The Urban Dharma Newsletter - July 4, 2006
In This Issue: Catholic/Buddhist Monastic Life and More...
1. On Being a Monk - Part 6 - My interview with Father Alexei Smith
2. Visiting a Monastery: A Guide for Parents
3. Saint Bede Abbey
4. A conscientious objection
5. What does a Buddhist Monastic Know about Real Life, Anyway? - by Ajahn Amaro
6. A Fear of Gravy
My latest Podcast is an interview with Father Alexei Smith director of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Office of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. We covered a lot of ground in our interview, if you haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet... Go to iTunes - Podcasts - Urban Dharma or my web site at: www.DharmaTalks.info. I found some articles I think you will find interesting on what happens in a monastery and why... From a Catholic and Buddhist point of view... And last but not least... Happy 4th of July.
1. On Being a Monk - Part 6 - 6/2006 - 1hr 04min - MP3 - 14.5 MB - My interview with Father Alexei Smith... Director of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Office of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Father Alexei and his office is the resource used by the Archbishop and the various offices of the Archdiocese in all matters of ecumenical and interreligious issues. You can find out more about Father Alexei and his work with the L.A. Buddhist/Catholic Dialogue at: Los Angeles Buddhist/Catholic Dialogue
2. Visiting a Monastery: A Guide for Parents
The holy, monastic communities of Mt. Athos in Greece may form the spiritual center of the Orthodox world through their vigilant prayer and teaching, but every monastery can enrich the spiritual life of its "local" community of Orthodox faithful, whether that community is right down the street, a day's drive away, or across the world on the Internet.
In western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio, we are blessed to be in close proximity to three Orthodox monasteries, each with a unique spiritual environment. We are able to interact often with their monks and nuns at pan-Orthodox seminars and services held throughout the year, at our own parishes' services and ethnic festivals to which they are often invited, and at the monasteries themselves.
The Monastery of St. John the Theologian (Hiram, Ohio), regularly opens its doors to our parish's youth group for weekend camp-out retreats. The monks spend several hours leading nature walks and talking with the teens in the guest house living room or around an outdoor bonfire after services. It is an enriching, enjoyable experience for monastics, teens, and chaperones alike! The other monasteries do the same type of thing for their diocesan parishes' youth groups, women's groups, and adult study groups.
Whether you live near a monastery or not, setting aside a portion of your family's vacation time each year to visit a monastery is an excellent way to help children establish positive role models and spark in them an interest in monasticism. When children see monks and nuns showing obedience and humility, cheerfully serving others, and spending long, joyous hours in prayer, they better understand how our Faith can be lived every day.
Here are some basic rules of etiquette for visiting a monastic community with your family or parish group, based on our experience:
* Call ahead to introduce yourself and ask the permission of the Abbott or Abbess for your visit, and tell him or her who is coming with you, when you plan to arrive, how long you wish to stay, and why you wish to come. You may find that the monastery is closed for the day (i.e., for the first week of Great Lent, so that the monastics may pray without interruptions), that several members of the community are traveling, or that alternate directions are needed because of road construction.
* If you will be at the monastery for more than a single service and/or a meal, ask in advance if there is anything you may do to help while you are there, so you can bring appropriate clothes and supplies, if needed. You may be able to help with gardening, baking or canning, decorating the Church, cleaning, painting fences or shrines, etc. Most monasteries have so much spiritual, Church-related work to do that help with chores is welcome. (Last week, our almost-four-year-old Katie helped a monk at St. Gregory Palamas Monastery (Hayesville, Ohio) plant onion sets in the newly-tilled garden. Both enjoyed the work and the fellowship, and the rows are almost straight!)
* Do not arrive empty-handed! It is appropriate to bring a small present for the monastery with you, regardless of the length of your stay. (Nasa Phyllis often takes freshly-baked pita bread from a local bakery whenever she visits the monastery, but other good gifts include olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, a home-baked bread or cake, a new cassette tape of liturgical music, etc.)
* When you arrive, greet the Abbot or Abbess of the monastery as you would greet a priest: approach them and bow, touching the floor with your right hand, then cross your hands right over left with palms upward and say, "Bless, Father" or "Bless, Mother". The Abbot or Abbess will bless you with the sign of the Cross, say "Let us bless the Lord.", and place his or her hand over yours, so that you may kiss it in respect. (All Orthodox monks are addressed as "Father", whether they are ordained as priests or not. Likewise, nuns are addressed as "Mother". Only male and female novices or rasophores are called "Brother" and "Sister", respectively.)
* Larger monasteries usually have a designated monk or nun whose task it is to guide and look after visitors. Direct all of your questions to this person or to the Abbott or Abbess, unless you are given permission to speak with others when you arrive. To cultivate an attitude of prayer and obedience, most monks and nuns work in silence. You may greet them politely and respectfully, but do not expect them to speak at length. The conversation lasts only as long as the monk or nun allows! (Novices will not speak at all without permission from the Abbot or Abbess, so do not speak to them. A smile will do!)
* Encourage children to use their "Church behavior" on the entire grounds of the monastery, both inside and out, so they do not disrupt the quiet, prayerful environment. Depending on the day's activities more or less "kid stuff" may be permitted outside and in the common areas; if your children are too loud or too rambunctious, one of the monks or nuns will tell you!
* If there is a service in progress during your visit, be in attendance. When you arrive, ask the Abbott or Abbess if there are any services that visitors are not permitted to attend, and if there are, what to do while they are being held.
