Posts Tagged ‘short-term monastic retreat’

Re-entry’s been strange. Matt keeps asking me why I’m being “so quiet,” when am I going to “turn back into your regular self?” I think that’s more about his fear about me changing in some way that might be uncomfortable for him rather than any big change in me. Plus I don’t think I’ve ever been away from them for eight days straight since I worked for 60 MINUTES and that ended when Matt was two and Luke was four. I do feel a bit “stared at” by my family and even some of my friends, like they’re looking for some evidence that I’m changing, perhaps going off the deep end. Maybe I’m just making it up but I find myself trying to assure people that I still have the same foul mouth I got from working in a television newsroom and snarky attitude. Why it’s so important to me to show no evidence of change I have no idea.

When I told Luke about all of the detailed rules at the retreat and that I finally found that some of it was good in that it forced me to be more present and less in my head chatter he said, “That’s called Stockholm Syndrome, Mom.”

Matt added, “I feel like I’m talking to a concentration camp escapee.”

I don’t know what to say about this except to report it. I’m freaking out my children…and maybe others who are just too polite to tell me.

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We were a sea of faces, lined up across the steps leading to the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple’s main shrine, our last moments as temporary Buddhist monastics snapped and recorded.

Those wearing the orange robes are the Venerables, our teachers. In the rows of gray behind them, are all of us “Preceptees”

As soon as it was over, there was talking – a lot of it – as well as teasing and laughter as people brought out their own cameras to photograph their groups before our “unordination ceremony” stripped us of our robes.

It was a relief to laugh, to smile, to compare notes, and I sure was looking forward to going home to Luke, Matt, and Kevin, to my own home and life, but it was also disorienting. I’d walked in a line, from dawn until bedtime for a week, with the same people, looked at the same set of rounded shoulder blades in front of me, got poked by the same playful tormentor behind me. I guess you can’t help feeling literally connected to others if you do everything together but what surprised me was the deep affection I felt for this small group of strangers. I mean, we’d barely spoken to each other and yet it was odd to think I’d get in my car in a couple of hours and just drive off.

The unordination ceremony was officially called “The Relinquishing of Monastic Precepts.” It took place in the main shrine and was the ordination ceremony in reverse. We ritually took off and handed back our prayer mats, our begging bowls, the orange bag for the begging bowls, and our brown robes, all symbols for what we were really giving back: the requirement to live by the monastic precepts. While there was the same amount of chanting, bowing and kneeling, the service seemed almost underwater…or maybe I was. There were people in the room who were crying. Whether it was from relief that the week was over or because they regretted that their time as a monastic was over, I couldn’t tell. Me, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. When I’m done something, I’m done, and that hadn’t gone completely; I had to struggle be where I was, not to run through the checklist of what I needed to do to get out fast while I stood with my neatly folded brown robe, both hands curling up from the bottom around the front edge of the square of brown fabric, ready for my turn to hand it over just when I’d gotten good at keeping it on, keeping the open side of the robe from flying open as I walked. (That double wrap of the loop did the trick.) I was also just starting to know when to kneel, when to bow, when to stand up, to be able to chant with comfort “Na Mo Ben Shi Shi Jia Mu Ni Fo” (“Homage to Shakyamuni Buddha” ) on the way to meals. I could even remember which way my folded hand towel was supposed to hang and which way the folded edges of my prayer mat were supposed to face when I held it in front of me when I walked. All this, just when it was time to go home.
As we walked back up the hill to our room for the last time, I thought about Hemu. While the collision of my non-ritual self with a 24/7 ritual life was bound to be stressful, there was one notion I hadn’t considered: how much easier it is to live a spiritually dedicated life when absolutely ever facet of your existence is proscribed and provided. I am not saying it isn’t hard, that it doesn’t require more discipline than I currently have, but Hemu and the hundreds of thousands of dedicated lay followers of religions all over the world like Hemu somehow find a way to live a life centered on the practice of their faith while also remaining, as the Hindus say, “householders.” They have families and jobs and still the most dedicated among them do all that their faith calls them to do. That seems even harder than owning nothing and living full time at a monastery. Perhaps what I’m missing is the complete lack of personal time, of a personal life. The monastics in charge of the retreat went to bed an hour or more after we did and got up hours before. And I’m not sure if there’s anything like time off.
Maybe it’s all hard. Or it just seems that way to someone with only enough discipline to muscle through an intense week of practice but who appears to lack whatever it is that you need to sustain a daily practice.
After a cup of way-too-sweet mocha at a grocery store coffee counter with the Hindu flight attendant, I started the drive home. I can take any one of three different highways so I had to turn on the radio to see which way had the least amount of traffic. The clatter of the news radio station was overwhelming. I couldn’t listen to it long enough to get to the traffic report. I decided just to drive and take whatever came.
When I walked in the door, Matt ran to hug me. “Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay.”
“Are you sure? You seem kind of quiet.”
I told myself he was just looking for the drama. “Yes, I’m fine. Stop.” I kissed him again and said, “I’m going to put my stuff down and take a shower.”
I took my knapsack of stuff and the bag we were each given full of parting gifts – a few books, our Certificate of Completion, a copy of the huge group photo, a collection of the daily essays we wrote – back to my room. I couldn’t believe how much stuff Kevin and I had. It was just our room, no messier than usual, but the stack of books next to the book shelf by my bed, the computer and pile of notebooks on the desk, the closet which I’d said just the week before had “nothing to wear” in it — all seemed repulsive.
After my shower, which turned out to be much shorter than I’d planned, I found myself carefully going through drawer after drawer in the bathroom, throwing old make-up, lotions and hair products away until there was little left and each had a clear place to be.
13 July 2007

