To What Do We Give Ourselves?

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To What Do We Give Ourselves?

I don’t ever preach about what I’m doing but I can’t hide the fact that this is my life because I do live in a monastery. That was a big step to take, actually. I’m sure in the early days my family didn’t completely understand what I was doing. I live at Abhayagiri in a way that’s straddling both worlds, straddling the monastic life but it’s also straddling the lay life. Over the years my parents and family have become much more accepting. I have a Catholic background, so in the early days, when I took my first retreat, came back from Asia and talked to my parents about it, they felt a sense of fear that I wouldn’t be united with them in heaven after death. And that’s a painful thing for a parent. But what’s happened over time is they see the changes in me, they see that I’m doing something that makes me very happy, that it’s a wholesome thing, that I live a skillful life. And it doesn’t matter what the religion is, they see the goodness that’s coming from my time at the monastery, my exposure to Buddhism and meditation.

I used to have some discussions with my father, and at one point he actually said to me, “Debbie, I just want to thank you because in our discussions what’s happened is I have become more interested in the contemplative side of Catholicism.” I felt a lot of joy about that. I was the one who introduced him to Father Thomas Keatings readings on Centering Prayer and he found this very helpful.

This thing of mindfulness, it is one of those things that is so simple and yet it is so difficult. It is often so close we have trouble focusing on it. And it’s so crucial. I can speak from experience. When you’re present, when you’re truly present, you know you’re present. It’s very different than when you’re only partially there. It’s not something I can verbalize very well, but it’s tangible, it’s felt in the body, it’s just completely different. And I’m sure everybody has had that experience, at least sometimes. And yet it’s hard to hold. It’s hard to hold and steady that mindfulness. I think one of the difficulties is that we tend to get in our heads. Or we have experiences where we get a taste. And without being fully aware of it we’re trying to replicate an experience rather than be present again, to be in that moment. And I think we get confused of what that’s about. I think that happens in our everyday things that we do; I think it happens in our meditation. There’s a tendency to think that we have had an experience and that that’s what we should be having. It is either we know that we were clear, we know that we were present, we know it felt good, whatever defines that for us, we had that sense of, “I’m on track.” But it is about having that ability to be present and be mindful and keep it fresh, keep it moment to moment. To not be contriving something that we think it should be. It is a challenge. The longer that we practice I suspect it gets more difficult because we become more accustomed to certain things, we become more full of ideas. It’s hard not to shortchange ourselves in that way.

But we are still here; we are all here, so we are getting fruits. People are willing to take a ten-day retreat during the holidays when they could be spending time with family or dear friends. Well, in a sense we are spending time with dear friends, it doesn’t get much better than this, but it certainly isn’t something that much of the world, many people can comprehend. So we have our anchor points. We have our sīla, our guidelines for virtuous conduct and that helps us. It gives us a way of facing things that we have to face, to bring us back into the moment, and act as a reference point. I remember in the early days, I would ask Ajahn Amaro, “Well, so I take the precepts, but what if I mess up?” He said, “Well great! Then you’ll understand it more, if you make a mistake. You’ll understand what it means more; it helps to deepen that awareness.”

And then the sati, mindfulness, of course, these things are related, they overlap and they weave back and forth to each other. The mindfulness is that anchor point of the ability to bring our attention, remembering to be fully present and focused on whatever needs our attention. And we take these times when we’re honing that skill, we’re developing it, we’re watching, we’re observing the tendencies of the mind, we’re really honing that skill of bringing that attention back to the object. And then we take those skills into the world with us, and it’s so helpful when something comes up that we don’t anticipate and we start to get flustered. We didn’t think we would be giving a talk today and then we find out after lunch that we are and the mind just goes, “Waah.” But I don’t have to go there. That’s what this prepares us for, this sitting in meditation: I don’t have to go there. I have the power to see where it’s going – is that a skillful direction, is that a helpful direction, and then bring that back, bring that awareness back, into the moment, into the present. And sometimes you just have to keep doing it just like in meditation. And then through those things we develop wisdom, and it comes in bits sometimes. Sometimes we have these insights that are very potent and then we have to let them go, too. We can hold the memory of them because we learned something from having those insights, but we can’t hang on to those insights either. We have to let them go and allow ourselves to keep moving, into the present, back into the present. And in this way, we can do well in the world and be happy.

