On October 26th, I formally handed over the responsibilities of Abbot of Cittaviveka, along with my blessings, to the community and especially to my successor. This was at the yearly Kathina festival – when lay people gather to give supplies to the monastery after the Rains Retreat. Coming in the autumn season, the mood, however festive and celebratory, is nuanced with the gut knowledge of the northern hemisphere: winter is coming, this is the time to get the supplies in, because this is the season when green things die. The year’s end was also the time in some ancient cultures to sacrifice the king. Not a bad idea. After serving the community for twenty-two years through its changes, upheavals and growing pains, I feel that the function of community supervision can best be served by fresher minds. As for myself, the role of abbot has done what it can for my spiritual growth. A coup de grâce was due.
A few days after that formal event, it was my sixty-fifth birthday. That offered a fuller sense of celebration, with monks and nuns coming down from Amaravati and more people bringing cards, good wishes and gifts. Yet, amidst all the expressions of appreciation and good humour, some of that wintery feel was with me. It’s the season of endings. We give endings scant attention, but in each of them – even the moment at the end of a conversation – there is poise, stillness and an emptiness that lets the mind rest. So although people wanted to know what I plan to do next, or assumed that I would now have a chance to do things I really wanted to do, for me the sense was about finishing the past, not of creating a future. Of closing the book, or at least of ending the chapter with a blank page staring at me and with no wish to write on it. Happy death.
In some ways, the role of abbot, or any managerial role, flies in the face of the Dhamma. Whereas insight reveals that all phenomena are anicca – changeable and insubstantial – the ‘one in charge’ has to make things reliable and steady. While the Buddha constantly pointed to dukkha, the unsatisfactory and stressful nature of experience, the ‘one at the top’ can carry the expectation that things will work, that people will live harmoniously and that an easeful scenario will ensue. And although all this change and inability to control life surely underlines the realization that there’s no-one holding things together, the set-up of community leadership creates the focus of a big someone to hang a self-view on. In fact a major process for any community, or even relationship, has to be to handle the projections of its members: that is to unravel the process whereby a person’s needs and fears distort other people into heroes, negligent fathers, smothering mothers, and rebellious juveniles.
Projection of one’s needs and fears onto others is quite normal, but it is a process to be released from. Projection around leadership (in oneself or others) happens for most human beings as they enter adulthood. Adulthood isn’t really a matter of age, but of operating in terms of responsibility (of course some people may never make it into true adulthood). With projection, a function (someone does this) becomes a role (their identity is a doer of this). A function is defined by the task: someone fixes cars, cures diseases or manages accounts; these functions are finite and can be learnt. A role however is defined by the expectations and attitudes of oneself and others: you are as good/valuable as your performance is judged to be. Dependent on what is being projected, the bearer of the role is complimented or attacked, resented or depended upon. And although a function may last for only a few hours, the role remains, because although the expectations that generate it are measureless, their overriding feature is that the role remain stable and fulfil my projected wishes. (Even if sometimes I want a villain.)
But what is there to wish for? What do we project onto others and ourselves? I seek fulfilment/
success, but have a fuzzy ‘feel-good’ sense of what exactly that would mean. Meanwhile ‘failure’/disappointment is a very clear and haunting presence. It often keeps us running – in the fear of not meeting the deadline, or of performing inadequately; or in the anxiety that one might not be good enough for the task, or with the worry that one might disappoint other people. So the mind gets on board, or even becomes, a helicopter hovering over the slippery spin of possibility; and at times it seems that it’s only the constant whirr of our activities that holds it up. Faced with the need to adopt a stable role, most people take time off to break free of it, or build up a persona to carry the role and cover the heart. But as how you are seen affects which aspects of your mind/heart get energy, so the aspects that fit (or try to fit) the persona get to predominate. Celebrities crack up under the pressure of being encased in it. But for spiritual growth, a role (one's own or another's) is not something to get fixated on or frustrated by. Instead, its pressures urge one to learn how to step in and out of role; and this is done not by distraction, nor via a mask or by armouring. Instead there has to be a wise handling; and this comes when one gains access to something less formed and more authentic. Role comes with responsibility, but through access to spiritual truth or Dhamma you can meet its challenges and the fear of failure, and through that meeting, open into freedom.
If you take on responsibility to be something for others, you’ll be familiar with at least some of this, as well as with the judgemental mind, both in yourself and in other people. My advice is to not take it personally: the sense of failure is endemic to any performance and any role. If you have any sense of getting ahead, if you’re in any race – you can’t win it. And if you’re in any kind of role, you will disappoint others: projection will conjure up more expectation than you can fulfil. In the face of that apparent failure, the untrained mind will need to justify or defend itself from criticism – your own if no-one else’s. Say you’re an accountant, a wife, and a mother: if you don’t practise with these as activities (with all their variable results) but take them as identities, then you will feel failure’s cold shadow in your heart. Even meditation, which should open an opportunity to release and regenerate, can become an attempt to excel and ward off the sense of ‘not good enough.’ Unless meditation, or at least mindfulness of mind-states as mind-states (and not as self), can meet failure, it fails to release the besieged self.
