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14 Alone Together

 Tasting the flavour of solitude and the nectar of peace,
those who drink the joy that is the essence of reality
abide free from fear of evil.

Dhammapada verse 205

Question: Can you explain the relative merits of practising as a monastic and practising as a householder? Could you also describe any general patterns of personality change that you have noticed in people as a result of Buddhist practice?

Ajahn Munindo: Whether one lives the life of a celibate renunciate, as a monk or nun, or whether one lives as a layperson, a householder, is a question of one’s choice of lifestyle. That choice is not just about personal preferences but has to do with all sorts of conditions – our accumulations, our kamma. It is a basic premise of the Buddhist outlook that we did not come into the world as a blank sheet but with a history and a set of tendencies. What we came into this life with, forms the context and the background against which our life’s unfolding takes place, the details of which most of us can’t see.

For all of us, however – monks, nuns or lay people – the practice is essentially the same. We all encounter frustration, limited existence and suffering. What matters is whether we are willing to receive our suffering consciously and look into the actuality of it, or whether we are committed – knowingly or unknowingly – to distraction and avoidance in order to delay looking at what is truly taking place. In both the householders’ life and the monastic life there is the full spectrum of commitment, from those who are enthusiastically committed to seeing what the reality of each moment is, to those occupied in distraction. What matters is whether our lifestyle is true for us and whether it helps us develop increased willingness. Willingness is what matters.

The reality, whatever our choice of lifestyle, is that throughout our life we have to face the evidence of our limitations. Whether we like it or not, we all experience not getting our own way and becoming lost in habitual reactivity. When we come right up against those experiences, how do we respond? Do we resist, saying, ‘I shouldn’t be this way, I should be more clear about where I’m going in my life;’ or is there the heart-capacity to meet this person – me – in this experience of limitation in an unobstructed way?

Encountering Loneliness

To speak personally, I can say that living as a monk, has been a difficult choice but that I don’t have any regrets. I do regret some of the ways I have handled certain situations in the past but I don’t regret having chosen to live the life of a monk. I feel very privileged and fortunate to live this life, and the longer I live it the more that feeling grows. It’s fundamentally about living in solitude and getting to know your aloneness. Yes, monks live together in community but in our togetherness we are alone. The structures of the life bring us to an intense recognition of our aloneness and the agony of loneliness.

For someone who lives the monastic life of a celibate renunciate, loneliness is not considered as a symptom of failure. It is looked upon as an indicator – a sign. When you feel the pain of loneliness as horrible – just as it is – it does not mean failure. This feeling tells you where your resources are, where you need to go to get your gold; so it’s something that we train ourselves to welcome and look into. We are supposed to feel lonely – at least until we realize contentment in our aloneness. From this perspective, compulsive socialising or any heedless activity that distracts us from an accurate, personal, receptivity to the experience of loneliness is seen as a hindrance.

There are monastic communities in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist traditions in which there are movements towards socialising and group activity, but according to my understanding and observation of these things, invariably either those activities die out or the communities themselves die. The reason is that the monastic life is essentially solitary – it’s all about being alone. The decision to live such a life is made for all sorts of reasons, but ultimately it needs to be made because we find it in our nature to make that choice. It’s not right or wrong to live the monastic life or to live a householder’s life. We choose whatever is appropriate for our condition – whatever supports us in our commitment to the path of practice.

Anybody who has lived the life of a monk, a nun or a postulant for any length of time knows the pain of loneliness, but hopefully has also tasted the benefit of being supported by the spiritual community in their encounter with it. The spiritual community is a very important support in encouraging us to go deeper into all aspects of our experience – perhaps into loneliness even more than other aspects. To try and live monastically without any support would be very difficult. Because of this, the Buddha encouraged the spiritual community, the Sangha, to make a shared commitment to a celibate renunciate lifestyle, and to support each other in their efforts.

If we have adequately prepared ourselves with strength of mindfulness and steadiness of samadhi, along with the self-respect that comes with sense-restraint and moral conduct, then we can embrace the energetic reality of loneliness. Instead of thinking, ‘I feel lonely, what can I do to get rid of this feeling of loneliness? I’ll write an e-mail, read a book, or ring somebody up,’ we open up to receive – without any judgment or analysis – the feeling of loneliness. To be encouraged to do that is a wonderful thing and is very much a part of what the spiritual community is about.

