13 July 2007


We were a sea of faces, lined up across the steps leading to the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple's main shrine, our last moments as temporary Buddhist monastics snapped and recorded.

Those wearing the orange robes are the Venerables, our teachers. In the rows of gray behind them, are all of us "Preceptees"

As soon as it was over, there was talking – a lot of it – as well as teasing and laughter as people brought out their own cameras to photograph their groups before our “unordination ceremony” stripped us of our robes.

It was a relief to laugh, to smile, to compare notes, and I sure was looking forward to going home to Luke, Matt, and Kevin, to my own home and life, but it was also disorienting. I’d walked in a line, from dawn until bedtime for a week, with the same people, looked at the same set of rounded shoulder blades in front of me, got poked by the same playful tormentor behind me. I guess you can’t help feeling literally connected to others if you do everything together but what surprised me was the deep affection I felt for this small group of strangers. I mean, we’d barely spoken to each other and yet it was odd to think I’d get in my car in a couple of hours and just drive off.

The unordination ceremony was officially called “The Relinquishing of Monastic Precepts.” It took place in the main shrine and was the ordination ceremony in reverse. We ritually took off and handed back our prayer mats, our begging bowls, the orange bag for the begging bowls, and our brown robes, all symbols for what we were really giving back: the requirement to live by the monastic precepts. While there was the same amount of chanting, bowing and kneeling, the service seemed almost underwater…or maybe I was. There were people in the room who were crying. Whether it was from relief that the week was over or because they regretted that their time as a monastic was over, I couldn’t tell. Me, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. When I’m done something, I’m done, and that hadn’t gone completely; I had to struggle to be where I was, not to run through the checklist of what I needed to do to get out fast while I stood with my neatly folded brown robe, both hands curling up from the bottom around the front edge of the square of brown fabric, ready for my turn to hand it over just when I’d gotten good at keeping it on, keeping the open side of the robe from flying open as I walked. (That double wrap of the loop did the trick.) I was also just starting to know when to kneel, when to bow, when to stand up, to be able to chant with comfort “Na Mo Ben Shi Shi Jia Mu Ni Fo” (“Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha” ) on the way to meals. I could even remember which way my folded hand towel was supposed to hang and which way the folded edges of my prayer mat were supposed to face when I held it in front of me when I walked. All this, just when it was time to go home.

As we walked back up the hill to our room for the last time, I thought about Hemu. While the collision of my non-ritual self with a 24/7 ritual life was bound to be stressful, there was one notion I hadn’t considered: how much easier it is to live a spiritually dedicated life when absolutely ever facet of your existence is proscribed and provided. I am not saying it isn’t hard, that it doesn’t require more discipline than I currently have, but Hemu and the hundreds of thousands of dedicated lay followers of religions all over the world like Hemu somehow find a way to live a life centered on the practice of their faith while also remaining, as the Hindus say, “householders.” They have families and jobs and still the most dedicated among them do all that their faith calls them to do. That seems even harder than owning nothing and living full time at a monastery. Perhaps what I’m missing is the complete lack of personal time, of a personal life. The monastics in charge of the retreat went to bed an hour or more after we did and got up hours before. And I’m not sure if there’s anything like time off.

Maybe it’s all hard. Or it just seems that way to someone with only enough discipline to muscle through an intense week of practice but who appears to lack whatever it is that you need to sustain a daily practice.

After a cup of way-too-sweet mocha at a grocery store coffee counter with the Hindu flight attendant, I started the drive home. I can take any one of three different highways so I had to turn on the radio to see which way had the least amount of traffic. The clatter of the news radio station was overwhelming. I couldn’t listen to it long enough to get to the traffic report. I decided just to drive and take whatever came.

When I walked in the door, Matt ran to hug me. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Are you sure? You seem kind of quiet.”

I told myself he was just looking for the drama. “Yes, I’m fine. Stop.” I kissed him again and said, “I’m going to put my stuff down and take a shower.”

I took my knapsack of stuff and the bag we were each given full of parting gifts - a few books, our Certificate of Completion, a copy of the huge group photo, a collection of the daily essays we wrote – back to my room. I couldn’t believe how much stuff Kevin and I had. It was just our room, no messier than usual, but the stack of books next to the book shelf by my bed, the computer and pile of notebooks on the desk, the closet which I’d said just the week before had “nothing to wear” in it -- all seemed repulsive.

After my shower, which turned out to be much shorter than I’d planned, I found myself carefully going through drawer after drawer in the bathroom, throwing old make-up, lotions and hair products away until there was little left and each had a clear place to be.

13 July 2007

1 comment:

  1. I actually really liked this stage of decompression when I used to come away from the Zendo. I felt so calm, unflusterable. And I had so much energy... for about 3 days. Then it was back to regular life.
    I remember being in the office of the Zendo on my last day, after 4 days of not even hearing a plane go overhead, and the phone rang. It was so shocking! And listening to the radio in the car? Forget it!


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.