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. 

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