“I am no longer living according to worldly aims and values.” Nuns and monks of our tradition are encouraged to frequently bring this reflection to mind. I find it most helpful as an anchor. It reminds me that I am not looking to be powerful or successful in a worldly sense, but I am living my life in terms of dhamma.
In the community life of the monastery, we have skilled craftspeople; we have people who are good at giving talks, who are adept at sewing or gifted as artists or administrators. However in terms of practice, these accomplishments aren’t seen as being that important; it doesn’t really matter how successful we are in worldly terms. Certainly it’s nice when things are well taken care of—it’s good that people can construct buildings that don’t fall down and sew their robes straight. But our real gift, our offering, is our dhamma practice.
A reflection on fundamental values and worldly aims is useful for all of us to consider whether we live as monks or nuns, or as householders earning a living and looking after our family. The voices of the world can be very powerful and convincing, but no matter how wonderfully we do in our worldly endeavors, our moments of great triumph—of fame or prestige—are only moments. They don’t last. They may bring a kind of satisfaction, but if we make them the most important things in our life, when they pass we will feel stranded, searching for another moment of success or hearkening back to our great moments from the past trying to relive them once more.
The practice of dhamma provides us with something that will endure in a way that worldly success never will: something that can be a refuge when everything else is falling apart, when we are old or sick, when we are no longer able to “succeed.”
Of course, there are days when everything seems to go very well in worldly terms (and we can certainly enjoy these), but there are also “bad days.” If I don’t keep remembering that I’m not living according to worldly aims and values—that what is important is not whether I succeed but rather how I respond to success or failure—then I will suffer. So my choice is either to suffer or to be mindful. I can allow myself to see that this is just how things have come together. It’s not necessarily my fault or anybody else’s fault. I don’t have to blame anybody. I don’t have to fight or struggle or try to manipulate things so that they’re different. All I have to do is make peace with them as they are.
Some people might say, “Gosh, Buddhists are awfully passive, just making peace with things as they are. What good are they doing for the world?” But consider the alternative: when things go wrong and we’re not mindful, we tend to tense up. A reactivity happens in the mind, and there’s a closing down. It’s like having blinders on so we can see in only one direction. We hold on tightly and try to keep things the way we think they “should” be. With our willfulness we create a mood of tension that everybody picks up on. So we react or we say something unskillful and people get upset with us; there’s a general feeling of disharmony. This certainly brings suffering.
When we cultivate an attitude of letting go, the mind becomes more sensitive, aware and responsive. Rather than the tightness that comes from holding on with fear or desire, or the willfulness that perpetuates agitation, our response can foster harmony, can be in accordance with dhamma. Just by asking, “How is it right now?” we can find peace in what is unpeaceful, security in what is insecure.
Before I started this way of practice, I had become used to taking refuge in my clever mind, which worked everything out, judging and assessing things according to what I thought was right and proper. I always had to have an idea about how things would go, and if they didn’t go right, I’d feel tense.
To take refuge in dhamma doesn’t mean giving up our intellect; rather, it means not allowing our intellect to be the master. When we live in community, in society, of course we have to make plans. Those with jobs have to turn up for work and earn a livelihood. We still make intelligent use of our brains, but we do it from a place of dhamma rather than a place of fear or desire. Our practice helps us to understand our inner drives, the voices of worldly ambition or fear that pull us away from the real possibility of responding to what arises from a place of compassion and understanding.
I remember a number of years ago when the nuns’ community was still in a tender, fragile state. We had a visit from Maechee Patomwan, who had been a nun in Thailand for thirty-six years. At the time people were troubled about whether there was enough respect for the nuns’ community. Maechee Patomwan said to me, “Don’t worry about gaining respect, about looking good. Just work at keeping your own heart peaceful. If you do that, the respect will come, things will work out.” Hearing these words was such a relief because it confirmed what I had felt intuitively all along. I realized that trying to gain respect was a worldly aim; it was getting things the wrong way round. Instead, we can notice, “Is there suffering? . . . Why? . . . There is suffering because I want to be respected, or because I want to look good.” We can bring dhamma into our lives and into the world through our willingness to bear with the voices of the ego, to listen to the insistent demands of the world without being bullied by them.
After his enlightenment the Buddha didn’t spend the next forty-five years just sitting in a state of bliss. If you look into the vinaya teachings or the suttas, you will see that he was extremely active with people who were in the extremes of human anguish and despair, presenting teachings that responded to their particular needs in the moment. To be like the Buddha is perhaps asking too much, but we can try, moment by moment, to hear the voices of the world with discernment. We can interrupt the compulsions of the mind that pull us around and just be with one breath. We can be with the feeling of the body sitting on a chair or the feeling of the feet touching the ground as we walk. When we find ourselves becoming tense in a difficult situation, we can relax the shoulders. When we notice our mind going berserk, we can relax the face, just allowing the thoughts to go their own way. We can develop this simple awareness as a way to anchor ourselves. Then, in those moments of extreme anguish or confusion, when everything around us is falling apart and things just aren’t the way they should be—even at the moment of death—we can establish ourselves in dhamma.
Being peaceful with one breath is obviously not a worldly value; it’s not something that is going to get us an enormous amount of praise. It’s a practice that takes us to a system of values that goes beyond the changing world. A verse in the Dhammapada describes water dripping into a bucket drop by drop, sooner or later filling it up. It might seem that our moments of mindfulness aren’t adding up to much, but if we give ourselves a year or a couple of years or a decade or two, things will change. We’ll notice that there is more of a sense of ease, more of an ability to calmly respond rather than getting uptight and agitated. There is a little more compassion, a little more space in the heart. Gradually we’ll find that our interest in worldly success and status falls away naturally as its place is taken by an appreciation of the subtler well-being arising from a life lived in dhamma.
This article is adapted from Freeing the Heart: Dhamma Teachings from the Nuns’ Community at Amaravati and Cittaviveka Monasteries (Amaravati Publications, 2001). To request a copy, visit www.abhayagiri.org or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Abhayagiri Monastery, 16201 Tomki Road, Redwood Valley, CA 95470. Donations are gratefully accepted.