Respecting Others’ Boundaries

Ajahn Yatiko • May 2012

I had a significant learning experience about two or three years after I had ordained. A good friend of mine whom I ordained with was the monastery’s stores monk. One time he went away for a week to Pu Jom Gorm, a branch monastery. During that time, I became the stores monk in his absence. I was keen to be helpful and do something supportive or generous as a show of kindness to him. So I cleaned up and reorganized the stores room, and I thought I did quite a nice job. When this monk returned a week later, he was visibly upset and took it as a personal comment or statement that he wasn’t doing a good job on his task as the stores monk. This wasn’t my intention at all. I saw some things that would be good to do, so I went ahead and did them, though I was not appreciated for what I had done.

In monastic life, it’s important to recognize and respect other people’s boundaries. In this case, if I had been more sensitive, I would have considered whether my cleaning and reorganizing the stores room would have affected my friends feelings by impinging on his role and duties as the stores monk. If I felt something should be done differently, it might have been better to have kept that to myself. It can be difficult for the stores monk if all of us expresses our opinions about the way he should manage his job. Or I might have waited until he returned, approached him, and asked if there was anything I could do to help. Then if he’d said something like, “Yes, what did you have in mind?” it might have been a good time to express an opinion while still respecting his boundaries.

To take another example, we hear the guest monk in the office giving some advice to someone over the phone, and we feel we know what should be said, and so we tell him what we think. This can be very burdensome for the guest monk. We have to think about boundaries, because there are many different tasks in the monastery: abbot, work monk, monastery secretary, guest monk, stores monk, computer monk, kitchen manager, chores monk, librarian, accounts manager, and so on. These tasks can take a fair amount of effort and patience to deal with. So it may be helpful for us—before we decide to “assist” someone or express our opinion about how a task should be done—to ask ourselves whether we are creating more of a burden for the person who has taken on the responsibility of doing that particular task.

The subject of boundaries goes beyond respecting each other’s duties. There are also boundaries around physical space. How do we enter a room? When we walk into a room with people inside, how do we enter their field of awareness? Do we simply walk right in and announce our presence, or do we respect and appreciate the space in the room, entering with care?

There are also property boundaries. Let’s say I was missing something I owned. I’m a senior monk and have an attendant. If I thought what I was looking for might be in my attendant’s personal cupboard, I might ask him to look in his cupboard when I next see him. But I would never go through his stuff looking for something simply because I thought it might be there. It’s a different story if it’s an emergency, but in other contexts it’s not something that I feel is the right thing to do.

Living in community as we do, we can think about boundaries and remember that we want to focus on our own practice rather than what other people are doing. As the Buddha explained, we shouldn’t go outside our own domain into the domain of others, because if we do, Māra will get a hold of us (SN 47.6). We can think of this as understanding and respecting people’s boundaries. So we do what we can to respect and honor physical boundaries like property, as well as the boundaries delineated by roles. In this way, we support harmony and well-being within the community.