SBS Jigsaw Version 1.001 (Abbot’s Address)
Piecing together a jigsaw requires some skill and patience. It would not be feasible to rigidly start from just one corner even though corner pieces are easily discernible. Rather, one would reasonably start off from all four corners by assembling discrete sections that will eventually fit together to form the whole picture. When these separate sections become recognisable parts of the final picture, one could then merge them. Then, filling in the gaps with odd pieces here and there becomes an easy task. However, to sort pieces for the discrete sections in a jumble requires the ability to be mindful of the final picture as a whole, as well as the details in it—the colours, proportions, shapes and outlines. Patience and a balanced state of mind (unruffled by the random recognition of the pieces in relation to the separate sections that are being pieced together) are also important requisites for completing the jigsaw. In fact, the whole process is close to multi-tasking on a micro-level. Another important factor is mental concentration: one needs to be focussed on the task without being distracted by other concerns.
The development of SBS has been carried out in much the same way. Conceived as a Theravada Buddhist monk training centre that also offers residential retreat facilities to its supporters, it has successfully gone through four phases of building development, each of which is like a whole jigsaw in itself. Since the virtual completion of facilities for the Sangha in the monastic zone in December 2003, we have conducted seven Introduction to Monkhood Programmes (IMPs) in an endeavour to educate men on the roles of monks and to inspire them to take up the robes. We have been sowing the seeds of renunciation and hopefully, this will eventually increase the numbers of worthy Malaysian monks.
Meanwhile, prior to the completion of Phase 4 development—which incorporated the construction of Farm House (FH), storehouse and Main Office Building (MOB)—some Sangha facilities were used by the laity for residential activities, such as meditation retreats and Dhamma camps. With the completion of Phase 4 by August 2006, another discrete portion of the SBS jigsaw was pieced together. With this it was possible to have lay residential activities conducted in the public zone near the main entrance without encroaching on the monastic zone in the more secluded valleys below. August 19 – 27 saw the inaugural mid-year meditation retreat for SBS supporters held exclusively in the public zone; so were the year-end children’s camp, teenager camp and medi¬tation retreat. However, for the Closer-to-Reality DhammaVinaya Seminar (23 – 27 November) conducted in SaddhammaSabha multi-purpose hall in MOB, the 13 male participants had to sleep in the classroom at the monastic zone because over 20 women occupied the Dhamma Workers’ Quarters and FH. Here we can see the gap for the missing link in the SBS Jigsaw V1.001—quarters for female guests. As plans are being finalised for the construction of Female Guest Lodge for over 35 people, 2007 will be another busy year for physical development and a challenging one for human development as well.
The Challenge Facing Volunteers
The completion of most of the ’hardware’ for the lay residential retreat centre has necessitated the formation of a special Retreat Subcommittee to manage the available facilities now being offered to our supporters to conduct suitable residential activities (see announcement on p26). This means more work for more Dhamma servers who are mostly volunteers. It is always a challenge to work together in a committee comprising volunteers and semi-volunteers because we cannot apply the corporate paradigm to human relations although this subcommittee is structured just like a corporate management body.
In a commercial enterprise, we can reprimand, penalise or fire an employee for negligence, incompetence, insubor¬dination or rudeness; but in our situation, we must learn how to handle our emotions, curb our obtrusive ego (by practising selflessness), and be aware of our unrealistic expectations so that we can accept one another for what we are, complete with our virtues, imperfections and potential to change for the better. We must always apply these three cardinal principles to be able to function not only efficiently and harmoniously as a team, but also effectively in terms of wholesome actions (kusala-kamma) and meritorious deeds (puñña-kiriya). Let me elaborate on these essential elements and their role as an adhesive, glueing together all the pieces of the jigsaw, without which a jigsaw is very fragile and falls apart easily.
The healthiest way to handle negative emotions is to neither suppress nor express them but to acknowledge and let them go. Suppression causes harmful neuropeptides (amino acids produced by the mind, e.g. through glands like the hypothalamus) to multiply and consolidate in the body, possibly leading to psychosomatic disorders. Eventually, the same emotions will surface when the right conditions present themselves again because the causes of the emotions have not been resolved; in other words, the psychological residues are still lodged in the mind. On the other hand, giving verbal or physical expression to them creates even more kamma for one as well as for others when they react to it. Verbal and physical expression does not merely refer to abusive words or bodily actions. It can also manifest in the tone of one’s voice, as a curt reply, a frown or even bad vibes.