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…or are they nun’s robes? Things seemed pretty gender neutral here. The women in robes referred to themselves and the men as “monastics,” a word my spell-checker doesn’t like.

Two nights, two mornings into this seven day monastic retreat and I can tell you there are some things about this monastic life that are a lot simpler: you sleep in the tunic and pants you wear all day so you don’t need to choose clothes or even get dressed in the morning – you already are. And you have nothing to do to get ready other than wash your face, brush your teeth, and pull your hair back…if you have any. (Real Buddhist monastics, women included, shave their heads. It symbolizes giving up worldly concerns.) All of this makes getting down to the stone courtyard to stand in motionless lines in front of the scary Discipline Master before 6am almost no problem.

That is, if you aren’t having menopausal hot flashes. During a triple-digit heat wave.

Our room had no air conditioning. And those silver tunic and pants? They had elastic at the wrists and ankles and were nice and polyester-smooth on the inside. So when the raw, searing heat raked up from the sides of my hips, up my neck, behind my ears, drenching my scalp in sweat at least once an hour – all night, all day – I felt like I was sealed in a microwave bag. During the day it was hell because you were not allowed to move at all once you were standing, kneeling or sitting. So I’d suddenly feel myself drip and not be able to do a thing about it. At night, once the lights were out and the three other women in the room seemed to be asleep, I stopped trying to “sleep like a bowl” and tried wet dish towel instead, even going so far as to unbutton one and even sometimes two of the buttons that kept the tunic closed up to my neck. It’s amazing how quickly a few restrictions can make previously insignificant things feel wanton.

In the courtyard at dawn this morning, though, there was a bit of a breeze along with the withering stare of the Discipline Master. It wasn’t just her drill sergeant demeanor that made her so frightening. In that long list of instructions we were given on our first day, we were told to start memorizing six different Buddhist and Hsi lai texts and that we must be ready whenever the Discipline Master asked, to recite any one of them. Recite or kneel in atonement if we couldn’t recite on demand. On the stone. For at least ten minutes. (Well, that’s what they said would happen. I never saw anyone made to kneel in such a harsh manner.)

Some tracts were short, some were very long. They were: the Refuge and Transfer of Merits Verse; Humble Table, Wise Fare; the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra; the Great Compassion Dharani; Rebirth in Pure Land Dharani; and a Prayer for Those Entering the Monastery. (I’ll put some of the texts up in a later post.)

It was utterly unclear to me if I could be called on from day one to recite things I couldn’t possibly have memorized. We were encouraged to memorize them in the language in which they were written (there were Chinese characters, phonetic spellings and English translations for each) but I had to draw the line somewhere. And it wasn’t like we had a lot of time to study: we had our shower time and a short thirty-minute break in the middle of the day. Period. If I had a prayer of memorizing anything, it was gonna have to be in English so at least I’d know what I was saying.

Just two days in and I was standing on stone at dawn in rough cloth shoes that were starting to rub my feet raw in the weirdest of places terrified that the black-browed nun was going to demand that I recite something I hadn’t memorized yet. All I’d gotten under my belt were the Refuge and the Transfer of Merits Verse:


Taking refuge in the Buddha, I wish all sentient beings to understand the highest doctrine and make
the greatest vows;

Taking refuge in the Dharma, I wish that all sentient beings to study deeply the Sutra Pitaka and acquire an ocean of wisdom;

Taking refuge in the Sangha, I wish all sentient beings to lead the congregation in harmony and without obstruction.

Transfer of Merits

May kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity pervade all Dharma realms;

May all people and heavenly beings benefit from our blessings and friendship;

May our ethical practice of Ch’an and Pure Land help us to realize equality and patience;

May we undertake the greatest vows with humility and gratitude.

I found myself wanting to clean up the grammar, to suggest a simpler way to say some of these lines. But I didn’t. I made a decision to jump into this fully so my focus was solely on doing what was asked, hoping that, at some point, I might have a clue about why.

9 July 2007

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  How can we overcome our ignorance if we pretend that we are wise?

