Wed 27th May: Phra Cittasamvaro – Personal musings on turning the big
I don’t have a lot. I live in a room 4 meters by 3 meters, with a small attached bathroom. The water is clean and the room quarantined from insects and other nasties by working mosquito screens. There is no glass in the windows, but there are wooden shutters outside that can be closed when the noise of the neighbouring school is at its distorted peak. One corner of the room is packed high to the ceiling with books and papers that I really would like to read one day. Actually I would be happy just organising them … The tattered old computer case, endlessly modified over the years, whistles like a Millenium Falcon under the desk, and though it’s a dinosaur by today’s standards, it remains the heart of Littlebang, and provides much too much distraction by dint of an ADSL connection. The rest of the room is left empty, and is plenty of space to live in.
Not really where I had imagined myself at 40. In my younger years, hammered blunt by ceaseless depression, I had always planned that I would end my own life. Getting older was a joy as one moves into adulthood and can take control of ones own ‘self’, to some degree at least. At 22 I took up meditation, not as a way to heal or grow, but as a way to go and live my life out in a cave somewhere, silent and invisible.
Of course it does not work out like that, but it got me started. I entered the monastery full time when I was just short of 25. The abbot had put me off for a couple of years to test my commitment. Actually, commitment has never been my downfall. Total disinterest in love, marriage or career made it very hard for me to live in the lay people’s world, and I was quickly addicted to the monastic life as soon as I could enjoin it full time. I made the decision at that point, around my 25th birthday, that I would never be depressed again, and I never have been.
I actually left the temple for a year at 26, to make sure that I really did not want to be part of lay life. Monastic living is kind of easy in that you are looked after, don’t need to have or buy much, and have a vinaya (rules) that keeps you sane and steady. On the other hand it is difficult because you have little control over your life. You can’t choose who to live with, or what you eat, and are tied to monastic activities of early rising, chanting, working etc.. You can’t really carve out a little private space for yourself that you could if you bought a house. For one as independent and anti-social as myself, that can be very difficult.
I worked for a happy year as a chef, a job I got completely by accident, but which was great fun. It was in a postcard perfect seaside town on the South coast of Devon, England. Right on the “English Riviera” (which is kind of jazzing it up a bit). Though I proved to myself I could move in the world of laity, I was clearly not to be part of it.
Despite the freedom of self will that comes with adulthood, there is still the fog of Confusion – a fog offset by the equally soupy fog of Delusion. The latter at least makes you think you understand the world. It’s the same fog; just some people don’t see it, and the rest can’t do anything about it.
My Grandfather had always told me he would be willing to come back to be reborn again “if I could know what I know now“. He never told me what it was he then knew, but I have been finding out. Getting older your eyes adjust to the fog somewhat. I think we human beings understand ‘it’, ‘reality’, the ‘bigger picture’ or even religion, about as well as your pet dog understands the world of tax, politics or economics. Your pet cat might be able to manipulate you emotionally, but its understanding of the world is pretty meagre. These pets know enough to get by – they have a working model of the universe in their minds that serves them fine, but don’t really have any idea what it is all really about. We humans are the same. We have an understanding that serves – a set of constructs that gets us by – but ultimately we are lost in a fog of confusion. Some happy puppies don’t know it, or don’t care. The rest of us are trying to make sense of ourselves and the world. I wonder if Enlightenment itself will be a final answer, or as the Lotus Sutra states, just a step on a longer path.
So I have very little. I can’t go on foreign holidays, walk around town at night, or build vertical axis wind turbines. And I am glad. There is no end to interesting distractions that take you away from the important questions. Though the mind lunges after distraction and entertainment, there is yet one aspiration that calls quietly from behind all the noise telling you ‘this isn’t it’. I have complained to God that I’d like just a little more information, but He was not forthcoming. It is enough to know there is a point inside of your noisy mind that is silent, cool, and full of promise and happiness. And it is accessible and free to all, if the effort is made.
The life as a monk is supportive of this goal. I ordained at 27 as a way to corner myself into the practise. I felt determined to get enlightened right there and then, but again, it never works out that way. In a foreign culture, in a steaming hot room, gagging from a debilitating asthma that hits whenever it rains, forced to share a room with two zany Russians it was as much as one could do to stay sane.
Now at 40 has the fog cleared ? I’d always thought as a teenager that ‘old’ people, people my age now, were somehow mature. Somehow they’d have figured things out. It may look boring as hell, but ‘old’ people had grown up. Yet I see the people around me confused by things – greed, passion, love lives lusted and lost, position, status, looks, and fear – lots of fear. Getting lost in foolish emotions, making the same foolish mistakes we made as teenagers, only with higher stakes and less lifetime remaining to find peace. People in their 40’s 50’s and beyond still seem never to have sorted out that which needs sorting. A few days ago a Rolls Royce driving man in his 50’s smashed his car into a Tesco because they would not serve him alcohol. A Chinese man pushed a wannabe suicide jumper off a bridge because he had caused traffic to jam up. A Chinese couple in NZ absconded with 10 million dollars the bank accidentally paid them. Meanwhile the Buddha says ‘The Arahant strides though the uneven with an even stride’.
I see the same foolish stuff in myself – the pains and memories from childhood still have a powerful allure to suck me in. I should have out grown them by now ?? But the moment to moment view of the mind that the Buddha was outlining is such a powerful refuge. It shows the vicissitudes of the mind for what they really are. Slowly, the act of seeing, of mindfulness, is enough to teach yourself the lessons of letting everything go. The moments when everything really does cease, with the mind bright and alert, are more than ample reminder of which direction freedom lies. I have no desire for money, prestige, selfish love or cute hobbies. I want that which is worth more than any other thing. I want that perfection that serves others and not myself. I want total love, unconditional, not some self serving romance. I want something that has ultimate value, and not a pleasant distraction. Maybe I am nuts.
I thought about doing something for my birthday. In truth birthdays as a child and adolescent were so horrific that I abandoned birthdays altogether. Maybe that’s how I stay young. 40 is the new 30 they say. And in 10 years 50 will be the new 40, which will have been 30 for a decade. I am here at just the right time to never age.
Except for one thing. Tevijjo yogi, drat him, pointed out I have a wrinkle (he’ll regret this …).
My very first wrinkle. And no matter how much I try to widen my eyes or raise my eyebrows, it will not pull out.
I should be happy of course, for it’s cool for monks to look old. No one likes young monks – they don’t look wise enough. All these beauty creams and potions in the shops, and not one that makes you look older. I should market this – a beauty cream based on sand and salt that gives you a leathery, wise look.
Dhamma Cream – the Face of Wisdom
The wrinkle serves to remind me there is much work to be done and less time remaining. I don’t want to die confused.
But anyway, I did toy with the idea of having a Tai Pan event – lunch and movie – for my 40th. I would not have told anyone. A secret birthday party appealed to me. Usually surprise parties are surprising for the brithday-ee. It appealed to my sense of irony to reverse it, so the people who come get the surprise a week later when they find out what the bash was for. But in the end slipping the day by seemed the best option, as it has every other year. I went chanting for lunch – turns out the owners of a new bar opening near the temple wanted the business blessed. Curious. Then I went to my Kamma/Abhidhamma class which I take in Thai. A trip to university and then home to my 4m x 3m cave on the 4thfloor, overlooking the school, neatly screened from mosquitoes, with my stacks of papers and books I really would like to read, or at least orgainse one day. And Littlebang sitting there on my Millenium Falcon computer. I may still be confused, but this will do nicely for the meanwhile.