Friday 31 January 2020

The Presence of Absence: living with an empty space

Life at Cittaviveka over the past year or two has gone through some changes for me personally. It's understandable, since I'm no longer the abbot and have gradually segued into something, or some role, called Guiding Elder. It's a gracious, if nebulous, title. It began with the understanding that although I can pass comment, I no longer have a decisive say in what goes on. This in a way is a relief, because the realization that people aren't necessarily going to follow my views did allow me to express them more freely. After a while, it has more become the case that a good amount of day-to-day management isn't even referred to me; along with this, I have been able to move out of views and opinions to a greater degree. This is partly because of my age: passing year seventy, there is the deepening realization that the world and the monastery and the tradition will roll along (or not) when I'm gone, so why get snagged on the details? Why bother to formulate an opinion when others can, and will have to put energy into sustaining it? Death approaches, do the real business. Indeed, as the new abbot settles in, his encouragement is for me to define for myself what my business is. 'Come and go, and run your routines as you like.'
This is strangely disconcerting. I have no clear idea of what I like. In fact, I don't even have a convincing sense of what I am. I generally operate in terms of how to fit into a situation, or what works best for the group. So, being given free rein in terms of the monastic community, one consequence is that my mind expands to include the far wider field of Dhamma practitioners – and then try to fit in with or attend to their needs. Such attention easily leads me into taking on too many engagements and (my body tells me) too much travelling. Meanwhile, I look with a mixture of incomprehension and envy at how some monks can find time to go for long walks, even tours, or happily spend time 'at home' in their monasteries, receiving guests after the meal, tidying up here and there, and just giving an occasional talk now and then. But when I consider it, that's closer to the model that we see in the discourses. So, for myself, a shift of view seems to be needed. 
In a way, the shift is staring me in the face: when I consider the question, ' What do you want to do?', I find a blank space at the end of it. So, why not follow that sign? Maybe being blank for a while is the appropriate option. Indeed: Absence is a revered presence in spiritual life.
Strangely enough, my seating position in the line of bhikkhus in the Dhamma Hall is now up front and central, but not at the head of the line. Although I am over twenty years senior to him, the abbot sits 'up' the line from me. To explain: in terms of Vinaya the line-up proceeds in order of seniority, to the minute; the more senior you are, the closer you sit to the head of the line. This shows people who to follow. However, the role of the abbot is to show and inform people as to what to follow. Thus, when it comes to public occasions where the Cittaviveka abbot needs to lead, he sits in that 'top of the line' position – which is now off slightly to one side, in order to accommodate the GE (me) in a respectful way in the centre. As for myself, although I'm now in the centre, I sit in silence, a blank presence who follows the abbot's lead. This actually works well. It's quite a relief for me, as when I'm teaching, I am in the spotlight, and this can amplify the significance of even casual non-Dhamma expressions in a way in which I'm unaware – and yet responsible. So, it's great to be nothing much; quiet yet attentive, and on the lookout for what the abbot might need. This helps me because it limits the range of my concern: which is now to support the situation by just being present. I comment if asked, and, unless something is constantly being missed, don't comment if not asked. (Incidentally, I think he's doing really well.)
This non-centrality feels quite natural. Even when I was abbot, I'd place my seat to one side of the Buddha-image, so that people would have an unimpeded view of this object of recollection and devotion. What it signified to myself was that I was following the Buddha's lead. (Although he never said anything and had me guessing from time to time.) A question that sat like a mantra in my mind for several years, was: 'What would the Buddha do with this?' or, 'What would Ajahn Sumedho/Ajahn Chah say about this?' And I'd try to put my inclinations to one side. But when I review this now, that was still my inclination. And moreover, looking for an answer in me saying or doing something was my habitual focus. I could try too hard, and not let the situation speak. Things might have been better if I had just let my mind go blank and see what unfolded by itself. After all, it's never the case that nothing happens – so why force it? Can I trust my present Absence?
Such questions, or something like them, are good ones for us to bear in mind. Maintain awareness of a revered but invisible being sitting next to you, and at decisive moments, pause and float the question: 'What would he or she say? What would they feel if I did this? Or didn't do that?' The note of caution to sound is that such a being should be a friend, not a tyrant, and they should address you, not your query. They might well say: ‘Relax, the answer’s not here yet.’ And such a one would allow you to make the small mistakes of forgetting an appointment or a name, or coming out with a remark that touched the wrong spot. To these they’d comment, if comment were needed: 'How does that feel, when you review it?' 'Is there something to learn from that?' Such errors are anyway easier to correct than the big mistake of taking it all personally.

Having less of a function here does also allow me more scope to turn around. Behind me, the Buddha, the real Guiding Elder, is sitting upright but relaxed, with open eyes and mild smile. That's what he's modelled year after year. In words: 'Touch in with silence, don't fill all the gaps.' Get it? Full stop, period, end of.