As an abbot, my function included management supervision, leading ceremonies, counselling, instruction in Dhamma, training and providing support for monks/nuns, representing the community at sangha gatherings and to the lay community, and in an undefinable way, setting the tone and the human atmosphere of the monastery. If people don’t feel welcome, if some monk is impolite, if the treasurer fails to pay the bills, if the teaching isn’t happening – it’s the abbot’s topic. Still, as a function, although it keeps you busy, it’s not that difficult. Of course, the mind is often in ‘helicopter’ mode: I can almost hear the rotor arms turning in my mind: ‘Is everyone here yet? Have I forgotten so-and-so? Whapp… Whapp…The cable to the P.A. is hanging loose. That woman looks like she needs a doctor. Who is supposed to be doing the recitation? No, not that recitation. Whapp…whapp… Is everyone OK with this? Did I mention that detail at the last community meeting? Is what we’re doing in accordance with the tradition, the agreement, the Vinaya, the neighbours? Whapp, whapp…’ And one is also referring to qualities such as maintaining calm, patience, kindness and accessibility: in fact it is those internal qualities that make the function doable. You can develop them. But as for results?
Well, the immediate result is that there is a lot of movement in the mind, and some of that will be associated with the need to get things right, or coming from a sense of duty rather than personal interest in what one is involved with. This is not to say that you don’t wish for the best or function without integrity; but ‘getting it right’ in a Buddhist context really amounts to being able to compassionately and patiently encourage others to meet the unsatisfactory nature of experience (including oneself). It hardly feels like a success, but the best result isn’t so much an immediate ‘feel-good’ as a release from expectation. And that doesn’t support a role or any self-image. As Luang Por Chah asked of would-be disciples: ‘Did you come here to die?’ To die to the future, and to what one feels both things, oneself and others should be. And I’m sure that he did a lot of dying every day: to die in the face of people’s projections, to refuse to adopt any image of being ‘enlightened’, to allow Wat Pah Pong to dip into chaos – and yet to remain present, at ease and free. As much as Luang Por Chah encouraged people (in the beginning) he determinedly disappointed and frustrated his disciples as they matured. His successor, Luang Por Liem, has such a different personality that for years he had to put up with a barrage of criticism about ‘not being like Ajahn Chah’. He just kept his Dhamma-practice going and helped out where he could. And the result? Luang Por Liem remains at ease, sensitive but still – anything but armoured, or slick, or desperate to make things work. Never buying into any role, one of his recent comments was: ‘People call me the abbot, but that’s just what they say. I help out where I can.’
I was at Wat Pah Pong a few years ago, at one of the big festivals when tens of thousands of lay people and a thousand monks and nuns were participating. The Army were bringing in water in trucks, there were free food stalls, as well as Dhamma-talks and socialising; so with these contradictory activities, people were milling around everywhere. Luang Por Liem was in the open space under his kuti in the middle of it all, receiving whoever came by. I suggested to him that as abbot, he must have needed to be a civil engineer, a meditation teacher, a Vinaya-expert, an organiser of ceremonies, a diplomat and facilitator: how many years should one train before being ready to be an abbot? His reply was ‘You’re never ready. You just do it and keep your practice going.’ And the practice? Samatha? Vipassana? Metta? It depends.
One sure thing is that you have to cultivate whatever is skilful in terms of penetrating self-representation and how things should be. One abbot mentioned to me that one aspect of his practice is to practise with being misinterpreted. Luang Por Sumedho developed his practice of listening to the sound of silence through attending to that background resonance in the midst of meetings, arguments, emotional floods, and of course his own stuff. I’ve practised with the ‘not getting it right’ mood long enough now to have defanged the judgemental beast. Because actually there’s only one person’s projections that you have to deal with, and that is no person at all – it’s just this mind with its images of success and completion. So you get to the end of the meeting, the day, and let that unravel. You cultivate the wisdom of no-performance and no-result. You listen to any judgements that are rattling in your mind, establish mindfulness on the mind-state and its feeling, then let the defences and identities go. It’s a matter of acknowledging the inner helicopter that is hovering over ‘If only this’ and ‘I should have said that’ and ‘How dare they do this!’ and steadily touching the ground. Allow the feeling to be felt and breathe through it. Let it end, even let the wish that it all end come to an end. When the rotor blades stop, just here, on the other side of failure, is purity and release. This Dhamma life is not for excellence and fulfilling wishes, but just to understand suffering and its cessation.