Acknowledging the emotions as soon as they are apparent and letting them go arrests the further production and spread of the neuropeptides, thus reducing their harmful effects on the body. You would have noticed that even after angry thoughts have ceased, the uncomfortable physical sensations (e.g. congestion in the chest area, fever, increased pulse rate, heavy breathing, ‘sour’ gut feeling) still persist for some time before eventually dissipating. So imagine how much harm you are doing to your body if you continue to indulge in angry thoughts.
After recognising and acknowledging a negative mental state such as anger, it is best not to dwell on it for there is a tendency to get caught up in the thoughts that are causing the anger, thus prolonging or intensifying it. Instead it will be more skilful to turn one’s attention to observe its physical effects, such as the unpleasant sensations mentioned above.
The next step is to replace the unwholesome (akusala) mental state with a wholesome (kusala) one. For all of us working together towards common spiritual goals in a spiritual organisation, our paramount concern and priority is and must be the reduction and abandonment of akusala and the cultivation of kusala whenever possible. This is Right Effort of the Noble Eightfold Path, and yoniso manasikāra (paying attention to the cause of phenomena, or wise attention) assists in its activation. “Monks, I don’t envision any single thing other than yoniso manasikara that causes unarisen kusala states to arise and arisen akusala states to fall away,” said the Buddha (AN 1:67).
About a year just before I became a samanera (novice monk) in 1978, while searching for the truths of life, I pondered deeply on the second Noble Truth (which states that desire is the cause of suffering). As far as I was concerned at that time, it was just another theory, another religious dogma among so many others. “If it is a perennial truth, how is it relevant to me, to my daily life?” I thought. Then I put it to the test. Whenever I felt any form of mental displeasure, e.g. anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness, impatience, I would ask myself, “Why am I suffering? What is the cause of all these negative emotions?” Invariably, I found that the cause was the ‘wanting mind’—wanting things to be other than what was happening at that moment; and that ‘wanting mind’ in turn was due to attachment to plans and expectations. As I observed the cause of my negative emotions again and again, I learnt to plan and expect without attachment. When my plans and expectations didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to, I made use of the unexpected events for other beneficial activities promoting kusala states. This was how yoniso manasikara (paying attention to the cause of phenomena) helped me to activate Right Effort to abandon akusala and foster kusala.
Yoniso manasikara (as wise attention) can also mean adopting an attitude appropriate to a situation where one is performing a meritorious deed (puñña-kiriya) but then akusala states arise, threatening to subvert one’s original intentions. This is when the principles of selflessness and acceptance can help to build a positive attitude.
Although the notion of anattā (‘no-/not-/non-self’) is exclusively a Buddhist doctrine, selflessness is a universal virtue recognised by all religions, spiritual teachings and societies. Everyone agrees that the more one is attached to the ego or sense of self, the more suffering one will encounter. Our sense of self is so deeply embedded that only an arahant has successfully and completely transcended it.
A way to practise selflessness is to work, act and behave in ways that make others happy, even though one may have to sacrifice one’s personal pleasures and preferences. If done sincerely and wholeheartedly, such sacrifices can become the source of great satisfaction and delight. I think everyone has been trying to do that. I notice that the monastics, site staff and volunteers have made a lot of personal sacrifices so that collective goals benefiting the many can be successfully achieved. We have, indeed, received flattering compliments from visitors and participants for the excellent organisation of events.
However, the ‘insiders’ know better. We are the ones who have gone through trials and tribulations in order to create this success for others. Is this not an excellent example of selflessness? It certainly is, in retrospection. But at those times when our plans and expectations were frustrated, did we smile and were we thankful for the opportunity to gain an insight into the cause of suffering; for the challenge to transform the production of akusala to the creation of kusala that would make others happy despite those unexpected setbacks? Or did we react selfishly with sour faces, hurtful words, subtle but hostile body language and bad vibes?
By being unselfish we develop in ourselves
the sense of sympathy,
and we cannot enjoy happiness worthy of the name
without being in sympathy with our fellow men….
The best way to be happy,
is to make others happy:
every kind act is twice blessed,
blessing him who gives and him who takes.
If we are to promote the spirit of fellowship
we should forget our ‘I’
in the service of all;
we should do everything we can
for the sake of others.
Sayadaw U Thittila (1938)
Yes, even when they were thought to be ‘wrong’, even when they seemed to have neglected their duty for some reason or other. So, when akusala thoughts and emotions threaten to subvert puñña deeds, adopting the attitude of selflessness can help to re-activate Right Effort.
