Monday, August 29, 2016

idealism, pragmatism and cynicism

What I love about the Order is that it fulfills my triad of needs for idealism, pragmatism, and cynicism. I was on my ordination retreat with a lot of idealists, which was great - when I was inspired. But it was only when I returned home and spoke to my other friends in the Order, some of whom are burned out, disillusioned, or doubtful, that I remembered that the whole spectrum of experience is welcome in - and integral to - our practice.

So when I’m idealistic, the Order is a tremendous force for good in the world. I think of all those I've seen walk through the doors of the Buddhist Centre and transform their anxiety, depression or loneliness into purpose, hope and agency - mostly through the powers of learning to be with their own mind. Our work does not stop with Buddhist Centres; I was aware at the convention of the myriad ways people made a difference to the world, either by working in climate change, taking active roles in government politics and political campaigns, or engaging with the Dalit community in India.

Click here to watch a video on how the Order works together to instigate change (also titled: clearing 500 + chairs and dismantling a shrine room in twenty seven seconds).

When I’m pragmatic, I’m grateful for the responsibility, confidence, and worldliness that we’ve developed over the almost 50 years of growing as an Order. We're more financially responsible and stable, owning our centres and retreat centres, contributing to charitable causes, and providing for those who work in our institutions. But I also heard people proclaim that while we can be a force for good in the world, we’re not going to change it on our own, and probably not very quickly. Just admitting that is a great relief, and can allow me to come back around to wanting to make as much effort as I can in my sphere of influence, to the extent that I’m able.

When I’m cynical, I really appreciate being able to complain about how boring meditation is, how annoying I find this person, and how far away enlightenment can seem. Sometimes, in other spiritual situations I find myself, including some spaces in the yoga community, I feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the relentless assertions of constant happiness and joy. I don’t feel like that all the time! In fact, I don’t want to feel like that all the time. Of course, I also don’t want to be constantly angry, suspicious, and judgmental. But allowing the energy that is bound up in these states to find an outlet whilst at the same time working to transform them in other areas means I can bring my whole self to my work, to my practice, to my life. What a relief.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Hi! My name is (huh?) My name is (who?)

Part of ordination is receiving a Buddhist name. No, I didn't get to choose it! About five years ago on retreat, I met Amritamati, and a year and half later I asked her to be my preceptor. She became a spiritual mentor who both encouraged and challenged me in my practice, and ultimately recommended me as ready for ordination. She also chose my name. All the names in our Order are Sanskrit or Pali; they are reflective as well as aspirational, and they can be understood as two words translated individually, and also as words translated with one meaning.

what does it mean?

My name is Suryadarshini; it's a Sanskrit name. If you write it with 'diacritics', the cool accents on the letters, it looks like this: Sūryadarśinī. The 'u' is long, the 'ś' is pronounced 'sh', and the 'i' at the end is long. Surya means ‘sun’ and is an epithet for the Buddha. Darshini means ‘having vision’, also with connotations of ‘seeing, realising, knowing, understanding’. Amritamati translates my name as ‘she who has the vision of the sun, or the Buddha’.

In terms of seeing my name in two parts, it reflects my bright and energetic qualities and my desire for honesty and truth. When I am inspired she says I ‘glow like the sun’, and also that I have ‘a thirst for clarity, for understanding’. Put together, I have a vision of the sun/the Buddha, in the sense that I am looking towards the glowing symbol of the Buddha as an embodiment of ultimate knowing.

In an aspirational sense, my name means that I have the vision that the Buddha has, seeing reality as he sees it. Each time I hear my name or explain its meaning, it’s a reminder that I am orienting my life and my practice towards becoming a Buddha myself.

are you going to change it legally?

Only some Order members change their name legally; some change only their first name, others change to one name only (but, because you legally need something to put in the second box, their surname is 'XXX'). At the moment, I’ve decided not to do this, and I don’t know if I ever will. There are two reasons for this; one practical, one personal.

Practically, what with having two passports and financial holdings in two countries in an era of increasing border control and isolationist political momentum, the red tape of changing my name would create hassle and, I’m sure, bureaucratic confusion.