As a householder or a layperson it is not necessarily the case that you will be forced to confront loneliness in the same manner as a monk or nun will be. Living with a partner in a committed relationship, for example – in many cases with children as well – brings a very different experience altogether. Assuming that such a relationship is not destructive or dysfunctional, there will be a sense of companionship – close, intimate companionship. Since the last close intimate companionship I had was about thirty years ago, there is little I can say about that. But from what people tell me, committing to a close relationship doesn’t protect anyone from the pain of loneliness. So whatever our lifestyle choice, all of us who are committed to practice are called to go deeply into this experience and find our own way to a resolution.

Personality Shifts

With regards to changes in personality through practice, nowadays what I see in everybody who is training, whether monastic or lay person, is a shift in heart towards an increased willingness to receive the present moment in its fullness – without interpretation, indulgence or avoidance.

In any experience our mind can imagine all sorts of possible outcomes, some agreeable and some disagreeable. We can become very anxious because of these imagined possibilities. However, if we practise rightly and truly, we find ourselves increasingly capable of accommodating all sorts of eventualities – both the frightening and the wonderful. I have found this to be true throughout my years of training and have observed it growing in many with whom I have lived. Witnessing such increase of capacity is always a joy.

I received a letter today from someone who lives in Eastern Europe and has been practising for a few years. He’s young and very enthusiastic in his practice and has just recognised that he’s been attached to the conceited view that he is in the best religion. There is nobody in his family and hardly anyone else in his immediate environment who is a Buddhist, so he’s very much a solitary Buddhist. He’s been holding onto an idea of himself as a Buddhist in a very tight way, which is quite understandable – that’s generally how we all begin. But because of his right practice he has reached the point where he’s started to loosen the way he holds the perception of himself as a Buddhist, and has come to realise how conceited his view was that ‘I am a Buddhist and Buddhism is the best religion there is.’

In his letter he discribed how, having seen his conceit, he became caught in terrible doubt. He thought, ‘I’ve been brain-washed. Buddhism is just another system of brainwashing.’ He wrote that he’d been watching a video of Nazis in Germany in the 1930’s, in which the Nazi youth were going round teaching the young people to sing nationalistic songs praising Hitler and so on. The Nazis were skilled at programming large numbers of people to hold specific views and beliefs, to conform to a fixed idea.

Seeing this video coincided with him recognising how rigid his grasp of Buddhism was. He fell into this hellish doubt in which he decided that he had been thoroughly mistaken and that Buddhism was, in fact, just a load of codswallop! ‘This is just another form of programming for imbeciles!’ he thought to himself, believing that he’d made a terrible and humiliating mistake.

Fortunately, his practice was adequately balanced so that he was soon able to reflect on the shift in his experience and on the doubt he was caught up in. The reality of his experience was that he was having doubts, that’s all. He didn’t know that Buddhism was a load of codswallop; he didn’t know that he’d been programmed into believing some cultic nonsense. His practice was sufficiently broad, non-judgmental and here-and-now that he was able to accommodate his doubt without grasping it, without becoming it. If in that moment when the thought arose – ‘I’ve been programmed by a cult of fanatic monks and Ajahn Munindo is another sort of a Nazi’ – he hadn’t been properly prepared, then he could have thrown the whole thing out of the window, gone out drinking with his mates and created a whole lot of unskilful kamma. I am impressed with the way this young man went through this period – on his own – allowing the doubt to be there. He allowed the real possibility that he’d got it all wrong to remain in his consciousness, without losing the balance of his mind. His willingness to experience the doubt took him through to some insight into the nature of doubting.

As we continue in the practice of the Buddha-Dhamma we find an increased willingness to accommodate all sorts of possibilities that come to us. We don’t jump to conclusions so readily, and because of this, the heart and mind begins to expand in a more open and easeful way. By our practice of restraint we find that there are more, not fewer, possibilities. Practitioners become more relaxed, they become more trusting. This is the sort of personality change your might expect from practice.

