VEN NYANASANTI was visiting us when Introduction to Monkhood Programme 5 (!MP5) started. He now brings you to this “oasis of quiet joy”.
I witnessed a catch-22 recently. Twenty-two people volunteered to catch the monastic train(-ing) at Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary and spend two weeks exploring and experiencing life in the Sangha.
This group of inward bound adventurers abandoned home and hair and leapt boldly from the layperson’s five-precept orbit, towards the novice monk’s ten-precept domain… and they landed somewhere in the middle! Donning white robes and eight-precept armour, they seemed unsure where they had abruptly been reborn. (Whoever said there is no place for an intermediate life in Theravada Buddhism?) Sensing their quandary, Bhante Aggacitta soothingly reassured them that they had arrived at a fortunate destination: the realm of the anagārikas—the (honourable) homeless ones.
His introductory briefing was not going to be a sonorous monologue. Bhante Aggacitta first tackled the pernicious misconception that this was to be just another novitiate program (with all due respect to the good efforts of others). Without mincing words, he stated: “This Introduction to Monkhood Programme (IMP) is designed to be a foretaste of monkhood for those considering a long-term commitment to this way of life” (uneasy quivers in the audience). Next, he quizzed them: “What is monkhood?” Greeted by blank stares, he sympathised and offered them a multiple-choice answer: (a) Monks are priests (b) Monks are exorcists (c) Monks are skilled meditators (d) Monks are preachers (e) Monks are scholars. “So, what do you think?” prodded Bhante. Thus challenged, invisible group dynamics was evoked among the white-clad brotherhood and an almost equal number of hands were raised for each of the options, thus effectively hedging the embarrassment of a wrong answer. Unfortunately the correct answer turned out to be (the equally invisible) option (f) All of the above! “Monkhood is a spectrum of duties and responsibilities, some of which are compulsory (e.g. following the Vinaya rules) and some optional (e.g. learning Pali)”, Bhante explained.
Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (SBS) is superbly situated, designed, executed and tended to. Although I had seen pictures in the SBS newsletter, when I first arrived I was taken aback by how much prettier it is in actuality. I was told that the size of The Sanctuary is some ten acres; however, the immense views it affords pervaded me with an enormous sense of space. When coupled with the openness, mutual respect, care and sense of purpose, which characterise the SBS Sangha and supporters, I felt transported into an oasis of quiet joy in the midst of a world thirsting for inner peace. The IMP participants seemed as moved as I was, judging from the long periods many of them would sit in silent contemplation, as though soaking in the serene, scenic surroundings.
With interactive lectures, open discussions, self-study, physical exercise, meditation instructions, and an invigorating almsround (attractively labelled as “nature hike” and “riverside breakfast”) each day, the IMP was designed to be a crash course in monastic experience. “Life in SBS is pretty relaxed and informal, so enjoy your time here”, Bhante Aggacitta proposed, perhaps to help unwind some of the stress-prone individuals and others intimidated by the schedule. In this IMP they would be learning the refined art of moving away from the usual busy rush that crowded their lives, towards the be, see hush of enhanced present moment awareness. So this was to be a crash course… in tranquil, slow motion.
Come evening of day one and all were learning the basics of handling their bowls and wearing their robes (in three variations). To add to their considerable confusion, I suggested that each look upon his almsbowl as the Buddha’s Head and treat it as such. Some jittery fingers and sweaty palms were so taken aback by this revelation, that a few bowls were suddenly liberated, allowing them to bounce boisterously on the floor. Ears were clasped in agony, so heart rendering was the clatter.
As I write this article, I am reminded of the assignments I had to submit in school and college. There was the inevitable deadline by which we had to turn in our work and I excelled at procrastinating until the very end. The adrenaline would then kick in and whoosh me through my assignments like rocket propulsion. Amazingly, I usually managed to do quite well despite this less-than-exalted study strategy, and soon it was such an ingrained habit that I wondered if I would ever learn to do my work at a more evenly balanced pace. So, as I write this piece-my first ‘assignment’ with a deadline since I became a monk three years back-I am pleased to discover that I’ve begun working a full week before my deadline! This feels like a first for me: no adrenaline, no stress, no late nights and caffeine highs… just doing my work in a relaxed, calm way. Why do I bring this subject up? It’s because people sometimes ask me (and I sometimes ask myself) what changes I see in myself after these years in the robes? All the detailed rules to follow, the unexciting monastic routine, the duties, the hours of meditation… is it really worth it? Just sitting here doing this assignment way before my deadline… I can’t help thinking that my monastic training has had something to do with this tiny (but significant) change I’m witnessing now… my journey from IMPatience to I M Peace!
Just a few days into IMP and it was already time for me to leave for Sri Lanka. Although I was unable to see the programme to its completion, I was nevertheless IMPressed by the sincere interest shown by the participants and their willingness to step out of their comfort zones to experience a wholly different way of life: the Holy Life! May this experience strengthen their commitment to inner transformation. May the manifold merits they acquire benefit, in widening circles, all beings!
I would also like to share some observations from my month-long sojourn in Malaysia: (a) I was moved by the genuine interest in contributing, serving, studying, applying, sharing and open-mindedly investigating the Dhamma among a cross-section of the community. Buddhism here is a healthy faith buzzing with vital energy. It makes me wonder: maybe being a religious minority in a country can be a blessing in disguise if it evokes an interest in understanding, preserving and sustaining wholesome traditions (b) The regular visits and teachings by renowned Buddhist teachers and the local representation of a large number of Buddhist traditions underline the cosmopolitan nature of Buddhism here (c) The local Dhamma centres I visited impressed me with their creative, multi-faceted activities, non-sectarian approach and enthusiastic participation (d) I think that in terms of free distribution of priceless Dhamma literature, perhaps this country is currently a world leader! (e) I even discovered a wonderful Dhamma teaching hidden in Malaysia: “Mindfully And Lovingly Accept Your Situation’s Impermanence Always”!
Before I end, I want to take this opportunity to bow to all my teachers; to express my gratitude to my parents and all who have supported me; and convey my appreciation to all the fine people I’ve been privileged to have met and learnt from this last month. May we all keep growing in Dhamma! May we all know real happiness; real freedom! Sādhu!