Respecting Our Many Boundaries

Ajahn Yatiko

Respecting Our Many Boundaries

I had a learning experience when I was a junior monk of two or three pansa. A good friend of mine with whom I ordained was the monastery stores monk. Once he went away to Pu Jum Gorm for a week and I was 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 while he was away, I cleaned up and reorganized the stores room. I thought I did quite a nice job. When this monk came back he was visibly upset and took it as a personal comment or statement that he wasn’t doing a good enough job on his task. This wasn’t my intention at all. I saw some things that would be good to do and I went ahead and did them and it wasn’t very appreciated at all.

In monastic life, it is important to recognize and appreciate boundaries of people and situations. In that case, if I had been more sensitive or skillful, I would have recognized that this other monk was the stores monk and this was his task and duty. If I felt that something should have been done differently it’s not always best to tell him. It is difficult for the stores monk if everybody expresses their opinions about the way things should be done.

To take another example, you might hear the guest monk in the office giving some advice to someone over the phone. You may feel that you know what should be said and so you tell him what you think. This can be very burdensome for the guest monk. So we have to think about boundaries because there are many different tasks in the monastery: work monk, guest monk, stores monk, computer monk, kitchen manager, chores monk, librarian, accounts manager, and so on.

The Buddha gave a simile about an acrobat. One acrobat stands on the shoulders of the other acrobat and the master says to the student: “I’ll look after you and you look after me and together we’ll perform these tricks to make an income,” and the student says: “That’s not the way it should be done. You look after your field awareness and I’ll look after my field of awareness and together we’ll work in harmony simply by focusing on our field of awareness.”

The subject of boundaries goes beyond respecting each others duties. There are also boundaries around physical space. How do you enter a room? When you walk into a room with people inside, how do you enter their field of awareness? Do you simply walk right in and announce your presence or do you 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 I have an attendant, and I thought that what I was looking for might be in his cupboard. Now, 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 just because I thought it might be there. It’s a different story if it’s an emergency, but in other contexts it is not something that I feel is a nice thing to do.

If there’s a situation where you want to help the stores monk, rather than going through the stores and rearranging something, you can approach the stores monk and ask him if you can do anything to help. He might say: “Yes, there are several things,” or he might say: “Yes, but what did you have in mind?” So there’s an opportunity for you to then express your opinion.

Living in a community like this, we have to think about boundaries and remember that we want to focus on our own practice rather than what other people are doing. Don’t go outside your ancestral domain because that is where Mara will find an entrance. You can think of the ancestral domain as boundaries: understanding people’s boundaries and doing what you can to respect and honor the physical boundaries, like property, the boundaries of roles, the boundaries of consciousness, and boundaries of time. It’s a very rich field of investigation. So I wanted to share these thoughts this morning.