I have lived at the monastery now for fourteen or fifteen years. And as I said, straddling both worlds; it’s kind of been a bit of challenge. In the early days, it was a real challenge. I spent a lot of time in dark places, scraping the bottom, trying to figure out how to get to the top and wondering where was up. I chose to live in the monastery as a lay person, but it challenged me, because I just wasn’t sure how to make it work in the form that I was taking on. And I did not have any exact examples, I did not have any other laypeople living there long-term.

So I was having to figure things out, following my heart. It was one of those things where my decision to move up there didn’t feel like my decision. It was something much deeper and much stronger. Just something in me knew that it was what I was supposed to do, that Abhayagiri was where I was supposed to be. I had spent the previous year, pretty much, coming up on most weekends. And it was clear where my heart was. I started leaving work earlier and earlier on Fridays, coming back home later and later on Sundays.

I used to work for a surveyor down in the Bay area in downtown Los Altos. Woody, the man that I worked with had broken his measuring tool and was standing there fixing it. I was standing at the instrument, waiting for him to finish and this person came up and said, “Hi, I’m doing a man on the street interview for today, can I interview you for our newspaper?” Woody said, “Sure, talk to Debbie. She’s a Buddhist. She goes to a Buddhist monastery.” And I was just thinking, “What do you do with that?” So this person started asking me questions about the monastery. Then he said, “So you get a lot from going up there?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I get a lot from going up there.” His response was, “Well, do you ever think of moving up there?” And it was like, “Oh,” –it took me by surprise, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer that. Because every time, I went almost every weekend, and every time I got from 101 to the West Road exit, my heart would start pounding–just this deep pounding and this sweat would come up. As soon as I would get there I would be fine, but these things we don’t see; these things that aren’t clear to us; and they’re there and they’re there in such a strong way. He had cracked that egg; I couldn’t deny that actually, “Wow, I do want to live up there. How can I make that work?” I could remember having a talk with Luang Por Pasanno before I moved up saying, “Well maybe I could get myself a computer and get set up. I know a little bit about C.A.D. work now and maybe I could get somebody to hire me to do that. But what if I couldn’t do it? What if…? What if? What if?” I remember Luang Por saying, “You’re undermining yourself. Why are you doing that?”

And then it wasn’t even my choice anymore. That awareness had come to the forefront and the decision was made. I remember weeping when I left my job because I worked with a lovely man who looked after me and the other two people that worked with him; I had a lot of respect for him. He was a good person to work with. I was living in Mountain View, a fantastic place. I had a great home and I was paying very low rent. I got to see my family every week – I come from a close family. But it wasn’t me. Something else was moving me in another direction, and I couldn’t deny it. I remember driving up to the monastery and I had this thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I got up there and I decided every weekend I needed to go down to the Bay area?”

But having made the decision, I focused on making it work. First of all I realized I had to stop comparing myself. And even now I can’t say I’ve put that down completely–I think that it’s so much a part of human nature to just compare ourselves: it’s us and them. Until you crack that perception, there is some level of comparing happening. And I imagine many of you have this come up. You think there’s a distinct difference between the monastics’ practice and your own practice. And maybe not all the time, but I imagine it’s there at times because it’s hard not to do that. And yet we’re all practicing; we’re all on the path. The monastics are here and they’ve raised the bar. One of the monks said, “When you go into a monastery, it’s like you’ve put yourself into the pressure cooker. But if you stand the time, some beautiful diamonds come out.” So obviously, something drew me to the monastery. And part of it was the Dhamma. The first Dhamma talk was a life-changing event. The Dhamma is potent; it is really powerful. So that drew me there, and this is a community that resonated. Luang Por Chah’s teachings resonated for me; they are so down-to-earth. You can take them into everything you do, every aspect of your life. You can learn to do that. And for me, that was important because I have to experience things; I can’t just read about them. I always have to get a taste and put my fingers in it. And also I had an appreciation for what the monasteries offered because I was able to spend a lot of time at the monasteries in England as a lay resident. And that was a crucial time for me to get some kind of understanding about what had happened on that first retreat and that first Dhamma talk. So I have a lot of gratitude.

And it seems like all my life I’ve been kind of saying, “I have a lot of energy and there’s something I can put that energy into, but I just can’t figure out what it is yet. I couldn’t seem to figure it out, I couldn’t find it at school, I couldn’t find it in work. I had great friends; I worked in jobs where I worked with good people. But that wasn’t the thing into which I could put my energy. And then I came across this Dhamma, and I came across this community of Ajahn Chah’s disciples. And I couldn’t deny that this was what I had to be putting my energy into, because it was beyond my choice.

