At Ariyasom Villa recently I commented that when you are in a traffic jam, you might remember that you are part of the traffic also. It’s not just everyone else who is making your day bad, you too are contributing to their traffic jam.
In the same way, usually people who come to the events I organise look at it as my job to lead everything, and that their part is passive. But you are also playing a part in the inspiration and encouragement of others, even if you are not sat up on the front cushion. Because the mind fixes on symbols the tendency is to see only the leader or figurehead. The Hitlers and the Gandhis. But the real movement was with the people who joined in. The little people are the ones who mattered most.
For instance, I recall the first time I telephoned a monastery when I was in NZ. I was rather nervous. Reading something about Buddhism in the library was one thing, but actually going there was another. I had not made up my mind, and was a little apprehensive. Anyway, I called.
And a very charming man called Ron answered. He was polite and warm, and most disarming. Right away I booked myself a weekend stay at the temple. It wound up being the first of several visits, although I never met Ron. I send him my thanks now because if it had not been for him I might be a chartered accountant. Or a welder. Thanks Ron – that day you were one of the people who mattered.
In the same way, people come to the events I arrange, and sometimes comment – that group is like x, y, z. They don’t see that they themselves were part of it that night. Just like they were part of the traffic jam, they played a small part in other people’s enlightenment that evening.
I remember when I was 24 years old, and I arrived at the temple in Newcastle. I had been asking to join as an Anagarika – shaved head and white clothes – for nearly 2 years. The Abbot kept putting me off, but I was getting desperate.
You see, I’d been depressed for some 8 years, and the only consistent thought that had stayed with me through my adolescence was how I might do away with myself. Pretty much since I gained a thinking identity of my own, I had wanted to kill it. I have been blamed many times for mentioning this, as it does not seem to be an ‘inspiring’ story that people like to hear of us bhikkhus. Well, I’m not going to sugar coat it or make anything up. In terms of human suffering Depression has to rank along with the very worst offending causes. And so it should be talked about.
Finally I’d gone to the temple, having been fired from the only job I thought myself any good at, and told the Abbot that I simply had to join.
“Oh sure,” he said, “I just wanted to see if you were serious.”
Well I was, I am, and I have seen a lot of their monks come and leave again, while I have never wavered in my dedication to this path.
I arrived at the temple in March 1994, with a big bunch of flowers, and unusually, feeling happy. I was later told that there had been a number of Bhikkhus leaving robes around that time, including some senior monks, and that it was something of a down-cycle. Then the community was still so new, and had been riding such a huge wave of interest that they had been hard hit by the raft of high profile departures. So I had buoyed their spirits a little, being fresh and enthusiastic. But again, I never thought of my influence on our community. Only on what their community was like, and if I liked it or not.
I don’t think I was really the type they were after, if I am honest. I was too loud and pushy. Most of the others were more quiet, posh, and couldn’t use an angle grinder. They also seemed to have a lot of doubts. I have had many failings in the Holy Life, but doubt is one I have not suffered from. If Enlightenment is real, I want it. Nothing else will do.
This is why Tibetan Buddhist’s often wear little pieces of scripture around their necks – because it is said that if someone sees the scripture, then the idea of enlightenment is sparked, and sooner or later it will burst into the all out pursuit of liberation. Mahayana Buddhists say hearing even a single word of the Lotus Sutra has the same effect. (One of the words in the Lotus Sutra is ‘and’.) I have heard the call, and while I am not in a hurry, I have my eye fixed on the goal.
I found the monastery in Newcastle as windy as it is chilly. The wonderful ‘rubble-filled’ walls are over half a meter thick. And everything creaks and groans as a really old farm building should. There’s a local tomb, together with a friendly ghost. And some charming details all around – from a tiny stone chedi, to the oak floors that crack wonderfully as the underfloor heating does its best to remove the chill and damp.
There was the Abbot, still quite new to the job at that time, but filling the position with verve. There was the newly instated second monk who’d been ordained 12 years, and 3 others who had been ordained 5 years. They all played a role in my time there, each in their own way. But I thought I might mention a chap who arrived a month or two after I did. His name now is Punnyo.
He was an English guy like myself. I was now 25, and he was 32, and he’d been a monk for a couple of years previously. He left the monkhood to explore some other forms of spiritual path, before returning to the Theravada system. We had to work together a bit, as we ran the kitchen, the car, and some of the other duties that the Anagarikas performed.
Before joining the community I had read a few books on Buddhism; but what you read is not much like the reality on the ground. Which is why I laugh merrily at internet forums where laypeople, who can’t even follow five precepts, pontificate about what makes a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ Buddhist monk.
Ven. Punnyo as he is now known, had read a lot more than I had, and had been to a good number of retreats. He’d been through the machine and knew the ropes. I was figuring it all out, while he had been through his adjustment period, and was back wanting to ordain and stay. He is still a Bhikkhu now.
Andrew showed me all the good walks, especially around the local lake where there’s a very pleasant park. And we went out for an occasional cigar perched on a ledge on a local cliff face, where there was a secluded sitting spot. He answered all my questions patiently as I figured out my way around this strange new world of Buddhism and community living.
