expressions. I don't subscribe to Buddhist elitism, claiming one form of the teachings to be the only valid form. That kind of thinking abounds, but I believe it fails to capture the incredible diversity and richness of human experience.
That said, I deeply agree with the Buddha's teachings to the Kalamas that the teachings must be lived in order to be effective, or even to be assessed for their effectiveness. And the Buddha gave us an incredible variety of tools with which to investigate the nature of mind, body, and human experience. Lately, I have been exploring many more of these early teachings, and living at a monastery where women train to put them into practice. As many of you know, for the past six months I have been in residence at Aloka Vihara, a monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition in the West. I came here for many reasons, one of which is to fulfill a yearning that I have had for years to live only with other women practitioners.
Reflecting on my experience here, I notice shifts in meditative experience. I notice the way that the body responds with more relaxation and clarity. I notice that my life feels different than it did at other monasteries and practice centers. That it is different and quieter than, say, an urban center is to be expected.
However, something unexpected happened to me during the extended period of silent practice that is called the Winter Retreat. As with each of the monastics, within the three months of silent Winter Retreat I had the opportunity to sit a "solo" retreat for three weeks. This meant that I lived in the forest, in rustic accommodations called a "kuti," focused exclusively on practice, with no contact with the community other than to see each other in passing once or twice per day. This is a new form of practice for me. Solo retreats are not done in Zen, a tradition that has been my path since I began practicing many years ago.
I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity.
There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.
Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.
The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.
All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...
"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.
“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.
“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.
“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.
“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.
“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...." AN11.2
Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.
Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility. In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.
Given this confidence and many other experiences over the past six months, I have decided to continue on the path of Theravada practice. I want to go forth as an ordained Buddhist nun in this tradition. I have found that the supports I need to walk the path of practice are right here at Aloka Vihara, in the place, the schedule, the people, and the forms. This ordination will be in addition to my precept vows in the Zen tradition, as is typical for Chinese Chan and many other Buddhist lineages.
So I have asked to stay for the long-term and the two nuns who are the founders here, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, have been gracious enough to open the door and welcome me. They will be my Theravada practice teachers, and Ayya Sudinna from South Carolina Buddhist Vihara is kind enough to be the “pavattini” or preceptor. That is, she is the nun presiding over the ordination because she has the requisite years of seniority and a generous heart. Typically, there are two one year periods of commitment to training as a novice 10 precept nun, and then one two year commitment of training as a bhikkhuni (a fully ordained Buddhist nun), should one chose to take up the 311 training precepts in full. The 10 ethical and renunciate precepts I will take up as training rules when I go forth on this path at "pabbaja" are:
1. I refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
2. I refrain from taking what is not given.
3. I refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
4. I refrain from false and harmful speech.
5. I refrain from consuming intoxicants.
6. I refrain from eating at an inappropriate time (between midday and dawn).
7. I refrain from dancing, singing, music, and going to shows.
8. I refrain from beautification and adornment.
9. I refrain from lying on a high or luxurious bed.
10. I refrain from handling money.
The key difference between these precepts and the eight I am currently keeping here at the Vihara is giving up the personal use of money. It means that I become totally reliant on the relationship of mutual support, as the Buddha set it up. And I promise to live so that relationship is communicated through my commitment and my robes. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved in this relationship is learning to let go in a variety of ways.
There will be more to write about the precepts as training rules, and the intentions and practices related to each of these. For now, look for an ordination announcement to come soon.
With gratitude to the Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, to Mahatheri Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, and to my Teacher in the Zen tradition, Ven. Shosan Victoria Austin, and all the skillful Buddhist teachers with whom I have had the good karma to practice, a lifetime of deep bows of appreciation!