But more honestly, the personal reason is that I don’t feel that I've completely stopped being Andrea. I’ve been Andrea for thirty-five years, I like me, I like my name...and I’ll always be Andrea to my mom. There is a definite desire to hold onto that comfortable identity.

And even more honestly: Suryadarshini is a really long name! Even in the Buddhist community, thirteen letters and six syllables is on the long side. I asked Amritamati if she could make it shorter (which, by that point, she totally couldn’t), and she said she knows it’s long, but she wasn’t willing to compromise on the meaning. Most people who know me have gotten the hang of it pretty quickly, including Tom, but when I’m in line for my soya latte and they ask me for a name to write on the cup, I say Andrea.

Then there’s the part of me that just doesn’t always want to have ‘the Buddhist conversation’. I’m on a train, we've had a quick chat about how hot it is and won't it be nice when it's the weekend, and I don’t want to get into it. On these occasions, I have to admit, I’m just copping out. I don’t want to be ‘she who has the vision of the Buddha’; I want to complain about my wait in a queue and be a bit anonymous. Someday I aspire to not needing to cop out; that I will so feel that I am Suryadarshini that I can’t imagine introducing myself as anyone else. Until then, it's a name to grow into.

how do you say it?

For those of you who have lovingly read through all of this, then you’ve taken on board my desire for you to honour this choice and aspiration, and you’re going to think about calling me Suryadarshini. Thank you! Here’s how you say it:

“SIR” “ee-ah” “DARSH-in-eee”.

Or sometimes I explain it as:

“Sir?” “Yeah.” “DARSH!” “Knee.”

Say it fast and it starts to roll off the tongue. Honest.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

so are you a monk, or…what?

In most Buddhist traditions, being ordained as a Buddhist means becoming a monk or a nun. Ordination is a lifestyle change; you go from living a lay life to living a monastic one.

One of the radical emphases of the Triratna Order is the institution of an equal Order; no member is higher than another by virtue of status or gender. So there is no way to ‘work your way up’ the spiritual hierarchy: because there isn’t one. You can’t get promoted to an equivalent of an abbot, reincarnated to be the Dalai Lama, or get a qualification of Zen master. There are service positions available to those with relevant skills and experience, but these are rotating posts and once someone leaves the position, they also leave the influence and effectiveness that belongs to that position. Also, Triratna is radical in the Buddhist world in that, since the first ordinations in 1969 and ever since, there is one equal ordination for men and women.

In my previous post, I mentioned that ordination is primarily a ritual witnessing of a commitment to practising Buddhism in every facet of my life. This is another of the emphases: the importance of commitment over lifestyle, which Sangharakshita, founder of the Order, phrased as: 'Commitment is primary, lifestyle is secondary'. But lifestyle is not unimportant; so how then, without moving to a monastery, do I keep the practice of Buddhism central to my life?

rules versus principles (on shaving my head and renouncing worldly possessions)

Since we are not a monastic order, I didn’t accept a code of conduct at my ordination which would bind me to organising my life in a particular way. I’m a representative of the Order in the sense that I am a living, active member, and so my actions will reflect on the Order. Some members live more reclusive lives, either because of their personality or because of their health; some spend a lot of time taking care of their families; some are involved with Buddhist Centres, retreat centres, or development teams. There are many ways to practice and be a part of the Order.

One of our shared practices is taking on the ten precepts as a guide to ethics. They are not rules that I follow but training principles that direct reflection on how my actions impact myself and others. I often recite them with my coworkers before we begin our tasks for the day, and at my weekly chapter meeting. We recite the negative form ('I undertake to abstain from') in Pali (I've included a translation here) and the positive form in English.

I undertake to abstain from killing living beings.
I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given.
I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct.
I undertake to abstain from false speech.
I undertake to abstain from harsh speech.
I undertake to abstain frivolous speech.
I undertake to abstain slanderous speech.
I undertake to abstain from covetousness.
I undertake to abstain from hatred.
I undertake to abstain from false views.