I remember I would read half a book and spout all kinds of views on it – this is how schooling works in the UK. Your teachers tell you something and then you give an opinion on it backed with a few loose facts they had thrown at you. The trouble with this system is it encourages people to have opinions on all kinds of things they know nothing about. It’s not much different today; when someone googles a topic and within the first page of results they have a fixed opinion about it.
One time, in my six months there, I had a deep insight. I was walking alone as I was want to do, down by the lake. I would always go off the official path, looking for the interesting bits of wood, and fantasizing alone. Then I slipped over in a place with a hairy drop.
… Now mindfulness shows you what is really going on, not what you think is going on. In this case, the first thing I knew was hanging on to a tree part way down the slope. Then I literally saw my floundering mind, snapped from its fantasy, start figuring out what had happened. How did it find itself half way down a hairy slope hanging onto a tree? It filled in the gaps. I had slipped. I had gone ‘a over t’ (fell), and grabbed a tree to thwart a destiny in the beastly little mud pool at the bottom.
The insight then struck. It was not ‘I’ who had done any of that. It had all happened while I was busy with a fantasy. The first thing that ‘I’ had known was hanging on to a tree trying to fill in the back story. The slipping, the grabbing – all had gone on without ‘me’ being involved.
I was in awe. pretty much everything that I thought was ‘I’, went on automatically without ‘me’ being involved.
I quickly built a practise around this.
For instance the next morning I was on breakfast making duty. I had to prepare porridge, tea and some other things for some 15 people, in the space of 30 minutes. It was a bit of a rush, but the shame of being late provided motivation. I’d whirr around the kitchen – all without being involved! I watched with fascination as my hands moved all by themselves. I saw thoughts literally ‘pop’ into my head when they were needed, and then vanish. The feet spun and clicked, the arms reached and placed, the head swiveled, and most incredible, if someone passing by made a query, the voice answered all by itself. I found myself curious as to what it would say.
This, I determined, is what mindfulness was really about. Everyone else had it wrong. Watching the foot rising and falling … haha. You just have to watch the body and mind do things by itself. I was getting there. I was in the zone, and I had figured it out!
I told Andrew.
“You guys have all got it wrong. You don’t have to ‘do’ anything. You are too tiny!”
“Hmm, what do you mean?” he asked. He was actually a bit worried I had gotten enlightened before him. He was always a little passive-competitive.
“I mean your hands move by themselves, you don’t have to do it. Mindfulness is not about working through your feelings or anything like that!”
“Hmm, you should read Douglas Harding,” he told me.
“Nah, you don’t understand, all these books on ‘Buddhism’ are missing the point – you are not the boss of a big mind, you are a corner of it, thinking you are in charge,” I informed him sternly. “Everything goes on by itself, if you get out of the way.”
“That’s what Douglas Harding teaches,” replied Andrew patiently, adding “he says you have no head.”
Admittedly, that caught my attention, as anything does that is both silly and yet conspiratorial. But I shook it off, and continued my address.
I still think I was right in a way. The insight is one I have returned to many times, and I still marvel at times how my ‘self’ does things by ‘itself’. I can have whole conversations while the ‘I’ sits there marvelling silently as my voice pops out all on its own. These days I know that it is not just me who figured this out. The book Incognito – Secret Lives of the Brain explains it quite well in purely scientific terms.
And I did later go find a book by Douglas Harding, and Andrew was right, it did describe the practise I was doing so haphazardly.
Andrew and I remained in touch, loosely. We both ordained in the following year. While he remained at that temple in Newcastle, I ventured to Thailand where I carve a more lonely path, still thinking that I have pioneered piecemeal what I’m sure, logically, the other Bhikkhus have all worked out long ago.
My time in Newcastle quickly saw the end of my years of depression and a new hope for the future for the first time in my adult life. And when I look back I see that I was part of the traffic for them over that period too. It is so easy to focus only on what other people mean to you, and miss what you meant to other people. A little attention to this and you would probably act quite differently. I certainly would have acted differently over that time in Newcastle, if I had understood that I also had an effect on them.
When I think about the influences on me over that period, it was not the abbot, nor the teaching, or the temple itself, that had such a big influence. All those things were good. But it was the patient friendship of Andrew that really helped me get my feet on the ground. Even if he only saw me as a frustrating upstart who never listened to anyone.
These days I know that I can affect people, in whatever small way. You never go anywhere without creating some ripples. If you desire certain outcomes, you will be disappointed. But a mindful word, a gesture, or lending an ear, might well put a positive ripple into the universe
So remember that you are also having an effect on the people around you. Just like Ron’s kindly phone manner first brought me into the temple, your demeanor is also affective on others. If you see someone standing around alone, maybe say hello. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, maybe make a practise of finding someone to listen to. And even if someone seems way off base, maybe they are working through their own relationship to Buddhism or meditation, and a bit of patience from you will make all the difference. You are all part of the traffic.