* The Church may have reserved areas for the monastics to stand, make prostrations, chant, etc. Respect these boundaries, and do not enter those areas unless invited. If you normally sing in the choir or read the epistle in your home parish, let the Abbot or Abbess know. You may be invited to sing or read, but do not be offended if you are not!
* In the monastery proper, never enter the private quarters areas.
* If you are invited to share a meal with the monks or nuns in the monastery dining room, follow the lead of the Abbott or Abbess for the opening prayer, when to start eating and drinking, the quantity you eat, and the level and subject of conversation (e.g., if the monastery eats in silence, be silent). When the meal is over, the Abbott or Abbess will rise to begin the closing prayers. Do not eat after those prayers unless given permission to do so. Offer to clean up following any shared meals.
* If you wish to leave the monastery grounds at any time during your visit - to take a walk on the woods, stop at a store, mail a letter, etc. - ask the blessing of the Abbot or Abbess. If he or she is not available, tell someone where you are going and when you will return.
* When staying overnight in the monastery's guest house, you may be able (or asked) to cook your own meals in its kitchen. Remember that monastic communities fast from meat every day, so do not bring meat with you. Follow the prescribed fasting periods for abstaining from fish, dairy products, wine, and olive oil.
* If you are a guest for an extended time during a non-fasting period, you may ask permission to play music on a portable cassette or CD player in the guest house or while you work outside the Church. Keep the volume low, and choose appropriately. Liturgical, ethnic (e.g., balalaika orchestra), and non-New Age instrumental selections may be enjoyed even by the monks or nuns, but the music should never disrupt or interfere with the prayer life of the community.
* Obviously, the guest house is to be left clean and tidy when you depart from a longer visit - monasteries aren't hotels, and don't have maid service! Monasteries do not ask for anything in return for the hospitality they provide, but consider leaving a donation with the Abbott or Abbess if you use the guest house to cover the cost of heating, utilities, etc. (A good rule of thumb is one-half to two-thirds of what you would have spent staying at the local hotel, depending on whether or not you brought your own food.)
* When you leave, be sure to say goodbye to all those you spoke with at length if they are available, and ask for the blessing of the Abbot or Abbess.
* Finally, remember to say a prayer of thanks to God for the monastery and the salvation and health of the monks and nuns with whom you prayed, and to include the monasteries you visit in your family's almsgiving during the fasting seasons and throughout the year.
To get started, ask your parish priest for the names, addresses, contact persons and phone numbers of monasteries in your vicinity, or near where you will be vacationing. A full directory of Orthodox monasteries in North America is also maintained on the World Wide Web at www.nettinker.com/monasteries/. This site includes up-to-date listings for eight jurisdictions, and links to monasteries’ web pages whenever possible.
When you find a monastic retreat which aids your spiritual growth, visit often!
by Nichola Toda Krause
3. Saint Bede Abbey
Who We Are
Saint Bede Abbey is a Roman Catholic community of men who live according to a tradition of monastic life that began in the early centuries of Christianity. In the sixth century it was adapted to the needs of the western Church by the Rule of Saint Benedict. By this way of life monks intend to follow the gospel of Christ by serving God, the Church, and their fellow human beings through daily prayer, both communal and private, serious work, renunciation of marriage, possessions, and pleasure, quiet reflection, hospitality, and mutual charity.
Unlike most other religious orders or congregations, the followers of St. Benedict do not constitute a single, centralized body who can be assigned by their superiors to various locations. Rather, each monastery forms an autonomous and permanent community, governed by its own abbot, who is chosen by the monks. Each community is therefore an independent unit that takes root in the locality, and the monks ordinarily remain for life in the monastery of their profession. Our monastery has been here, near Peru, Illinois, in the diocese of Peoria, since 1891, when monks came from the Archabbey of St. Vincent in Latrobe, PA to establish it.
Our primary purpose is simply to seek God by listening carefully to his word throughout our lives and responding to it with obedience and generosity. Unlike the majority of Christians, who follow Christ through marriage, family, and work in secular life, we seek to achieve the same goal of holiness by another path, that of withdrawal into relative solitude and the practice of celibacy to follow a simple and austere way of life that is marked by obedience, silence, humility, simplicity, prayerfulness, work, patience, perseverance in the same community, and fraternal charity.
We wish to contribute to the building up of the local and universal church through bearing witness to Christian values by our way of life and by helping others directly through hospitality, education, pastoral ministry, and other forms of service that are compatible with community life. One of these services is the ownership and operation of St. Bede Academy, a day school for young men and women of the locality in grades 9 through 12.
History of Saint Bede Abbey
St. Benedict, who lived from about 480 to 547, founded a monastery at Monte Cassino in central Italy around 525 for which he wrote a rule that successfully summed up the monastic tradition that had grown up in the Church of both East and West since the fourth century. We know little of his life and of the early use of his rule, but in the seventh century it gradually began to be adopted by monasteries north of the Alps and in England, and in the eighth century was promoted on the continent by Anglo-Saxon missionaries . Then it was adopted by the Carolingian rulers as the official code of the monasteries in their empire and thus eventually came to displace almost all other monastic observances in Europe. It was so influential that the central Middle Ages are often called the “Benedictine centuries.”
