Looking for Freedom, Part II

The Mind  |  The Monastery   |   Fedde De Vries  |   April 26, 2012, 7:13 pm

A Buddha Statue at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. Source

Part 2 of 2 of my personal reflections on an eleven-day stay in Amaravati

Work is not something people generally love. But by now, I have become quite a workaholic, especially when working for a monastic community. Working is also a form of dana, a way to keep something precious, the Sangha, alive in our world – a world that really needed it. However, the love for work all too easily becomes a blind and constant need to be productive. In a monastic setting this can result in situations of which one only later realizes the significance and the humor.

The monk looked at me: ‘’You must be new here?’’ I, not at all expecting to be talked to, answered: ‘’Yes, why?’’

I, all too clearly remember how one morning, during the time for chore, I was cleaning the sides of the counter, where breakfast stood ready. I only had half a meter to go when it was time for breakfast. There was a monk who was standing in front of my last half meter, I stepped back ready to jump in and finish my job as soon as he was done. The monk looked at me: ‘’You must be new here?’’ I, not at all expecting to be talked to, answered: ‘’Yes, why?’’ ‘’Well, it is time for breakfast, and people here usually just stop working then.’’ He further asked for my name and where I came from, but the first part of the conversation kept nagging me for some time: my eagerness for hard work and my identity with that image started to crack… (As a side note: I’m not praising laziness here either: that is the self seeking comfort. The middle way seems best.)

I later spoke to the same monk during a break in his meditation instruction. I had some pain during my sit.  At first, he was quite impressed with my posture – a full lotus; but soon he told me that it might be good not to put so much pressure on myself and use a less advanced posture… you can see the inner dialogue that followed: ‘’What?! Don’t pressure myself?! Don’t push myself?! But then, how will I ever get somewhere?!’’

The work hours were a good learning experience. The monk who coordinated the work had a quick and easy smile, cheerful and laid-back, and the work we did was very simple: painting walls, moving stuff, and tidying up a garage. But notwithstanding – or perhaps because of – the simplicity of the tasks, my “intelligence” and “creativity” went into overdrive.   I constantly had ideas about more efficient methods: ‘’Couldn’t we do it this way? Or perhaps this way?’’ The monk went along with me a lot. With a big smile he’d say: ‘’Oh sure, we could do that’’. In the end, his way worked the best – easy, relaxed and based on his longtime experience. Working in this simple manner definitely required less effort and was more fulfilling than constantly pressuring and trying to impress myself with my own hard work and intelligence. In the course of time, I became able to do simply what there was to do.  This was not only a reminder of the value of a relaxed attitude – but it was also a reminder of what modernity tried so hard to make us forget: the value of and appreciation for what was older than ourselves, for tradition, for the idea that something that had been in use for a long time might be indeed very useful and valuable.

… and the nature of a lot of things was cyclic. There was, washing, cleaning, eating, sleeping and waking; spring, summer, fall and winter.

In much of my ‘ordinary’ activities – writing papers, reading books and articles – a belief in progress worked very well – a linear understanding of time and of action: I do this now so I finish then, and will be finished. Perhaps an essay needed some more editing but that was entirely different from rewriting it. Sucked into such notion as progress, it was quite a revelation to find out progress was not the only motion of life. This became clear when I caught myself thinking that it was quite inefficient that a wooden wall had to be repainted every two years… ‘’couldn’t another material or another paint worked better?’’ Of course, such a solution could help temporarily, but it was still just that: temporarily. Not everything, I realized, could be approached linearly and the nature of a lot of things was cyclic. There was, washing, cleaning, eating, sleeping and waking; spring, summer, fall and winter.

Afternoons in Amaravati were free time, except for those who were in the dish-washing team, but they could take the morning off. There was enough time to read, talk and meditate. After the puja (worship/recitation) and the meditation in the evening the day had been long enough and ran its natural end around 9:00 or 10:00 P.M. The morning and evening puja were recited in Pāli and/or English to simple melodies. The recitations provided a welcome and beautiful variation that did not break the silence while at the same time, providing the mind with some skillful points of reference. If the mind had space to wander around and/or to be at peace all day, it was very useful to read, recite and hear texts which were in simple terms remind one of the ideals to which the silence ought to be evoked: wisdom and compassion, peace and freedom.

The ultimate goal of all the ceremonies and rules was to stimulate reflection and to challenge one to improve oneself.

Those ideals of wisdom and compassion formed the basis of the lifestyle in Amaravati. In principle, everyone was expected to adhere to the eight precepts.[¹] This created  a sense of trust in the community one did not expect to be robbed or be deceived – and kept the contours of everyday life clear: the focus was on spirituality, not on sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. The fact that the precepts formed an important element of life in the community was emphasized in two out of five lectures given during my stay. One of the nuns, full of enthusiasm told me how great the Vinaya was and how much she had enjoyed the Vinaya courses that she and the other nuns took during the rains retreat in the summer. For her, the Vinaya spoke straight to the heart. A few days later, one of the monks stressed that reflection was the central aspect of monastic life. The ultimate goal of all the ceremonies and rules was to stimulate reflection and to challenge one to improve oneself. This meant that the precepts were to be understood as markers on the ground to mark a safe area, not as sticks to hit with. They were not meant to be followed to full perfection from the first moment, if so, they would serve no real purpose.

Ultimately, did my stay in Amaravati bring me freedom? It, at least brought a bit more insight in some habit-patterns, some more thinking-space. But the freedom that Ajahn Amaro spoke about in a talk, after he just got back from two weeks of solitary retreat, was not yet my lived experience. He told us how he had really enjoyed being alone all that time–forgetting time, having to be no one: ‘’You didn’t have to be anyone. The squirrels and birds didn’t didn’t care who I was. They didn’t even know what an ‘abbot’ was, let alone that they would know who ‘Ajahn Amaro’ was.’’ The freedom to be no one… it was quite a different freedom than the freedom of individual expression, but also way more freer. Do I dare to take the freedom to be free? In my heart of hearts, I do have the faith I can do it.


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