Wednesday 8 June 2011

Out on a limb

Here are some shots taken during the project of building a new sala (meeting hall) at Wat Pah Nanachat, N.E. Thailand. The old sala, built when Luang Por Sumedho was abbot in 1976, had to be torn down and replaced, and this was just the kind of job in which the expertise of Laung Por Liem and the monks from nearby Wat Pah Pong would be of immeasurable value. To put it another way: without them it wouldn’t have happened. Luang Por Liem has been masterminding building projects – including the chedi and huge sala at Wat Pah Pong – for over 20 years. Even at the age of 70, he was on site every day throughout the construction work, in his work robes, climbing the scaffolding, pouring cement: very much hands-on.

Luang Por Liem works without any drawn plans, and without input from professional engineers. It’s all in his head and hands. In a Thai Forest monastery, there’s no need for planning permission or building codes: this is Sangha property, and if the building falls down, that’s just the law of Nature. Also as you’ll see, the safety equipment – hard hats, protective footwear and overalls are all absent. It fits the theme of monastic training: stay alert! In the monastery, one learns the skills of mindfulness, of patience, personal initiative and persistence from the ground up, and work is very much part of the practice. Making robes, looking after senior monks, building and maintenance work, finding one’s way through a forest without a map, knowing what plants to use to combat what diseases – these are all considered ways of generating what we would call ‘spiritual’ skills. You learn from observing your elders and from trial and error. This approach, rather than any text-book technique, leads on to the development of the inner work of meditation.

The building work is on a voluntary basis; it’s a matter of personal interest and initiative that draws in people from who want to tap into the joyous camaraderie and make a contribution. The hours are irregular – some days the work, beginning after the meal in mid-morning, will continue on well into the night – so the organizing principle is one of willingness to bring forth one’s effort and follow the monk who’s heading the project. In Forest monasteries this is the principle that underlies just about everything. There’s no equipment but your own resolve, initiative and persistence to combat the hindrances of the mind, so spend every waking hour developing them. If you’re stuck in sleepiness when you meditate, sit on the edge of a well or a cliff; if lust is your problem, go visit a decomposing corpse. In the old days, the forest monks would seek the haunts of tigers, or ghost-ridden cemeteries as places to develop their minds. It’s a style that encourages the practitioner to move out of the safe and the known; Dhamma is best realized when one is out on a limb.

The main problem that some of us see is that with the forests gone, and with a management body evolving to oversee the 300 affiliated monasteries of the Wat Pah Pong community, finding a limb to go out on may become a rare opportunity.

Or perhaps it’s found in a different place. I’ve just returned from a teaching tour of New England and New York. Here, retreat centres are very well and thoroughly organized by resident staff or experienced volunteers. There is little room for trial and error. As practitioners will need to be up to the standard required to meet health and safety standards and in-house protocols from day one, there’s no novitiate during which one will be coached by, or learn from, elders. Gently informative signs abound informing one of everything from adjusting room temperature, the degree to which windows may be opened, how to identify deer tick (and what to do if grabbed by one) to how to grate carrots. The organizational principles of the society – impersonally transmitted and presented in abstract – feed into the retreat, and for good enough reasons: a hundred people who are used to being informed of rules and regulations need guidance. Apart from the possibility of subsequent litigation if a retreatant gets harmed, the collective of individuals needs to work as a unit, even though they are strangers both to each other and to the set-up. Also this collective has to work in silence.

The benefits of such situations are profound. People get to put aside their daily duties and habits, meet and come to terms with their minds (with resident demons) and experience a sense of belonging to a safe and non-competitive collective. This is, in many cases, life-changing. Compared with a Forest monastery, a Western retreat centre can look tame; but being void of conversation, foot massages and communal work, it presents challenges that monasteries don’t. Retreat centres can be situated in beautiful surroundings, but the retreat is sealed off from the outdoors and those nasty bugs and changeable weather in a way that just can’t happen in a Forest monastery. The result is isolation from humans and nature. Which may sound ideal in theory – but considering the narrow psychological edge that the practice is played out on, and that the support is mostly the rickety scaffolding of intentions and moods that swing to and fro, such isolation makes it easy to get dragged into deep water by an emotionally charged rip-tide. It’s quite a limb to go out on. Balance through social and environmental contact isn’t available – for most of the time.

Interestingly enough, one of the most appreciated aspects of the monastic retreats is just the daily opportunity to offer food into the bowls; it brings simple and warm (if silent) human contact into the situation. And for myself, I always appreciate the way in which, just through being together in shared endeavour, a sense of empathy and group presence grows over the time of the retreat.

So I have no doubts about the validity of these intensive retreats as long as they offer people a handful of resources to take with them as they navigate their edges. However in this respect, I do see drawbacks in external organization. It can make the individual forget the importance of developing resources through initiative, resilience and trial and error, and instead encourage the search for a meditation system that will do the practice and get the results. Looking for the right system (and the right place to practise it in) can become a lifestyle of restlessness and doubt; whereas just following a system will lead to attachment and conceited views. The truth of the matter is that no system will get you to samādhi, let alone nibbāna, without personal initiative, alertness and persistence. Moroever it’s in accessing these and applying them that the essential and innate faculties of confidence, mindfulness and discernment get brought to the fore. Rather than whether one watches the breathing at the nose-tip or cultivates choiceless awareness, the important point to bear in mind is :

the faculty of confidence...persistence... mindfulness... concentration... discernment, when developed and cultivated, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal and consummation. [S. 48.44]

Any system that encourages these will have a fruition.

