November 10 -12, 2012
THE HERETIC MONK
From Ajahn Brahm’s website (www.ajahnbrahm.org):
They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took them in.
(Edwin Markham 1852-1940)
We planned to spend a few days in Las Vegas to complete some big city errands. Chris needed to ship a few things and we both needed some things shipped to us. We looked forward to buying organic food and going to bookstores. With readily accessible wifi, I hoped to get caught up on my blog. (We have become what I call “Wifi Vampires”, stealthily, lustfully searching for opportunities to drink up wireless internet wherever we go. Sometimes we are also “Electrical Outlet Vampires”.)
I have taught two weekend meditation retreats in Las Vegas so there was also the possibility of giving a talk to the Lotus in the Desert Sangha. It turned out that the City of Sin offered the first formal Dharma of our trip.
Exploring the web, I discovered that Ajahn Brahm was schedule to teach in Las Vegas that very weekend. What a stroke of good luck! I have been curious to see him and, as far as I knew, he rarely comes to the U.S. from his monastery in western Australia. We left Pahranagat Wildlife Refuge early Sunday morning to travel the 90 miles to his talk at 11:15 AM.
Although Ajahn Brahm (his full name is Brahmavamso Mahathera, “Ajahn” means teacher) has been a well-known and respected Buddhist teacher for some time, he gained notoriety in 2009 when he gave full-ordination to four western women as Buddhist nuns. This may not seem like a radical or controversial act but in traditional Asia, it was.
I won’t go into all the complex historical and cultural details. But the short story goes like this. The lineage of fully-ordained nuns from the Buddha’s time was “lost” so today, in many Buddhist countries, women can only ordain as limited “8-precept” nuns. This role has less prestige, power and respect. Simply put, nuns are second-class citizens compared to the monks. This gap in the treatment between men and women doesn’t go over well in the Western world and it makes no sense according to the Buddha’s teaching. There are many explanations and justifications given for not changing the ordination rules, but from my standpoint, it boils down to an attempt to maintain power and control by patriarchal systems that discriminate against women and by cultures that rigidly adhere to traditions (especially ones that uphold patriarchy). In my view, patriarchy is so, so passé.
The idea of monastic life is deeply appealing to me, with its simple lifestyle, and its complete dedication to meditation, to self-knowledge and to awakening to wisdom and compassion. However, I have never seriously considered it because traditional Buddhism, like the other major religions, is steeped in old-time patriarchy (even misogyny) and in limiting and out-dated cultural beliefs, expectations and mores. Ajahn Brahm’s decision to disobey tradition and bypass the appropriate lines of authority, resulted in his ouster as a member and teacher in the Buddhist Thai Forest tradition. He is still a monk and abbot of the Bodhinyaya Monastery and he continues to be a popular teacher. He has been both celebrated and condemned for his stance and his actions.
Despite all the controversy, Ajahn Brahm is enthusiastic about being a monk and in monasticism in general. He referred to his monastery as “a community of hermits.” This is the same oxymoronic expression I have used for my ideal sangha (spiritual community). But I would prefer it to be peopled with lay contemplatives instead of monks and nuns.
Most Western monastics I have spoken to agree that women should be included as equals. However, their Asian counterparts, often do not. And despite what they believe, many people do not want to rock the boat. Hierarchical authority and decision-making can be strict and challenging that system can have unfortunate consequences.
Ajahn Brahm is outspoken in other ways too. A few years ago when the Dalai Lama described homosexuality as sexual misconduct, Ajahn Brahm simply said that the Dalai Lama was wrong. Many other Buddhist teachers did as well, including myself, but Ajahn Brahm was able to say it to a wider audience and he continues to bring it up in his talks today. (In the West, there are many openly gay, lesbian and transgendered Buddhist students and lay teachers.)
Ajahn Brahm semi-jokingly said that now that gays are being openly accepted into Western culture he has a new cause célèbre . . . Celibate Rights! He said that people say to him what people used to say to homosexuals, for example, “It isn’t natural.”
Over two days we saw Ajahn Brahm three times at three different venues. He is British, educated at Cambridge University in theoretical physics, witty, funny, frank, original, and thoughtful. His primary style of teaching is through stories. A born storyteller, he not only shares true examples from people’s lives, but he has also amassed a repertoire of parables. Some are culled from other sources, but many appear to be his own. They sometimes sound like children stories – with animal protagonists, for example – but they clearly, often with humor, demonstrate his point. He obviously enjoys retelling these tales even though he has shared them hundreds, probably thousands, of times; he delightfully strings them out and then pops the moral of the story on you. Many of these teaching stories are collected in his book (which we got after seeing him), Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? Many of his talks can be seen on YouTube.
Probably the most controversial thing Ajahn Brahm said was directed to the western Vipassana or Insight Meditation community. He stated that the Buddha emphasized jhanas not vipassana meditation in the suttas (the written record of Buddha’s teaching). Vipassana means insight and it, along with mindfulness, are most often considered to be the core practices. Jhanas are usually referred to as stages of samadhi, which is usually translated as concentration. Ajahn Brahm was adamant that samadhi does NOT mean concentration – at least as we understand it in the West – but instead stillness. The role, meaning, and practice of samadhi and the jhanas is currently a hot-button issue within the Insight Meditation community.
Afterward, someone concerned about his declaring the preeminence of jhana meditation, asked me what I thought. I shrugged my shoulders; if you get ten Buddhist teachers, you’ll get ten different answers about the best way to practice. They will mostly agree on the underlying philosophy of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths, etc.) but often do not agree on how to practice it. Having heard all these different approaches over many years, I take it all in stride. I teach from what I have learned from my many teachers and from my own experience.
I did like Brahm’s redefining of samadhi as stillness. Because Westerners usually lead busy, distracted and agitated lives they have not learned to access the fundamental stillness and silence of awareness. Both concentration and mindfulness, when not applied correctly, can become additional activities to keep the mind occupied and busy rather than allowing the mind to fully open to and rest in awareness.
Also, Ajahn Brahm told a story which softened his jhana point somewhat. He talked about how Sam (samadhi) and Vi (vipassana) with their dog Metta (lovingkindness) walked together up Meditation Mountain. The point was that no matter what approach you lead with in meditation, all three will eventually be present, all three will be part of your experience. Stillness, clarity, love.
Ajahn Brahm was asked his opinion about another controversial issue: abortion. First, he said that women should make the decision (and the laws), not men. He then went on to say that when making any complex, difficult decision – like whether to have an abortion – one should inquire within to see if one’s decision is being overly influenced by any of the following: 1) ill will, 2) self-serving wants (greed), 3) fear, 4) ignorance (lack of information). These seem to me to be a good guide for life’s many hard, confusing choices.
These four mind states often emerge directly from our past conditioning and when dominated by them, our ability to clearly understand our current situation will be muddied. The wisdom and good heart we need to make decisions may be obscured by past grudges, old hurts, doubt, longstanding feelings of inadequacy. This is why psychological work can be such an effective ally on the spiritual journey. It can help us identify and release obsolete conditioned patterns allowing our unconditioned true nature can shine through. Our deepest intentions will direct our choices.
After leaving Vegas for a few days refuge at Tecopa Hot Springs, we returned for two nights to complete various errands and for me to give a talk on self-compassion at the weekly Sunday meeting of Lotus in the Desert.