Every vipassanā yogi knows that in order to understand things according to reality, one has to first accept them for what they are, as and when they occur, and then to observe their characteristics and behaviour in an objective, impersonal way. The application of this satipaṭṭhāna technique, which has already been briefly explained above in relation to the managing of emotions, should neither be confined only to formal meditation during an intensive retreat, nor to so-called ‘ultimate realities’ (paramattha-sacca). It can and should also be applied to conventional realities (sammuti-sacca), such as people, relationships, events, job performance, etc.
Only when we are able to accept a situation or person objectively can we then act with genuine wisdom and compassion because we are not prejudiced by negative emotions. We should also remember that because a given situation can be perceived differently by different people, holding rigidly to one’s own perception can be the cause of antagonism and disharmony, leading eventually to inefficiency and even failure to achieve desired results. Therefore one should neither be reticent nor assertive about one’s perceptions; rather, one should frankly express them (at the proper time) while being open-minded enough to accept others’ perceptions, which may be equally valid. That is why post-mortems of past events, when conducted in such an atmosphere of objectivity and acceptance, can be very constructive in improving future performance. Post-mortems are not the time to apply the principles: “Let bygones be bygones”, or “Don’t dig up the past nor plan for the future; just stay in the present!” Instead, they are meant to be special occasions for trouble-shooting any hitches due to lapses, inefficiency, miscommunication, personality conflict, attitude problems, etc. so that they can be resolved and avoided in future events.
Acceptance of undesirable situations must include acceptance of oneself and others, since such situations are the outcome of interactions and relationships between self and others. Three qualities—appreciation, forgiveness and flexibility—when cultivated, can facilitate acceptance of people for what they are. We must always try to remember that all of us are involved in puñña-kiriya—each trying his/her personal best to contribute in cash and/or kind towards the success of common goals. So, regardless of any shortcomings (e.g. being slip-shod, inefficient, or disorganised), we must appreciate whatever has been contributed. When we can appreciate people’s contribution, it is easier to forgive their mistakes and weaknesses. Then we can relate to them with warm feelings of gratitude and appreciative joy (mudita), with beaming smiles and thankful words, with good vibes that foster fellowship and harmony.
Job descriptions to define the roles and responsibilities of committee members are essential guidelines for the structured, organised management of events. All should try their best to abide by their respective job functions. Nonetheless, there will be occasions when overlaps, grey areas, unforeseen tasks and lapses arise. Then, mere appreciation and forgiveness will not suffice. Rather, we must step forward with flexibility in a manner that is neither grudging nor obtrusive, but magnanimous and obliging. This will surely result in a deep sense of satisfaction and delight for one and all—for an unpleasant situation will have been saved in good faith, in a spirit of goodwill. Wow, what an ideal act of doing puñña with kusala mental states!!
Another very powerful tool to foster acceptance of people, including oneself, is introspection through the practice of satipatthana meditation, particularly constantly observing how one’s mind is responding to objects of the six senses. When we realise the transient, conditional and impersonal nature of our own thoughts and emotions—comprising a mixture of good and bad, virtues and vices, insights and absurdities—that occur at random or in association with one another, we can begin to understand and therefore accept people for what they are.
Applying such a profound experiential understanding of the intricate and often uncontrollable chain of events to our everyday life will automatically dispel any accusative thoughts of “You are wrong and I am right”. Then success and failure become a dance of impersonal causes and effects where we can whole-heartedly participate with joy, enthusiasm and true selflessness—“forgetting our ‘I’ in the service of all”. So, applying the insights gained through the practice of satipatthana meditation to the conceptual or conventional world is another form of wise attention (yoniso manasikāra) that can activate Right Effort to overcome akusala states when doing meritorious deeds.
Completion of SBS Jigsaw V1.001
In our collective effort to complete the SBS Jigsaw, we must always be mindful of the final picture as a whole while merging the separate phases of development. At the same time, the details of tactful human relations built upon the three principles of emotion management, selflessness and acceptance should never be lost sight of. With patience and a balanced state of mind, we should focus on our ultimate goal without being distracted by petty disagreements, rigid expectations and personality conflicts. For tactful human relations is the glue that consolidates the loose pieces so that SBS Jigsaw V1.001 can firmly and concretely show the whole picture: a Theravada monk training centre at the edge of the forest with co-existing residential retreat facilities for the laity.