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.

1 comment:

Carol Disegna said...

All my love from Brazil =)
<3 I'm happy to see you well. Always think of you fondly. <3