This Benedictine way of life, which in the course of history had undergone many variations, first came to North America in 1846, when Father Boniface Wimmer, a Bavarian monk from the abbey of Metten, obtained his abbot’s reluctant consent to attempt an American foundation. With the help of a number of candidates, he succeeded in establishing in western Pennsylvania the first monastery in North America, which became St. Vincent Archabbey. At that time, when Catholic immigrants from Germany were flooding into America, he wished to help them preserve and practice their faith by providing them with priests, parishes, and schools. Hence the type of monastic life that he established was characterized by large institutions and by active ministry of the monks both at the monastery and in parishes.
By the time of his death in 1887, Wimmer’s enterprise had grown into a congregation of six autonomous monasteries and numerous dependencies spread throughout the country, including St. Joseph’s Priory in Chicago. The monks stationed there eventually persuaded their confreres in Pennsylvania to establish another monastery and school in Illinois. Invited by John Lancaster Spalding, the first bishop of Peoria, to settle in his diocese, they purchased a property between Peru and Spring Valley that had previously been owned by Daniel Webster. Six monks were sent from St. Vincent, and the new institution opened in 1891.
In the early years when St. Bede remained a dependent house, various monks from St. Vincent came and went as they were assigned to live and work here. In 1910, however, twelve of them who wished to remain here permanently received authorization to elect their own abbot, and St. Bede became an independent abbey. The community grew and prospered during the following decades, though the number of its monks has again decreased since the 1960's. There are currently thirty-two monks.
Unlike some religious institutes, which were founded for the express purpose of undertaking a particular apostolic mission in the Church, monasteries have no particular work as their primary reason for existence. Rather, they exist solely to provide an opportunity for their members to live the Christian life within a community that seeks to follow the gospel. The primary work of our monks, therefore, is simply to live the monastic life seriously and, by doing so, to grow continually in holiness and in prayer. We believe that by doing this we are contributing to the building up of the whole Church.
This does not mean that the monastic community is self-absorbed and concerned only with its own welfare, for this would be inconsistent with Christianity itself. To live the Christian life in any of the fruitful ways that the gospel suggests always means to live with concern for the welfare of others, because the heart of the gospel is the two-fold precept of love for God and neighbor. We try to do this, for the most part, within the context of the monastery and in ways that are compatible with our life in community.
St. Benedict prescribed that the monk’s day should consist of three primary activities: prayer, work, and reading. The first of these refers to the divine office, for which we gather in choir at intervals throughout the day in order to sanctify the whole of the day by dedicating each hour to the Lord. Holy reading means our silent and prayerful reflection upon the word of God in scripture and in other writings of Christian tradition, together with our response to his word in private prayer. During the rest of the day we work both to support ourselves and to provide the means to be of help to others.
The first way in which we seek to be of profit to the Church and to the world is through our prayer itself. The monk’s day revolves around the hours of the divine office, the daily community Mass, and his own private prayer, reflection, and holy reading. We seek to be always conscious of God’s presence and to stand before him as intercessors. We pray expressly not only for ourselves, but for particular persons and intentions known to us or whose needs are recommended to us, for confreres, relatives, friends, benefactors, and others associated with our community, for our locality and diocese and for the universal Church, for all of humanity, especially those who are suffering or in need, and for the faithful departed.
St. Benedict said that guests are never lacking in a monastery and that all who come should be received as Christ. Although we do not yet have a special building for guests and therefore cannot receive many people at the same time, we try to fulfill the ideal of St. Benedict within the limits of our situation. A small area on the ground floor of the monastery building is set aside for guests to stay overnight, and they are invited to the monastic refectory for meals with the community or separately, according to their preference.
People today who seek respite from their world of busyness and noise often find that spending some days of withdrawal in the quiet atmosphere of a monastery provides them with rest and spiritual renewal. We do not offer organized retreats, but rather the freedom to design one’s own program or none at all. Guests are free to take part in the public prayer of the monks at Mass and at the divine office and to use the church and the library for prayer, reflection, and reading. If they wish, they may speak privately with a monk and may receive the sacrament of penance.
Although our abbey church is not a parish, and we encourage people to be active within their own parish community, anyone is free to attend the monastic liturgy. People are welcome to join us for Mass and for the divine office, and some of our oblates and friends do this on a regular basis, as well as visiting the monastery for other special occasions.
Because St. Benedict required his monks to learn how to read and write and to study so that they could assimilate the word of God, monasteries have always been concerned with books and with learning. During the dark ages they became almost the only guardians of the learning of the past, and by copying and preserving books they transmitted the acquisitions of earlier times to succeeding generations. Our patron St. Bede was a significant link in this process. Hence education has always been an important Benedictine concern.
In modern times the interest of monks in promoting education has often been translated into conducting schools for young people from outside the monastic community. Our founders in the United States established schools to instruct the children of immigrants and thereby help them preserve their Catholic faith. The intention of the pioneer monks at St. Bede from the beginning was to establish a school, and this endeavor has constituted the principal apostolate of our community throughout the intervening years.
St. Bede College opened its doors in 1891. The course of studies and the student body have changed several times over the years, and the school is now known as St. Bede Academy. The four-year college program was discontinued in favor of a junior college after World War II, and this in turn closed in 1967. What had been primarily a boarding school for boys became solely a day school in 1981, and had already begun to admit girls in 1972. Currently the academy has an enrollment of some 280 students from the Illinois Valley area. The monks continue to own and operate the academy, but are assisted by an increasing number of laymen and women as teachers and staff.
Because Boniface Wimmer and his monks were intent upon caring for the needs of German immigrants to the United States, they emphasized priestly work and undertook many assignments outside the monastery. Consequently our monasteries in this country have traditionally staffed parishes, served as chaplains in hospitals and other institutions, and done missionary work among native Americans and others. It was therefore not unusual that already in the early days the founders of St. Bede assumed responsibility for some parishes in this area.
