Saturday, 1 November 2008

Following the moon

This photograph is of a full moon over the western end of the meditation hall in the monastery in which I live. In accordance with our tradition, these full moon days are the days when we recollect our rules and ethical guidelines and meditate through the night. The full moon acts a wonderful time-piece for a human endeavour that is cool but persistent.

In Buddhist monasteries we follow the lunar calendar. Actually the one we follow doesn't quite synchronise with the full and new moons. It's a calendar that's devised in Thailand, and it follows a pattern of fourteen and fifteen day cycles. In any one season there will be two fourteen day gaps between the the ‘moon days’ and six fifteen day gaps but it's still an imperfect match with the solar calendar. Every few years we have to add an extra lunar month to fit the lunar calendar within the solar year. And every now and then an extra day gets thrown in for good measure. The result of this is that the great Buddhist festivals, which all occur on the days of the full moon, change their solar dates every year in a way that's impossible to predict. So, Vesakha Puja, which is the major Buddhist festival, can occur on more or less any day in May, or even in June. The three months' Rains Retreat which marks the time when we're not allowed any major travel, has a different day of starting and finishing each year. Trying to balance between solar and lunar and between the West and Thailand is an aspect of the peculiar dynamic we find ourselves in in bringing an Asian tradition to the West. And there are many more....

But then, before you get too convinced of the rational and regular standards of the West, notice that the solar calendar with its leap years and months of differing days doesn't fit the cosmic order either. And why have seven days per week, and why have days and months named after Norse gods and Roman emperors? What's the logic in having months named 'seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth' ( September, October, November, December) which are lined up as the ninth through twelfth months of the year? And where does the day go when we cross the International Dateline?

It gets more uncertain the further you go. No sunrise and sunset, just a ceaseless turning. The earth neither flat nor spherical but a lumpy pear-shape in an irregular orbit around a seething and explosive ball of gas. Then you realise: it's not the cosmos that doesn't fit, it's the measurements.

That brings us back home, if slightly queasy. Where is the firm ground? How can we know anything? 'Mind is the basis,' is the Buddhist response, 'and somewhere in there a still centre of knowing.' But it doesn't measure things in terms of hours and minutes, kilos and grams, euros and dollars. All you can really know is cause and effect - which means that everything I do and say ( and even think) affect everything in 'my' cosmos. In fact these behaviours become who I feel I am, and form the world that presses in ( or wraps around me). And, although the patterns are reliable, the specific details of that self and world are always changing. My thoughts, feelings, relationships and material resources, are all as subject to change as the political and economic climate.

How to know what to do, and who to be, is something I started asking myself in my mid-teens ( in the saner moments). What are we here for? What is a valuable way to live? How do we weigh it up? Money, status, happiness? From my standpoint, the social norm, at least in my family, seemed to be to get a 9-5, 5 day a week job, get a car, get a marriage, get a mortgage, work fifty years, and get a heart-attack. How did imagination, joy, stillness, awe and above all freedom, fit into that? But to others, what counted was a good house, a steady job, and a way to raise children in financial security. And that made sense if you'd lived through a war and a financial depression. It all depended on where your sense of value lay.

But if there's a universal value to guide our lives, it has to be broader and more fundamental than the career we take on, or the state of the society we're in. The real thing isn't a matter of what road we travel, but how well we drive. And learning to do that...well that has to begin with touching the ground you're always on. One way of doing that quite literally is by plunking yourself down on the earth, sitting upright and breathing out...and breathing in....Those of you who do just this know what guidelines and skills evolve out of that. When your purpose is just sitting and being with breathing, the habitual mind doesn't have anything to play with. It spins loose, reveals itself as a mad monkey - and requires us to generate vast patience, firm kindness, and clarity. Not even to control it, but just to develop a wonderful and world-changing response. Because this monkey-mind has grown out of my responses ( and reactions) to the wobbling world around me, it's time to develop a saner response. And then we touch the true human ground: care and respect for self and others; tolerance and compassion for self and others; and the equanimous humour that knows none of this is lasting, or our true centre. This is the guideline, wherever, whoever. It's a light of knowing that is gentle and cool as moonlight, an inner light that is a personal reflection of the Buddha's brilliant sun. Whatever the life-journey, what else can you follow?

1 comment:

  1. This is so prescient for me this evening Ajahn. It along side your poetry is such a treasure to come upon for the first time. one who touched the earth and one who captured the mind it its wanderings. I cannot appreciate your contribution enough. I hope to be with it throughout my life.