With deeds of lovingkindness, I purify my body.
With openhanded generosity, I purify my body.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
With kindly communication, I purify my speech.
With helpful communication, I purify my speech.
With harmonious communication, I purify my speech.
Abandoning covetousness for tranquillity, I purify my mind.
Changing hatred into compassion, I purify my mind.
Transforming ignorance into wisdom, I purify my mind.

I’d like to answer a few questions people have asked me and helped me to clarify my thinking around them.

why did you wear robes?

You'd be forgiven for thinking I'm an aspiring monk if you saw pictures of me on retreat in my robes. I wore the robes to give expression to the part of me that desires a simpler life, with few worldly responsibilities. Not having to think about what to wear did alleviate that moment of indecision in the bleary half dawn when the bell woke me up for morning meditation. Like my shaved head (see more below), the robes represented an aspiration to live, for a while, without defining myself by fashion choice or outward appearance. Those of us who wore robes and shaved our heads were less distinguishable from each other, helping to lessen the concept that we are separate from the others with which we share this world.

are you going to keep your head shaved?

Shaving my head was a symbolic ritual of renunciation. Upon reflection, I wonder if it set up expectations for myself that, as I mentioned in my last post, weren’t really for me after all. Not everyone on the retreat shaved their head. Some always keep their hair very short, so they continued to do that on and after the retreat. Others, like me, are growing it back and finding hairstyles to suit them. I may cut it again, but it will most likely be from a stylish point of view rather than a renunciant one.
are you going to renounce all worldly possessions?

I do reflect on my ownership of worldly possessions and my desire to acquire things. Sometimes this manifests in meditation; I may focus on cultivating loving kindness and on loosening the boundaries of self and other. This may lead to a felt sense of how my actions impact others, and how taking something for myself may take something away from someone else. Or I may have a more cognitive process, where, before I buy a t-shirt online, I research its production, and if I discover that it’s been produced under questionable ethical circumstances I choose not to buy it. In general, I do find that the more I have, the more I want. Whereas, if I cultivate contentment or gratitude, then I don’t want as much, and I’m happier with what I have.

 But on the retreat, I realised how I am not a hard core renunciant. I love my flat, baths, chocolate, DVDs - and my husband! So whilst I don’t want to over-indulge or emotionally grasp after people or things, I don’t want to actively move away from them either. I love my life, I love the things I have, and of course I will buy more things - whilst also continuing to give things away.

Ultimately, wearing robes and shaving my head helped me realise that I'm not a monastic and don't want to be. My unhelpful tendencies of perfectionism and giving myself a hard time were exacerbated by the expectation of these outward changes to my appearance. I realised I was trying to live up to an ideal of a 'perfect Buddhist', which I realised I still thought was a monk who shaved her head and didn't have any thoughts. When I decided to stop wearing my robes, I felt the reawakening of a freedom and independence that encouraged me to be with myself as I am.

This movement towards freedom has continued since returning home, though it wasn't until I attended the convention and witnessed the sheer diversity of beings in the Order that I felt my confidence in my practice and lifestyle fully restored. I reconnected with the deep truth of commitment over lifestyle, and how I can reflect on the precepts, move towards non-grasping, and aspire to embodying lovingkindness - all whilst living in a flat with my husband and eating chocolate in the bath.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

how getting ordained is like graduating from uni (and how it isn't at all)

I’ve just returned from the Triratna Order International Convention. There are over 2000 members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and almost 500 of us gathered together to meditate, perform ritual, listen to talks, and sit and talk for hours in pairs and groups.

Being there re-connected me with a lot of what I lost on the ordination retreat: inspiration, confidence, and connection with the Order. Why did I thrive in this context and not on the ordination retreat? Upon reflection, it was the idealism and positivity mixed with the simplistic renunciant conditions that almost killed me. Being on the convention, however, gave rise to a number of realisations of what the Order is, now that I’ve had this rich and varied experience of it.