With the passage of time, the pastoral needs of the Church have changed, and our monasteries have been adjusting their activities accordingly. Since Vatican Council II, the inner life of the community has been emphasized rather than its outward thrust, the monastic life in its own right rather than the exercise of priesthood. The decrease in vocations and the preference of many younger monks for the monastic life without priesthood has necessitated withdrawal from previous external commitments.
We at St. Bede have likewise withdrawn from some parishes for which we formerly had responsibility. At present our monks staff five parishes in the immediate vicinity, at Peru, Dalzell, Ladd, Cherry, and Arlington, Illinois. One monk is presently caring for a diocesan parish in El Paso, Illinois. In addition, several monks assist on weekends in two parishes in the adjacent Joliet diocese, and, on an as-needed basis, in some nearby parishes in our own diocese of Peoria. Some monks also preach retreats and perform other pastoral services on occasion. The community expects that our involvement in the parochial apostolate will be reduced in the future.
The labora manuum (manual work) of which St. Benedict speaks takes on multiple forms in a monastery today. Even a relatively small community requires a certain amount of administration and maintenance of the buildings, the grounds, and the equipment. There is consequently a variety of work that needs to be done on a regular basis, and there is something that everyone can do, even those of retirement age, unless they have become disabled by illness.
Some monks are occupied by the internal needs of the community itself, serving as superiors, offering spiritual direction, teaching and directing new members. Others work in such areas of administration as accounting and finance, purchasing and conducting business outside the monastery, building and equipment maintenance, landscaping and grounds maintenance, supervising and working with employees. Others work full time for St. Bede Academy as teachers, administrators, or members of the staff. Six priest-monks are presently working full time in our parish apostolate, and others assist in this work on weekends and on other occasions. One monk has been the host of a television program, and others have done writing for publication.
In addition to this, with the help of lay employees, we engage in several enterprises in an effort to produce income for the community. One of these is the St. Bede Abbey Press, which does commercial printing in the local area and offers products for sale to a national clientele. We are also involved in agriculture. While the monks no longer do the grain farming themselves but rent out our tillable acres to a tenant farmer, we do maintain a truck garden, chiefly to produce vegetables for our own use, and an orchard, which sells products in the locality. We are now maintaining a web site called Monks’ Corner to make some products available to the general public.
4. A conscientious objection
I was walking alone along the road outside a monastery in England, thinking about where I was. AWOL in a foreign country. I'd gone on a two-week leave several months ago, but instead of driving back and reporting for duty on the aircraft carrier I had boarded a plane. It felt like the only thing I could do. And I didn't think I deserved to be punished for it, so I'd fled.
These weeks of walking the Scottish moors and visiting monasteries to rest and pray had soothed some of the turmoil inside me. But still I didn't know where I was going. The initial gut-wrenching fear had eventually settled into the thrill of a new adventure, but it was now threatening to sink into dread. What would happen if I stopped running? Was my life ruined? Turned inward, I didn't notice the trees around me or the ancient stonework of the monastery.
Was this all a terrible mistake?
That was when I first felt it. Deep inside, down in a dark part of myself where I never looked, it felt like something was moving. Like the stirring of a hibernating animal, something large. The slow uncoiling of a hidden predator. I couldn't see anything clearly, but it felt real enough to inspire awe at the power of the thing. It was enough to frighten me, yet the deep sensation was not fear. I remember thinking: Not yet. But it was coming. And it excited me.
A month later I was sitting outside another monastery. At the time I imagined that the monks were worriedly deliberating about me, but the decision probably wasn't a hard one to make. I had asked to join them. An AWOL American who showed up two weeks ago. Did I really expect them to consider this seriously? It was a foolish dream: To flee the merciless world and disappear among the monks, behind monastery walls, where everything was different, where they would understand me. It was foolish because of course everything is not different behind those walls. In his confusion the monk had said the first thing he thought of: “We use the national health care system, and you're not a British citizen.” But it was also foolish because I should have known we cannot flee. We cannot disappear.
I walked along the garden path, past the cross, high on the rocky hill, and slowly lowered myself onto mossy rock. To await the answer I already knew. Here was where my dream ended. Here I was finally waking up--I pressed my eyes shut tight.
Then it was all dark and I was alone. Far from everyone who knew me and everyone I had called a friend, far from the land of my home, where I was now considered a criminal. I saw my life broken in ugly pieces. All the opportunities and benefits I had been given I had ruined; all that I had gathered and protected I had squandered. It felt like I was falling, falling into the dark. I cried out.
It was then that I felt the movement again. Again in the deep dark. But this time it was all around me. I was in that forbidding place and the movement was close on every side. The darkness itself seemed alive.
But, just as before, there was no fear. I now knew this thing would consume me, was already consuming me, and I was in awe of it. I lifted up the pieces of my broken life. “Here, take it. It's ruined.” And I felt the awakened Spirit move again, with such raw power that the garden seemed to lift from the earth. And I knew what I had to do.
I would go to prison. I had no doubt that when I returned I would be arrested and jailed, perhaps for several years. But now I had felt something greater than the thing I feared. I could go back, even to prison. And when I realized that, it was clear that the right thing was to return and submit myself to their judgment. I talked with several of the monks before I left the monastery, and they nodded approvingly, but I could tell they did not understand. That didn't matter. I was the one going to prison.