Certainly, my experience has been that, instead of having to feel sure about things, I am able to let myself be not so sure. Sometimes people tell me that when I talk I sound very sure and confident, but that is not necessarily my subjective experience. When I talk about Dhamma, what I am concerned with is encouraging investigation. At the end of a Dhamma talk I hope the listeners have more and deeper questions than at the start. However, when I meet my brothers and sisters and their partners, who are all evangelical Christians, then I know that I am meeting people who are really sure. If they are not travelling the world as missionaries in Africa, Turkey, India, or the United States, they are preaching and running churches near home. They don’t have any doubts at all – certainly not conscious ones. They are very much convinced that they have the answers. In that respect we are worlds apart because I can’t say that I have the answers. I feel connected to a reality which is much bigger than me – something beyond delineations of inner and outer – a reality that I care about tremendously. And this is something that I wholeheartedly commit my life in service to; but I can’t say that I know or that I’m sure. I welcome this state of uncertainty – I think it’s a healthy condition.

Not Sure

As far as making right effort in daily life – accommodating family situations, community situations and other people – I think this particular point is very relevant. Recognising that, in reality, we are not sure most of the time makes us much nicer people to be with. If, out of fear of being unsure, we hold on to ideas and take fixed positions, we can become very rigid. If I feel sufficiently threatened in certain situations, a fear comes up and there’s an experience of contraction – a rigidity kicks in, and when that kicks in, possibilities become limited. My mind doesn’t want to look at the myriads of possibilities, doesn’t want to float around and feel what’s actually going to fit. In that state of contraction and limitation it wants to get something and feel sure. But this doesn’t benefit me and it doesn’t benefit other people. On the other hand, when we are able to remember that we don’t know what is going to happen – that we don’t know for certain – then there is a relaxation, a releasing; an opening up and a trusting, a reconnecting with a trusting relationship to life. Life is uncertain but that is just the truth. We don’t have to be in a perpetual state of fear because of it.

There are many contemplations that aim at leading us into a trusting relationship to life, but I think this reflection on the fact that most of the time we don’t know what is going to happen is especially useful. When the tendency to grasp out of fear or insecurity arises, if we have prepared ourselves, we hold back and just wait, remaining open and at the same time in touch with the sense of ‘not sure’. This was one of Ajahn Chah’s most regular teachings, perhaps his most regular teaching. Whatever you said to him, after he responded he would often add, ‘but…mai neh, mai neh,’ not sure. Neh – which comes from the Pali word nicca, meaning ‘permanent’ – in Thai means ‘sure’ or ‘certain’. Mai is negative. That was really the bottom line in all of his teaching. Whatever arrangements were being made, ‘We’re going to do this’ or ‘Next week I’m going to Bangkok,’ he would regularly say ‘mai neh’, ‘but not sure.’ Not because he lacked commitment – he was anything but wishy-washy; but because he wanted us to see the Dhamma in all of our activity.

On the day that Ajahn Chah died in 1992 a friend of the monastery offered a lamp as a gift to mark the occasion. We switched this lamp on for the next ten days and nights as a gesture of our respect. After this period we held a Memorial Service in the Dhamma Hall here. A large gathering of people from Newcastle and the surrounding area came together for chanting and meditation, to reflect with gratitude on our teacher who had just passed away. At the Memorial Service I read a talk from a collection of Ajahn Chah’s teachings called Food For The Heart. It was on Ajahn Chah’s favourite theme – impermanence. The words in this talk gained a new significance as I read them. When I came to this important passage, the key sentence of the whole talk, which says, ‘…and any teaching from any teacher that does not include the words impermanence…’ the light bulb blew ‘...is not the teaching of the Buddha….’ I had to stop for a few moments. I suppose these things happen, don’t they? What causes them, what is actually going on – who knows? But it certainly etched that particular aspect of Ajahn Chah’s teaching even more deeply in my mind:

‘Any teaching that does not contain the words not sure or impermanent is not the teaching of the Buddha.’

Thank you very much for your attention this evening.



© 2005 Aruna Publications