A View from Middle Age

Ajahn Pavaro

A View from Middle Age

Nothing unusual is happening. I remind myself of this while contemplating the perplexity I’ve experienced during this attempt to share something from my rich, but stubbornly inchoate, impressions of the past year. The arid results of these writing labors have been humbling. Fortunately, a grateful heart has its own distinct agency.

After visiting Abhayagiri for a month in late 2008, in December of 2009 I left Birken Forest Monastery in Canada—my monastic “home” during the first eight years of training—and arrived back in northern California for an extended stay. During the previous year the prospect of returning had delighted me. (Wonderful community; living around my preceptor, Ajahn Pasanno; getting to know Ajahn Amaro a little better; the post-Wan Phra saunas). As a majjhima bhikkhu (in the “middle” years as a monk, between five and ten Rains), I discerned that training with other teachers and approaches to practice and living in the midst of other community dynamics, would mature my understanding of the holy life. Time to stretch the wings and broaden the stance. Or as Ajahn Jayasaro had remarked: “By all means, get out and visit other monasteries, Pavaro; the majjhima years are your selfish years.” The signs were encouraging.

It’s a commonplace observation that we sometimes fear the very changes we seek. Yet my earlier exposure to the place known as “Abhayagiri” and the people who inhabit it undoubtedly softened the re-entry into what is by so many measures a different environment from Birken. Let me count the ways: different teachers, different kor wat (monastery etiquette) and daily schedule, different chanting, much larger Sangha, different relations with the lay community, different climate, much larger property, different forest and terrain, in a different country. It’s an incomplete list.

Needing modest limits to express something of my appreciation for the generous tenor of Sangha life during my stay, a single recollection comes to mind.

At the end of the winter retreat three junior members of the monastic community (one samanera and two anagarikas) announced their intentions to leave the training. What might have been interpreted as a loss or failure by the community was met with respectful care. Brief ceremonies were held. The abbots thanked each for their commitment to the monastery and acknowledged the value of what they had accomplished, both practically and spiritually. During the time the three men readied themselves to return to their lay lives, people found occasions to offer well-wishing and regard. While participating in this, my attention was repeatedly struck by the fertility of transitions to forgive and honor, to encourage and clarify. The men had entered monastic life sincerely, given it their honest efforts, and, it seemed to me, departed standing a little more squarely and maturely in their lives. My impression is that each of them felt somehow transformed, and blessed.

Over the next months leading into and through the Vassa period, I received all the everyday, extraordinary benefits of life at Abhayagiri. Readers of this newsletter are likely aware that several momentous changes took place. Eventually I too needed to take my leave.

After leading a retreat in Alberta I flew to southern BC for time with family, especially to see my dear father (aged 97) and step-mother. As always, this last visit involved an extended dose of TV “viewing,” volume up. (Is there a suitable verb for “trying without success to ignore?”) A flight to Vancouver was needed to connect at last with Ajahn Sona, Birken’s abbot, and the other monastics. They had driven to the city to attend a Kathina celebration. Our reunion and the return to Birken was filled with buoyant humor and mutual interest.

It is now a late November morning at Birken. Ajahn Sona left a week ago to lead a retreat near Ottawa. Our heating system, massively overhauled during the summer and the subject of daily tinkering and puzzlement ever since, continues not to work like the monks-in-the-know would have hoped. One of them is presently on the phone speaking with admirable technical acumen and diplomacy, to the plumber who designed and installed it. I’ve just started up the wood stoves to generate more warmth in the main building. We have a monk down with the flu. Several guests are inside, meditating in toques and blankets. Outside, another monk, equipped with a cane for his injured knee, is supervising a pair of sturdy guests as they chain up the big tires on our tractor. The weight of the chains and the dense cold make it awkward work. This afternoon I’ll be able to plow the seven kilometer gravel road that winds up to the property. As mealtime draws near, I survey the deepening snow and falling temperatures with a mixture of alert familiarity and, well…I admit to some disappointment.

There’s nothing unusual in any of this. Conditions are changing; nothing resolves or remains. Transitions don’t just “occur” in our lives, as things to be observed at a distance—they comprise our lives. As for me, in a week I should be flying to Thailand for a year of training. The arrangements have been made; generous plans are in place.

Feeling so much in transition myself at present, I suppose the dislocated quality of these reflections has been unavoidable. I might have hoped for a more coherent expression of gratitude. Wisdom resides well beneath even the most elegant of our ideas. Dhamma reminds me of an awakened capacity to consent to uncertainty. These are just words, but something in this gracious possibility continues to encourage me deeply; it is a blessing and a refuge that helps to sustain my bhikkhu life. I love it even while not knowing what will become of it. And I have the wisdom and kindness of my teachers and so many friends to thank for it all.

Ajahn Pavaro currently resides in a small forest monastery in the mountains of Petchabun Province, Thailand.