As you can see, it is possible to live in a monastery for a number of years and remain quite normal! In our Sangha of the AZI certain members imagine that monks and nuns live in a monastery like “extra-terrestrial” beings – austere, strangers to the problems of normal life. In reality, in a monastery one learns to simply live – to live open to the world, open towards others. One learns to live by following the laws of the universe – impermanence and interdependence.
The life in a monastery is controlled by sounds. At the end of Samu the bell sounds – the period of Samu is now finished. Even if I have not finished my task, I must put down my tools. At mealtime the “metal” sounds. Even if I am in the process of developing an interesting reflection, I must proceed to the refectory. Keeping our mind in contact with the impermanence of all things allows us to remain, at every instant, open to reality.
In the monastery we are confronted by the Law of Interdependence by virtue of the presence of the other person 24 hours out of 24 hours; this could be a great difficulty and, at the same time, could be a great benefit.
During the period when I lived at La Gendronnière, one person left the monastery while telling me “ You understand, when I am not in the monastery, if I have a difficulty with someone I return to my apartment, shut the door behind me and the problem no longer exists.”
In the monastery there is no escape and one cannot, as wished this young lady, shut yourself away. The moment that you distance yourself from others, from the community, whether it is for a personal problem which is troubling our mind, whether it is because of a will to go in a direction other than that dictated by the requirements of the monastery … one quickly feels alone and feeling alone in the middle of other people is very difficult to support. We have therefore a great motivation in finding solutions within ourselves so that we can return at each moment to peace of mind, to unity and to harmony. The presence of others obliges us to forget ourselves and it is in this manner that life in a community becomes of great assistance.
If it is not the presence of the other person, it is the Rules that lead us to forget ourselves. The rules of the monastery that direct our daily life exist to help us function above and beyond our personal consciousness. At the beginning, that can be very difficult. We are all subject to universal law but our personal consciousness always wants to take over control – we think that we are able to act in opposition to the cosmic order. When one lives in a community, to function in this manner, immediately becomes a source of suffering. Then, very slowly, we come to realise that the rules are not an inhuman invention – as we would have a tendency to believe because of the fact it puts in question our own selfishness. We understand that the rules are the living compassion of the Buddha’s allowing us to function above our personal consciousness. We deeply understand that to live in the Sangha is to practice harmony.
With the assistance of others, with the help of the rules, very slowly, and so as not to create suffering within ourselves or within others … so as not to feel separated from others, so as not to be cut off from reality … we learn to forget ourselves. There again, I know that certain individuals do not appreciate the concept of forgetting oneself.
If I could say only one thing, it is that to forget oneself is a great happiness, it is the deepest happiness that I know. Now and then someone comes to tell me: “You should take time to relax, go out sometimes …”. The more one has responsibilities in the monastery the more one has to respond to the demands of others and the less time one has for oneself.
I admit that it still happens that I act “in contradiction” to all this, that is to say, to go against the cosmic order and to feel a desire that is not compatible right now with the life in a monastery. The difference now compared to my first year in the monastery is that now I recognise the refrain; the moment that I hear the first notes, I change direction – one knows very quickly if our desire is compatible or not with the situation. When I abandon that desire I immediately find again a sense of deep peace, and, (something that is difficult to imagine when one has not experienced it) a feeling of great freedom.
For many amongst us, to be free, is to do exactly as one likes. In Buddhism, freedom is to accept everything that happens to us without filtering events with our own personal preferences; to courageously approach each and every situation that presents itself and giving it our best effort.
I could compare my first years of monastic life to a descent through rapids where the Ego crashes against all sorts of obstacles. But, today, for me, life in the monastery is a calm, peaceful river, even if the tasks there are constant. On this quiet and peaceful journey, I can appreciate all the scenery that passes by, appreciate all the situations that my life presents and take pleasure in every situation. It is because of this forgetfulness of Self that monastic life allows to exist that the river of “giving” becomes apparent: we abandon everything, but we receive – we receive much more than we could ever imagine. In addition, to live in the monastery with those who share the same aspiration, to see the daily gift that they make to the Three Treasures, to see them advance on The Way … all that is an inestimable gift that fills us with an even greater joy.