Saturday 30 November 2013

Empty Chairs

I’ve been teaching a retreat at the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts. One day Joseph Goldstein came round to say hello. This often happens when I visit the Barre centres; we don’t meet regularly or for any great length of time, but we’ve been having a conversation for the past twenty years, often circling around duties and responsibilities. Joseph is a foundational figure in the Western Dhamma scene, and I have a lot of respect for his commitment; and for how his generosity in sharing his understanding is balanced by an ability to keep his own contemplative practice well-nourished. He just doesn’t seem to do much else except Dhamma. But now, touching seventy, he’s reflecting on reducing his output and passing on the responsibility and leadership. The question is: to whom?

It’s a pertinent question and one that we’re talking about because we’re in the same boat; along with a cluster of other Dhamma-teachers and abbots. Last year I informed the Sangha that I would be putting aside my abbot’s duties after my sixty-fifth birthday in late 2014. Over the past year I’ve been carefully wording as best I could what I have in mind. It’s not that I have any new projects or visions to pursue, but that having supervised monasteries and communities for over twenty-five years, enough is enough. It feels that my mind and heart has met, been challenged, worked over, and strengthened by all that it takes to hold community – particularly as people’s normal inclination is to operate as individuals. I may very well have done some good things. It’s gladdening to feel that standards have been established, buildings built, and teachings offered that some have found helpful. What feels equally important is that I haven’t given up on the intention to be free and happy. In fact those liberations have become more available through a lot of giving myself and giving up that any duties require. But as I’ve noted in every other teacher that I know, as their awakening process continues through ageing, it returns to home base. They move to the edge of the community and out of management.

So my sense is to take away all the multi-tasking of abbotship and see what remains: Dhamma-practice – yes; living in accordance with Vinaya – yes; sharing what I know with others – I would expect so. The details remain unclear because I haven’t arrived at the place of putting aside yet; I can’t judge, and refuse to speculate, as to what is on the other side of the door until I’ve opened it and walked through. It’s a kind of dying, but that’s life. Livelihood may require plans, but life is to be listened to as it happens. See where it goes. I’m sure I’ll find out. Anyway, as with Luang Por Sumedho and Joseph and quite a few others, a generation is moving on to where all generations go. Who fills the space?

The short answer is: no-one can. In my case, no-one is even trying; it’s likely that my duties will get shared out amongst a number of other samanas. Maybe the position of abbot will 
come up for review: if very few feel able or interested in doing it, maybe monasteries will have to operate in a different way (perhaps more like Dhamma centres, with a board of Guiding Teachers). My trust is that if the position of leader/abbot is valid, then somehow the need for it will find someone. But, to broaden the topic, being irreplaceable isn’t something that’s so special about me; in fact no-one can replace anyone else. No one could replace my father, or mother, for me anyway. We’re all one-offs.

What is apparent is that we become something in other people’s minds. And when one appears in a particular way, as a teacher or a leader, then that image builds up a consistency 
and a power. In the case of celebrities in the world of entertainment, the role that they were 
enacting pursues them relentlessly past the time when they left the show. In the case of great spiritual teachers like Ajahn Chah, the image has its good effects in providing people with an icon that supports their faith. And the icon endures. In fact, due to the power of the teachings and anecdotes around him, Ajahn Chah has gained many, many more disciples since he passed away than during his lifetime. And different people have slightly different Ajahn Chahs in their hearts.

My memory of the ‘real’ person was that he was able to switch off his personality as easily as taking out his dentures when he didn’t need them. Or change it to suit the occasion. An ex-monk who spent time with Ajahn Chah recounted to me an occasion when Ajahn Chah had been giving a Dhamma talk to a congregation, in his characteristically vigorous and charismatic way, and then got off the teacher’s seat to leave. In a room in back of the teaching hall a Western monk had collapsed in some faint, fit or seizure, and a few others (including my friend) were clustering around him. Suddenly my friend noticed a small Thai monk gently weaving his way between the large Westerners. At first glance, my friend didn’t recognize him, but to his surprise, when the monk got to the front of the throng, it turned out to be Ajahn Chah, who then got on with attending to the sick monk. He had become nobody special and hands-on as suited the occasion.

To me it’s always been part of the training that when one gets on the teaching seat, one should really get on it. No apologies, no personal dramas, no notes: just express the Dhamma as one is experiencing it. What is useful will endure. Respect people’s attention, and then when you’ve finished, make sure you get off the seat and leave it behind. No claiming authority, no autographs, no revisions and regrets. It’s a good practice that is relevant to any position: fill it, then leave it behind. In fact this is how to do life – pour your imperfect self into it with integrity, bear with the embarrassments, the glitches, the projections and positions, learn what needs to be learned, then move on. In this way you meet and come to terms with being someone, and then let that someone dissolve; you drain the form of selfhood – which we took on with birth – of the view ‘I am this’ and ‘I am other than this.’ This is the emptying that supports good in this world as well as inner release.

Whatever samanas and brahmins have said that freedom from being something comes about through some state of existence, none of them, I say, are free from the tendency to identify. And whatever samanas and brahmins have said that escape from being something comes about through avoiding existence, none of them, I say, have escaped from the tendency to identify. This dukkha arises dependent on holding on. When you let go, there is no more suffering. (Udana 3.10)

There’s something about chairs that creates us, and in more ways than posture. It’s about occupying a position where the inner and outer presentations of our awareness come into play. This is where we meet what we sense is out there in the external world, where ‘me’ and ‘them’ have to be understood. But how else can we get the nervousness and posturing of ‘self and other’ exposed and released? All public chairs are electric, because in them you’re meeting your own implacable shadows. Until you embrace and resolve them. Then you get to understand that all chairs are always empty – even when you’re sitting in one.