21 June 2007

So, you want to be a monk?

How can we overcome our ignorance if we pretend that we are wise?

Master Hsing Yun
Buddhism, Pure and Simple

Buddhism. I needed to start somewhere so I went back to the Buddhist temple I knew because I’d gone along on one of Mark’s school trips: the Hsi Lai temple in Hacienda Heights, California. Why? It had classes on Buddhism taught in English. One of the pieces of paper I’d scarfed up after my first class was an invitation to attend what the flyer said was a “Short-Term Monastic Retreat .” Anyone could take one. Anyone could apply. Its objectives were “to teach traditional Buddhist practice and discipline” and to allow lay people “to experience the monastic way of life.” It was happening in just two months so I filled out an application, telling them exactly who I am, what I’m doing and how little I knew about Buddhism, and then went to the temple for the required interview. I figured, if they’d let me go, I’d go.

It was a beautiful day, an easy drive. I brought oranges for the temple and, when I walked in to the entrance hall (Bodhisattva Hall), an attendant gave me a plate and even showed me where to assemble it. It’s kind of great that at least some of this is feeling a bit less bewildering. I mean, you don’t go empty-handed to someone’s home for dinner and you don’t go empty-handed to a Hindu or Buddhist temple.

As I waited for my turn in an auditorium with raked seats, I watched the two monastics - both nuns - doing the interviews. One was giving a Caucasian woman a stern talk I could only partially overhear. Something about "very hard" and "no make-up” and "no communication at all. You understand?" And who was at the other table? The meditation nun from my one and only day at the temple, the one with the road-building story. I was relieved when she waved me up to her table.

She motioned for me to sit in the chair in front of her while she read my application. I watched the crown of her shaved head as she turned the pages where, in answer to their questions, I'd explained exactly who I was and why I wanted to come. All that kept me from exploding in anxiety about what she might ask was that I'd been completely honest about my ignorance about Buddhism. I’d also been explicit about this project.

She lifted her square face and said, “So you’re finished with Hinduism?”

“Well, no, I’ll never be finished,” I said, “but it was time to come here.”

She smiled. “When you think of a monastic retreat, what’s your idea of it?”

“I think it’ll be difficult, that I’ll find things inside myself that I’ll have a hard time with. But I also think I need to deal with them to learn. I can’t really learn just by reading books. I have to do something.”

“Yes, but why do you want to do this?”

“I don’t know. All I know is a couple of years ago I felt I had no choice.”

“I know what you mean. I had a good job, lots of money and one day it wasn’t important anymore. My boss said, ‘I don’t care about money.’ I said, ‘I don’t either.' But I meant it. So I renounce. So I know what you mean.”

I was taken aback. First, I tried putting hair and a business suit on this dumpling of a woman, who wore nothing but robes and eyeglasses, but got nowhere. She seemed too content with being precisely where and what she was to have ever had any of the accoutrements of drive or ambition. But I wasn’t just my imagination spinning out that froze me. It was that this nun saw something of my situation, of what’s driving me to do what I’m doing, in her own decision to become a monastic. What? I started trying to figure out what I said or wrote that might lead her to such a mistaken conclusion. I’d felt there were little arrows pointing at me, as I walked up the steep steps, past the burning incense and the first altar with all of the offerings to get to the interview, labeling me as what I am: “Unqualified” and "Too late, too far to go." But there she was, smiling at me, thinking we had something in common. I had no idea how to respond.

Luckily she asked what I knew of Buddhist principles.

I told her I knew about the Four Noble Truths. “There’s suffering in life, it’s caused by desire, eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering and Buddhism tells you how to do that and the importance of, uhm, cause and effect.”

She corrected me: “Dependent origination.”

“Yes, and I know detachment is the answer.” I mentioned that I’d taken her meditation class and I liked her story about the road builders. (see very end of the 3 Nov 2008 post)

She said, “I love stories.”

“Me, too.”

“There’s another one that might be good for this retreat.” She started putting my papers back their folder. “There was a man in the back of a temple, bowing down and doing prostrations yet people are beating him. He say to Buddha, ‘It’s not fair. You are a statue, doing nothing and yet you are untouched up there, and here I am, doing my best and yet people are beating me. Why?’ And Buddha say, ‘When you make a statue, you scrape and hit and chip away until it’s in its perfect form. We are different because I have accepted all of these blows, these difficulties. You haven’t.’” The nun looked up from my file and raised her eyebrows at me with a smile. “It’s these difficulties, these hard things that lead to your perfection. We must go through them without attachment to what we think it should be. You remember that (on the retreat.) Mm?”

“I will.”

“You may not understand everything – we try, but it’s very hard to make everything clear – but, when you don’t understand, just go inside and notice what comes up for you, mmm?”

“Okay," I said. "and thank you.”

As I picked up my bag from the floor, she smiled and put my file away.

21 June 2007