I waited one more month to make sure I understood. I went to Ireland, walked a hundred miles from Dublin to visit another monastery, and said one more prayer before going home.
When I presented my passport in the U.S., the customs agent entered my information, then paused, staring at her computer with a look of concern on her face. For a terrible moment I was sure she was going to call security and have me arrested. I wouldn't be able to see my parents or turn myself in voluntarily. Then she looked up, smiled, and waved me through.
I watched my mother cry when she opened the door and embraced me. The next day my parents went with me to mass and heard the priest read the story of the prodigal son. Then I rode twenty hours to the naval base in Virginia, staring out the window of the bus, reminding myself what I was doing.
But it wasn't until I was onboard the ship again that I truly felt fear. I remember standing on the thick carpet in front of the Executive Officer's desk; he was patiently ordering me to put on my uniform again. I had been an officer and it seemed they wanted to handle my situation quietly. I spoke calmly but my knees felt weak. My face seemed to twitch and tremble and it was all I could do to hold it still. I told him I couldn't do that--it wasn't right. He looked at me for a moment. Then he dismissed me.
Not that I considered myself a pacifist at the time. When I joined the Navy I saw military service as honorable, and I believed that some wars could be just. And my recent change of heart had not been theological or ideological. It was caused by the tension that grew inside of me as I tried to be a good officer and a good Christian at the same time. The existential tension between mercy and discipline, meekness and power. Finally, when it had become unbearable, I had admitted to myself that I could not do both. I had to choose. That was all there was to it.
So when I refused to put the uniform back on, it was not because I didn't want anything to do with the military. It was simply because it seemed false. I wasn't an officer any more, no one was going to give me the responsibilities of an officer, I didn't deserve the respect of an officer, so why should I pretend to be an officer? And I hadn't come back to play along with a lie, hoping for mercy. I had come back to submit to discipline.
This failure to cooperate brought me another charge, "Disobeying a Lawful Order," and two days in the brig. The strip search was unpleasant. But the food was surprisingly good.
For the next several months I stayed at the Bachelor Officer's Quarters on base, waiting for the military justice system to process my case. During this time I read Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. And I realized that my experiences were not isolated and that there was much in Jesus' life and teachings directing us to choose mercy instead of discipline, meekness instead of power. I came to believe that it was not right to use violence or the threat of violence against others, even those considered our enemies. I suppose I had always thought of myself as a conscientious objector, of sorts. But my reasons had been personal and private. Now I had the convictions that were generally recognized as those of a military conscientious objector. But I never considered applying to the Navy for CO status.
It was probably too late at that point anyway. But the more I became convinced that what the military was doing was wrong--not just wrong for me, but simply wrong--the more I thought it was important to stand against that wrong.
Applying for CO status seemed to be asking for permission to be excused. I wanted to object to the wrong, take a stand against it, refuse to participate in it. That's what I had done so far. And while I had initially fled in fear of the consequences of that objection, now I had come back to face them. But I was not repenting of my refusal to participate, my refusal to keep giving military orders. I was not asking for mercy from those who I was objecting against. I was not asking permission to be excused.
During this time of waiting and being summoned before military lawyers, I frequently thought of Jesus' trial. I didn't see myself as completely innocent; I was at fault for promising to serve in the military in the first place, and for running away. But I still looked to Jesus as my model. And it was clear that he didn't ask for mercy from the authorities that had charged him. He didn't defend himself or insist on his rights and often he even refused to answer their questions. Why? Because Jesus wasn't the one on trial--they were. Their judgment would determine God's judgment on them. Despite how it appeared, the situation wasn't in the hands of the authorities, it was always in God's hands. I remembered Jesus' words to Pontius Pilate:
Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”
Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…” (Jn 19.10-11)
Jesus' quiet, courageous refusal to beg or even answer them showed that he wasn't looking to the human authorities for mercy or justice, but to God.
Ever since I had felt the powerful movement in the dark, I had believed that God was in control of what was going on around me. It was easier to believe that sitting in the monastery garden than it was in a lawyer's office in the middle of the largest naval base in the world, but I still believed it. This comforted me during the months of waiting. I found out my case was being delayed because there was a disagreement between the authorities involved. The naval lawyers wanted to avoid a trial, perhaps because they didn't think the charges were severe enough to warrant the cost and work of a courts-martial or the bad publicity of an officer going AWOL. But the captain of my ship was insisting on a courts-martial. So the lawyers had to start the trial process and then abort it when the captain no longer had jurisdiction; this took time. I never thought any of the authorities involved had my best interests in mind. Each was pursuing the course of action that they thought was most advantageous to themselves. But through that struggle I saw God's hand at work, freeing me.
I was amazed how it ended. I had not demanded my rights or asked for mercy. I had stated my beliefs, but never asked for CO status. Then, after four months, they offered to drop all charges and release me. With an “Other-Than-Honorable” discharge. Surprised, I accepted; I had no desire for an honorable discharge from a service I now saw as dishonorable. And I wasn't interested in taking veterans benefits from the military. I even returned the money that the Navy had paid me during the months I had been waiting (less the amount I had to spend for food and lodging during that time). The pay officer didn't understand when I tried to explain it to him. But I understood: I was giving to Caesar what was Caesar's. As for me, I was no longer Caesar's. I had been delivered by a much greater power. I was God's.
Now I live and work with the poor at a Catholic Worker house, trying to make my whole life a conscientious objection, continuing to look to God for justice and mercy.
And once in a while I tell a sea story.
