At the end of November, Ajahn Sumedho, Sumedho Bhikkhu, Luang Por Sumedho, or Tan Chao Khun Rajasumedhacariya, retired. Can monks retire? From what? Well one can put aside the duties of running a monastery (although no-one really runs monasteries). One can bring down the curtain on an aspect of group participation, and one can trim the threads of involvement. But no-one retires from kamma through a formal act; and no-one suddenly stops meaning anything to anyone else through an announcement. So when it’s time to leave, change gear, or die, we need a ceremony to summarise and contain all the unfinished stuff. Love, regret, misunderstanding, gratitude and disappointment – that’s relational life, and we need to place it. Once placed, we can each carry it away like a pebble or a gem, take it out on occasion, rub it and hear how it speaks to us as time goes by. For years afterwards, it can say some useful things.
So life with Luang Por has left gems and pebbles. Monastic relationships have their own flow. Sometimes you seem to go deeper with your fellows than you ever thought, to places where polite personalities don’t go. At other times the connections are sideways, rather than head-on – you’re just sharing duties or sitting beside that monk in the Hall. And then he’s gone – off to some other part of the planet, or out of the loop into lay life, or dead. There are the disagreements which at times seem to block the flow - until relational energy being what it is, the flow eventually moves around them like water around a mound of sand. You look back a decade later and find the mound’s got slowly washed away. A lot of the time awareness of the fragility of personal connection hovers over the relationship. And along with that, there is the understanding that what we experience as self and other are not mine or yours, but a shimmering dependently-arisen play of perceptions, emotions and appearances.
Part of all relationships is the unspoken. It sits right there under the ribs. Then what can you say that’s real, at a time when you have to say something? One answer is: you stop thinking and chant. With Luang Por, there were probably all kinds of things that each individual would have liked to say, but the ‘impersonal’ communality of monastic life doesn’t accommodate – at least among the large numbers of the extended community. Instead you close, or open , all that with chanting. And that’s how we took leave of Luang Por: chanting, offering blessings and asking for forgiveness. When you chant, especially as part of a group, you have to listen - to tthe timbre and tonality of your own voice and to that of others. And in that timbre is where the emotions are sensed. Chanting carries the resonances of about all that can be expressed on an emotional level; and you hear in it what your kamma brings up.
Chanting has an impeccable tradition. All the original Buddhist teachings were formulated and transmitted orally. (I expect much is the same for other religions.) The pragmatism of that is that when a group learns to recite a teaching, the transmission is less likely to err than if it was written down (copyist’s errors, fires, termites). But it’s also the case that the chanted voice comes from and touches a different place in us than the visual word. With the written and read, you can pore over the words, take them as separate units one at a time and mull over their meaning. It excludes the speaker, it is non-relational. Then we subsequently employ the faculty that has read and ‘understood’ the meaning to guide us in a life that is holistic and relational. What often occurs then is an attachment to views, or fundamentalism, or at least an awkward handle on life. It’s not that the words aren’t true, but the organ that receives and uses them is the organ of abstraction for which things stand still as discrete entities. And living experience isn’t that way.
On the other hand, for the system that speaks, chants and listens, meaning is resonant, shifting, and nuanced. What is said rides on a wave that is not separate from the speaker, the listener and the context in which it happened. Then even simple words go straight to the central nervous system and cause a shift. Ajahn Chah taught like that. And this of course is also the essence of Zen teachings – enigmatic on paper, right on the mark in the flesh.
So even though writing was known in Buddhist India, no-one used it for teachings; for accounts and lists maybe, but not for the sacred. Sacred words have to come with the breath through the body: then they carry the ineffable quality of lived-in experience. They are heard and given added meaning by their resonance, by who spoke them and when. They’re not frozen and fixed as squiggles on a sheet to be read out of the context of their utterance.
In a literate culture, we are in danger of losing our meanings in words. Of course the great writers can pull it off, can use rhythms, spaces, metaphor and character to get across what this flat medium of ink on paper can barely convey. But most of what is written is far from great. Moreover we neglect a skill that is perhaps even more sacred than utterance: deep listening. So life in the public sphere becomes dangerously remote and disconnected from our human responses. When I travel on an aircraft and they go through the safety routine, it’s like nobody’s speaking and nobody’s listening. It’s just flat words. It feels so bad that even though I know the drill backwards by now, I listen deeply again, just to respect and acknowledge the presence of the stewards. While I’m alive I want to be here. Perhaps because of that, on this last flight I ended up cushioning an invalid as he was laid on the three sets next to me, and unwrapping sweets for him to suck. But it felt a lot better than being boxed in my seat looking at the screen.
Some Dhamma-friends of mine even formed a group whose practise was to chant – not for luck or promotion, but just for people to feel their way into Dhamma. It brings us together out of the books and into participation in which every voice offers something. And every ear has to listen to its voice and resonance as part of the whole. Once you’ve got that ear, you keep it cocked all the time to hear those truths that words stumble over; that ear connects to the heart. Moreover you get more clued in to when the words are complexities that are missing the point. For example, when I do dialogue, it’s often the case that after someone gives out an extensive and intelligent metaphysical question, the first response that pops up is ‘It sounds lonely where he’s at,’ or ‘She’s struggling to find self-worth.’ I really can’t get the bit about the nature of the Cosmos or the Self, because other nuances are speaking so loudly.
Maybe one of our most basic needs is to speak and be heard. When you don’t know relational logic, that sounds like an overwhelming duty. ‘Surely there’s so much to say, this is going to go on forever...’ However Marshall Rosenberg, the founder-teacher of Non-Violent Communication, used to say that most of the time people are trying to say one of two things – ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you.’ I might add two more: ‘Hello, I’m here’ and ‘Goodbye: blessings and forgiveness.’ Then we can move on. Perhaps this is what our life together is all about.