Another sore point about organization of any kind is that it brings with it The Organisation. Like many Westerners I have an innate post-Orwellian mistrust of anything that smacks of it. The law is that the bigger the number of people, the more remote each individual is from the centre of the organization: hence the more abstracted the decisions and systems become, and the less the sense of personal initiative. Most nations now attempt to form a social unit from a pool of millions of people; if there isn’t a strong degree of local authority, ideally connecting household to town to district to county and so on up to the national level, the system lacks local relevance, becomes unresponsive to local needs, and rigidifies. But even in the best secular society, values, or at least ones that connect the individual to the collective in a healthy way, aren’t necessarily part of the equation. Individual initiative then boils down to how to get what one can out of, or to buck the system. Moreover, even within the system, the self-interest of the elite gets to take over: for every Mandela, there are several Berlusconis, with the occasional Mao and Stalin to emphasize the point. Organized religion has just as bad a profile: in the West the death of direct mystical experience, and indeed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, is due to the authoritarian attitudes of the established Church (the great Christian mystics survived their realizations by keeping a low profile or otherwise being quiet about them).

So Sangha as a governing body carries an ambivalence: for the Thais, the Sangha may be likened to a good family, with its strong bonds of loyalty and collective identity; whereas a Western default is that the monastic ‘government’ is made up of remote powers-that-be. This can raise uncertainties within the Wat Pah Pong group, whose parish is of 300 monasteries throughout the world. How can the differences between East and West be comfortably bridged in way that doesn’t drag either continent out of true? Already there is a good degree of local autonomy – different routines, clothing and subtle shifts in the relational protocols. What about the position of nuns, or the value of therapy, or harmonizing with other Dhamma traditions? Should there be more flexibility and local adaptation; or is that an inevitable process anyway, and one that needs to be balanced by staying true to the shared values and practices? Because although initiative may get swallowed by group conformity, the opposite extreme – of free-form individuality – isn’t going to support a harmonious group either. Maybe finding a way between these positions is the edge that we have to navigate.

Therefore, over the last decade particularly, national and international monastic get-togethers have become part of what us elders have to do. It’s about more than making decisions, it’s primarily to touch base together, to know each other directly as aspiring contemplatives. What do we as individuals really care about anyway? Where do we move together and settle in harmony? How can we live the Dhamma-Vinaya at this time?

In this respect, it’s recently been enormously helpful to have visits from a few of the senior Thai Ajahns (Luang Por Liem, Luang Por Anek, and Luang Por So-pha). ‘Earthy,’ ‘accessible,’ and ‘profound’ are the adjectives that most readily come to mind with these elder bhikkhus. But what also gives me confidence and trust was their unpredictability and quirkiness; gravity, restraint and a puckish sense of humour seemed to co-exist in a natural balance. The Dhamma they taught had great lived-out validity, but it was folk music, rich because it was improvised, rather than being a classical piece played from the sheet. It was also salutary to note how us logistical organizers often feel overworked and tired, the boundless, steady energy of these elders pointed to inner organization based on staying in touch with spiritual faculties.

Monasteries work best, in my estimation, when they operate organically. This may look irregular, because the routines change, people come and go, and ‘nothing-happening, no routine’ days are built in to allow for individual choice: go for a walk, do some drawing, have a snooze, contemplate Nature…Stepping out of straight lines keeps us in touch with holistic intelligence, one that is in balance with nature – human and otherwise. But this isn’t purely a monastic option: how about making a to-do-list of items such as: switch off the mobile phone, study this moment, learn how to tie knots, make friends with the fox or groundhog that invades the garden?

A timely reminder was on the last retreat I taught in USA was for a dozen people. As the group was small, I allowed a looser structure and let people find their own time boundaries to a greater degree. I sat the full scope of the sessions, but even so, the retreat was a refresher for me because there wasn’t so much to hold. It was held on a farm on which a lot of the food was home-grown, and the children home-educated. Part of the education was about each individual taking responsibility, and accordingly the retreat was ‘managed’ by the owner’s 14-year-old daughter, while her 11-year old sister sat the five-day session. The youngster experienced deep stillness in her sitting meditation, and it was wonderful to see that when she did walking meditation, one of the chickens would hop onto her wrist for a mindful ride. There's a rightness about the natural approach; it encourages connection to place and ease of response. As a balance to the large group retreats (which had laid down the template of the practice for the older retreatants) it felt very useful. And it reminded me of the need to keep that natural feel for Dhamma; do some aimless wandering, put habits on hold, look out for the marvellous and keep on my toes.

To come out of the systems that bind us to the abstracts of time and duty, we need to go out on a such a limb. But better make sure it’s connected to a living tree.