5. What does a Buddhist Monastic Know about Real Life, Anyway? - Adapted from a talk given on August 3, 1998, in Caspar, California. - by Ajahn Amaro
We are often asked, “What does a Buddhist monastic know about real life?” This is a very good question because many people may think that we don’t have to deal with real life in the monastery: “Things are easy for you, but outside the monastery wall we have to deal with real life; we have a much more difficult job.” Their impression is that once you have given yourself to the holy life, then you float around on little purple clouds, existing in exquisite mutual harmony at all times, exuding undifferentiated love and compassion for each other, and, finally, at the end of a life of ever-increasing blissfulness and profound insights into the nature of ultimate reality, deliquescing softly into nirvana leaving behind a soft chime of ringing bells and a rainbow. Not so. I’ll get on to that in a minute. I’m joking a bit, but this is the kind of image that people may have of monasteries. It’s another world, something that other people do.
The Buddha was asked a lot of questions in his time, and he once said there are four ways to respond to a question. The first way is to give a straight answer. The second is to ask a counter question. The third is to rephrase the question. The fourth is to remain silent. As I look at the question at hand, what comes to mind are two counter questions: What is a Buddhist monastic? And what is real life?
Most people probably don’t know all that much about how the monastic system actually functions in the Buddhist world. To many, Buddhist monks are simply people who magically appear and disappear, like wandering teachers or circuit preachers. There’s not really a cognizance of what a monastery is, how it functions, or where a Buddhist monastic comes from. Even the word “monastery,” like the word “morality,” often has a certain emotional effect. Your blood starts to get cold, and you think, “That’s a place for other people, and there’s something about it I don’t really like.” I certainly had the same feeling at one time: You disappear behind a 20-foot-high wall into a life of scrubbing floors, freezing nights, and grim asceticism. That’s “the monastery.”
In many Buddhist countries—Tibet, Korea, China, and Japan—they did create a remote, enclosed, and self-sufficient model. However, in Southeast Asia, at least where Buddhism was not repressed by the various rulers, they sustained the original mendicant model that was established at the time of the Buddha. The monastery is actually like a cross between a church, commune, and community center. It’s not just a place where nuns and monks live; it’s everybody’s place. In Thailand, for example, there are about 50,000 monasteries. Every village has a monastery; big villages have two or three. It’s like a synagogue or church with six rabbis or half a dozen ministers. One or two do most of the talking, and the others live, learn, and help out. It’s a commune of spiritual seekers, and it’s also a place where community life happens. Many village monasteries host the local town meetings or “county” fairs. The monastery is the heart of the community, not that place out on the hill that nobody ever enters.
Of course, there’s a degree of variety. Forest monasteries place an emphasis on meditation and tend to be outside of villages and a little further away. Those that are extremely popular will try to sustain a bit more quiet, with visiting hours at such and such a time. There might not be anyone to receive you. But generally speaking, most monasteries are open; they are everybody’s place.
At its heart, a monastery is sustained as a spiritual sanctuary. What creates a monastery is that everyone who comes through the gate undertakes to live by a certain standard, to conduct themselves in a certain way in terms of honesty, nonviolence, modesty, restraint, and sobriety. Within that zone, it’s a safe place: no one is going to rob you, to chat you up, to try to sell you anything, to attack you, to lie to you, to be drunk. It’s an environment that maximizes the supportive conditions for helping you to cultivate kindness, wisdom, concentration—the whole range of wholesome spiritual qualities.
There are also teachers available. You might think that a great master like our teacher, Ajahn Chah, may have spent his life up in the mountains, meditating under a tree. He did that for a number of years, but once he opened a monastery, he spent much of the next thirty years sitting under his hut receiving visitors from ten o’clock in the morning often until midnight. That’s the teacher’s job: the doctor is in. Not every monastery functions in that way, but it’s generally the job of certain members of monastic communities to be available to anyone who drops in. If you want to talk to the Ajahn, you don’t schedule a private interview, you just hang out until there’s an opportunity to ask your question.
In this respect, intrinsic to a Buddhist monastic life is the fact that you can be called upon to some degree or another to share with other people the wisdom and understanding you have developed. Whatever good is developed in the lives of the inhabitants of the monastery is made available. Of course, some people are not disposed to be teachers. Yet just aspiring to control your bad habits and get your mind a little bit clearer is in itself a great gift and a blessing to others. It’s a beautiful example.
So if this is a Buddhist monastic life, then what is real life? People often think real life means having a credit rating, a retirement plan, a job, a sex life, a house, a car, and a fixed pattern of living. But couldn’t you also say a real life means simply having a body and mind? Or a personality, a feeling of identity? For people who ask the question, the implication is that those who don’t have financial responsibilities, children, parents to look after, or marriage partners somehow experience a life that is intrinsically different. All the rough and tumble of the lay world is somehow intrinsically different. Seeing Buddhist monks or nuns on show—sitting in robes, statue-like and serene—it is easy to think, “They are not like me: they haven’t got sore knees like me; they haven’t got profane thoughts going through their minds like me; they haven’t got worries and anxieties, thoughts about the past and future all the time like me; they don’t have a difficult parent like me.” Well believe me, the monastery gate does not create any radical alteration of human nature as you pass through it. Come live in the monastery for one week, and then ask yourself where real life is.