And so I’m at a monastery, and how do I make it work? I didn’t see it coming until I got there. Here I am, a layperson and a woman, at a male monastery. And how can I make that work? And all I can tell you is—I’ll put it in the words of Luang Por Sumedho because when I have the opportunity to express gratitude to teachers that have affected my life I take that opportunity. So the last time I saw Luang Por Sumedho, I was up at the Pacific Hermitage just after the monks had moved up there, and we were having tea. I was able to express my deepest gratitude to him for all that he’d put up with and went through in his own practice and in what he’d developed because so much of that allowed me to move in and to develop and to practice. I expressed appreciation for the teachings which he so freely offered, especially in that first year of practice. And I was able to express my gratitude and he didn’t say anything for a long time and then he just said, “Yes, you’re much happier now.” And I was like, “Yeah, I am.” You know, if you’ve ever heard Luang Por Sumedho, he has a very deep and wonderful laugh. And sometimes it’s helpful for people to just reinforce the things we already know; it’s just helpful to hear somebody else remind us of that.

So one thing I’ve found helpful is to consider, “What can I do now that I am living in the monastery?” Obviously, I see these monks and I have the opportunity to be at the monastery so I see people come in fresh, they come in off the streets, some of them with very little background in Buddhism. And I get to watch how they start to become the beginnings of those diamonds. And they struggle; it’s not easy. It’s not an easy life; you’re living with people that you wouldn’t necessarily choose to live with; you’re eating food you wouldn’t necessarily choose to eat; you’ve taken on rules, and you have chosen that because it was your decision to be there. And it is a form that is pretty strict. And some of it seems — I am by no means an expert in the monk’s Vinaya—but I know some of the rules, and some of it probably seems pretty archaic. But what I see is that so much of what these rules instill is a training. Just as we took the eight precepts at the beginning of the retreat, and it’s a training. We are training ourselves, training ourselves to be mindful, to be present. Okay, so I’m not a monastic, but there’s some that I can apply to what I’m doing, to how I do things. And so it’s just observing, just that alone was a training for me, learning to observe, learning to pay attention, learning to see how things were done. Noticing, becoming aware of what’s helpful in this particular moment. Wanting to support this as well, wanting to be part of the community and learning how to weave into that realm.

When I first went there, I actually wasn’t living on monastery property, I was living on the property of a neighbor. When they learned that I wanted to come up, they invited me to share their living space, which for the first period of time I was there, was a Murphy bed in the office that Mary would use when she came on weekends. She was away a lot of time doing consulting work. And so I would sleep in there. They were incredibly supportive; they are the ones who originally lived in Casa Serena, that was their property. It was a couple, Peter and Mary. Peter died of lung cancer in 2000, just as they were finishing all the remodeling on Casa Serena. And many people here have been to Casa Serena. Mary, two years later, died of colon cancer. Before she died, she actually offered the property to the monastery. And she hoped that it would be a place for women to practice and now it is the living space for female guests. But she also had a lot of faith and trust in Luang Por Pasanno and Ajahn Amaro. So she didn’t want to state any stipulations; she just left it to them to decide what was the best use of the property.

At first, I was living there as a layperson, and I wasn’t even at the monastery. I didn’t want to just go there to have tea, sit and have tea with the monks. The whole point in moving was that I realized I could learn something, I wanted to learn. It was a hunger for learning. And so I just started figuring out, “How can I make this work?” So without consulting anybody, I decided that I was going to live on eight precepts [see the end of this article for a listing of the Eight Precepts]. Just because I was living there and to me that seemed like a good way to participate fully. There’s no glory in the eight precepts–three of them are just simplifying life a little bit, so it’s not like I’m tooting any horns. There’s no great wholesomeness in eating one meal a day; it’s not like that makes you pure. But it does simplify life, and since I was living at the monastery I found that it was a useful practice for me. Living in a community, the eight precepts was just the natural direction for me to go. I was still working part time, but it worked for me. Then just learning to refine and develop that ability to be respectful and specifically to be respectful of the robes because I have a tremendous appreciation for where they can lead people. When I first went back to Thailand as Buddhist, it was for Luang Por Chah’s cremation. In Thailand, if the laypeople are talking to a senior monk and the monk is standing and they’re standing, they’ll go on their knees and they’ll talk with their hands in añjali. It’s very beautiful and I had such resistance to it – I can’t tell you. So when I first went back to Thailand as a Buddhist I would be with people and we would go up and I remember to Luang Por Pasanno came up and I was with some Thais and they immediately went down on their knees and they were talking to him. The mind, what we do to ourselves. The thoughts were like, “They’re talking to him, and I am not talking to him, so I don’t have to go down. Just get down. No, but they’re talking to him and it’s not me and I don’t have to do that. Just do it.” And I could feel myself kind of bobbing. And then finally I just would go, “Just do it.” And then I would get down and talk to them. It only took a couple of times and I realized, “You know what? It actually made me happy.” It was such a simple gesture and it was just so beautiful. And it did bring mindfulness to the forefront.