My friends and family have asked what it means to be ordained and why it was so important to me. After returning from the retreat, I was at a loss at how to answer this question. Honestly, I had no idea, and wasn’t sure what I had just spent the last three months doing. I was wary of putting my experience in concrete terms, for fear of fixing it or misrepresenting it. After these five days, however, I’m able and inclined to address some of the questions.

how getting ordained is like graduating from university

Six years ago I entered a program of training with a definite end goal in mind. Instead of university courses and lectures, I attended study groups and talks. Instead of reading textbooks, I read the work of Sangharakshita, the man who founded our Order, as well as traditional Buddhist texts. In the groups and talks I attended, I discussed the ideas and teachings in these texts and how they were relevant to my life. As I gleaned more knowledge and understanding, both theoretical and experiential, I was able to discourse on more nuanced teachings and to explore texts from different historical, psychological or philosophical angles.

There was also a practical aspect to this education, in my practice of meditation and application of ethics. Attending meditation retreats in which I explored how the ‘theories’ I had learned actually manifested in my mind and actions, or discussing my ethical life with fellow practitioners, led me to understand how I could live these principles, and communicate my experience to others. I had an education in group dynamics, in teaching, and in ‘soft skills’ of communication, listening, reflecting.

While I don’t know much about seminary or Christian education or practice, I imagine this is similar: students emerge and can enter their faith as priests or vicars or preachers or reverends. The teaching, leading rituals and mentoring that I’ll now do bears some resemblance to the expectations of these roles.

So then to graduation. Whatever profession you’re in, I’m sure you’ll agree graduation is not an endpoint of acquiring knowledge or developing skills. It’s a marker which signifies the completion of a section of life. So, too, was my ordination a signifier of the end of a training phase and the shift from one mode to another. One shift is from that of a student to a teacher, in certain contexts. So while I once attended study facilitated by someone else, I will now have the opportunity to facilitate that study. I’ll teach meditation classes and courses, lead retreats, and give talks.

But it’s also a shift from outward to inward. In my training, I would often give short reports or updates (both in written form and in more casual conversation) on my personal practice and discuss my progress towards ordination with those more senior to me. Now there is more of an emphasis on equal sharing of good practice between peers.

There’s also much less clarity on what I’m working towards now! I watched a lot of my friends graduate triumphantly from university only to dip a few weeks, months, or years later into a ‘what do I do now?’, or ‘what was that all about?’ canyon. The same can be true after getting ordained! What seemed so clear and important for so long shifts in a moment. Just as one goes from not having a degree to having one, so I went from being ‘not ordained’ to being a member of the Order. Within one day, I changed my name as well as these outward appearances of status and expectations. But how much could “I” have changed in twelve hours? The ordination is a ritual recognition of a process that has been going on for a long time and will continue indefinitely. 

how it's not at all like graduating from university at all

But joining the Order doesn't furnish me with a certification or a degree. My knowledge wasn't tested by rigorous exams or grading systems. Spiritual experience and practice can't be measured or quantified, and I'm certainly not claiming an elevated status or any experiential attainments. 

Primarily, ordination is a witnessing of my practice and dedication by other more experienced practitioners, and the joining of these efforts with my peers to benefit myself and others. I took on ten precepts, ten training principles, in my ordination ceremony which I return to to guide my ethical practice. They are not rules that I follow but statements that I contemplate and reflect on, wondering about their relevance, timeliness, and resonance with my experience. More on these in my next post.

On the convention I found myself among a group of people with diverse lifestyles, living in various countries across the world in a wide array of social circumstances (including ex-Untouchables from India), with different emphases to their practice. And yet we were all here together, connected by this central tenet of the Buddha's teachings of lovingkindness and non-judgmental awareness, committing to seeing past our small views of ingrained selfhood. We practise individually, working on our own minds in our daily lives, and we practise collectively, in Buddhist centres, in weekly meetings of chapters and groups, in these massive gatherings.