From the Buddhist point of view, life is happening at the level of the senses, where sense consciousness impacts sights, sounds, smell, taste, touch, body, perceptions, feelings, ideas, and emotions. That’s where we experience life. Whether you are inside the monastery gate or outside it, the impact is the same. There’s a saying in Japan: “There’s many a shaven head surrounding a hairy mind.” When you enter the monastery gate, all your struggles with your parents don’t suddenly get switched off. All your sexual desires don’t suddenly fizzle out. All your feelings of self criticism don’t miraculously transform: “Now I am a monk. I like myself.”
In fact, the monastery is an optimum environment in which to experience real life. We get the raw experience of feeling sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch because all the normal distractions, mufflings, and mutings are absent. We can’t nibble or go to the fridge to help ourselves. Food has to be put into our hands before we can eat it. We don’t listen to music, have any radios, listen to the news, watch TV, read novels. We don’t play sports, do crossword puzzles, garden. Basically, you ain’t got nothin’ except your mind and the great outdoors. We live communally; everything is shared. We don’t have our own choice about whom we work with or how we work. We have no choice about the menu; the cooks cook what they want to cook with whatever shows up in the larder. We can’t just pop into town to do some shopping or take in a movie. We don’t have our own space. Sometimes in the winter time we get cold and wet, and there isn’t a way to get as warm as we’d like to be.
Maybe I’m painting a bit of a rough picture, since at times it is also very pleasant. But what I’m really trying to say is that when you start to shed the familiar props, you get life in the raw. You experience the whole battery of loves and hates, of self concern, of the amount of things we need to have to make ourselves feel good. It’s like a junkie. As long as you have a good supply of clean stuff, everything is fine, but as soon as the supply starts to dry up, things get really hairy. Anyone who has been addicted—to cigarettes, food, affection, heroin, whatever—knows what that is like. When the props aren’t there, we realize how dependent our life has become. By seeing this and processing it in a deep and clear way, we can understand it. Then we are more able not to be dragged around.
There was a very sweet incident that happened a number of years ago with the first nun in our community in England. She was a middle aged woman, had been married, had had quite a sophisticated life. A women’s magazine came to do a feature on the nuns, and they were interviewing her. They said, “It must be terribly difficult for you: sleeping on the floor, having one meal a day, getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning, being told what to do by all these young whipper-snappers.
“Oh,” she replied, “that’s easy, a piece of cake. Really. At first, I thought it would be very difficult for a woman of a certain age to adjust to all these hardships, but that’s nothing. The really difficult thing is to give up your own opinions. That’s the hardship. When you know—not just think, but know—that you are right about the way to cook courgettes but have to watch someone doing otherwise and swallow it, then things get really interesting.”
The interviewer was really shocked, but it was very insightful of the nun. She realized that she was far more attached to her ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. “I think things should be this way.” “Monks shouldn’t talk like that.” “This is what Buddhism is, and this is what it isn’t.” She would get really upset because Ajahn Sumedho wouldn’t quote the Buddha’s discourses in his Dhamma talks but would use his own language and reflect from his own experience. She’d say, “We are Buddhists. We should be quoting the Buddha!” If we don’t meet them and know them, we are dragged around by our preferences, our loves and hates, rights and wrongs. As long as things go smoothly, we can be dragged around quite happily because we think this is just life. But as soon as our plans are frustrated, as soon as we meet with a situation that doesn’t go the way we like, then we lose it. We get lost. We die. There’s a beautiful passage in the Dhammapada where the Buddha says, “Mindfulness is the path to the Deathless, Heedlessness is the path to death. The mindful never die, the heedless are as if dead already.”
In the monastery, we learn to deal with the body, with pain. Living communally, we learn a lot about forgiveness, commitment, honesty, patience. We learn how to deal with anger, jealousy, fearfulness, selfishness. We get the whole palate; every color is there. If you can’t deal with them, you don’t survive. The effort within the monastic life is to know life as you experience it, as you feel it in a complete and deep way. In the monastery, you learn to understand how the feelings of love and hate, success and failure, praise and criticism all function. You learn to find that space that holds it, that knows it, and that can be with it and be still within all that occurs.
Coming to the monastery as a lay person and participating in that life, plugging into that environment, can help you carry that learning back with you, and you can begin to experience the whole firmament of your daily life or your family life even while surrounded by people who are not resolute on a spiritual practice. After all, most people are caught up in the rat race and not intent on the realization of ultimate truth. What the monastery provides in the world is a reminder that everything is okay, that we can live with whatever is happening, that we can ride the wave. For those who live outside the monastic sphere, our effort is to provide an alternative to the drivenness of the world. Even though you might be driving the car to work, holding down a job, looking after your aging parents, feeding your kids, or being with a loved one who is dying, it doesn’t have to be frantic. It doesn’t have to be obsessive. It doesn’t have to be burdensome. There is a manner in which we can relate to even the most impactful and potent, emotionally charged issues of life whereby they are held, they are understood, they are fully experienced, and they are not confusing. So real life then has to do with a mind full of life, an acceptance and appreciation of life, and the monastery is endeavoring to give us a sense of this real life.
Abhayagiri Monastery is the first monastery in the United States to be established by followers of Ajahn Chah, a respected Buddhist master of the ancient Thai Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism.
The origin of the monastery can be traced to visits to Northern California in the early 1980s by Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Chah's senior Western disciple. Over the next ten years, Ajahn Sumedho developed a devoted following of students. In 1988 they formed the Sanghapala Foundation with the mission of creating a branch monastery of Ajahn Chah's lineage. In 1990 Ajahn Amaro accompanied Ajahn Sumedho to California and thereafter became the central teacher for the California students.
