Thursday, 25 December 2014

From the Other Side of the Mirror

The current Sayadaw at Aletawya Monastery in Yangon

In the fourth chapter of the Monastic Life section of the upcoming book Shwe Lan Ga Lay, we look at some of the adjustments needed when foreign meditators stay at Burmese monasteries for extended periods. The following is the introduction to this section:


"For many decades, the idea of retreating from the world and entering a Buddhist monastery has been gaining traction in the West. At present, it has come to take on a connotation that for those fed up by the ways of the world and the problems of human society, one can give up this modern world and opt instead for a more idyllic community, where the usual mundane problems will somehow be no longer present. Such a sentiment was expressed by journalist Megan Stack in Every Man in this Village is a Liar when she wrote that after years of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “I wanted to burn my notebooks and join a Buddhist monastery someplace.” The idea of simple monastic life being a cure-all can also be found in the words of the motivation guru Tony Robbins. Along with encouraging his followers to achieve financial riches and attract their dream partner, he also suggests that they set their sights on such esoteric pursuits as deep-sea diving, public speaking or... joining a Buddhist monastery.

However, once one understands the nature of kilesas, it becomes obvious that one cannot be truly happy in any environment so long as any defilements are present. To paraphrase a Ajahn Chah's response to a student who expressed dissatisfaction with the conditions at that monastery, "It’s like you have a piece of dog poop in a little bag you keep on a string around your neck. Everywhere you go, you say, ‘Yuck, this place stinks!’” And given that monastic communities (thankfully) open their doors to those who still have such defilements, it stands to reason that even these organizations are bound to have the same failings as can be common to the human condition. The important difference may be that at monastic settings, one at least tries to remain aware of the nature of these kilesas while striving towards liberation from them. However, as with most expectations, spend enough time at monasteries and even this basic premise may become challenged."