Robbie, who first attended the Abbey’s Exploring Monastic Life Program in 2008 at age 16, continues to reflect on Dharma practice and monastic life now, at age 20. In a recent letter to Venerable Chodron, he shares some thoughts.
The more I reflect, the more I want to spend this ephemeral lifetime transforming my mindstream. I’ve been especially thinking about the compulsive urges to act, communicate and ruminate (karma), the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions that cause these urges and actions, and at the source of this, the grasping at a real, essential me. Together, all of these make me like a junkie who is always trying to get the next fix in cyclic existence, even though he knows something isn’t quite adding up. It’s become especially apparent how inundated I am with verbal stimuli that fan the embers into flames. In my heart of hearts, I want to be free of this cyclic existence, and I am joyful with the thought of simplifying my life, cultivating my good qualities, and realizing my potential. I don’t want to live for only the happiness of this life anymore. . . it’s like a mouse on a wheel. But this is a relatively new way of thinking so I’ve seen a lot of fear arise with the thought of living at the Abbey!
First, I notice this comes up with the thought of living in community with other residents at the Abbey. I feel some insecurity about my understanding of the path, where I’m at. As I investigate, I see this is related to the competitive nature of our culture. Actually, my own upbringing was especially competitive: I was involved with many childhood sports (my Mom was a track star and my Dad a coach of everything and anything). I was a bright student in a small Appalachian town and I was raised in a rowdy household of three boys, all close in age. I think, culturally speaking, our competitive tendencies stem from our western culture’s narrow perspective that this life is an isolated event—we often hear, “Well, you only live once.”
In my own case, of course my attachment to praise and approval feeds into my competitive streak. But more than anything, competition is about trying to build a sense of self-esteem. Maybe by sizing myself up to other human beings, seeing who’s “best” as we all strive for an unrealistic perfection, will quell my feelings of inadequacy. It also explains my tendency towards arrogance/pride, as a way of trying to feel more assured, more content with who I am.
However, a more beneficial and realistic source of confidence is my Buddha-potential. What to do with this nature that is like the pristine, boundless sky, free from brooding clouds? It all comes full-circle and my aspiration to go to the Abbey is strengthened. I can really rejoice that there are people who are transforming their minds, as best as they can, to benefit others. No need for competition or jealousy.
I realize I don’t have to be perfect to practice at the Abbey. Similarly, I realize that those who live there aren’t either! Any ideas to the contrary arise simply from my not spending a great deal of time around them. With more interaction, I’ll see both the positive qualities of others and their weaker areas. Instead of being a source of disappointment—or conversely pride—this will further my understanding of others, increase a sense of fellowship, and spur compassion. Instead of noticing the faults of others—based on my own insecurity of having similar faults—I’ll turn inward and be honest with myself about the nature of our existence.
Lastly, there will be personality differences and a convergence of cultures and generations. Instead of ignoring this or lamenting I’m not around people I would necessarily choose to be around, it can be a source of creative exchange, as well as tolerance. I really have a lot to learn from so many people because my own life experience is quite limited. Rather, I’ll approach all these people with humility and gratitude instead of an annoyed mental state.
Still, I have some realistic concerns.
Firstly, I’m concerned with not being familiar with certain practices, prayers, etc. There will be times I get caught up in a particular translation or unfamiliar situation. I’ve come to the conclusion I’m too lazy in my current lifestyle to do a whole lot about this, but I’ll learn as I go at the Abbey. I don’t know everything and that’s ok. Further, instead of simply knowing words and concepts and spouting them out so other people can be impressed, maybe I’ll actually settle down and take what I hear, reflect on it in my heart, and really live my values instead of idealizing them and living contrary to them.
I also worry about financial security. I will no longer have a source of income and have to work with feelings of “leeching off” others, instead of actively contributing. I realize this is largely due to our do-it-yourself culture (probably stretching back to puritanical values). Maybe it could be an opportunity to make me more acutely aware of the generosity I’ve always been receiving from other sentient beings. Instead of contributing my resources, I’ll offer my service and my work on transforming my heart.
I won’t go through the whole list of concerns (as to save some time), but it includes attachment to my family, lack of total internet access whenever and for whatever I want. But this is consumerist thinking and besides, at the Abbey, I’d have a teacher living there!), loneliness, etc. But I’m dealing with all of these issues in similar ways as I’ve talked about previously.
There are, however, some things I’m really excited about: the schedule (I need help getting up in the morning and sticking to a routine, but when I do, I feel very productive), lack of entertainment (I’m starting to feel more confused by it than excited), and celibacy. Above all, I’m most excited about the idea of living in precepts. My ethical conduct is seriously lacking. There is a real disconnect between my values and ideas and how I actually interact with people. There are a few reasons for this. One is complete naivety about the effects of my behavior. For instance, I noticed I wasn’t very concerned with karma or the twelve links when first meditating on them because the results that are experienced in future lifetimes “won’t be me.” “Oh, well, I won’t be around, that will be someone else experiencing that, anyway. It’s so far way!” Really? Who is here now, apart from this transient body and mind, that “won’t be there”? Further, aren’t my current aggregates, environment and experiences the results of past karma? I snapped out of that! Safeguarding our ethical conduct is not only having compassion for others, it’s even more so having compassion for ourselves.
I’m still not good at catching the afflictions as they arise. I usually bask in the white-hot aftermath of a non-virtuous action instead. Then, I’ve seen guilt coming up, in waves and waves. But I’ve realized guilt doesn’t just make me feel lousy, it’s actually a detriment to progress. It ensures that I’ll repeat my harmful behavior patterns, over and over. Why? I think it’s because our culture instills us with this idea of people being “good” or “bad,” and though we are largely secular now, it’s Judeo-Christian in origin. When we do destructive things, we chalk it up to our being “bad people” and don’t investigate our actions and motivations. Guilt is a form of self-deprecating laziness.
Of course, I could keep going on and on, because these little bits of Dharma that are pushing up are like flowers that bloom in winter. I’ll stop here, though, leaving you with something that touched my heart. I wrote my Mom and Dad a long letter telling them about my growing aspiration to ordain, the reasons why, assuring them I’m not abandoning them, an outline of the Buddhist worldview (in layman’s terms), etc. It amounted to maybe nine or ten pages in all. My Mom simply responded,
It seems like this was something that you thought that we would be against. You know better L.O.L. Seriously. Dad and I have always believed that you would someday choose this life for yourself again. It has always made you happy, therefore, made us happy. We have always and will always want your happiness above all else. We love you and support you in all you do.
All my love,
I hope to see you all soon,
Love and Clear-Light Wisdom,