Efforts to establish the California monastery moved slowly until 1995. As Ven. Master Hsüan Hua, abbot of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, located in Ukiah, California, approached his death, he instructed his disciples to deed over to Ajahn Chah's disciples 120 acres of forest in Redwood Valley, fifteen miles north of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. On several occasions Master Hua had made a point of stating that it had been the dream of his life to bring the northern and southern traditions of Buddhism back together again. His offering was one of openhearted, ecumenical friendship. It enabled the communities to be physically close and to relate in an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony.
6. A Fear of Gravy
Last spring, as my conditioning was trying to convince me it was time to give up awareness practice, I decided to sign up as a monk assistant at the Monastery during a There Is Nothing Wrong with You retreat. I love doing things that make my conditioning crazy—usually the roles are reversed. I pictured myself pounding nails, pulling weeds, digging holes, clearing out brush and pruning the greenery, cleaning the outhouses and dormitory bathrooms—you get the picture.
Imagine my horror and dismay when I arrived and was assigned to work in the kitchen. "WHAT??!!??," I screamed in my head. "Don't you guys know I'm not a kitchen type of girl? This must be some kind of horrible mistake. Can't you tell just by looking at me that I'm not an inside person—I'm an outside person—I like to work outside!" Friends, I was plunged into hell in that moment—seething in a cauldron of fear and shock. The thought that kept repeating itself like a looped tape was "this is just so wrong."
And because we practice in silence, because we practice saying yes, because we are not here to create and cling to beliefs, because we are here to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer so that we can drop that and end suffering, I went to work in the kitchen. It was all I could do to keep breathing down into my belly. I found myself focusing on keeping my feet weighted evenly and the backs of my knees soft or I else I would find myself tensed up into a knot with my shoulders hunched up around my ears and my knees locked, grimly chopping or stirring. I was thoroughly convinced that at any moment the Monastery would discover this "huge mistake" and set me free to go work outside.
After a day of pure torment, I revealed my experience during my daily guidance appointment. The guide asked me what exactly it was about working in the kitchen that was so terrible. I thought for a while and really couldn't come up with any specific task. Then, sitting there in silence for a while longer, it all came rushing forward. I burst into tears and said, "because the kitchen is where you go when you're bad."
When I was a little girl, I spent all my days outside, playing and riding my bike, exploring the countryside, free and happy. Not only was this my natural inclination, but it served me well as an escape from an angry alcoholic father. But every so often I would get into trouble and would be hauled into the kitchen as punishment to help my father cook. He would hand me a recipe, and without any coaching, would leave me to figure things out on my own. He would continue drinking and checking up on me every so often. And I would, of course, make a "mistake." I would know I had made a mistake because he would sneak up behind me and slap me and start telling me what an idiot I was.
So here I was, 35 years later, working in the Monastery kitchen, still having that same experience. The guide asked me then what my little self needed to hear when we were in the kitchen working. What she wanted to hear was that she was not alone—that I would help her with everything. I would teach her how to measure things, and show her how to use all the tools and that no matter what happened, no one would ever hit her or yell at her again because I would always be there to protect her. And that we would have lots of fun together and that we would ask for help if we needed it. And that I was ever so glad that I got to spend all this time with her. It was a miracle.
The very next day I was asked to make gravy for 34 people. GRAVY??!!?? NO, NOT GRAVY, ANYTHING BUT GRAVY!!! Gravy in our family was like nitroglycerine. If the gravy didn't turn out, the entire Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday would explode. My mother and father would get into huge screaming fights about ruined gravy. One year things got so bad that my parents threw their presents to each other into the fire. So there was no way I was going to make gravy. That's right—I had managed my whole life to avoid making gravy.
And because we practice in silence, because we practice saying yes, because we are not here to create and cling to beliefs, because we are here to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer so that we can drop that and end suffering, I made a big old pot of gravy. And I had a marvelous time doing it. I put so much fun and love into that gravy that it couldn't help but turn out perfect. And it did.
And when I get scared of trying new things or feel myself stiffen in resistance to change, I remind myself that I am a person who can make gravy for 34 people. And if I can do that, I can do anything.
And that, dear friends, is why we have rules and guidelines—they set us free.
***About the Zen Monastery Peace Center
The western foothills of the Sierra Nevada is the location of the Zen Monastery Peace Center, 320 acres of rolling terrain, forest, meadows, canyons and snow-fed San Domingo Creek. Deer browse undisturbed just outside the Monastery kitchen door. Gray foxes call to each other in the dusk. Silent monks go about their daily tasks, bowing respectfully to one another when they meet on the paths.
The Monastery Building is of "rammed earth" construction with tile roofing. The many windows and doors were made by monks from salvaged timbers of giant redwood wine casks. There is a large fully-equipped kitchen, dining room with vaulted ceiling, a meditation hall, an eight-bed dormitory with individual privacy, and four separate bathrooms with showers. Other private hermitages are scattered among the trees.
The Monastery focuses on sustainable living. It uses solar power for electricity, supplemented by a propane generator, and maintains two large organic gardens.
Retreats and workshops on a wide variety of subjects are regularly offered. Most are open to anyone who wishes to participate, some are more suitable for those new to Zen practice, and some are designed for the more experienced meditator. The usual format for these events includes periods of facilitated group discussion, meditation, meals, and free time. Often, there are periods of silent working meditation in which participants might, for example, help in the kitchen, work in the extensive gardens, assist in a building project, or sweep the verandah.
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