Master Hsing Yun
Buddhism, Pure and Simple  

Buddhism. I needed to start somewhere so I went back to the Buddhist temple I knew because I’d gone along on one of Mark’s school trips: the Hsi Lai temple in Hacienda Heights, California. Why? It had classes on Buddhism taught in English. One of the pieces of paper I’d scarfed up after my first class was an invitation to attend what the flyer said was a “Short-Term Monastic Retreat .” Anyone could take one. Anyone could apply. Its objectives were “to teach traditional Buddhist practice and discipline” and to allow lay people “to experience the monastic way of life.” It was happening in just two months so I filled out an application, telling them exactly who I am, what I’m doing and how little I knew about Buddhism, and then went to the temple for the required interview. I figured, if they’d let me go, I’d go.

Hsi Lai Temple, Bodhisattva Hall

Hsi Lai Temple, Bodhisattva Hall

It was a beautiful day, an easy drive. I brought oranges for the temple and, when I walked in to the entrance hall (Bodhisattva Hall), an attendant gave me a plate and even showed me where to assemble it. It’s kind of great that at least some of this is feeling a bit less bewildering. I mean, you don’t go empty-handed to someone’s home for dinner and you don’t go empty-handed to a Hindu or Buddhist temple.
As I waited for my turn in an auditorium with raked seats, I watched the two monastics – both nuns – doing the interviews. One was giving a Caucasian woman a stern talk I could only partially overhear. Something about “very hard” and “no make-up” and “no communication at all. You understand?” And who was at the other table? The meditation nun from my one and only day at the temple, the one with the road-building story. I was relieved when she waved me up to her table.

She motioned for me to sit in the chair in front of her while she read my application. I watched the crown of her shaved head as she turned the pages where, in answer to their questions, I’d explained exactly who I was and why I wanted to come. All that kept me from exploding in anxiety about what she might ask was that I’d been completely honest about my ignorance about Buddhism. I’d also been explicit about this project.

She lifted her square face and said, “So you’re finished with Hinduism?”

“Well, no, I’ll never be finished,” I said, “but it was time to come here.”   She smiled. “When you think of a monastic retreat, what’s your idea of it?”

“I think it’ll be difficult, that I’ll find things inside myself that I’ll have a hard time with. But I also think I need to deal with them to learn. I can’t really learn just by reading books. I have to do something.”

“Yes, but why do you want to do this?”

“I don’t know. All I know is a couple of years ago I felt I had no choice.”

“I know what you mean. I had a good job, lots of money and one day it wasn’t important anymore. My boss said, ‘I don’t care about money.’ I said, ‘I don’t either.” But I meant it. So I renounce. So I know what you mean.”

I was taken aback. First, I tried putting hair and a business suit on this dumpling of a woman, who wore nothing but robes and eyeglasses, but got nowhere. She seemed too content with being precisely where and what she was to have ever had any of the accoutrements of drive or ambition. But I wasn’t just my imagination spinning out that froze me. It was that this nun saw something of my situation, of what’s driving me to do what I’m doing, in her own decision to become a monastic. What? I started trying to figure out what I said or wrote that might lead her to such a mistaken conclusion. I’d felt there were little arrows pointing at me, as I walked up the steep steps, past the burning incense and the first altar with all of the offerings to get to the interview, labeling me as what I am: “Unqualified” and “Too late, too far to go.” But there she was, smiling at me, thinking we had something in common. I had no idea how to respond.

Luckily she asked what I knew of Buddhist principles.

I told her I knew about the Four Noble Truths. “There’s suffering in life, it’s caused by desire, eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering and Buddhism tells you how to do that and the importance of, uhm, cause and effect.”

She corrected me: “Dependent origination.”

“Yes, and I know detachment is the answer.” I mentioned that I’d taken her meditation class and I liked her story about the road builders. (see very end of the 3 Nov 2008 post)

She said, “I love stories.”

“Me, too.”

“There’s another one that might be good for this retreat.” She started putting my papers back their folder. “There was a man in the back of a temple, bowing down and doing prostrations yet people are beating him. He say to Buddha, ‘It’s not fair. You are a statue, doing nothing and yet you are untouched up there, and here I am, doing my best and yet people are beating me. Why?’ And Buddha say, ‘When you make a statue, you scrape and hit and chip away until it’s in its perfect form. We are different because I have accepted all of these blows, these difficulties. You haven’t.'” The nun looked up from my file and raised her eyebrows at me with a smile. “It’s these difficulties, these hard things that lead to your perfection. We must go through them without attachment to what we think it should be. You remember that (on the retreat.) Mm?”

“I will.”

“You may not understand everything – we try, but it’s very hard to make everything clear – but, when you don’t understand, just go inside and notice what comes up for you, mmm?”

“Okay,” I said. “and thank you.”

As I picked up my bag from the floor, she smiled and put my file away.

21 June 2007

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