Just watching, learning to look, learning to notice what needs to happen, what hasn’t happened. Is there something that I can do that’s useful? For example, if we notice the senior monk has just used the last of the soy milk on his tea tray, can I offer more soy milk? I glean a great deal from watching these young monks in training. Just noticing how beautiful it is that they see things that need to happen, that they’re so on it. And it’s something that really takes, what I found especially was that it took me out of my own narrow concerns because it makes you expand the view. So it’s just these tools of mindfulness that help us—things that we can take on. That’s what these rules that the monks live by help them to do.

And I have a long way to go. I still have the lay part of my life. The part that straddles the lay world means that I have a lot of stuff still. I have more than just a set of robes. But that’s fine, that’s okay, that’s the way it is, and I can work with that. There [are] certain rules—I hope I get this correct—if the monks get a hole or something in their robes they have a certain amount of time where they’re actually supposed to mend it. So that they’re not letting it go and it gets worse. It’s like treating their requisites respectfully—just things like that. I don’t necessarily mend things right away, but trying to take care of the things that I have, trying to be respectful of what I have. I am kind of at a loss of all the different, varying things that I do, but it’s part of the inspiration of the support we can get, of the ideas we can get to support us in our own practice that we can develop in close association with the Sangha. And I would imagine that many of you are feeling that on this retreat. I just see it. Today in the kitchen preparing to offer the food to the monks, Hitesi hardly had to say anything and things were in place. People just stepped forward to offer the dishes. It’s a very beautiful thing to see people blending into community, doing what they can do to help out, and as seamlessly as possible.

I guess my encouragement is that a retreat is a very special atmosphere and so we incline more that way, perhaps. Things are slower, there’s not anything knocking at our door, we’re not being pulled this way or that way. But the reality is that for most of us, even at the monastery, we’re not on retreat all the time. My life at the monastery is actually very busy, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In fact, one of the moments where I was stretched to the point where I was completely out of my body was last week. I was just feeling like there was just so much going on: “I don’t even want to do the retreat. I don’t want to have to give a talk. I feel like a big hypocrite.” But I’ve heard this voice before. It’s not like it’s a new friend. What I see, and what I see more over time, is that ability to catch it, just like those thoughts in meditation and go back to the breath, go back to the body, and just in that moment, knowing that I’ve been asked to do this by someone I respect and that I have a lot of gratitude to, and of course I am going to do whatever he asks me to do. And hopefully it will be of some use to other people; it certainly benefits me. When we end up in positions that we would never get ourselves into, that can help us to grow in ways that we would never imagine.

What has been coming to mind is wanting to encourage everybody on the retreat to hold this occasion in that way, that there are these monastics, they are giving us wonderful guidance, wonderful teachings, and we’re not monastics, we don’t live as monastics. We have our lives and we have the things we need to do, but we have a form and we can mold that form in a way where we’re using our anchors such as sīla, virtue and sati, mindfulness. And we can use those anchors in a way that helps us to ever deepen, to keep us centered, to keep our intentions as pure as possible, to give us guidance. Things may not turn out the way that we feel they could have or should have but we can know then that what we’ve done was the best that we could do. And you can’t do better than that and you can’t offer more than that.

So that’s my encouragement to you. I appreciate your listening.

Appendix: The Eight Precepts

The Eight Precepts are the guidelines for conduct which are followed by residents of monasteries in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. The lay people living at the monastery traditionally recite the eight precepts once a week during the lunar observance day.

The Eight Precepts – excerpted from the Abhayagiri Chanting Book

1. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking the life of any living creature.

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from any kind of sexual activity.

  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from false and harmful speech.

  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drink and drugs

which lead to carelessness.

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from eating at inappropriate times.

  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from entertainment, beautification, and


  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from lying on a high or luxurious sleeping place.