Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Proper Attitude

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book
Shwe Lan Ga Lay. This is the introduction to a chapter called "Settling In," which describes how foreign meditators can adjust the dhammic life of living at a Burmese monastery.

"When looking for a hotel room, it is quite reasonable—smart, even—to ask about the room, the shower, the bed, etc, and one is not being rude even to ask to inspect the room before choosing to stay; indeed, one would be remiss if they did not! But monasteries are not guesthouses. They are a place for yogis to develop their nekkamma parami, or the perfection of renunciation. By definition, monasteries are places of simple living, where only the most basic necessities are met. Various Burmese proverbs attest to the value of nekkamma, which is considered the wellspring from which true contentedness may arise. One is Yaung ye tin tain, or “one is satisfied with one has.” Another goes shi ta lay ne ya aung nay. Shita lay ne wa aung sar, or “one tries to live with what one has, and to eat what is available.”

And one should not interpret nekkamma as having to “put up with” or “bear” one’s circumstances, rather, these situations where one can really practice renunciation are genuine opportunities rarely found among daily society where the craving for “more” and “better” is ever-present. Naing Naing Tun speaks to this when he tells of a simple forest monastery he stayed in for some time, during his temporary monkhood. There were no amenities, and not even electricity, but he relates that “as soon as I arrived there, I didn’t need to worry about anything. I just pulled up a mat on the floor and that was my bed.” As the days passed, he found that the monks had happily adapted to the situation and become more attuned to their environment. For example, every evening they would open the western windows and watch as all the mosquitoes flew out, then close them before lighting one of the few candles they had. Despite not having mosquito coils or insect repellent, they found this trick somehow worked to remove them. When there were no candles, or when it wasn’t safe to use them with may dry leaves around, he remembers: “We just sat under the natural light, the moonlight, and discussed Dhamma. For food, we just ate from what we got on alms rounds. And I didn’t feel any of thoughts of ‘I need this or I need that.’ I was free of wanting this or that because I accepted that here, there is nothing. I already accepted things. If you have less things, you have less worry, less anxiety. This is the benefit of having nothing! Today, whenever I rewind this experience, I can’t compare it with any other time in my life. Now, when I have one more thing, I have one more worry—and sometimes a lot more!”

Yogis who have a medical condition or an important special request may inquire whether their need can be accommodated at the monastery. An example of a “special request” is having a bad back and needing a certain amount of padding when sleeping, or feeling under the weather and needing a quiet place to rest or some medicine. But yogis should realize that most monasteries have limited capacity to meet even these kinds of legitimate needs. And mere personal preferences for this or that are worth letting go of, such as wanting almond-flavor soymilk instead of 2%, or asking the kitchen to prepare separate dishes with fewer chilies. While many Western meditation centers may try to meet such requests, they are not appropriate at Burmese monasteries. Also, one should make sure to reimburse the office or kitchen for any additional expenditure that has been undertaken for oneself personally.

It is also important to keep in mind that many monks and Sayadaws, especially in more remote or smaller monasteries, may have had little to no previous contact with foreigners. For this reason, one’s behavior will impact not only one’s own relations with the monastery, but will likely have consequences for many more yogis who may wish to practice there in the future—if your stay causes any difficulties or complexities, then they may hesitate to offer such an opportunity to the next yogi. If this proves too great a challenge, then one may consider staying in a nearby hotel and visit the monastery during the day."

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