I felt at ease, at home, in harmony, and connected with a simple, almost childish wish to be better humans and to make the world better. At the same time, the conversations and presentations were pragmatic, challenging and relevant, and I left knowing that my life is enhanced by contact with these people, and enriched by joining this force for good in the world. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

teaching Bodhiyoga, taking my place in the lineage of the Buddha

In teaching Bodhiyoga, I am both taking my place in a lineage and becoming a pioneer. I draw on the yoga lineage, alive from the time of the Buddha and long before, of investigating and transforming the energy of the body and mind. More specifically, I draw on the modern yoga tradition; most of our familiar asanas (postures and movements) have only been practised since the early 20th Century. I also am part of the lineage of the Buddha and his explicit teachings of how to work with the mind. To bring these two traditions together, to keep the emphasis on spiritual enquiry, and to allow the practice to constantly change and flow is the work of a pioneer.

The Buddha taught that the Dharma (the path of truth he discovered) is ehi pahsiko: come and see for yourself. Bodhiyoga also encourages this experiential approach, both in my training as a teacher and in passing on teachings to my students. Bodhiyoga is not a style of yoga; our founders Sadhita and Sudaka do not claim to have created what they have taught us, nor have they copyrighted any movements or sequences. Instead, they’ve drawn on their substantial experience of yoga asana and their Buddhist practice to develop an approach to yoga. Bodhiyoga is founded on basic Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and principles of safety to encourage exploration. Often in training I would ask, ‘Am I doing this right?’ After ensuring I wasn’t in any danger of harming my body, they would respond with questions: ‘what is your purpose in the pose?’ or ‘what sensations are you experiencing?’ The emphasis on self-enquiry and on a critical exploration are hallmarks of their approach.

The three main concepts that infuse my teaching of Bodhiyoga are sati (mindfulness), metta (lovingkindness) and receptivity. We can hear a lot about ‘being mindful’, but often I think: what are we being mindful of? Again, the benefit from the Buddha’s clarity: he taught the satipatthana, the four foundations of mindfulness, which I often describe as ‘spheres of awareness’. First, we are mindful of kaya (the body): where are we placing our foot, our hip, our shoulder, our arm? Then, we are mindful of vedana (sensations in the body): is there pain, do we need to move? Is there discomfort to breathe through? Is there openness and groundedness? Next, we are mindful of citta, emotions and mood: are we contented, energised, critical, vulnerable, expansive? Finally, we are mindful of dhammas (thoughts): can we turn our distraction of what we’re doing later, when we’ll eat, who we’ll see to reflection on the impermanence of life? These reflections inform our asana and give clear instructions of how to investigate our felt experience, beyond an outward shape or posture.

The most transformative of the Buddha’s teachings is metta, lovingkindness. I often translate this term as appropriateness: becoming aware of and respecting the limits of our body on any given day. Quite simply, we practice metta when we don’t push ourselves and injure our body. But it goes deeper than the body, contacting each of the satipatthanas; metta infuses our being so that we can breathe through our sensations with gentleness, hold our emotions with kindness to ease critical voices, and observe our thoughts with curiosity bereft of judgement. So when we come into a difficult pose, we take care of the bend in our knee and the curve of the spine, breathe through the tense knot in our shoulder, acknowledge our frustration at being stiff whilst noticing our joy of balancing on one foot, and observe the thought of ‘am I doing this right?’ before letting it drop away.

Finally, receptivity allows us to open up to what our body and mind have to teach us, rather than telling them what we want them to do. Often we start with ideas of a posture or views of what we want it to look like, and we need these instructions to begin. But as our practice develops, we can open up to our experience and reverse the trajectory. We can allow the posture to affect the body and mind, and cultivate curiosity and openness as we investigate those effects.

Teaching Bodhiyoga synthesises the two lineages of the Buddha’s teachings and modern yoga asana. I teach at the Norwich Buddhist Centre, which allows a cohesiveness of approach, and I enjoy watching my students develop interest in meditation and Buddhism. Those who sign up for courses or attend drop-in meditation classes return to yoga with deeper understanding of their minds, which suffuses their posture practice with awareness and kindness. We finish each of my classes with a recitation, a dedication of our practice, and I’m humbled and happy to see students taking it to heart as they bring their yoga practice into the world: ‘May our mindfulness and our actions, both on and off the mat and cushion, benefit ourselves and all beings. May our actions be imbued with metta. May we meet our challenges with strength. May we all be well and happy.’